By Anthony Bruno  

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
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
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
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?  

1. Sherlock Holmes

2. Dr. Bell

3. Poe & the French Connection

4. Elementary, My Dear Watson

5. Bibliography

6. The Author

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