What Are The Elements of Sherlock Holmes?
What makes the great detective... great?
It’s funny the things that go into a myth.
Sherlock Holmes has been one of the more enduring literary characters over the last century. Actors that played the great detective range from Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbach, and Basil Rathbone to comic actors like Michael Caine and John Cleese. Were you to ask any of them what they did to prepare for that role, they’d almost all tell you the same thing: I read some of Sherlock Holmes stories and got a feeling for his character.
I felt a need to write this article after watching the premiere of the less than stellar Elementary series on CBS. Some… liberties… were taken. And while this hub could quite easily become a severe critique of the series, I will limit this to the actual elements of what makes Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and not some badly dressed unshaven British guy who is good at solving mysteries.
If you are an aspiring writer who wants to write a story consistent with the character and the canon, you will need to adhere to the following elements to make your Holmes story not only believable but faithful to his millions of fans worldwide.
There is some wiggle room with this as some actors have been cast who have not been “exactly right for the part”. Robert Downey Jr. is not a good representation of the Holmes physical type. I’m not saying this because I’m a Jeremy Brett or Bernard Cumberbach fan (which I am). I am saying it because this was the way the character was described in “A Study in Scarlet” as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.
- Doctor John Watson’s physical description of Holmes in “A Study in Scarlet”
Who is your favorite Holmes?
Tall, thin, and Hawk-like Nose
Holmes has to be over six foot tall and thin. While his nose does not have to be large or prominent, it must be “hawk like”. The reason for this is that Holmes often has to use disguise. A thin, tall man can disguise himself as almost anything under the sun.
Yes, he takes them. Sherlock Holmes is not a politically correct character. He has a problem with cocaine. Fans should also know that cocaine is just his drug of choice. He’s done other things as well… like opium. The danger is that Holmes will not do cocaine while he is on a case. It is only when business is very slow and he does not get the mental stimulation that he desperately requires.
Cigarettes and Pipe
Yes, he smokes pipes and cigarettes. Even the most casual fan of the Great Detective can picture him with a pipe. However, cigarettes were smoked almost constantly. The show, Sherlock, makes the adjustment by giving him nicotine patches – turning a three pipe problem into a three patch problem.
Watson has observed that there was only one love in Holmes’ life… the woman. As Watson has put it – “All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer -- excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.”
He’s British and Primarily Works in London
As much as American Television would like to have an American Sherlock Holmes, he’s British. Heck, even the character of Doctor House, from House, was played by a Brit. Doyle was Scottish and he made his creation a consulting detecting in London. Part of what made Holmes, Holmes was his intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of every inch of London.
Other Quirks and Allies That Cannot Be Ignored
The Worst Tenant in London
Other than paying his rent on time and being an aid to Scotland Yard, Holmes will conduct smelly chemistry experiments, have assassination attempts on his life at home, shoot the plaster in his wall in the letters VR (Victoria Regina), smoke incessantly, and have clients come in at all hours of the night. Plus, he can be irritable.
Doctor John Watson
Holmes without Watson is like a front without a back. Watson and every real aspect of him are important to Holmes’ work. The fact that he’s a doctor and a soldier (crack shot, too) make him the perfect partner. Watson is the muscle when Holmes has dangerous cases and he’s the one that always brings the gun.
He also, as a literary device, is necessary for the reader. Holmes needs to explain his deductions to a man of normal intelligence. Remember, Watson is not stupid. He’s a doctor. He’s his friend and colleague – not a love interest (as Rex Stout of the Baker Street Irregulars would have people believe).
Let’s also remember that an intellect and personality like Holmes is an acquired taste… plus Holmes doesn’t like many people. It was also common in Victorian England for two men to share quarters (a common room). They both had their own bedrooms.
His landlady (also written as her sister, Mrs. Turner). She takes care of his lodgings and watches the house while he’s away. She has been written as a regular cast member in most of the televised and movie dramas. It is rare that she becomes an actual working piece of the plot.
His older brother – who is smarter than he is. He is heavy and if all crime deduction could be solved in an armchair Mycroft would be the single greatest champion of justice ever. He, however, lacks energy and initiative. Instead, he serves as the chief intelligence officer of the British Empire. The thing to notes about Mycroft is that he has his rails and he runs on them. He is rarely seen outside of the Diogenes Club and his residence in Pall Mall. Other members of the Holmes family are rarely mentioned if ever. All we know about Holmes parents comes from the semi-canon work The Seven Per Cent Solution, where Professor Moriarty had an affair with his mother.
