Family Perspective - The Big Question

How did Sherlock Holmes become the most famous literary detective in the world? It is a question the Conan Doyle Estate gets asked almost every week! We asked Estate director and Conan Doyle's Step Great Grandson Richard Pooley to give us his take on the burning question.

 
"It is a question that has been asked by literary critics, authors and professional detectives almost since Sherlock Holmes was first introduced to the world in A Study in Scarlet in 1887. 
 
Indeed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself was baffled. As I'm sure you know, this story was effectively described as "cheap fiction" by its publishers, Ward, Lock and Co and it had been rejected by many other publishers. 
 
Sir Arthur considered his historical novels to be far superior to his Holmes stories. He believed that Micah Clarke, a novel set at the time of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, which Sir Arthur wrote immediately after a Study in Scarlet, would be "the first solid corner-stone laid for some sort of literary reputation." 
 
It was well-received and if you like historical fiction, as I do, well worth reading. But who has heard of it today? Yet two of the reasons why Holmes became and has remained so famous can be found in Micah Clarke and other works of historical fiction by Doyle: Sir Arthur's attention to detail and his superb ability to create and describe well-rounded, flawed yet often noble characters. This is one reason, by the way, why we have created this website; we want the world to know that there are many other fictional characters created by Doyle which are nearly as fascinating as Holmes...
 
Nearly indeed... Unlike Professor Challenger, Brigadier Gerard and Micah Clarke, Holmes speaks to us just as strongly as he did to readers 130 years ago. The ease with which modern authors and script-writers can put him (and Dr John Watson) into modern-day clothes (and, in Watson's case, change his sex!) and get him to solve current problems is proof of this. It's hard to believe now but there was a long period after the Second World War when Holmes was relatively out of fashion, at least in the UK, Western Europe and the USA. 
 
I can remember when I first read a Sherlock Holmes story. It was in 1965, when I was 13 years old. My maternal grandmother had died three years earlier and my grandfather had just remarried. His new wife, my step-grandmother, was Sir Arthur's last child, Jean Conan-Doyle. 
 
As a birthday present she gave me a copy of The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I was gripped from the first page and quickly started reading other Holmes' stories.  But at my school in London, friends could not understand why I was so engrossed in these "old,out-of-date" tales. Looking back, I think we Europeans and Americans were so in love with the "new" and so convinced that scientific and technological development would produce a better and more peaceful world, we were not interested in what those fusty old Victorians had thought and done. 
 
Indeed, I suggest the British in particular were embarrassed, post-Empire, by what their Victorian ancestors had thought and done. So, Holmes, Watson, and Doyle himself were no longer admired. Not so in countries like Russia and Japan. There Holmes has always been hugely popular, often being seen as somehow representative of the British character - cold, practical, aloof. Today, people in Britain, Western Europe and the USA are more troubled and less optimistic than they were in the 1950s and 60s. Holmes, a man who can solve the trickiest of problems through close observation, attention to the smallest detail, and the use of his phenomenal memory, gives us hope that his modern counterparts can do the same.
 
I mentioned earlier how rounded Doyle's characters were. And flawed. Edgar Allan Poe's fictional French detective, Auguste Dupin, was one of Doyle's childhood heroes. Dupin, and Doyle's Edinburgh professor, the surgeon Joseph Bell, were uppermost in Doyle's mind when he created Holmes. Yet Dupin is colourless by comparison with Holmes and although Dupin's story is also recounted by a friend there is little of the tension and, yes, love that exists in the relationship between Holmes and Watson. This relationship, between two utterly different men who yet are devoted to each other, is another reason for the continuing fascination with Holmes. Holmes - brilliant, eccentric, contemptuous of the concerns of ordinary people - and Watson - plodding but not stupid, one of those ordinary people whom his friend seems to despise, yet also a man of science (doctor) and adventurer (soldier). Few authors of even the greatest literature have created such a rich and complex pair of characters.
 
Holmes' powers of deduction, similar to those used by the real-life Joseph Bell, have often been given as the main reason why he still beguiles us today.  Sir Arthur says in his autobiography - Memories and Adventures - that as well as being a "very skilful surgeon" Bell's "strong point was diagnosis, not only of disease, but of [the] occupation and character [of his patients]." Whereas Dupin relied on being able to read a criminal's mind, Holmes went much further. Unlike Poe's Dupin, Doyle's Holmes influenced the way real detectives began to solve crimes. So much so that there are still many people who believe Sherlock Holmes was a real person working as a consultant to Scotland Yard. 
 
When I lived in Japan in the early 1990s I met quite a few people who told me that Sherlock Holmes really existed. I decided early on not to disabuse them.  This illusion has perhaps been given further impetus by a highly successful exhibition the Estate has been involved with over the past few years - Sherlock Holmes: The Science of Deduction. This started out in Portland, Oregon, in October 2013 and after touring much of North America, is now in Sydney. We hope it will be coming to the UK in the not too distant future. 
 
Whilst I agree that Holmes' methods are an important reason why he is still so famous, I think it is the nature and complexity of his character and of his relationship with Watson which is what sustains his popularity around the world. 
 
For that reason, I urge you to tell anyone you know to read the original stories before they see the next Holmes film or TV series."
 
 

The Conan Doyle Estate Source.

Published: 2nd November 2017

How did Sherlock Holmes become the most famous literary detective in the world? It is a question the Conan Doyle Estate gets asked almost every week! We asked Estate director and Conan Doyle's Step Great Grandson Richard Pooley to give us his take on the burning question.

