British author, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has been the most beloved detective in English literature since 1886 when the first Holmes story — “A Study in Scarlet” — was first published. It’s based on a real forensic scientist at Edinburgh University, Dr. Joseph Bell, under whom Conan-Doyle studied and worked at University. Bell was noted for drawing large conclusions from the smallest observations — a now famous and often resurgent style that was translated by Conan-Doyle into the Holmes character.
Conan-Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories that feature Holmes. The stories cover a period from about 1878 up to 1907, with a final case in 1914. Holmes’s sidekick, friend and biographer, Dr. John H. Watson, narrates all but four stories. However, Holmes himself narrates two, and two others are written in the third person.
After the tremendous success of the Conan-Doyle Sherlock Holmes books and short stories, radio programs, theater, movies and television were quick to follow the popular appeal of the Sherlock Holmes character. Over 107 actors have played Holmes in entertainment media — some of the finest and most memorable actors of the 20th and 21st centuries. In fact, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed literary character in film and television history, having appeared on screen 254 times as of 2012 — and that’s not even counting the last 5 years!
But what makes the character of Sherlock Holmes so popular? The books have been translated into over 80 languages and there are still very large fan bases all over the world. Holmes scholar and California attorney Leslie Klinger has explained several reasons for the Holmes appeal in his two-volume edition of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes” containing all 56 stories along with extensive historical and literary commentary. Klinger believes the personality of Sherlock Holmes is the basis for his lasting appeal:
“We have this fascinating man who knows everything, is always in command, and never seems to have a doubt about what’s the right thing to do, even though it may be contrary to law or culture,” says Mr. Klinger. “We have Dr. Watson, an intelligent, loyal, dependable friend, and then there’s the fascination with the Victorian age.”
Up until Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the world did not know or have “Detective Stories.” Conon-Doyle invented an entire literary category that did not exist until the emergence of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
In his book, Klinger singles out some plot devices that, by modern standards, might seem clichéd. “‘The butler did it,’ in one of the stories, for example,” he says. “In another, a man has his head nearly blown off by a shotgun. Surprise, surprise, it turns out the person who has been killed is not the person we think it is. But Doyle was inventing these ideas.”
But Klinger also says Conan Doyle’s creation has kept up with the times. He believes Sherlock Holmes would fit in well with the forensic scientists now seen on popular drama programs on American television like the three CSI series set in Miami, New York and Las Vegas.
“I think Holmes would quickly become CSI Baker Street, that he would adapt to a lot of new research tools,” says Mr. Klinger, who also sees some differences. “Clearly there is violence in the stories, horrible murders, mutilations, all kinds of ghastly things that happen,” he says. “They are not described in the detail we’re now used to. I think people enjoy the stories in part because of that, because it is refreshing to go back to a somewhat simpler era.”
And while Sherlock Holmes has been attacked in recent years for voicing what seem like prejudiced ideas about women and minorities, Daniel Stashower, author of “Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle,” points out that the stories were also ahead of their time. “The example that always springs to mind,” says the Holmes biographer, “is that, in ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ the first Sherlock Holmes story, Holmes is out-reasoned … defeated … by a woman.” Daniel Stashower says that was a remarkable plot twist for the era, and another example of why Sherlock Holmes remains timely a century and a half after his birth.
All books are available at amazon.com. Click on titles for more information.
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle and Leslie S. Klinger
The Sherlock Holmes Companion
by Daniel Smith
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