So, it with great gusto that I present the Sherlock Holmes roundtable.
What makes Sherlock stick around in the imagination of readers while so many of his contemporaries have been all but forgotten?
Stephanie Osborn: I think that Holmes was the first time a writer had ever put together ALL of the different components that comprise a classic detective character. He has intelligence, skill, knowledge, courage, a cool head...yet he also has a great heart, which he tries hard to hide. He also has the flaws without which this übermensch would be insufferable, the very flaws which make him human.
Another character, created much later, and eventually added to Holmes’ family tree, has similar properties, and I like to say, “Sherlock Holmes had the Spock Syndrome before Mr. Spock did.” Simply put, he is the first and ultimate detective character.
John Morgan Neal: He's that damn good. He was a template the likes of which characters such as Batman and Mr. Spock were begat among many others. There is something about it that appeals.
Nikki Nelson-Hicks: In no particular order:
- He is a total badass. He is willing to put himself in harm’s, go undercover and deal with the slime of the underbelly of society and face all sorts of obstacles using his wits and, if needs require it, his fists to solve a mystery and help a client. He is the Big Brother we always wanted to run home to when the neighborhood bully pushed us down and stole our bikes. He is the rogue that works outside the Law and sees that justice is done. He’s not beyond a little B&E to solve a case. He also acts as a shortcut judge and jury, pardoning the criminal if he believes that the perp did the crime for all the right reasons (Devil’s Claw and the murder of Charles Augustus Magnusson come to mind.)
- He is simply very good at what he does. He has a superpower, of sorts, but it’s not supernatural or unattainable. When he explains how he figured it all out, it seems so very simple and….well, elementary. He gives the reader hope that they could also sharpen their senses to achieve such powers. This makes him an attractive, attainable superhero.
- But he is also The Great Other. There is something very otherworldly, something special about him that makes him cut off from humanity. This is where Watson comes in as his link between Him and us.
- There is also a strange purity about the character. He is a walking encyclopedia of crime but doesn’t know that the earth goes around the sun. He sees commonplace knowledge as clutter and can’t understand why we would bother learning them. We wonder how someone so smart can be so ignorant! Coupled with his complete disinterest in sex, this just adds to his appeal as someone who is just a touch above and beyond the ordinary mortal.
- All heroes need flaws and, no, I’m not talking about cocaine; Doyle went on record to say that Holmes was not an addict and only took cocaine to help him deal with the doldrums of depression. Sherlock Holmes’ flaw is one that allows him to be identifiable to people of the 20th and 21st century: existential angst. A very modern problem that people of the 19th century were only beginning to grasp with the arrival of the Industrial age. His mind raged against inactivity and the boring stillness that the bureaucracy and social mores of his time demanded. He is always looking for something to engage his mind, to challenge him….even threaten his life. A bit of an adrenaline junkie. This is a thread that connects him to the readers of the numbing technocratic 21st century.
- Which leads to another facet that connects Holmes to our own age: his secularism. He shunned superstition and favored science as a Higher Power. To Holmes, anything worth knowing could be verified and quantified and everything else was clutter. By devoting himself to logic and the scientific method, he was able to rise above the hoi polloi and see things as they were not as they merely seemed. His ability to cut through bullshit with a smirk and quick wit is just icing on the cake.
- Did I mention he’s a badass?
I.A. Watson: The format of Holmes stories is perfect for detective fiction. We have a brilliant and insightful lead but we only see his thought processes through his companion. This allows us to discover the mystery slowly as the detective reveals it and additionally allows for a narrator commentary and interpretation on the detective himself.
Holmes himself is an eccentric character, not always likeable but always compelling to follow. He has become an archetype by being so distinctive. Watson, acting as everyman and as a reader surrogate, both humanises what would be an otherwise intolerable principal character and drives the plot points along with his questions.
Finally, for modern readers, the Holmes stories are set in the dead centre of an era and place that has become one of the most established venues for fiction, at the heart of Victorian England. Even better than modern tales set in that time, they are steeped with authentic trappings and sensibilities from the period. They have the same allure as would a great Western story written by a genuine pioneer.
Joe Gatch: I believe that it is his reclusive nature and his superior intelligence that makes readers wish to be so memorable.
R.J. Sullivan: I think his success is attributed at least in part to the fact that when the first stories were written, deductive reasoning was not a normal part of police procedure and the stories actually helped make that happen,
Erwin K. Roberts: I first took an interest in Sherlock Holmes before I could read. I listened to some radio adaptations when I was five. "The Speckled Band" really grabbed me, for openers. Unfortunately, the second I heard was "The Final Problem." I remember my mother, or maybe my older sister, assuring me that Holmes somehow climbed out of the Falls.
Over sixty years later I can still recall a few passages from those episodes. Part of why Holmes sticks around is that he is a complete package of well constructed mysteries, with interesting characters. And, as Ian Watson said, Holmes' era has been engraved into the minds of a very large chunk of the planet's population.
