“It’s no mystery why we still love Sherlock,” said the headline in the USA Today insert of my morning newspaper yesterday.
But that’s nonsense. The popularity of Sherlock Holmes has always been a mystery, and there’s no single satisfactory solution to it.
I’ve always felt that a big part of his attraction is the way Holmes transports us to what Vincent Starrett called “a romantic chamber of the heart . . . a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895.”
“Sherlock Holmes reminds us always of the pleasant externals of nineteenth-century London,” T.S. Eliot said in his review of The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories in 1929. “I believe he may continue to do so even for those who cannot remember the nineteenth century . . .”
As usual, Eliot was right.
William Bolitho summed it up in an epigram when he said of Holmes, “He is the spirit of a town and a time.”
Even Conan Doyle seemed to agree. He wrote five out of his nine volumes of Holmes stories and novels in the twentieth century, but set all but a handful back in the late Victorian era where Sherlock Holmes belongs.
Yes, 12 of the 14 Basil Rathbone – Nigel Bruce films were mid-century modern, set in the years in which they were produced. But that never weakened my belief that Holmes was a period piece.
Then along came the cult hit Sherlock from the BBC, followed by CBS’s Elementary. Both TV shows brought Holmes into the twenty-first century, more popular than ever. I began to question my certainty that time and space had so much to do with enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes.
But wait! Now the BBC series is apparently going back to 1895 (or thereabouts) in a Christmas special. Maybe I had it right after all.
One thing I’m sure of: Ian McKellen’s statement (if accurately quoted by a reporter) that Holmes is popular “not because of the books, but because of the spinoffs and the very fine actors who have played him.” On the contrary, it’s only because of the original books that Sherlock Holmes has survived some truly dreadful pastiches and lame actors.
What do you think?