Sherlock Holmes is one of the few literary inventions still captivating audiences well after its creator settled into dust. Growing apace with the tastes of his audience—seamlessly transitioning from print, to stage, to screen—Holmes has, as Zach Dundas, Executive Editor at Portland Monthly, so well describes in his intellectual biography of the famed sleuth, an immortal life that would cause a Falstaff or Ebenezer Scrooge envy.
The first thing to note about The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, is Dundas’s stellar turn of phrase, lending the book the quality of a well polished, punchy essay instead of the cutesy (but altogether too long, boring, or insubstantial) biographies that all seem to start with a variation on the same title, viz. The [fill in adjective here] Life of What’s-His-Face. One reads with the same attention Dundas’s autobiographical vignettes (which turn out to play a prominent role in the book) as one does the biographical elements of Arthur Conan Doyle and his tiresome (Doyle’s sentiment, not mine!) invention.
Some time before the advent of Robert Downey Jr.’s billion-dollar Sherlock franchise, or the 300 active Sherlockian clubs sprinkled throughout the globe, the Holmes universe was bound to fifty-six short stories and four novels, the first of which, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” appeared in the July 1891 issue of Strand Magazine. Detective fiction—at the time free of this stifling misnomer—was an amorphous genre represented by Edgar Allan Poe (whom Doyle worshipped), Charles Dickens, Emile Gaboriau, and Wilkie Collins. But it took Conan Doyle to put, in one fell swoop no less, the field on the map, creating a publishing sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Financial success and fame came quickly, and so did Doyle’s irritation with both Holmes and Watson. Poor Holmes would be dead in two years. (But not really: Doyle revived the detective from time to time as it suited him.)
Understanding the Great Detective’s immortal life in relation to his rather abrupt death is difficult. One clue (sorry!) lies in the correspondence between Doyle and the actor William Gillette, who was then prepping for the role that would cement his fame. Asked how much latitude might be used when adapting Holmes for the stage, Doyle remarked: “You may marry or murder or do what you like with him.” While this does not constitute a complete abatement of creative control, Doyle’s relaxed stance toward his intellectual patrimony allowed Gillette (and others) to shape the Baker Street milieu in their own stylized, impactful way. But this does not fully explain Holmes’ enduring popularity, or the mysterious depths of his character that continue to delight audiences of widely divergent backgrounds.
Three things contribute to the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes and Co. First, the Great Detective himself. The life that this cocaine sniffing, pipe smoking, violin playing, bee keeping grand inquisitor leads is endlessly fascinating. Here is Dundas: “If you’re a nineteenth-century clerk…a Soviet soldier on the Easter Front…anyone, really—Sherlock Holmes offers a bracing glimpse of a wicked-fun way of life.” Second, John H. Watson. (Or as Dundas describes him: “the dark matter of the Sherlockian universe, the force that mysteriously holds the whole thing together.”) Without dear Watson, no Holmes, “full stop.” Aside from acting as our faithful narrator, Watson is the “human we can love” to Holmes’ “phenomenon we admire.” Third, the Holmesian fairy world and its portrayal. To paraphrase Polonius, Conan Doyle constructed a seemingly expanding literary universe that is tragical-comical-historical-pastoral (or perhaps poem-unlimited) all in one.
As for what accounts for his immortality? Dundas offers a few ideas, but I think the most interesting may be his observation that “in a willfully confusing world, the Great Detective reminds us of our duty to both see and observe.” This echoes Aristotle’s statement at the beginning of the Metaphysics that all men desire knowledge, thus holding in highest esteem the use of the senses. Conan Doyle hits on something fundamental in the nature of man and that, coupled with Dundas’s correct identification of the elastic structure of the Holmesian narrative, ensures that “every generation” continues to “remake the Great Detective in its own image.”
Nearly a century and a half later, we are doing that very thing. Just ask Benedict Cumberbatch.