Recently, I started listening to the audiobook of Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, narrated by Stephen Fry. Covering the four novels and fifty-six short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle about Holmes – and with a foreword by Fry himself at the start of each novel or collection – it’s a very long audio production at nearly 72 hours; fortunately, it’s divided into six sections, so you don’t have to download it all onto your device at once. Even though I’d already read the Holmes stories, and even though I had another audiobook on the go – The Dead Zone by Stephen King – I’ve still been using most of my recent listening time to listen to Holmes. Maybe that’s because The Dead Zone is often a depressing and disturbing story and I’m often in the mood for something more familiar and comforting. Or maybe I like Stephen Fry’s voice. But of course, the stories themselves are great too, especially since it’s been a while since I read most of them; not so long as to forget the solutions, but long enough to enjoy being reminded of the details.
Sherlock Holmes may not be a character you can warm up to in terms of personality – he’s aloof and conceited – but he is extremely admirable as a hero. He has a style all of his own, using his intense powers of observation and deduction, combined with an extensive background knowledge of crime, to solve mysteries. He stands apart among other people, and yet doesn’t feel unbelievable, as we are given logical explanations as to how he reaches his conclusions. You could view him as a superhero with no actual super powers, like Batman – though unlike Batman, Holmes gets by without a limitless supply of money to fund his battle against crime.
In terms of the audiobook, I’m currently up to the beginning of The Hound of the Baskervilles, meaning that the last full story I listened to was one of my favourites, The Final Problem. This is the story in which Holmes apparently dies, falling into the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland while wrestling with his ultimate nemesis Professor Moriarty. Fry narrates this one particularly well, with his Dr Watson sounding close to tears as he reads the final lines. Listening to it, I found myself thinking about the interesting real-life circumstances behind the story, and how Doyle had seriously intended it to be Holmes’s final adventure.
Sherlock Holmes, and his companion Dr John Watson, made their debut in the novel A Study in Scarlet, which was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887 and initially attracted little notice. A sequel, The Sign of Four, appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. Between 1891 and 1893, Doyle then wrote twenty-four short stories about Holmes which were published in the Strand magazine, and it was at this point that the great detective’s popularity really took off.
However, Doyle wasn’t especially happy about this. He preferred writing historical fiction; the detective stories were just meant to be an additional source of income. Gradually, Doyle grew tired of Holmes, but the public still loved the character and demanded more. Finally, in 1893, Doyle decided enough was enough: in The Final Problem, he had Holmes die heroically in the process of defeating a criminal greater than any other, and thought that would be that.
Except it wasn’t. Holmes’s fans were terribly dismayed; the Strand magazine lost around twenty thousand subscribers after the story was published. For the following eight years, Doyle was pressured to bring the character back – then, in 1901, he relented and wrote another Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. This was not a true resurrection, however, as the events of the story were supposed to take place before The Final Problem. It wasn’t until The Adventure of the Empty House, published in the Strand in 1903, that Doyle brought Holmes back with the revelation that he had survived the incident at Reichenbach Falls after all. (It was fortunate that Watson hadn’t actually witnessed Holmes’s “death” with his own eyes, so his escape didn’t have to be too contrived.) Doyle would then continue to write stories about Holmes, publishing his last one in 1927.
Since then, of course, Sherlock Holmes has lived on beyond the original Doyle canon, with new stories being written by other creators, and old ones adapted into various mediums. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Holmes has been portrayed more times on film and TV than any other literary character with the exception of Count Dracula. We’ll never know how long the character would have lived on in people’s minds if Doyle had been allowed to finish him off in The Final Problem, but given that more than half of the canon would not have existed in that case – including The Hound of the Baskervilles, arguably Holmes’s most popular adventure – it seems unlikely that he would be so well known today. Personally, I find it impressive that a fictional character can grip the minds of their fans so powerfully, that their original creator finds themselves unable to put them to bed when desired. To create a character who achieves such immortality might seem wonderful for many authors, but I suppose it could be a mixed blessing.