A. Conan Doyle created this beloved detective and a new genre at the same time.
|In the winter of 1887, a declining London magazine called Beeton’s Christmas Annual published a tale of murder entitled, “A Study in Scarlet.” Written by a struggling provincial doctor, the story had suffered repeated rejections before arriving at Beeton’s. The editor considered it “cheap fiction” and paid the poor doctor hardly anything for it.
Beeton’s soon failed. But by then it had launched probably the most successful literary character of the past century, and some would argue, of all time – the great detective, Sherlock Holmes.
Anyone who reads that first story finds Mr. Holmes in full stride. He dismisses the London Police as incompetent oafs and treats his loyal friend and chronicler, Dr. John H Watson, as a dummy. He boasts that his deductive powers allow him to judge a man’s profession from such details as his expression and his trouser knees. He complains that crime and criminals have deteriorated so far that none can test his talents. And finally, or course, he gets his man and then watches Scotland Yard steal the credit.
Arrogant, brilliant, unappreciated, Sherlock Holmes rapidly becomes known worldwide. Today, the lean and angular figure of a man dressed in a deerstalker hat and Inverness cape smoking a pipe and wielding a magnifying glass, universally identifies Holmes the detective. His cases can be read in 57 languages, including Azerbaijani, Frisian, and Urdu.
The works of his creator, Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, have earned royalties in at least 72 currencies. And though Holmes himself rarely left London, his image has circled the globe on screen, stage, radio and television, personified by such actors as William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, and most recently, Simon Brett.
Just what is it that made Sherlock Holmes such a phenomenon? The answer lies in a combination of factors; a lucky formula that Conan Doyle stumbled upon. First of all, there is the simple fact that Holmes is a detective. The detective has always exercised a strong fascination – he hunts, and at last captures, his quarry. And he does it by using his eyes and brain, nothing more.
But Holmes was more than just a detective; he was a scientific sleuth. Conan Doyle explained by saying, “I though to myself that if a scientific man…was to come into the detective business, he would do these things by chance…he’d get the thing by building it up scientifically.” Now we all learn scientific reasoning in school, but then it was a totally new concept.
Another reason why the Holmes stories were so successful, once they began appearing in the Strand Magazine, is that with the, Conan Doyle invented the series. He was the originator of TV crime shoes from Dragnet to Miami Vice. “It had struck me,” he said, “that a single character running through a series…would bind the reader to that particular magazine.”
Less technical is another cause of Holmes’ lasting popularity. His adventures take us back to a vanished age, and age that seems supremely safe, for all its murders and horrors. Inside the covers of these books lies a well-ordered world, where the trains run on time and justice is always done in the end.
Last but not least, there is a certain fascination with another of Conan Doyle’s inventions – and one every bit as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes: Dr. John H. Watson. Watson is what we would all like to be: honest to a fault, decent through and through, brave and loyal. There he stands, just a little less clever than we are, giving us a nice feeling of superiority, while at the same time feeding us the information necessary to the solving of the mystery. Dr. Watson was a stroke of genius on the part of the author.
But in 1887, did Conan Doyle know what he had done when he brought Holmes to life in three weeks of inspired writing? Actually, he didn’t. After two short novels and a couple of dozen stores, he attempted to free himself by sending his hero to his death. After writing the account of that ‘death-embrace’ over Reichenbach Falls, Conan Doyle remarked that it was a “worthy tomb for Sherlock, even if I buried my bank account with him.”
The public were not to be denied, though. They clamored for the return of Holmes, offering Conan Doyle large amounts of money. Finally he relented and resurrected Sherlock Holmes, much to the delight of Dr. Watson and the reading public.
The great detective lived on until there were eventually another two novels and almost 60 stories. Conan Doyle often expressed negative feelings about his creation, though. His son, Adrian, told how, when he happened to mention Holmes, his father shouted at him, “Don’t mention that name to me! I forbid it! I hate him!”
But did he, really? After all, he didn’t quite “bury” him at the falls. Was Conan Doyle really Sherlock Holmes himself? The mystery endures.
Regardless of the true identity of Sherlock Holmes, the fact remains: in over a hundred years, no detective has stepped forward to fill his footsteps.