For a fictitious character who was born during the reign of Victoria, Sherlock Holmes is looking good. He has a movie franchise, two hit television series, and heaven only knows how many novels being written about him. From London to Peoria, from Moscow to Bombay, Holmes is instantly recognisable and admired. No, adored. If he were a real person alive today he’d probably have a whole battalion of stalkers watching his every move.
I’m not in any position to point fingers. I’ve been a Sherlockian since I was seven years old when I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles. I’ve seen multiple actors playing the part – you knew, didn’t you, that Holmes is the most-portrayed human character in film? Of course you did. At last count, 72 actors were listed as playing the Great Detective, no fewer than 245 times.* I’ve read all the Conan Doyle stories so often I can quote whole chunks of dialogue. Like Queen Victoria, I am not amused when people get their facts wrong. “Elementary, my dear Watson…” can subject you to an hour long rant on why this is soooo wrong. Just sayin’.
Fans find countless ways of paying tribute to their hero. Some of us write books (guilty!), others paint pictures, cosplay, or read Conan Doyle incessantly. Recently, a flash mob in Russia did a dance routine in honour of the BBC’s Sherlock, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman:
As a Holmes fan, I find all this attention delightful, but I have to wonder, in this age of DNA, forensic science, and legal magic, what does our favourite Victorian gentleman have to offer? In my opinion, the relevance of Sherlock Holmes lies not in his science, nor in his innovative approach to detection, but in the character of the man.
We have a deep fascination with very smart people. We love the idea of someone coming into a room and seeing what other mere mortals cannot see. It’s why we still talk about Da Vinci in awed tones (even if we don’t quite believe in the whole ‘code’ thing); why Professor Stephen Hawking is held in such esteem; and why The Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular shows on television today. Even if you take Sherlock Holmes out of Victorian London and put him in the modern world; if you have him talk Russian; or if you change his name to Patrick Jane or Mr Monk, he’s always the smartest person in any room. Well, unless brother Mycroft is visiting…
We admire his independence. Holmes never kowtows to anyone. Even if you’re a duke or the King of Bohemia he’ll mock your stupidity and poor judgement if he feels it’s warranted. By the same token, even if you’re a humble governess or a sailor, he’ll do everything is his power to help you, even if that help flies in the face of conventional wisdom or even the law. Holmes is his own man.
We enjoy his arrogance. There’s no false modesty in the man. True, he can be conceited, self-absorbed, even a tad smug at times, but here’s the thing: He has earned the right to be. In an age when it’s deemed immodest for even geniuses to act as if they’re worth of praise, it’s refreshing when Holmes merely accepts such kudos as his due.
We trust his judgement. Sometimes Sherlock Holmes breaks the law. Sometimes he is cruel. Sometimes his actions result in another’s death. But seldom is he wrong. His moral code may not be that of society, but it is firm and he follows it consistently.
We like that he’s a study in contrasts. Yes, we know he’s brilliant and aloof and all the rest of it, but he can be surprisingly unpredictable. Just when we have him pegged as a misogynist, he is perfectly adorable with some put-upon young woman. He’s not given to displays of emotion, yet his eyes fill with tears when Watson is shot. He has devoted himself to the law and yet lets a thief go free because it’s Christmas. How can you not love a man like that? Which brings us to the whole thing in a nutshell…
We like him. OK, he’d probably be very difficult to have around in real life. You wouldn’t want to keep house for him, or be a policeman dependent upon him for help. Being his friend isn’t boring, but neither is it easy. And, for the love of God, you certainly don’t want to fall in love with him. But wouldn’t life be richer for his presence? And don’t we all harbour the secret belief that we’d be the exception – the one person, other than Watson, that he would trust and confide in?
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.
*That figure comes from the Guinness Book of World Records for 2012. It’s probably gone up since then. http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2012/5/sherlock-holmes-awarded-title-for-most-portrayed-literary-human-character-in-film-tv-41743/