Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous fictional characters of all time. But being famous doesn't necessarily mean he's the best-understood character of all time. Fame can have the opposite effect, and since Holmes has been interpreted so many times, it can be hard to tell exactly who this guy really is. The Holmes we encounter in The Return of Sherlock Holmes isn't necessarily the same Holmes we encounter in countless movies, TV shows, pop culture references, and even video games (watch out Jack the Ripper, apparently). We have to deal with a lot of clichés when we try to assess Holmes and it can be difficult to separate the actual fictional character from our preconceptions of him, complete with a pipe, a deerstalker hat, and an "Elementary, my dear Watson," for every discovery.
The Holmes we meet in the stories, Watson's Holmes more accurately, is a bit of an enigma, or a puzzle. He's the cliché we've come to expect, but he's also very different from our expectations. He's both a superhero genius and a flawed human being. And it's important not to forget Watson in all of this – Watson and Holmes exist in a somewhat symbiotic relationship, meaning that one can't exist without the other. So let's try to make sense of some of the key roles that Holmes plays in these stories, which can hopefully help us to understand how all those Sherlock Holmes clichés got started in the first place.
Above all else, Sherlock Holmes is a detective. And not just any detective; he's the best detective in the history of the universe. Watson seems to think so at least. And what does it take to become the best detective ever? Well, first off it requires being a scientist. Holmes uses scientific methods, from examining fingerprints to checking out bicycle tire tracks, to solve cases. He's always rational, logical, detached, and observant.
And like a superhero, Holmes is more than human in a lot of ways: better, faster, smarter, stronger. Watson frequently references Holmes's "quicker senses" (Milverton.93) and "remarkable powers" (Milverton.87) throughout these stories, implying that Holmes is both mentally and physically superior to the other mere mortals in 1890s England. He's taken the scientific method and logical reasoning to extremes in order to fight crime.
So it's no mistake that a lot of the modern day fictional detectives that are based on Holmes, the super genius, have some sort of mental/social disorder. Seriously. Adrian Monk of Monk is obsessive-compulsive; Sean on Psych has a photographic memory, and is also totally wacky; Dr. House of House is the most aggravating and antisocial person alive; Grissom on CSI is a bug-obsessed oddball; and Goran on Law and Order: Criminal Intent often comes off as deranged. And we have Holmes to thank for all these people, since the Sherlock Holmes stories suggested that being a super awesome crime fighter requires being a little off somehow.
Sherlock Holmes is definitely abnormal. He doesn't really fit in well with regular society; he seems to have no friends or relationships outside of Watson. He's also often described as cold, unemotional, and almost mechanical. Holmes has a definite problem relating to people. In the Charles Augustus Milverton case, he has no problem getting fake-engaged to some unsuspecting girl in order to gain access to Milverton's house. And in this scene, he is totally unsympathetic to a poor guy's serious problem:
"Arrest you!" said Holmes. "This is really most grati – most interesting. On what charge do you expect to be arrested?"
"Upon the charge of murdering Mr. Jonas Oldacre, of Lower Norwood."
My companion's expressive face showed a sympathy which was not, I am afraid, entirely unmixed with satisfaction. (Norwood Builder.12-14)
Holmes likes solving cases for the sake of solving them, and he sometimes forgets that there are real people involved. Aside from having issues dealing with people, Holmes also has weird habits and lots of stress. His status as a master detective may make him a kind of superhero, but it isn't really conducive to a stress-free lifestyle. Rather, Holmes is downright manic at times. He's a total workaholic, he gets obsessed with cases, he's an occasional insomniac, he doesn't eat right, he's very moody, etc. Watson even reveals that Holmes once had a problem with addiction:
I had learned to dread such periods of inaction, for I knew by experience that my companion's brain was so abnormally active that it was dangerous to leave it without material upon which to work. For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. (Three-Quarter.4)
It's not surprising that Holmes has an addictive personality. The man does everything in extremes, including the ways in which he solves his cases.
Holmes is definitely a master detective who uses his super-powers for good. He's also a master, often self-professed, at certain scientific subjects, sports, etc. But Holmes's desire for mastery extends to all aspects of his life. The man is a hyper-competitive and kind of an egomaniac. We see this need for dominance comes out most often in his relationship with Watson. We'll check out two scenes that illustrate this side of him, the first with Stanley Hopkins:
"It was a splendid chance of putting your theories into practice, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. There was really nothing wanting."
"Except Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said my companion with a somewhat bitter smile. (Pince-Nez.24-25)
Even though Holmes is mentoring Stanley Hopkins, he seems "bitter" and jealous when he hears that Hopkins actually went off and tried to solve a case without him. Holmes doesn't react well when people do stuff without him, showing a weird sort of neediness that clashes with his antisocial, aloof attitude. We see the same sort of interactions with Watson, whenever Watson tries to do something different or by himself.
"You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader."
"Why do you not write them yourself?" I said, with some bitterness.
"I will, my dear Watson, I will. At present I am, as you know, fairly busy [....]" (Abbey Grange.6)
Holmes always criticizes Watson's writing, even though Watson only writes stories that praise Holmes. Here Holmes even acts like he'd do a better job writing than Watson, but he's "too busy" to do it right now (Abbey Grange.6). Holmes has to best everyone around him and gain recognition for it, even if it's just in theory. But he's also detached and antisocial. So how do we reconcile those two personality traits? Well, let's look a bit closer as Holmes as an artist.
Holmes is definitely a performer with a flair for the dramatic, if his case sum-ups are any indication. But he seems to need recognition more than fame. What's the distinction there? Well, fame involves having everyone know and adore him. And Holmes hates that since he, as a general rule, has little patience for other people. Watson explains this part of Holmes's personality best:
His cold and proud nature was always averse, however, from anything in the shape of public applause, and he bound me in the most stringent terms to say no further word of himself, his methods, or his successes [....] (Norwood Builder.5)
Holmes has no desire for general, mindless acclaim. What he does want, however, is recognition and acknowledgement for being a genius by the closest thing he has to peers: police officers and his sidekick, Watson. In a lot of ways, it seems like Holmes drags Watson around with him so that Watson can exclaim how awesome Holmes is when he does something cool.
It's notable that Holmes often "performs" in front of an audience of police officers and Watson too. He wants recognition from these people, unlike the random clients and suspects he encounters. With those people, he seems to enjoy startling them with his brilliance. Here's a scene where Holmes solves a case for Lestrade and Watson.
[H]e bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. It was at such moments that for an instant he ceased to be a reasoning machine, and betrayed his human love for admiration and applause. The same singularly proud and reserved nature which turned away with disdain from popular notoriety was capable of being moved to its depths by spontaneous wonder and praise from a friend. (Six Napoleons.43)
For all his superhero and machine-like qualities, Holmes is ultimately a weird, slightly crazy dude whose gigantic brain makes it hard for him to be normal. He is normal in his need for recognition and appreciation though. Ultimately, Holmes is a really complex individual, much more than all those Sherlock Holmes clichés floating around would suggest.