Sherlock Holmes R.I.P. ?

Is Sherlock Holmes, by which I mean the written Holmes, on the decline? Yes it may seem a silly question but, if the internet can be taken as indicative, the answer must be yes.

The younger generation is where the societies of the future should be populated from and they increasingly exist (and coordinate) online. A mere glance at this world clearly demonstrates one thing – and that is that screen adaptations (and what the casts of said adaptations are up to) are talked about a lot and the original written Holmes barely at all.

Go to the more "traditional" society and the situation is the reverse. If I glance at any of the copies of The Sherlock Holmes Journal in my possession the articles are all pretty much about the written Holmes or something connected to him (even if that connection occasionally borders on the esoteric). Significantly less space is given over to any of the screen adaptations and usually it is just after an episode or series has aired.

So this is the basic difference. The printed society journal is more about the written Holmes and the on-line "journal" (be it a blog or mailing list or Twitter account) is increasingly focused on the screen Holmes.

I see an analogy (perhaps tenuous) with the world of publishing. Go back only ten years (or maybe less) and conventional publishers pretty much controlled where books were going. Now, with the advent of e-books and easy self-publishing routes, traditional publishers are being seen as less and less relevant. People who want to get out there now have a choice.

In a similar fashion, traditional Sherlockian societies used to be the main means by which fans of Sherlock Holmes gathered and communicated and their agendas revolved very much around the written Holmes and related matters. Now people have a choice and many are increasingly focusing on the screen, rather than written, Holmes and are doing so by sticking to the internet and avoiding the more formal societies.

Can this gap be bridged? I’ve seen younger people (under 25yrs) turn up to events organised by The Sherlock Holmes Society of London but I’ve rarely seen the same faces twice. I strongly suspect that many of them (not all) have turned up expecting something that revolved around the screen Holmes and have, instead, found themselves surrounded by people more enamoured with the Holmes of the page. The result is that they don’t (or rarely) come back. 


If the traditional society model is to survive it needs to attract new blood. However, must it change itself significantly to do so and at what cost? Society members who are not wedded to any particular adaptation are not going to rush to embrace events that are focussed on BBC Sherlock or Elementary at the expense of events concerning the written Holmes. If a society moves too far in its efforts to capture the interest of new Sherlockians will it end up alienating its existing membership? Furthermore, if societies start embracing screen Holmeses at the expense of the written one will we start to lose (albeit slowly) the written Holmes or at least lose the ability to tell the original apart from any of the screen/stage adaptations? Artists and actors have already given the world of Sherlock Holmes items that many people assume were part of  Conan Doyle’s original image. The deerstalker was given to us by the artist Sidney Paget not Conan Doyle. The curved pipe was given to us by stage actor William Gillette. Both of these items now form part of the iconic Holmes image yet neither was part of the Holmes conceived by Doyle.

In the rush to embrace the new will we forget the old?

For this reason as much as anything else I think it is important that traditional societies keep reminding us of the original Holmes and we do need new people to pick up this baton. If the younger generation of Holmes fans really love the character they will stand ready to receive this baton. After all, the prettiest flower still needs its roots in order to survive.

Written by Alistair Duncan
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  1. When cults of personality form around actors who happen to portray a character called "Sherlock Holmes", the source material becomes obscured. This is especially true when the avatar of the literary character becomes divorced of its traditional milieu, such as updating the era from the Victorian. The cultist care only about the fantasy persona as embodied by the actor. One can point to various actors, starting with Gillette, where we see that happening, but it started to take off with Brett--surely one can think of pastiches (homages) that do not ape Doyle, but Brett's mannerism and performance on the printed page. Now, with the internet and a generation raise on it, who are willing to share their intimate fantasies with all about an actor/role, and who look at the original source material as a basket for "easter eggs", we may indeed be coming to a point where the average person has heard of Don Quixote, or Moby Dick or Sherlock Holmes but who familiarity is less deep than a Wikipedia entry.

  2. But honestly what do you expect future generations to talk about? All aspects of the canon have been discussed ad nauseam or have served as starting point for more or less serious essays and/or books. Surely you don't think these same discussions should be repeated by every new generation of Sherlockians?

    I personally think that the SH societies should be glad that new adaptations breathe new life into their old-fashioned fad. Of course when new people interested in the subject show up and find nothing but a bunch of oldtimers not willing to talk about anything but the same old same old, one mustn't wonder when they stay away next time.

    I'm not saying the societies should totally embrace the new adaptations and make their meetings solely about them, but a good idea (it seems to me) would have been to tempt newcomers with subjects such as comparisons between Ur-canon and adaptations etc. and why the showrunners might have wanted to install changes or what they wanted to achieve with them. Just as an example, of course one could come up with other new and thrilling subjects (the role of women in ACD and adaptation XYZ: progress or return to old norms?).

    I personally have never pretended to be interested in ACD's work as such. I have no idea what aficionados see in it. Therefore I would never aspire to participate in any SH society, it's just not for me. But I'm grateful that it has inspired people like Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss to produce something that I like. And of course I have studied ACD's work to see where they were coming from. So, that is something they have achieved - even if I can't follow them in their enthusiasm for the original.

