4 Reasons Sherlock Holmes is the GOAT Detective

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday being on May 22, I thought it fitting to include a few posts on his most popular creation of all time. Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century is ubiquitous. He’s had more movie, stage, and television adaptations that any other fictional character. 

Even more telling are the sheer number of spinoffs from Doyle’s original idea. If you look closely, Sherlock Holmes is the beginning not only of the Golden Age of Crime, of which Agatha Christie is the reigning queen, but arguably is also the start of the modern spy thriller. 

The likes of James Bond, Simon Temple, Jason Bourne, and Jack Reacher can all trace their heritage back to a single man, living at 221B Baker Street. 

So, why does Sherlock Holmes remain so popular? Well, here’s my take on it. 

Sherlock Holmes is of a very specific day and time. 

It’s not often in classical literature that you see specific days mentioned in the text. Most will talk about time in terms of seasons, vague months, and general time period. To an extent, the Sherlock Holmes stories follow the same pattern. We can all recognize Victorian England in the text of the stories. 

But, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle goes one step further. He mentions dates. 

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Nearly to go through course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.

A Study in Scarlet. 

That quote is the first line from the first Sherlock Holmes story ever published. It’s also the year the Second Anglo-Afghan War broke out, according to the text. Sir Arthur is placing his character in a very definite period of history. And a very interesting one too. This was the age of invention, of innovation, and of rapid expansion. 

It was also a time when tensions between the various European nations was starting to really heat up. We can read between the lines in several of the stories, such as in The Naval Treaty and A Scandal in Bohemia. 

The places also exist in reality too. 221B Baker Street is, famously, a real place in London. The mysterious Agra Fort mentioned in The Sign of Four is an actual place. As are the Andaman Islands where Jonathan Small’s companion, Tonga, is from. 

This sense of reality is part of the charm. You feel as if these are real places, real people, and real problems. It’s so real, in fact, that famously a survey was taken in 2008 and more people believed Sherlock Holmes was a real person than they believed Winston Churchill was England’s Prime Minister. 

Now, there are other books that follow this same pattern, but Sir Arthur does it in a way that is not only natural and believable, but it even plays with your sense of reality. This is crucial to understand as you make the leap from 19th-century literature to 20th century literature. The novels start to get a deeper and richer sense of reality to them. 

There is a wide variety of characters and people in the stories. 

This isn’t anything that new in literature. Part of what make a good book is the variety of characters and people in them. Otherwise, you get a very boring book. The early Gothic novels still had the juxtaposition of privileges and underprivileged people in the same society and, often, the same house. 

However, like most novels of “manners” most of the action lies with the upper crust of society. Not the lower dregs. That started to change with writers like Maria Edgeworth and Sir Walter Scott romanticizing the tenant farmer, and the crofter. Others, like Charlotte Bronte’s immortal Jane Eyre showed the true state of some of the forgotten elements of society. 

But Sherlock Holmes is singular in his stories because he actually considers the significance of people. When he disguises himself as a groom, a bigger, or a sailor, he is deliberately bringing our attention to them and drawing our focus into their significance, not only as tradesmen, but as people. 

They aren’t part of the scenery, or they’re for mere convenience. They re there because they play a part own the story–and a critical part at that. There is genuine value in the small doings of regular, working-class people and small-time businessmen. 

The little shopkeeper who comes to him in a flurry in The Red-Headed League plays an important role not because he is a shopkeeper, but because he is a man who had a very cruel trick played upon him so that a gang of criminals could rob a bank. It’s the ordinariness that’s important. And the extraordinary that’s in the ordinary. 

Another thing that strikes me as I re-read Sherlock Holmes is the sheer variety of nationalities. We have Tonga from the Andaman Islands, and the Indian house servants of the Sholtos in The Sign of Four. You have the Welsh maid in The Musgrave Ritual, the German royalty in A Scandal in Bohemia, and the Mormons (that resemble the FLDS) in A Study in Scarlet

It’s not just Englishmen and Englishwomen who play a part in these stories. There’s people all over the world. 

Sherlock Holmes is mostly in short stories. 

