Posted by Richard Rawlinson
Sherlock Holmes looks nothing like Benedict Cumberbatch, and is in fact the doppelgänger of Charles Cowling. This is, of course, subjective as the casting director of the TV series can present the great detective how he wants, just as a reader of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories can picture him as Charles’ twin bro in deerstalker and tweed cape. This is because Holmes is—shock-horror—not real, a man of fiction, a figment of the imagination.
When Conan Doyle killed off Holmes in his serialised adventures in The Strand, the magazine lost 20,000 subscribers and some readers wore black armbands in the streets. Conan Doyle was less sentimental, and resented Holmes for overshadowing the rest of his literary output. So he sent him tumbling to his death over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland during a fight with arch-enemy Moriarty.
Eight years later, in 1901, there was rejoicing when Conan Doyle, under pressure to balance his bank account, decided to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, a story set before Holmes’s death. He then caved in entirely with The Adventure of the Empty House, in which it transpires Holmes didn’t die in Switzerland after all. The fall was all cleverly staged so he could disappear into undercover anonymity. This was one of the earliest cases of a narrative device known as ‘retconning’: retrospectively altering the continuity.
It’s fitting that the writer of the cliffhanger at the end of last season’s Sherlock series used ‘retconning’. Holmes fell from the roof of St Bart’s hospital, Watson was an eye witness, we saw a pulse taken, blood on the pavement and a body being carted off in an ambulance. But as the camera cut away at the funeral we saw Holmes looking secretly on.
What a teaser, and we have to wait for the new series this autumn to find out what happened. In the meantime, the internet is buzzing with theories. Did Holmes borrow a corpse from St Bart’s mortuary and toss it off the building? Did the strategically parked van allow for the stand-in body to be taken away so the real Holmes could lie on the pavement, releasing blood capsules just before drugging himself to temporarily stop his own heart? As Watson ran to the scene of the accident, was his collision with a cyclist a deliberate ploy to delay his arrival?
Whether viewed on TV from fireside sofas; whether read about in bed or in library armchairs; whether discussed online, in classrooms, pubs or by office watercoolers, Sherlock Holmes lives on!