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18 April 2018
A Man Before His Time: How Sherlock Holmes Changed the World
Sherlock Holmes, the eccentric sleuth from Victorian London, is perhaps the most famous
character in all of literature. He is “the most portrayed human literary character in film and TV”
and is the second most portrayed character of all time, beat only by Bram Stoker’s Dracula
(Guinness). When “A Study in Scarlet,” the first Holmes story, was published in The Strand
Magazine in November of 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could not have known what a colossal
impact his detective would come to have on the world. Thanks to Doyle (and Holmes,) science,
literature, criminology, forensics, and popular culture have all been revolutionized. Previously
overlooked practices such as the analysis of fingerprints, handwriting, and printed documents
became part of mainstream criminal investigation largely due to the publication of Holmes’
adventures, and the detective genre was transformed forever by the fictional residents of 221B
Baker Street. Television shows such as House, M.D. draw inspiration directly from Doyle (Trivia)
and would never have aired without his stories. Sherlock Holmes and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle, have shaped the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and have made many aspects of
modern culture what they are today.
Science is one of the major fields that has faced reform after the publication of Sherlock
Holmes. In many ways, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was ahead of his time, as proven in his
condemnation of drug use. “Count the cost! … Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk
the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed?” (Doyle, “The Sign of Four”)
Around the time of publication, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cocaine use was
widely accepted as a customary practice and was even considered beneficial to an individual’s
health. In 1887, a successful physician in New York named William A. Hammond (who served
as Surgeon General during the Civil War) “announced that cocaine was a harmless tonic that
cheered the melancholy while having no adverse side effects” (O’Brien 134). In this regard, Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle was clearly ahead of his own time, most likely due to his medical training.
However, not all that Doyle wrote should be accepted as gospel truth; in his story A Study in
Scarlet, Holmes says, “Why, the height of a man, in nine cases out of ten, can be told from the
length of his stride” (Doyle, “A Study in Scarlet”). However, in his 1995 book Hard Evidence,
David Fisher (qtd. in O’Brien) says:
Contrary to the plotting of detective fiction, it isn’t possible to estimate someone’s
height by the distance between steps- his gait- because during the commission of a
crime, a suspect is usually moving very fast; he is running or backing up or moving
sideways or struggling … The thing he isn’t doing is moving normally. (O’Brien
Although he may not have been an expert in all areas of science, Holmes was certainly
more than proficient in criminal investigation; in fact, many of the practices he employed were
adopted by criminal investigators after the publication of his stories. One such practice was
fingerprint analysis, which was mentioned no less than seven times by the detective and served as
the main clue in Doyle’s story “The Norwood Builder”. Arthur Conan Doyle was likely the first
writer to include a falsely planted fingerprint in a story; in fact, he was one of the first authors to
use fingerprints at all. In fact, not even police had begun the practice of using fingerprints; “The
publication of [“The Norwood Builder”] in 1903 preceded by two years the first successful use of
fingerprints by the police” (O’Brien 55). Another area of criminal investigation Doyle contributed
to was handwriting analysis, used in several of his stories including “The Valley of Fear”: “‘It is
Porlock’s writing,’ said he thoughtfully. ‘I can hardly doubt that it is Porlock’s writing, though I
have seen it only twice before. The Greek e with the peculiar top flourish is distinctive. But if it is
Porlock, then it must be something of the very first importance’” (Doyle, “The Valley of Fear”).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself became involved in a real-life case where handwriting was a
major factor, proving that the accused man, George Edalji, did not commit the crime (O’Brien
Yet another example of how revolutionary Sherlock Holmes was comes from Doyle’s “A
Case of Identity”, published in 1891. In the case, Holmes identifies the perpetrator due to the
idiosyncrasies of his typewriter: “I had already noticed the peculiarities of the typewriter, and I
wrote to the man himself at his business address asking him if he would come here. As I expected,
his reply was typewritten and revealed the same trivial but characteristic defects” (Doyle, “A Case
of Identity”). This story was published more than thirty years before the Federal Bureau of
Investigation first used typewriter analysis to solve a case (O’Brien 73). Printed document analysis
was used in many famous cases throughout the twentieth century, including the case of Alger Hiss
in 1950 and the Unabomber in the 1990s. Keeping all this in mind, it is clear that Doyle (and
Holmes) were ahead of their time and played a part in the revolutionization of criminal
While some of his contributions to science may be debatable, the fact that Doyle changed
literature forever remains uncontested. Although his inspiration for his detective stems from Edgar
Allen Poe’s lesser-known detective C. Auguste Dupin, Doyle receives credit for shaping detective
stories into what they are today. In his 1987 book The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes, R. L. Green
(qtd. in O’Brien) notes:
Perhaps the explanation for the immediate and lasting success is that Conan Doyle
added humor and drama, both of which are lacking in Poe.
It is impossible to read them (the three Dupin stories) without appreciating how
much Conan Doyle improved on the original formula. (O’Brien 10)
As O’Brien summarizes regarding the Poe/Doyle debate,
Several conclusions are warranted. First, Sherlock Holmes was based on Poe’s
Dupin. Second, although Poe is generally considered the greater author, Conan
Doyle’s detective fiction surpasses that of Poe. Third, Poe’s non-detective writings
are very highly regarded; Conan Doyle’s are not. (O’Brien 11)
Another change brought about by Doyle’s stories were the characters; in earlier detective stories,
especially Poe’s, the detectives were often brooding and serious as opposed to the spirited and
occasionally jovial Holmes. The sidekick, too, was an idea that Doyle brought to the genre; Dr.
