|Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (CORBIS)
In a sea of fictional detectives that includes the greats, the
near-greats, and a great many wannabes, the lighthouse that shines
above them all is, of course, Sherlock Holmes. Created by Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle and presented through the narration of the
fictional Dr. Watson, Holmes is the most brilliant detective ever.
His powers of observation seem supernatural until he
utters the famous phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” and
proceeds to enumerate the logical steps that have brought him to a
prescient conclusion. The most innocuous detail can lead
Holmes to profound revelations. But where did these amazing
powers of deduction originate? Did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle make
up Sherlock Holmes out of whole cloth, or did he have a model in
mind when he created the great detective?
|Basil Rathbone as
Sherlock Holmes with Dr. Watson (CORBIS)
As June Thompson points out in her book Holmes and Watson,
it’s generally agreed that Sherlock Holmes’s professional career
started in 1877 and ended in 1903. Conan Doyle describes
Holmes as tall and lean. He studied fencing at university
(probably either Cambridge or Oxford—Conan Doyle never says and
scholars disagree as to which would have been Holmes’s likely alma
mater), and he excelled at boxing, though his mind is his most
effective weapon. He attended chemistry and anatomy classes at
St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in West Smithfield, where Watson
was a medical student. Holmes spends much of his time
conducting experiments in the science of detection, including the
identification of footprint and bicycle tire impressions,
handwriting and perfume analyses, and the classifications of paper
stock and watermarks. The chemical experiments he
conducts in his rooms at 221A Baker Street are often a source of
consternation for his good friend and colleague, Dr. Watson.
Holmes also possesses some knowledge of geology and botany, though
as Julian Symons points out in Bloody Murder, Holmes is
“egotistically proud of the vast fields of his ignorance,”
including matters of “literature, philosophy, and astronomy.”
(Given some of Holmes’ informed observations relating to great
philosophers and writers, his “ignorance” might be a bit
exaggerated.) He’s also an accomplished violinist, but in
fits of depression he tends to “scrape carelessly at the fiddle
thrown across his knee.”
|William Gillette plays
Sherlock Holmes (CORBIS)
A master of disguise, Holmes can convincingly alter his size,
age, or gender. Interestingly, the popular image of Holmes in
his deerstalker cap with a drop-stem pipe in his mouth was not Conan
Doyle’s invention. Though Holmes wears a variety of
hats, the word “deerstalker” never appears in the stories.
His use of tobacco is present throughout, but the famous drop-step
pipe is the handiwork of actor William Gillette who played Sherlock
Holmes on the stage at the turn of the twentieth century.
Gillette found it difficult to deliver his lines with a
straight-stem pipe bobbing up and down in his mouth, so he adopted
the drop-step, and the prop stuck with the character.
Holmes is known to be moody and antisocial, cloistering himself
in his rooms for weeks on end, brooding and indulging in his
infamous drug habit. He started using morphine and
cocaine as a student and became dependent upon his “seven-percent
solution” of cocaine, mainlining it three times a day at the start
of The Sign of Four. Watson admonishes him for his drug
use, and in the later stories Holmes apparently has kicked his
habit. It should be pointed out, however, that Holmes’s drug
use was not illegal and would not be until the Dangerous Drug Acts
of 1965 and 1967.
Frequently bored with life and what he called the “monotony of
existence,” Holmes “loathe[s] every form of society with his
whole Bohemian soul.” He has no lovers and would likely have
been a difficult mate. Symons thinks that Conan Doyle
deliberately ruled out romance because he believed that Holmes had
“to be a man immune from ordinary human weaknesses and
passions.” Holmes has larger concerns.
Holmes is such a vivid character, readers can’t help but wonder
where the idea for him originated. Conan Doyle himself was a
physician and appears closer to Watson’s character. The
physical descriptions of Watson even closely resemble the author,
from the hale, broad-shouldered physique to the thick, walrus
mustache. Peter Costello in his book, The Real World of
Sherlock Holmes, theorizes that the inspiration for Holmes came
late one evening in March 1885 when young Dr. Doyle returned to his
home in Southsea, a suburb of Portsmouth, to be greeted by a
detective from the local police force. The police had received
an anonymous letter regarding the suspicious death and hasty burial
of a young man who had recently been a “resident patient” in
Conan Doyle’s home, and the detective had come to investigate.
Conan Doyle was twenty-five years old at the time, just four years
out of medical school, and he’d been struggling to build his
practice. His earnings were meager for a professional man, and
he felt that his station in life was already precarious, so the
unexpected visit from the detective rattled him. According to
Costello, this incident demonstrated to Conan Doyle “the narrow
margin of fate that protects the innocent, the minor twist of
evidence that could acquit or hang an accused.” Conan Doyle
had acted properly with the patient, who had died of meningitis, and
after a courteous interview, the detective did not pursue the
matter. But the inquiry had left its mark. One year
later in the same room where the detective had questioned the young
doctor, Conan Doyle started to work on the first Sherlock Holmes
novel, A Study in Scarlet.
But was this local detective, whose visit Costello characterizes
as “sinister,” the model for Sherlock Holmes? Doubtful.
In his autobiographical novel The Stark Munro Letters, Conan
Doyle makes much of the incident but not of the detective. The
models for Holmes were more likely grander figures whose style and
panache were more in keeping with the world’s greatest detective.
But was there one model in particular who formed the mold from which
Sherlock Holmes was cast? And was this model a real person or
another author’s fictional creation?