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Why Sherlock Holmes is the Iconic Detective

by Kelvin Jones

In it origins, the detective method is closely connected with early Romantic ideas about the nature of the imagination. Poe set the precedent of the detective as an impure rationalist; and it has frequently been pointed out how the methods of Dupin, and his disciple, Holmes rely not on deduction, but induction. This is a method which required the mind to make certain leaps of the imagination. The classic example of the detective psychology can be seen in the famous mind-reading episode, which Conan Doyle took from Poe, and adapted in the adventure of the The Cardboard Box.

Why Sherlock Holmes is the Iconic Detective

Dupin is fascinated by that same element of the irrational and bizarre that characterises the Sherlock Holmes stories. The detective faith is founded on the maxim that, "once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," and the detective, by temperament, ignores the normal social conventions. Thus the narrator of Poe's story describe his friend's odd conduct in these terms:

"At the first dawn of the morning we closed all the massive shutters of our old building, lighting a couple of tapers which, strongly perfumed threw out only the ghastliest and feeblest of rays. By the aid of these we then busied our souls in dreams — reading, writing, or conversing, until warned by the clock of the advent of darkness. Then we sallied forth into the streets, arm in arm, continuing the topics of the day, or roaming far and wide until a late hour, seeking amid the wild lights of the city that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford."

The whole fin de siecle atmosphere has been vividly prefigured by Poe in this passage; and the latent elements of this atmosphere were to flourish magnificently in the euphoric character of Sherlock Holmes. The natural order has been reversed, and the detective is described as one whose interest lies in the perverse fringes of humanity. While inactive, the detective "busies his soul" with the stuff of dreams by means of opium or cocaine. (Holmes was an inveterate drug addict) But while active, he assumes a kind of wanderlust, he is consumed by a restless spirit of social inquiry. In such moments he completely identifies with the morality of his society.

It comes as no surprise to find Holmes as the exponent of art for art's sake. We begin to make clear the picture of the Holmes who "was never a very sociable fellow"; the Holmes who lived in solitude on the wilds of Dartmoor. It is perhaps no wonder either, that his ancestors were country squires. Again, how can one forget that great outburst against urban existence in The Sign of Four:

"Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-coloured houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material?"

The great city as a hostile force, as the receptacle of evil; this was Holmes' view, later to be confirmed in his exposure of Moriarty. Rousseau himself could not have expressed the romantic hostility better than in this observation of Holmes from The Bruce-Partington Plans:

"Look out of this window, Watson. See how the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cold bank. The thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim."

But unlike Rousseau, Holmes had a streak of puritanism that would have rejected the great outbursts of that French philosopher. Carlyle also has an antipathy towards him. "The suffering man ought really to 'consume his own smoke'... He had not the talent of Silence," he wrote. This distrust of the exhibitionist spirit found its logical outcome for Holmes in such dramatic gestures as are to be found at the close of The Six Napoleons or The Mazarin Stone.

S.C. Roberts has described Holmes as displaying symptoms of "frustrated desire" in his attitude to women. What is most striking in this respect is his relationship with Irene Adler. She is "the woman", a woman elevated to the level of the ideal, and for Holmes, the unobtainable. This is a romantic attitude, that is also to be found in medieval ideas of courtly love. One finds him talking of General de Merville's daughter for instance, in these terms:

"She is beautiful, but with the ethereal other world beauty of some fanatic whose thoughts are set on high. I have seen such faces in the pictures of the old masters of the Middle Ages."

This is but one aspect of Holmes' medieval interests, among which his monograph on The Polyphonic Motets of Lassus, is said "by experts to be the last word upon the subject". One does not need to mention in this connection the obvious parallel with the great revival of medieval interests the Romantics brought with them. One should observe the importance Holmes attaches to the past. "Everything comes in circles" we are told. "The old wheel turns and the same spoke comes up. It's all been done before and will be again." Such a belief manifests itself again in his leanings towards the doctrine of reincarnation.

In the later Victorian detective, the man of common sense and practical acuteness characterised by Wilkie Collins and Dickens, gives way to a much more complex personality. The later detective is a civilized gentleman and a dandy who flirts with fin de siecle aestheticism. Whereas Holmes is an eccentric Bohemian who keeps his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper and transfixes his unanswered correspondence to the mantelpiece with a jack knife, Sergeant Cuff is a creature of impeccable regularity, preserving a fresh carnation in his buttonhole.

So it can be seen that the detective is inextricably linked with spirit of his age. The age of Dickens and Thackeray could not accommodate the Bohemian, but the age of Oscar Wilde found its aspirations expressed in the figure created first by R. L. Stevenson in a novel called The Dynamiter, and shortly afterwards by Conan Doyle in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet.

