Recently I ventured on Facebook that the new Hercule Poirot pastiche, The Monogram Murders, interests me very little because I’ve never found the little Belgian and his little grey cells to be very engaging. It’s the masterful plots that I re-read Agatha Christie for, not Poirot.
My good friend Amy Thomas begged to differ. For her, “Poirot just leaps off the page.”
Arguing taste is futile, whether the subject is books are beverages, so I never do that. But my dialogue with Amy did set me to thinking about why I love certain characters. For example:
- Nero Wolfe is essentially a comic character. I love him for his foibles, not in spite of them.
- Harry Dresden is a noble wizard who always tries to do the right thing, no matter how dead it is likely to get him.
- Jeff Cody, in my own mysteries, is a bundle of neurotic ticks; who wouldn’t love that?
And then there is Mr. Holmes of 221B Baker Street.
Millions of words have been written to try to explain the popularity of Sherlock Holmes. My task here is a little different. I’d like to explain why Holmes for all is flaws is somebody I want to spend time with, somebody I want to read about over and over - even in stories that occasionally aren’t that wonderful.
Why is Sherlock Holmes not just the Great Detective, but also a great character?
It’s not just that he has dozens of lines of unforgettable dialogue in a unique voice, or that the Canonical stories crackle with electricity when he’s on the scene.
Sherlock Holmes himself is a fully rounded human being, with human moral failings and human failures. Of course he has a brother and a French grandmother – he’s a real person!
Perhaps Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, said it best:
“Holmes is a man, not a puppet. As a man he has many vulnerable spots, like us; he is vain, prejudiced, intolerant; he is a drug addict; he even plays the violin for diversion – one of the most deplorable outrages of self-indulgence.”
But, Stout went on, there is much more to Holmes than that: “He loves truth and justice more than he loves money or comfort or safety or pleasure, or any man or woman. Such a man has never lived, so Sherlock Holmes will never die.”