Recently I completed what had turned into an 11-month journey through the complete series of Sherlock Holmes books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are four novels and five books of short stories comprising 56 stories.
I had read only a little bit of Sherlock Holmes, in my younger days. Even those few stories were edited, I found out recently. Of course I had seen a large handful of movies featuring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. Probably I had read The Hound of the Baskervilles, although I would hate to swear to it in court. Anyway, sometime about a year ago I began reading the Holmes books, starting with the first one, and reading them in the order published. Once I got started, it was pleasant and natural to continue through all nine. I am glad I did it.
Doyle had a fund of ingenuity, to come up with the various plots. Doyle had mixed feelings about Sherlock Holmes. He came to think that Holmes was taking too much attention from his other books, and he tried to kill him off with a story in which Holmes supposedly plunged to his death. The public was appalled, and Doyle brought Holmes back. To try to discourage editors, Doyle began naming outrageous sums for the stories. This failed miserably (wonderfully?), as the editors were willing to pay what he asked. The increased income must have been a pleasant consolation to him!
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was born in Scotland. He was a doctor, and then he was a writer. He had the usual slow start as a writer, but once he got established, he was prolific and successful. His first Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson book, a novel entitled A Study in Scarlet, appeared in 1887. He wrote in many genres, and some people think his historical fiction was his best work. Some will remember his creation Dr. Challenger, a scientist. I haven’t read about Dr. Challenger yet, but hope to try the first book in the series soon.
Sherlock Holmes is, for the moment at least, the character for which Doyle is best known. Sherlock Holmes, as everyone knows, is a brilliant detective. He makes insightful deductions from minuscule evidence–to the astonishment of all of us. Including to the astonishment of his friend and biographer Dr. John Watson.
If your only knowledge of Dr. Watson is through the Rathbone/Bruce movies, reading the books will be a surprise. He is no bumbling cipher. He is a brave and loyal companion to Sherlock Holmes. He never pretends to have the genius of his friend, but he is a sound British gentleman of admirable parts. Holmes depends on him, and sometimes reminds him, when dangerous situations loom, not to forget his revolver. Dr. Watson is always there for him.
To a certain extent, Sherlock Holmes reminds me of William Shakespeare. It seems that every succeeding generation comes to Shakespeare and makes something slightly different–or largely different–of him. The new interpretations may be thoughtful, or daft, but they keep on coming. In a more humble line of literature, the same might be said of Holmes. He has inspired countless written pastiches, from writers wanting to put their own spin on his character. He has also inspired a great deal of film–again with dramatists starting from Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson and moving forward with their own vision of what the characters might look like in modern situations.
One recent example is “Sherlock,” a British series of twelve one hour and a half TV movies, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, and Martin Freeman as Watson. Both actors are brilliant. The setting is modern day London. The writing is clever, filled with humor, and the production values are superb. “Sherlock’s Theme Melody,” by David Arnold and Michael Price, is rollicking and certain to keep on being played long after we are all moldering in the grave. Be warned: the producers are plugged into some of the silly conceits of modern cliches about how life is put together. Maybe you can scrape it off. The episodes vary in quality, of course. One or two are ridiculous. On the bright side, Holmes and Watson are still trying to defeat evil.
The two main characters are joined by Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes. He has a very tiny part in the books, but a major part in “Sherlock,” and he is very well played by Mark Gatiss, a co-creator of the series with Steven Moffat. Molly Hooper (in real life Louise Brealey), non-existent in the books, is touching as a gentle, shy, attractive young lady in love with Sherlock. How she and Sherlock interact is one of the most fascinating features of the series. Moriarity, the arch-enemy-to-Holmes criminal of the books, is indeed evil here too. There are other recurring characters, some from the books, some not. Dr. Watson’s wife, with a small part in the books, is here turned into a major character. Along with the series of twelve parts, there is a thirteenth film which returns Holmes/Watson to the late Victorian period. I have not seen that yet. (There is some hope that the series may be revived in the future, but no guarantee.)
The Sherlock Holmes of “Sherlock” is brilliant, often arrogant, and like the SH of the books, sometimes operates outside the strict legal rules. He is, as he tells Moriarity once with great insight, on the side of the angels–but not an angel himself. He is right on both counts.
There is also an even newer take on Holmes/Watson. That is the American TV series, “Elementary,” each episode an hour. It takes place in modern New York, with the still English Sherlock, a recovering drug addict, assisted by Dr. Joan Watson. I have seen only two of the 120 episodes (with possibly more to come), but if the next 118 are as good as the first two, this will be a lot of fun as well. The same warnings about “modern cliches about how life is put together” of course apply with this series as well.
Will Sherlock Holmes endure? It has only been 130 years since the publication of the first Holmes book. So it is early innings. My guess is that he will endure, just like Shakespeare has endured (and will endure). Sherlock Holmes is a wonderful character, and Dr. Watson is a worthy friend to him. The friendship of Holmes and Watson is part of the reason we will keep reading and watching. Loyal affection between two flawed but good men, is always going to move us. Doyle was not a Christian–he got deeply involved in spiritualism for much of his life–but he wrote in a time in which the culture was still largely Christian. His characters lived and acted in that twilight time leading up to World War I in which Christian values were still bred in the bone even of non-Christian people. The Christian values may have been dying out, but it was only gradually. Such values may reappear in even greater strength someday, but even if they don’t, Holmes and Watson are still on the side of the angels. And all of us, even those of us who think we hate the side of the angels, or don’t believe there are angels having a side, instinctively know that there really is good, and really is evil.