Thursday 27 May 2010


Thirteen years ago, I contributed to a column in the Daily Express called 'Turning Point', which posited the question, "What would the world have been like if something that was invented hadn't been invented?"

I thought it might be fun to reprint one or two of these pieces on this blog from time to time and to start -- and to mark the recent DVD release of the Guy Ritchie film, Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law, here's my 'Turning Point' article from May 1997, in which I asked...

What if Arthur Conan Doyle had not created
his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes?

The fact that millions of people every year write to 221b Baker Street, London, seeking the advice of Mr Sherlock Homes, private consulting detective, is testimony to the creative powers of Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who (with a little help from Dr John H Watson) chronicled Holmes' celebrated career.

Doyle, a doctor with literary aspirations, was initially grateful that the popular success of the Sherlock Holmes stories enabled him to devote time to his 'serious' writings. Later, he dismissed Holmes as belonging to 'a lower stratum of literary achievement', and did his best to be rid of the ace detective - going so far as to hurl him to a supposed watery grave in the Reichenbach Falls.

Responding to public demand, however, Doyle reluctantly resurrected Holmes, but even if he had not, we should still have remembered the man who once observed that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

But, what if Sherlock Holmes had never been brought into existence?

That, as Holmes would say, is quite a three-pipe problem but we know his methods and we need only apply them.

Detective fiction would obviously have been saved half a century of emulating Holmes' style and another fifty years of trying to throw off the cape, cast aside the deerstalker and jettison the magnifying-glass, the pipe, the violin, the dressing-gown, the cocaine bottle and the rest of the Holmesian paraphernalia. And detectives would have been spared the anxiety of having to look out for facts with Zen-like significance, such as a dog that does not bark in the night.

Scotland Yard would undoubtedly have had a higher rate of unsolved crime; the Reichenbach Falls would merely be a minor Swiss beauty-spot and London would be robbed of Sherlock Holmes pubs and Mrs Hudson's dining rooms. The famous Baker Street would be just another thoroughfare without any shops selling souvenir plates, paperweights, mugs and toby-jugs; chess sets, book-ends, key-rings and lollipops as well as the usual ties, tea-towels and T-shirts; everything, in fact, from Sherlockian nesting Russian-dolls to detective Teddy Bears.

Since, as Holmes remarked, little things are infinitely the most important; we should not forget that we would have been denied hundreds of stage, film, TV and radio versions of the adventures.

We would never have seen those beak-nosed portrayals by Basil Rathbone (left); those coldly cadaverous performances by Peter Cushing; the wild-eyed fanaticism represented by Jeremy Brett, dancing on the very edge of madness; [or, we can now add, Robert Downey Jnr's shaggily decadent occupant of No 221B]. And what of all those other films about the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Young Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother or Basil, the Great Mouse Detective?

Unwrite the fifty-six short stories and four novels about Holmes and so much mystery, intrigue and exoticism would have been lost to us: no sinister Man with the Twisted Lip, no Veiled Lodger or Solitary Cyclist; no Sussex Vampire, no speckled snake slithering down the phony bell-rope and definitely no gigantic hound stalking the mist-shrouded moors.

Above all, society would have been boringly free of all those terrorists, anarchists and arch-villains: no Professor Moriarty to be dubbed 'The Napoleon of Crime'; no Irene Adler to be known by the sobriquet, 'The Woman'; and no menacing organisations sending out envelopes containing - "Good heavens, Holmes!" - five orange pips!

To deduce that the world would have been infinitely poorer for the absence of Mr Sherlock Holmes is, as the great man himself would have said, "Elementary!"


Bill Field said...

Of course, here in the states, we have HOUSE, the TV series that is a Doctor version of Holmes solving medical mysteries. Hugh Laurie is terrific in the title role, begging the question-"How would he fair as the real Holmes in a film or mini-series?

Suzanne said...

The only Holmes book I ever read was "The Hound of the Baskervilles", and the I have never seen a Holmes film! Can you believe it!
And whilst we're on the subject, imagine the world without the creative genius of Frankenstein (& his monster), Dracula and Mr Hyde! Or will you blogging about that shortly....
cytrat: the substance Sherlock used to dust for fingerprints

Brian Sibley said...

BILL FIELD - I view very little TV and have only seen a few episodes of House, but enjoyed Hugh Laurie's idiosyncratic performance in the title role. He's a bit too life-worn for Holmes, I think, but maybe with the right Watson... After his Wooster/Jeeves partnership with Stephen Fry, I'm rather surprised they haven't ever been teamed as Holmes and Watson.

SUZANNE - Yes, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and R L Stevenson have also individually and collectively helped shaped a whole genre of popular culture. Where would Universal and, later, Hammer Pictures have been without them and their fellow monster-makers?

Boll Weavil said...

Holmes is as English as Pepys, Johnson and Dickens. When I travel to London,the parts of the capital I like best are always those that make me think one or all of those characters might still be there somewhere - drinking in a tavern or considering the issues of the day in some back room.I guess it doesn't matter whether they are real or not or were alive and now aren't or ever existed in the first place. They are just part of our rich history.As usual with ficticious characters,once created we applaud their originality and then set about altering them. As you mention, Rathbone and Bruce defined the chartacteristics ACD forgot and more recently ( and less widely acknowledged) there were new radio adaptations covering, for the first time, every story written as well as the ones alluded to. The stpry goes on and I love it.

Chuck Munson said...

But we do have those stories after all and thank goodness for them! It is not by happenstance that I chose to read through all the Holmes stories one summer home from college. (I chose one or two authors every summer whose works I had wanted to read and read as much of them as I could: Sir Arthur, Mark Twain, Agatha Christie, Tolstoy, etc.)
I've also viewed over the years most of the films and TV series. I must say that the one done with Jeremy Brett, wonderfully neurotic, obsessive, brooding, always aloof but also with a real if reserved compassion, has always been a favorite of mine.
I am greatly appreciative of the hours spent with Mr. Holmes - my life would certainly be a degree poorer without him and the wonderful Dr. Watson.

Brian Sibley said...

Each of the Holmeses have brought something new to add to ACD's creation which, for me, is a chief delight in the Consulting Detective's exploits in the arts and media.

One Holmes whom I would have mentioned in my original article if, at that time, I had I seen his portrayal would have been Ian Richardson.

You can discover more about Richardson in his many roles - including Holmes and Dr Joseph Bell (Doyle's original inspiration for the character) in Sharon Mail's excellent book on the actor, We Could Possibly Comment.