From creation by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal in the BBC’s Sherlock, the past 130 years has witnessed a significant development of the character of Sherlock Holmes. The original depictions of Sherlock Holmes, in A Study in Scarlet first published in The Strand 1887, embodied what Conan Doyle believed to be the ideal characteristics of a detective. Formidable intellect, circumstantial awareness and a scientific mind were characteristics that enabled Holmes to solve cases far quicker than the intellectually inferior Dr Watson. Conan Doyle created this character as a reaction against the modernisation of the London, particularly the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force in 1827.
Holmes’ method of deduction was contrasted with the futile efforts of the police force, embodied by bumbling Inspector Lestrade. Conan Doyle aimed to critique the inadequacies of the working class, largely unskilled police detective emerging in the late nineteenth century. Although the first readers were the middle-class audience of The Strand, the popularity of Conan Doyle’s stories saw expansion aimed at including the working class through the penny-weekly Tit-Bits.
Illustrations accompanied the short stories in both publications, in which Holmes is first seen donning the deerstalker in illustrations by Sydney Paget. Through adaptations of the character by other artists, the popular image of Holmes has become significantly distorted compared to Conan Doyle’s original description. The phrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson!’, contrary to popular belief, was in fact introduced by PG Wodehouse in his novel Psmith, Journalist. It has since been adopted as Holmes’ signature phrase. Furthermore, the violin, a symbol of his class and education, only appeared in eight out of sixty of the original stories.
Modern depictions, particularly in the BBC’s Sherlock, have since used this violin as a defining feature of the character. Holmes’ addiction to drugs, despite cocaine and opium’s prominent use in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was quashed early by Dr Watson in the original stories. However, American Nicholas Meyer’s novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) synonymised the character with drug use. The modern films starring Robert Downey Jr. emphasise the drug addiction to highlight how Holmes’ enhanced his intellectual capabilities. Even Ian McKellen’s portrayal of a significantly older Sherlock Holmes in Mr Holmes, depicts his fascination with scientific methods to enhance one’s mind and body.
Despite the deerstalker, phrase, violin and drug addiction not defining the original character Conan Doyle presented, they are the product of interpretations by authors, screenwriters, and illustrators. The culmination of these depictions all stay true to Holmes’ intelligence, class and style which made him one of the first characters to be embraced as a symbol of British culture by the new mass media emerging in the twentieth century.