It’s not immediately obvious why Sherlock Holmes should be considered the greatest detective of all time.
I do not intend this as heresy, or even as simply blasphemy, but instead as a kind of reverent compliment: What is it about this character which has made him not merely immortal, but somehow eternal: he is always somehow new to every generation, whether he is a dashing young man matching wits with Nazis or whether he is one of his contemporary television avatars enmeshed in intensity and faux-autism. Given his host of competitors for the title of the Great Detective, one must ask, in a kind of awe, how he achieved this cultural apotheosis.
Because, frankly, anything you like about the Holmes stories is probably done better by another writer or another character. At their best, the Holmes stories never have the breathtaking cleverness of an Agatha Christie or a John Dickson Carr whodunit (or howdunit); the character of Holmes is not quite as distinctly defined as a Nero Wolfe or a Gideon Fell, and even the adventurous aspects of the tales are extracted and elevated to thrilling levels by Sax Rohmer, who puts his own (rather muted) Holmes and Watson surrogates in stories that take the swamp adder and build a whole conspiracy out of him. Frankly, even if what you like about the Holmes stories are the formula of the Holmes stories, arguably, even Doyle didn’t do those best; a case can be made (at least by an overconfident Scotland Yard inspector, it could be) that August Derleth’s Solar Pons pastiches capture almost everything that attracts people to the Holmes stories, with the rough edges sometimes left untended by Doyle’s relative apathy towards his most famous character. It can’t even be said that Holmes had the benefit of being the first of his kind; we all know about Dupin, whether or not we agree with Holmes’ appraisal of him.
At first, I thought it was because, episodic though they may seem, Sherlock Holmes scholars (and the fact of that phrase, “Sherlock Holmes scholars”, should only deepen our sense of wonder) had discerned a kind of “arc” within them, a rising action punctuated by Watson’s marriage, the Great Hiatus, Holmes kicking his drug habit, and the retirement. No one has ever bothered, so far as I know, to chart the “character development” of Hercule Poirot, who remains as static in his merits and demerits for a half century. But even this doesn’t quite work, because G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers have deliberate, well-planned character arcs for their detective stories and imbue them with a philosophical and psychological sophistication which elevates the Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey stories into high art in a way the Holmes stories frankly never achieve (there is no scene as arrestingly serious as Wimsey suffering PTSD upon discovering the murderer in Whose Body?, or anything like the sensitivity to the nature of human sinfulness at the end of “The Arrow of Heaven”).
But I think the solution has to start with recognizing that the Holmes stories are not exactly “mystery stories”, as we think of that genre; they helped create that genre, not the genre the stories. Instead, they are precisely what they advertise themselves as being: Adventures. Doyle was an adventurer who had traveled the world and had exciting experiences, and he wrote stories that tried to capture that experience. He told stories of noble soldiers doing heroic things in battle, and of Professor Challenger finding strange lands full of lost creatures born out of the darkness of the world and of the human imagination, and he told stories of smoke that gives men horrifying visions and of murderers who use trained animals and of Indian assassin cults and strange foreign women accused of being vampires. Those last several stories are no less “adventure stories” just because the protagonist happens to be setting out to solve a crime. (In fact, Doyle’s tale “The Ring of Thoth” is essentially a fantasy story about a living mummy, yet its hero, John Vansittart Smith, has a striking resemblance to a certain consulting detective.) It is always amusing to read monographs by researchers who solemnly tell us that Dr. Watson gets this-or-that medical or scientific fact wrong; you may as well critique H.G. Wells for implausibly ruining a perfectly good story by introducing a machine that can inexplicably travel through time. These stories practically are science fiction (and thus The Creeping Man does not deserve the calumnies that have been hurled at it).
This is the first thing to remember: we are not precisely in the world of parlour room mysteries and roomfuls of nobility and servants having the detective’s deductions methodically explained to them, as we are with other Golden Age fiction. We are in a world more like that of Kipling or Haggard or Burroughs, which Holmes soars through with the steely relentlessness of an icebreaker ship. The theologian John Warwick Montgomery was not wrong when he called the appeal of the stories “mythopoeic” in the way the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis was.
