Do you love Sherlock Holmes? Okay, which one?

Okay, when I say 'love' here I mean 'like' or consider yourself a 'fan' of rather than anything more romantic. However, if you meet someone who claims to love Holmes it is worth asking them the follow up question.

The reason for this is that Sherlock Holmes has changed more times than the Doctor or James Bond. Everyone has a personal 'ideal' Sherlock Holmes and one person's usually varies somewhat from another's.

I came to Sherlock Holmes via the screen - specifically Rathbone and then Brett. However I then went and discovered the original. There's no getting around this, the original Holmes is the one that Arthur Conan Doyle created. He is the original, the yardstick by which all should be measured. Even if you don't care for the written Holmes you have to accept that an incarnation that drifts too far from him is merely a new character with the same name - a name which has effectively been hijacked in order to guarantee audience interest. You may consider a screen incarnation superior to the original but it doesn't change the fact that your admiration is then for a different Holmes (either diluted or enhanced depending on your point of view).

Victorian fans of Holmes did not have this issue. They had access to only one Holmes. The only scope for variation was visual. There were depictions of Holmes that were put before Victorian audiences before the great Sidney Paget gave us the Holmes we largely recognise. Yet even he did not depict Holmes exactly as Conan Doyle had envisaged. Despite this, Paget's depiction was so iconic that all UK illustrators were forced to follow his lead after his death. In the US there were the drawings by Frederic Steele that were modelled on actor William Gillette but they have not left the same mark (IMHO) as those by Paget and his later imitators. In terms of character though, there was only Doyle's Holmes and he was clearly loved - just as he was.

There will be some fans of Sherlock Holmes today who have never read a story from the Canon. So, to what extent are they really fans of Holmes? Are they not, in reality, fans of a version of Holmes? Any version of Holmes that is not Conan Doyle's will have differences, the influence of another writer (if pastiche or homage) or screenwriter (if film). We have already seen plenty of books (usually homages) and films where the link to the original is so fragile that you could sneeze and shatter it. The truly successful pastiche writer or screenwriter leaves only a hint of their presence on the version they present to the public. The more heavy-handed they are - the worse the result.

We are brought together by our admiration of Sherlock Holmes but we are also separated by the fact that we all admire different incarnations.

Written by Alistair Duncan
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  1. Great post. Doyle's Holmes was the one I first encountered. For many years I didn't like and couldn't enjoy any screen Holmes. I've mellowed and now do watch and enjoy various adaptations but Doyle's Canon is vastly superior to even the best.

    While Doyle created characters that have seemed to take on an independent life, I find it hard to call someone "a fan of Sherlock Holmes" when they are in fact a fan of an actor or a writer not Doyle. Our vocabulary has not caught up to the fandom that now exists.

  2. I was introduced to Sherlock Holmes by my mother & grandmother who loved Jeremy Brett's incarnation of Holmes but they were both aware of & enjoyed the original.
    I greatly enjoy the original, Jeremy Brett, & Benedict Cumberbatch but the original canon & Jeremy Brett occupy close first & second positions respectively for me.
    The thing that annoys me most is when someone who loves an incarnation of Holmes & is unaware that the canon even exists & becomes argumentative when you try to tell them about the originals.

  3. The first story that I read from the Canon was The Hound of the Baskervilles. Then I watched the Granada series and later some other adaptations, but for me Jeremy Brett is the best Holmes. I think one has to be familiar with the original stories to call him- or herself a Sherlock fan. But the most important thing is never to forget that every adaptation owes its existence to the Canon.

  4. My first experience with Holmes was when I read "A Study in Scarlet" in the back seat of my parents' car while riding to my grandmother's house. That was many decades ago, and reading the Canon is still my favorite way to enter the Sherlock world.