Did you know that Sherlock Holmes references Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night twice in canon? I know that this doesn’t seem all that important — Holmes is constantly quoting various literary works in canon, despite his claim in A Study in Scarlet that he makes no effort to remember things that are not directly useful to his work. What makes his references to Twelfth Night different? Well, it’s simple. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never gave Holmes a birthday. While Doyle is known for not being overly fond of his own creation, I think it’s safe to say that this omission was more out of its lack of relevancy than any indifference on Doyle’s part (though I think we can all agree that Holmes solving a murder at his own birthday dinner would have been a lovely treat). Thus, as is the classic Holmesian way, fans made up their own birthday for him. More specifically, Christopher Morley, American writer and one of the founders of the Baker Street Irregulars, decided that Holmes’ birthday was January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, because of Holmes’ two references to Twelfth Night. (Holmes’ birth year of 1854 has a little bit more canonical support — Holmes is described as a “man of sixty” in “His Last Bow,” which is set in 1914.)
Of course, anyone with even a lick of astrological knowledge also knows that Sherlock Holmes is a total Capricorn.
I first read the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes canon during winter break of my senior year of high school. Seventeen may seem to indicate that Holmes came into my life early on, but really, my relationship with Sherlock Holmes was much delayed. I had always loved mysteries. I devoured Encyclopedia Brown as a young lass, and I first read Agatha Christie at the ripe old age of eleven. By the time I was in high school, I had read tons of Christie and other mystery series and was a hardcore fan of many mystery and crime procedural television series (including the great American pastime, Law & Order). And yet, I had not read Sherlock Holmes. I briefly considered reading some my freshman year of high school, but decided against it. Unfortunately, I was in a stage of thinking that all “old” books were lame. Obviously, I later went on to earn an English degree with a focus in Victorian literature.
So what changed? Remember the great American pastime, Law & Order? I had been a fan of Law & Order in all of its forms since the age of eleven (today, you could not pay me to watch SVU, but I digress), but at fourteen my focus suddenly fell very heavily on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. This was in the ancient times before streaming (not that Criminal Intent is available to stream anywhere, anyway), meaning that my only hope for watching episodes of Criminal Intent was either a cable marathon (which were and remain very plentiful) or saving up approximately $3,982 to buy a season or two on DVD. I was eventually gifted some of the DVDs, which included special features. Special features that included showrunner René Balcer discussing the inspirations for the character of Wunderdetektiv Robert Goren. You know what’s coming: as is usually the case, one of those inspirations was Sherlock Holmes.
So, I read A Study in Scarlet. And then I read everything else. And it all changed my life, in ways I am only just now even beginning to be able to explain.
Contrary to popular belief, December in the Chicagoland area is not always snowy (I think this is popular belief, anyway. I don’t really know what people outside of Chicago believe about Chicago). Often, they are wet and foggy. I remember reading through the Sherlock Holmes canon while surrounded by fog. It was always dark, gloomy, and wet. I don’t know if looking back at the actual weather reports for this time period would bear that out, but that’s how I remember it. Cold, dark, gloomy, wet, and foggy. In other words, the perfect atmosphere for reading Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Watson, the light in the darkness, searching for the truth in the mystery.
Is my entire Sherlock Holmes obsession built on nostalgia? Only partly. There was also the sense of belonging. Millions of people have read the entirety of the Holmes canon — I’m far from special — but truly diehard Holmesians are a special breed. It feels that way with every fandom, I suppose; despite the fact that there may be millions of you, you still all have this one very special thing in common, and it is special to each and every one of you in very special ways. It’s also partly that. And then, well, I like mysteries and I like Victorian literature. Sherlock Holmes, as it turns out, is a good combination of the two.