 
"It is a question that has been asked by literary critics, authors and professional detectives almost since Sherlock Holmes was first introduced to the world in A Study in Scarlet in 1887. 
 
Indeed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself was baffled. As I'm sure you know, this story was effectively described as "cheap fiction" by its publishers, Ward, Lock and Co and it had been rejected by many other publishers. 
 
Sir Arthur considered his historical novels to be far superior to his Holmes stories. He believed that Micah Clarke, a novel set at the time of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, which Sir Arthur wrote immediately after a Study in Scarlet, would be "the first solid corner-stone laid for some sort of literary reputation." 
 
It was well-received and if you like historical fiction, as I do, well worth reading. But who has heard of it today? Yet two of the reasons why Holmes became and has remained so famous can be found in Micah Clarke and other works of historical fiction by Doyle: Sir Arthur's attention to detail and his superb ability to create and describe well-rounded, flawed yet often noble characters. This is one reason, by the way, why we have created this website; we want the world to know that there are many other fictional characters created by Doyle which are nearly as fascinating as Holmes...
 
Nearly indeed... Unlike Professor Challenger, Brigadier Gerard and Micah Clarke, Holmes speaks to us just as strongly as he did to readers 130 years ago. The ease with which modern authors and script-writers can put him (and Dr John Watson) into modern-day clothes (and, in Watson's case, change his sex!) and get him to solve current problems is proof of this. It's hard to believe now but there was a long period after the Second World War when Holmes was relatively out of fashion, at least in the UK, Western Europe and the USA. 
 
I can remember when I first read a Sherlock Holmes story. It was in 1965, when I was 13 years old. My maternal grandmother had died three years earlier and my grandfather had just remarried. His new wife, my step-grandmother, was Sir Arthur's last child, Jean Conan-Doyle. 
 
As a birthday present she gave me a copy of The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I was gripped from the first page and quickly started reading other Holmes' stories.  But at my school in London, friends could not understand why I was so engrossed in these "old,out-of-date" tales. Looking back, I think we Europeans and Americans were so in love with the "new" and so convinced that scientific and technological development would produce a better and more peaceful world, we were not interested in what those fusty old Victorians had thought and done. 
 
Indeed, I suggest the British in particular were embarrassed, post-Empire, by what their Victorian ancestors had thought and done. So, Holmes, Watson, and Doyle himself were no longer admired. Not so in countries like Russia and Japan. There Holmes has always been hugely popular, often being seen as somehow representative of the British character - cold, practical, aloof. Today, people in Britain, Western Europe and the USA are more troubled and less optimistic than they were in the 1950s and 60s. Holmes, a man who can solve the trickiest of problems through close observation, attention to the smallest detail, and the use of his phenomenal memory, gives us hope that his modern counterparts can do the same.
 
I mentioned earlier how rounded Doyle's characters were. And flawed. Edgar Allan Poe's fictional French detective, Auguste Dupin, was one of Doyle's childhood heroes. Dupin, and Doyle's Edinburgh professor, the surgeon Joseph Bell, were uppermost in Doyle's mind when he created Holmes. Yet Dupin is colourless by comparison with Holmes and although Dupin's story is also recounted by a friend there is little of the tension and, yes, love that exists in the relationship between Holmes and Watson. This relationship, between two utterly different men who yet are devoted to each other, is another reason for the continuing fascination with Holmes. Holmes - brilliant, eccentric, contemptuous of the concerns of ordinary people - and Watson - plodding but not stupid, one of those ordinary people whom his friend seems to despise, yet also a man of science (doctor) and adventurer (soldier). Few authors of even the greatest literature have created such a rich and complex pair of characters.
 
Holmes' powers of deduction, similar to those used by the real-life Joseph Bell, have often been given as the main reason why he still beguiles us today.  Sir Arthur says in his autobiography - Memories and Adventures - that as well as being a "very skilful surgeon" Bell's "strong point was diagnosis, not only of disease, but of [the] occupation and character [of his patients]." Whereas Dupin relied on being able to read a criminal's mind, Holmes went much further. Unlike Poe's Dupin, Doyle's Holmes influenced the way real detectives began to solve crimes. So much so that there are still many people who believe Sherlock Holmes was a real person working as a consultant to Scotland Yard. 
 
When I lived in Japan in the early 1990s I met quite a few people who told me that Sherlock Holmes really existed. I decided early on not to disabuse them.  This illusion has perhaps been given further impetus by a highly successful exhibition the Estate has been involved with over the past few years - Sherlock Holmes: The Science of Deduction. This started out in Portland, Oregon, in October 2013 and after touring much of North America, is now in Sydney. We hope it will be coming to the UK in the not too distant future. 
 
Whilst I agree that Holmes' methods are an important reason why he is still so famous, I think it is the nature and complexity of his character and of his relationship with Watson which is what sustains his popularity around the world. 
 
For that reason, I urge you to tell anyone you know to read the original stories before they see the next Holmes film or TV series."
 
 

The Conan Doyle Estate Source.

Published: 2nd November 2017

Back to all articles

Things are on the move

Licensing

Interested in aligning your brand or product with the legendary Conan Doyle?

Contact the family estate

Be involved

Sign Up

For news, views and updates from The Conan Doyle Estate sign up to our occasional newsletter.

 

© 2018 The Conan Doyle Estate Limited

Registered company number 05470933

Terms of use | Privacy Policy | Site by 93

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Learn more.

Accept and close