Who never lived and so can never die

Charles 8 Comments

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!


  1. Charles

    H’mm. But does Mr Cowling sport a pipe by Peterson of Dublin, as above?
    Not sure about your point concerning casting directors doing as they please – Holmes, of course, is and was as pictured above.
    Mr Cumberbatch’s entertainment is pleasing, but it is a mere sport, an offshoot, a trifling acciaccatura hovering around the tonic of Holme’s achievements, so ably documented by Sir Arthur.

  2. Charles

    “Sticks his head above parapet once again”
    Television? On the small screen there is only one Sherlock and that is the genius Jeremy Brett, and of course on the large screen Basil Rathbone. Basil’s first two films, Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were properly made, indeed in “Hound” reference is made right at the end to Holmes’s dependence on Cocaine. Afterwards, the series, by the studio’s own admission, became almost vignettes, competing with younger audiences against gangsters, Cagney et al.
    I have no care for new Sherlocks, although admit to owning the first movie starring Robert Downey (a friend of mine is in it), and the novel The Silk Road is excellent, yet I’m afraid anyone since Brett or Rathbone in their genre’s will remain under pretty large shadows.
    ramble over, back to writing a service.

  3. Charles

    Interesting thing, the myth-making process, of which Conan Doyle was but the progenitor. The fizzog was determined by the original illustrator, Sidney Paget; the deerstalker by the American actor William Gillette, together with the calabash pipe (filled with black shag). Jeremy Brett was excellent, but John Wood on stage was even better — by quite a long distance. Cumberbatch is temperamentally very close to Conan Doyle’s characterisation. Yes, Holmes does have a remarkable capacity for self-renewal. He shall not grow old.

    Nice piece, Richard.

  4. Charles

    Next week: Dr Who and how those canny series makers at the Beeb created a hero who regenerates so the actors who play him can change from decade to decade.

  5. Charles

    Jeremy Brett every time…although my experience is quite limited. Keith is more of a ‘Sherlockian’ than I. The sets and feel of the series were amazing and Watson was not portrayed as an idiot. On top of all that, Brett’s performance was iconic.
    I will put in a word in defence of Cumberbatch, though. While the settings and sets have been updated, the ‘feel’ of the series and the character himself ‘feel’ right. I am looking forward to the next series.
    I must admit I never saw the Robert Downey…the adverts made it all look a bit pantomimey.

  6. Charles

    Jeremy Brett and John Wood both had the most expressive, intelligent faces. They say you should always be able to tell what a good a actor is thinking.

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