I’m going to make a big claim here: Sherlock Holmes is the forerunner of Harry Potter. And of Katniss Everdeen. And of Percy Jackson, Edward Cullen and Alanna of Trebond.
Like the other characters I’ve listed, Sherlock Holmes has leaped from the pages and become more than a fictional character. Today, we are accustomed to fans and the avidity with which they read. They love their books and the characters in them, and they aren’t content to leave them within the covers of the novels. They speculate about them, their lives, their relationships, their hopes and dreams. They extrapolate, imagining their journeys after the books end. They create pasts, fill in gaps, worry at details. They write fan fiction.
Just as the readers of the Holmes stories did a hundred years ago.
Sherlock Holmes is the ancestor of all this. Arthur Conan Doyle had an audience that was as fervent as the most rabid of today’s fans. When he became tired of writing Holmes’ stories and killed him off in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’ (1893) the uproar was deafening. Eventually public pressure resulted in his resurrecting the detective in the sort of way that would be familiar to any viewer of long running soap operas. I suggest that this was the point at which Holmes stopped belonging to his creator and instead became public property.
The appeal of the epicene detective continued to grow after ACD’s death. Movies and radio featured the adventures of the Baker Street denizen, and groups of what we would today call ‘fans’ began to spring up. The Baker Street Irregulars was founded in the USA in 1934 to study and celebrate the tales. The Sherlock Holmes Society of London began in 1951 for the same purpose. Both perpetuate the spirit of the Holmes’ stories and aim to keep the spirit alive through discussion, analysis and speculation – just as many Twilight or Harry Potter fans do today. Of course, the Holmes fan groups didn’t have the internet to assist their discourse, but managed to overcome this through ingenuity, perseverance and liberal use of the mimeo machine.
Holmes and Holmesiana continues, of course. Time has not wearied the tales and the Holmes fandom is stronger than ever, even though some of the more traditional adherents might shudder at being called ‘fans’. The Robert Downey junior movie and the Benedict Cumberbatch TV series hasn’t so much breathed new life into the legend as carried the torch forward. We may be living in a Sherlock Holmes renaissance.
I love this enthusiastic adoption of a character by his readers, and I see it as part of the magic of fiction. When it works, the reader and the writer effectively collaborate to create something wonderful, something that can have a life of its own and step off the page. It becomes a shared creation, something that is cherished, nurtured and cared for.
Sherlock Holmes achieved this status a long time ago. He set the benchmark for user adoption.