When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, he had no idea that his creation would become on of the most read and talked about fiction characters ever. Doyle himself did not even think that the Sherlock Holmes stories were good literature, but as he found out, people were not interested in the quality of his writing but rather being entertained by the world’s most famous detective. Holmes was created in March 1886 but was not introduced to the public until November 1887 due to lack of funding for his stories.
He first appeared in ‘A Study of a Scarlet’ which was printed as part of a magazine called ‘Beeton’s Christmas Annual’. The public was also introduced to Holmes’ colleague and biographer, Dr Watson. The Victorian public was fascinated by sensational crime and Holmes himself was described as having an immense knowledge of sensational literature. There was a great popularity in late-Victorian London for dismembering murder victims and distributing them around the town.
One particular audacious murderer travelled in horse-drawn cabs with the head of his victim on his lap (wrapped in a napkin ), but gave himself away when he payed double the fare when he was told that it was ‘sixpence a head’. This was also about the time of the Jack the Ripper murders in which people were afraid to step out of their homes. The Jack the Ripper case was never solved and there was much controversy associated with the police investigation. The public had lost some of its faith in the police force and was looking for a figure of hope and inspiration.
The selection criteria were short: Someone who always got his man. The only one who fitted this description was Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes was not only the world’s greatest detective, but he also lived in London. He was someone close to home and a man well steeped in Victorian traditions. Holmes was just like any other Englishman at the time. He read their newspapers, travelled in their carriages and even experimented with some of the drugs of the time. It is not hard to see why the Victorian public adopted him as one of their own.
The Victorian public had fallen in love with Holmes and his great mysteries and it was no wonder that they were upset in the summer of 1892 when Sir Auther Conan Doyle decided to kill off what he called “a lower stratum of literary achievement”. City gentlemen wore black arm bands and Doyle received threats and letters of abuse. This was an indication that the people no longer regarded Holmes as just a character but much more. He was a reflection of the hopes of a generation. It was not until 1901 that Doyle had a change of heart and decided to write more Holmes mysteries.
The initial result of Doyle’s change of heart was one of the greatest Holmes mysteries ever written, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. It was here that the Holmes phenomenon reached its early peak. Queues of fans would wait outside the Strand Magazine office in London on a monthly basis to get their next dose of Holmes. It was like a drug people could not get enough of. In America alone, the print run of the magazine was increased by nearly 200,000 copies. Doyle not only captured a generation’s imagination but also transformed the way people thought.
At the turn of the century, people began to look to science for more and more answers. Holmes was at the forefront of this new way of thinking. Doyle himself actually created finger print forensic science as we know it today. He said that no two people have exactly the same finger prints. Holmes used this science to assist him in many of his cases. Doyle not only bought science to crime solving but a new logic. The logic of looking for clues and associating them with the most likely source. Knowledge was for the first time becoming power.
Holmes life has spanned six reigns, two world wars and almost a total social change in the country that he was born in. Holmes himself sums up his own life best in his last book “His last Bow,” “You are the one fixed point in a changing age. ” Holmes books are more than just an entertaining read. They have the ability to take people back to a time where it is always 1895. Holmes is more than just a character. He is a reflection of a peoples’ hopes and beliefs. It is without doubt that when William Bolitho said “”He is more than a book. He is the spirit of a town and time,” he was right.