One Fixed Point: “Sherlock,” Sherlock Holmes, and the British Imagination

January 22, 2014 | 6 books mentioned 4 14 min read

570_Sherlock[The only real spoilers for the new series of Sherlock, which concluded last weekend in the United Kingdom, are for the first episode, “The Empty Hearse,” and will be marked as such.]

In 1893, after two novels, twenty-four short stories, and wild public acclaim, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes. In “The Final Problem,” published, like most of the stories before it, in The Strand, Holmes and Moriarty fight atop and then tumble over a Swiss waterfall; Dr. Watson, witnessing the struggle from a distance, determines that “any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless,” and puts his friend to rest. It had been six years since Holmes had begun deducing his way across the page, and Conan Doyle had had enough of his hero: “Poor Holmes is dead and damned,” he wrote later. “I couldn’t revive him if I would (at least not for years), for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do toward pate de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.” Three years later, in a speech at the Author’s Club in London, he said that, “I have been blamed for doing that gentleman to death, but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.”

The public, unsurprisingly, was furious. At least 20,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand, flooding the offices with angry letters and, apocryphally, donning black armbands in mourning. The Strand, likely dismayed at losing their star revenue source, announced that:

The news of the death of Sherlock Holmes has been received with most widespread regret, and readers have implored us to use our influence with Mr Conan Doyle to prevent the tragedy being consummated. We can only reply that we pleaded for his life in the most urgent, earnest and constant manner. Like hundreds of correspondents, we feel as if we have lost an old friend whom we could ill spare. Mr Doyle’s feeling was that he did not desire Sherlock to outstay his welcome, and that the public had had enough of him. This is not our opinion, nor is it the opinion of the public; but it is, we regret to say, Mr Doyle’s.

coverWhile The Strand was throwing Conan Doyle under the proverbial bus, he put some physical distance between himself and the British public, retreating to the Continent with his family. But the outcry inevitably reached him, and he later wrote, “I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public. They say that a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead, and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends. ‘You brute’ was the beginning of the letter of remonstrance which one lady sent me, and I expect she spoke for others beside herself. I heard of many who wept. I fear I was utterly callous myself.” In the years that followed he worked to put metaphorical distance between himself and his character, too, but while his more “serious” work, including the staunchly pro-imperial dispatches from the Boer War, was well-received, he failed to rekindle the extreme devotion of the British public. His 1899 A Duet with an Occasional Chorus, a love story that was by all accounts irredeemably sentimental, was outright panned — a book “quite unworthy of Mr. Conan Doyle’s reputation.” Andrew Lang, a prominent critic, summed it up: “It may be vulgar taste, but we decidedly prefer the adventures of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.”

coverConan Doyle was a practical man. Back from Africa in 1901, eight years after the death of Sherlock Holmes, he began to write a new story based on a long trip to the Devonshire moors. He had a mystery; he lacked a detective. In the end, it seemed almost inevitable: “Why should I invent such a character,” he said, “when I already have him in the form of Sherlock Holmes.” The Hound of the Baskervilles is set before Holmes’s canonical death, but Conan Doyle had shown his hand. When he was knighted the following year, legend suggests that he was encouraged by King Edward VII, a great Holmes fan, to resurrect the character for good.

After a somewhat feeble explanation of how he survived and a relatively bland reunion (Watson faints, Holmes apologizes, and they shrug and go off crime-solving once again), the consulting detective returned. A final novel and 32 short stories kept Conan Doyle knocking out locked-room mysteries until just a few years before his death. The world changed drastically during these two decades, but the adventures of Holmes and Watson remained relatively constant — most of them were still set in the late-Victorian period, because the gap between Holmes’s death and resurrection, known as “The Great Hiatus” by fans, was just three years long. The public devoured them, but for many, and perhaps for Conan Doyle himself, something had been lost at the Reichenbach Falls. He wrote later, “Some have thought there was a falling off in the stories, and the criticism was neatly expressed by a Cornish boatman who said to me, ‘I think, sir, when Holmes fell over that cliff, he may not have killed himself, but all the same he was never quite the same man afterwards.’ I think, however, that if the reader began the series backwards, so that he brought a fresh mind to the last stories, he would agree with me that, though the general average may not be conspicuously high, still the last one is as good as the first.”

