The Real Sherlock Holmes

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.

The Alastair Sim version, Scrooge (1951), is the classic one for me, very true to the original, but there are many fine versions.

(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:

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.

One early version of these shows, Scarecrow and Mrs. King (Bruce Boxleitner and Kate Jackson), learned it’s often a mistake when their leads do take the romantic plunge.


Of course, there are many versions, old and new, of characters actually named Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up!

Most of these involve new stories, but the British Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role and Martin Freeman as Watson, created new stories with references to the A.C. Doyle originals.

Meanwhile, a current USA version, Elementary, features Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock (operating in New York) and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. Both of these were excellent shows.

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.


I’ve posted more recently about a literary analogue, the Nero Wolfe stories by Rex Stout.

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.

As long as I’m on British sleuths, a shout out to two Agatha Christie characters: Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Poirot, especially, is another Sherlock analogue.

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.

I also love the works of Hammett, Chandler, Robert B. Parker, Tony Hillerman, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky (to name just my favorites).

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!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

20 responses to “The Real Sherlock Holmes

  • Wyrd Smythe

    (One more day. One more post.)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    It seems any question of Sherlock Holmes’ reality comes down to language ambiguity. Something that, I think, often true with philosophical questions.

    Holmes undoubtedly exists as an idea, or as you describe, a galaxy of related ideas. On the other hand, a person like, say, Stephen King, is really just an idea to me, but one that there is enough evidence for me to say that there’s a living breathing human causing those ideas.

    But then there’s someone like Julius Ceasar. He is now just an idea. Presumably there was once a living breathing human, but now only the idea remains, the informational patterns, the causal waves he left. (Broader and more enduring than all but a smattering of other human beings.)

    But then we get to someone like Homer, who is an idea, but it’s not clear whether he ever existed, at least as a person. We have zero reliable historical information on him. It raises the interesting question whether if the Iliad were written by one actual poet, would that poet count as Homer, even if “Homer” wasn’t what he was called in life?

    Presumably we wouldn’t consider Joseph Bell to count as Holmes, since Doyle changed things about him and presented him as a totally different person. But Holmes is arguably a causal wave of both Bell and Doyle.

    It’s interesting that in the end, all we get are the ideas, the models, some of which we attach a “real human being” attribute to, usually because it’s predictive.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “It seems any question of Sherlock Holmes’ reality comes down to language ambiguity.”

      There definitely is language ambiguity regarding the word “real” — it has to cover a lot of ground. It seems any serious discussion involving the word requires asking exactly what version of “real” is meant. That language ambiguity has a lot to do with Chalmers’ ontological anti-realism, I think.

      On top of that, you raise some intriguing ontological questions. Per ontological anti-realism, this is just my view…

      I would start with the distinction between concrete and abstract reality. I define a concrete object as something where I could potentially experience its physical properties. (For example, radio waves are concrete because I can experience them with a radio.)

      So Stephen King, definitely concrete (I’m willing to assume). Likewise (again assuming) Caesar. I’d need a time machine or time viewer, but assuming those events and people existed in my physical reality, there is some theoretical potential to experience them.

      Homer, as you say, is an interesting case. Assuming there is some fact of the matter, “Homer” may be mythical, a pen name, or an early version of James S. A. Corey or George Sand.

      We were talking before about ontology and how, per realism, there is always some fact of the matter, even if it’s forever beyond our ken. So, too, I think, with King, Caesar, and Homer, as with Corey and Sand.

      For our point of view, though, someone such as Homer does seem lost to myth. As we know, historical information decays over time. For me, in the end, I’d tend to call all these people — on the premise they actually existed — concretely real.

      “Presumably we wouldn’t consider Joseph Bell to count as Holmes,”

      I wouldn’t. Bell was a source of inspiration filtered through Doyle’s mind, so I’d tend to see Doyle as the sole creator of Holmes and Watson. But I would agree Bell created causal waves that affected Doyle in a big way.

      I like your metaphor of a causal wave — it spreads out and, in mass numbers, programs other minds to have their own model Holmes. In some cases, those other minds rang in response and emitted their own related casual waves. (Which added to the mass programming and, in some cases, spawned a third set of waves, and so on.)

      “It’s interesting that in the end, all we get are the ideas,”

      Yeah, and it can go all the way to solipsism. I assume the people I actually see and speak to are real. Likewise distant friends I now only e-communicate with — at some point in the past I could see and speak to them.

