Columns > Published on May 30th, 2012

A Study In Sherlock

One of the most popular character models in literature is the Christ-like figure. Books, television and film are riddled with this template, from Jim Casey in The Grapes of Wrath to Neo in The Matrix trilogy; characters marked by the performance of miracles, displays of kindness and forgiveness, and more often than not, self-sacrifice.

But there’s another model that, while not as ubiquitous, is way more interesting: the character so burdened by genius they’re unable to cope with their own humanity. This model, I’ll call the Sherlock-like figure.

Just as there are countless examples of the Christ-like figure, we can find a plethora of characters with roots in Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Scottish author and physician.

Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories featuring Holmes. And from those have sprung countless adaptations, parodies, pastiches, and revivals. The character has been reworked, rethought, stuck into every scenario imaginable, has inspired private detectives throughout literature, and even been co-opted for modern police procedurals and medical dramas.

Currently, we’re in the midst of a resurgence of the character--there’s a series of movies, a show on the BBC, an upcoming show on CBS, and two recent novels that have been blessed by the Doyle estate.

I have some theories about why the Sherlock-like figure is such an enduring character template, but before that, let’s take a few minutes to examine the history and inner-workings of Sherlock Holmes.

The Origin Story

Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories featuring Holmes. And from those have sprung countless adaptations, parodies, pastiches, and revivals. The character has been reworked, rethought, stuck into every scenario imaginable, and even co-opted for police procedurals and medical dramas.

Sherlock Holmes was introduced by Doyle in 1887, when A Study in Scarlet was published in “Beeton’s Christmas Annual.” Doyle based the character on Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom he had worked in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Just like Jesus Christ was not the first prophet to die and be resurrected (Attis of Phrygia got there first), Sherlock Holmes was not the first literary detective. That honor goes to C. Auguste Dupin, created by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841. Dupin was followed by Monsiuer Lecoq, created by Émile Gaboriau in 1866 (and in a fun bit of meta-fiction, Holmes trashes both detectives in his first appearance).

Holmes proved to be immensely popular with readers. So much so, that Doyle tried to kill him off, in the short story The Final Problem. The author wanted to get out from under the character’s shadow and move on to other work.

It didn’t last. Outcry from fans was so strong (and this was before Twitter), that Doyle resurrected the character, first through a prequel novel (The Hound of the Baskervilles), and later, by revealing that Holmes faked his death.

Who Is Sherlock Holmes?

Holmes is a consulting detective, called upon both by the police and private entities to solve seemingly-unsolvable cases. He’s a master of disguise and forensic science, but is best known for his deductive reasoning.

As Holmes explains to Watson, where most people see things, he observes. For example, in A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes glances at Watson and surmises that his partner had been out in a storm and employed a clumsy maid. When Watson asks how Holmes knew, he answers:

It is simplicity itself ... My eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant boot-slitting specimen of the London slavey.

So, yes, Holmes is pretty smart. He’s also a formidable bare-knuckle boxer and trained in the martial art baritsu (Doyle calls it that but he probably means bartitsu, a Japanese style of wrestling).

Though, lest you think Holmes some infallible superhero, he’s also a big fan of cocaine, prone to bouts of depression, is a heavy smoker, and is quite arrogant. That arrogance means he has few friends--Watson is his only true companion.

Some scholars have suggested that Holmes suffers from Asperger’s syndrome because of his attention to detail and lack of interest in relationships. Though it should be noted that while Holmes was certainly a narcissist in Doyle's stories, he wasn't a complete dick--that's a quality that's been emphasized and extrapolated in the years since those works were published (see: Dr. Gregory House). 

Though, the narcissism and borderline-sociopathic behavior sure is fun. Here's a video put together as part of a clinical psychology class, using BBC's Sherlock to show different behaviors of Holmes, and how they fit the DSM-IV-TR criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.


The important thing to note is that for the Sherlock-like figure to be effective, he has to be brilliant, but he also needs to be flawed. And there's a reason, but we’ll get to that…

A Quick Note On Sidekicks

Holmes’ sidekick is Dr. John H. Watson, a physician and military man who returns to London from warfare in Afghanistan. A mutual friend hooks him up with Holmes, so they can share a spacious flat on Baker Street. The majority of Holmes’ adventures are told through the perspective of Watson (save two stories narrated by Holmes, and two written in the third-person perspective). 

Just like Dr. House has Dr. Wilson and Nero Wolfe has Archie Goodwin, every Holmes (and thus, every Sherlock-like figure) needs a Watson. The character needs someone to bounce off of; someone clever enough to ask the right questions, but not so smart as to overshadow them. The Sherlock-like figure also needs an audience. But most importantly, the Watson-like figure acts as an access point for the “normal” people--clients, witnesses, other detectives--that the Sherlock-like figure will so often ignore, disregard, or trample upon.

