A few years ago, an online survey found that approximately a fifth of the participants believed that Sherlock Holmes was a real historical figure. Naturally, certain sections of the press decided to have a field day with this, gabbering on about the nation’s poor grasp of history and how this represented the decline in societal standards of intelligence and how, finally and inevitably, it would probably be the death of us all somehow.
It raises, however, an interesting question about the endurance of this particular literary hero. From Rathbone to Cumberbatch, the sleuth has been put to film more times than any other character; ask the average person to name a fictional detective, Holmes will likely appear before Marple or Poirot. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is almost certainly spinning in his grave, as he made his dislike of his most popular creation readily apparent. So, what’s the appeal?
The appeal, quite simply, is the character’s tangibility. He is a hero to whom we can in some way relate, or if not to Holmes then to Watson, for one doesn’t come without the other. He’s a grounded, realistic protagonist: a very skilled everyman, but an everyman nonetheless. Slowly and surely, the true “everyman” figure is dying out in our books, plays and films – replaced, as is the growing trend, with a larger-than-life action-man or genius with powers beyond what we could possibly hope to achieve. This provides a lot of room for artistic manoeuvre, but leads to less readily-relatable characters.
The knock-on effect of this is that from an artistic perspective, there becomes a barrier to entry for the audience. Consider The Avengers, the Marvel film from a few years ago: that film required an already-working knowledge of the Marvel franchise as it currently stood, with each individual character’s backstory and personality already based on pre-existing audience knowledge. It lacked an audience surrogate figure, someone to shepherd the audience into the world of this fiction as an outsider. Without it, the film becomes indecipherable to the newcomer, lost in a blur of explosions and one-liners. Holmes, in stark contrast, always has Watson narrating the events – a man who, no matter how much time he spends with Holmes, is always surprised by the latter’s feats of logic and deduction. This is what makes Holmes accessible to the everyman, a relatable figure within each piece who can act effectively as an audience surrogate.
Beyond this, though, there’s an element of aspiration. We can all aspire to be Sherlock Holmes. His abilities come not from super-powers nor anything innate, but from a keenly-honed intellect. Holmes stands as the pinnacle, and example of what we might become if we apply ourselves. In this way, we feel a closer kinship to him than to, say, Superman, whose strong sense of ethics and freedom certainly align more with society’s broad consensus, he seems a far less tangible role model than Holmes.
With Holmes, there is no excuse of “I’d do good in the world, but I can’t fly/breathe underwater/insert power here”, there is only the cold fact of “I’d do good in the world, but I won’t apply myself”. He is, in this sense, the hero that the modern age both needs and deserves, but is unwilling to face up to – in a world of instant gratification, of modern conveniences and cutting corners, we are loathe to apply ourselves to a task with unnecessary effort. The figure of Holmes inspires us to go that bit further, to improve our minds and grapple with the issues of the day, to not be content with sitting passively by and waiting for the world to come to us.
There may also be the element of coldness. Holmes notoriously brings out the annoyance of those close to him through his cold, calculating nature. There are times in all of our lives where we wish we could cut ourselves off: when dealing with grief or bereavement, we might wish we could let go of emotional attachments; when dealing with stress, we might wish we could detach ourselves completely from the situation and work through it in the most efficient manner. It seems an odd aspiration, but Holmes’ apparent lack of humanity is, at times, his greatest strength.
In short, we do not idolise Holmes as we do other fictional heroes, and it is because of this that he is so enduring. There is no pedestal on which he is placed to be knocked down. His endurance is because he is no Superman, because he is so close to a real human that it is almost unsurprising when people cannot tell the difference, because, in the end, we seek the Sherlock Holmes in all of us.