Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Signs

Share |
Illustration for “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” 1893 Sidney Paget (1860-1908). Courtesy of the Toronto Reference Library.

Why is a reclusive 19th century fictional character — a misogynist, social misfit and dope fiend — enjoying blockbuster popularity in 2013? Can his resurgent longevity be analyzed and reproduced? If Sherlock Holmes has become a sign, what does he signify?

Over a century since his 1887 “birth” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes remains the most enduring and resilient of literary icons. Beyond the canon — four novels and 56 short stories — he has been re-mythologized in video games, documentaries, plays, comics, song, blogs, fanzines, poetry, advertising, novels, TV and movies. There are more literary and cinematic representations of Holmes than of any other person on the planet. Guinness World Records lists him as “the most portrayed movie character” — over 70 actors in over 200 films. Current revivals include two hit TV shows on two continents, Sherlock and Elementary, and two mega-hit movies by Guy Ritchie. Notwithstanding the incontestable charms and thespian expertise of Mr. Downey, Mr. Miller and Mr. Cumberbatch, Holmes exceeds celebrity and sex appeal. Mail arrives daily at 221b Baker Street requesting his aide. Sherlock Holmes is quite simply the most famous man who was never born.

His fans are legion. Beyond websites, Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, since the founding of the Baker Street Irregulars and the London Sherlock Holmes Society in 1934, there are 1000 official “scion societies” world-wide, including India, Denmark and Japan. Toronto’s scion society, The Bootmakers, has been thriving for 40 years. The Toronto Reference Library houses an extensive Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, established 1969. According to Peggy Perdue, Collection Curator, the recent Adventures with Sherlock Holmes exhibit saw 4,400 visitors in a short winter run. A hundred Torontonians risked a February snowstorm to hear Bootmaker Doug Wrigglesworth on Arthur Conan Doyle: Author, Patriot and Historian.

All of which asks: “Why now?” If literary longevity is the product of capturing public imagination recurrently over time, what does Sherlock Holmes represent today? Here follow eleven interwoven possibilities.

11. Nostalgia: “it is always 1895.”

With built-in audience recognition, nostalgia is familiar in estranging times and its own bankable commodity, a safe, penny-pinching bet for both producers and consumers. But there is something beyond a longing for hansom cabs at work. Holmes lives in England lost. If Holmes nostalgia is tinged with a questionable longing for a lost Camelot of quaint, ordered, class-abiding WASP England, its Victorian setting also permits us to cheer for corny things without looking like total nerds. Old-fashioned virtues — manners, devotion, dedication, honour, self-sufficiency, integrity — form the heart of all things Sherlock.

10. In troubled times, we love to revive superheroes.

Neither alien like Superman, nor scientifically enhanced like Spiderman, Holmes is the proto-type Batman, a flawed but gifted human, self-trained in the cause of justice, with zeal that obliterates personal life and threatens sanity. Outsmarting the police, this vigilante captures criminals unharmed. He embodies Churchill: he never, ever, gives up. He goes without home and hearth, without food, without sleep, often without bathing, until wrong is righted. Holmes would have caught Osama bin Laden in a fortnight and apologized for taking so long.

9. And we like our superheroes troubled.

To remain accessible — or to give us means to feel superior — superheroes need flaws. Critics diagnose Holmes with everything from Asperger’s and Autism, to full-blown Bipolar Disorder. Let’s just agree he’s odd, entirely eccentric, not to mention drug dependent and coldly misanthropic. If his difficulty in playing well with others feeds a negative gifted stereotype, if it suggests that in some kind of karmic democratic leveling very intelligent people pay for their gift by being emotionally stunted, such prejudice reflects today’s anti-intellectualism. Nobody wants a hero that’s too good to be true.

8. Asexuals of the world unite!

Like Star’s Trek’s masters of logic, Spock and Data — who is himself a huge Holmes fan — Holmes disdains emotion and attachment. Like Spock and Data, he is also asexual. How can this possibly be attractive in the panting soft-porn sexpool of 2013? Perhaps we enjoy a break from the constant worries of desiring and being desirable. Perhaps disinterested chivalry is a romanticized, if temporary, escape from rape culture. Perhaps Holmes’ utter lack of concern with sex is refreshing; it frees us to focus on life, not libido.

7. Dare we say that modern masculinity is in crisis?

If the masculine in popular culture is too often equated with vulgarity, promiscuity, brute force and gun-toting brawn, Homes offers a throw-back romantic alternative: the Victorian gentleman. After Sandy Hook, his refusal to carry a gun cannot be understated. If masculinity also includes patriotism, adventure, combat prowess, protecting hearth and home and making the world “safe for democracy,” then he is also traditionally masculine. Holmes may be blind to global wrongs of the British Empire, but he believes no real man can see individual wrong without opposing it. He doesn’t just say, “The buck stops here,” he says, “Pay it now.” He re-enshrines responsibility and accountability in the masculine repertoire.

6. Manly love meets gaydar.

Holmes and Watson offer rich speculative opportunities for the homo-eroticization of their relationship. Holmes indisputably resented his best friend’s abandonment of their flat for a mere wife. The BBC Sherlock intimates they are more than the Buddies of Baker Street. Whether or not it’s sexual, Holmes and Watson embody manly love. In a Venn diagram of muscle meets muse, their friendship lasts decades. If modern male friendship lacks role models, no wonder the devoted, “I’ve got your back,” solidarity of Holmes and Watson retains appeal.

5. Misogyny and gynophobia.

A cynic might say that Holmes gives modern men the vicarious opportunity to revel in and snicker at misogyny, all guilt free in the name of nostalgia. But why is Holmes beloved by modern women? No other misogynist is so forgiven. At best he is shy, woman adverse; at worst he is a gleeful chauvinist pig. And we love him for it. It’s part of his flaw, his inability to become a rounded human being. Perhaps we forgive him because even his misogyny has gentlemanly grace. Holmes would never cheat, never abandon and never abuse. His spousal support would never be a day late or a penny short. We find it charming: the man who is not afraid of Moriarity is terrified of women.

4. Master of disguise.

For all his intellect, Holmes loves to play and does so with sardonic wit and boyish exuberance. Beyond the violin and blowing up Baker Street with chemical experiments, Watson is entirely correct that the world lost a fine actor. Holmes is the penultimate improviser with an impressive repertoire of roles: from randy plumber, to Italian priest, from crone to Norwegian explorer. He raises the improviser’s craft of observation and reaction to a fine performance art. Out of nothing but the suggestions of cigarette ash or a missing boot, he scents out a story as expertly as any hound of Baskerville Hall. Our vicarious enjoyment of his disguises is timeless.

3. Leadership and courage in the post-911 world.

Holmes’ success as truth’s knight-errant reaffirms that battle is possible. World leaders struggle ineffectually with recession, debt and corporate crime. Mayors obsess over pigskin and prime ministers prioritize pandas. The brilliant beekeeper reminds us there are leaders who care deeply about right and wrong, who can, and will, take charge. In an increasingly uncaring world, Holmes saves people for a living. In a secular world, he is an utterly dependable savior.

2. Certainty in an uncertain world.

The first Sherlock Holmes Societies were founded during the depression. As Peggy Perdue, the curator of the ACD collection suggests: “Interest in Sherlock Holmes also boomed in WWII with Basil Rathbone movies and serialized radio shows. Perhaps today we are seeing the combination of powerful cultural and historical appeal with a search for a problem solver, someone who will fix things. For Holmes, things were either the truth or not the truth. Problem Solved. Period.’ If certainty is romantic and simplistic, we still long for it.

1. The triumph of moral intelligence.

As Philip Elliott, the current Meyers (Chair) of The Bootmakers suggests, “Sherlock Homes stands for two things: a great intellect and a belief in the essential goodness of people. This makes him endearing and enduring." Each victory of Sherlock Holmes is the triumph of moral intelligence, something desperately missing from our world. In the complicated era of Treyvon Martin, "legitimate rape" and Jody Arias, Holmes proves that evil can be pursued, caught and punished. Victims are avenged; justice prevails. Goodness wins.

