The Case of the Immortal Detective

The Case of the Immortal Detective

More than 130 years after making his debut, Sherlock Holmes continues his run as the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV, something that would have astounded – and dismayed – his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, but delights this alumna, who also happens to teach a course at the College on the inquisitive chap.

By Elizabeth “Betsy” Bramlett Baker ’81

When Sherlock Holmes made his 1887 debut in A Study in Scarlet, his creator never imagined the “consulting detective” would become what is arguably the most recognizable imaginary character of all time. While A Study in Scarlet and a follow-up novel, The Sign of Four (1890), attracted modest attention, it was with Holmes’ first appearance in The Strand magazine in 1891 that he caught on with the reading public.

This was certainly the outcome Conan Doyle had hoped for when he came up with a strategy to forego the long form in favor of placing Holmes in a series of separate stories. He foresaw how this approach, as opposed to the common serial format, could work well in one of the monthly magazines that were becoming increasingly popular. As he explained in his 1924 autobiography, “It had struck me that a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine.”

Thus began his association with The Strand, which, having debuted only six months earlier, became Sherlock’s “home” for the next 36 years (albeit with a memorable eight-year hiatus).

It proved to be a highly profitable relationship for both sides, enabling Conan Doyle to give up the practice of medicine and helping The Strand to establish its readership. But Conan Doyle had from the start seen Holmes primarily as a means to an end and never envisioned continuing the series indefinitely. A prolific writer in many genres, he counted the detective stories as among his least noteworthy, and feared, as he put it, “being entirely identified with a lower stratum of literary achievement.”

And so, in the December 1893 issue of The Strand, in a story aptly named “The Final Problem,” Conan Doyle killed off his character in dramatic fashion, sending him over the edge of Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls along with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. The reaction was swift, and equally dramatic. George Newnes, The Strand’s publisher, called it a “dreadful event,” perhaps no exaggeration given the cancelled subscriptions that ensued. Other periodicals weighed in, reflecting the public’s regret but also its hope that Sherlock might yet reappear. There were reports of fans wearing black as a sign of mourning.

Ultimately, Conan Doyle (persuaded no doubt as much by economic realities as public pleading) brought Sherlock back in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901). But as this novel was set before the events at Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock’s true resurrection occurred with his October 1903 return to The Strand in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” This proved less problematic than one might imagine; conveniently, no body had surfaced from the turbulent waters of the falls. In Doyle’s words, “no coroner had pronounced upon the remains, and so, after a long interval, it was not difficult for me to … explain my rash act away.”

To the astonished and overjoyed Watson, Sherlock reveals (spoiler alert) that his knowledge of Japanese wrestling allowed him to escape Moriarty’s grasp and stumble back from the edge of the falls, even as his foe lost his balance and did, in fact, plunge to his death. The detective further explains how he spent the intervening three years (what has come to be known in Sherlockian circles as The Great Hiatus) traveling the world incognito, successfully eluding the Moriarty associate who had witnessed Sherlock’s escape. Having thus reintroduced his character, Conan Doyle continued to produce Sherlock stories for The Strand until 1927.

Ninety-one years later, Sherlock is with us more than ever, a fact that would astound (and dismay) his creator. What explains this enduring and seemingly universal appeal? With a few notable exceptions, plot doesn’t seem to be a primary factor; the ingenious puzzles of writers like Agatha Christie aren’t to be found in the Sherlock canon. In fact, in a number of stories, there is no crime committed at all. It’s Sherlock himself, of course, who attracts us, the combination of traits with which he has come to be so readily identified. The acute powers of observation, the logical cast of mind, the knowledge of arcane subjects, the varied skills, the eccentricities. From models both fictional (particularly Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin) and real (mentor Dr. Joseph Bell), Conan Doyle shaped a character that continues to capture the imagination of fans everywhere. Also borrowed from Poe is the less intelligent sidekick who serves as narrator, but fleshed out to become essential to the whole enterprise. There is no Holmes without Watson and vice versa.

Sherlock survives due to the unique alchemy of story and character that has made him endlessly open to adaptation.

But beyond these rather obvious elements, Sherlock survives due to the unique alchemy of story and character that has made him endlessly open to adaptation. From the start, he proved ripe for pastiche and parody (one of the earliest, “My Evening with Sherlock Holmes,” was written in 1891 by Peter Pan creator and Conan Doyle friend J.M. Barrie). The sheer number of stories and novels is remarkable, as is the variety they display. Even some whose primary talents lay elsewhere number among those who have penned Sherlock-inspired tales (think John Lennon and former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

It’s not only on the page, of course, that Sherlock has been reimagined again and again. From stage to radio to film, and in every other conceivable medium, he has found a place. It is the screen, however, that has unquestionably offered the most significant complement to the written work. Beginning with a 1900 silent film (run time: 52 seconds), Sherlock has been a consistent onscreen presence the world over. Ranging from the silly to the sublime, film and TV versions of every stripe have emerged (even, for those whose tastes run in that direction, some of the X-rated variety).

Along the way, iconic depictions of the character have helped Sherlock retain his popularity. Legends Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett have more recently been joined by the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, all of whom have been instrumental in creating a new generation of fans. In 2012, Sherlock garnered a Guinness record as “the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV.” According to Guinness, Sherlock had at that time appeared on screen 254 times, having been played by more than 75 different actors. And there’s no end in sight, as movie and TV portrayals continue to proliferate. The offerings for 2018 alone include Johnny Depp in the animated Sherlock Gnomes, TV shows set in Finland and Japan (notable for its female versions of both Holmes and Watson), a French movie pitting Sherlock against Frankenstein, and a comedy with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly taking on the roles of Holmes and Watson.

Literary and screen adaptations aside, Sherlock’s appeal is reflected in all sorts of ways. Sherlock Holmes societies and organizations dot the globe; scholarship abounds; board and video games feature him; countless websites, podcasts and blogs are devoted to him. Master of the hard-boiled genre Raymond Chandler famously described Sherlock as “mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” Considering the character’s ubiquity, Chandler may have understated it. Though Arthur Conan Doyle saw him as severely limited, Sherlock has proven a rich source of creativity since his inception. He moves seamlessly from age to age, ever evolving, ever the same. His fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

– Elizabeth “Betsy” Bramlett Baker ’81 is a senior instructor in the English department who teaches a special topics course on Sherlock Holmes, along with first-year writing and a survey on detective fiction.


Illustration by Jenny Kroik