Trying to write about Sherlock Holmes is a bit like trying to buy a gift for someone that has everything. What exactly can you give that they don't already have? What exactly can you write that hasn't already been written?
The truth is, I don't have a good answer. I don't really know what to say about the Sherlock Holmes series, as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that isn't stating the obvious. Of course they're brilliant detective novels, which is fairly evident from the fact that Sherlock Holmes is quite possibly the most famous literary character of all time. Of course they're full of suspense, intrigue, and a great deal of humour, they're infamous for being so. Of course they're fun to read and enjoyable: what good detective novels aren't?
So, instead of offering up a post of me gushing further over my love of Sherlock Holmes, I decided that it might be a tad more fun to offer up some entertaining facts about the character, and his creator, that you might not know, and that I didn't either before I headed to the library a few days ago.
Fact No. 1: The Character of Sherlock Holmes was actually inspired by a real-life medicine professor of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dr. Joseph Bell.
I had no idea that Conan Doyle was even a doctor, but, alas, he was indeed. After being educated at some of the finest Jesuit schools in England, Conan Doyle studied medicine at Edinburgh University, and went on to practice for ten years. One of Conan Doyle's professors at Edinburgh was a man named Joseph Bell, who was famous, according to John A. Hodgson, the literary critic behind an anthology called Arthur Conan Doyle- Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Essays, for his ability to discover almost instantly all medical complaints, but also the backgrounds of and occupations of his clinic's outpatients.
When discussing his creation of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle said:
'I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business so something nearer to an exact science.'
And so, Sherlock Holmes, the great detective, was born out of Conan Doyle's history as a medical student.
Fact No. 2 Although everyone else seems to love him, Conan Doyle detested his character of Sherlock Holmes so much he tried to kill him off.
Most writers would be thrilled to gain such a devoted following among the public as Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes. However, Conan Doyle felt just the opposite. Having gained widespread fame through publishing a couple of novels, and, primarily, publishing a collection of short stories in the magazine The Strand that followed the exploits of his detective, Conan Doyle grew weary of his own creation.
Conan Doyle felt that his Sherlock Holmes stories were frivolous, and he had a desire to become a serious writer of historical fiction. By 1891, he was already toying with the idea of killing his character off, saying in a letter to his mother that he was thinking of 'slaying Holmes in the last and winding him up for good. He takes my mind from better things.'
Although his mother was horrified at this, Conan Doyle did, in fact, attempt to kill Sherlock Holmes in the story 'The Final Problem', in 1894. However, after years of public outrage, Conan Doyle somewhat remorsefully brought him back first in 1901, with the novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, that was set prior to his apparent death, and then, for real, in the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
On his revival of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle said:
'I don't suppose any man has sacrificed so much money to preserve his ideal of art as I have done ... But I have done no short Sherlock Holmes stories for seven or eight years, and I don't see why I should not have another go at them and earn three times as much money as I can from any other form of work.'
It seems, as is often the case, that money talked.
Fact No. 3 The most famous Sherlock Holmes phrase is never actually said in the Conan Doyle short stories or novels.
I think we've all heard it: the Sherlock Holmes catch-phrase, 'Elementary, my dear Watson'. It's certainly been used repeatedly in popular culture spin offs of the books: television series, movies, etc. Yet, interestingly enough, this phrase is actually never said in the Conan Doyle written works. Sherlock Holmes does call his companion, 'my dear Watson' at times, but the only time he even says the word 'Elementary' is in one of the short stories, 'The Adventure of the Crooked Man', in response to one of what he believes is Watson's short-sighted, slightly off (as usual) viewpoints.
It may be the most famous Sherlock Holmes expression, but it doesn't actually come from Sherlock Holmes, per say.
Fact No. 4 Conan Doyle wrote the series from the first person perspective of Watson, but in real life he did his own share of detective work similar to that of Sherlock Holmes
Having gained widespread fame for his writing of his Sherlock Holmes stories, Conan Doyle himself was, from time to time, asked for assistance in solving real life cases. A particular example is the case of George Edalji, a man wrongly accused of a series of animal mutilations done at night. Edalji was convicted and then sentenced to seven years in jail, and although he was freed at some point, his record was never cleared.
After Edalji wrote his own version of the incident that was published in a newspaper, he sent a clipping to Conan Doyle, who took an interest in the case. Conan Doyle investigated the evidence himself, found holes in the case, and after meeting with Edalji, noticed a medical condition in regards to his eyesight that would have made his crimes, supposedly committed at night in the dark, impossible. Conan Doyle's writing about the crime gained Edalji further support among the public, pressed the police's hand, and eventually, Edalji's name was cleared.
Fact No. 5 The only person to ever fully outwit Sherlock Holmes is, in fact, a woman.
As Gian Paolo Caprettini discusses in his essay, 'Sherlock Holmes: Ethics, Logics and the Mask', there certainly is a case for Sherlock Holmes being misogynistic. He certainly is very much a bachelor throughout the entire series of works, and, furthermore, he wants little to do with women, seeing them as distracting and nuisances.
However, as Caprettini argues, it's quite possible Sherlock Holmes' skepticism in regards to women comes from a 'theoretical need: if the detective wants his mind to be the mirror of that sequence of causes and effects which ended in a crime, he must get rid of every subjective element of nuisance', which is proved necessary by the fact that the only time Sherlock Holmes loses, it is to a woman.
The woman, who becomes known to Sherlock Holmes as 'the woman', is Irene Adler, the opera singer that appears in the first short story, 'A Scandal in Bohemia'. Sherlock Holmes is charged with getting back a compromising picture that Adler holds, and although he does make use of a few clever schemes to find out where the picture is located, he ultimately is tricked by Adler, who herself 'uses the same methods of Sherlock Holmes' and, in doing so, outwits him.
In doing so, Irene Adler becomes 'the woman', whose picture Sherlock Holmes keeps as a reminder of 'how the best plans' of his 'were beaten by a woman's wit.' As Watson observes:
'He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer- excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results.'
Although Sherlock Holmes is shown by Conan Doyle to be one of the most masterful detectives to ever grace the world, he nevertheless was tricked by the cleverness of Irene Adler, possibly due to his own interest in her. However, while he seems to exert more caution in the future, he didn't hold a grudge against Adler in the least. As Watson concludes the story, when Irene Adler was referred to, it was 'always under the honourable title of the woman.'