In 2012, after six feature-length episodes, myriad critical accolades and awards, and wild public acclaim, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat killed off Sherlock Holmes. But wait, no — you can’t talk about Sherlock without talking about the century that preceded it, because its foundations lay both in the stories and in the staggering number of iterations that followed.

covercoverIt’s hard these days to think of an oft-adapted character as “singular,” to use Holmes’s favorite expression. Hollywood has us drowning in a sea of remakes and retellings, a sort of empty spin on fanfiction in which screenwriters and movie producers ask a mild “What…” rather than a brain-bending “What if?!” But there is something singular about Holmes, the “most portrayed literary human character in film & TV.” (Guinness Book of World Records, 2012. The most portrayed non-human character? Dracula.) There are reasons why the public was drawn to Holmes in the first place, and there are reasons why he endures. The forces at work in the modern Holmes boom, which began with the Guy Ritchie films in 2009, the first major adaptation in more than a decade, culminate in two relatively different modernized television shows, Sherlock and Elementary. The consulting detective in the present day gets at a great deal of nuance, and Sherlock in particular in many ways is a study of adaptations as much as of the canon. (The term canon, by the way, traditionally referred to the Bible, but it was in fact first applied to literature with Sherlock Holmes fans and their fan works, in 1911.)

To get at the heart of the appeal, you have to go to the source. The Victorian period saw a dramatic rise in crime, particularly in the British capital, and the invention of the literary detective was a direct response to public fears. Scotland Yard was formed in 1842, and through the establishment of methodical police work, crime rates began to decline. But as the century waned, public anxieties about crime actually rose: the Empire began to spill back onto domestic shores, and xenophobia bred somewhat unfounded fears about the safety of the streets, particularly in the nicer areas of London, far from the concentrated poverty and desolation of the East End. At the same time, rapid leaps in science were busy explaining away the modern world — as Sherlock Holmes came to fruition, many of Conan Doyle’s contemporaries were at work engaging with the ethical complexities of scientific advancement in their fiction, reconciling the romantic with the rational while dealing with growing worries about progress. Holmes hit at an exact convergence of the British public’s anxieties and desires — and he hopped around town solving crime with wit and flair, too.

Sherlock Holmes is a magician who explains his tricks: the deductive leaps that are so easy to parody — “Ah! I can see from the smudge of dirt on your left trouser cuff that your wife is having an affair!” — lie at the heart of the appeal of these stories across all adaptations. We are Watson, or just a bit swifter — we know Holmes’s methods, and revel in watching how they are applied. Holmes is ultra-rational, but the crimes are fanciful. In “Sherlock Holmes, Crime, and the Anxieties of Globalization,” a comprehensive study that situates Holmes perfectly in the time in which he was conceived, Michael Allen Gillespie and John Samuel Harpham cast him as a perfect arbiter of “collective human power”: “Holmes is less an individual than a literary or even mythological representation of the capacities of modern science applied to the discovery of criminal behavior. We can believe in Holmes, in part, because we believe in modern science and its claim that there is an answer to every question and a solution to every problem.”

Holmes works outside the law but endeavors, above all else, for justice to be done, a late-Victorian Batman, maybe, though not as tediously tortured. He is at his heart a conservative figure, working above all to restore order. His methods may test the bounds of morality from time to time, but he is imbued with an unshakable code of fairness. But most importantly, the stories are fun. Sure, they can be sloppy from time to time — I’ve seen it joked that the “C” in Conan Doyle stands for “continuity” (fans have been forced to speculate that with Watson’s war wound in the shoulder in one story and the leg in another, he must have been some sort of contortionist to manage such an injury). But nearly every story is an elegant little construction, a baffling case with a satisfyingly straightforward, rational solution. It’s easy to see what’s to love.

coverAnd people have really, really loved them. Even while Conan Doyle was still alive and writing, the adaptations began. Conan Doyle sanctioned it, famously replying to a request to put Holmes onstage with the line, “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” The practice of writing pastiches, essentially Holmesian fanfiction (though unlike most modern fanfiction, many have been written for traditional publication, and stand-outs like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer, have enjoyed great commercial success), has drawn enthusiasts for more than a century, including writers far more famous for other things, like J. M. Barrie, Dorothy Sayers, and Michael Chabon. The first screen adaptation was in 1900: “Sherlock Holmes Baffled.” Obsessives gathered; societies were formed; “The Game” was played. Some of the enduring appeal of the traditional adaptations lies in nostalgia for the late-Victorian period — see Vincent Starrett’s poem “221B” for a pure, unadulterated expression of that nostalgia, with its final couplet, “Here, though the world explode, these two survive/ And it is always eighteen ninety-five.”

coverHolmes booms have come and gone over the decades — the last major influx of adaptations was in the seventies — and though most are set amongst the old ‘swirling-fog-and-hansom-cabs’, they manage to tap into the anxieties of the ages in which they were conceived. But then there are the direct modernizations, which began with the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce films in the forties: the filmmakers pulled Holmes and Watson into their own time, fifty years on from the source material. One might argue that the modernization in the new millennium began not with Sherlock but with House, a relatively loose adaptation but still Holmesian at its core. (One might also argue that Holmes has influenced huge swaths of twentieth-century storytelling and modern forensics-based deductive crime solving, on television and elsewhere, but there’s only so much a single essay can handle here.) Moffat and Gatiss cite the Rathbone iteration when they talk about their decision to set Sherlock in modern London. Elementary, set in current-day New York with a female Watson (not the first female Watson, by the way) partly owes a debt to House, a clever, Holmes-influenced procedural that remained, at its heart, a procedural.

