Obsession and Sherlock Holmes: Why The Two Go Hand In Hand

As you read this, filming on the third series of the BBC’s runaway success, Sherlock, has begun. Cameras are rolling. Lights are set. Continuity errors have been checked. Costumes, makeup and hair will be primed. Martin Freeman has already inspired a thousand .gif sets on tumblr. The entire fandom will collapse blissfully into hysterics. Cue the impending breakdown in 3…2…1….

As we down a cup of chamomile to calm our anxious nerves (Was Mycroft involved? What will happen to John? WHERE IS MRS. HUDSON?), it helps to know that this isn’t the first time a fan base has gone haywire over a momentous occasion in the Consulting Detective’s life. In 1893, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had grown weary of writing a character whom he considered to be a taxing and wholly irritating, one that overshadowed some of his other considerably varied works. The burden of publishing a continual weekly series in The Strand had become too much. What is a writer to do, then, when they’ve tired of a story? Why, kill off the main character and close the book, since you ask.

So, Conan Doyle did just that.


Sherlock Holmes “The Final Problem”, circa 1893

Unfortunately, this did not sit well with followers of the series. To say that fans of the great fictional detective were unimpressed would be to say that the Titanic collided with a few ice cubes, had a tussle and then moved on. What actually transpired was something more akin to a nuclear bomb being detonated in a factory full of Sour Patch Kids coated in motor oil and the souls of all the “angry men” they sang about in Les Misérables. Conan Doyle had been frustrated over fans’ letters requesting that the great detective help them solve their personal problems, but now he was receiving post of a different sort. Hate mail and threats poured in by the bundle. He was scandalized in the papers and treated contemptuously in public. After 10 years of public urgings and several unsuccessful attempts to bring attention to his unrecognized historical novels, Conan Doyle gave in and, in 1903, published the first in a series of 13 stories, entitled The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

As we all know, Sherlock Holmes went on to become one of the most celebrated and widely read fictional characters of all time and Conan Doyle cemented his place in the world of literary royalty. Still, it begs the question: what is it about Holmes that fans love so single-mindedly?

Could it be the detective’s sharp wits? His aversion to the public through any means necessary? His friendship with Dr. Watson? Do we love the man or his methods?

Part of the answer lies simply in the way the stories were written: Conan Doyle himself was considered such a unique mind that he was solicited by Scotland Yard to consult in public court cases, which he accomplished to great acclaim, partially leading to the establishment of The Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907. Conan Doyle’s Holmes novels were no different; the methodology employed by Sherlock and Watson to unravel the most curious of cases is, to this day, so astounding that many are still puzzled by the trail of clues in each of the stories. Conan Doyle never wrote crass or tasteless plotlines that were jumbled by the time you found the other end of the yarn. Instead, his tales were interwoven and tactfully orchestrated to yield only the most intricately simple results possible, conclusions that still lead us to shout, “How did I not notice that?!”

The second half of Sherlock Holmes’ success lies with the detective himself: the character of Sherlock lends itself to so many interpretations, while still maintaining that innate “Holmesian” quality that we all fiercely love. Brainy, sociopathic, drug addicted, deep thinking and gentlemanly in the most perplexing of ways, Sherlock Holmes is every actor’s dream project. In the aforementioned BBC production of the same name, Sherlock (played exquisitely by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a modern day incarnation of the great detective who comes off as a case-laden, tech-savvy, quick-witted and staggeringly genius-level “high-functioning sociopath”. Many believe that this was the Sherlock Holmes Conan Doyle had pictured while piecing together his numberless stories. Still others see him as Elementary’s eccentric Jonny Lee Miller, a veteran actor whose contemporary take on Holmes is more along the lines of a pragmatic, logic-ridden former addict who employs his free time occupying the NYPD’s crime scenes and evidence lockers.


Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock in the CBS drama Elementary

The massively talented Miller gives fans a rare glimpse into the softer side of the astute puzzle-solver while the character unknowingly bolsters his own self-confidence through instructing fellow colleague and protégé, Dr. Joan Watson.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law offered fans an action-packed cliff dive in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 flick; Ritchie examined Holmes’ physicality and the skillfully planned sequences of action as they would have run through the detective’s head. The friendship of Holmes and Watson in this particular production is humorous in the most endearing of ways. Further classic Holmes interpretations include turns by the great Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone and Christopher Lee, masterpieces of tradition and true works of art not to be missed. The character of Sherlock Holmes, along with the oft underrated intellect of companion Dr. John (or Joan) Watson, combined with the delicacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s storylines seems to always produce masterful outcomes worthy of only the best re-interpretations by the best actors.

Which incarnation of Holmes do you love most, or do you love them all equally? Have you read the stories? Which ones are your favorite stories?

As a massive BBC Sherlock fan myself, I’ve already come to terms with the fact that I’m close to becoming an original “1893-er”: my anxiety levels have risen significantly and I’m a hair’s breadth away from setting fire to my couch over the delay of Series 3, due out in the fall of this year. I’ve been reading and re-reading Sherlock Holmes since I was barely out of diapers and, even now, I can’t shake the hold that Conan Doyle has on me. I try not to rack my brain over it. After all, there is only room up there for one futile, unanswered question these days:

…HOW DID SHERLOCK SURVIVE THAT FALL?!?

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