How real is Sherlock Holmes, and what is the nature of his reality? On the one hand, Holmes is a fictional character from writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but on the other there is a Canon of 56 short stories and four novels defining that character. It’s hard to deny at least some reality to something so well defined.
Others have extended the concept of Holmes far beyond the original in books, movies, TV shows, and more. The original texts are in the public domain, so there is considerable freedom to explore the idea of a crime-solving duo comprised of a brainy detective plus a faithful sidekick.
As a result Holmes has a well-defined center and very fuzzy boundaries!
The reality of Sherlock Holmes isn’t the most interesting question. He’s as real as dragons or unicorns. Or the rules of baseball.
Holmes has the kind of reality that all our ideas do. (And, remember, ideas can move mountains, so they have some real world weight.) I favor the ontological anti-realist view that there is no fact of the matter when it comes to the reality of ideas. Call them real or call them fiction. Whatever.
What’s a bit more interesting is how Holmes, per The Canon, has the same sort of strong definition that baseball rules have, but the vast body of diverse works that use that definition make its boundaries vague and nebulous, as with dragons.
There is the canonical Holmes and, imposed on that, a superposition of all the other versions ever made.
As a seasonal aside, A Christmas Carol, is another literary work with a well-defined origin and a superposition of many diverse realizations of that origin.
There’s even a Doctor Who version.
My tradition every Christmas is to read the (quite short) Dickens novella and then see as many movie versions as I can find. It’s fun comparing how they adapt the text, what they keep, what they toss, what they add.
(Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, A Christmas Carol is also in the public domain. That, along with their age and sheer quality, is why there have been so many variations done on these stories.)
The Holmes and Watson model, very British, involves a highly intelligent sleuth and a contrasting sidekick. There is something of an “odd couple” nature to their relationship.
From a literary point of view, Watson existed to give Holmes someone to explain his brilliance to. Film and TV versions don’t always need the exposition (show, don’t tell!), so modern Watsons are sometimes police officials who benefit from Sherlock’s friendship (or interference).
That occurs in a number of TV shows. For example:
- The Mentalist, with former “psychic” Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) as the Sherlock and Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney) as the Police Watson.
- Castle, with mystery novelist Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) as the Sherlock and Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) as the Police Watson.
- Monk, with former homicide detective Adrian Monk (the delightful Tony Shalhoub) and, over the course of the series, two different Watsons who played the more traditional assistant-to-Sherlock role.
- Bones, with Dr. “Bones” Brennan (Emily Deschanel) as the Sherlock and FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) as the Watson.
- Rizzoli & Isles, which stretches the model a bit, with homicide detective Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon) and forensic specialist Dr. Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander) as mutual Sherlock-Watsons.
And that’s pretty much just a handful that sprung quickly to mind. (All those shows ran quite a few seasons.)
Note these follow the Holmes-Watson model without being recreations of those specific characters. As such, they follow the model in lesser or greater fidelity, depending on what stories they want to tell.
What makes these Sherlock stories is the odd-couple pairing and the brainy detective dynamic. (The last entry above strains that quite a bit. The show is probably better classified as a CSI-type police procedural.)
The first two entries twist the model in what value the Sherlock brings. Patrick Jane, as a reformed psychic con artist, could analyze people, situations, and stories. Richard Castle, due to his writing skills, could suss out the “story behind the crime” to help the police solve it.
What many of these types of shows do is make the pair a male-female couple and throw some romantic will-they-or-won’t-they into the mix.
Of course, there are many versions, old and new, of characters actually named Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.
I’m a fan of both shows. I’d give Sherlock an easy Wow! rating and Elementary a strong Ah!
I’m not a fan of the Robert Downey Jr. film versions. The first one had some interesting bits (like Sherlock thinking ahead about what was about to happen), but overall I didn’t care for it. Too much Hollywood action film and not enough Sherlock.
As an aside, did you know that Sherlock Holmes, in the original novels, never actually says, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” He does exclaim, “Elementary!” but never actually says that famous line.
(Just like Captain Kirk never actually said, “Beam me up, Scotty.”)
No discussion of shows that follow the Sherlock Holmes model would be complete without mentioning House, M.D. (2004–2012).
This version has Dr. Greg House (Hugh Laurie) as the Sherlock (a House is a Holmes) and Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) as the Watson. (This Watson is a friend more than an assistant. True to the original, perhaps the only friend “Sherlock” has.)
I loved this show, and I’ve posted about it before.
Here I’ll just mention that A.C. Doyle based his Sherlock Holmes on a real person, a Dr. Joseph Bell, famous for diagnosing people just by looking at them or talking with them.
In House, M.D., the circle closes, and “Sherlock” is a doctor diagnosing (detecting) extremely challenging medical cases.
I’ll also note that House, M.D. was a deliberate and considered analogue to Sherlock Holmes. They gave many nods to it over the series: House lived in apartment 221 B, for example, and they reference a book that (the real) Dr. Bell wrote.
As with the TV shows I listed, the Nero and Archie stories follow the model of Holmes and Watson without being a direct recreation.
In particular, Nero Wolfe is the brainy crime-solver, but a big difference here is that Sherlock was fit and physical. He often went disguised into perilous places, and he could give a good account of himself if needed (so could former military man Watson).
Nero Wolfe is obese, hates to leave his house, and insists on two two-hour sessions per day with his precious orchids. (I’m more inclined to the sentiment expressed in Chandler’s The Big Sleep that orchids are, “Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.” But I’m not a flower guy.)
Archie Goodwin is more interesting than Watson. Most people read the books for the sake of Archie Goodwin as much, or more, than for Nero Wolfe.
Another fairly strong Sherlock analogue is the Lord Peter Wimsey stories by Dorothy L. Sayers. These follow a more traditional model with an amateur sleuth and faithful assistant (servant, in this case), Bunter.
Lord Peter, like Sherlock, goes after clues and suspects, knows about all sorts of interesting crime-related and people things, and can give a good account of himself if needed.
His man, Bunter, has a handy photography hobby (complete with his own darkroom), and can also interview servants and tradespeople who might be uncomfortable talking to a wealthy Lord of the realm.
In these troubled times, it’s nice to escape to early 20th century (or even earlier) authors and their stories. Very relaxing. I’ve been reading a lot of Rex Stout and Dorothy Sayers (and Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett) lately.
It’s been decades since I read any Christie, but I do have a collection of Hercule Poirot short stories I’ve been working my way through. He was really the only Christie character I was much taken with.
The American Private Eye model is a whole different ballgame.
And I recently discovered, and like totally binged on, Veronica Mars (which was fun).
But I’ll save the PIs for another Mystery Monday.
Stay detecting, my friends!