The Greatest Sleuth of All Time – Sherlock Holmes (Part 2)

Having said so much about Holmes’ creator, let us now focus our attention on the sensational man of logic and reasoning himself. Sherlock Holmes, undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in the field of crime and investigation, does not have much details of his past life revealed in all of his stories. Even his birthday and age are shrouded in mystery, with estimations placing his birth year in either 1854 or 1861, based on information from several of his stories, namely His Last Bow, A Study in Scarlet and The Adventure of the Gloria Scott.

 Holmes reading a blackmail letter delivered to a friend and client in The Adventure of the Gloria Scott

Not much is known about Holmes’ family and ancestry, save the fact that his ancestors were country squires, his grand-uncle was supposedly the prominent French artist Émile Jean-Horace Vernet (1789 – 1863), and his elder brother was Mycroft Holmes. Mycroft is seven years older, and sharper than Sherlock when it comes to observation and deduction. Sherlock himself states in his stories that Mycroft could easily surpass him in solving mysteries and problems, but Mycroft’s lack of drive and energy as compared to Sherlock was a major setback. Mycroft prefers to pass his time in a laidback fashion in the Diogenes Club, which Sherlock describes as “a club for the most un-clubbable men in London.” Occupation wise, Mycroft is a civil servant who holds a very unique and unusual position as a “walking database” for all aspects of government policy, as described in the short story The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans:

“Occasionally he is the British government…the most indispensable man in the country…The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearinghouse, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience.”

Sherlock Holmes can be accurately described as more of being a loner with eccentric habits, thus resulting in him having very few friends and close associates. With the exception of his brother Mycroft, Holmes’ closest associate and friend throughout his lifetime is none other than his faithful “sidekick,” Dr John H. Watson. The two met either in 1881 or 1882, after Dr Watson’s return to England following the Second Afghan War. At that time, Holmes was experiencing financial constraints, and had to share his rooms at 221B, Baker Street, with Dr Watson. Dr Watson continues staying with Holmes until sometime before his marriage in 1887, and again after his wife’s death. 

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson meeting Mycroft Holmes over a case in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter

Indeed, Dr Watson’s initial impression of Holmes upon their first meeting was not exactly positive. In addition to initially perceiving Holmes as an arrogant being with extremely unusual eccentricities, Dr Watson attempted to assess Holmes’ abilities, and came up with the following list in the novel A Study in Scarlet:

1.      Knowledge of Literature – nil
2.      Knowledge of Philosophy – nil
3.      Knowledge of Astronomy – nil
4.      Knowledge of Politics – Feeble
5.      Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
6.      Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
7.      Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound
8.      Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.
9.      Knowledge of Sensational Literature – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
10.  Plays the violin well.
11.  Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.
12.  Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

Sherlock Holmes and his faithful "sidekick" and assistant Dr John H. Watson

Holmes’ observational and deductive skills are second perhaps to none. In many instances, Holmes is able to surprise his clients by accurately guessing their occupations, backgrounds and recent activities just by carefully observing their appearances and actions and making clever deductions. The great detective often works on the premise of his common quotation:

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

As a result of his magnificently sharp observational and deductive skills, many clients from all walks of life frequently seek his assistance to solve various problems. Indeed, throughout all of his stories, Holmes has been consulted by countless people, ranging from members of Europe’s most powerful monarchs and governments to humble governesses and impoverished pawnbrokers hailing from the lower classes of society. The range of cases that the great detective has been engaged in is undoubtedly great as well, ranging from urgent cases of major political scandals with international repercussions to seemingly petty problems of unhappy love affairs.

The King of Bohemia seeking assistance from the great detective in Holmes' first short story A Scandal in Bohemia

In spite of Holmes’ extraordinary investigative skills, he does not often work for the sake of financial gains, but rather for the passion for the art of investigation and deduction itself. Dr Watson describes this accurately in the short story The Adventure of Black Peter:

“Holmes, however, like all great artists, lived for his art’s sake, and, save in the case of the Duke of Holdernesse, I have seldom known him claim any large reward for his inestimable services. So unworldly was he – or so capricious – that he frequently refused his help to the powerful and wealthy where the problem made no appeal to his sympathies, while he would devote weeks of most intense application to the affairs of some humble client whose case presented those strange and dramatic qualities which appealed to his imagination and challenged his ingenuity.”

Nonetheless, in the cases that he does take up, and in which the client involved is a wealthy aristocrat or influential figure, Holmes will claim any material rewards offered to him, remarkable examples being in the cases of The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet and The Adventure of the Priory School. Besides, Holmes has been known to accept priceless mementos, titles and tokens of acknowledgment from several royal and aristocratic clients such as the King of Bohemia, the Dutch royal family, the French President and Queen Victoria. Although Holmes started off as a man in financial need in his first story A Study in Scarlet, in which he had to share his rooms at 221B Baker Street with Dr Watson, his fame eventually grows along with his fortune obtained from grateful wealthy clients, so much so that many years later, in the short story The Adventure of the Dying Detective, Dr Watson remarks that Holmes is not only able to live alone in his rooms without sharing it with anyone else anymore, but he also has the means of purchasing the whole house himself rather than to continue remitting rentals for his rooms.

Holmes and Dr Watson inspecting the body of the dead German teacher, Heidegger in The Adventure of the Priory School

For his entire life, Holmes is never married, and he never wishes to do so. He does not find any interest whatsoever in women, except for the distinctly interesting cases that they bring to him. To Holmes, women are difficult to fathom and not to be entirely trusted. This view is reflected in a quotation from The Adventure of the Abbey Grange:

“And yet the motives of women are so inscrutable…How can you build on such a quicksand? Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling tongs.”

