Die-hard Sherlockians may carp about certain actors' performances as not being quite what Doyle intended--sometimes they flesh out the character too much, as in the recent case of the portly Edward Woodward in Hands of a Murderer--but the fact remains that because there's so little real detail in the original stories, the Holmes of stage and screen is often an improvement. And this is so because of one difference: humour. Despite Christopher Isherwood's claims to the contrary, Holmes in print is a very flat, somewhat deadpan character, a sometime "blood brother to the Sphinx," as eminent Sherlockian Vincent Starrett calls him. True, he has the odd moment of eccentricity, but such occasions (as his dancing and singing for joy when finding Selden's body rather than Sir Henry's in Hound, or his waxing philosophic over a rose in "The Naval Treaty") have a patently false ring to them. Doyle himself admitted that Holmes's character "admits no light or shade. He is a calculating machine" But what could Doyle expect from a fellow whose first spoken line ever is: "I have found a re-agent which is precipitate
When comparing with today there are few parallels. There is, however, one noteworthy difference. A hundred years ago, successful novelists like Kipling and Conan Doyle were colossal celebrities with huge popular followings. True to the traditions of their immediate Victorian predecessors, they saw it as part of their responsibility to participate in the political and social debates of the day. In short, to be public figures expressing their views on contemporary issues.
Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were huge popular successes. It has become de rigeur for histories of mystery fiction to attempt to explain why. But, after reading a dozen or so such purported explanations, I remain sceptical that critics actually know why. Shouldn't any genuine explanation involve interviewing the public, asking them questions about why they like the stories, and analysing their responses, perhaps using statistics A critic can explain why he or she likes the stories; but just by analysing the story itself, cannot really determine what the public thinks about it. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there were no pollsters around in the 1890's measuring public attitudes.
1. The man has a large head, therefore a large brain, and so must be intellectual.
The appeal of Sherlock Holmes is more complex. He is, on the face of it, a cold fish. 'Detection', he says in The Sign of Four, 'is an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner.' Part of his charm resides in the amiable, doltish character of Dr Watson. A lot of his fascination rests with the devilish cunning of Conan Doyle's stories. His popularity is a tribute to the insatiable public appetite for the well-told tale.
Conan Doyle's mysteries had remarkably different events, but most of them had consistent storylines. In general, Holmes and Watson were lounging around at 221 Baker Street, when a desperate character came calling. Holmes uses his powers of observation and deduction to learn all about the visitor from his or her appearance and mannerism. Holmes reveals his cleverness to the stunned client, or to Watson after he or she leaves. After listening to all of the events of the crime or mystery that the visitor presents, Holmes has almost reached a conclusion. He conducts some sort of investigation to verify his deductions. This often includes setting up the suspected criminal, so that he or she incriminates him or herself. At the conclusion, Watson is left stupefied. "By Jove, Holmes, you've done it again!"
3. A loving wife always dusts her husband's hat.