Elementary, My Dear Viewers: Solving the Mystery of Sherlock Holmes' Lasting Appeal

Conan Doyle bowed to popular demand and brought Sherlock back from the dead. That was 1901.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

This coming Sunday, if you tune into HOT 3, you may end up smack in the middle of the third season of Great Britain’s most-watched TV crime drama series since the beginning of the third millennium. Not bad for a consulting detective and his chronicler-friend, begotten about 125 years ago in the fertile mind of Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, I mean Sherlock Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson, (Martin Freeman), in “The Sign of Three,” the second episode of the third season of “Sherlock.”

As series go, each season of “Sherlock” is rather short, and as if to compensate for it, each episode is long – again, as TV series go (90 minutes). The project, produced by the BBC, is the brainchild of Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also portrays Mycroft, the sleuth’s smarter brother), and is supposed to bring the very Victorian duo into the 21st century. Last week, viewers were also briefly introduced to the siblings’ parents, played by Cumberbatch’s real-life parents.

The very “seriality” of the project was a major factor in creating and sustaining the popularity of “The Canon” (or “The Conan”): 56 short stories and four novels about the escapades of the world’s first consulting detective and the good doctor, penned and published between the late 1880s and the 1920s. Conan Doyle published the first two novels (“A Study in Scarlet,” which served as the starting point of the first episode of the first series, “A Study in Pink,” and “The Sign of Four”). Readers couldn’t have cared less. Then he had a brilliant idea: “A number of monthly magazines were coming out at that time, notable among which was The Strand. Considering these various journals with their disconnected stories, it had struck me that a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine ... Looking around for my central character, I felt that Sherlock Holmes, who I had already handled in two little books, would easily lend himself to a succession of short stories.”

With the duo as characters in a series, the popularity of Sherlock and Watson soared, and Conan Doyle soon felt enslaved by his heroes, obliged to invent a new story every month. Each season had 12 stories, and he demanded, and received, a raise after each six. In 1893, by the end of the second season of stories, he had decided to kill off the sleuth, and let him fall into the rushing waters of Reichenbach Falls, Switzerland in the murderous clutches of his arch-nemesis, Prof. James Moriarty. In print, the title of the story was “The Final Problem.” By that time, many readers believed that Holmes and Watson were real, not fictional characters (an illusion sustained to this day, making Holmes unique in the annals of literature in that respect) and mourned Holmes’ apparent untimely demise.

Eight years later, in 1901, Conan Doyle bowed to popular demand and brought Holmes back, not from the dead – it transpired – but from his various hideaways all over the world, in a story entitled “The Empty House.” This served as inspiration for the first episode of the third TV season, entitled “The Empty Hearse.” But the creators of the TV series decided to up the ante. Doyle wrote that there were no bodies (of Holmes and Moriarty) to be found, so he could have (re)produced Holmes alive when the need arose. At the end of the last episode of the second series, “The Reichenbach Fall,” Moffat and Gatiss decided to let Watson, and the viewers, see the bodies on the sidewalks of London after they had leaped or fallen from a roof. Everyone knew that Holmes was bound to be resurrected, since a third season had already been announced. Consequently, all were wondering how Holmes could have faked his own death with his body in full view. Three possible versions were presented last week, and I’m not telling you which one happened to be the right one. You should know that already, if you were watching. Remember Holmes’ dictum: after you have discounted all other possibilities, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Anyway, the trip to the land of the dead and back – initially unintentional in Conan Doyle’s case, but carefully planned and meticulously executed by Moffat and Gatiss in the TV series – was what ensured Holmes’ immortality (and by association, that of Watson, D.I. Greg Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft et al.). Why and how it happened is best summed up by the first two lines of a sonnet entitled “221b” (the duo’s address on Baker Street in London to this day) by the eminent Sherlockian and Holmesologist Vincent Starrett: “Here dwell together still two men of note \ who never lived, and so can never die.” Let me rephrase it slightly: Death can come only to those who were alive prior to their demise. Therefore, if you were ever presumed dead, you must have been very much alive before that. Q.E.D.

The last lines of the same sonnet highlight one of the greatest achievements of the Sherlock series’ creators. Starrett concludes: “Here, though the world explode, those two survive \ and it is always eighteen ninety five.” Not so, say Moffat and Gatiss. Cumberbatch’s quirky, slightly Aspergerish screen persona makes a major contribution here, as does Martin Freeman’s Watson, “the one fixed point in a changing world,” according to Holmes in the original stories. With them, the year is 2014, and they executed the transition with brio, smartphones, texting, updated forensic science and more.

The series’ appeal is all-encompassing: It delights the masses – as reflected in the ratings in Britain and worldwide – and indulges the experts, who can delight in spotting the many allusions to the original stories and the outlandish theories about the odd couple of flat mates at 221b. Next Sunday, at the end of “His Last Vow,” (with a bow to the original story, “His Last Bow”), the long wait will begin for season four. (And don’t forget to wait for the end of the credits; otherwise, you may miss something.) In any case, Holmes and Watson are here to stay. Elementary, my dear readers.

Benedict Cumberbatch (left) as Holmes in 'Sherlock' with Martin Freeman as Watson.