Holmes also justifies his personal lack of interest in relationships with women in general, and female clients in particular, with the following quotation from The Sign of Four:

“It is of the first importance not to allow your judgement to be biased by personal qualities. A client is to me a mere unit – a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance money.”

As a result of such views towards the opposite sex, Dr Watson sometimes comments that Holmes is as cold and inhuman as a calculating machine, who merely accepts input in the form of problems from his clients, and churns out the necessary solutions without a tinge of emotion or interest attached to them.

Elements of eccentricity in Holmes’ lifestyle are reflected in his peculiar and sometimes unhealthy habits regarding his self-care. Whenever he is intensely following a hot trail in the course of his investigations, he permits himself no food and tends to skip meals until he solves the case at hand. Holmes also has the tendency to sink into deep self-absorption especially during times of lack of stimulating cases to pursue. Nevertheless, he often recovers almost instantly and springs into an enthusiastic action mode when an interesting case comes his way.

In times of self-absorption in the absence of interesting cases, Holmes uses cocaine to stimulate his brain, and may occasionally use morphine for the same reason. Dr Watson often views this habit as Holmes’ “only vice” and strongly disapproves it on the grounds that it may affect the detective’s mental health and intellect. He tries to “wean” Holmes off cocaine, but succeeds only temporarily at times, after which Holmes’ addiction for the drug kicks in again, especially in prolonged times of boredom without stimulating cases.

The great sleuth lying "extremely sick" in his bed while talking with Dr Watson in The Adventure of the Dying Detective

Indeed, despite being merely a fictional character of crime and mystery literature, this great detective of detectives and logician of logicians has left a profound imprint and legacy upon many areas of entertainment and the academics. Holmes’ remarkably extraordinary deductive powers in crime scene investigations are often hailed by forensic scientists and crime scene investigators worldwide as being a great source of inspiration for their work. Many principles of questioned document examination as used in forensic science today are ostensibly based on Holmesian methods of trace evidence analysis (study of evidences involving different objects contacting one another e.g. tyre impressions, footprints etc.), ballistics (science of mechanics dealing with projectiles e.g. bullets, rockets etc.) and handwriting analysis. In fact, principles of Holmesian deduction, which involves hypothesis-testing and generating inferences based on careful observation and logical analysis, are commonly utilized in many academic fields today, such as scientific experimentation and investigations, criminology and clinical reasoning in medical practice.

Just like how an extremely popular diva commands a huge fanbase, so too does this renowned detective, despite being fictional. Sherlock Holmes’s popularity has grown so much in magnitude and extent that even Sherlockian societies have been established in many countries in honour of the amazing sleuth. The first ever Sherlockian societies to come into existence were established way back in 1934, namely the Sherlock Holmes Society in London and the Baker Street Irregulars in New York. Up to the time this article is written, these two societies are still known to be active, in which the London-based Sherlock Holmes Society is still known to arrange regular visits to notable sites featured in his stories, such as the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.

The Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland - one of the most popular hotspots for Sherlockian fans, being the site where Holmes and Professor Moriarty fell to their deaths in The Final Problem

The unprecedented popularity that Sherlock Holmes has managed to garner over the decades has also warranted the founding of the Sherlock Holmes Museum in the heart of London. Opened in 1990, the museum is situated in Baker Street and bears the number 221B, although being situated between numbers 237 and 241. This was intentionally done with legal permission in order to coincide with Holmes’ famous address, 221B Baker Street.

The Sherlock Holmes Museum in the heart of London - a must-visit for any Sherlockian fan

221B Baker Street was purely a fictional address that Conan Doyle came up with in his stories. In spite of the fact that there really was a Baker Street in London during Conan Doyle’s time, 221B never existed at that time. However, avid fans of Holmes, making belief that he really existed, have been searching for his “actual house” for decades, albeit in total vain.

In the 1930s, street numbers in Baker Street were reallocated, and lots 219 to 229 Baker Street were occupied by a banking organization and building society known as Abbey House (subsequently Abbey National). 221B was commonly thought to exist somewhere in between, thus Abbey House frequently received letters from Sherlock Holmes fans worldwide, some even requesting to “hire” the great detective. Letters received were in such great numbers that Abbey House eventually created a “secretary to Sherlock Holmes” position in its organization to respond to all those letters.

The establishment of the Sherlock Holmes Museum created a long tussle with Abbey House over the legal use of the address 221B Baker Street. In the end, the museum succeeded in obtaining legal rights for its usage, and the museum has been a hotspot for Sherlock Holmes fans from all over the globe up to today. Exhibitions in the museum include detailed reproductions of the rooms Holmes and Dr Watson shared, based on descriptions in the Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as replicas of numerous objects belonging to the great detective and his renowned assistant.

The 221B Baker Street plaque on the former Abbey House headquarters
A postcard depicting an artist's impression of 221B Baker Street

Doubtless to say, the great detective, though merely being a fictional character walking only in the realm of stories, has managed to attain standards of fame and splendour equivalent to, if not better than, any real celebrity who has ever walked the surface of this earth. From inspiring countless spin-offs, movies and TV serials to even Japanese animations such as Detective Conan, Sherlock Holmes has proven himself not only of being able to surpass the wiliness of the wiliest of criminals, but also to transcend the tide of time and the barriers of language to emerge as the most adored and sought after detective of all. His near-unparalleled fame has earned him not only a name in the UK Police Force (HOLMES 2 being the UK Police Force’s information technology system, named after Holmes), but also a posthumous honorary fellowship from the Royal Society of Chemistry normally reserved for Nobel Laureates and distinguished academics only.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson being portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law respectively in the 2009 motion picture Sherlock Holmes

Statue of Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place, Edinburgh, the birthplace of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

No comments:

Post a Comment