Portrait Of A Detective: What Sherlock Holmes Means To Readers Of My Generation

by V.S. Ravi - Apr 2, 2022 06:00 AM +05:30 IST
Portrait Of A Detective: What Sherlock Holmes Means To Readers Of My GenerationSherlock Holmes statue in Edinburgh (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Why I think that modern-day recreations, while entertaining, cannot match upto Arthur Conan Doyle's creation.

What are the attributes which combine to make a person a world-famous legend? Well, firstly his achievements must be unforgettable and remarkable and of course he must be brilliant in his profession. He must also be a credible character, whom people can believe in. He must be ageless, inasmuch as dates of birth and death become irrelevant.

Can all these qualities be applicable to Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective in fiction? Yes, undoubtedly!

Of the hundreds of letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes, at his residence in Baker Street, London, each year, the most difficult to answer is ‘I am a great admirer of Holmes, please tell me all you know about him’. Many books have been written about this famous character created by Conan Doyle. He has been analysed, every facet of his personality has been intimately examined - his likes and dislikes, his strengths and weaknesses, his taste in food, clothes, and music, and his knowledge of human nature.

People form clubs and societies in his honour, they celebrate his anniversaries, they produce detective stories, and Sherlockian memorabilia. He is after all, in our imagination, a very real person, a brilliant detective, and a monument to the whole science of deduction. Perhaps no other person - real or fictional (including James Bond) has generated so much worldwide interest, debate, and admiration. And present indications are that the same fervour will continue during this century and very likely beyond.

No one has analysed the qualities of Sherlock Holmes better than his faithful friend Dr.Watson.

In ‘A study in scarlet’ in which Sherlock Holmes and Watson first appear, Watson gives his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Holmes, soon after he moves into the apartment of Sherlock Holmes.

Dr. Watson's summary list of Sherlock Holmes's strengths and weaknesses:

1. Knowledge of Literature: Nil.

2. Knowledge of Philosophy: Nil.

3. Knowledge of Astronomy: Nil.

4. Knowledge of Politics: Feeble.

5. Knowledge of Botany: Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.

6. Knowledge of Geology: Practical but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.

7. Knowledge of Chemistry: Profound.

8. Knowledge of Anatomy: Accurate but unsystematic

9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature: Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.

10. Plays the violin well.

11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.

12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

Holmes also has a fantastic sense of humour. At one place he tells Watson ‘It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.

'I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.’

‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’

The Sherlock Holmes adventures written by Conan Doyle have been filmed for cinema audiences all over the world, serialised for television, dramatised in stage and radio and published in at least 40 languages.

Sherlock Holmes has become an inspiration for police detectives and private investigators and his methods of deduction are still in use and much respected, even in these days when more sophisticated methods are required to combat modern-day crimes such as computer hacking, credit card fraud, insider dealing, industrial espionage , skyjacking etc.

An English friend of mine, a senior police officer, who had worked in Scotland Yard, London, told me that Sherlock Holmes was an inspiration for all police officers, particularly detectives, in Scotland Yard. And this, despite the great detective playfully ridiculing the methods of Lestrade and Tobias Gregson of Scotland Yard in his stories. (Lestrade mentions his "twenty years' experience" in the police force in 'A study in Scarlet'. In the story, Holmes says Lestrade is "a well-known detective"). It is observed by Holmes that Lestrade and Tobias Gregson, have an ongoing rivalry, and Holmes identifies the two as "the pick of a bad lot'. They are both quick and energetic, but conventional – shockingly so. In "A study in Scarlet" Lestrade notices the word "RACHE" written on a wall in red near the dead body. He immediately concludes that the murderer had started writing the name "RACHEL" of a girl, but had been disturbed by the sound of someone coming. So he had hastily run away without writing the letter "L" .

Sherlock Holmes calmly tells him that RACHE is German for revenge, and that he would be wasting his time if he went in search of RACHEL!

