Why is Sherlock Holmes still so popular?


Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the first Sherlock Holmes story in 1886. It was published a year later in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. Holmes was instantly popular, and went on to feature in a further 56 short stories and 4 novels by Conan Doyle over the next 40 years.

However, the stories of Sherlock Homes, the world’s greatest detective, were not to remain the preserve of Conan Doyle alone. Such is the love for the literary detective, his partner in detection Dr John Watson and his arch enemy, James Moriarty that they have been recreated by dozens of other writers, film directors, and television companies since Doyle’s death.

When talking about his novel, The House of Silk, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery to be authorised by Conan Doyle’s estate, Anthony Horowitz explained that he’d be an admirer of the Holmes mysteries since he was sixteen. He was in love with the whole package Doyle created and wrapped in the atmosphere of 19th century London. “It’s the fog, the cobblestones, the fire flickering, the River Thames, the sound of the Stradivarius, the strange villains,” he says. “It’s the last gasp of English history before technology takes over. … It really is the last glimmer of an entire age before it comes to modern times just around the corner. Maybe that’s why we want to cling … to it and remember it.”

Robert Downey Jr was a popular Holmes in Guy Richie’s Hollywood version of Holmes, and few Sherlock Holmes fans would argue against the brilliance of Basil Rathbone’s depiction of the great detective for the big screen, and Jeremy Brett’s perfect Holmes for ITV in the 1980’s.

In 2010 Sherlock Holmes came bang up to date, with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modernising of the tales. Using a contemporary backdrop, Sherlock, Dr. Watson and Mrs Hudson are transplanted from Victorian to modern London. By staying faithful to Doyle’s stories but adding a dark layer of modern suspense via text messages, bombs and scientific analysis in an up-to-the-minute laboratory, the appeal remains much the same.

But why do we still love Holmes? It has to be the combination of Sherlock’s intellect, his fascinating skills of deduction and observation, as well as the manner in which Holmes works, that draws us in. Once he becomes involved in a case, nothing else matters until it is solved. We join him, up close and personal, at a murder scene – fascinated rather than reviled.

On a personal level, Sherlock also fascinates. He can solve any crime, but he remains socially inept and tactless – traits which actually endear him to his sympathetic and admiring readers and viewers. His friendship with Watson is also intriguing. They argue and spat, but their loyalty to each other is guaranteed.

Sherlock Holmes is the world’s most famous detective, and arguably one of the most enduring literary characters of all time. The only remaining question is, how will the story be developed next?

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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