The detective, says Stevenson, embodies the living consciousness of his age, and through the power of an unusually acute mind, reaches a level of moral perfection. The detective is, in fact, the fictional idealisation of Carlyle's "hero". The qualities of moral perfection that Holmes epitomises are quite clear. Holmes' actions invite us to reform existing social values, but they never ask us to oppose them.

Holmes on several occasions breaks the law; but he does not deign to step above it. Similarly the police may be inefficient but they must never be merely dismissed. Through the narrator, we are asked to regard the detective as an instrument of moral conduct. We identify with the narrator who is invariably, like Dr. Watson, the middle class man with average tastes and an average mind. Holmes exactly defines the position of his Boswell when he remarks, "Watson, you are a British jury, and I never met a man who was more eminently fitted to represent one".

The creation of Sherlock Holmes saw the emergence of a much more modern and self-aware detective. The private, rather parochial, agent of Dickens and Collins was replaced by a personality that was regarded as the antenna of a rapidly changing society. Holmes is in touch with every walk of life. His knowledge of trades and their effects upon manual workers is extensive; while the army of street urchins he employs bring him an intimate knowledge of the city. London itself is no longer a collection of parishes but a complex mass of unwieldy suburbia. And in the centre of it all lurks the detective. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

More Articles on Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: The Plagues of London

It is December 1888. The body of Queen Victoria’s physician is discovered in a railway carriage on Paddington Station. Sherlock summons his brother Mycroft to the scene. Sherlock is convinced the crime bears no resemblance to the Ripper murders but when a letter arrives at Scotland Yard, ostensibly from the Ripper, claiming he is the author of the crime, Lestrade doubts Sherlock’s wisdom. When the body of Sir James Fawcett, a leading expert on tropical diseases, is found at his home in Chelsea the day after, Sherlock realises that a challenging criminal mind is at work. This Sherlock Holmes novel, which follows the author’s own chronology of the cases of Holmes, introduces readers to a number of real-life Victorian celebrities, including Oscar Wilde. By the author of Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective.

The Baskerville Papers

When Leonard Smith, a publisher of erotic books, is found brutally murdered in his London flat, Inspector Lestrade asks Sherlock Holmes to assist him. Holmes soon suspects there is a criminal conspiracy behind the murder, a suspicion which is confirmed when Sir Henry Baskerville’s wife, formerly Beryl Stapleton, disappears. Travelling to Dartmoor, Holmes and Watson discover that Sir Henry is, along with Oscar Wilde and others, a member of Smith’s exclusive book club, and that his behaviour has become increasingly irrational. Dark events then crowd in; two telegraph boys are savagely butchered in London’s East End, Sir Henry’s maid is found strangled on the moors and there is an attempted assassination of King Edward VII. Holmes returns to London to face his mortal enemy and reveal at last the shocking truth about the cruel and seamy underbelly of Victorian society.

When Leonard Smith, a publisher of erotic books, is found brutally murdered in his London flat, Inspector Lestrade asks Sherlock Holmes to assist him. Holmes soon suspects there is a criminal conspiracy behind the murder, a suspicion which is confirmed when Sir Henry Baskerville’s wife, formerly Beryl Stapleton, disappears. Travelling to Dartmoor, Holmes and Watson discover that Sir Henry is, along with Oscar Wilde and others, a member of Smith’s exclusive book club, and that his behaviour has become increasingly irrational. Dark events then crowd in; two telegraph boys are savagely butchered in London’s East End, Sir Henry’s maid is found strangled on the moors and there is an attempted assassination of King Edward VII. Holmes returns to London to face his mortal enemy and reveal at last the shocking truth about the cruel and seamy underbelly of Victorian society. When Leonard Smith, a publisher of erotic books, is found brutally murdered in his London flat, Inspector Lestrade asks Sherlock Holmes to assist him. Holmes soon suspects there is a criminal conspiracy behind the murder, a suspicion which is confirmed when Sir Henry Baskerville’s wife, formerly Beryl Stapleton, disappears. Travelling to Dartmoor, Holmes and Watson discover that Sir Henry is, along with Oscar Wilde and others, a member of Smith’s exclusive book club, and that his behaviour has become increasingly irrational. Dark events then crowd in; two telegraph boys are savagely butchered in London’s East End, Sir Henry’s maid is found strangled on the moors and there is an attempted assassination of King Edward VII. Holmes returns to London to face his mortal enemy and reveal at last the shocking truth about the cruel and seamy underbelly of Victorian society.

New: Sherlock Holmes and The Whitechapel Women

A controversial and often disturbing account of how Holmes, the archetypal detective, discovered the identity of Jack The Ripper. Based on newly discovered journals of Dr Watson,his intimate and faithful friend, Scotland Yard confidential papers and the journals of Watson’s wife, the novel shows a view of Victorian England which peels away the layers of respectability to reveal a community just as violent and exploitative as our own.

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