Students of today find watching the web series Sherlock interesting, and mostly are not interested in reading the stories of Sherlock Holmes. However, one cannot help noticing how different Holmes in Sherlock is from the character ‘Sherlock Holmes’ created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The only technology of choice that Sherlock Holmes possessed was a well-crafted magnifying glass to assist in his examining a scene of crime. He patiently looked for clues. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was accustomed to explain his deduction in a very courteous and unhurried pace. But in the TV series Sherlock's deduction is much paced, and jaw-dropping, in tune with this age of technology.

In the television episode ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, (a crude imitation of ‘A scandal in Bohemia') the first thing that one notices is a cell phone. Irene Adler carries on her communication with Sherlock, who has an iPhone, via text messages! Sherlock himself is trying to hack into a cell phone for digitally stored, password protected pictures. He is also on Twitter! He wears cool clothes. John Watson, who is called John by Sherlock also uses modern technology in this television version: all of his journaling is done on a blog and he is constantly checking his follower count to see how many Internet followers he has. Sherlock has his sister and his mother.

These things alone put me off. I had grown up in an age when listening to the stories of the greatest detective in fiction, following his methodical deduction (without gadgets) and reading the lyrical prose of Conan Doyle used to delight us.

In 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', Mortimer, who comes to see Holmes tells him about what he saw near the dead body of Charles Baskerville. According to Mortimer, Barrymore the butler was the first to have seen the dead body of Charles, near the moor gate down the alley. Mortimer told Holmes that Barrymore had made a false statement at the inquest:

The exact words of Mortimer were

"He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any. But I did--some little distance off, but fresh and clear.".

Holmes asked


Mortimer replied "footprints"

Holmes asked

"A man's or a woman's?"

Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at, Holmes and Watson, for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered:

"Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”.

This is a literary masterpiece. This was the first piece of evidence that presented itself to Sherlock Holmes that he was dealing with the real murderer, a hound. Even after so many years I still get goosebumps whenever I read that paragraph.

Another paragraph in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' which made a profound impression on me, was Conor Doyle's description of the dead hound.

"In mere size and strength it was a terrible creature which was lying stretched before us. It was not a pure bloodhound and it was not a pure mastiff; but it appeared to be a combination of the two--gaunt, savage, and as large as a small lioness. Even now in the stillness of death, the huge jaws seemed to be dripping with a bluish flame and the small, deep-set, cruel eyes were ringed with fire".

And finally that fantastic sentence about the murderer Stapleton himself:

"Somewhere in the heart of the great Grimpen Mire, down in the foul slime of the huge morass which had sucked him in, this cold and cruel-hearted man is forever buried".

Having heard about the Sherlock television series ,Conan Doyle must be turning in his grave.

I am afraid children of this generation would not find these paragraphs exciting.

A word about Sherlock Holmes' uncanny and amazing manner of looking for important clues in a scene of offence-clues which a normal Police Inspector from Scotland Yard, like Lestrade and Gregson or even the excellent detective Hercule Poirot created by Agatha Christie would overlook as insignificant. If Sherlock Holmes observes something odd he seizes upon it and considers its relevance to the case.

In the 'Valley of Fear', Holmes is able to decipher from a cypher message, received one day and a key for the code received by him the next day, the warning of a nefarious plot against one John Douglas, a country gentleman residing at Birlstone House, Sussex.

Some minutes after the receipt of the key, Inspector MacDonald arrives at Baker Street with news that a Mr. John Douglas of Birlstone Manor House, Birlstone, Sussex, has been murdered. Readers today who go into raptures over DanBrown's Da Vinci code may note that Dan Brown drew his inspiration from the code - in the 'Valley of Fear' and also the short story "The adventure of Sherlock Holmes and the dancing men"

The preliminary inspection of the scene of offence reveals to Holmes the fact that Douglas, the man reported as dead, had been killed with a sawed off shotgun, an American weapon, and his face disfigured beyond recognition. Other very significant clues he notices are a missing dumb-bell, and the fact that the man’s wedding ring is missing. Another clue is a bicycle, concealed just outside the house beside a tree, Holmes deduces that the murderer had come Into the house on a bicycle but had not left the building - which proved that it was he who had been murdered and that Douglas, the owner of the house who was supposed to have been murdered, was still alive, hiding somewhere in the house.