  3. Somehow I knew this one would lead to interesting responses.

  4. However there is still a lot of mileage in the canon, it's nowhere near as exhausted as you might think.

    In any event, I wasn't personally suggesting that adaptations be off limits for traditional societies. I just think that we need to preserve the original and we need new people to do that.

  5. "However there is still a lot of mileage in the canon, it's nowhere near as exhausted as you might think."

    I can't imagine what there still might be to talk about after over one hundred years of constant discussion, but I take your word for it.

  6. There are always new angles. I've explored some myself in articles I've written. It's part of the challenge. :-)

  7. Ms. Ketelsen makes some interesting comments. As someone who has no interest in Doyle's works and doesn't appreciated what others see in it, it is not surprising she would think that all aspects have been covered ad nauseum and that there is nothing new to discuss. Alistair is right. As in all great literature, there will always be more to discuss; as many topics as each new reader can find. Newer generations will uncover aspects not found, or even suspected, by older ones.

    Sherlockians have always had an interest in adaptations in various media of the literary character, but it is the works of Doyle that is the foundation of the interest. Even those who first discover the literature through a movie or radio program or TV show, it is the magic of Doyle that becomes transcendent and makes them Sherlockians. The Canon becomes the cornerstone of the interest.

    There will be those who are TV fans, such as yourself, whose interest is in "Sherlock". That's great. Sherlockians would hope that your interest would transfer to the literature, but as it hasn't, that's great, too. Not that there is anything wrong with that. There are plenty of websites, as you well know, that cater to that interest and a TV fan can be very happy with the in-depth scholarship available on all things Cumberbatch and Freeman and Moffat and Gatiss, and even contribute to it.

    But "to tempt newcomers" to a literary society whose interest is mainly in a particular adaptation "with subjects such as comparisons between Ur-canon and adaptations etc. and why the showrunners might have wanted to install changes or what they wanted to achieve with them" is to offer a bait-and-switch that will leave both parties unhappy. Such a discussion could be fascinating but for the Sherlockian such a discussion will always come back to the Canon--the one and only, the cornerstone of the topic.

  8. I worry that my original point is getting lost. I have no problem with adaptation fans and even events that revolve around one more adaptations; I just don't want discussion around adaptations to be at the expense of the written Holmes. I want both to continue in parallel. At the moment this still happens because there are plenty of "old school" Sherlockians out there but the people championing the written Holmes will start to get outnumbered by those who prefer the screen versions as they inevitably die off (excuse the bluntness). We need some of the next generation to pick up the baton for the written Holmes and I'm wondering how that can be achieved.

    1. As some posit, we live in a post-literate age. To have both adaptation fans and Holmes readers to continue in parallel means encouraging reading at a young age. You have broached this subject in various ways, Alistair, including your post on preserving books. We need to preserve book readers. This starts at an early age by introducing the magic of reading. Unfortunately, many young people today see reading as a chore and they have other media to get a "narrative fix", a majority of which are more passive than picking up a book (or e-reader). The fans of the written Holmes have now become a minority as compared to adaptations fans. That wasn't always the case. Even at the time of Doyle's death, while there were parodies, plays, radio and the movies, the people who consumed those had already read the original or went to it after their exposure to adaptations. In the post-literate age, there is no need for the adaption fan to go to the original. They can find out all they need to know about Doyle and Holmes with a few click of the mouse. What we "old school" Sherlockians can do is express our love of the Canon and explain why it matters; for those who reproduce, encourage your offspring to read and hope they'll share your love of the Canon; and in general promote the Canon to young people. The I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast is sponsoring a contest to get 50 listeners to donate a subscription of the BSJ to schools, libraries, etc. The John H. Watson Society is also trying to encourage interest in the young to the Canon.

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  10. While most of my posts get the odd comment it is always good (and sometimes scary) when one like this really inspires people to jump in.

    1. I wouldn't use the word 'inspire' with it, but I know what you mean.

    2. Okay, maybe encourage would've been a better choice.

  11. I deleted my comment so I could edit my bad typing.
    So here goes a new try.
    Well, James and Alistair are much kinder than I would be in the above discussed posts and I will leave that part of this discussion at that.
    The books are a long way from being dead or unimportant. The problem may come, for new comers, from being introduced to the canon through one of the many annotated additions. Although great books, and lots of fun, they are not the best source when first being introduced to the books.
    When someone asks me for a recommendation I always start with something like the Double Day, where it is all fresh and not peppered with other Sherlockians findings, discouraging discovery.
    Although much of what they may discover is not new to many of us, often times they come up with new insight, and if nothing else, have the fun of finding these facts out for themselves. It is one reason I don't recommend the fun book 'Sherlock Holmes for Dummies'.

    If us 'Old Timers' have any problems as a group it would be, for many, the fact that they (we) are unable or unwilling to discuss the relevance of the new with the old and how they are important together. It is great for someone to find the new stuff fun and interesting, but most would get even more out of it if once they viewed the source.
    The problem from newcomers comes when they don't have open minds to the history behind the shows. They are as narrow minded as they accuse the old timers of being.
    I will admit, that their are those 'old-timers' out there who refuse to discuss any of the new adaptations, and that is to their and their societies detriment.
    But there are just as many 'new-timers' that are just as narrow minded who can't see the importance or relevance in the 'old-fashioned fad'.