But in the modernization, all three work to get at something essential that’s changed in the past century, and Ashley D. Polasek draws parallels with them and the Ritchie films in “Surveying the Post-Millenial Sherlock Holmes: A Case for the Great Detective as a Man of Our Times.” “This is not just Holmes for the twenty-first century, but Holmes of the twenty-first century,” she writes, describing the shift from hero to “a more complex post-modern antihero” as fundamental to the new adaptations. The writers of these versions play on Holmes’s flaws, seen as eccentricities in many of the traditional adaptations, and position him as a child in need of management, with an overactive mind that needs to be engaged lest it slide into self-destruction.

Despite these parallels, the three current franchises — soon to be joined by a fourth, Bill Condon’s film with Ian McKellen as an elderly consulting detective — are their own animals: it’s reductive to compare them when they are each working to do something relatively different. And all due respect to Elementary and the Ritchie films, but it is January 2014, and after an excruciating two years waiting for the cast and crews’ schedules to align, Sherlock is back on our screens. On New Year’s Day, nine million Britons tuned in to see how Sherlock survived a leap from the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital at the end of the last series. If that was the first question on the collective mind of the nation, the second must surely have been: was this worth the wait?

“It isn’t supposed to be like this,” Steven Moffat, the co-creator of Sherlock, said recently, referring to this series’ domestic ratings, which have been the highest yet this series. “This show, which we all thought would be our vanity project destined for three million in the ratings and possibly an award from an obscure European festival, has become a barnstorming international phenomenon.” The rapid rise in the popularity of Sherlock means that more and more people will have to suffer through the long wait, known only partly affectionately by fans as “hiatus,” a reference to the original not-so-great one. The unique format, three feature-length episodes per series, invariably changes the demands of the production schedule, but what feel like endless gaps — eighteen months between series one and two, and two full years between two and three — are mostly the result of the recent exponential rise of the careers of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the latter of whom has spent a good portion of the past few years halfway around the world, filming The Hobbit trilogy in New Zealand. But Moffat spins the delays as a positive thing: “This feels like a good form, and it works for us,” he said last month. “Gaps and starvation have become part of the ecology of this. It certainly maintains it as an event.”

Sherlock is set in and often engages with ultra-modern London — the present-day capital, at least my corner of it, is a city that feels on the brink of perpetual change, steel and glass pressed up against ancient buildings. Sherlock sometimes feels like a similar mash-up, a layering of nearly 130 years of Holmes references carefully built by two of the world’s biggest fanboys, Moffat and Gatiss (it should be noted, too, that the episodes are peppered with homages to the history of film as well, though I’m more likely to spot an obscure Conan Doyle reference than literally anything at all from classic cinema). The longer episode length and the tendency toward sheer irreverence give Moffat and Gatiss space to prod at their characters, or, more often, to drag them through the fire. They’ve said it before, though they’ve never had to repeat it as vehemently as they have the past few weeks, that Sherlock is not a detective show, but rather a show about a detective.

Like plenty of other shows with a big fan base, Sherlock devotees run the gamut from casual enthusiast to bona fide obsessive. In Great Britain, a country whose television watching habits feel a bit more old-fashioned than ours, a third of all televisions are tuned to the big shows any given week, from Sherlock and the Doctor Who specials to things like The X Factor and the hit of the recent holiday period, Mrs. Brown’s Boys, a lowest-common denominator comedy with a cross-dressing lead that feels like it travelled in a TARDIS straight from 1977. Like the most popular Holmesian iterations before it, Sherlock does not exist in a vacuum — the show and its charmingly obnoxious “high-functioning sociopath” lead detective are beloved by the British public. The solution to the final question posed by the series two finale — how did Sherlock survive a jump off the roof of a building? — occupied prime space in British newspapers in the weeks afterwards. Theories were spun, some wilder than others (some frankly insane), stuff involving masks and ropes and strange angles and sleeping draughts and body-switching and inflatable bouncy castles and, of course, a squash ball under the armpit, to stop the pulse.