Short stories are the same medium Edgar Allan Poe used for C. Auguste Dupin, the first detective. Sir Arthur would end up writing novels too, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles, are all novel-length. But we see Holmes mostly in short stories, And that is part of why he’s endured. 

Sir Arthur uses dialogue. Lots of dialogue. In fact, we learn everything we do of Holmes’ methods because Holmes explains them to us himself. It’s like getting a peak behind the scenes, or a cheat sheet. Anyone can easily apply Holmes’ methods in their own lives because he tells us exactly how he does it. 

The short story form is also easier to understand and digest because it’s so much shorter than novel. You can easily read a single Sherlock Holmes story during a lunch break, or on a train ride. It’s a quick dopamine fix. You feel like you’ve accomplished something. Not only have you been party to solving a crime, you’ve finished reading an entire story. 

Today, with our attention spans getting shorter and shorter, this is no small feat either. 

There is more mystery than just what Sherlock Holmes solves. 

There’s the crime to be solved, of course, and the way at which Holmes arrives at his conclusions. If you were thinking that’s the only mystery in the Sherlock Holmes stories, however, then you’re sadly mistaken. Because Sherlock Holmes is the ULTIMATE mystery. 

Consider this for a moment: we don’t see all of Holmes’ adventures. In stories such as “The Final Problem,” we are treated to hints of other cases to which Dr. Watson isn’t a party. These are all through the stories we do have and they hint at how much more we could possibly know Holmes.

And yet, those stories are never told to us. There are a handful of cases, such as The Musgrave Ritual in which Sherlock is the primary narrator. But these are few. 

This leads to another mystery, and that is the fact that we mostly see Sherlock Holmes through the lens which Dr. John Watson sees fit to give us. And we already know that his own information is limited. In A Study in Scarlet, Watson tells us Holmes has no knowledge of literature, politics, astronomy, or philosophy. But this isn’t true. 

We find out just how much knowledge Holmes does have in the rest of the stories. He quotes Goethe, and refers to Watson as his “Boswell” in reference, of course, to the famous Scottish biographer, Jame Boswell. Holmes clearly does have literary knowledge. It’s just not the same knowledge Watson has. 

You can, of course, explain this away by laying blame on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but I think that’s a little too easy. It’s far more plausible that Watson’s observations are what’s lacking. After all, after The Sign of Four, he’s a married man and doesn’t even live at 221B Baker Street anymore. 

And there’s the patently obvious fact that Watson is with Holmes in every story and in every story, he doesn’t either make the same observations or see the significance behind what he sees. Is it any wonder his initial assessment of Holmes is just as lacking? 

Holmes lives “off camera” for most of his life. We don’t actually know anything about him except how he works a case and some of his more varied areas of knowledge. And his untidiness. But we don’t actually see him living a day-to-day existence, do we? 

That only exists when Watson is around. 

Now that, I think, is part of the mystery and fascination that continues to surround Sherlock Holmes and contributes to his ongoing popularity. 

What do you think? What are some of the things that make you read Sherlock Holmes repeatedly?

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3 thoughts on “4 Reasons Sherlock Holmes is the GOAT Detective

  1. Great points about Sherlock’s life itself being something of a mystery! I did think that what Watson said about what Holmes doesn’t know (or has purposely forgotten about, if I remember the attic theory correctly) was exaggerated or that the author didn’t follow through on it, but the idea that Watson himself thinks certain things are true but might be wrong is fascinating to consider! I can definitely see a case to be made that Holmes’ intelligence plays out in ways that he never explains to Watson and that therefore Watson never picks up on or understands. Makes me want to reread to look for instances like that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Shannon! Thank you so much for reading! Yes, I was reading through “A Study in Scarlet” and then “The Sign of Four.” The mention of Goethe in the latter really put this into perspective. Watson is still on about Carlyle (Thomas Carlyle)–who even we in the 21st century largely ignore and Holmes is quoting the man who wrote the most famous version of Faust. It makes you wonder if part of Doyle’s genius was to leave little clues as to his character’s true nature so that they’d take on a life of their own so he could eventually not have to write any more Holmes.

      Liked by 1 person

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