    Hope this is a little better.

  12. Well, if it *was* still so interesting as you all claim - why the fear that it may die out, then? The adaptations bring more interested people to the canon and some of those even visit society events. If it's all so grand, why do they come once, but don't show up again?

    I'm not a teenager, I'm relatively well read and I'm open minded enough to have read the source material twice in my search to find what everyone is so fascinated with. Sorry, it did nothing for me. And I'm probably not the only one. I doubt that all those not really invested in it are narrow minded illiterate slobs. If anything most younger people have higher IQs and better education than those generations before them.

    I never said the canon was unimportant or uninteresting - I have great respect for the source material - it's just not something that tempts me to spend a lot of time with (says a nearly 60 y/o with a classical education).

    1. Other than Alistair's question as posed for conversation, I don't think it is anywhere near dying out.
      I have noticed that the societies that are having trouble with membership are the ones with members who don't want any change. I have even moved on from them and I love the written works.
      So instead of dropping out completely, I started another group welcoming all, feeling once they have explored the new adaptions, they will be interested in the original source material.
      I think for every society that is not interested in the new adaptations, there are probably ten that welcome the chance to see new things.

      I think Alistair's original question was playing devils advocate to spark a conversation. (I don't know this for sure) and appreciate the topic.

  13. It *is* still interesting but it requires an investment of time which not all people (regardless of age) are prepared to devote to it. That's their choice.

    This comment is slightly amiss though - "The adaptations bring more interested people to the canon and some of those even visit society events. If it's all so grand, why do they come once, but don't show up again?"

    You do rather imply a set path from the screen, via the page, to a society. For those who *do* walk that path the society is not a bad experience as they know largely what to expect. These people tend to return.

    The people more likely to have a problem with the regular society are those who have skipped the middle step. They have often learned of societies via the adaptations (or the internet) and turn up with little or no knowledge of the written Holmes and are expecting something more screen focused. They end up being disappointed and don't return. Of course I accept that some may just find that they cannot gel with the people they meet. It can be down as much to the atendees as the subject matter. Some of the "old-timers" do themselves no favours when dealing with the next generation. This is a subject I touched on in a recent article I wrote in the Baker Street Journal.

    The worry is that if an increasing number of people miss the written Holmes through either a lack of interest (fair enough) or because they are not even aware of it then, regardless of how interesting and important it is, there will be fewer people around to be cheerleaders for the original article and I think if Sherlockian loses its roots it would be sad.

    At nealy 40 incidentally, I feel that I fall between two stools being neither the new generation or an "old-timer". Whether this gives me a good perspective or not is another matter.

  14. I'm not going to comment on anyone's previous comments, but as a 22 year old, I would like to say that not all of us are leaving behind the written Sherlock Holmes in favor of the new only. :)
    When I was around 10, my mother and grandmother exposed me to Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, and because of this exposure I wanted to read the originals (and did some as a child). I had lost that interest as time went on and other things took my time and attention, but when I discovered Sherlock (BBC) and Benedict Cumberbatch my interest has been renewed and I immediately went out and bought myself a copy of a large compilation of the original Holmes stories written by Doyle.
    To make a long story short, what I'm trying to say is that in some cases, these adaptations are leading some of the younger generation back to the written Holmes. Sadly, being a reader isn't as popular as it should be so many of them won't admit online that they are reading them. Beyond that, I have made and effort on my own blog to review and discuss the stories as I'm reading them in hopes to inspire others to do the same. I also recommend them to my friends, family, and one day my children. So take heart Alistair. There are some of us out there. :)

  15. Excellent and thought provoking piece Mr Duncan (will include in's Weekly Links). One minor point I would like to make was motivated by the line "I’ve seen younger people (under 25yrs) turn up to events organised by The Sherlock Holmes Society of London but I’ve rarely seen the same faces twice." While I'm sure some don't return due to the lack of Cumberness, I suspect many potential Sherlockians in their 20s and 30s fear that because their point of entry into the SH world was BBC Sherlock (and perhaps their familiarity with the Canon is one of a neophyte) the age old feelings of intimidation and self-doubt scare said potentials off. Not to say the SHSL isn't welcoming (this applies to any scion or group), but the vast chasm between "loving the TV show" and "having read the Canon 50 times or so" can seem daunting or insurmountable. Personally, I was fortunate enough to have been in contact with a few venerable sherlockians prior to attending my first ever event, but even then I was not prepared for the sheer depth and intensity of the average Sherlockian. Luckily most Sherlockians are gregarious, kind and inviting, but there was a moment at the start where I almost bolted for the nearest exit. The point I'm trying to make is that the future of participation in traditional sherlockian society/culture is of course firmly rooted in the survival of the Canon, but equally important is how accessible Holmes culture is (and more importantly feels) to the newcomer.

    1. He's alive!

      It's a fair point and I have touched on that in some of my subsequent comments on my own post.


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