It is said that fan fiction was first invented around 1893, when the author Arthur Conan Doyle, tired of his famous sleuth and his insatiable mob of readers, shoved Sherlock Holmes off the Reichenbach Falls in the story “The Final Problem”. Sadly, his attempt at murder was ineffectual, and Conan Doyle was contractually obliged, a few years later, to resurrect him. The detective continued to solve cases until 1927. But for the duration of his absence there arose a new genre of fiction written in his honour.
And a legion of admirers have continued to conjure fresh adventures for Sherlock ever since. Rare are the figures who have been projected upon so many alternative cultural landscapes as the Baker Street detective with the deerstalker and pipe.
Conan Doyle only managed to drum up some 60 Sherlock cases, yet he bequeathed us a hero for the ages who can withstand all sorts of mad manipulations — the shortage of original material has only encouraged other writers to rush in to fill the gaps.
By 1910, Sherlock had already appeared on screen, in Arsène Lupin contra Sherlock Holmes, a German drama by Viggo Larsen that imagined Sherlock in a story now considered the first cinema crossover of its kind. And the spin-offs and adaptations now number by the score.
He’s gone global — in 2012, he was transferred to Manhattan, to assist the NYPD alongside his surgeon sidekick Dr Joan Watson in the drama mystery Elementary. And in 2018, Miss Sherlock found him transposed to modern Tokyo and, for the first time in a major series, transformed into a girl.
Many say that Jeremy Brett’s 41-episode TV run throughout the 1980s has never been improved on. But I have a particular affection for the 1986 Disney movie The Great Mouse Detective, which found a sleuthing rodent, Basil, cracking cases from the cellar of Sherlock’s London home.
I daren’t describe myself as any Sherlock scholar but I’ve been drawn to every iteration, and find it fascinating to see how Sherlock’s personality adapts to fit each decade’s point of view. In the lad-obsessed Noughties, Guy Ritchie’s Hollywood adaptation turned up the machismo and turned our gentleman detective into a bare-knuckle-fighting thug. Millennial Sherlock, aka Benedict Cumberbatch, behaved like a human Google and was locked in a mawkish bromance with his Dr Watson.
Last month saw the debut of one of the most irreverent but interesting new dramas on the subject, in the shape of Enola Holmes, a non-Conan Doyle character imagined by the writer Nancy Springer, which introduces the idea of a dazzling detective younger sister who is Sherlock’s sometime ward. Starring Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown and currently among the most watched offerings on Netflix, the drama has a youthful, feminist, egalitarian focus that makes it the perfect vehicle to woo potential Sherlockians among Generation Z.
More than 100 years after he first swept through the fusty, class-bound echelons of late-Victorian society, one wonders what is it about the strange impersonal detective that still holds us in his thrall? He’s moody, drug-addicted, self-obsessed and possibly a racist: Conan Doyle’s prose was fraught with language that would incense modern sensibilities — the president of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London recently admitted it was “lamentable” that Sherlock used so many racial slurs. So how is it that the detective can still shape-shift so successfully into different epochs and moods?
Perhaps it is precisely this perceived lack of human qualities that is the key to his longevity. In one of his sourer moments, Conan Doyle described his most famous creation as being as “inhuman as a Babbage’s calculating machine”.
But the writer’s decision to divest his detective of any normal emotional attachments has inoculated him, to some extent, against the problems associated with becoming aged. He isn’t hampered by romantic relationships or dependants that might date him. Free of all incumbents, he can pop into almost any setting and withstand huge societal change.
The reason why I think the BBC’s adaptation was the weakest was in its persistent effort to make Sherlock seem more cuddly, human and well-rounded. In doing so, it destroyed him. Sherlock works best when he remains a solitary figure. Yes, he’s a selfish bastard, but he’s an outlier. And, in drama, outliers tend to be a force for good.
But while I love Sherlock for his cold, calculated reason and emotional detachment (and hey, what girl could resist those charms?), I love him too for his rather more unmanly habit — of paying close attention. Sherlock actually listens. And he keeps an eye on everything.
He also gives truth to the argument that the solution to every problem is generally before us: if only we would pay attention to what we find under our nose. I have always found this idea to be tremendously empowering, that even casual observation can be a superhero skill. “Be interested in the minutiae” is not the sexiest of mantras. But somehow Sherlock makes it cool.
Sadly, I lack the detective’s internal encyclopedia — nor do I have his gift for botany, geography and language. But I do have WiFi. And given the right situation, I like to think I’d have the wherewithal to find the clues.
Email Jo at firstname.lastname@example.org
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