So what is the Holmes recipe for longevity? Contradictions. Strength and vulnerability. Flaw and gift. Play and expertise. Romantic and asexual. Misogynist and savior. A longing for a simpler times and solutions to our own. Someone with rare courage; someone who simply takes a stand. The kind of character who returns to champion justice even after pitching face first into Reichenbach Falls, that is the kind of role model the world will always need.

Images courtesy of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the Toronto Reference Library.

Image 1. Illustration for “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” 1893. Sidney Paget (1860-1908)

Image 3. The Arthur Conan Doyle Room at the Toronto Reference Library is currently being renovated, but will reopen in 2013.

Image 3. “A Study in Scarlet” in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Arthur Conan Doyle. London: Ward, Lock
1887. The first appearance of Sherlock Holmes in print.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a life-long Sherlock Holmes fan, a new Bootmaker, former Writer in Residence for Open Book and the author of When Fenelon Falls, (Coach House, 2010)


Sometimes I think no one ever captures Sherlock; we are just lucky to witness in him running down Baker Street calling to Watson as he goes. Perhaps it's his perpetual motion in the interests of justice that is his true gift!

A fantastic article! Truly. In a time when we're looking at scripted figures in the media and we think about what it would be like to have them walking our streets, it's fun and hopeful to fantasize about the detective who doesn't work from cupidity and couldn't settle for mediocrity if he tried. Imagine that -- either by choice, or due to the extent of one's mental capacity, a person that pushes beyond politics or appeasement to find justice and sense. Somehow... you've done it! You've captured Sherlock!

Response to Meloe: Thank you so much for your post to my article! It's always a pleasure to meet another Sherlockian! I truly enjoyed checking out the Sherlock section of your blog, as it was quite a treat to read about Sherlock in French! You're entirely correct, he's as 'real' as can be, and that is one of the things that perpetuates his continued world-wide appeal!

My response to the question of Holmes' refusal to 'carry' a gun: Thank you so much for posting to my article! My assumption here is that you are listing two examples involving a gun to suggest I was incorrect in my comment that Holmes refuses to carry one. Your examples, of course are entirely correct. There are in fact several more examples. To quote longtime Bootmaker, Cliff Goldfarb, who kindly listed them for me: 'Holmes has a revolver in SIGN, HOUN, GREE, FINA, LADY, MAZA, SOLI, a pistol in 3GAR, BERY – 9 of the 60 tales. Not to mention his indoor revolver practice and the numerous stories in which Watson has his own revolver.' If I had said Holmes refused to bring or use a gun, or refused to let Watson bring one, of course I'd be dead wrong. Pardon the pun. My point here was specific to the verb 'carry,' as in the daily practice of carrying a gun on one's person at all times, called 'carrying' or 'packing heat' in today's slang. Holmes brings a gun only when necessary. This sets him far apart from the both the bad guys and the good guys in today's media, many of whom 'carry' at all times. I believe Holmes would be horrified by American gun culture and rightly so.

Thank you for giving me opportunity to clarify this,

"'You have less frontal development that I should have expected,' said he, at last. 'It is a dangerous habit to finger loaded firearms in the pocket of one's dressing-gown.'

"The fact is that upon his entrance I had instantly recognised the extreme personal danger in which I lay. The only conceivable escape for him lay in silencing my tongue. In an instant I had slipped the revolver from the drawer into my pocket, and was covering him through the cloth. At his remark I drew the weapon out and laid it cocked upon the table. He still smiled and blinked, but there was something about his eyes which made me feel very glad that I had it there."

~Holmes, relating his first face to face with Moriarty, The Final Problem

I was really happy to discover your post because I find that you managed to list most of the reasons why Sherlock Holmes is so important to me and why I love this character so much. And it could be summed up in a very simple statement : Sherlock Holmes is real. Or at least he feels so to his readers. And it has always been the case. It is absolutely amazing to think that when the 'news' of his 'death' at Reichenbach was first published in 1893 people in the street wore mourning bands! He has always been part of people's life and that's what I fond wonderful about this character.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Related item from our archives