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The ghost of Sherlock Holmes

By Douglas Kerr

The ghost of Sherlock Holmes started life (if that’s the word) early. Conan Doyle sent the detective plunging over the Reichenbach Falls in the grip of Professor Moriarty in “The Final Problem”, published in the Strand magazine in December 1893. The following year, music-hall audiences were joining in the chorus of a popular song, written by Richard Morton and composed and sung by H. C. Barry.

“Sherlock, Sherlock,”
You can hear the people cry,
“That’s the ghost of Sherlock Holmes,”
As I go creeping by.
Sinners shake and tremble
Wherever this bogie roams,
And people shout, “He’s found us out,
It’s the ghost of Sherlock Holmes.”

Sherlock Holmes has proved one of the most resilient of all literary characters, and the career of his ghost furnishes a proof of the afterlife to warm the heart of a Spiritualist like his creator. The dark years after Reichenbach were relieved for the detective’s admirers with the debut in 1899 of William Gillette’s stage play Sherlock Holmes, which adapted material from a number of the Conan Doyle stories. Gillette played the role of Holmes some 1300 times over three decades, accessorizing the character onstage with the now iconic deerstalker hat, pipe, and magnifying glass. When Gillette asked Conan Doyle if Holmes might be married in the stage adaptation, the author cabled in reply: “You may marry or murder or do what you like with him.” This is a licence that has been joyfully accepted by later conjurors of the great detective’s ghost.

Chief among these was Conan Doyle himself, who brought Holmes back for a pre-Reichenbach adventure in The Hound of the Baskervilles in the Strand in 1901, and then explained in “The Adventure of the Empty House” that his hero had not after all died. Holmes’s adventures, sixty in all, continued until 1927. Meanwhile, exchanging ectoplasm for celluloid, since Sherlock Holmes Baffled in 1903 the great detective had embarked on an active spectral life in the cinema. Notable among film Holmeses was the splendid Basil Rathbone, who played the part in fourteen Hollywood films between 1939 and 1946, supported by Nigel Bruce as a decidedly dim Watson. In the Rathbone films the question of what literary critics call reaccentuation becomes an issue. At first, Rathbone’s Holmes films have a familiar Victorian setting of fogbound streets, gaslight and hansom cabs.  But later, Holmes, miraculously unageing, becomes his audience’s contemporary, continuing his adventures in an age of air travel, plastic surgery and Nazi saboteurs. It is an anachronistic spirit that lives on in the hi-tech TV Sherlock.

As if there were not enough in the original character for an actor to feast on, later film Holmeses have included a drug-addicted paranoiac, a drunken actor, a lovesick schoolboy, a bungling incompetent, an action hero, and a mouse.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, c. 1930
Meanwhile readers were tending the detective’s afterlife in different ways, as Holmes became the inspiration for many of the classic detectives of the 1920s and 1930s. The future theologian and detective author Ronald Knox, while still a student at Oxford, wrote “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes”, which is a pretty good proto-structuralist analysis of the tales at the same time as being a spoof of the academic criticism of the time. It became the trigger for what Dorothy L. Sayers, another Conan Doyle admirer and detective-story practitioner, called “the game of applying the methods of the Higher Criticism to the Sherlock Holmes canon”. There was a good deal of this in the interwar years, often written with a distinctly high-table sense of what’s amusing, and it  became entangled with the related game of pretending John Watson was the author of the Holmes stories, and Arthur Conan Doyle merely his editor or literary agent. Enthusiasts congregated in branches of the Baker Street Irregulars, giving themselves the names of characters from the stories, and discussing contentious matters such as the location of Watson’s war wound, and where Sherlock Holmes went to school. It’s hard to imagine a similar interest in the backstory of Dorothea Brooke or Charles Bovary.

No other fictional detective – in fact no other literary character – has had such a vigorous and varied afterlife. Where after all are the Sons of Father Brown, the Bellona Clubmen, or the Friends of Hercule Poirot? With the character in the public domain, there are more Sherlock Holmes stories being written today than ever before. Through the mediumship of new authors, Holmes has been summoned from the grave (or from his bee-keeping retirement in Sussex), to rejoin battle with the diabolical Professor Moriarty, to meet Oscar Wilde and Queen Victoria and Sigmund Freud and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and to solve – and in at least one case to commit – the Whitechapel Murders of Jack the Ripper.

