Student | Niamh Smith
To me, a literary character is truly great when they step from the pages of the book(s) in which they appear, and can be reincarnated in another time, another place, but still feel as fresh and as vibrant as the first time you read about them. Some characters transcend the literature in which they appear and become a vital part of popular culture; not stuck in that one novel, but expanding in sequels and prequels or changing and developing under other writers’ pens or in different mediums, such as film and television. These characters, who can be picked up and read and re-discovered with every age, are few and far-between. For me, no character better fits the above criteria that Mr Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street.
Holmes premiered in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887 (a copy of which fetched over £112,000 at auction in 2012). It was a time when thousands flocked to hangings and read about murderers, like Jack the Ripper (who terrorised London in 1888), in ‘penny dreadfuls’. The first Holmes story was A Study in Scarlet, where the great detective is easily the most fascinating part of the narrative. He is completely antithetical to a traditional hero; instead of being selfless, honest and compassionate, he is arrogant, (sometimes) unfeeling and a compulsive liar. But he is also a magnetic presence, loyal and affectionate to those he cares about. This contradictory nature has fascinated readers for over a century.
Holmes represented a rejection of the typical nineteenth-century Romantic Hero. Arthur Conan-Doyle, the writer of the original four novels and fifty-six short stories, said in an interview that Holmes was ‘utterly inhuman’ and had ‘no heart’. Instead of being a man driven by passion, he makes no qualms that love and affection are irrelevant to him, as shown by his aide, Dr Watson, in the opening lines of A Scandal in Bohemia: ‘All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind … He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer’.
Holmes is very mysterious. He is clearly tormented, but, interestingly, we never find out much about his past or why he is this way, making the facts we know about Holmes even more fascinating. While the lack of a backstory frustrates some readers, the lack of information about Holmes makes him even more intriguing and subconsciously inclines the reader to fill in the blanks.
Another reason Holmes has delighted readers for decades is his extraordinary, almost fantastical, deductive capabilities. For many, these amazing feats of deduction and observation, akin to magic tricks, are the best part of the stories. When Holmes makes a startling statement, usually revealing the identity of a criminal or a key piece of information about another character, the reader wants to know how and why. And like all great artists, Sherlock Holmes is a show-off. After he has confounded everyone, he reveals how the trick is done. So often, it is very simple, but at the same time, something we could never have envisioned. For me, this is a true mark of genius, on the part of Conan-Doyle, whose writing is simply majestic.
Holmes has outlasted his counterparts in the public consciousness. He has had a remarkable impact on crime fiction and is now the template for almost any detective that has existed since. Holmes (if he existed) would certainly be happy about this. In the modern day, Sherlock Holmes has never been more popular, and his diverse character never better portrayed. Robert Downey Jr. emphasised the man of action in Guy Ritchie’s two blockbuster films. Ian McKellen focused on the damaged, emotionally fragile nature of the character in the 2015 film Mr Holmes. Benedict Cumberbatch, in the hugely popular Sherlock, portrays him as a mildly autistic geek, who has no comprehension of other people’s feelings. All of these portrayals are correct and in the spirit of the books. Holmes’ multi-faceted nature is a marvel to behold, and I cannot think of a handful of literary characters who are as three-dimensional and complicated as he is.
Sadly, Conan-Doyle thought his stories were throwaway light fiction. Famously, he said, ‘You may marry him, murder him or do what you like with him’, when asked if Holmes could be used as a character in a play. However, if he could see what his creation has become today, he would be overwhelmed at how his stories are loved all over the world (and also slightly disappointed that few remember his other works, like Rodney Stone and The Lost World).
Sherlock Holmes could have so easily have been a cliché that was too unrealistic for reader’s palates. But Conan-Doyle, who is, I believe, underrated in the pantheon of literature, created a character that is unique and, while not always relatable, realistic. In another writer’s hands (indeed, it has happened), Holmes could have gone dreadfully wrong as a character and the stories could have gone out of print. But, thankfully, that didn’t happen. We have a character that is not just a benchmark for all detectives or literary characters but for all good three-dimensional characters in any form of entertainment. In my opinion, Sherlock Holmes is not just the greatest character in literature, but perhaps the greatest in the entirety of popular culture.