Why Has Sherlock Holmes Remained So Popular Over the Years?

From the Lecture Series: Victorian Britain

By Patrick N. Allitt, PhD, Emory University

Sherlock Holmes popularized criminology and forensics investigating in a time when fingerprinting was brand-new. How has Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s impossibly perceptive detective stood the test of time?

Sherlock Holmes. Detective illustration.
(Image: Leo_Travelling/Shutterstock)
Cover of Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring A. Conan Doyle's story 'A Study in Scarlet'
Conan Doyle first introduced Sherlock Holmes in the book A Study in Scarlet, published in 1886. (Image: By David Henry Friston/Public domain)

As the reading public grew, and more people were able to read and wanted to read, more niches were established in the literary market. It was in the late 1880s that Conan Doyle created the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. He was Scottish, a struggling young doctor living first in Portsmouth on the south coast, then moving up to London. Like many aspiring doctors, he didn’t have enough patients; often he would while away a day waiting for patients to come, and they didn’t. In the meantime, he passed the time by writing fiction, and in the late ’80s, in 1886, he wrote A Study in Scarlet, the first of the Sherlock Holmes books. He sold it outright to a publisher for £25.

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The Holmes character was based on one of his Edinburgh medical professors, Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell had specialized in simply being able to look at somebody and being able to tell from how they appeared what their job was, where they came from, and where they had been recently. Sherlock Holmes elevates that skill to preternatural heights. For example, the very first time he meets Dr. Watson, he says “Ah, an army doctor who has just been in Afghanistan, I see.” Watson is astonished at this incredibly accurate reading of his character.

This is a transcript from the video series Victorian Britain. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Holmes represented the triumph of scientific criminology, the idea that if you were to investigate minutely with your looking glass and chemical experiments, you can get much further than the police do with their traditional methods. The London police by then already had a lot of failures to their credit—failures to make the appropriate arrest, partly because the police mainly responded on knowing who was doing what in the London underworld. The lure of Holmes’ detection is that he goes underneath the obvious to look for little clues that give him crucial information about the actual culprits. Lestrade, the regular policeman, isn’t ever quite good enough. Holmes is the one who gets to the bottom of these matters.

Holmes and Watson in a Sidney Paget illustration for "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" which appeared in The Strand Magazine in December 1892, with the caption "HOLMES GAVE ME A SKETCH OF THE EVENTS.
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Image: Sidney Paget/Public domain)

He studies the history of crime, looking for parallels to each new one. One thing he says to Watson is, “There is no such thing as a new crime. They just go on again and again. Look for the parallels and you will find the perpetrator.” He is supposed to have written a monograph of 140 types of tobacco which he can recognize by scent and chemical analysis. He is moody. He is a violinist, as well as a cocaine addict who falls into depressions between cases and then comes surging up again. Watson himself, the bumbling but plucky sidekick, is a masterpiece, and much of the fun of the story comes out of the conversations between the two of them.

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Holmes and Moriarty struggle at the Reichenbach Falls; drawing by Sidney Paget 1893.
Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. (Image: Sidney Paget/Public domain)

This is the era in which fingerprinting was developed, and Holmes himself is a great advocate of fingerprinting, which became a standard police method.

Conan Doyle was delighted by the success of Sherlock Holmes. For the first series, he was given £35 per story, once the phenomenon started to catch on. The Strand magazine offered him £50 per story when at first he was reluctant to write another series. At the end of the second series, he killed off Holmes altogether. Holmes is wrestling with Moriarty at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, and they both plunge into the river and are lost. His audience was horrified at the loss of their great hero; the hero doesn’t die. That is the first principle of a great story. 

Portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1893
British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)

Conan Doyle was offered such an enormous financial incentive (an American magazine had offered him £5,000 per story, this is after he sold the original one outright for £25.) With that kind of incentive, Holmes came back. He hadn’t died there in the river after all.

Altogether, Conan Doyle wrote four novels and five sets of these short stories. In 1897 a stage play was based on the Holmes adventures, and of course, the detective has become a staple of movies and TV since then.

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Conan Doyle was widely admired. He did real sleuthing work of his own. People with mysteries of various kinds would often consult him, saying, “Tell me, as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, what you think is really happening.” Occasionally, he was able to sort out mysteries. He also became an advocate for people who he thought had been wrongly condemned either to prison or to death and was able to achieve some reprieves for wrongly convicted men.

It is strange and so typical that what at first looked like an extremely ephemeral literature ended up having great staying power right through the present, which none of his contemporaries, including the author himself, could have foreseen.

Common Questions About Sherlock Holmes

Q: Was Sherlock Holmes a real live person?

No. Sherlock Holmes is a fictional creation; however, he was modeled after Dr. Joseph Bell, whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle studied under at Edinburgh University.

Q: Did Sherlock Holmes do drugs?

Yes. Sherlock Holmes would inject himself with a 7% solution of cocaine to aid in solving cases. He occasionally used morphine as well.

Q: Does Sherlock Holmes ever actually kill Moriarty?

Sherlock Holmes arranges a situation at the top of the Reichenbach Falls, where Moriarty falls to his death.

Q: How does Sherlock Holmes die?

Sherlock Holmes does not die. He fakes his death in the fall with Moriarty and goes into hiding.

This article was updated on October 12, 2020

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