Welcome to Part 1 of April Classic Crime Read-Along, where we introduce this month’s selection. Today we’ll look at the phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes. Please feel very invited to join in the conversation at any point along the way! You can check out the calendar for the full read-along schedule.
Doyle was only 28 when he published the novel, the first Sherlock Holmes story, in 1887. For the next 43 years, he would live in his character’s shadow.
And—here’s the thing about Holmes—so does every fictional detective to have been written since.
But it is safe to say that every piece of detective fiction written since has been written in the wake of his books and stories.
Even those of us who haven’t read any Arthur Conan Doyle can answer the question “What does Sherlock Holmes mean to me?” The fellow is so pervasive in pop culture—and has been now for 130 years—that he is basically unavoidable.
Some random associations of my own:
You’ve probably encountered Sherlock and poor old Watson on the silver screen (as played by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, respectively, perhaps?) or on the slightly smaller screen (the BBC’s new series, Sherlock, oft-scripted by Steven Moffat and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, is, in my humble opinion, AWESOME). And those are just the most recent adaptations.
Sherlock has been multi-media for a long time. Back in 1899, the actor William Gillette played Sherlock Holmes for the first time. The role would define his career (and make him very, very rich). So famous, in fact, that he achieved meta-fame: a play, Postmortem, would be written about William Gillette solving a murder mystery among party guests in his eponymous castle.
As a child, my first-ever audiobook was a cassette of The Great Mouse Detective (made out of a book based on the animated movie, that’s three different kinds of media in there!). In case you were not also obsessed with Basil of Bakerstreet as a child, it’s a Disney cartoon story about an, ahem, really great mouse detective who saves a nice kidnapped mouse toymaker from the evil Professor Ratigan (Oh Ratigan! Oh Ratigan! He’s one of a kiiind… The world’s famous criminal miiiind! etc.). Talk about Sherlock Holmes indoctrination! I can still sing most of the riffs 25 years later. (In this article, USA Today argues that it was this movie, not The Little Mermaid, that saved Disney animation.)
There are whole real-life societies devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes history, lore, canon, and theory. The Baker Street Irregulars and the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes are only two such societies. Check out Graham Moore’s delightful debut novel, The Sherlockian, for a fictional depiction of what goes on in these secretive fan societies.
As for what Sherlock Holmes meant for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, well, that’s a whole story in itself. Sherlock Holmes made him rich, famous, and—it would turn out—immortal. But Doyle grew tired of the character and wanted to devote his time to what he considered his more serious work. You might know that he attempted to kill of Holmes in one of his stories—but then the fan backlash was so vituperative that he had to bring the detective back to life. I won’t give you any other details, but it turned out it was too late for Sir AC. His creation had become a monster—unkillable, completely out of his control. He just did what more than a century’s worth of detective fiction writers have done since: bow to Holmes’s archetypiality and try to keep writing despite.
(I have invented the word “archetypiality” just there. But I couldn’t think of another one that was appropriate. Apologies.)
I chose A Study in Scarlet out of all of the Sherlock Holmes fictions (4 full-length novels, 56 short stories) because it was the first Sherlock Holmes story written. And it’s turned out to be a satisfying choice, in my humble opinion—I’ve really enjoyed reading the scene in which Watson and Holmes are first thrust into each other’s company. I’ve been delighted to see how clever the detection elements of this first novel are—Sir Doyle didn’t really need to cut his teeth, it seems. And there’s enough about the plot that’s controversial to make me really excited for our discussion here next Tuesday.
So tell me—what does Sherlock Holmes mean to you?