Famous fictional detectives have long been a staple of detective stories, mysteries and crime fiction. They are both professionals and amateurs who have quirky, prickly and sometimes even “defective” personality traits which set them apart from their peers and make them such unique and entertaining characters, masterfully drawing their readers into their complex fictional world in their quest to solve the elusive “whodunit”.
Arguably, one of the most famous fictional detectives was Sherlock Holmes, created by Scottish author and physician, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes was a London-based “consulting detective” whose abilities bordered on the “incredible” or “incredulous”, depending on whose opinion you happened to be partial to. He was famous for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to adopt almost any disguise and his use of forensic science to solve the most difficult of cases. The character first appeared in publication in 1887 and was featured in four novels and 56 short stories. The character of Sherlock Holmes took a huge leap in popularity with the first series of short stories appearing in The Strand Magazine, beginning with “A Scandal in Bohemia” in 1891. All but four stories were narrated by Holmes’ friend and biographer, Dr. John H. Watson.
It’s been said that a good fictional character is only as good as the character he or she plays off of. This is certainly true for the fictional duo of Holmes and Watson. In Doyle’s works, Holmes shared the majority of his professional years with his close friend and chronicler, Dr. Watson, who lived with Holmes for some time before his marriage in 1887 and then again after his wife’s death. Watson had two roles in Holmes’ life; the first being to give practical help to Holmes in the investigation of his cases, alternating between a look-out, decoy, accomplice and a messenger. His second role was being Holmes’ chronicler. It’s been said that Holmes was a loner and his friendship with Watson was his most significant relationship and it’s doubtful that even his most die-hard fans would dispute this.
The character of Sherlock Holmes has been the subject of countless film adaptations and television shows throughout the years, the most recent being the television series, Elementary, set in modern-day New York City and starring Johnny Lee Miller as recovering British drug addict Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Miller flawlessly plays the Holmes character as both brilliantly eccentric and at times, vulnerable. Prior to this most recent adaptation it’s been said that one of the “quirkiest twenty-first century homages” to Holmes belonged to Dr. Gregory House in the television series, House, which first aired in 2004 and starred the British actor, Hugh Laurie. Dr. Gregory House has been described as a “medical Sherlock Holmes” with the show drawing heavily on Holmes archetypes such as House’s reliance on psychology to solve a case, his reluctance to accept cases he did not find interesting, his drug addiction to Vicodin (rather than cocaine) and his complete disregard for social mores. And like Holmes, House had the innate ability to judge a situation correctly with almost no effort whatsoever and sometimes relied on his friend and oftentimes reluctant confidant, Dr. James Wilson, to be his moral compass – but only when it suited him.
Over the years, there have been discussions and essays written on the subject of Holmes’ personality and what actually made him “tick”. Watson himself described his friend as “bohemian” in habits and lifestyle as well as an eccentric, with erratic eating habits and “no regard for contemporary standards of tidiness or good order”. However, what appeared to others as chaos was to Holmes a logical extension of the way his mind functioned. Sherlock Holmes was also known to have used addictive drugs, especially when there were no stimulating cases to solve. He was of the mind set that cocaine stimulated the brain, of which he was a habitual user, as well as an occasional user of morphine. He did, however, draw the line at visiting an opium den. While the use of these drugs in today’s society may be indicative of someone with a drug addiction, it’s important to keep in mind that these drugs were legal in late 19th century England.
Today, the Internet is rife with websites devoted to Sherlock Holmes, puzzles and mysteries that require “the Holmes intellect” to solve them as well as associated merchandising for those willing to part with their hard-earned cash. If there’s one thing most surprising of all about the mystique that is Sherlock Holmes, it’s the fact that the catchphrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson” was never actually said by the character in any of the stories written by Conan Doyle. In the stories, Holmes often remarked that his logical conclusions were “elementary” in that he considered them to be “simple” and “obvious” and also occasionally, he would refer to his friend as “my dear Watson”. However, the two phrases were never joined. It’s ironic that one of the most famous catchphrases that have become synonymous with one of the world’s most famous fictional detectives was never actually uttered by Sherlock Holmes. One has to wonder what old Sherlock would make of that…
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