There have been very few literary characters that have been used as often as Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887. Holmes is the uniquely intelligent and observant detective who solves numerous seemingly impossible crimes in and around London, sometimes with the aid of his friend and scribe Dr. John Watson. You’ve probably seen Holmes recently. Perhaps in the movies starring Robert Downey, Jr, or the BBC series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch, or the television show Elementary with  Jonny Lee Miller. There have also been a number of works that were more loosely based on Holmes, the most popular likely being the television show House with Dr. house and his friend Wilson. So, why is Sherlock Holmes so popular and why should you care? Well, let me tell you my story.

Sherlock Holmes in “The Man with the Twisted Lip” from The Strand Magazine

I’m what I would call old school Holmes, I read the original short stories as part of a gifted and talented program when I was about 12. I still have the book somewhere with the complete collection of 56 short stories and 4 novels including my personal favorite: The Hound of the Baskervilles. I also was obsessed with the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in which Data played Sherlock Holmes on the holodeck including the two encounters with Holmes’s nemesis: Moriarty. Since then, I’ve devoured most things Holmes related, whether they are particularly good (BBC’s Sherlock) or not (CBS’s Elementary).

There are a few things that are quite consistent with Holmes no matter where you find him. One of these is the obvious high intelligence and excellent use of logical deductions to figure out things that most others miss. Holmes in all cases is known for being able to walk into a room and tell a person 3-5 things about them they he couldn’t possibly have known. His reasoning is always clear when he explains it, but still seems nearly magical to the onlooker and the Watson character.

Benedict Cumberbatch as the current best Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock

Another aspect of Holmes that is consistent is the personality. Holmes typically borders on sociopathic, though some think that perhaps the character is instead on the autism spectrum. Holmes ignores social norms with great flourish and enjoys making those around him uncomfortable. He flaunts his intelligence without humility and points out the flaws in others regularly. I tend to see Holmes as a partial sociopath. In some situations, he chooses to ignore the social norms that he sees. However, there is clearly an aspect to the character where Holmes simply doesn’t understand how those around him can miss just obvious things. Thus, the sense of “elementary” that he uses. Though the known phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson”  never appeared in any of Doyle’s original writings, Holmes did use the term especially when referring to Watson’s excitement over his deductive abilities.

In many ways, I identify strongly with the intelligent sociopath, and I think many other geeks do as well. There are many times when I see and understand the basic logic of something around me and simply can’t comprehend how others missed it. Of course, in polite society this tends to get me in trouble more often than not, and so I’ve learned to tone down that aspect of my personality. Still, it’s kind of awesome to watch Holmes in any form and know that there are those out there that respect intelligence and logic over social niceties. I loved the character of House. He was someone that I wanted to have lunch with and just discuss human nature.

Data and Geordi on the holodeck as Holmes and Watson

Data and Geordi on the holodeck as Holmes and Watson

Of course, Holmes also has to have some more human and relatable flaws, or he wouldn’t work as a character. Typically, that flaw is addiction. The original Holmes enjoyed cocaine and occasionally morphine as a stimulant for thinking. There is some story elements in which Watson gets him off these drugs.

However, despite all his flaws, eccentricities, and sociopathic tendencies, Holmes wants to help people. It is the reason he does what he does. That is never the surface purpose and most of the time, Holmes would never admit it, but it is still obvious that he cares. That’s the main reason that Watson not only stands his presence, but tries to aid him as much as Watson can, which is often trying to not completely alienate everyone around Holmes while he tries to help.

One of the best parts of the old Sherlock Holmes stories for me is often playing along, trying to be Holmes and solve the mysteries. I want to see what he does and make the connections. I like to analyze the things around me and draw conclusions from them. I often feel like when I engage in a Sherlock Holmes world, it is a place where I can be my open, highly-intelligent, geeky self without the concerns of seeming overly egotistical and threatening to others around me. I think this is why I always jump on Holmes-related things, even if the relationship is minimal.

I kind of love this fanart of House as Holmes

I kind of love this fanart of House as Holmes

Holmes can also teach us some useful lessons, many of which involve his dealings with his nemesis Moriarty. This foil is important as the intellectual equal to Holmes, thus forcing Holmes to rethink many of his ideals. The interactions between him and Watson are also telling in how people of different minds can come together for a common good. I’ll let you find more useful things in these stories for yourself, and if you are jumping on the Holmes bandwagon for the first time, give the BBC’s Sherlock a try. It’s one of the best. Also, the complete works by Conan Doyle are available for free on kindle. They are mostly short stories, so it’s easy to get into Holmes in small pieces.

I will leave you with the one thing that I think Holmes taught me for sure and I use in my life often: once you have eliminated everything that is impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the answer.

Search for the improbable.

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