January 27, 2011

A Bit O' The Classics - Sherlock Holmes

Years ago I read one of the more famous Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The Sign of Four, and attempted to read a few others, but was put off by the main character's egotism and could not manage it. Over the past months, however, I have watched almost all of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes adaptions, including the Adventures, the Casebook, the Return, and the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Something about Brett's portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective had me hooked, and I hastily bought both Bantam Classics volumes of The Complete Novels and Stories of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes is a character that most people either love or hate; there is not often a middle ground (except, of course, for those who haven't read any of Conan Doyle's detective works at all). Hating him would be perfectly understandable, judging from his cool arrogance, his occasional petulance, and his scorn for those without minds like his own. He goes through highs and lows like a roller-coaster, spending his days, when he is without a case, either sulking with his long-stemmed pipe or sprawled out on the sofa in a daze, probably narcotic-induced. He apparently has little regard for anyone. He lives, generally speaking, in his own little world.

With a description like that, it seems a wonder that anyone likes him. Yet the fact that people do means that there is something more to Holmes than this, or that Conan Doyle managed to write such an egotistical character with charm. In reading Holmes, I found it was both.

This is not to say that anything in my description of Holmes is wrong; he is, by turns, arrogant, petulant, and scornful, and no mistake. But he is not merely all these things, else he would not have become nearly as popular as he did. For one thing, though his arrogance can be a little grating, one does at least have to concede that he is not conceited without reason; he is not like Inspector Lestrade, who preens over having solved a crime, while nabbing the wrong fellow. He is a genius, and keenly aware of the fact. However, Holmes is not without his failures, and not above being disgusted with himself when he overlooks a clue or finds himself (as he does, albeit rarely) stumped. There is a limit to his conceit.
"'Watson,' said he, 'if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper "Norbury" in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.'" (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: The Yellow Face.)
As for his petulance during times when he is without a case, the very childishness that on the one hand can make his behavior irritating can also make it endearing. Holmes is very much like a child in some respects - quick either to fling himself wholeheartedly into work, or to give up all pretense of labor; ascending rapidly to the pinnacle of delight, and plunging again two seconds later into Anne Shirley's "Depths of Despair." These wild mood swings are amusing to watch, and it is always satisfying to watch him bound back out of his dejection with the arrival of a new, challenging case.

His scorn for Scotland Yard is also understandable, as Conan Doyle surrounds him with inspectors like Gregson and Lestrade, who are occasionally effective, usually blundering, and always looking down their noses at Holmes' "methods" until the last minute. Coming to Holmes is always their last resort, and though he always manages to solve the case for them, they then kindly inform him that they will "make something of him yet." Yet Holmes is generally good-natured about allowing them to take the credit for problems he has solved, and rarely asks for more than the enjoyment a case provides for him.

Besides these points, Conan Doyle's major weapon for making Sherlock Holmes likable is the fact that the story is told, not from the detective's point of view, but through the first-person narration of Dr. Watson. However, Watson deserves a post of his very own, so I will enlarge on that later.


  1. I happened upon your blog via a link from The Penslayer and have really enjoyed browsing through it! I like the way you appreciate the classics and analyze characters so thoroughly. I love Sherlock Holmes and Watson too, though you're right - Holmes can be extremely irritating!
    I'm looking forward to reading more. =)

    ~ Liz

  2. Hi, Liz! Yes, Holmes can be most irritating; though once you learn to take him at face value, he becomes amusing instead (for the most part). Have you read the short story in which he tests a theory by attempting to harpoon a dead pig? One of his more hands-on approaches to the scientific method...

    Thanks for commenting, and I'm glad you enjoyed poking through my posts!

  3. Hhhmmm... haven't read that story, but it sounds quite amusing! Do you remember what it was called?

    Thank you for following Awake and for the comment! =)

  4. It's The Adventure of Black Peter, in the collection "The Return of Sherlock Holmes." (And no, I didn't have that memorized; I had to look it up. There are simply too many stories to remember them all!)

    And you're very welcome! Your blog is lovely.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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