And Doyle captures this in the unmistakable atmosphere of the stories, an atmosphere which ranges from the Gothic (it is not only Poe’s detective stories that influence Doyle; look at the grisly and sepulchral climax to The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax) to the Dickensian (The Blue Carbuncle) and yet is all unmistakably Holmesian. The reader who opens a book of Watson’s stories immediately detects the tendrils of London fog reaching out from the pages to envelop their mind and gently but irresistibly pulling them into 1895. This is partially why even the mediocre Holmes stories have a kind of appeal to them, and one doesn’t mind spending some time in them—and it is truly “in” them rather than “with” them; like Narnia or Middle Earth, this is another world we enter, and probably was even when the stories were first read by their contemporaries.
Here the appeal of Holmes begins to emerge: He is our guide through this world, and just as Virgil is such a great guide to Dante, not only because of his profound sayings, but because of his cleverness in solving problems (such as feeding Cerberus dirt to distract him), Holmes is not only an entertaining companion, but the way he navigates so competently through this fantastic world makes us want to journey with him.
Let me take The Beryl Coronet as an example. That story is not widely liked, largely because Holmes does all of his major investigations “off-screen” and tells Watson about them afterwards. (This, of course, violates the subsequent canons of how to write a detective story—how is the reader supposed to put together the clues and solve it for themselves? —but remember that this is an adventure story, and the investigation is in the service of the drama, not vice versa.) But I defy anyone to read the client’s description of his situation at the beginning of the story, and, even knowing the convention that of course it won’t be as obvious as it sounds—his son will certainly not turn out to be guilty, no matter how overwhelming the evidence looks—and not tell me that, if they didn’t know this was a detective story and that there was going to be a twist, they wouldn’t be absolutely convinced of the son’s guilt. One must really pause over this and appreciate how strong the case against the son is before reading how casually Holmes picks apart the story and shows how that very evidence counts so strongly against the son’s guilt, without any straining or tortured logic. By the end of Holmes’ rebuttal, the situation looks entirely different. It is easy to skim over this, because we know that Holmes is going to disentangle the problem, but this only shows how strong Doyle really was as a writer, that he made this look so effortless.
But this is what makes Holmes so fascinating: as a character, he shouldn’t work as the protagonist. And I argue that, in his first two novels, he is not the protagonist, Watson is; Watson, the wounded hero with the noble sense of soldierly duty, the Walter Scottian sense of chivalric obligations, but also the naiveté to be flabbergasted at Holmes’ abilities; he is bold enough to venture out on adventures, but only competent enough to be guided by this strange figure with ineffable powers. Moreover, the “arc” of the first two stories is entirely Watson’s: he returns to London listless, looking for a home, and ends up temporarily lodging with this fascinating figure and having a pair of adventures with them. Along the way, he meets a beautiful young woman, with whom he chases a treasure, but when the treasure is lost, she chooses him anyways; the saga concludes with their marriage, and Watson has finally found the “hearth and home” he has been searching for since he got back from Afghanistan, though he got there by a wonderful and exciting route. The “hero’s journey” is Watson’s, for all intents and purposes. Watson is like King Arthur, and Holmes is more like Merlin, the wizardly figure who makes the journey possible and may even be the most interesting character, but who ultimately serves to make the hero’s mission and reward possible. This is why The Sign of Four ends with Holmes sniffily declining domesticity in favour of his unstable but exciting lifestyle; they may remain friends, but at this point, Watson and Holmes’ paths diverge. Logically, this should be the end of the tale.