Sherlock Today

While Holmes has had a strong influence on detective fiction (which is a whole 'nother column), the character has seen quite a resurgence in the past few years. The Doyle estate tapped British writer Anthony Horowitz to write a new Holmes adventure, in the novel, House of Silk, which was released last year. In 2009, American author Lyndsay Faye released Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, also with the blessing of the Doyle estate.

Then there’s Steve Moffat’s (utterly brilliant, in my opinion) modern take on the story: BBC’s Sherlock, which has run two seasons thus far. There's also the Guy Ritchie movies, starring Robert Downey, Jr., which feature a more action-oriented take on Holmes. 

Soon to be added to the list is Elementary, another modern-day take on the character, coming to CBS this fall. This version of Holmes, played by Brit Johnny Lee Miller, has been to rehab and shamed out of London. He’s now solving crimes in New York City.

What's So Enduring About Sherlock?

Why is the Sherlock-like figure so damn interesting? Shouldn’t we reject the cantankerous, unpredictable bastard, in favor of the steadfastly moral Christ-like figure?

You’d think. But readers and television viewers and moviegoers sure love the damaged, anti-social genius. Here’s my (long, multi-faceted) theory as to why:

At the most basic level, the Sherlock-like figure is capable and brilliant, but also unencumbered by social niceties. There’s a cold, fearless logic to these characters. When they cut through the bullshit around them in such a vocal and succinct way, it allows us to live vicariously through them. And coupled with that is an element of jealously: They say the things we want to say.

At the same time, these characters are significantly flawed (and they have to be, because they wouldn’t be interesting if they were perfect). We can take solace in the fact that the vast intelligence of the Sherlock-like figure does not translate to social intelligence or guarantee happiness. While we may never be as smart as these characters, their deficits allow us to empathize with them, and there’s a thin line between sympathy and self-righteous pity.

In comparison, the Christ-like figure sometimes lacks this depth, because their character is bound by expectation. They are the chosen one--a choice made by someone else. The Sherlock-like figure, meanwhile, comes to the party of his or her own volition.

Better said: It’s easy to take the Sherlock-like figure down a peg (and for that character to create conflict). It's not so easy with the Christ-like figure; they’re just too damn nice.

There’s one more reason I think the character model is so enduring. To best explain it, I’ll use an example from The Reichenbach Fall, the most recent episode of BBC's Sherlock (this could be considered a spoiler).

Toward the end of the episode, Jim Moriarty has put Sherlock Holmes through an emotional, public wringer in an attempt to discredit him. Moriarty thought he saw a real challenge in Holmes--a true adversary--and was distraught to discover Holmes wavered when confronted with a threat to his friends.

Then comes this exchange:

Moriarty: You talk big. Nah. You’re ordinary. You’re ordinary. You’re on the side of the angels.

Sherlock: Oh, I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them.

It’s with those words that Holmes does two things: He defeats Moriarty, proving himself to be just as cunning and ruthless. And he makes us very, very thankful that he’s on our side.

We never have to worry about the Christ-like figure. Sometimes they get tempted or waylaid, but they always end up firmly rooted on the side of good. And they always make that decision to save us. The Sherlock-like figure, though, is a wildcard, beholden to their own satisfaction. And that makes them better for maintaining dramatic tension.

So, that's my theory. Is there something I didn’t touch on that you find appealing of the character model? Share it in the comments.

My Recommendations

Doyle's stories are fun, quick reads. Definitely start with A Study in Scarlet, but after that you can skip around. It's very easy to find collections, both in hard copy and in eBook versions. What's fun about the eBook version is it can live on your eReader, and you can pretty much choose short stories at random. A Scandal in Bohemia is a good one. My wife recommends The Adventure of the Red-Headed League. And while I haven't read the Faye and Horowitz books yet, I hear great things about both. 

As for video: The Ritchie movies are okay. Elementary looks interesting but I'm not sold on it. My money is on Sherlock. I think it's one of the most brilliant things on television right now. The first season is streaming on Netflix, and the second is available on DVD; both consist of three hour-and-a-half episodes. 

In Closing

The history, psychology, and influence of Doyle’s character are staggering. This column barely scratches the surface, and I won’t pretend it’s thorough or definitive, by any measure. 

But, if you haven’t read Doyle, I hope this inspires you to pick him up. Also, if you’re ever in London, go see the Sherlock Holmes museum on Baker Street. I got my picture taken with Watson! (Though I suspect it wasn’t really him.)

What’s your favorite take on Sherlock Holmes? And are there any other character models you think are as prevalent as the two mentioned here?

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at

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