And to think Arthur Conan Doyle wanted Holmes dead!
Charles Altamont Doyle had done little in his life to recommend himself to posterity. Except for siring a son, whose birth on 22 May 1859, would ensure continued fame for the family. The son, Arthur Conan Doyle though, gives more credit to his mother Mary Doyle, a woman 'with a passion for books' and a brilliant storyteller, for his gift of words. Conan Doyle first created his ace detective Sherlock Holmes in the book A Study in Scarlet in 1887. The last Sherlock Holmes stories, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, was published in 1927. In 1928, two years before his death, was published the final collection, The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories. But 82 years after his death, mystery and literature lovers visiting London, still flock to Baker Street in search of 221B Baker Street, the sleuth's fictitious address in the Sherlock Holmes adventures.
It is common knowledge that Conan Doyle modelled his Holmes on his professor at the medical college, Dr Joseph Bell, a man with a keen sense of observation, logic and deduction, qualities that would define the detective. The physical descriptions of the detective too – his 'sharp and piercing eyes' and 'hawk nose', were borrowed from the doctor. But it was Conan Doyle's attention to detail and vivid descriptions of people, places and actions that create much of the appeal of a Sherlock Holmes story.
In A Study in Scarlet for example, Conan Doyle minutely describes Holmes' residence, which he shares with his loyal friend Dr Watson, not just the two bedrooms and living room, but even the 17 steps leading to the study, making it easy for the reader to imagine themselves to be a part of the scene. Each character visiting the detective, from a suspected criminal to someone as inconsequential as a delivery boy is described minutely and Holmes never tires of astonishing Watson and the readers with little nuggets of information about them, that seem impossible for someone to know at first meeting, till Holmes describes the way he arrived at his conclusion. On his first meeting with Watson, he surprises the doctor by his knowledge of the fact that he had just returned from Afghanistan. Watson assumes that someone had informed Holmes of it. But a few days later, in his first expression of his talents to Watson, he tells him how he deduced it – the train of reasoning ran – here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan. The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. 'I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.'
Minutes later, he surprised Watson again by correctly deducing that a man who had come to deliver a letter to him was a retired sergeant of the marines.
Holmes alternates between spending his time in the room at Baker Street, making deductions from his armchair, to days of frantic activity and drama. In the short story The Man With The Twisted Lip, Watson is astonished to find Holmes, disguised as an old, opium addict sitting at a cheap den. It is later revealed that it was here that his client had last seen her husband, but on going up to the room could only find the disfigured beggar Hugh Boone there. Boone had been arrested, but no trace could be found of the wealthy businessman, till Holmes, armed with a wet sponge, turns Boon into the missing gentleman.
For any Holmes fan though, the book that defines his brilliance is the Hound of the Baskervilles. The inspiration for the book came from a prolonged stay in Devonshire moors, including a visit to the prison in Dartmoor. Biographers say that the book was initially based on folklore and it was only later that Holmes became a part of the narrative. The beauty of the story is that while on the one hand Conan Doyle perfectly builds up an atmosphere of spine-chilling horror with a hint of the supernatural, in the end everything is explained scientifically and nothing more menacing than the evil designs of a human mind are found to be behind the deaths and misfortune.
Reams have been written on Holmes since the time that Conan Doyle introduced him. His methods of investigation and deduction have led many to research on it. Directors over the years have tried to capture his brilliance on celluloid, from the first Hound of the Baskervilles released in 1939 and starring Basil Rathbone to the recent Hollywood production that many fans did not like, with Robert Downey Junior playing the famous sleuth. But Conan Doyle himself did not consider Holmes to be among his superior creations. In fact, he had planned to kill him off in 1893, when in The Final Problem, Holmes and his arch enemy Professor Moriarty both plunge to their death. It is the final testimony to the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, that his life spanned far longer than his creator had planned.
Holmes has been compared to many other fictional detectives. In A Study In Scarlet, Watson says, 'You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin', to which Holmes says, 'No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,' he observed. 'Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.'
Holmes has also often been compared to Agatha Cristie's Poirot. Many find Poirot more cerebral. But the charm of a Holmes book is that he might surprise you with his deductions, but he is good natured enough to explain every step that helped him reach their. All detective stories sum up the action, but Holmes helps you see how he reached his conclusions. The detective who often claims that had he not been a detective he would have been a criminal, ensures that each of his cases are a treatise on crime, the criminal mind and the art of deduction. His creator might consider his works on war and army, his Professor Challenger books or his Brigadier Gerard writings more satisfying, but give us the eccentric, violin playing, sword fencing detective any day.