“Come Watson, come! The game is afoot!”: The Elementary Fame of Sherlock Holmes.

“Come Watson, come! The game is afoot! Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

And so begins one of Holmes and Watson’s most famous and interesting adventures, ‘The Abbey Grange’.

For over 120 years, men, women and children have been fascinated and enchanted, amazed and delighted, by the adventures of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his friend and colleague, Dr. John H. Watson. But nearly all their stories were written over 100 years ago, the last ones were not completed until 1927, and even those are over 80 years old by now. All their exploits happened well over a century ago in a completely different world to our own. That being the case, why, after all these years, are the immortal duo, Holmes and Watson, still alive and well in literary circles? Why is it that there’s a movie on Holmes and Watson coming out this Christmas, in just a few weeks’ time? What is it about Holmes and Watson that keeps them forever coming back for people to read and wonder about?

Undying Popularity.

The Guiness Book of World Records states that:

    “…the most frequently portrayed character on the silver screen is Sherlock Holmes…The Baker Street sleuth has been portrayed by around 75 actors in over 211 films since 1900…”

– Guiness World Records (2003).

There has to be SOMETHING about Mr. Holmes which makes us all love him. What is it? Or indeed, is it possible at all, to nail it down to that ONE some…THING? Or are there, in fact, dozens, or hundreds of reasons why Holmes and Watson have enjoyed undying popularity for the past 100+ years? The very name ‘Sherlock Holmes’ is synonymous with crime, detection, good against evil and…the um…calabash pipe and deerstalker hat. Why has Holmes remained so famous when other fictional detectives disappeared into the mists of time and history? He’s up there with Miss Jane Marple or Monseiur Hercule Poirot…but what is it about him that means he deserves to be placed up on a pedestal like this?

It was not just the man himself, it was the world in which he lived in. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the British doctor who started writing about Holmes in his spare time while waiting for patients to show up at his surgery for their appointments, captured a world which is, in the 21st century, an intricate and detailed and minute portrait of late Victorian London, as complete as any encyclopedia. The stories contained all these fascinating little details which bring Holmes to life. The infamous London fog, the gaslight, the clattering horses hooves, the hansom cabs, the beggars, the filthy docks, the disreputable East End. Posh, West End gentlemen’s clubs, horse-racing and scandals. All these features transport us back to a time where we can lose ourselves in the smoke and chill of Holmesian London and to follow the great detective as he charges off into the mist, in search of another killer, thief or desperado. London was the perfect setting for crime and for the criminal agents who brought them to justice.

“The Only One in the World”.

    “…I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”
    “The only unofficial detective?” I said, raising my eyebrows.
    “The only unofficial consulting detective,” he answered. “I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection…”

– The Sign of Four.

One of the chief reasons why Holmes has remained popular for so long, is because the man who created him, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, did something to detective fiction which had been almost unknown at the time of his writing, in the late 1880s. That something was to have a detective who actually solved his cases and who explained every single step along the way. Until Doyle came along, no other writer had managed to do this. In his own words, Doyle said (in the one and only filmed, audio-recorded interview that he ever gave, literally months before he died):

    “…it always annoyed me, how, in the old-fashioned detective story, the detective always seemed to get at his result, either by some sort of lucky chance or fluke, or else, it was quite unexplained how he got there! He got there, but he never gave an explanation how! Well that didn’t seem to me, to be quite ‘playing the game’. It seemed to me that he’s bound to give his reasons!…”

Before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came along, detective fiction was weak, boring, uninteresting and generally poorly written, with writers having no idea how to successfully get their detectives to solve a crime convincingly. What Doyle did was to create a detective who not only solved his crimes, but could show every single step he took, in order to solve it, through the ‘science of deduction’ and the ‘art of observation’, as they were called in the Holmesian canon. For the first time ever, readers could read a detective story and they could follow this detective through his entire case and learn how he solved his crimes. Such a thing had never been seen before; it was a revolution! This, in a nutshell, was what made Holmes so immensely popular to begin with.

The Man Behind the Man.

But who was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

Doyle was a Scotsman born in 1859. He studied medicine at the University of Edinbrugh and spent his younger years as a ship’s surgeon, sailing around the world. When he was a bit older, he turned his medical skills to becoming a civilian doctor and set himself up in practice in Southsea, England, near the town of Portsmouth. While Doyle was a skilled physician (for the day), he had constant financial struggles. In fact at one point, he was so poor, he had only just enough money to furnish the rooms in his house that his patients would see! In his spare time between patients, Doyle wrote stories to pass the time. He had little else to do, and having his younger brother, Innes Doyle, who helped in the surgery, always nearby, meant that Arthur had a lot of spare time.

Struggling to make ends meet, Doyle decided to try his hand at detective fiction, dissatisfied with the detective-fiction then in circulation. He based his legendary sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, on Dr. Joseph Bell, who was one of his lecturers at the University of Edinbrugh. Bell had introduced Doyle to the science of observation and deduction, and had the uncanny ability to diagnose patients’ ailments the moment they stepped into his office. Doyle was much impressed by this skill, and decided that it could just as easily be transferred from medical diagnosis to the detection of crime. One does not have to look far to see that Doyle based Dr. Watson, Holmes’s medical colleague, friend, chronicler and narrator of most of the stories, on himself. In 1887, Doyle published his first Holmes story: “A Study in Scarlet”. It was a runaway success. Within a few years, Doyle had made a name for himself as a detective-fiction writer and he was now living very comfortably from his royalties from his Holmes stories as well as his other writings.

Doyle got his ‘Sir Arthur’ title, his knighthood, in 1902, due to services rendered during the Boer War. He gave up writing Holmes in the early 1900s and only started writing about Holmes again when publishing-houses paid him big money to resurrect the character. He had initially killed Holmes off when he decided that his character was distracting him from what he considered his better and more important writings. In a letter to his mother, Mary, Sir Arthur wrote that:

    “[Sherlock Holmes] keeps me from better things”.

Doyle wrote his very last volume of Holmes stories, ‘His Last Bow’, in the mid 1920s, just a few years before his death in 1930.

The Science of Deduction and the Art of Observation.

    “…You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles…”

– The Boscombe Valley Mystery.

Sherlock Holmes solved his cases through what was called the ‘science of deduction’, where one examined minute details and drew conclusions from them. But one could not examine minute details if they did not first observe them. Mr. Holmes was like a radar or a heat-seeking missile dressed in a three-piece suit with a top hat and cane. He had the ability to seek out tiny details about his clients’ dress, appearance and accessories, to tell him who they were, why they had come to see him, and what their occupations were. He first observed them and then drew deductions and inferences from what he had observed. From one item, he could deduce its entire history. Using these skills, he was able to read into things, information that had eluded less observant investigators. And it’s not that hard to do. I’ve done it myself and, with practice, it does work. Think of this for example:

A letter with smudged handwriting with deep troughs in the paper from where the pen-point has been pressed into the page, combined with bleedthrough of the ink. What inferences might be drawn from this?

1. The writer is left-handed. Only a left-handed writer would smudge his ink, as his hand moves across the page (and thus, across the ink) as he writes.
2. He wrote with a ballpoint pen on a soft surface (perhaps on top of some newspaper or a notepad). Only a ballpoint pen requires such force in writing that it leaves trenches in the paper. And yet, these trenches would not exist if the paper had been on a perfectly hard, flat surface, like a desk. The ‘give’ provided by the padding of the extra sheets of paper, allowed the fibres of the page to crease under the pressure of the pen-point.
3. The paper is cheap notepad paper. If it was expensive or of a better quality, the ink would not stain all the way through.

It’s really not that hard.

Despite the fact that deductions, observation and inferences had existed before Doyle famously made them the traits of his master detective, nobody had ever thought to use them for the detection and solving of crimes before. This was what made Sherlock Holmes so revolutionary. It made his cases seem believable, possible…it made them seem…real. It was this realism that made him a success. It made people believe that it was possible to solve crimes, if one just spent enough time observing and studying the things that were in front of them every single day.

Having observed all the little details, it was then necessary to make the correct inferences and to draw the correct conclusions from the clues given to you, by applying various theories, until you found a likely one that held all the facts together.

    “…It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts…”

– A Scandal in Bohemia.

Drawing the correct inferences could be easy, or it could be almost impossibly hard. It’s like trying to put together a puzzle and getting everything to fit together correctly, by removing what is obviously not possible, and examining all the real probabilities.

    “When you have elminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

– The Sign of Four.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man.

    “My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know”.

– The Blue Carbuncle.

Although Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made him seem incredibly real and again, it was this realism that led to his fame. Sherlock Holmes wasn’t some secret sleuth or caped crusader who lived in a cave in a mountain on the other side of the Valley of Doom, sitting on a throne made of marble…he lived in London. At 221b Baker Street, in the well-to-do West End, in a nice, central, normal-sounding address. He wore ordinary clothes, he ate ordinary food. He had a housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, an elderly Scotchwoman. He had his older brother, Mycroft. He even had his best friend: John Watson, M.D. This homely and seemingly real portrait of Sherlock Holmes endeared him to his readers as a real, physical being whom they could visit, talk to and whom they could go to for help.

Sherlock Holmes had his vices, like any other man would. He was rude, he was arrogant, he drank, he shot himself up with morphine and cocaine. He would stay awake for days and nights at time, he chain-smoked, he denied himself food when on a case, and he got injured during the course of his investigations, as any detective might. He carried firearms and other weapons and he had his enemies who wanted to kill him. Holmes never married and he rarely spoke of his family. The only one of Holmes’s relatives whom Doyle explicitly mentions (and even introduces the reader to), is Holmes’s brother, Mycroft, who is described as being seven years older than Sherlock and possessing even greater deductive and observational powers than his younger and more famous brother.

