Why Sherlock Holmes lives on

Did you know Sir Author Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world in 1887? Nearly 130 years after the publication of A Study In Scarlet, authors like Neil Gaiman find ways to keep the spirit of Sherlock alive in his intriguing story A Study in Emerald. Not to mention the many screen portrayals of the genius. I still love Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective. Of course I must give a shout-out to BBC One’s Sherlock series. Those are not the only examples, but this blog isn’t about the retelling or portrayals of Sherlock. It’s about WHY Conan Doyle repeatedly had to rekindle his stories and why we are still fascinated by them today.

It all comes down to this: Sir Author Conan Doyle’s writing is masterful.

I will attempt to expound on this point, but the fact that most everyone today, nearly 130 years later, knows of Sherlock Holmes speaks for itself. I acknowledge Conan Doyle wrote many other forms of literature as well. I would like to explore those in my later blogs.

  1. The plots
    • Suspense, danger, villains, mystery, and intrigue. What isn’t there to love about the outrageous puzzles Holmes must solve? Each so distinct from the other, all gripping our imagination and daring us to keep turning the pages until it is resolved.
  2. The characters
    • Holmes and Watson aren’t the only characters brought to life in each story. Every character we encounter has a description, is given action, and has a unique way of speaking. Conan Doyle uses small details in creative ways to create real people, even if we only meet them briefly. These singularities make every person distinct from the next, which says a great deal considering the culmination of them from all of the stories is a very large cast indeed.
  3. The descriptions
    • “[A] very old and wrinkled woman hobbled into the apartment. She appeared to be dazzled by the sudden blaze of light, and after dropping a curtsey, she stood blinking at us with her bleared eyes and fumbling in her pocket with nervous, shaky fingers” (19). -This is just one of many ways Conan Doyle paints such vivid pictures.
    • Conan Doyle uses all of the senses in his writing. As a doctor, Watson often chides Sherlock for not eating when he is on a case. Sometimes the two stop for a meal before continuing their journey. This keeps them human and the reader grounded in their reality. Sherlock often performs experiments in their apartment which produce odors so foul Watson is forced to leave. We hear the awful cry of the Hound of the Baskervilles and want to shut the book! Conana Doyle knew long before we made a study of writing that using the sense would make his stories unforgettable.
  4. The dialogue
    • Dialogue has always been difficult for me. I admire the banter and structure of the way the characters interact with each other.
      • “You’ve done yourself no good this morning, Mr. Holmes, for I have broken stronger men than you. No man ever crossed me and was the better for it.”
      • “So many have said so, and yet here I am,” said Holmes smiling. “Well, good morning, Mr. Gibson. You have a good deal yet to learn.”
      • [later, same conversation] “It is only for the young lady’s sake that I touch your case at all,” said Holmes sternly. “I don’t know that anything she is accused of is really worse than what you have yourself admitted, that you have tried to ruin a defenceless (sic) girl who was under your roof. Some of you rich men have to be taught that all the world cannot be bribed into condoning your offences (sic)” (453).
  5. Sherlock’s sense of justice
    • No spoilers here for those who haven’t read the books. There are times when Sherlock solves the mystery before the police can and he takes justice into his own hands. He shows compassion towards the “criminals” and makes some surprising and merciful decisions.
    • Sherlock: “The fact is that I knew this fellow […], that I considered him one of the most dangerous men in London, and that I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge. […] My sympathies are with the criminals rather than with the victim, and I will not handle this case” (247).
  6. The structure as a short story.
    • Blink and it’s over – with the exception of two or three times when Conan Doyle expounds on seemingly unimportant subplots. Freytag’s Pyramid, one right after the other, it’s all there. Complete and satisfying in small doses. You can read one a day or you can read eight in one sitting!

Source: The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Gramercy Books, 2002.

Why do you love Sherlock Holmes? Have you read the stories? Which is your favorite? If not, have I convinced you to do so? What is your favorite retelling and/or portrayal?

2 thoughts on “Why Sherlock Holmes lives on

    1. D. M. Patterson says:

      That’s a great question. I can understand not wanting to have to sort through old language and things that don’t make good transitions/translations to modern life. I can honestly that the Sherlock stories do not read that way. Sure you will run into some things that date the writing, but not by much. I believe that is why the BBC One’s version could be so seamlessly transitioned into modern-day London. They literally take some quotes, characters, and plots directly from the books!

What are your thoughts?