How do people encounter Sherlock Homes and what is the enduring appeal?

Could I have asked a question with more answers?

Of course there is no simple answer to this question yet still it gets asked. If, like me, you are in the position of being seen (rightly or wrongly) as an authority on the subject you are likely to get asked it regularly.

In truth, however, one can only ever answer this question for one’s self. Being an “authority” doesn’t really come into it.

Basil Rathbone - The Holmes of the 1940s

To begin with, when asked this question, you have to look at how you encountered Holmes for the first time. Despite the recent incarnations of the great detective, a sizeable majority of fans are still likely to have come to Holmes via Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett (as they are the most often broadcast). As I have said elsewhere, I first saw Rathbone as Holmes in 1982 and was fortunate enough, two years later, to see Jeremy Brett take to the screen in April 1984 (in the UK, ’85 in the US).

Jeremy Brett - The Holmes of the 80s and 90s

Personally, Rathbone got me interested and Brett kept me interested. Brett, by virtue of Granada’s canonical fidelity, in terms of chronology as much as anything else, made the original stories far easier for me to get to grips with. It was hard, as a child, to read the originals having only seen Rathbone in the role. I found myself asking, amongst other things, where silly Watson had got to. A few episodes of the Granada series cured me of that.

Original fans in the 1890s could only come to Holmes one way and that was through the page. By the early 20th century the stage was also an option. The 1920s saw the first of the serious silent screen adaptations and the 1930s gave us the first significant talkies starring Arthur Wontner. So I think it was the 1930s when it became more and more likely that you would come to Holmes via the screen rather than the page.

Arthur Wontner (left) - The Holmes of the 1930s
The Rathbone films went on to make it even more so and now, I suspect, almost no one comes to Holmes through the original stories. You encounter him on screen and then you go to the books.

So, returning to the original question, what is the appeal? Well the most obvious thing is that Holmes is the UK’s very own super-hero and serves the cause of justice (even if it is his justice rather than that of the land). This has always been appealing to audiences. The appeal could also take the form of a physical attraction to the actor portraying Holmes rather than any of his written characteristics. The legion of young fans that has sprung up in the wake of Downey and Cumberbatch is testament to that.

Cumberbatch and Freeman - The Holmes and Watson of the 2010s?

That may sound rather shallow and I don’t mean to suggest that attraction is the only lure. It is however, for some, the initial hook that gets them to pay atttention. My Twitter following consists of a large number of women and men from their late teens upwards who clearly idolise Downey and Cumberbatch. To their credit though, none of them limits themselves to that. They have all, as far as I can tell, extended their viewing to other adaptations and have read original stories, pastiche efforts and fan fiction (in fact many have written examples of the latter). They are fast becoming the Sherlockian scholars of the future.

Another group find themselves more drawn to Watson perhaps because they can relate to him where they struggle to do so with Holmes. Yet others may find themselves drawn to Moriarty, Mycroft or other less significant characters. Before anyone jumps up and down about that remark – I mean less significant in terms of appearances in the original canon of stories rather than less significant to their fans.

Moriarty - As attractive as Holmes?

For me, one of the significant appeals is that the Victorian world of the original Holmes is far enough away to be escapism but, at the same time, it is still close enough to the present day that you can reach out and touch it (a point I first made in my book Close to Holmes)..

Victorian Holmes
So, dear reader, the chances are that for you, like me, one thing got you interested in Sherlock Holmes and something else kept you interested. The more things change, the more they stay the same….

For more information on Arthur Conan Doyle and his time at Undershaw please refer to my book, An Entirely New Country which is available through all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Classic Specialities, and in all electronic formats including iTunes, Kobo, Nook and Kindle .

The Norwood Author is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Waterstones UK, Amazon UK,  Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon Kindle, iBooks for the iPad/iPhone, Kobo Books, Nook.

Close to Holmes is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USABarnes and NobleAmazon UKWaterstones UKAmazon KindleKoboNook  and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.

Eliminate the Impossible is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.


  1. "...and now, I suspect, almost no one comes to Holmes through the original stories. You encounter him on screen and then you go to the books." I find that statement, if it's true, kind of sad. When I was a kid, I was aware of "Sherlock Holmes" through Daffy Duck, Mr. Magoo, Rocky and Bullwinkle and representations through advertisements; that is the tropes of the deerstalker, pipe and magnifying glass. I never saw the Rathbone films on TV. I read "Hound of the Baskervilles" in sixth grade. It was the stories by Doyle I loved. The filmed adaptations--all of them--I find wanting in comparison. It was long after I was won over by the Canon that I viewed the cinematic Holmes. There will portrayals that I like or dislike, stories that capture the flavor of the Canon, or miss the boat, but even the best of them won't hold a candle to the words Doyle set on the printed page. I guess that's why I can't understand the over-the-top love for "Sherlock" or over-the-top hate for "Elementary". A dispassionate examination of both will show that one is not perfect and the other not "the.worst.Holmes.ever." They each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The Canon itself is not perfect, and thank goodness for that. Where would the "higher criticism" be without Watsonian imperfection?

  2. Mr Duncan,
    before Sherlock and the Guy Ritchie films many non-native English speakers like myself first met Holmes in English class and hence through the books (The Speckled Band was assigned reading for level 2 English)... I have yet to see a Basil Rathborne film, but I promise I will find one! :)
    If I may ask an expert, I have been wondering for a while if the subject of The Blue Carbuncle is 'punny': Holmes and Watson are chasing a goose, is this supposed to refer to the English expression 'wild goose chase'?

  3. Interesting idea. I don't think so though as the chasing of the goose was ultimately a good thing to do.