“Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict without a single amiable trait,” wrote George Bernard Shaw—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.
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 the 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?
The Mystery of Mr. Holmes in 17 Steps: A Monograph in Verse
Oft’ is it asked, from out of Holmesian History,
Which is the classic adventure, case, or mystery?
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” as Holmes did not say,
And neither say we to such a question – Nay!
To answer which of Watson’s memoirs is the best,
We must reply, how can Holmes be thus compressed?
The Army Doctor of Bradshaw and bowler
Could never encompass his friend in one fell blow.
But do or die, We Can But Try!
So to the Sacred Writings we shall go.
(And bring along the magnifying lens.)
A knife to impale correspondence and mail
To the center of the mantelpiece;
A scuttle-cigar, the south wall V.R. …
Which case for these a reason can release?
(O most stirring and sacrosanct of dens!)
An active brain of logic and cocaine;
A man of music and moods, of science and swordplay,
Who combs the Times to learn of crimes,
With cherrywood, the briar, or the clay.
(How can such men as Holmes be briefly put?)
His methods cannot be simply caught,
(They are the methods of the Master, don’t forget).
Which case would dare to be the snare
To capture the mind to find the Beryl Coronet?
(Or was it a fait accompli by the Devil’s Foot?)
The Speckled Band beats Hatherley’s hand,
(But does it reflect the sum of Sherlock’s powers?)
Strike out the Yellow Face and Shoscombe Old Place.
Perhaps the Priory School with its ivy-covered towers?
(Is Holmes Oxford or Cambridge man, if you please?)
The Carfax coffin? Jim Browner’s bodkin?
(How did Mathews knock out Sherlock’s tooth?)
“A Case of Identity?” “The Boscombe Valley Mystery?”
Where is the soul of our Bohemian sleuth?
(For clues, apply to Mycroft at the Diogenes.)
Twisted lips and orange pips;
Three Garridebs, three students, and three gables;
Lestrade’s second stain, the Downs lion’s mane,
The dog that didn’t bark at King Pyland Stables.
(The game’s afoot—but to what end does it tend?)
Captain Jack Croker? The corrupt stockbroker?
(When does this clock called Sherlock eat and sleep?)
Whether Reigate Squire or Sussex Vampire,
There never was a problem too dark or too deep.
(How came the irregular Wiggins to be his friend?)
Now as they say in the old play,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting (or meetings).
But, oh, which case should win this race?
Which is the Stradivarius for fifty-five shillings—
(As Holmes, one day, exulted to pay)?
The noble bachelor, Black Peter the whaler;
Six busts of Napoleon, Charles Augustus Milverton;
The resident patient, the illustrious client;
Or Abe Slaney’s cryptic dancing men
(Instructive—but pray why the deerstalker hat?)
A scarlet candle, the Adler Scandal,
(Why does Holmes so mistrust the fairer sex?)
The Sign of Four, the Copper Beeches door—
What horrors lie catalogued in his ‘M’ Index?
(If only we knew more of the Sumatran Rat!)
“The Final Problem” was a gem—
(Could it be the finest problem of them all?)
Where archenemy, Professor Moriarty,
Cast himself and Holmes beneath the Reichenbach Fall.
(Why wasn’t Watson’s agent, Doyle, bereaved?)
The Great Hiatus was then upon us—
(What said Sigerson to the Khalifa at Khartoum?)
Until Moran the shikari shot Meunier’s effigy,
And Camden House became a resurrection tomb.
(Wasn’t London—and the world—relieved?)
The builder, the lodger, the pale-faced soldier?
(Is Holmes a highbrow or a hero?)
The lost three-quarter, the Greek interpreter—
(What trials did Mrs. Hudson undergo
With his pigpen customs and pristine clothes?)
What of the naval treaty? The Birlstone tragedy?
O that career of red-haired men and blood-red circles!
The dubious Mazarin Stone, Miss Violet cycling alone,
Or is it the howling Hound of the Baskervilles?
(There, but for the grace of God, Sherlock goes!)
The colorman was collared, the crooked man was cornered;
The Wisteria Lodge plot; Thor Bridge and Watson’s gun;
The apish creeping man; the Bruce-Partington plan;
Which can stand above the rest? Which one?
(Which can label Holmes a humanist or humorist?)
The Tapanuli fever stunt, the Musgrave treasure hunt;
(Why shag tobacco in the Persian shoe?)
Geese and carbuncles and golden spectacles;
(Why bees? Why Petrarch? Why baritsu? —
Who is this Sherlock Holmes no mortal can resist?)
Once dismissed is the impossible,
The truth remains, however improbable.
From “The ‘Gloria Scott’” to “His Last Bow,”
The crown jewel of the Canon we cannot avow.
For us, and for many, the greatest mystery
Is the man himself who lives at 221B.
Editor’s note: The image above features Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce from the 1939 Sherlock Holmes film series.