And herein lie the concrete spoilers for “The Empty Hearse,” and really, if you plan to watch it and haven’t yet, please stop reading now. Gatiss was tasked writing the first episode, which brings Sherlock back from the dead, and he took the clever route out — it’s a route out, undeniably, a clear acknowledgement that the public would never be fully satisfied with any solution. At the premiere of the episode at the BFI in December, the press were given a list of embargoed topics that included both how Sherlock survived and when in the episode this information is revealed — the two fake-out explanations and the final, most plausible one at the end. (Being given this information prior to the screening with no specifics was, as you can imagine, pretty confusing!) We are left with a heavy seed of doubt, even when the explanation comes from Sherlock’s own mouth: if we are inclined to be Anderson-like, we will continue to poke holes in the theory, or we’ll sigh and say, “Well. That’s not how I would have done it.”

I found the concept very clever, and “The Empty Hearse,” a fan club that dons deerstalkers and meets to talk theory, tweeting out #sherlocklives when the detective returns from the dead, was a fascinating piece of meta-commentary, not least because, at the BBC’s prompting, that same hashtag had been tweeted at extraordinary rates for a publicity stunt, more than half a million times even before the final episode aired last week. But the British public was left divided. Because the episode, too, was leveled with (in my opinion, largely unfair) accusations of “fanservice” — in-jokes, nods to unlikely romantic pairings, and frequent references to the two prior series. Op-eds were penned, in The Guardian and elsewhere, suggesting there was no more room for a casual fan when a show’s writers were focused on the deeply devoted. And on a baser level, some were still left scratching their heads at the explanation of the fall. But, as to be expected, this is all far from new. In a recent hour-long conversation with Empire (a seriously interesting one for fans, by the way, but I can’t stress this enough: do not listen until you’ve seen all three episodes), Gatiss and Moffat chuckle at the parallels with Conan Doyle’s Holmes resurrection:

Gatiss: We discovered a lovely review of “The Empty House,” Doyle’s original story, in which of course Doyle says that he escaped due to his knowledge of an obscure form of misspelled Japanese wrestling. And the reviewer basically says, “Oh, come on, Dr. Doyle.” It’s rather thrilling, actually, that it’s the same sort of review now…

Moffat: Down to every detail we get the same reaction. It’s quite extraordinary. And in both cases, in both “The Empty Hearse” and “The Empty House,” you are dependent on Sherlock Holmes’s own account of how he survived. Now keep in mind that he’s been lying for two years. Who’s to say any version of Sherlock Holmes has told the truth about how he did it?

Asking a writer to work to satisfy to a specific audience — any audience, from the broadest of the general public to the most highly attuned fans — is absurd. But you don’t get the sense that Moffat and Gatiss are particularly bothered by all of this, though: it is at its heart their retelling, and they know perhaps better than any adapters who’ve come before them exactly how well-borrowed — and well-loved — these characters have always been. And if there’s any constant, it’s that the British public (who am I kidding, it’s the whole world these days) can’t stay silent when it comes to matters of Sherlock Holmes: they clamor for more and, like ageless critics from the Cornish boatman up to Anderson himself, mumble how they would have done things differently. Moffat and Gatiss actively encourage it: at the Q&A following the screening of the final episode, Moffat said, “What happens is — and I was part of this, I am part of this — is that you see something you love, you start doing your own version of it. Then you start disagreeing with the actual version and think ‘my version’s better,’ and then you discover you’ve made something entirely different and you go off and do your own thing.”

In “His Last Bow,” chronologically the last Sherlock Holmes story, the detective remarks to his companion, “Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.” People have spent more than a century flipping that remark on its head: Holmes feels like the fixed point — though who am I to separate the best pair of friends in the history of literature? They can be fixed points together. These stories, and Sherlock, and Rathbone and Jeremy Brett and Basil of Baker Street: we are not revisiting these characters and conceits because we are out of new ideas. A very old idea resonates; it comforts and entertains. In the case of Sherlock, even after all these retellings, it still manages to surprise. Conan Doyle, lamenting over the fact that Sherlock Holmes overshadowed all his other work, wrote in 1923, “It is not a matter which troubles me, however, for I have always felt that justice is done in the end, and that the real merit of any work is never permanently lost.” The merit lies in the enduring popularity of his creation, because every engagement with this universe — a reading, an adaptation, a challenge, a critique, or even just a casual night in front of the television — is surely a testament of love to Sherlock Holmes.

is a staff writer for The Millions and writes a regular column about fan culture for the New Statesman. She recently completed an MA in the digital humanities at University College London. She's gotten much better at Twitter in the past year, but she still spends most of her time (/life) on Tumblr. She lives in Brooklyn.