But Holmes achieves something amazing: somehow, he breaks free from this narrative structure, and not only becomes the “leading” character, but also the central character. The stories become “about” him in a real sense. This was Doyle’s stroke of brilliance: to make the first short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, give Holmes a touch of humanity in his defeat by Irene Adler. Right after the novels, and right after Watson’s arc effectively ends in his wedding, Holmes experiences a complex and ambivalent relationship which is not quite romantic and yet unmistakably shaped by the fact that this is a male-female dynamic at work, with the female gaining the edge in a way that even the modern “feminist” adaptations cannot quite capture, not only because she really does unambiguously triumph over Holmes (a point the modern versions always seem to mitigate or even abandon) but precisely because she isn’t ultimately attracted to him, but marries someone else. The suggestion too that she has died gives this yet another layer: Holmes, the wizard, has now become the knight, admiring an unattainable ideal of femininity from a distance that stretches over the chasm of the erotic and spans the space between death and life; now he is Dante, with a Beatrice in Paradise.
To me, Holmes escaping from this narrative constraint is even more impressive than his escape from Reichenbach. And breaking out of constraints is perhaps why he is the greatest detective of all time: Other detective stories may do any given aspect of the stories better, but no other detective does all of them so well at once. Hammett and Chandler’s gumshoes may be more compelling in doing the grueling investigative footwork; the Man in the Corner may be more fascinating in the way he untangles the knottiest problems while playing with some string in his armchair; Philo Vance may be more of a debonair dilettante. But Holmes is all of these things and convincing at all of them: aristocratic gentleman sleuth, fist-throwing private dick, omniscient armchair detective.
In The Name of the Rose, which is a meditation not only on the detective genre but also on medieval philosophy, the hero is a nominalist Franciscan friar named William of Baskerville and is clearly an anachronistic Sherlock Holmes, with the suggestion that Holmes is a kind of Platonic Ideal for all other detectives. To the extent that they are effective, they “participate” in him. (Even the grizzled and laconic Sheriff Longmire recommends The Hound of the Baskervilles to his deputy.) And yet he is simultaneously an archetype and character, which is why he can be alternately warm and cold, witty and humourless, philosophical and pragmatic, and yet never quite seem inconsistent with himself at any of these moments. He contains multitudes.
But perhaps another reason these stories are still so popular is because there is also something about this world which invites us to come and play in it, no doubt because it was playfully created. Consider that Doyle’s brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, developed the character of A.J. Raffles, an inversion of Holmes who was an amateur thief rather than amateur detective. In a nod to his influence, Hornung made Raffles’ adversary be a brainy but brawny Scottish detective named Inspector Mackenzie, a clear surrogate for Doyle himself. Doyle tips his hat back in The Valley of Fear by featuring the thinly-veiled figure of “Inspector MacDonald”, who at the time of that adventure was “far from having attained the national fame which he has now achieved”. This same sense of playfulness appears in The Six Napoleons, when Holmes is aided in the capture of a felon by an amiable figure named Josiah Brown—an apparent cameo by Father Brown, whom Chesterton created as a kind of religious response to the Holmes stories. All of this betrays a kind of childlike mischievousness in the way these tales were written, though I have always wondered if they weren’t also a way for Doyle to exorcise some of his own demons. It is commonly assumed that Watson is Doyle’s representative in the stories, but Joseph Bell, widely considered the inspiration for Holmes, revealed to Doyle in a letter that he knew the truth, that Holmes was really Doyle himself (and perhaps George Edalji would agree). But it strikes me that when we see a physically hulking, well-travelled doctor in the stories, he is usually a villain or at least a killer (think of Grimesby Roylott or Leon Sterndale), and it was Doyle’s devious imagination that came up with all these diabolical crimes; was this his way of purging his dark side? Perhaps we fans come here for a similar reason.
But in that spirit of playfulness, Chesterton suggested that Holmes is a kind of comic character, whose limitations are as much a part of the comedy as his strengths. What, Chesterton suggests, if Holmes really did die at Reichenbach? Perhaps all the subsequent cases were actually solved by Holmes’ ghost, who didn’t realize he was a ghost because he was too skeptical to believe in ghosts. Well, Doyle did infamously believe in spirits who can return from the realm of the dead, and the irony could not be more delicious: after all, he hated Holmes so much that he tried to kill him off, and yet this irritating pest of a detective—why, he came back from the grave to haunt and torment his creator for the rest of his life! And perhaps that’s why Holmes is such an immortal character because he was the supreme creation of a man who refused to believe in the finality of death.