His contemporaries, even those with merit, never rose to the level of attention he did. In the same way my contemporaries, who were not comic book fans, may remember Superman and Batman, and to a lesser extent Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. But, few, if any, knew of the existence of of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., (Green) Arrow, or Constantine, and especially Blade, before recent films and TV shows. Holmes survived because he was original, well written, and able to be adapted into other media.
On the other hand, how many people remember Race Williams, the first hard-boiled detective? Not many. That's because guys like Chandler and Hammett came along and did it so much better. Holmes started at the top and has generally remained there.
As a writer, what lessons can you credit to Holmes that you've learned about writing technique and character creation?
Joe Gatch: Doyle shows that backstory isn't always important to enjoying the character...everyone is so hung up on origin stories these days that they forget that lack of origin is part of the mystery surrounding the character.
I.A. Watson: Doyle was a master at using reported narrative. At times we have Doyle telling us what Watson wrote about what Holmes said about an account given by a client at Baker Street, tier upon tier of reportage allowing for all kind of subtle writing tricks and a good deal of reader-fooling obfuscation. There is a lot to pick up on there.
Doyle also demonstrates that sometimes less is more. He does not define every detail of Holmes’ career and background. Indeed, he delights in teasing the gaps, the cases not reported, the detail of character quirks never explained. He imbues his cast with only those characteristics necessary to tell the tale but manages to engage readers with those few sketched lines. It is impressive in a genre where hiding clues in plain sight is a necessary authorial skill that Doyle can manage this with so little extraneous verbage.
Erwin K. Roberts: Watson's narration is one of the reasons I do a lot of my writing in the first person. My occasional forays into private detective stories, plus my New Pulp hero the Voice are first person. Though the narrator may, or may not, be the main character.
John Morgan Neal: Engaging your readers. Bringing them into the method of your heroes and allowing them to sort of be part of the team. Keeping them interested in the mystery.
Nikki Nelson-Hicks: The first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the relationship between Watson and Holmes. They complete each other. The Apollonian and the Dionysian. Mind and Heart. Holmes gives Watson the adventure that the old soldier craves and Watson gives Holmes a solid anchor to the baser points of humanity.
But what I always found really interesting is how the stories (except His Last Bow and Lion’s Mane) are told in the POV of Watson. Frankly, Holmes is really in the background, literally in the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles. That is fascinating to me. To have such a prominent protagonist, basically the star of the show, NOT tell the story. It just makes Holmes more intriguing and gives Watson, the foil, more depth.
R.J. Sullivan: Arthur Conan Doyle compared to his contemporaries, is more approachable than many "classic" authors because of his use of plain, to the point, but descriptive language. His prose has survived better than, for instance, Poe or HP Lovecraft, whose use of language tended to get a bit thick at times.
Stephanie Osborn: How utilising the appropriate vernacular can transport the reader into a different place and time; how important proper research and planning is to the construction of a good mystery; how description can set a mood. Digging into the background of a character, and determining how his personal foibles operate, can also make for a more realistic character. For example, many of Holmes’ quirks are likely caused by the side effects of his cocaine usage; Doyle, as an ophthalmologist, was undoubtedly familiar with the drug and its side effects, as one of its first specific uses in medicine was as an anaesthesia for eye surgeries.
Does Holmes still work for contemporary audiences as is, or does he have to be brought lower some way to be less of a "super hero" so modern readers and views can relate to him or perhaps tolerate him?
I.A. Watson: Holmes’ sharpness and lack of tolerance for fools have always endeared him to his audience. He is a grump – but our grump, using his antisocial tendencies for the public good against far nastier adversaries. The harder his clash and the more difficult his work against such foes the better we love the story.
Holmes’ omnipotence is skilfully offset by Watson. As narrator he helps obscure Holmes’ thought processes so we are not bored by the great detective’s instant analyses. As Holmes’ friend, Watson is able to criticise and comment, bringing the genius down to size when required, but also washing our view of Holmes with a warm affection.
One modern feature of Holmes fiction that perhaps even developed before Doyle finished writing his Canon tales is an expectation that Holmes will have an almost-supernatural ability to discern the truth. A modern Holmes author’s challenge is often to keep Holmes’ deductions grounded in the possible rather than indulging in the audience’s expectation of his immediate infallibility.
Erwin K. Roberts: Holmes can work for modern auriences. But not always. I have been more or less indifferent to the current big budget films. Recently I saw a complete DVD set of the Granada / Jeremy Brett TV productions for sale. Now that is the Holmes I want.
I do find it interesting that both contemporary versions of Holmes and Watson, Elementary and Sherlock, have found favor with the general public. I enjoy them both, but for somewhat different reasons. Both respect the original while bringing the concept into the modern world. Both, unlike some past versions, have a strong and intelligent Watson. (Having written Watson without Holmes, that is very important to me.)
