George Bernard Shaw wrote that “Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict without a single amiable trait,” and he was absolutely right; but such vehement condemnation betrays the irresistability of Sherlock Holmes.
In 1886, a struggling physician named Arthur Conan Doyle made a fateful decision which was intended simply to pay the bills, but which would end up enriching the world. He published a novella featuring an eccentric consulting detective by the name of Sherlock Holmes.
With A Study in Scarlet, the stage was set for what would prove one of the greatest archetypical creations in the history of literature. By 1893, Sherlock Holmes was an unprecedented sensation, and Doyle, in his weariness over the financial expedient which was now taking over his life, began to plot against the life of Sherlock Holmes. He hatched a plot to plunge Holmes into Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, and so end the life and career of the sleuth he himself had made renowned.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But Mr. Holmes was too great a force—even for his maker. His never-fading fame and the outrage of his devotees eventually forced Doyle to conceive of an escape from the attempt he had perpetrated on Holmes’ life. After the Great Hiatus, Doyle returned Sherlock Holmes to London in glory. The world’s greatest detective thus dodged the doom allotted him, and like the mythical figure that he is, rose from the dead, establishing himself among the ranks of immortals.
It is undeniable that Doyle’s celebrated series has shaped the course of an entire genre—and all the remarkable result of a few hundred reluctantly penned pages. This is just one dimension of the mystery that flows from these mysteries, giving them a character that is unique and placing them in a literary class of their own—a quality more to be expected from Shakespeare. (Though it is arguable that there is a greater abundance of literature about Holmes than there is about Hamlet.)
Part of the reason for the mysteriously enduring effects of these adventures is that the writing is not self-conscious, and so resonates with something like first-hand experience. They possess an atmospheric mystique that imparts a strong illusion of reality, rendering characters more tangible, crimes more terrible, and conclusions more triumphant. The overall result is that the stories of Sherlock Holmes conjure up a viable world for themselves with a scintillating iconography: the fireplace, the armchairs, the pipe, the revolver, the violin, the Persian slipper, creeping fog, rushing hansom cabs, the outré, the exposé, stiff corpses, subtle criminals … and so the tableau runs, framing this snug universe of danger and delight. The stories are unquestionably timeless—timeless insofar as time stands still in 1895, allowing readers to enjoy the intrigues of a bygone Victorian era when chivalry was not yet dead and fellowship conquered all.
The familiarity that these tales afford is like the familiarity of an old friend, enlivened inexpressibly by two of the greatest friends in the whole canon of famous alliances. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson’s companionship is as quintessential as that of Achilles and Patroclus, Robin Hood and Little John, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But the sanctuary Holmes and Watson inhabit is less epic than Troy, Sherwood Forest, or the straggling roads of Spain. It is more intimate and convivial—like a gas-lit club—which enhances our reverential admiration for Holmes and our warm affection for Watson according to the reverential and warm mysteries of friendship. This pair serves as an epitome of what friendship is because they complement and complete each other with that mutual dedication for which death is not too great a price to pay.
Holmes and Watson’s relationship reinforces our hopes that a sterling masculine friendship is indeed possible. In this age where androgyny is the aim, masculinity (femininity no less) is under incessant attack to make it less masculine. The bonds that can only exist between men are fading fast in the miasma of political correctness. But the friendship of Holmes and Watson, as strong and warm as hearthside irons, are a refreshing retreat into a reality that can still be realized—where men can be men with one another, committed to being comrades in arms, loyal to their sex and to each other, and locked arm in arm against the forces that threaten to unravel civilized society. The relevance of Holmes and Watson as friends is that their friendship is eternal: they demonstrate the universal principle of friendship with unabashed dignity and grace. Such friendship is a mystery indeed, but too deep of a mystery nowadays. Only a master detective can disperse such shadows, and it is the footsteps of our times that should echo on those seventeen steps and knock at the door, seeking illumination.
But the greatest mystery of the Sherlock Holmes stories is, without doubt, Sherlock Holmes himself. He is an inscrutable puzzle of a man, full of contradictions and inconsistencies, a problem in and of himself that cries out for solution. Holmes is a dispassionate machine commanding a melodramatic kingdom, scientifically replacing drama with science in the most dramatic of fashions. He is at once a magician and a logician; both a sluggard and a swordsman; a civilized Bohemian; a cold-blooded musician… in short, a romantic rationalist. The endless paradoxes and complexities of Holmes have given rise to a fascination to crack the case of this extraordinary man, to comb the Sacred Writings for clues uncovering his past and his inmost character, to systematically eliminate the impossible until the truth, however improbable, remains. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave the world sixty Sherlock Holmes mysteries; but more importantly, he gave the world the mystery of Sherlock Holmes.
This duality of Sherlock Holmes is precisely why he is an important acquaintance to both young and old readers of today. Holmes is a symbol of everything we are and everything we wish to be. He is lofty enough to be an aspiration, and low enough to be credible. He is an emblem of every man’s desire to wage war with evil and be a noble righter of wrongs—to be a hero. Sherlock Holmes is a hero for our times especially because he is a tangible titan; someone we can identify with and idolize at the same time; one that lives in a very comprehensible flat, but labors in the foray of incomprehensible adventures, bringing excitement to commonplace existence and exercise for stagnant intellects. Sherlock Holmes takes us along on his exploits and breaks us free of a mundane life while reminding us that life is laced with mystery—at once providing an otherworldly escape that opens our eyes to our own world. Sherlock Holmes personifies all we long for and all we have at our fingertips. We share his adventures and are left with hearts bent on seeking our own.
What more can one ask for from literature? Indeed, what more can literature provide? Where else can we have the unadulterated experience of literature with more pleasure and more purity than at 221B Baker Street?