      People I’ve only ever met on the internet are a little more dubious, right? You can’t be sure I’m real. We don’t have the AI (as far as you know), so I’m probably a real human, but I could be any kind of person and not the retired in-his-60s software designer I represent myself as.

      The next level would be internet support “people” and I know some of them are already bots. Right now it’s easy to tell, but I think that’s going to get interesting in the next few years.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        For me personally, you’re far more likely to be real than Stephen King. I’ve had innumerable conversations with you. You’ve passed a very extended Turing test. For me at least, Stephen King hasn’t. Not that I seriously consider it likely that King doesn’t exist.

        Of course, I only know for sure you’re human, not that you’re not like Aech in Ready Player One, someone very different than portrayed. (And naturally you can’t be sure of the same thing about me.)

        My working assumption is that, ontologically, there is always a fact of the matter. However, that requires that the proposition be precise and coherent. I’ve been thinking lately about the differences between science and philosophy.

        Science seems to rely heavily on precise communication, often in mathematical or domain specific notation. Philosophy works with language. While there’s often an attempt to be precise, it seems like a lot of imprecision and ambiguity sneak in. It’s why so many philosophical debates amount to people talking past each other with different definitions.

        Not that science is immune from those issues. The current terminology morass associated with emotions comes to mind. It seems like the kind of thing that hinders progress.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        So you’re saying, for you, reality is gauged based on personal interaction? Makes sense for an instrumentalist! 🙂

        Re science and philosophy, there is also that science deals with the concrete whereas philosophy is much more abstract — a world of ideas rather than things.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “So you’re saying, for you, reality is gauged based on personal interaction?”

        I’d say it all starts there. But obviously I have to accept a lot of information on trust. The question is which sources to trust and which to dismiss? Sources that convey information that turns out to be confirmed by my personal experience will get more trust, sources that don’t, less.

        Of course, it’s complicated. I trust some sources for certain types of information but not others. For example, I’ll pay a lot more attention to what a historian specializing in ancient history says about classical Greece than their opinions on nuclear power.

        On philosophy and science, certainly philosophy can get much more abstract than science, since science is generally expected to stick to what is at least conceivably testable some day. What’s been bothering me lately is a tendency I’m seeing from philosophers to regard their conclusions as having the same certitude as empirically driven ones. Even when I agree with them, I’m finding that increasingly annoying.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “But obviously I have to accept a lot of information on trust.”

        Everything beyond solipsism! 🙂

        I quite agree with what you said. I was just mildly bemused by the idea that I would have a higher level of reality to you than Stephen King does. I get what you’re saying — it’s based on all the interaction time — but there’s lots of video footage of King, not to mention a vast body of his work (a much larger oeuvre than mine). It wouldn’t surprise me if there are audio books of King works read by Stephen King.

        His causal wave seems much larger than mine or yours, so I’d almost be inclined to see King as more real than me, at least objectively speaking. That said, per my own rules, all three of us are contemporary concrete physical objects (I’m assuming you two are), so generally on the same level in my ontological hierarchy.

        But it certainly is true that my subjective model of you is much bigger and more detailed than my subjective model of Stephen King. As far as my Kantian transcendental idealism view of things, entities like you or other folks I’ve gotten to know “well” (for some definition of it) over this here intertubes thing, y’all are way more real!

        (Heh. My sister, a big Stephen King fan over the years, and who has never met any of y’all, would have a much different subjective take on things. I don’t think she’s ever met or seen him in person, but she’s seen interviews and read lots of his books. Subjective realities obviously differ.)

        “On philosophy and science, certainly philosophy can get much more abstract than science, since science is generally expected to stick to what is at least conceivably testable some day.”

        True. I meant it on an even more meta level: the very content of what those two studies differs. Science is the study of the concrete physical world. Philosophy, ultimately, is the study of ideas and meaning. They’re looking in two quite different directions, is what I was getting at.

        “Even when I agree with them, I’m finding that increasingly annoying.”

        Sounds like we’ve been having some similar thoughts. I’ve never been a big fan of the Anthropic argument, and I really don’t think much of the Doomsday argument. Closer to home, I think we’re both askance at p-zombies and Giant File Rooms (and poor colorless Mary).

        There’s been meta-talk (Sabine Hossenfelder and Peter Woit are participants) about how theoretical physics has started chasing phantasms of imagination. There’s a similar reasoning from argument that goes on there.

