Ask anyone to describe Sherlock Holmes, and you’ll surely get pieces of the iconic look: a deerstalker hat, greatcoat, pipe, and probably a magnifying glass for good measure. Even if you’ve never read an original Sherlock Holmes story, you’ve probably seen a Halloween costume, a movie or television adaption, or maybe even said “No ****, Sherlock!” (Apologies to our esteemed readers for our language!)
There’s something so familiar about Sherlock Holmes and his ability to solve cases using his incredibly astute skills of observation. No wonder. Holmes has dominated film, television, and literature since 1887.
While under the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, Sherlock Holmes appeared in 4 novels and 56 short stories. Mr. Holmes was just as popular back then as he is now; when Conan Doyle attempted to kill off Sherlock in 1893, public outcry was so great he resurrected the detective in 1903.
Since then, more than 25,000 books, stories, and articles have been written about Sherlock Holmes. He has appeared in more than 28 films, several television adaptations, and numerous re-imaginings onstage, portrayed by actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Basil Rathbone, and Jeremy Brett. And there’s no sign of slowing. Up next: a new installment of the Guy Ritchie-directed film series starring Robert Downey, Jr., set to debut in 2020.
So what’s the deal? It seems no matter the time or place, Sherlock Holmes has managed to sneak his way into every era, every possibility, and every medium. How has he managed to survive all these years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first penned him? And why do we as audiences continue to watch him?
Sherlock Holmes finds his roots in the days of serialized magazine prose, where improved work and leisure laws in England called for magazine stories that could be read during train travel or newfound free time. To appeal to readers, Conan Doyle needed to craft a notable character who could be recognized and independently exist in different stories, freeing readers of having to read stories chronologically or to read all of them.
Sherlock Holmes appeared in Victorian England, shortly before new technologies changed both the landscape and the attitudes of England itself. Anthony Horowitz, a novelist who wrote The House of Silk, the first Sherlock adventure officially sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate, says that Sherlock Holmes’ appeal and lasting relevance is due to his being the final reminder of a romanticized old England, where cobblestone streets and the strange villains remind us of “the last gasp of English history before technology takes over.” The Victorian Era is widely regarded as one of England’s most prosperous time periods. Along with improvement in schools, workplaces, and transportation, vast amounts of literature and art were produced, and it was a time of relative peace. Perhaps Sherlock serves as a reminder of these times.
But what about the Sherlock Holmes adaptations that take place away from Victorian England? While Holmes certainly originates and draws inspiration from his source era, he has been more than capable of existing outside of it. Certainly one of the main reasons Sherlock Holmes has been able to exist for so long is, quite simply, himself. Mr. Holmes is fascinating. His somewhat arrogant and rude nature is somehow somewhat both endearing and amusing (especially when he is with his friend and foil, Dr. Watson). And beyond that, Sherlock Holmes has been somewhat of what we might today call a superhero or, at the least, a Renaissance man, especially in the detective world, for over a century. He has an unbelievable intellect; he’s athletic, an accomplished boxer, fencer, and singlestick player. He is a musician. His skills are some of his most remarkable traits.
But beyond Sherlock Holmes’ personality, Leslie Klinger, a Sherlock Holmes scholar, has pointed out Sherlock Holmes has proven a model for detectives and detective story formats. Whether or not we realize it, we see Sherlock Holmes in every detective television show, movie, or story. We eagerly await the return of our favorite detective, who will be thrust into a different situation every episode. Then, no matter what, these detectives will eventually get to the bottom of their cases, even when presented with the seemingly most unsolvable case. And in the next episode, they’ll do it again. You can apply these traits to almost any serialized detective show; Columbo, The Rockford Files, Criminal Minds. While credit must be given to Edgar Allen Poe for the most widely regarded early detective fiction, the archetype and structure of the modern day mystery was popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and lives on in his most enduring creation.
|Even when pulled into the modern era (as in Elementary and Sherlock, above),|
Holmes remains a fascinating fictional character.
Sherlock Holmes has set an unreachable bar with his intellect, physical ability, and dogged pursuit of truth. And while we know he will always figure out the case, the journey — his chemistry with Watson, his sharp dialogue, and his explanations regarding the minutest details — is just as satisfying as the ending. As Dr. Watson put it in “The Final Problem” (another source story key to MCT’s production), Sherlock Holmes was the “best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.”
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE JERSEY LILY, by Katie Forgette, runs August 10 to 26 at the Broadway Theatre Center's Cabot Theatre, at 158 N. Broadway. Tickets can be purchased at 414.291.7800 or by visiting milwaukeechambertheatre.com.