I spent my college years collecting Sherlock Holmes books and memorabilia. Many of the books came from Iowa City’s best used bookstore, The Haunted Bookshop, but I bought them anywhere and everywhere. Other bookstores in Iowa City, Barnes & Noble, various bookstores around North Carolina when I spent a summer there. To this day, if I walk into any new bookshop, the first thing I’ll look for is a Sherlock Holmes edition to remember it by. I calmed down on this a lot after graduating from undergrad, but it has never gone entirely: my most recent Sherlock Holmes book purchase was just this past November. I also recently got a new job which has given me high hopes of being able to actively expand my Sherlock Holmes library once again (apologies to my roommate in advance).
My memorabilia is not quite as expansive, but still a lot of fun. Stickers. An action figure. A finger puppet/fridge magnet. A tote bag. T-shirts. Various adaptations on DVD. A plushie. Just this past Christmas I finally got The Unemployed Philosophers Guild’s Sherlock Holmes mug. Truly, it is a wonderful time to be alive.
What is it about Sherlock Holmes, then? Sure, with the Holmes stories Arthur Conan Doyle solidified the mystery genre, making it what it is today. His influence cannot be underestimated. Sherlock Holmes is so synonymous with mysteries that libraries use a Holmes silhouette to denote mystery books, an image comprehensible even to people who have never read a Holmes story or seen an adaptation in their lives. Of course, the idea of anyone in the western English-speaking world going their whole lives without some direct exposure to Holmes is unlikely. The last Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place,” was published in 1927, and yet Sherlock Holmes remains as popular as ever. The first stage adaptation featuring Holmes, Charles Rogers’ Sherlock Holmes: A Psychological Drama (also called Sherlock Holmes, Private Detective), premiered in 1894. Holmes is believed to have first appeared on film in the 1900 one-reel film Sherlock Holmes Baffled. For reference, in 1900, The Hound of the Baskervilles hadn’t even begun being published yet. Holmes and Watson have remained consistently in the public eye since that time. Plays, radio dramas, movies — Holmes has been portrayed by John Barrymore, Clive Brook, Basil Rathbone, and Robert Downey, Jr., just to name a few — and of course, television. Holmes first appeared in the 1951 BBC miniseries Sherlock Holmes, and has since seen success in the 1960s BBC series Sherlock Holmes, the Granada series starring the incomparable Jeremy Brett, the BBC’s Sherlock, and CBS’s Elementary, not to mention all of the non-English language adaptations that have been made around the world. Sherlock Holmes is a force to be reckoned with. Doyle introduced him to the world in 1887 when A Study in Scarlet was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, and he’s been wildly popular ever since. In this way, it seems, Sherlock Holmes will never die.
Speaking of literary immortality, let’s discuss Vincent Starrett. Vincent Starrett: Chicagoan, writer, and Sherlock Holmes fan. He wrote The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, helped found the Chicago chapter of the Baker Street Irregulars, and also wrote a poem titled “221B.” This poem is beloved by Holmesians the world over, and it’s easy to see why. In two stanzas, Starrett manages to capture what I have spent over 1300 words trying to explain here: Why is Sherlock Holmes so beloved? Starrett starts the poem off with a bittersweet truth: Holmes and Watson never lived (the bitter), therefore, they can never die (the sweet). And then he sums it all up, everything I’ve been trying to say here, in one line: “How very near they seem, yet how remote.”
The Sherlock Holmes stories are quintessentially Victorian. The era seeps out of the story’s pores, is so very alive as you read. And yet, one feels cozy reading them. One feels at home. I, a seventeen-year-old who had never been outside the United States, felt at home. They are in a distant world, both in time and in the fact that, well, it’s fiction. And yet, when you’re reading, that world, that fantastic, exciting world, is so, so real. The characters are real. The events are real. And they can be depended upon to remain that way. None of this ever lived, so none of it can ever die. No matter what happens in the real world, the world of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will always be the same. In Starrett’s words, there will always be yellow fog around a window pane and a hansom splashing through the rain.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Holmes. And here’s to many, many more.