The Phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes

A couple of weeks ago I attended the inaugural lecture of Creative Writing Professor Neil McCaw, who entertained university and public people alike upon the effect of Sherlock Holmes on the world. McCaw assessed the fact that Sherlock Holmes was a world-wide phenomenon who was used in a variety of ways including increasing morale during war-time, and his presence in detective work in modern times. There are interpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories in nearly every country with Antarctica being the only region having no affiliation that McCaw could find. Doyle’s work came out of the end of the original detective genre popularity boom in the nineteenth century. His fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes was by far not the first detective to gain infamy but Holmes was the first to capture a lasting effect upon peoples imagination. But of course this is a study of literature so it is necessary to acknowledge Holmes significance within history for a history blog. Holmes is one of the most portrayed movie characters in all of cinematic history and has been produced multiple times most notably in England, America, Russia and China. But Holmes’ character had specific connotations in how Doyle’s character was used during the Boer War and First World War.

Holmes first appeared in a serialised set of short stories in The Strand Magazine in 1891, which continued with overwhelming success until 1927. It consists with four complete novels and fifty-six short stories. They appeared during the time that the police were considered mistrustful and were disliked by the Victorian and Edwardian public. But Conan Doyle reflected upon a character that took on extraordinary cases and solved them through deduction and the occasional opiate induced violin frenzy.  His address was 221B Baker Street also occupied by the medical doctor Mr Watson and his rarely mentioned landlady, Mrs Hudson. His residency in London recognized a need for a detective capable of solving abnormal crimes, especially since the audience were living in the aftermath of the horrors of the Jack the Ripper murders. The inspiration for such a character Doyle stated was Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh who was capable of solving medical mysteries from minute observations, which whom Doyle worked with as a clerk. Holme’s appearance in the books of the deerstalker hat and cane is shown in non-contemporary illustrations, mostly by Sidney Paget, but this is the image we would recognise today, even though Holmes’ outfit was not specifically described in the stories.

Holmes significance during the World War of 1914-18 was his use in raising morale. His Last Bow was Doyle’s first attempt at ending his journey with Holmes character was published in 1917 near the end of the First World War. Doyle’s portrayal featured British and German spies and could be described as spy fiction rather than detective fiction. This short story was serialised and sent out to the British troops in the trenches to raise morale with propaganda. The story was set on the eve of the First World War were a German agent Von Bork was attempting to leave England with vital intelligence on the British military stance. Holmes identified there was a security leak in British Intelligence that allowed German spies to access information and was able to trace Von Bork before he was able to leave England. Doyle referenced to the impending war by suggesting there was a ‘cold wind’ coming in from the East thus allowing the audience to interpret from whom the threat was coming from. But it also included a message for hope as shown in this extract:

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared”

At the point of this story ending the war was not yet over but it was an attempt to ensure the troops continued fighting in the hope to defeat the enemy. But thankfully end it did with the victory on the British side in 1918. The use of Holmes as a morale boost was strong since it continued through film in the Second World War. Sherlock Holmes was portrayed by Basil Rathbone in a series of Sherlock Holmes movies, created by Twentieth Century Fox, from 1939 to 1946 beginnings with The Hound of the Baskervilles. However Holmes was used as propaganda tool which is purely evident in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror released in 1942. This movie was based upon The Last Bow which followed the storyline with the German Agent bearing distinctive Nazi markings. The next in the series in released in 1943 Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon featured doctors attempting to flee the Gestapo with Holmes being captured by Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ nemesis, being shown to be a Nazi scientist. Moriarty is one of the most enduring enemies in fiction also immortalised in his frequent cinematic depictions. This thread of the British and American film producers constantly portraying Holmes fighting, and beating, the German Nazi regime was to ensure the public kept going during one of darkest periods in world history. The slight problem with this ideology is that these movies were found in Hitler’s bunker, who was said to have shown these movies as entertainment to his German officials suggesting that the propaganda morale boost was felt by only Britain and America for the amusement of the other side.

The phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes did not and does not end with the World Wars, Russia has used Holmes to interpret communism. America’s president Theodore Roosevelt attempted to justify that Holmes was actually American but chose to fight crime in the more needy London. This came about due to America being the home of the first Sherlock Holmes Society of which Teddy Roosevelt was a secret member.  Comic books portraying Holmes as a crime fighting ninja is a popular theme and the Japanese puppet version of Holmes’ is in my opinion slightly terrifying. But the ideology of a super detective sleuth being on your side of a war that affected the people, landscape, and emotion of nation would have been incredibly reassuring in the history contemporary to the release of the Sherlock Holmes stories. There is a vast wealth of information on the use of Sherlock Holmes in recent history, I have barely scratched the surface here but McCaw’s lecture has certainly inspired me to search for more.

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