“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Today, May 22, is Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday. Let us ponder his amazing achievement in creating one of the most enduring fictional characters ever — the satisfyingly mysterious Sherlock Holmes. Gobsmacked — just love this word! It means “astonished” or “flabbergasted.” I am positively gobsmacked to report that there have been over 100 different Sherlock Holmes depictions on stage and screen. People everywhere discuss Sherlock as if he were a real live, honest-to-goodness person and not the figment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination.
It’s hard to think of another fictional character that has infiltrated the global consciousness more thoroughly. Who else would be a candidate? Hamlet? Don Quixote? Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz? I’m not sure any of these figures can hold a candle to Sherlock.
In pondering Sir Arthur’s astonishing accomplishment — creating a character that is still being recreated today, more than 120 years after his fictional birth — it seems clear that one reason Sherlock is still alive and well is the skill of the pen he sprang from. You only have to listen to a Holmes story being read aloud by an accomplished actor to realize what a powerful and creative writer our boy Sir Arthur was. He’s by turns serious and witty, ironic and earnest, cagey and revelatory. Here are a few more reasons I think Sherlock has proven to be a man for all seasons:
He’s a mix of fiction and reality: Sherlock is actually based on a legendary doctor and diagnostician that Sir Arthur studied with as a medical student. So Sherlock’s investigative skills are rooted in fact and sent soaring through fiction.
He’s everything we want to be: Sherlock, in many ways, caters to the secret longings many of us harbor: We want to be brilliantly clever and admired, witty and mysterious, far ahead of life’s game and anything it throws our way.
He’s everything we don’t want to be: Cold, detached, isolated, a misfit in society.
The stakes he’s playing for are high: When Sherlock comes on the scene, something bad has happened and we long to see the balance of things tilted back again towards justice and fair play. We want to see good outsmart evil every time. He has an opponent who’s worthy of him: When Sherlock comes up against his archenemy, we know that there’s serious danger afoot. We feel that the two of them are well matched and that things could go either way.
All of this creates enormous tension and excitement — wonderful qualities for propelling a story forward. Sir Arthur surely knew how to pen a great yarn. What an inspiration as we all write on!