John Morgan Neal: Oh heck yeah. Two successful TV shows and two successful movies and all with a bit of a diff take on the character. Sherlock was a 'super hero' in that he had a super human ability to think. But he was always a character with foibles. He was always relatable to a degree. And besides we have Watson for that. I think people are hungry for heroic and amazing characters.
R.J. Sullivan: Contemporary interpretations have given Holmes a sort of high functioning autistic/ sociopathic personality I honestly don't believe the text supports. He had mild quirks, but he was always aware of social noims and aware when he was breaking them. I find the modern interpretation a bit insulting, as if a normal person couldn't possibly simply train themselves to be the most observant man in the room, they have to come up with some sort of way to "relate to" him, (I hate that term, too, as if 21st century readers lack the imagination to put themselves in the place of anyone not in the 21st century).
Stephanie Osborn: Does Holmes still work for contemporary audiences as is, or does he have to be brought lower some way to be less of a "super hero" so modern readers and views can relate to him or perhaps tolerate him?
Judging by the fact that there are currently 3 media franchises (BBC Sherlock, CBS Elementary, Guy Ritchie/RDJ Sherlock Holmes movies), and untold pastiche novels set anywhere from the original Victorian era to the future, as well as uncounted numbers of versions of the collected Doyle stories, I’d say Holmes needs no help.
Nikki Nelson-Hicks: Sherlock Holmes is a rogue super brain that uses science and technology to bring down the bad guys? How does that NOT work for today’s audience?
Granted, they dirtied him up for the Robert Downey Jr. movies (the character of Holmes is described as fastidious when it comes to his grooming, like a cat. He might let his flat go to shit but he is always perfectly groomed.), sexed him up for Jonny Lee Miller’s, Elementary (seriously, two whores at once? And all those tattoos?), and gave him a place of the autism spectrum with Cumberbatch’s portrayal in BBC’s Sherlock, still it is not a lowering as more as a molding to fit a modern perspective.
As for tolerating a character who, frankly, has to bring himself down to our level to give us the time of day, yes. He’s a bit acerbic in the stories and they do tweak this up a bit for today’s storytelling but that’s to be expected. Modern audiences LOVE an asshole. We expect it, hell, we even TRUST the asshole more than we do the Sir Galahad, paragon of virtue. We’re always waiting for the cracks in the veneer.
Joe Gatch: Readers should be challenged, not talked down to. Downey's portrayal of Holmes was, however, refreshing and more realistic when you think about it.
What's your favorite Holmes story and why?
Joe Gatch: Always The Hound of the Baskervilles...it was the first story I read, the first SH movie I watched and it will always be the case I most relate Holmes with
Nikki Nelson-Hicks: In no particular order (and definitely not the ultimate list):
A Study in Scarlet: Because it’s the beginning and you need to see where Holmes and Watson started to appreciate where they end up.
The Adventure of the Red Headed League, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Dying Detective: Because of the humor and well-paced story telling.
A Scandal in Bohemia and The Adventure of the Yellow Face: Because in the first one he is bested for all the right reasons and in the second he is simply WRONG, WRONG, WRONG and in the end learns a bit of humility
But a few of the best written stories, IMHO, are: The Man with the Twisted Lips, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, The Adventure of the Crooked Man, The Adventure of the Naval Treaty, The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, The Adventure of Black Peter, The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, and the Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.
John Morgan Neal: The Hound of Baskervilles. Holmes only 'horror' story. I like the plot. The setting. Watson getting some stuff to do alone. It works for me in a big way. And I like several of the movies based on it. Including the Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore one.
“A Scandal in Bohemia” from the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for its early definition of Holmes’ character and for the inestimable “Woman” Irene Adler; the story is not flawless but is all the more satisfying for that.
The Hound of the Baskervilles, for its brooding atmosphere and the extended role of a heroic and competent Dr Watson.
“The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, for being one of the most Sherlock Holmes-y of all Holmes stories, not least because it also features his brother Mycroft and includes much of the standard “furniture” of Holmes stories.
Of my own Holmes stories in Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective volumes 1-6, I am most fond of volume 5’s “The Abominable Merridew”, perhaps because I had license to use so many elements of the Canon material. It is the Holmes story I have most enjoyed writing. By the way, I just finished my story for volume 8 today.
Of non-Canon-compliant Holmes, I recommend Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald.”
R.J. Sullivan: Hound of the Baskervilles, because it's a longer work and Watson is very involved in it.
Stephanie Osborn: I would be hard-pressed to pick which one of Doyle’s stories is my favorite. I think it would depend on what mood I’m in at the time. But in general, if one put together the two short stories, ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Empty House,’ the combined story of Holmes’ presumed death and return probably form my favorite of Doyle’s stories.