The Continued Relevance of Sherlock Holmes in Modern Crime Fiction

sherlock and watson

Recently, following the release of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, (read my review of the film HERE), I’ve been on a bit of a Golden Age binge. Alongside my usual re-read of some of the best Christie novels (not Murder on the Orient Express, because it’s not a great novel with a really crappy ending), as well as some more modern novels which either mimic or eco the era.

These include Guy Fraser-Sampson’s enticing novel A Death in the Night, (my review can be found HERE) and a number of Kerry Greenwood’s brilliant Phryne Fisher mysteries (my top five can be found HERE). It was whilst reading Greenwood’s most recent Miss Fisher novel Murder and Mendelssohn that I realised the influence that Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric detective.

In Murder and Mendelssohn, Greenwood depicts two characters who are obviously based on Sherlock and Watson; Rupert Sheffield, an enigmatic mathematician lecturing about the science of deduction, and his travelling companion, Dr John Wilson, a former army Doctor who was invalided during the war. Sound familiar?

I thought the similarities only coincidental until I read the following passage, in which Dr Wilson tells Phyne’s family about how he came to be Sheffield’s roommate and travelling companion:

‘I was slowly dying of boredom. And grief. My friend said he knew I was looking for an apartment to share and this Rupert Sheffield, a mathematician, was looking for a roommate. They were very nice rooms, we have a housekeeper, and he warned me that he played the piano all night long, and didn’t speak for days on end, and writes equations on the wall, and I didn’t mind those things, because I was moody and still so sad, and angry, because Arthur had left me after only a few years.’ Murder and Mendelssohn page 191.

It was then that I realised just how far Holmes has infiltrated into modern Crime Fiction. Later in the novel, Greenwood depicts a sex scene between Wilson and Sheffield that must have been incredibly fun to write, and is so utterly bizarre that I can’t decide if it’s genius or a contender for the Bad Sex Awards.

In the micro-essay at the back of the novel, Sherlock Holmes and me (a love/hate relationship), Greenwood discusses the fact that she believes that the deductive powers Holmes posses are akin to women’s intuition, and that the idea of Holmes and Watson’s homosexual relationship stemmed from her reading of other books which touched on the subject, as well as some of the inferences made in the stories, such as in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, in which Watson gets shot during the investigation and Holmes becomes distraught at the prospect of harm coming to his dear friend.

Kerry Greenwood is not alone in her desire to bring Holmes and Watson into modern literature and cinema. Not only are many authors and filmmakers still reinventing the character today, but also he is often integrated, in some way, into detective novels. The character remains a key influence in detective fiction, despite the fact that he was created in the Victorian era, and therefore could be considered out of date.

The character of Sherlock Holmes is based on C. Auguste Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe’s detective who appears in three short stories. Despite this, Dupin is not the popular figure in pop-culture that Conan Doyle’s character has become.

This got me thinking about why Holmes and Watson remain such popular influences whilst Dupin is often forgotten. Granted, Dupin is the inspiration for Holmes, but Poe’s stories are not referenced so obviously in modern fiction as Doyle’s are. Partially, this could be put down to the number of Sherlock Holmes stories Doyle wrote, which far outstrips Poe’s three Dupin novellas, but there is also more to it than that.

Fundamentally, it is my belief that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson embody key characteristics that everyone sees in themselves, and have, thanks to these characteristics, achieved the excitement and adventure that many readers crave. After all, Holmes is a bizarre, often unconventional detective, whilst his companion is a reliable Dr who is as baffled by his friend’s brilliance as Doyle’s readers.

Also, the pair make for the perfect template on which many writers can base their detectives. Duos often consist of one bumbling action man and one awkward eccentric; think of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings, Bulldog Drummond and James Denny, and, in television, the likes of Jonathan Creek and his various female companions. This is because each member of the pair offers skills that the other lacks, with the more reliable companion usually relaying the narrative and translating the detective’s actions for both the reader through the guise of doing so for other characters.

Ultimately, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson remain entrenched as cult figures in the Crime Fiction space, and as the media continues to remember and reinvent them they will continue to grow and evolve as characters. Although I always lament the loss of fresh ideas to reinvention (Hollywood and the constant remakes), it is always interesting to see new interpretations of classic characters.

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