For many people Jeremy Brett, who starred in the meticulously “period” Granada TV series between 1984 and 1994, is the definitive Holmes. But there are modern audiences who may never have heard of Conan Doyle, for whom Holmes is the action hero Robert Downey Jnr in the Guy Ritchie films, or Benedict Cumberbatch in the brilliantly modernized Sherlock, or Jonny Lee Miller in the CBS series Elementary, with his companion Dr Joan Watson.

Holmes has benefited from today’s fashion for neo-Victorian novels. New media and the internet have only given him a new lease of posthumous life. Holmes stories have been subject to mash-up, where the original text is spliced with new material or married to a different genre (like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Anyone for Shreklock? Holmes is a natural for steampunk, stories set in an alternative-history, parallel-universe Victorian world. Holmes and Watson are favourites in slash fiction, where a gay relationship is imagined between fictional characters, and new online stories developed about them, ranging from the pornographic to the sweetly romantic. In comics and cartoons, pastiche and merchandise and scholarly books, Holmes’s soul goes marching on.

Why does the character continue to haunt us? If we really knew the secret of Holmes’s immortality, perhaps we could all be best-selling authors. Conan Doyle himself could not quite understand his detective’s appeal. But some aspects of his unique fascination seem clear enough. With his cerebral triumphs and his imaginative eccentricity, he offers a beguiling combination of science and poetry: the poetry humanizes the science and the science seems to anchor the poetry in the real world. Armed with a magnifying glass or mobile phone, we recognize in Holmes an inhabitant of modernity, of our world. Finally, Sherlock Holmes is no more a singular character than is Don Quixote. He belongs in an interdependent partnership. In afterlife as in life, the ghost of Sherlock Holmes would be lost without the ghost of Dr Watson.

Douglas Kerr is Professor of English at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Conan Doyle: Writing, Profession, and Practice.

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Image credit: Photograph of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes [public domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. brett sidaway

    Great blog. Conan Doyle must have foreseen the coming of critical theory – he set so many ‘lines of enquiry’ with inconsistencies both in the stories themseves and in the ‘timeline’. He also got Watson’s name wrong in one story. From early on Conan Doyle was playing on the idea of representation: these stories were also ‘tales’ written by Watson – and a topic is the difference between the ‘reality’ of the tales as Holmes would see it and how the public will expect the tales to be told. There is a an examination of ‘scientific’ writing vs ‘romance’ story telling throughout the works.

  2. Randall Stock

    Excellent blog posting that does a nice job of covering a great deal of Sherlockian history.

    I will quibble with one point. As I describe on my web page about the Rathbone Holmes movies, his Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) was actually the first Holmes movie set in in the proper Victorian setting. His next Holmes movie was also set in 1890s. Then a different movie studio took over the series and his Holmes movies returned to the then-standard practice of placing Holmes in a contemporary setting with the audience.

    Since that time it’s become more typical to place Holmes in the Victorian era, but there are TV movies/shows in the 1980s-90s that moved Holmes into that era, or even into the future. And of course, there are many characters that arguably derive many of their traits from Holmes (Spock and Dr. House are two obvious ones).

  3. brett sidaway

    Of course it is possible to argue that SH was not Victorian at all – as most of his adventures were written post 1901. Are the stories closer to the scientific realism of Wells than to the sensationalist style of Dickens or Collins. Is the drug taking and adventures amongst the ‘low life’ closer to fin-de-siecle than High Victorianism?

  4. Randall Stock

    It’s pretty clear that Holmes is most associated with the Victorian era, albeit the end of that era. While slightly more than half of the Holmes stories were written after her death, all but a few were set in the 1880s and 1890s.

    So the proper setting is clearly Victorian. As to the character and style, these are more transitional and certainly more similar to Wells (also late Victorian) than Dickens or Collins.

  5. Felix

    Excellent blog posting that does a nice job, Yes Sherlock Holmes has proved one of the most resilient of all literary characters.

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