It was an inspired but utterly accidental moment when Arthur Conan Doyle, a Scottish doctor struggling to establish himself both as a physician and as a writer in late Victorian London, drew upon the habits of an irascible medical school mentor to concoct a character that he pegged as a “consulting detective,” an utterly newfangled job description.
Doyle blended those habits with the conventions of a genre then only a few decades old—and pioneered by the then nearly forgotten American writer Edgar Allan Poe—to produce the figure he called Sherlock Holmes, rangy, distracted, drug-addicted, much more at home in his mind than in his body.
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Doyle introduced Holmes 125 years ago in a longish short story published in a Christmas annual, later reshaped into a shortish novel called A Study in Scarlet—one of the first books outside sectarian literature, incidentally, in which Mormons appear. He set to work on a second novel, published three years later as The Sign of the Four, and then, encouraged by an editor at the popular magazine The Strand, began writing a series of short stories in which Holmes, along with his sidekick (and Doyle alter ego) John Watson, solves every manner of weird and outré crimes of a sort that could be cooked up only in a world capital full of rootless people.
The creation proved massively successful, and readers of The Strand clamored for more, so much so that Doyle was able to leave medicine to devote himself to writing—but, to his dismay, only to writing about Holmes instead of the supernatural subjects that he was really interested in. Indeed, when he died in July 1930, he promised his family that he would soon communicate with them from beyond the grave. But a couple of months before that, on his 71st birthday, he grumbled that he was sick and tired of his most famous creation. He had, after all, written 60 books, and more of them were about spiritualism than about the detective. “Holmes is dead,” he said. “I have done with him.”
Indeed, four decades earlier, after he had amassed a fortune sufficient to last him the rest of his life, Doyle tried to kill Holmes off and move on to other subjects. The ploy didn’t work. Instead, the public demanded more, and so a soggy Holmes dragged himself from the mists of Reichenbach Falls, where he had supposedly fallen in mortal combat with his archenemy Moriarty, to battle crime for another couple of dozen stories.
Holmes lives on, of course, long after Doyle’s death. He was first immortalized outside books in Basil Rathbone’s film portrayals, which, as the 1930s gave way to the ’40s, often substituted Axis agents for the baddies of yore. It was Rathbone who gave us Holmes’s best-known catchphrase: Ask someone to produce a line from memory of a Sherlock Holmes story, and the chances are very good that the result will be “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Doyle never used the phrase, though in three stories the phrase “Exactly, my dear Watson” occurs—but with “elementary” instead of “exactly,” the phrase appears in several of the popular Rathbone/Holmes films.
Rathbone’s day is a thing of yore, too; just as Alan Rickman gave us a more memorable Sheriff of Nottingham, several contenders have come since to give us the definitive Holmes. In the 1970s, Nicol Williamson perfected the nervously cocaine-sharpened Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Nicholas Meyers’s adaptation of his own very brainy novel, only to be supplanted almost instantly by Christopher Plummer in the very grisly (for the time) 1979 film Murder by Decree.
Lately, we have had not one but three contenders to choose from for our favorite Holmes. Under Guy Ritchie’s direction, Robert Downey Jr. has picked up on the hitherto little emphasized fact that Holmes was something of a ninja as well as a brainiac. (Watson, too.) Over at the BBC, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have sculpted thoroughly remarkable, updated reimaginings of Holmes and Watson, the latter, by unfortunate coincidence, also a military doctor newly returned from Afghanistan. And with the new CBS series Elementary, Jonny Lee Miller has picked up the gauntlet, nicely capturing Holmes’s junkie-terrier side. It’s a good effort, and it doesn’t hurt that Lucy Liu has now become Watson, though she sometimes looks as if she’d rather be elsewhere. Still, Elementary seems to be having trouble distinguishing itself in a network TV detective field already overcrowded with quirky detectives who are intellectually peerless but can’t figure out how to make a sandwich.Holmes has had quite a life, far beyond his creator’s expectations—and, to all evidence, wishes. By all signs, he’s got another 125 years in him at least. We’ll look forward to seeing what guise he takes next.