Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?
More than a century after first emerging into the fog bound gas lit streets of Victorian London, Sherlock Holmes is universally recognizable. Even his wardrobe and accessories are iconic. The Inverness Cape, deerstalker hat and calabash pipe and figures such as his best friend and housemate Dr Watson, arch nemesis Moriarty and housekeeper Mrs Hudson have become part of the popular consciousness.
His extraordinary infallible powers of deduction utilized in the name of the law, his notorious drug use and his popular catchphrase “Elementary my dear Watson”!
And yet many of these most recognizable features of Holmes don’t appear in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories.
Doyle’s great detective solves crimes in all sorts of ways not just using deduction. He speculates and at times even guesses and regularly makes false assumptions.
Furthermore Mrs Hudson is barely mentioned. No one says “Elementary my dear Watson” and the detective and his sidekick live apart for much of the time.
Moriarty, the grand villain only appears in two stories.
The detective’s drug use is infrequent after the first two novels and Holmes is rarely in thrall to the English legal system. He much prefers in acting his own form of natural justice to sticking to the letter of the law.
Finally many of the most iconic elements of the Holmesian legend aren’t Doyle’s either. The deerstalker cap and Cape were first imagined by Sidney Padgett.
The story’s initial Illustrator, the curved pipe, was chosen by American actor William Gillette so that audiences could more clearly see his face on stage and the phrase “Elementary my dear Watson” was coined by author and humorist. P.G. Woodhouse.
So who exactly is Sherlock Holmes? Who’s the real great detective and where do we find him?
Purists might answer that the original Sherlock inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s University mentor, Dr Joseph Bell is the real one. But the fact remains that that version of Sherlock has been largely eclipsed by the sheer volume of interpretation leaving Doyle’s detective largely unrecognizable.
So there’s another more complex but perhaps more satisfying answer to the question but to get there we must first consider the vast body of interpretations of the great detective. Since Conan Doyle’s first story in 1887, there have been thousands of adaptations of Holmes making him perhaps the most adapted fictional character in the world.
That process began with Victorian stage adaptations and accelerated with the emergence of film. There were more than one hundred film adaptations of Holmes in the first two decades of the twentieth century alone. And since then there have been many thousands more in print and on film television stage and radio
Holmes has been reinterpreted by people everywhere, in remarkably different and often contradictory ways. For instance he featured in a number of allied anti Nazi propaganda films during World War 2 and both Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were avid enthusiasts, the latter even joining the Baker Street Irregulars, a Holmesian appreciation society. Holmes also appeared in various German language film adaptations some of which were said to have been much loved favorites of Adolf Hitler.
So let’s return to our question! Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?
Sherlock is a cultural text repeatedly altered over time as each new interpretation becomes superimposed over those that preceded. This means that Sherlock continually evolves embodying ideas and values often far removed from those found in Conan Doyle. And after each particular story ends, Sherlock rises again, a little changed perhaps with a new face and fresh mannerisms or turns of phrase but still essentially Sherlock, our Sherlock!
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