The Enduring Popularity Of Sherlock Holmes Sherlock Holmes is 124 years old — and he's never been in such high demand. The iconic detective from 221b Baker Street has inspired films, numerous television series, and now, two new books.
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The Enduring Popularity Of Sherlock Holmes

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The Enduring Popularity Of Sherlock Holmes

The Enduring Popularity Of Sherlock Holmes

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Lynn Neary. It's been more than a century since Sherlock Holmes first captivated a generation of readers with his sleuthing adventures in and around London. And the character created by Arthur Conan Doyle has been stirring imaginations ever since.

Over the years, he's been brought to life many times, on stage and on film. Some would argue Jeremy Brett gave the most effective interpretation of the famous detective in a British TV series, which still airs on PBS.


JEREMY BRETT: (as Sherlock Holmes) What is the object of this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must have a purpose or our universe has no meaning, and that is unthinkable. But what purpose?

NEARY: Right now, Holmes is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, including this fall's release of "The House of Silk," the first new Sherlock Holmes mystery to be authorized by Arthur Conan Doyle's estate. "The House of Silk" author, Anthony Horowitz, remembers exactly when his own fascination with Holmes began.

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: My father gave me the complete "Sherlock Holmes" for my 16th birthday present and that's when I fell in love with the characters and the world.

NEARY: What was it that you fell in love with? Do you know what it was?

HOROWITZ: I think it was the fact that it was so complete in itself. It's the fog, the cobblestones, the fire flickering, the River Thames, the sound of the Stradivarius, the strange villains. It's that extraordinary mix of gothic horror and romance and mysticism with sort of these two extraordinary characters.

NEARY: Those two extraordinary characters - Holmes and his assistant, Dr. John Watson - were creatures of Victorian England. But as much as Sherlock Holmes was shaped by the Victorian era, he also adapts easily to contemporary interpretations.

Leslie Klinger is co-editor of "A Study in Sherlock," a new collection of stories by writers like Neil Gaiman, Lee Child and Laura Lippman. The stories, says Klinger, reveal the authors' own Sherlockian obsessions.

LESLIE KLINGER: Part of it is the time. Part of it is not the time - because we can see Sherlock Holmes plucked out of Victorian England and plopped down in the 21st century, with the same effect.

NEARY: Klinger is also the technical adviser for the latest Sherlock Holmes movies, including the just-released "A Game of Shadows." Though set in Victorian England, the movie has a very 21st century feel. Holmes and Watson have been transformed into action heroes played by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.


ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (as Sherlock Holmes) I'm knee-deep in the single-most important case of my career.

JUDE LAW: (as Dr. John Watson) What are we up against here?

DOWNEY: (as Sherlock Holmes) The most formidable criminal mind in Europe.

LAW: (as Dr. John Watson) Professor James Moriarty.

DOWNEY: (as Sherlock Holmes) If we can stop him, we shall prevent the collapse of Western civilization. No pressure.

NEARY: While the Sherlock Holmes played by Robert Downey Jr. may come off as an action hero tailor-made for the box office, Leslie Klinger says the original Holmes really was a tough guy.

KLINGER: If you read the stories carefully, you'll see that Holmes is an expert with a single stick, which is like fencing. He's also an amateur boxer. So those elements of the film are not invented; they're there in the original material.

NEARY: And you think that the device of Sherlock Holmes being an action figure - you think they pull it off?

KLINGER: I do. I love the device that Guy Ritchie, the director, came up with of this - what he calls Holmes-a-vision, the slow-motion battles where we see the wheels turning in Holmes' head as he thinks out every move he's going to make in a fistfight. That must be the way that Holmes would have done it.


DOWNEY: (as Sherlock Holmes) First, distract target. Then block his blind jab. Counter with cross to left cheek. Discombobulate.

NEARY: But Holmes as action hero is just one modern manifestation of the character. Laurie King, the other editor of "A Study in Sherlock," also created her own, contemporary version of Sherlock Holmes. Her character just happens to be a woman named Mary Russell.

LAURIE KING: I was interested in that mind. He is a misogynist. He is a misanthrope. He really doesn't much care for people because he is so much on the outside of most society. And yet he spends his life helping people. I was interested in what that mind would look like if it, instead of being in a Victorian male, if it were in a young, feminist, 20th century woman.

NEARY: King says the character of Sherlock Holmes is so adaptable because he does, in fact, bridge two eras.

KING: His tools that he used in the late 19th century were very, very modern. If you look at his forensic techniques, his investigative tools, there are things that are daily used by police departments around the world. In the Victorian era, they were cutting-edge and now, they are the basis of what we do.

NEARY: Do we even see the sort of legacy of Holmes in the TV shows, like "CSI" and all these TV shows that are out there right now, that are so interested in forensic science and crime?

KING: I'm afraid so. There is nothing new.


KING: We owe it all to Arthur Conan Doyle.

NEARY: Perhaps the most contemporary version of Sherlock Holmes can be seen in the BBC production "Sherlock," which airs in this country on PBS. In it, we see a thoroughly wired Holmes, addicted to text-messaging and taking advantage of all the 21st century technology has to offer. And just like in the original stories, when Holmes first meets him, Watson has just returned from a war - a war in Afghanistan.


MARTIN FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) We don't know a thing about each other. I don't know where we're meeting. I don't even know your name.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) I know you're an army doctor and you've been billeted home from Afghanistan. I know you've got a brother who's worried about you, but you won't go to him for help because you don't approve of him, possibly because he's an alcoholic - more likely because he recently walked out on his wife. And I know that your therapist thinks your limp's psychosomatic - quite correctly, I'm afraid. That's enough to be going on with, don't you think?

The name's Sherlock Holmes, and the address is 221B Baker Street. Afternoon.

NEARY: The thing about Sherlock Holmes, says Leslie Klinger, is that so many of the characteristics that make him fascinating are timeless.

KLINGER: He is driven by a pursuit for justice, but it's his own brand of justice. And I think part of us yearns to be like that - to be strong, independent, above worries about how we fit in with society. So I think it's a very appealing character.

NEARY: In the end, says Laurie King, it's what Sherlock Holmes stands for that makes him such an enduringly popular character.

KING: The driving pleasure in Holmes, the reason that we keep reading him and keep returning to him, is not so much that he out-thinks everyone but because he is this man who is consumed by the need to set things straight. He is a man who has given himself body and soul to the conquest of evil, and that is something that speaks for us across the ages.

NEARY: Whether leaping from buildings in a 21st century action film, or reappearing in print in a brand-new mystery, or inspiring a new generation of writers, Sherlock Holmes still thrives - solving crimes with Watson by his side, and capturing a new audience that might even still be with him in the next century.

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