Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance, improbably, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The magazine carried the novel-length mystery A Study in Scarlet, 130 years ago in November 1887. Yet it was a series of 12 short stories that began in The Strand Magazine in 1891 that brought Arthur Conan Doyle’s sardonic sleuth widespread popularity. These dozen stories were first published together as a collection titled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in October 1892.
Yet despite his popularity, Holmes was not the first detective to appear in print. Conan Doyle said that his creation owed a lot to Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in the 1841 story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Dupin, who like Holmes operates as a gentleman amateur rather than from within an official police force, deploys a method he calls ‘ratiocination’ in which he uses pure logic to reconstruct a suspect’s train of thought. Holmes’s own emphasis on forensic observation and logical reasoning is a natural extension of Dupin’s technique.
Wilkie Collins in his 1868 novel The Moonstone also created two characters that appear to have influenced Conan Doyle: the gifted amateur Franklin Blake and the Scotland Yard man Sergeant Cuff. Then there is the real life context to consider − Conan Doyle lived at a time of great innovation and expansion in policing, when the Metropolitan Police’s Detective Branch was growing in prominence, thanks to cases such as the murder of Constance Kent in 1860 and the introduction of forensic techniques such as fingerprinting. The rapid growth of the press, in London particularly, had supplied the Victorian reading public with a seemingly endless stream of real-life crime reports. It was only natural that popular fiction should follow suit.
Although many of the tropes in the first 12 Sherlock Holmes stories − locked room mysteries, country house murders, red herrings, final page plot twists and elaborate decoys − did not originate with Conan Doyle, his stroke of genius was to unite them all within a single narrative arc, with a compelling central character to keep readers coming back.
The use of Doctor Watson as Holmes’s reliable amanuensis is another brilliant innovation. Unlike the unseen and unknown narrators of previous detective stories, Conan Doyle’s narrator is a character with his own backstory and role. As a surrogate for the audience, Watson can always be counted upon to come to the wrong conclusion and require some exposition to set him straight.
‘Today, the arrival of a whodunnit will often be the year’s biggest pop cultural event’
Among those first 12 Sherlock Holmes stories are some of Conan Doyle’s finest inventions. In A Scandal in Bohemia − that starts with the evocative sentence ‘to Sherlock Holmes she is always The Woman’ − he introduces the immortal character of Irene Adler. Later on in the collection, we get The Adventure of the Speckled Band, a great locked room mystery, and then the almost slapstick brilliance of The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, in which Holmes charges about with a goose that proves to be the key to solving a jewel heist.
The popularity of Sherlock Holmes endures, as the many sequels and adaptations show. In fact, detective fiction itself continues to go from strength to strength. The likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler, PD James and many more followed in Conan Doyle’s literary footsteps throughout the 20th century. Today, the arrival of a new popular whodunnit − whether on the page or the screen − will often be the year’s biggest pop culture event. We’ve seen this in the runaway success of JK Rowling’s gruff private detective Cormoran Strike, recently portrayed on screen for the first time by Tom Burke, and in the demand for so called Nordic noir detective dramas such as The Killing and The Bridge, which returns for a fourth series in 2018.
The lure of the unsolved puzzle remains irresistible, as does the stark moral world of the classic crime story. Secure in the knowledge that the villain will be revealed and all other suspects exonerated at the end of the story, the reader can relax into a world where there is no blurring between good and evil. Guilt, innocence, power and justice are absolutes, and the detective stands in the midst of it all as the representative of truth and knowledge. This simplicity is at once comforting and compelling.
And then, of course, there is the attraction of being able to show off your own cleverness. As a reader of detective stories, there are few things more satisfying than working out the solution with a few chapters still to go. The best stories plant the clues you need to find the answer throughout the narrative. Turning back to find the hints that you missed once the whole thing is finished is part of the pleasure.
After all, as Holmes himself has it: ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’