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Intro

In A Nutshell

Sherlock Holmes is not the first fictional detective. C. Auguste Dupin, hero of a bunch of stories by American author Edgar Allan Poe, as well as a very few others detectives, came before. Poe invented the classic formula: the super-smart private detective and his less smart (but more literary) narrator buddy, amazing leaps of logic that prove to be right, and a bumbling cop who can never quite seem to get it right. So, props to Poe.

Though Holmes may not be the first detective in fiction, but we kind of think he's the best. When you hear the word "detective," we're betting dollars to donuts that one of the first things that comes into your mind is the sharp-featured, pipe-smoking, deerstalker-hat-wearing Sherlock Holmes. He's like Frankenstein or Dracula – one of those characters who becomes so fundamental to his genre that, even if you've never read a single Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, you probably still know who Sherlock Holmes is. (Though maybe you picture him as Robert Downey, Jr.)

Holmes wasn't instantly popular by any means. Conan Doyle had some minor success with his first two Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1888) and The Sign of Four (1890), but it wasn't until Doyle started publishing Holmes-based short stories in a new fiction magazine, The Strand, that the character and his tales really started to take off.

It was still pretty standard in the late nineteenth century for English novels to appear chapter by chapter in magazines before being collected into one published volume – that's how the first two Holmes novels appeared. Conan Doyle had the idea that this format would be perfect for a series of episodes from his detective's life. After all, sustaining a reader's interest in one detective plot across multiple chapters is kind of hard, and if you miss one issue, you're sunk. But if each story has its own self-contained plot arc, readers can get both the suspense and the resolution they want every month, while continuing to crave more Holmes-y goodness from one magazine issue to the next. So Conan Doyle basically invented the episodic drama. And as any viewer of House, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Ugly Betty can tell you, having a character-focused genre series is a great strategy for commercial success. Sherlock Holmes is no exception.

Conan Doyle selected The Strand because it occurred to him that he could tie the success of this new magazine (which started in January 1891, six months before Conan Doyle started publishing his "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes") to his new series of short stories. And it worked: Conan Doyle's Holmes tales raised The Strand's circulation and established it as the popular fiction magazine of its day.

Weirdly, despite the fact that he wound up writing dozens of short stories and five novels around this character, Conan Doyle was actually not that fond of his creation. A retired army surgeon and medical doctor (like a certain Dr. John Watson whom we know!), Conan Doyle had other, more serious ambitions. He wanted to be known for his historical novels and for his writings on the South African Boer War. He didn't mind the money that came with being a commercial writer, but he hated that public demand for Holmes totally overwhelmed anyone's interest in his more serious work.

So Conan Doyle tried to kill off Holmes at the end of his second story collection, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1895). Public outcry was so strong, though, that he eventually brought Holmes back to life after a decade's hiatus (he did publish The Hound of the Baskervilles during this period, but it's set before Holmes's death). Luckily, if his creator couldn't love Sherlock Holmes as Holmes deserves, those of us here at Shmoop can totally fill in the gap.

 

Why Should I Care?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal – except for Sherlock Holmes, who is better than everybody. Seriously, this guy's a superhero: it's like asking why we should care about Batman (hint: because he's awesome). For one thing, Sherlock can look at people and see right into their minds (basically). We bet we can think of a million situations in which that ability might be useful, up to and including: (a) crime fighting, (b) bickering with our significant others, or (c) trying to convince our parents to loan us money. So Holmes is a guy who we either want to be, or who at least we want on our side.

Speaking of having him on our side, Holmes totally uses his powers for good. Everyone in Victorian London, from the lowliest governess to the highest nobleman, eventually comes to see Holmes when they need help. He's like a super-genius, disguise-loving Victorian version of Dear Abby. And it's reassuring to read about a guy who just goes around making sure that life is fair for the little guy. Sure, Holmes may be in his business of private detective work mostly for the intellectual work rather than the moral judgment, but for us, reading Holmes is like reading Chicken Soup for the Nerdy Soul: he's so sure, and so good at getting things right, that reading his stories leave us with a comfortable glow.

If that's somehow not enough to convince you that Holmes is worth caring about, let's just add that the bromance scale goes up to eleven in these stories. Holmes's relationship with Dr. John Watson is so emotionally satisfying that Watson's wife Mary eventually just dies so that the two guys can be roomies again. Holmes and Watson restore our faith in (Platonic) love – we hope we're as excited to spend time with our friends fifteen years down the line as Holmes and Watson seem to be during their later adventures. The guys may not be romantic partners in the least, but they are life partners. And we must admit, reading about their adventures leaves us a little choked up.

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