How do we see Sherlock Holmes?

In response to my request that you suggest a topic, I was asked this on Twitter by @shelly_murav

@alistaird221b do u feel there is a major difference in how Americans view Sherlock Holmes compared to say the British?

Now this is a good one and one that will no doubt generate comment.

Okay the first problem is that I’m British (which is most definitely not a problem in itself) so I cannot comment on how other nationalities perceive Sherlock Holmes. I can however speak from personal experience.

When I was growing up there was a distinct lack of home grown heroes and even fewer with whom I could (or felt I could) identify. Most of the literary/screen figures I admired originated in America or mainland Europe. In the UK the two screen heroes I admired the most were Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who (so not much has changed for the teens of today). There was, however, a distinction between the two. The Doctor, whilst a British creation and a character that embodies much of what it is to be British is, at the end of the day, an alien and is of another place even if he has effectively adopted British mannerisms.

In addition, prior to the re-launch of the series, the Doctor did not have a huge international following. This may seem silly, perhaps even a little immature (but I was a child at the time - in my defence) but I wanted a hero who I admired who was also envied by other countries; with the Doctor you didn’t have that. He was my hero (he was Britain’s hero) but no one else really cared (different situation now I know).

Other countries did, however, envy us having Sherlock Holmes and clearly loved him as a character. This was the situation almost from day one; it was an American who caused The Sign of Four to be written (J.M. Stoddart).

There is something about having something that others want which appeals to our human nature (it may not be a nice aspect of us but it is an aspect nonetheless).

The situation was, in a way, repeated when the BBC screened Sherlock. Britain fell in love, the rest of the world was jealous and I think I can say that we, as a nation, rather liked that.

Written by Alistair Duncan
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  1. It is interesting that you said you wanted something or someone to be British for your hero.
    While shopping, last time in London, we were looking for a toy my daughter to pick out that said 'British'. Sure there was Harry Potter, a little to old for her, but nothing really British in Hamley's. We ended up with a nice tea set, which see loves.
    There wasn't even a Sherlock Holmes build a bear.

    I know I got into Sherlock Holmes to celebrate my English heritage.
    Good topic. Thanks.

  2. As I am neither English nor American - I'm from mainland Europe - I do see a difference between attitudes towards SH. The American approach seems to be more soppy, at least to me, as most American fans seem to want to drag him down, "humanise" him, respectively make him more mediocre, more "approachable". There are English fans who are like that, too, of course, but mainly it seems to be an American thing.

    1. Interesting observation. Now you say it I can see where you are coming from.

  3. To put that last comment succinctly: In the UK, SH is on a pedestal. In the USA, SH is next to us.

    I am not sure where that observation leaves me. As a young American, I admired the lone hero who righted wrongs: Lone Ranger, Superman, Paladin, and Sherlock Holmes. The admiration was too strong to want to "humanize" them. But, maybe it is a generational difference, having grown up in the 60s and early 70s.

  4. I think it is worth remembering the huge influence of American writer Edgar Allan Poe on Doyle's writing, particularly the detective stories featuring C. Augustus Dupin. The first time I read Poe's detective stories, I realized Holmes was not the complete original I had previously thought, and many character traits of Poe's Dupin are very Holmes-like indeed. Doyle himself called Poe's detective the greatest in all fiction, ( mind you it was to an American audience who asked Doyle if Poe's detective stories were influential on his Sherlock Holmes work ) . That said, clearly Doyle improved the detective archetype considerably, and I find his mysteries far more enjoyable to read. Sherlock Holmes seems a more real and complicated character than Dupin ever was, and that was down to Doyle's particular genius in writing character. I am not American or British, but I agree that Sherlock Holmes is one of the greatest characters/heroes in literature. Some film interpretations work better than others though, BBC's Sherlock is one of the stronger examples.


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