Greatest characters: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock sota

“But do we really need another one?” This was my reaction the first time I saw a trailer for the BBC series, Sherlock.

I love Sherlock. I love the books, the TV shows, the plays but most of all I love the character. So my initial reticence was based not on a lack of interest, but a question of where was it going to go? What was it going to show me I hadn’t already seen in the many hundreds of hours of Baker Street- based sleuthing I had already gorged upon?

A few years, some BAFTAs, and career-making performances from its stars later and I am convinced. Sherlock was sublime. A fast-paced, witty romp through the mind of the world’s best loved highly functioning sociopath.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. For years I told everyone who asked that my favourite fictional characters were Sherlock Holmes and Dr Gregory House, the star of the eponymous US TV show. It wasn’t until it was pointed out to me by someone who works in TV script development that I realised they are, in fact, the same person. That is, the same character.

Of course! It was so obvious once he had said it. The towering intellect restricted by the human shell it found itself in. The restless mind that shuns emotion as weakness and seeks spiritual salve in music and narcotics. Even the names are connected, for goodness sake, Holmes and Watson, House and Wilson. Above all, the laser-like observation, seeing what others miss. The truth is always in the little things, and as House will tell you, everybody lies.

It is this ripeness for re-imagination that I argue makes Sherlock Holmes the greatest fictional character of all time. Despite the original canon running to a mere fifty six short stories and four novels, the impact of the character continues to be felt. I once heard it said that one thing that made Shakespeare’s writing so great was its ability to be staged in almost any time and place yet never lose its sense of self. I suggest the same is true of Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. Whether played in the romanticised Victoriana of hansom cabs and fog, the high tech forensic world of modern day detection, or indeed the corridors of an American hospital, the themes remain eternal and the sheer wonder of the character spans the decades.

A solitary, unsociable, drug-abusing, narcissistic sociopath whose remarkable gift means we forgive all that and even love him for it. To create a character so obnoxious yet make us love him is truly great writing. Whether solving impossible crimes or curing bizarre diseases, his genius out shines his flaws. Sherlock is everything your writing tutor told you a great character should be.

The stories tap into the most profound desires and fantasies of their audience. Oh, to have a gift and wit like Sherlock. And yet, he somehow is not happy, not complete. Take away the cases, the puzzle, the game, and he is left inside his own head, a terrifying place to be. Beneath the coldness of the logical machine we know there is a deep pain that occasionally we glimpse. He does good things but is not necessarily good. As House said, you don’t have to be an angel to be on the side of the angels.

Most of all, I love Sherlock because he was the first character to really take me to places I had never seen and managed to always stay one step ahead of not only his enemies but also the reader. How exciting, his world of murder and mystery, and our hero, in turns caustic and cold yet humble and vulnerable. Basically, he is human. I believe in Sherlock Holmes.