What Makes Sherlock So Special
What indeed! Sherlock Holmes has been with us for over one hundred years and the public’s interest for him remains unquenchable. He is known the world over and is so familiar that his name has become part of our vernacular. Moreover, he is the most portrayed character in film and television, and no matter who plays the part—Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, or more recently Benedict Cumberbatch—that individual is beloved, all because each in the public’s eye has become Sherlock Holmes. But why then this universal adulation for the Great Detective?
Let us begin with the obvious. Sherlock has the unique ability to draw broad conclusions from minute observations and is thus able to solve the most difficult cases, which baffle others. He is quite well informed, but only in a limited number of subjects. His amiable friend and colleague, John Watson, reminds us that Holmes is profoundly knowledgeable in chemistry and sensational literature, but knows virtually nil of politics and philosophy. He does fine in botany and anatomy, but only as they apply to crime. So Sherlock is bright, but certainly not a genius, yet he employs the wisdom he possesses in such a marvelous manner he can out best the cleverest of criminals. While these features make him captivating, they by themselves cannot account for the longevity nor for the reverence he has enjoyed for over a century.
But there are yet other characteristics Holmes has which we find most appealing. He is ever observant and tireless in his pursuit of criminals and stays within the law, although at times he is willing to stretch its limits. He delves into his detective work for the pure joy of it and seeks neither fame nor fortune, yet both are easily within his grasp. On more than a few occasions, he allows Inspector Lestrade to reap the glory, which truly belonged to Sherlock himself. Thus he seems to derive his greatest pleasure from solving the most complex of crimes and bringing the evil-doers to police. Some might consider him a gentleman consultant who is perfectly at ease working in the shadows and performing equally well at the highest and lowest levels of society. Again, all admirable qualities, but not nearly enough to endear him to us with such deep adoration.
So what about Holmes so entrances us? The following thoughts are my opinion and perhaps mine alone, but I do believe they are correct. Some true Sherlockians may disagree, I suspect most won’t, for the answer is multifaceted. First off, we are mesmerized by Sherlock Holmes’ obvious flaws which blend in so splendidly with his wondrous talent. Yes, his flaws! For you see, Sherlock is most like us in many ways, and is someone we can identify with. Permit me to list the similarities. He is untidy, moody, and at times downright lazy. The Great Detective is untidy in that his cigars reside in a coal bucket, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his notes, reminders, and newspapers scattered all around the parlor at 221b Baker Street. He is both moody and lazy, for he can spend days lounging on a sofa and doing absolutely nothing, eventually becoming depressed to the point of requiring a stimulant to simply move about. Yet he is able to spring into action with remarkable energy when in pursuit of a goal. Do these features resemble anyone you know? Perhaps the image you see in the mirror?
Let us return to Sherlock being truly outstanding at only one task. Goodness gracious! That holds true for any number of professionals. Think of the renowned physician who makes the diagnosis in the most complex case which so baffles his colleagues. Or the clever attorney who continually displays his magic in courts of law and wins every verdict. Or the musician who brings forth a sound from his instrument that is so magnificent it mesmerizes the audience. And the list goes on and on. Yet I would be willing to wager that away from the public’s eye these wonderfully talented individuals are at times untidy, moody, and downright lazy. Kind of like our Sherlock, eh?
Which brings us to a singular feature Sherlock Holmes possesses that has endeared him to all through the years. He lives life exactly as he wishes and could care less what people think or feel. The outside world, including the people in it (aside from crime) is of no concern to him. Politics mean nothing, affairs of the heart and mind a waste of time. Yet, like most of us, he can be messy, moody, and a layabout, and away from his professional pursuits he is uninteresting. But Sherlock is so incredibly talented with his powers of observation that we happily embrace him despite his shortcomings. Thus, the Great Detective is someone we adore for his wondrous talent and forgive for his obvious flaws. In essence, he is a unique combination of what we yearn to be and what in some measure we already are. And that is what makes Sherlock Holmes so special.
Leonard Goldberg is the author of the Daughter of Sherlock Holmes mystery series. After a long career affiliated with the UCLA Medical Center as a clinical professor of medicine, he now lives on an island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina.