“The air of London is sweeter for my presence.” ~Holmes, The Final Problem
Back in May, I found myself glued to my TV for the season finale of BBC’s magnificent modernization of Sherlock Holmes. My fellow Vicky A and I texted frantically back and forth during “The Reichenbach Fall”, the ‘buzz-uzz’ of which occasionally sent me flying off the couch in surprise as it interrupted my enrapt attention to the drama proceeding across my screen. We bounced from scene to scene, notes flying about regarding this bit of minutiae or that bit of genius plot. I remember sitting on the couch towards the very end of the episode, blubbering to my husband that “OMG he HAS to be watching from afar, he HAS to be watching from afar BAWWWWWWWWWW THERE HE IS” and then shamelessly dissolving into ugly sobs. I know I wasn’t the only one: previews of this finale described it as “utterly heartbreaking”. Why does Holmes still affect us so deeply to this day? Why does Holmes matter?
It is difficult to approach this question scientifically as he would want us to do. How do you quantify or measure the popularity of a thing such as this or translate mere popularity into legend? We can measure Conan Doyle’s success thusly: the Holmes stories have been translated into more than 60 languages and Holmes himself is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most portrayed character on the large or small screen (254 times by 75 different actors, beginning in 1900 with a 30-second silent film called Sherlock Holmes, Baffled). Holmes is also one of the top downloaded books in Project Gutenberg. This phenomenon has given rise to hundreds of Sherlockian societies worldwide and countless continuing scholarship. It has also been turned into a tool (HOLMES 2 (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System) ) used by the UK Police force to track major case incidents and to provide inter-unit compatibility across the police forces of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as the Royal Military Police.
Not every great work of literature becomes legend. Holmes and his beloved Watson are regarded as real life figures to be studied, revered, and emulated. We can visit their home at 221b Baker Street in London today and wonder where they got off to in such a hurry without even putting away their toast trays. People sent death threats to Conan Doyle unless he brought Holmes back from beyond the grave and thankfully, he obliged; for 125 years and counting (another TV series, Elementary, featuring a female version of Watson, debuted on ABC this fall), his legacy has endured.
One can’t call the recent success of BBC’s Sherlock or the Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law movie blockbusters a revival because Holmes never faded away. Again, we have to ask and wonder why. What has made him such an integral part of the English literary landscape and its national heritage? Is it his industrious spirit? His utterly modern sensibilities? His technological savoir-faire?
Perhaps it is his thoroughly modern genius that elevates him to superhero status in our eyes: his cold dedication to his art, usually in remittance of his fees, is the embodiment of the concept “art for art’s sake” made popular by Théophile Gautier. For all his quirks, he is a representative of the English enterprising spirit. With his loyal friend Dr. Watson by his side, the shining emblem of the kind doctor, the valorous soldier, the chivalrous knight with his trusty gun ready to defend honor, Queen, and country, they run off to defend humanity from the worst kind of villain. Between the two of them are England’s past, present, and future: Watson embodying the stalwart, traditional morals of England’s heroic and mythical past, to its modern, empowered future in the brilliant mind of Holmes.
First and foremost, the Holmes stories show us that vast, and occasionally highly specialized, knowledge is power. Self defense, chemistry, soil composition, and topography all matter as does an intimate knowledge of the city and its surroundings. We see that, 99% of the time, problems can, and should, be solved through hard mental work and by only working with facts, not suppositions, assumptions, or prejudices. Like the Dark Knight Detective Bruce Wayne, Holmes uses his intellect (and some good-old fashioned boxing) over supernatural means, making him a hero we can identify with. He set the standard for cleverness, and reinforces the knowledge that in fact, smart is the new sexy.
His mind (and Watson) are all he needs to solve the world’s problems. The problem itself – and the mental act of solving it – is his true reward, not money or even fame. More often than not, he allows the local police force to take the credit for his brilliance, revealing a sense of kindness and a willingness to preserve the reputation of the local constabulary. That money does not matter to him is another point of admiration; wealth cannot and does not influence him. He therefore cannot be bought and will spend his attention on someone poor as long as their case appeals to him, while a priceless blue carbuncle is casually chucked in the back of his desk drawer, likely never to be seen or cared about again.
His methods are also of a social importance. We appreciate the thought of a non-government agent working on our behalf – an Everyman there to turn to when the police fail or refuse to provide aid. His use of the poor as a network – his Baker Street Irregulars – in return for various forms of compensation or employment, works as a kind of enfranchisement for a faceless society. Throughout the stories, Holmes stands out as one of the few individuals who acknowledged and valued the existence of the London poor.
What we are left with is a super-heroic, Victorian Renaissance man with great power, intellect, and skill but still full of honor and integrity. Holmes remains relevant because the importance of intellect, of knowledge, of the bonds of friendship, and the thrill of adventure will never die. Holmes and Watson are Knights of the Victorian era, romanticized and immortalized as legend but also serving as real figures of historical interest wholly representative of the ideals and values of that time. Few will argue that, in our adoration and reverence, much like the Velveteen Rabbit, they too have become real and have found everlasting life.
Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game’s afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears–
Only those things the heart believes are true.
A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.
– Vincent Starrett