Next Friday morning (May 15) I will discuss Sherlock Holmes with the Metallic Club of Cincinnati. The letterhead identifies the club as “a retired men’s organization – SILVER in our hair – GOLD in our teeth – IRON in our blood – RUST in our joints – LEAD in our feet.” I like these guys already!
They want to hear my talk on “Sherlock Holmes and the Development of Detective Fiction.” Because they’ve asked me to speak longer than I normally do on this topic, I’m going to say more about Holmes as the archetype of the Great Detective.
I believe Orson Welles once said, “Everybody knows what a detective looks like – he looks like Sherlock Holmes.” (And if he didn’t say that, he should have.) Here’s an example: http://www.wikihow.com/Be-a-Detective
When our grandchildren were younger, they thought that hundreds of books in their school library were about Sherlock Holmes because all the mysteries were identified with a deerstalker cap and magnifying glass label. Those two elements are the universal symbol of Holmes but also of detectives in general.
Unlike most archetypes, Holmes wasn’t the first of his kind. Edgar Allen Poe created the figure of the amateur sleuth (and detective fiction itself) forty years before Holmes came on the scene. When Harry Houdini became disaffected from his former friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he accused him of plagiarism by basing Holmes on Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. The charge didn’t stick, however. Holmes is real; Dupin is not.
Although Holmes called Dupin “a very inferior fellow,” Conan Doyle was boundless in his admiration for Poe. But not one person in a hundred today would recognize the name Dupin, whereas Sherlock Holmes is the most famous person who never lived.Nobody ever says "He's a regular C. Auguste Dupin" or "It doesn't take an Auguste Dupin to figure that out."
Science fiction great Poul Anderson, writing in the September 1968 issue of The Baker Street Journal, said “the general idea of a Holmesian figure had been evolving for a long time. Its time was ripe in the nineteenth century, and its elements crystallized in Sherlock Holmes.”
And that’s why everybody knows what a detective looks like.