Eastertide, 1894 marked the resurrection of a famous figure besides Jesus Christ. Sherlock Holmes, supposed dead for three years following his agony with the Napoleon of Crime, reappeared suddenly to his friends in London—heralded not by an empty tomb, but by an empty house. There are very few literary giants with so perfect a resurrectional motif (at least not very many human heroes, allowing us to put aside, with all reverence, the likes of the Steadfast Tin Soldier, Gandalf, and Aslan). Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most recognizable and renowned protagonist of all time, is a true and tremendous Easter icon as one who exemplifies the Christian paradigms of conquering the powers of evil through truth and resurrection.
Though Mr. Holmes, according to the chronicles of Dr. Watson, was not a religious man, he was nevertheless an upholder of religion. Though a man of terrestrial and mechanical logic, Holmes was not unconditionally dismissive of the spiritual dimension, of God, or of the fiend; making Sherlock Holmes a beacon of truth and a bearer of the eternal light that dispels darkness—a man of faith as well as fact. If there is any doubt in the matter, the clues to the mystery of his character speak clearly in the trifles of the Canon, the sixty public records of Mr. Holmes’ remarkable career. For as the Master said in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” “there is nothing so important as trifles.”
In 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes. “The Final Problem,” published in The Strand Magazine, related how Sherlock Holmes plunged to his death beneath Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls grappling his arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. And the world plunged into grief. Conan Doyle had long contemplated slaying the detective he had created, for, though Sherlock Holmes was a financial breakthrough, he was also a burden. “He takes my mind from better things,” Doyle wrote shortly before releasing “The Final Problem,” where he finally disposed of his problem. “I wouldn’t revive [Holmes] if I could,” the author wrote, “for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté-de-foie-gras, of which I once ate too much.” But the widespread anguish over Holmes’ demise was too much to bear. “The Adventure of the Empty House,” published in 1903, brought the human surrender and superhuman triumph that the bereaved faithful demanded. The world’s greatest detective dodged his doom and rose from the dead, establishing him forever among the ranks of immortals.
The return of Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Empty House” is set in early April, 1894—just days after Easter Sunday—and it is a story of equal glory with the season, being a marvelous resurrection and not a mere resuscitation. Though Holmes arose from the grave to continue his mission, he cannot be fairly called a Christ figure. But he can be called a Christian figure, despite the lack of any precise reference in the Sacred Writings to any particular sacred philosophy or creed he held. Sherlock Holmes is, notwithstanding, a believer in the good and the true, and a believer in the God Who is Goodness and Truth. In other words, Holmes is not entirely a cold materialist or the inflexible devotee of scientism as his methods might suggest. Holmes is too complex a creature for such simple observations and deductions. In fact, evidence in the reminiscences of Dr. Watson reveals a surprising spiritual awareness and avowal, rendering Sherlock Holmes an interesting subject for Easter.
“God help us!” cried Mr. Holmes in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” “Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.’” This classic mantra of the Christian hero rings with a steely earnestness that only Sherlock Holmes can command. Add to this gallant bit piety the Master’s eloquent and passionate expression of an all-knowing power that guides the course of humanity in “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box:” “What is the meaning of it, Watson? What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.” Finally of note is his beautiful meditation on the divine in “The Naval Treaty”:
There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.
Sherlock Holmes is the most famous man who never lived (perhaps the only fictional character boasting several scholarly biographies) and his illustration as a kind of Paschal hero is rooted in the primal desire for goodness to triumph over evil; and Holmes does just this in staunch, Victorian fashion. Sherlock Holmes is the quintessential virtuous Victorian gentleman: one who holds honor and duty over all else because he is necessarily principled and not necessarily paid. Anthony Hope’s Rudolph Rassendyll and John Buchan’s Richard Hannay are other examples of the Victorian gentleman-hero. Holmes, Hannay, and Rassendyll are amateur heroes, not professional heroes: men of the noble class who could afford a higher level of virtue than others and so were that much more virtuous. The motivation of upholding justice and decency is motivation enough. Sherlock Holmes exemplifies this heroic category, and in so doing, represents and reinforces his audience’s cultural convictions concerning what makes a man a gentleman and a Christian. Mr. Holmes is a self-proclaimed champion of justice and savior of souls—and this romanticism of Christian heroism is not lost even in his rationalism.
The world has always hungered for orientation, and the Canon of Conan Doyle offers a fitting luminary for the modern Dark Age: a gentleman-hero who combats the perils and perpetrators of society with vigor, vim, and virtue. The world of 221B Baker Street is a world of hope and optimism—casting gaslight through the fog—and speaks to readers through fantastic, chivalric literature to inculcate the immortal principle of human honor and human hope. Sherlock Holmes is a resurrected hero of a risen people, and as such, evokes the hope and optimism of the Resurrection of Christ.
Eastertide bears the highest and deepest significance to Christian understanding, for Easter is the dawn of Truth. When people comprehend a mystery, they often say that the knowledge “dawns” on them, as the mind is drawn out of darkness into eastern light. The art of knowing the truth, which is the whole art of detection, unites the dawning of knowledge and wisdom in the Dawn of the Resurrection, connecting the fullness of light and life to the illumination of mind and soul. Both the reality and mystery of Easter are central to any true vision and virtue; and Sherlock Holmes participates in both, as he tracks down the agents of darkness tirelessly, like a bloodhound, with a dedication and devotion emphasized by his miraculous return—his resurrection—from death to new life; where the violin hums over the din of hansom cabs, tobacco smoke curls above the littered mantelpiece, a pistol lies in every pocket, and it is always 1895. He is risen, indeed!
(Photo Credit: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle / AP photo)