Sherlock Holmes has existed as a character for over a century. His fame, as the world’s greatest detective, a master of the art of deduction, has made the character a popular figure in the realm of pop culture since his inception. When we think of fictional detectives, we think of Holmes. And when we think of sidekicks, we often think of his associate Dr. John Watson.
But how many of us have actually read his original adventures?
Sherlock Holmes, as a character, never seems to go out of style. He’s been portrayed on the stage and screen by numerous actors, and the image of the lone man in the deerstalker hat, smoking a pipe while looking through a magnifying glass, has become so embroiled into the cultural landscape that even if you’ve never seen or read a single adventure of his, you know exactly who the character is supposed to be. He’s been used for drama, comedy, and adventure. Modern takes look into his problems with addiction and various forms of anti-social behavior.
That’s actually a far cry from the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. His Holmes is hardly a sociable man, but he’s not likely to hurt anyone either. His focus is taking his extraordinary powers of observation and use them to fight crime and evildoers. That’s all. Nothing else really matters to the man. He does smoke a pipe that is sometimes filled with cocaine, but that was more to help him focus on his more difficult cases. Given the time period, that was probably a lot more socially acceptable then than it is now. The deerstalker is never mentioned, and came from illustrations added to the stories, and not Conan Doyle’s pen.
The Holmes stories that Conan Doyle wrote do follow a formula of sorts. Most are narrated by Dr. Watson, as he recounts various adventures had by Holmes, or at least ones he feels safe enough to publish without ruining someone’s reputation. Watson, often depicted as a bumbling idiot in some films, is a fairly bright man in his own right. For one thing, he is a doctor. For another, he’s a veteran of an Afghan war and quite a good shot with a pistol for those rare times when Holmes needs that sort of back-up. And while Holmes doesn’t care much for Watson’s habit of writing their adventures down–since Watson does not always stick to the facts and romanticizes things a bit–Holmes does value him as a dear friend and companion. Watson adds the human touch, made more visible in the rare story Conan Doyle wrote where Holmes himself, long retired from city life to tend to his bees in the countryside, narrates a late case that intruded upon his solitude.
Most adventures open with Holmes and Watson getting a visitor looking to hire Holmes. Within minutes of meeting the person, Holmes already seems to know a good deal about the person, which he will then explain to the reader due to observations such as the state of the visitor’s clothes or body language that would not be obvious to most people, though Holmes will show great frustration that Watson did not see such apparent information himself. The visitor will offer Holmes a case, Holmes will generally accept, and then go off to solve the case, perhaps while messing with any London police constables that may or may not already be involved. The adventures tend to be short. Even the novels could probably be read in a day for anyone looking to have a nice, quick, charming mystery.
Much has actually been built up around Holmes that may come as a surprise to readers only familiar with the various movies. Professor Moriarity only appears in two adventures, and Watson himself never really runs into the man. Irene Addler, often depicted as a woman Holmes falls in love with, appeared in a single short story and is mostly notable for being someone who saw through Holmes’ disguises and managed to not only allow Holmes to solve the case, but also to make it obvious she let him do it. Holmes refers to her, we are told, as simply, “the woman,” which may be a term for endearment or a term of frustration. I am inclined to think the latter. Mycroft Holmes is somewhat routinely featured as Sherlock’s smarter older brother. Mycroft is a government operative of some kind who lacks Sherlock’s need to always prove himself right. As such, Mycroft can be wrong on occasion, but unlike Sherlock he doesn’t mind.
I would actually counsel against some of the later works. Conan Doyle famously attempted to kill off Holmes, but resurrected the character a couple years later due to fan demand and a lack of interest in his more serious writing. One of Conan Doyle’s reasons for killing off Holmes in the first place was the difficulty the author faced dreaming up cases only Sherlock Holmes could solve. That difficulty shows in later stories where the crimes are less imaginative and even one or two where Holmes doesn’t even solve the case so much as witness things go down at a convenient time.
Sherlock Holmes is a popular character for many reasons, and those reasons are obvious if anyone bothers to actually read his old adventures. Give the stories a shot. You’ll probably be glad you did.