Holmes’ ultimate opposite number. He is his equal is intellect. However, there is an evil strain within him. While Moriarty is never the perpetrator of any crime, he is at the center of a criminal network like a spider with all of his webs radiating from the center. The agent is caught but Moriarty never is.
There have been many writers that have made a romance between Holmes and Adler. In fact, Adler was married to another man as it was established in “A Scandal in Bohemia”. He deeply admired her. As Watson tells it – “And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom of Bohemia, and how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman's wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honorable title of the woman.” Of all the things that the King of Bohemia could have given Holmes, all he wanted was the picture of Irene Adler for his own.
While it is somewhat acceptable to make a story with the two as lovers, in the canon, it’s not necessary.
Unlike what most writers and viewers think of Lestrade (and Gregson), Holmes has said that they are the best pick of a bad lot. Basically, this means that Lastrade is not really stupid, he’s just unimaginative. There are other police as well and Holmes encounters a variety of them throughout the canon. Lestrade is just the most popular and representative of the Yard at that time.
He’s an Accomplished Thief
In order to know how thieves can pull of a job, he had to master the tools of the trade. Scotland Yard was always thankful that Holmes had never turned to a life of crime. He can pick a lock and crack a safe quite easily.
He’s a Gentleman
While Robert Downey, Jr. and the latest incarnation of Holmes, in Elementary, have Holmes as a sloppily dressed bohemian, he’s actually a gentleman. Unless he’s in disguise, he dresses to the fashion of the time. Ironically, he only wears his deerstalker when he’s off to the country. If you watch the Granada version of Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett, he wore a black suit with top hat whenever he went out and kept it quite clean (as was expected in Victorian England for a gentleman).
He’s an Expert Swordsman
Only really mentioned in “A Study in Scarlet”. This fact has lots of potential. Something that writers in the 1940’s did not take advantage of while having one of the greatest swordsman in Hollywood cast as Holmes, Basil Rathbone. Sad, but true. Also true is his ability to play as an expert single sticks player (for those of you who don’t know what that is, that’s an activity where two men beat the hell out of each other with clubs).
He’s an Expert Boxer
And has knowledge of the Eastern art of Baritsu, a form or Japanese wrestling. This is mentioned in “The Sign of Four” and “The Empty House”, respectively. He beat the hell out of McMurdo (bodyguard to the Shaltos’) in a boxing prize fight and belted a ruffian in The Solitary Cyclist. And Baritsu saved his life against Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls.
He Has a Comfortable Amount of Money
He doesn’t have to work. Holmes is descended from squires. As a matter of fact, he has told rich and poor clients that his fees are on a fixed schedule and he does not change them unless he remits them altogether. So any idea of someone holding purse strings over his head is simply preposterous. He usually only takes on cases that interest him.
He Gets Bored Easily
This is why he does detective work. Remember, there was no television in the 1890’s. He had to create his own entertainment. If he wasn’t working and was bored only then would he turn to the needle.
He is Socially… Awkward
Holmes does know the niceties of society and knows when to use them. However, he does have a tendency to be outright rude to clients. He will ignore some women and push off potential clients and bullies coldly when they mean nothing to him. The modern day version of Sherlock, with him as a high functioning sociopath, is actually a good interpretation.
Holmes on Amazon
As I was writing this article, I thought more and more how the new show, Elementary, just irked me. The BBC show, Sherlock, was well done in comparison. Both of these shows were modern day retellings of the Holmes Mythos but using the modern day tools and technology of today. While the Elementary show relied on Google, Sherlock would use basic tools like the Weather Channel to tell him if it rained anywhere specifically on a particular day.
Personally, I don’t want my version of Holmes ever to say, “There’s an app for that.”
As a technologist, I know that apps can be wrong. The better version of Holmes would be the one that is able to use solid facts and not resources found on the internet. This is why we usually find the Sherlock version of the character at Saint Bart’s Hospital doing experiments and why we find the Elementary Sherlock referring to Google.
If you’ll notice, I did not include the necessity of him wearing a deerstalker as many people picture Holmes. I also did not have him with a large magnifying glass. People who do or producers that show Holmes wear the deerstalker in London have not done their research and should read more. The deerstalker feature, and many of the stereotypes of Holmes, was an invention of William Gillette, an early 20th century actor that used to portray Holmes on stage.
© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi