Well, I still seem to be going through a bit of a Sherlock Holmes phase at the moment, so I thought that I’d talk about some of the ways that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories (written between the early 1880s and the mid-late 1920s) were surprisingly ahead of their time. Some of these are fairly obvious things, but some of them might not be.
1) The Sherlock Holmes “canon” was a TV series and/or a movie franchise, that began before television existed:
Like the episodes of a TV show, many of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories were originally published monthly or weekly. And, like the episodes of a TV show, after about seven or eight short stories, they were collected into a single book (eg: “The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes”, “The Return Of Sherlock Holmes” etc..) in the way that a season of a modern TV show is collected into a DVD boxset.
Yes, serialised novels were quite popular in the 19th century and they were probably a precursor to modern TV shows and old radio dramas. And, yes, Sherlock Holmes certainly wasn’t the first character to appear in a serialised format. However, “Sherlock Holmes” is one of the few well-known examples that was (mostly) designed to be read in an episodic and non-sequential way. Unlike many serialised novels of the time, “Sherlock Holmes” was the equivalent of a modern movie or TV franchise.
However, like how a film is sometimes adapted into a TV series, there are also four Sherlock Holmes novels too. In fact, the first two novels (“A Study In Scarlet” and “The Sign Of Four”) were actually written before the short stories were. In other words, he’s a character who started out in longer stories, but later ended up appearing in episodic stories instead.
In fact, it could even be argued that Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House” are an old equivalent of a modern “to be continued…” two-part TV episode. Yes, this wasn’t Conan Doyle’s original intention (since he’d originally meant for “The Final Problem” to be the last Sherlock Holmes story) – but the similarities are striking.
Like the episodes of many TV shows from the 1980s/90s, each Sherlock Holmes short story contains a single self-contained narrative and a central cast of characters who the audience can become familiar with fairly quickly. Like episodes of TV shows that are meant to be syndicated, you don’t have to experience them “in order”. But, at the same time, there’s also enough additional background information to reward people who read all of the stories.
2) He was a film noir character, before the film noir genre had been invented: Not only is Sherlock Holmes a private detective, but the stories (especially the earlier ones) occasionally contain the kind of moral ambiguity that wouldn’t really be seen until much later in the detective genre.
Sherlock Holmes takes hard drugs (eg: at the beginning of “The Sign Of Four”, much to Watson’s disdain), he isn’t afraid to break the law when he feels it is necessary to do so (eg: In “The Adventure Of Sir Charles Augustus Milverton”) and he’ll sometimes even let people get away with some fairly serious crimes if he feels that there was a good reason behind it (eg: like in “The Adventure Of The Abbey Grange”). Like a “film noir” detective, he’s a generally good guy, but he isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue either.
Not only that, he also has an attribute that wouldn’t be seen until hardboiled crime fiction and film noir emerged a few decades after he was first created. He’s equally at home in both the “upper class” and “lower class” parts of society, and yet he’s at home in neither of them. He’s both a part of society and yet outside it at the same time.
3) He made nerd culture cool, before it became cool: These days, being a nerd or a geek is actually a cool thing. Of course, for quite a few decades before that, it wasn’t.
Well, Sherlock Holmes was perhaps the first “cool” nerd. He was unapolagetically eccentric, he was obsessed with reading about all sorts of random subjects, he played the violin and he regularly performed scientific experiments. He was about the nerdiest character ever created and, yet, he was also a heroic character too.
He’s also still far more well-known than less nerdy heroic characters from the early-mid 20th century (like “Bulldog Drummond“) are.
4) Modern-style detective TV shows wouldn’t exist without him: These days, the most popular genre of detective show is the police procedural (eg: American shows like “NCIS”, “CSI” etc..) where crimes are solved in the lab. These are TV shows where the success or failure of a case depends almost entirely on forensic evidence.
Whilst all of this might look very modern, they probably wouldn’t have existed if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t created Sherlock Holmes in the early 1880s. If you read several of Conan Doyle’s stories, you’ll see that Sherlock Holmes almost always solves cases by looking at the forensic evidence and deducing facts from it. Yes, he might not have computers or mass spectrometers, but many Sherlock Holmes stories are basically the 19th century equivalent of “CSI”.
5) He had a modern-style fanbase, before fan culture was really a thing: Leaving aside the many decades of fan fiction that has been written since Conan Doyle last set down his pen, Sherlock Holmes inspired such a large fan culture at the time that Conan Doyle was actually forced to actually bring him back from the dead in order to satisfy fan demand for more stories.
A well-known fact about Sherlock Holmes is that when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill him off in “The Final Problem”, fans of the stories actually started wearing black armbands in mourning.
Yes, obsessive fans are hardly a new thing (for a more sombre example of the same sort of thing, just read about Goethe’s “The Sorrows Of Young Werther”), but this kind of thing was a lot rarer in centuries past than it was today.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