Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sherlock Holmes and "Normality"

I would wager that the average person, if asked to describe Sherlock Holmes, would quite probably mention a detective in an armchair, smoking his pipe, putting his fingers together, and saying “elementary, my dear Watson.” The famous deerstalker cap might come up, too, as well as Holmes courteously questioning his clients and coming to a conclusion without leaving the house.

If you asked that same person whether Sherlock Holmes is “normal,” (s)he would probably say yes. A bit eccentric, perhaps, incredibly smart, but a “normal” British gentleman.

“You have really done very well indeed. It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method…”

That, if the reader allows us a quote from A Case of Identity, is quite probably what Sherlock Holmes would say.

Of course, “normality” is one of those words that require quotation marks every time I use them. It’s quite possible that I have a profound fear of making an outrageous or unsupportable claim about something so relative as what is “normal.”  But, whatever the reasons, the point remains that “normality” is subjective. Standards change across time and distance.

With that said, I’d like to point out how, well, not “normal” Sherlock Holmes is.

It’s no secret (to Sherlockians, at least) that Holmes never actually says “elementary, my dear Watson,” in the stories. That comes from a film. He also never actually wears the famous deerstalker cap, which is the invention of illustrator Sidney Paget. And as for the pipe, well, Holmes seems to alternate between that and his cocaine addiction.

In fact, when we first meet Sherlock Holmes in in A Study in Scarlet, he comes off as arrogant and eccentric, has an obsession with crime, the IQ of a criminal mastermind, and a complete ignorance of the fact that the earth goes around the sun.  Instead of being the rather altruistic detective who sacrifices himself to free the world of the greatest criminal mastermind, he complains about the lack of criminality:

“There are no crimes and no criminals in these days,’ he said querulously. “What is the use of having brains in our profession?”

Yet the image of Sherlock Holmes that remains in our minds is the one I began this article with. That image is accurate if one reads nothing but The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. In those stories, Holmes is an entirely different man from the one we first meet. He does, indeed, appear to be a normal British gentleman, quotes Goethe, and often laments his inability to prevent a crime.

So, what happened? Why is Holmes so different in the first two novels than in the stories, and why is the latter image of him more prevalent?

I think it would be safe to claim that the most popular Sherlock Holmes books are The Adventures and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes; even in Doyle’s time, they were far more famous than the two novels that introduced him, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Thus, it seems safe to assume that, given two rather antithetical images of Holmes, the more prevalent one comes from the more famous stories.

But then the question remains: why this discrepancy? That is, if one does not write it off as an error on Doyle’s part, what happened? Did Holmes change and, if so, why?

One possible reading is the influence Watson had on Holmes.  Watson, dear Watson, sometimes comical, always at a loss as to where Sherlock gets his conclusions from, but a loyal friend and chronicler…Holmes finds him indispensable and cannot work without his Boswell. May we deduce from this close relationship between the two that Watson has actually changed Sherlock?  That their “intimate relationship” changed Holmes from a slightly sociopathic loner to a more sociable, though still “Bohemian,” soul?

In any case, one may do well to remember that the original Holmes that readers were introduced to was not the calm, educated gentleman. He’s a man who probably hasn’t heard of Shakespeare. Which raises the question: does the impression we have of the detective come, perhaps, from seeing what we want to see?


  1. I haven't read the books (hangs head in shame); my entire knowledge of Holmes comes from the lauded Jeremy Brett series. I certainly wouldn't call him "normal", i.e. following society's conventions. He's rude, often contemptuous, certainly not someone a high bred hostess would invite to a dinner party.

    As an aficionado of mysteries, I must agree that great detectives do not conform to what is typically accepted as normality. They are rogues. Even Miss Marple, who on the surface seems the most benign of sleuths, has an unpleasant cynical streak. It makes sense; who better to catch a sociopath than another sociopath with a slightly more refined sense of morality.

  2. The point you bring up about literary sleuths is really interesting. I, like everybody else, have read about Miss Marple, of course, and Poirot, but somehow I seem to remember them as, well, "normal" people. I haven't Jeremy Brett series (also hangs head in shame...I guess we're even), and I admit that the way you say Holmes is presented in those films is surprising, to me, though perhaps it shouldn't be. Indeed, I think you're quite right that a good detective is, in some ways, very similar to a criminal. This is actually brought up in the Holmes stories, I believe - Holmes says several times that he'd make a brilliant criminal, which raises the question of why he decided to be on the side of the law (well, mostly).

    I highly recommend Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories to you; I know I personally will definitely check out the Jeremy Brett series eventually.

  3. Holmes has been on my to read list for quite some time - but since seeing the first season of Sherlock, it's moved up considerably.

  4. I approve. If you're just discovering the Holmes Canon for the first time, though, I recommend you start with the stories. Two of the novels come before the stories (study in scarlet and sign of four) but they're nowhere near as good as the stories in terms of plot and intrigue. Of course, the novels do reveal much more about Holmes as a person, so really, where you start depends, I suppose on whether you're more interesting in the plot or the characters..

  5. Plot or characters? Interesting question that I'm still mulling over. However, in the case of Holmes, I'll default to reading them in order of publication.

    BTW, sorry for the long delay in responses. I sometimes have limited interest access.

  6. No worries about the responses :) (although I personally couldn't live a day without the internet, haha).

    do tell me what your thoughts are once you've read the Holmes stories (unless you post about it, in which case I'll run across it on your blog).

  7. Great blog with lot of cool posts about Sherlock Holmes. This one is no exception :)


    1. Thank you! :) I checked out your blog and see that you're a fellow Sherlockian as well, and particularly a fan of the Russian adaptations. How do you acquire them/what language do you watch them in? I've seen the first episode - the one based on the Red-Headed League - and I must say, it really is quite lovely. I even wrote a review of it at some point, thought I never finished it.