The immortality of Sherlock Holmes, and why he lives on

Jeremy Kingston

What marks out Sherlock Holmes as different from all other fictional characters is his inexhaustible capacity for inspiring new adventures.  Favourite characters from other books – notably those by Jane Austen and Dickens – have appeared in sequels and prequels and sexed-up adaptations, but almost without exception they are set in the time when the characters first made their appearance.  With Holmes it is very different. Arthur Conan Doyle may have brought him out of retirement to break up a German spy ring in 1914, but a quarter of a century later he was battling the Nazis in a popular series of movies. Basil Rathbone played him as an athletic man in middle age though, logically, he should then have been pushing ninety.

The modern BBC adaptation, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

The modern BBC adaptation, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

The jump across time-space is even more striking in the ongoing TV series Sherlock where Benedict Cumberbatch’s urbane Holmes and Martin Freeman’s steely Watson race through the streets of an up-to-the-minute city dominated by the London Eye.  Here, the vital clue is likely to be found on the screen of a mobile.  Doyle’s Holmes would not have told Inspector Lestrade to ‘piss off’, nor would the original Watson have called Holmes, even if genially, an idiot.  These are the heroes of an absolutely contemporary crime thriller.

The pace of the action is far faster than in its predecessors but Holmes and Watson, while different in so many ways, are somehow still the same, because what is significant about them has to stay the same. No one in the history of the world has ever been as observant as Holmes, or been able to draw such perfectly exact conclusions from what he observes.  He is human but also superhuman, and it is this shifting combination that helps to bring about the rich range of performances from the many actors who have brought him to life on stage and screen, from Robert Downey Jr. to Cumberbatch. He is impossibly perfect but this does not make him perfect. He has his faults, loads of them; the Cumberbatch version admits he is a sociopath; he is a bully, rude, impatient and totally fascinating. For someone to possess such failings and yet be on the side of good – and successful in making the good side win – gives him his heroic stature.  We want to believe in the existence of such a person, even while we know it to be impossible. It is what tempts countless writers to put him in new situations, set either in the Victorian age or today.

Dr Watson is the loyal companion.  At first he was the amazed onlooker, knowledgeable in his own field but panting to keep up with the quicksilver deductions of his friend.  Over time he lost some of his stolid nature but continued to be what could be called ‘the typical Englishman.’  But as the English type changed, so has Watson. At the start of Sherlock he has returned from fighting in Afghanistan – just as in his very first appearance in the 1880s – but this time he admits that he was thrilled to be in the excitement of battle.  His character has become close to Holmes in craving excitement to stave off the boredom of a quiet life.

This film adaptation, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, was released in 2011.

Because so many variations can be played on the theme of their fight against crime, there seems no reason why writers will ever stop finding them an inspiration.  Their opponents can be of all kinds and the struggle set almost anywhere. Even back in the period when they first appeared, which is where I set my own version, Sherlock Holmes and a Scandal in Batavia. Mine is the London, the Camargue and the Cannes of the 1880s. As in so many of the Doyle originals, the fate of nations hangs upon the outcome and royal families are involved.

I was spurred into writing it by some curious events in my own life; just like Holmes, my father retired to Eastbourne after living in Crowborough – where Conan Doyle lived – and became a bee-keeper. I could have started the adventure without any explanation of how Dr Watson’s manuscript had suddenly emerged but I was keen to make it all feel as real and seemingly truthful as possible, and the Eastbourne-Crowborough connection offered a way of doing so – helped by imagining a solicitor in whose vaults the manuscript had long been interred.

Where the writers of Sherlock must have found great fun slipping some original incidents, neatly disguised, into their plots, I greatly enjoyed doing the same, the intention being to suggest that my Dr Watson is writing what truly happened but which he had to disguise for publication. The story of Holmes and Watson will never be done. They are men for all seasons.

Sherlock Holmes and a Scandal in Batavia by Jeremy Kingston will be published by Robert Hale in July 2015.

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