Holmes was described as being tall (6′-6’3″), lean, hawk-like, pale and with black hair. He said himself, that he was ‘exceptionally strong in the fingers’ (Beryl Coronet) and that he had ‘some knowledge of Baritsu’ (Empty House). He was able to hold his own in a fight and he had considerable acting ability, being able to fool Watson (and others) into thinking that he was…an Italian priest…a clergyman…a bookseller…an old man…and a common loafer.

Sherlock Holmes’s very name was a mix of the real and the fantastic. Holmes is an ordinary enough surname, but with a name like ‘Sherlock’, he was bound to stand out, the same with his brother, with a name like ‘Mycroft’. And yet, I suppose we should be thankful that Sherlock is just plain old…Sherlock. Early drafts of his first story had Doyle naming him Sherrinford Holmes! In the end, he decided this name was too flowery and flamboyant and that a simpler, but still stylish name, might be better-suited.

Behind every Good Detective is a Sidekick.

You coudn’t have a detective without a sidekick, a partner in crime-detection, someone whom you could rely on to assist you in your investigations. Holmes’s investigative partner was a man named Dr. John. H. Watson, whom Doyle based on himself. Doyle’s original name for Holmes’s friend and colleague was…Ormond Sacker, however, good taste and common-sense prevailed, and Doyle decided that such a name was unrealistic and too colourful. He decided that his narrator and Holmes’s colleague should have a simpler, more down-to-earth name. Something which everyone could relate to. An everyman name…such as…John Watson. Simple, plain, unpretentious and which could belong to any man in London.

Like Doyle, Watson was a physician with a military background. Doyle was a ship’s surgeon and a medical officer during the Boer War. Watson was a medical officer during the Second Afghan War of the 1880s. Watson’s physical description closely mirrored Doyle’s, being a man of average height, solidly built and who sported a neat moustache across his upper lip. Like his creator, Watson had money-troubles, betting his army pension on the horses and losing it in gambling. In “The Dancing Men”, we learn that Holmes keeps Watson’s chequebook locked in a drawer of his desk, where the good doctor cannot get at it, to spend his money unwisely.

The Holmesian canon is a peep into Victorian era medicine, thanks to Watson. In this Watsonian world, brandy is a cure for everything from fainting to suffocation to physical exhaustion. Tuberculosis is still called by its archaic name of ‘Consumption’ and sulphuric acid is still called ‘Oil of Vitriol’. Horrendous wounds such as having one’s fingers hacked off with a butcher’s cleaver are treated professionally and quietly, and Watson’s medical skills have come to the aid of Holmes and other canon characters on numerous occasions, whether it be injuries from being mauled by a dog, being beat up in a pub brawl or being set upon by a group of streetpads (an old, Victorian term for muggers).

The Ultimate Villain.

Doyle had created the ultimate sleuth, the ultimate sidekick…and now, he had to create the ultimate villain. Professor James Moriarty.

Prof. Moriarty is Holmes’s arch-nemesis, and the leader of a large and powerful gang which operates all over London. Holmes called him the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, and considered him his intellectual equal. Like Holmes, Moriarty was brainy, sly, careful, calculating and observant. This made him an excellent criminal. It also meant that it was very hard for Holmes to ever catch him, and they played a constant cat-and-mouse game throughout the canon. Moriarty meets his end in “The Final Problem”, the story in which he had wanted to kill off Sherlock Holmes as well. Moriarty, apart from being crafty and evil, also encapsulated the physical appearance of a master criminal. He was tall, thin, hawk-like, gruff, dangerous and uncompromising.

Immortal Holmes.

Even though he was created so many years ago, even though his world seems alien to us, he remains, as Holmes himself once said to Watson: “…the one fixed point in a changing age”. His world, his skills, his cases and the man who created him, will remain legendary for decades to come. His very, phyiscal profile is instantly recognisable, the world-over; the deerstalker hat, the cape and the curved, calabash pipe.


4 thoughts on ““Come Watson, come! The game is afoot!”: The Elementary Fame of Sherlock Holmes.

  1. Jason S. Ganz says:

    I have read many of your entries, if not all, and I would like to say that not only is this an extremely well-written entry, but it is extremely informative, gripping, well-cited, and above all informational. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this entry and it was a pleasure to see it come to frution.

    Well done!

  2. MAHibbard says:

    Excellent post. As the reader above noted — well written, informative…and entertaining as well. That you have put a lot of time and love into this blog is obvious. I look forward to reading more.

  3. aleSH says:

    Great job!
    Thanks for such a website.
    Canonical regards from Scandalous Bohemia

  4. […] while we’re on the subject, check out this page on the Throughout History blog for some facts about the world’s most famous […]


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