There are many internal mysteries in the stories of Sherlock Holmes that Arthur Conan Doyle would find himself called upon if he was writing now. If Professor Moriaty is such a strong and clever foe why has he never devised a crime worthy enough for Watson to chronicle it? How much heroin does Holmes take throughout the day to prevent the shakes from disturbing his masterful violin playing? Writers analysing these stories are quick to point out Doyle’s unimaginative use of language, the fact that the reader has no chance of solving the mysteries and the limited scope of Holmes’ detective work. All these elements should add up to a bunch of dire little tales that are no more than a curiosity shouldn’t they? Why are they still avidly read today? Why is Sherlock Holmes one of the most beloved fictional British detectives?
The first clue is in the unusual nature of many of the crimes. A goose is used to stow jewels in, an advert placed for ginger haired men conceals fraudulent practise, people are assaulted and murdered in locked rooms. Doyle’s criminals almost surpass his hero in the ingenious premises of their schemes. The sheer curiosity that is to be found at the beginning of many of the stories intrigues the reader and this is coupled with the amazing deductions Holmes makes, that lead to the revelation of the nature of the crime and how it was achieved. When this is realised it seems that Doyle’s stories follow one of the most important rules of writing an entertaining short story, to make the beginning, the middle and then end equally strong and always compelling.
Then there is the element of danger and the gothic that is incorporated into the writing. People who are unfamiliar with the stories may have an impression that Doyle provided the seed for the cosy mystery with his middle class crimes tackled by a detective who wears tweed and smokes a pipe. This is wildly untrue as many Sherlock Holmes stories contain strong depictions of human evil and in some cases there is almost an element of the ghost story. Holmes and Watson investigate a creepy houses at night on several occassions, many of the crimes involve a twisted method of achieving their ends and more than a few criminals receive grisly final punishments. The fact that the reader has almost no idea what is going on until Holmes reveals his deductions make the crimes obscure while they are occuring and so heightens the suspense and dread that the reader feels. Perfectly respectable people reveal themselves to be full of rage and violence and Holmes himself is far from a sedate arm chair detective, even if he does do his best thinking there. He is a heroin addict but also an active analyst who throws himself into action, shadowing people, disguising himself and visiting dark, seedy places.
Holmes must of course be credited with being the main reason why readers continue to investigate his world. Whether his creator was unable to flesh him out, due to time pressures, or unwilling to work hard on the background of a character written for money the unclear past works to his characters advantage. The lack of detail about the man fascinates readers who continue reading partly in the hope of discovering more and partly because such an enigmatic detective adds irresistible mystery to the tone of each story. Sometimes it is just as intriguing to be mystified as it is to have the flabbergasting details exposed. In one of the best stories, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, Holmes is given an equally unknowable female counterpart. The lady gets away from him and little is ever explained yet the conclusion doesn’t feel unsatisfying because the indiscernible is thrilling.
Sherlock Holmes lives in a London that is instantly recognisable to any British reader and he is a distinguishable part of that London. Like the characters of Dickens Holmes and Watson are instrumental in shaping both our perception of Britain at this time and in informing our fictional British landscape. Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing reaffirms our notions of how a fictional, historical Britain should be represented and as Shakespeare contributed uncountable stock phrases to the English language through his writing so Doyle helps to create images and tones that have become inseparable from British fiction. If you have never visited London but you imagine it filled with fog and ornate street lamps these images can probably be traced back to descriptions from established British writers like Arthur Conan Doyle. This provides a final reason why his stories of a logical detective and his blustering side kick remain so well read. In his work Doyle has created a vision of London that makes such an impression that everyone recognises it. This distinguishable landscape makes all readers feel as if they know Holmes’ world. It is comforting to walk into a familiar world where everything is signposted clearly in an understandable language and this makes for an enjoyable reading experience.
For British readers these linguistic markers show how closely related to their home and their culture these stories are and make it easy to accept and welcome Holmes as one of our own.