Although the other detectives on the scene share their own theories, Holmes informs Watson that he believes the case hangs entirely on the missing dumb-bell, the one piece of evidence, deemed trivial by the police force- Holmes rightly guesses that the dumb-bell had been used to weigh down into the moat, something heavy. Taking into consideration all the facts, including the facts narrated by Douglas himself who comes out of hiding, at a crucial stage of the investigation, Holmes solves the case in the following manner:

Douglas, the head of the household had been hunted for some time by a man from America named Baldwin, who later attempted to kill him in his house. The two struggled, and Baldwin died when the shotgun went off in his face. With the assistance of his wife and Cecil Barker, his friend , Douglas, had concocted a plan to fake his own death, taking advantage of the fact that Baldwin’s disfigured face would prevent an accurate identification. The missing ring was yet another clue. They also discarded a bag into the moat using the dumb bell. The bag contained a suit of clothing of Baldwin, a pair of boots and a knife. This is the reason why Holmes had concluded that the entire case rested on the single piece of evidence- the missing dumb bell.

In the "Speckled Band" Sherlock Holmes hears from a young girl Helen Stoner the strange circumstances of her sister's death. They were both living with their step father Grimsby Roylott in an old manor. This sinister man had his eye on their property. Helen's sister was sleeping in a room on a bed which was anchored to the floor and hence could not be moved. There was a bell cord, that was not attached to any bell, and a ventilator hole between Helen's temporary room, above, and that of Dr.Roylott. Helen's twin sister died almost two years earlier, shortly before she was to be married. Helen had heard her sister's dying words, "The speckled band!" but could not decode their meaning. However the anchored bed which could not be moved, the bell cord, that was not attached to any bell, and a ventilator hole between Helen's temporary room and that of Dr Roylott and the sister's dying words "the speckled band" gave Holmes the idea that the murderer Grimsby Roylott was using a real poisonous snake to kill his victim, the young girl.

Now Dr Roylott was intending to take up some repairs of the house which necessitated Helen having to sleep in her sister's room. Obviously Roylott was planning to murder her also there.

Holmes and Watson arrange to spend the night in Helen's room. In darkness, they wait until about three in the morning; suddenly, a slight metallic noise and a dim light through the ventilator prompt Holmes to action. Quickly lighting a candle, he discovers on the bell cord the "speckled band"—a venomous snake. He strikes at the snake with his riding crop, driving it back through the ventilator. Agitated, it fatally attacks Roylott, who had been waiting for it to return after killing Helen. Dr Roylott dies of the snake bite, a victim of his own diabolical plot to dispose of his nieces with a swamp adder.

One last observation in respect of Sherlock Holmes of Conan Doyle.

There are hundreds of writers of detective fiction today. I shall take up only the case of Agatha Christie. Her best detective is Hercule Poirot.

Now the investigation of a crime in the case of Sherlock Holmes commences with a report given to him by a client who comes to his residence and narrates the brief facts of the case. Then Sherlock Holmes proceeds to the scene of crime and commences his investigation. This is normal human behaviour. In the stories of Hercule Poirot, nobody requests him to take up investigation. It so happens that a murder takes place in a train or in a hotel or any other place where he is present. My son humorously remarked that if a person wishes to have a safe journey, he should avoid travelling with Hercule Poirot or visit places when Poirot is there!

The part of Sherlock Holmes has been played by more actors than any other character. Jeremy Brett is the gold standard against which all other actors who played the role of Holmes are measured.

When Jeremy Brett died, Mel Gussow wrote in an obituary for The New York Times:

Mr. Brett was regarded as the quintessential Holmes: breathtakingly analytical, given to outrageous disguises and the blackest moods and relentless in his enthusiasm for solving the most intricate crimes.

The phrase ‘elementary, Watson’ is thought to have been said by the detective Sherlock Holmes to his friend but in fact the character never says this in any of the stories. He however does come rather close at a few of points. Holmes says "Elementary" in 'The Crooked Man', and "It was very superficial, my dear Watson, I assure you" in 'The Cardboard Box'. He also says "Exactly, my dear Watson", in three different stories. The phrase was first used by P. G. Wodehouse, in" Psmith Journalist, 1915"

There will never be another Sherlock Holmes either in real life or in fiction.

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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