Of all the heroes in twentieth-century British fiction, Sherlock Holmes has left the most mysterious legacy. While actors queue in single file to play James Bond one-by-one (Chiwetel Ejiofor or Tom Hardy next, please!), the detective comes in many guises at the same time, a cubist splay of different angles. The last five years alone have given us impatient savant (Benedict Cumberbatch), knockabout dandy (Robert Downey Jr), earnest camp (Jonny Lee Miller) and elegiac grandfather (Sir Ian McKellen), with Will Ferrell to come. Why, apart from the expired copyright, is the character more popular than ever?
As an English twist on the superhero, it’s apt that only Bond comes close. Both are figures of wish-fulfilment, unsentimental, anti-establishment and selfishly effective. In his excellent book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker suggests that, just as James Bond’s indulgence in sex and violence is sanctioned by the fact that he is defending ‘our side’ against some wicked super-villain, so Holmes’s outrageous assumption of intellectual superiority appears entirely acceptable because he uses it to expose evil in the name of law, order and truth. But on a social and sexual level, they differ wildly. If the gregarious 007 uses his charm like a weapon, Holmes is awkward, stubborn and reclusive. Expelled from Eton, Fleming’s Bond is an old-money rebel with unsavoury views on women and homosexuality, a non-cerebral product of his time. Holmes has aged better: classless, self-made, open-minded and a kindred spirit to those on society’s fringes like the Baker Street Irregulars, his network of urchin-agents.
He lives, of course, at 221B Baker Street, a flat he shares with Dr. John Watson, a retired military doctor and the Boswellian chronicler of the cases he solves. Arthur Conan Doyle, a Scottish physician intrigued by spiritualism, wrote and set his stories between the 1880s and the 1910s, a similar post-Dickensian London to Conrad’s The Secret Agent, a cityscape foggy with Freud, secret societies and Edwardian-Gothic (Dracula, for instance, came out in 1897).
As detailed in Michael Sims’ Arthur and Sherlock, released in paperback this week, Conan Doyle based Holmes’ deductive genius on his Edinburgh tutor Dr Joseph Bell, who was such an instinctive symptomologist he could diagnose diphtheria or pneumonia at a physical distance (Hugh Laurie’s Holmesian TV series House would return the character to its medical roots). Holmes wears a deerstalker, smokes a pipe, plays a Stradivarius violin and injects cocaine. At one point, Watson makes a list of his areas of expertise (chemistry, sensational literature, Japanese martial arts) and intellectual blind spots (philosophy, politics). In the books, Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty only ever appears to Sherlock, proof for some that Moriarty is a drug hallucination.