        I’ve got a post about idealism about ready to publish (next year), and it gets into the idea that “thinkers” (philosophers, theoretical physicists, others) can fall into the trap of believing too much in their own (often twisted) arguments. It can lead to some pretty nonsensical ideas.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “Subjective realities obviously differ.”

        That seems almost like the definition of “subjective”, a unique viewpoint based on particular history, location, dispositions, and ways of processing information. The trick is to remember how different those other viewpoints can be.

        On the Hossenfelder, Woit crowd, I think they’re at their strongest when pushing back on the certitude some physicists exude about theories just because of their mathematical beauty. But I think they get carried away when they imply that theoretical physicists shouldn’t even explore such theories. The story of Copernicus seems like a caution against being too rigid on that front.

        I’ll be interested to see that idealism post. For me, it always comes back to which models are predictive. If someone says everything is mental, what then? What is that supposed to mean? That we can mentally change reality? That certainly doesn’t line up with my personal experiences. And if that’s not what it means, then it seems at risk of just being empty semantics.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “But I think they get carried away when they imply that theoretical physicists shouldn’t even explore such theories.”

        Hossenfelder does that a lot, and it grates on me. I like her best when she’s explaining physics — she can do that really well. But all her campaigning about not building bigger colliders… I’m sorry, but science always looks.

        “If someone says everything is mental, what then?”

        In the post I quote a fairly recent Chalmers paper where he mentions a quote he heard long ago:

        “One starts as a materialist, then one becomes a dualist, then a panpsychist, and one ends up as an idealist.”

        The idea is one is first impressed by science, but encounters the hard problem. That leads to panpsychism, which leads to the idea that everything is mental, perhaps exclusively.

        But I see the same unbounded over-thinking here I do in multiverses and other non-empirical “results” — I am not persuaded.

        As I say in that post-to-be, materialism is still what our evidence points to. Maybe things get weird enough that we’ll need some form of dualism if materialism just can’t cut it. But to go beyond that doesn’t seem coherent to me. Panpsychism has major problems, and (I see) idealism as just flat nutty.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think Hossenfelder would be better off arguing for what type of research she’d like to see funded, rather than attempting to tear down other attempts. I can understand an initial post or two questioning the investment, but she practically went on a crusade about it.

        (BTW, her last name always makes me think of the cries for hasenpfeffer from a king trying to eat Bugs Bunny in one of the shorts.)

        Everyone always thinks the path of intellectual exploration inevitably leads to their position. I actually started as a dualist and moved the other way.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        My dad was a Lutheran pastor, and I was raised in the church, so my early worldview programming is definitely dualistic, and I retain some of that still (more nuanced, I’d like to think, than my parents 🙂 ). My interests in science and technology (and SF!) moved me, as it apparently did you, more towards materialism.

        Bottom line, really, is that all four views have issues, but materialism seems at least accessible to science. I suppose it’s possible, per the old joke, that we’re looking for our keys under the street light because that’s where there’s light and we can see anything.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I was raised Catholic, although not in any strict fashion. Strangely enough, most of the early science fiction I imbibed never really pushed me away from dualism. A lot of it involved telepathy and other paranormal aspects that only encouraged dualistic thinking. I was in my late 30s before I explicitly questioned dualism.

        In retrospect, my thinking was often inconsistent, often accepting materialistic notions at certain times, and dualistic ones at others, with no dissonance as long as they weren’t presented together. Although I do remember gradually becoming more skeptical of non-physical explanations as, outside of fiction, real world explanations always seemed to ultimately be physical.

        But my materialism is utterly pragmatic. I’d drop it if there was an alternative that was more predictive.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “In retrospect, my thinking was often inconsistent, often accepting materialistic notions at certain times, and dualistic ones at others,”

        That kind of ties back to the supposed intuition regarding the hard problem — it’s a pretty learned intuition. Even the progression Chalmers mentioned requires getting to understand materialism enough to find it wanting.

        Just starting on my evening binge: Jack Ryan, Season 2. (Tomorrow, The Expanse, Season 4!)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I haven’t watched Jack Ryan yet. Might be something to check out.

        I’ll be curious what you think of The Expanse’s season.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Jack Ryan is okay, [standard disclaimer]if you like that sort of thing[/], and I mostly do. I liked John Krasinski on The Office and I’ve always gotten a kick out of Wendell Pierce, so it’s enjoyable enough for me. (And I was a Tom Clancy fan in his early days. I got off that bus a long time ago, though.)

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