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Why Sherlock Holmes Keeps Coming Back

Flickr Photo/samaja

One of the most popular characters in literature, stage, film and television started with a struggling doctor trying to put food on the table.

In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, selling stories to magazines and papers as a side profession, introduced a detective and doctor duo in “The Mystery of Uncle Jeremy’s Household” – a prototype that would later become the ubiquitous Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in “A Study in Scarlet” and an entire canon that followed.

Tom Keogh, an arts and film writer for the Seattle Times said that the Holmes character has a very special appeal. “Holmes is a genius and a specialist, and like all specialists he gives us a sense of confidence because he’s someone who can look at something inscrutable and tell you the who, what, when, where and why,” he said to Marcie Sillman on KUOW’s The Record. “And I think we always take comfort in something like that; whether it’s a doctor or a scientist or someone who can tell us things that we don’t fully understand.”

But the detective isn’t a perfect character. “Holmes pays a certain price for his genius – he’s certainly a dark character, he’s a misanthrope, an eccentric. He has foregone certain experiences in life that the rest of us take for granted like relationships, love and romance,” Keogh said.

Keogh said that the number of actors that have portrayed Holmes in some way numbers in the triple digits. BBC is on its third series of Sherlock, its modern-day interpretation of Doyle’s stories. CBS’ has its own with Elementary, which has been running since 2012. A major motion picture starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law hit theatres in 2009, and countless spinoffs, adaptations and inspirations have been on screens and stages dating all the way back to Doyle’s lifetime.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The famous doctor detective duo in a variety of treatments (clockwise from top): in a 2009 feature film \"Sherlock Holmes,\" CBS' \"Elementary,\" and BBC's \"Sherlock.\"", "fid": "8472", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201401/Sherlock-test.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW/Akiko Oda, pictures from Facebook"}]]Doyle grappled with alternative versions and parodies during his career due to flexible copyright practices. “At that time, the rights situation in England was that somebody could take your character and build original story material around them. So your character wasn’t sacred but your story ideas were,” Keogh explained.

The way Doyle wrote Holmes seems to be well suited to the various treatments the character has received. “Holmes was a deliberately underdeveloped human being,” Keogh said. “He made choices in his life almost like a monk makes choices: to not have certain experiences in order to focus on a mission. That really makes him almost a blank canvas for other people to then come around and presume to give you their interpretation of Holmes."

Keogh said that Holmes is best described as a mosaic of elements. “You have to stand back from the mosaic to try to get a comprehensive sense of who the character is.”

Keogh recommended the whole canon of Doyle’s work, but particularly liked “The Hound of the Baskervilles” due to the conflict Holmes faces between his interest in the paranormal and his rationalist, methodical nature. 

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.

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