Mystery author Lyndsay Faye has made it her business to know what other people don’t know about Sherlock Holmes. Her latest, The Whole Art of Detection, imagines Holmes and Dr. John Watson in a variety of new and dangerous adventures. This makes her the perfect person to ask: Just what is it about this British detective that keeps readers fascinated? Why do we crave more stories about this intelligent crime solver? Here, Faye explores the many reasons why a Victorian detective remains relevant in our modern world.
Sherlock Holmes. He is an elegant gentleman scientist illustrated in subtle grayscale, strolling through the pages of classic literature wearing a top hat and tails. He is abstract symbols, a deerstalker and a magnifying glass painted on the side of a security company’s van. He is a brawny blockbuster action hero, shirtless, adorned with stubble and sweat. He is a cartoon mouse. He is a classic Hollywood film icon. He is a radio personality. He is a runaway hit BBC television series. Sherlock Holmes is all of these things, and more of them besides—so who is he really? And why do we keep insisting on more of him?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character got off to a rocky start in life. A Study in Scarlet sold, to put it kindly, not at all well; The Sign of Four did little to rescue our hero from the doldrums. It was only after Doyle serialized Holmes into meticulously crafted episodic mysteries published in the Strand Magazine that Holmes took off like a spacecraft on steroids. The family magazine was already popular, but once the eccentric Bohemian crime solver began to appear, its circulation immediately ballooned. Edgar Allan Poe’s revolutionary armchair logician, C. Auguste Dupin, admittedly predated the Great Detective. But Dupin sat comfortably in his Paris flat, a veritable brain in a jar, working out his chains of reasoning.
Sherlock Holmes and his partner, Dr. John Watson, had adventures.
Most of the 56 original short stories begin with that perfect phrase, that fairy tale combination of words crafted to tickle our brains and speed our pulse rates: “The Adventure of…” “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” in which Holmes and Watson keep vigil in a house haunted by grief and greed, lying in wait for a deadly serpent to slither down a bell pull. “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” in which a spirited governess is made to cut off her hair and wear an electric blue gown, all the while forbidden to enter the estate’s grim and lonesome tower. “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” in which a seemingly random series of attacks on Napoleon’s bust leads to murder, mayhem, and the long-lost Black Pearl of the Borgias. Sherlock Holmes sits cogitating in armchairs, to be certain—but he also wields guns, sprints to the aid of the helpless, and faces slavering hellhounds. There’s no shortage of adrenaline, and it’s for the young and the young at heart alike, and it’s marvelous.
Not to reduce Holmes to a vigilante in a cape-backed greatcoat, battling villains like some Victorian Bruce Wayne, although the comparison does hold some water. Holmes is 17 steps ahead of us at every turn and, as seen through the eyes of his loyal doctor friend, he positively glows. In this era of false “facts” and dismissal of science, there’s something electric about believing in a protagonist who relies solely on observation and deduction, a man who views the world both as it is and as it should be. Lie and distort and prevaricate how you like, and Sherlock Holmes can see through you, right to the marrow, and he carves away with wit and insight until the truth is laid bare for all to witness. If justice depends on truth, then such a hero is truly timeless; he reflects all that is steady and rational about our confused human state.
Above all, Sherlock Holmes is, at the end of the day, a good man. Perhaps he’s less patient than his stalwart companion, granted, and he admittedly finds himself in the dumps from time to time. Drugs make an appearance. He gets ahead of himself, and he makes mistakes, and on occasion, Holmes like the rest of us needs to be forgiven. But he remains our champion, and until humankind tires of flawed knights who risk their lives in the service of others, Sherlock Holmes will stay with us. Age doth not wither, nor custom stale his infinite variety—nor his capacity to help us believe that a single person can make our world a better place.
Lyndsay Faye is the author of five critically acclaimed books: Dust and Shadow; The Gods of Gotham, which was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel; Seven for a Secret; The Fatal Flame; and Jane Steele. Faye, a true New Yorker in the sense that she was born elsewhere, lives in New York City with her husband, Gabriel.