The Greatest Detective

There’s no mystery about the name of the most famous detective of them all. In fact, it’s elementary. Sherlock Holmes, of course. In fact, Sherlock is the most famous character in the whole of fiction. Not just in this country, but throughout the world. He’s been a byword for a century and a quarter. But he wasn’t the first fictional detective. That honour goes to the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, created almost 50 years earlier, in 1841, by Edgar Allan Poe.

Dupin only appeared in three short stories; the first was the memorable ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. Yet although Dupin was a prototype, it was a long time before other writers followed in Poe’s footsteps. Rather ungratefully, Arthur Conan Doyle allowed Holmes to trash his predecessor’s reputation. In A Study in Scarlet, he says:

‘No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin. Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow…he had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.’

Harsh! But Holmes would make even Superman look like an under-achiever. For example, in The Sign of Four:

‘He spoke on a quick succession of subjects – on miracle plays, on mediaeval pottery, on Stradivarius violins, on the Buddhism of Ceylon, and on the warships of the future – handling each as though he had made a special study of it.’

And there is more. His mastery of disguise would earn an Oscar these days, as we see in another passage from The Sign of Four:

‘Ah, you rogue!’ cried Jones, highly delighted. ‘You would have made an actor, and a rare one. You had the proper workhouse cough, and those weak legs of yours are worth ten pounds a week.’

One can imagine just how much the young Arthur Conan Doyle loved going over the top like this. And of course, his readers lapped it up. How about this, from ‘The Naval Treaty’:

‘He had…the utter immobility of countenance of a Red Indian.’

Or this from A Study in Scarlet:

‘He is well up in anatomy, and he is a first-class chemist…Plays the violin well…Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman…Has a good practical knowledge of British law.’

Wow! But even blessed with all these gifts, he gives way to melancholy. In The Red-Headed League, he says:

‘My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.’

The same story includes one of his most breathtaking bits of detective work:

‘Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.’

His investigations are frequently aided by the stunning breadth of his knowledge: ‘I am fairly familiar with all forms of secret writings,’ he says in ‘The Dancing Men’, ‘and am myself the author of a trifling monograph upon the subject, in which I analyse one hundred and sixty separate ciphers.’

I love that word ‘trifling’. And how about this from ‘The Priory School’:

‘A bicycle, certainly, but not the bicycle. I am familiar with forty-two different impressions left by tyres.’

A sign of a mis-spent youth? Maybe. For good measure, he added in The Hound of the Baskervilles that ‘There are seventy five perfumes, which it is very necessary that a criminal expert should be able to distinguish from each other.’

No wonder the Great Detectives never have time to build a conventional domestic life. Sherlock Holmes certainly set a pattern for those Great Detectives with his love of the mysterious remark, as in ‘A Case of Identity’:

‘I can never bring you to realise the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace.’

He isn’t a great admirer of the opposite sex. In The Sign of Four he says: ‘the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money.’

Perhaps the reason is that he just doesn’t understand them.

‘The motives of women are so inscrutable,’ he says in ‘The Second Stain’. You remember the woman at Margate whom I suspected for the same reason. No powder on her nose – that proved to be the correct solution. How can you build on such a quicksand? Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling-tongue.’

Famously, in ‘Silver Blaze’, he draws the attention of Inspector Gregory to ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’ Gregory snorts: ‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’ To which Sherlock, of course, replies: ‘That was the curious incident.’

He loves getting the last word in. Another instance comes in this exchange from ‘The Devil’s Foot’. He tells Stendale, ‘I followed you.’

‘I saw no one,’ comes the reply.

‘That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.’

But in many ways, the most tantalising of the Holmes cases are those that Watson simply mentions in passing, such as the mystery of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, wonderfully described as ‘a story for which the world is not yet prepared.’ And these casual references have given endless pleasure to later writers – including me – who have tried their hand at writing Sherlock Holmes stories.

In truth, though, Holmes is beyond imitation. Conan Doyle got sick of him, and killed him off by allowing him to tumbled into the Reichenbach Falls after a struggle with Professor Moriarty. This provoked public outrage on an international scale. Fans in various American cities set up ‘Let’s Keep Holmes Alive’ clubs. In the end, Conan Doyle succumbed to pressure (and the offer of £5,000, no mean sum in the early years of the century) and returned to setting down the cases of the sage of 221b Baker Street. Yet as one critic remarked, ‘he may not have been killed when he fell over the cliff, but he was never quite the same man afterwards.’ Conan Doyle was writing Holmes stories almost up to his death in 1930, but most people would agree that Sherlock was at his best in the foggy gas-lit London streets 40 years earlier.