John Watson, Holmes’ friend and chronicler, serves as a foil to Holmes, outlining the detective’s
genius to the average man and often inspiring Holmes to solve the case. Watson has become one
of fiction’s most prominent examples of a literary foil; the Encyclopedia Britannica’s page on
literary foils states:
Foil, in literature, a [sic] character who is presented as a contrast to a second
character so as to point to or show to advantage some aspect of the second character.
An obvious example is the character of Dr. Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s
Sherlock Holmes stories. Watson is a perfect foil for Holmes because his relative
obtuseness makes Holmes’s deductions seem more brilliant. (Encyclopedia
Watson also serves as the ‘idiot friend’, as explained by John Sutherland: “Doyle introduced three
devices into detective fiction narrative which have become major conventions in the genre. One is
the so-called ‘idiot friend’, who must have everything explained to him (thus informing, as well,
the idiot reader)” (Sutherland).
Another character that revolutionized the detective genre was Professor Moriarty, Holmes’
rival: “Another of Doyle’s innovations was the arch criminal, or ‘Napoleon of Crime’, who is far
too clever for the clod-hopping, uniformed, agents of law and order (‘flatfoots’), such as Inspector
Lestrade” (Sutherland). Before Sherlock Holmes was published, detective stories were rather cutand-dry; solve the murder, catch the bad guy. Every villain had his one hurrah and was never
mentioned again except for in passing. Moriarty, however, is mentioned in several Holmes stories
but never actually makes an appearance. He is often the ‘mastermind’ behind the crime
perpetrated, working behind the scenes to ensure everything goes well, which is a trope that has
been used numerous times throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as Lord
Voldemort in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic
The arch enemy is only one of the countless ways Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock
Holmes impacted popular culture. As stated in the introductory paragraph, Holmes is the secondmost portrayed literary character in history. One of the earliest portrayers (and perhaps the most
well-known) was Basil Rathbone, who made his debut as Sherlock Holmes in 1939’s The Hound
of the Baskervilles. Rathbone, along with Nigel Bruce as Doctor John Watson, performed in
fourteen Sherlock Holmes movies over seven years, the first two being produced by Fox and the
latter twelve by Universal (Jessen). In 1942, the first Universal-produced Holmes adaptation,
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, was released. This adaptation was groundbreaking
insomuch as it modernized the Victorian detective, putting him in 1940s London, where he fought
Nazis and drove automobiles. However, Rathbone was not the only actor portraying Sherlock
Holmes at this time- supposedly, the Allied Forces found two movies in Adolf Hitler’s bunker,
both of which were German Sherlock Holmes stories (Other).
Another of the more popular Holmes adaptations was that starring Jeremy Brett and David
Burke, who played Doctor Watson in the first season, followed by Edward Hardwicke (portraying
Watson from 1985 until the show’s end in 1994.) This version of Holmes, produced by Granada
Television and affectionately referred to as ‘Granada Holmes’ by the fans, remains one of the most
well-loved adaptations of the famous detective. The first major revival of Sherlock Holmes to take
place in the twenty-first century was that by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. As one critic put
it, “Those never exposed to Sherlock … will discover an energetic and exciting spin on the
character. Those who have forgotten the books may want to take another glance at Doyle’s stories
because behind [the director’s] modern visualization … [this movie] is mostly true to the original
The following year, the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a three-episode season of
Sherlock Holmes stories, but with a twist: like the Rathbone and Bruce version, BBC’s “Sherlock”
was set in modern times. Since its pilot aired in 2010, three more seasons and one Christmas special
have been released, and the stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have become two of
the most popular actors in the world, starring in Hollywood movies such as Dr. Strange (2016,)
Black Panther (2018,) and the Hobbit movies directed by Peter Jackson. A new generation of fans
have arisen due to this adaptation: “the BBC series Sherlock, in particular, has stoked the most
passionate strand of Holmes fandom in some time … Over years and years of accumulating various
versions and Victoriana, people had slightly lost sight of the fact that they’re enormous fun!”
Over the last hundred years, Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle have accrued a
number of dedicated fans, some of whom dedicate their entire lives to studying the detective stories
and their creator. Holmes has sparked an interest in Victorian literature for many who never would
have thought to pick up a book written before 1990 had it not been for Holmes. Doyle inspired
generations of creators, popularizing many literary devices and even criminal investigation
practices. Although Sherlock Holmes may fade into the background of popular culture in the
coming years, there will always be a core group of individuals who admire Arthur Conan Doyle
and his detective, and not undeservedly.
1. Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin. “How Sherlock Holmes changed the world.” BBC, 6 January
2. Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Case of Identity.” The Strand Magazine, September 1891.
3. Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Study in Scarlet.” The Strand Magazine, November 1887.
4. Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The Norwood Builder.” The Strand Magazine, October 1903.
5. Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The Sign of Four.” The Strand Magazine, February 1890.
6. Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The Valley of Fear.” The Strand Magazine, 1915.
7. Guinness World Record News. “Sherlock Holmes Awarded Title for Most Portrayed
Literary Human Character in Film & TV.” Guinness World Records, Guinness World
Records, 14 May 2012, www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2012/5/sherlock-holmesawarded-title-for-most-portrayed-literary-human-character-in-film-tv-41743/.
8. Goldberg, Matt. “SHERLOCK HOLMES Review.” Collider, Complex Media, Inc., 24
December 2009. http://collider.com/sherlock-holmes-review/.
9. Jessen, Marcia. “The Films of Basil Rathbone.” 2011.
10. O'Brien, James F. The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and
Forensics. Oxford Univ. Press, 2013.
6. “Other Memorable Hounds.” Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle, Stanford University, 2006.
7. Sutherland, John. “Sherlock Holmes, the World's Most Famous Literary Detective.” The
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