Continuing the theme of persistent pop culture trends established by last week blog’s post, we turn now to a subject nominally more realistic than zombies and monsters: the impossibly perceptive detective whose greatest power seems to be his ability to remain relevant over a hundred years after first coming onto the scene. After only the briefest time out of the public eye, Sherlock Holmes has returned in full force, with not one but two big-budget television shows undertaking the task of bringing the Victorian detective into the twenty-first century world of DNA tests, forensic evidence, and relative societal intolerance for the original’s opium habit.
Many people have speculated on why Sherlock Holmes remains such a compelling figure, but none have yet provided a fully satisfactory answer. Les Klinger, editor of the Holmes-inspired anthology A Study in Sherlock, argues that his appeal comes from his status as an outsider, telling NPR, “He is driven by a pursuit for justice, but it’s his own brand of justice, and I think part of us yearns to be like that: strong, independent, above worries, above how we fit in with society.” Philosopher John Gray, in a fascinating piece for the BBC, describes Holmes as “a servant of reason” who is also “a romantic hero ready to defy authority in order to stand by his sense of morality.”
But perhaps even more than his anti-authoritarian leanings, what truly defines Holmes in the mind of the public is his rationalism. Paradoxically, Holmes’s intelligence both gives him a timeless appeal and marks him as a creature of the Victorian era. Bear with me as I turn briefly to a book not about Sherlock Holmes: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, published in 1907 but set in 1886. The events of that narrative are set off when the subversive Mr. Vladmir orders his agent provocateur Mr. Verloc to attack the Greenwich Observatory. When Verloc questions the merits of attacking an observatory rather than a more politically relevant target, Vladmir responds,
The sacrosanct fetish of to-day is science [ . . . ] Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but believes it matters somehow [ . . . ] They believe that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their material prosperity [ . . . ] The [bombing] must be against learning—science [ . . . ] The attack must have the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy. (Conrad 21-22)
Though Mr. Vladmir is obviously a dubious individual morally, he does accurately describe the elevated position that science occupied in the Victorian psyche. The effects of the Enlightenment were in full swing, Darwinism was radically reshaping how humans viewed their relationship to the natural world, and reason was seen as the answer to all problems. Holmes is almost a personification of that era’s belief in the infallibility of reason: with nothing more than his eyes and his brain, he can solve any crime and set every injustice to right. While the horrors and tragedies of the last century have somewhat taken the shine off of reason’s power to satisfactorily explain the world, people still wants to believe that the world can be figured out through intelligence and attention to detail, and Holmes offers us a role model in that regard.
Another aspect of the character’s endurance that I feel is not properly appreciated is the simplicity of the elements needed to make an authentic-feeling Sherlock Holmes story. Because everything that is distinctive about the Holmes canon is internalized within its characters, his stories take better than most to contemporary updates. Compare, say, the mythos of Arthurian legend or of Robin Hood: so much of what makes those stories distinctive lies in their setting and time period. Take Arthur out of Camelot or try to set Robin Hood in the twentieth century and it just won’t work. You have removed a vital part of what made it an Arthurian story or a tale about Robin Hood. In contrast, the only elements one needs to retain to have an authentic Holmes story are a detective named Sherlock with a friend named Watson, who together solve mysteries with little more than their wits.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about Holmes’s enduring popularity without acknowledging the ways in which the character has changed and adapted over the years. Entire books could be written exploring these changes, so I’m just going to touch works from the last few years. The Holmes-related media of the twenty-first century have each reflected contemporary trends in their own ways. The abominable 2009 film Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, A Game of Shadows, tried to capitalize on the superhero craze by casting Robert Downey, Jr. and turning Holmes’s analytical prowess into the superpower of pinpointing his opponents weaknesses during the many brawls into which this Sherlock blunders.
The BBC’s excellent Sherlock is more true to the heart of the character, though thanks to changing laws regarding smoking in public, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes has to slap on nicotine patches rather than smoke a pipe. Reflecting changing awareness of and attitudes toward homosexuality and gender, Sherlock makes a running gag out of Holmes and Watson being mistaken for a romantic couple. Interestingly, whereas Holmes is essentially asexual in the original stories, both Downey’s and Cumberbatch’s respective Sherlocks both nurse explicitly romantic interests in Irene Adler. (On some level, it makes sense that a Victorian audience would be more comfortable with an asexual hero than contemporary viewers.) The CBS show Elementary takes the prize for the most out-there treatment of Adler, however. Spoilers ahead: in Elementary, Adler and Holmes are former lovers, but in this adaptation, Adler is also Jamie Moriarty, and she is eventually revealed as Holmes’s arch-nemesis. Even before this reveal, Elementary made waves by casting Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Given the paucity of important female characters in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, I feel that we now have a Sherlock Holmes television show in which both one of the leads and the show’s greatest villain are women says a great deal.
No blog post can possibly do justice to the questions of why Sherlock Holmes has proven so enduring or how later adaptations reflect their time periods. I have not even touched on other noteworthy Holmes-related works, like Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, or the Basil Rathbone movies that defined Holmes for a generation. What’s clear, though, is that the sleuth is here to stay. As we get ever farther away in time from the Victorian world that gave birth to Holmes, I for one will be watching with interest to see what contemporary and future artists do to keep Holmes relevant to the modern world even as the modern world rapidly changes.
What do you think, fellow readers? Do you have a favorite Holmes story? How about a favorite parody of the sleuth? Have you encountered any particularly fascinating permutations of the Holmesian mythos?