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II/ Migrating Detectives

Character Migration: the Case of Sherlock Holmes

Nicholas TUCKER


Sherlock Holmes, le célèbre personnage de Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, continue jusqu’à aujourd’hui à réapparaître dans des romans. Quelques auteurs, au cours de leur histoire, tentent également d’expliquer en même temps la psychologie excentrique de Holmes. D’autres tiennent à y introduire une sensibilité moderne qui, à leur avis, fait défaut à certaines des histoires originelles. Un troisième groupe s’interroge sur ce qui aurait pu arriver à un Holmes vieillissant et un quatrième saisit l’occasion pour critiquer à la fois Holmes et ses méthodes. Chacune de ces approches nous en apprend beaucoup sur les auteurs en question et leurs propres valeurs. Mais il y en a-t-il une pour nous faire en fait progresser dans notre compréhension de Holmes lui-même ?

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1It has been estimated that there have to date been over two thousand re-creations of Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes, all taking off from the original 56 short stories and four novels, never out of print since publication began in 1891. With Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus, Holmes has indeed been described as one of the three best-known imaginary personalities in the world.

2There are many reasons why other writers would want to try their hands at recreating this famous character, and in doing so provide evidence of what can happen when a character from an original work migrates to future fiction written by others. In purely commercial terms, re-creating Doyle’s famous characters has always made sense, given that Holmes’s name and picture on any cover still sells books as well as films and television series. And since his image is so well-known there is no need for any future writer to go to the trouble of having to re-create it. They all here owe a considerable debt to Sidney Paget, Holmes’s first and still most famous illustrator in the Strand Magazine, who created the image that quickly became so instantly recognisable, both in terms of Holmes’s features and his favourite head-gear.

3It could be argued that the image of Holmes began to migrate from the original text at the point at which it was first illustrated. Doyle’s reference to Holmes sporting a ‘close-fitting cloth cap’ (Boscombe Valley 134), for example, was originally rendered by Paget as a Homburg, a once fashionable stiff-brimmed hat with a single dent in the crown plus curved rims. But then Doyle went on elsewhere to refer to Holmes wearing “his ear-flapped travelling cap” (Silver Blaze 262). This produced from Paget the now world-famous deer-stalker. Paget did a lot to improve Holmes’s looks too. In his autobiography, Doyle writes of Holmes that, “he had, as I imagined him, a thin razor-like face, with a great hawks-bill of a nose and two small eyes set close together” (Memories 90). As to what he thought of Paget’s much improved depictions of Holmes, where he is always made to look as elegant in person and appearance as any matinee idol, Doyle admitted that “perhaps from the point of view of my lady readers it was as well” (Memories 90).

4This more pleasing image for Holmes migrated further when it was given popular shape on the cinema screen when acted by Basil Rathbone, for older generations still the definitive film representative for Holmes. Today it is the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch who is once again breathing new life into Holmes in a television series screened all over the world. But originally it was another actor, William Gillette, who first made the image of Holmes live beyond the printed page, introducing further changes as he did so. He acted the detective in Sherlock Holmes, the play he wrote with Doyle in 1899, which enjoyed substantial runs in both Britain and America. It was he who made famous Holmes’s iconic meerschaum pipe, originally employed by Gillette on the stage so that when held in or near the mouth its deep curve would still allow audiences to see his lips moving. In Paget’s original illustration, Holmes smokes a straight briar pipe, but in time and with other illustrators the meerschaum pipe also became an indivisible part of the Holmes image. It was Gillette too who, in his stage version of Holmes, first uttered the famous phrase “Elementary My dear Watson!” Although this was never said in the original stories it too has now become permanently associated with the great detective.

5In terms of character migration, therefore, Holmes had already begun his journey within the popular imagination even before appearing in any other writers’ fiction, with aspects of his looks and speech both changing from their original appearance as time went on. Re-writers ever since have done little to change this image once it had become engrained in the popular imagination. Instead, they were presented with something like a literary gold-mine to quarry as they liked, always assuming permission was forthcoming from Doyle’s literary estate. Other ready-made characters from the originals were readily on hand for them as well, also so famous they needed little or no further description or justification. Dr Watson, the housekeeper Mrs Hudson, Holmes’s brother Mycroft, the arch-villain Moriarty and the blundering police inspector Lestrade will already be familiar to anyone who has ever sampled the original stories themselves.

6But there is more than pure commercial gain plus the comforts of inheriting such well-known and loved characters that drives on re-writers here. Most Doyle imitators are also ardent Holmes fans themselves and therefore welcome the chance to put their often intimate knowledge of the original to use and public display. This can take them in various different directions. There are many Sherlock Holmes societies throughout the world, and especially in America, where numerous papers mostly for semi-private consumption have been written often attempting to explain away examples of Doyle’s occasional carelessness. So ingenious if implausible explanations now exist as to why Mrs Hudson, Holmes’s loyal housekeeper, is occasionally referred to by Doyle as Mrs Turner, or why Dr Watson’s wound from his time in the Afghan wars sometimes moves from his heel to his shoulder – an example of wound migration, perhaps. But as Doyle once admitted in his autobiography, “I have never been nervous about details, and one must be masterful sometimes” (Memories 95).

7Such fans are happy to chat mainly to each other or else have fun on projects such as re-enacting the Gasfitters’ Ball so beautifully brought to life by Paget in A Case of Identity, the fifth short story in the canon. But some fans have also produced their own Holmes stories. Many of these, soaked in familiar references and stylistic devices, are sometimes as close to the originals as it is possible to be. A good modern example of this would be the interpolated Holmes story in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s White Fire which creates a story deriving from an actual meeting between Oscar Wilde and Doyle in London’s Langham Hotel in the summer of 1889.

8But for other re-writers, composing a purely imitative version of a Holmes story would be an essentially sterile activity, reminiscent of a competition once held between the two world wars asking contemporary composers to try their hand at writing the last movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Some of them may also find it hard, perhaps even embarrassing, to reproduce all the social attitudes found in the originals without some indication that they do not now share such views themselves. Common to all re-writers is the desire to write a gripping, self-contained detective story involving ingenious twists and examples of Holmes’s amazing skill at deducing facts from clues invisible to anyone else. But after that, re-writers have taken off in different directions, developing aspects of Holmes according to their own main interests. Looking at a selection of the best-known re-written Holmes stories, such interests seem to fall into four specific areas.

9There is firstly the wish among some of them to explore areas of Holmes’s past previously kept in the dark, given that nothing is ever said in the stories about his family, his childhood, where he was born or anything else about his life before Baker Street. This tantalising absence of fact about such an intriguingly complex character has increasingly lent itself to much psychological speculation. In further discussion we will refer to this group of re-writers anxious to explain Holmes’s otherwise somewhat opaque personality as the Armchair Psychologists.

10There is also the question of what happened to Holmes in retirement and old age. For the great developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, old age is a coming together of all that is good or bad from the life stages that went before, with the individual finishing up either facing disintegration and despair or else approaching personal peace and fulfillment. In the case of Holmes, re-writers have tended to split between those who see him as aging gracefully, still in charge of his uncanny powers of detection, while others have portrayed him as an increasingly lost soul. I shall refer to those re-writers as the Future Speculators.

11For other re-writers, there is a strong desire to put right in their own stories some of the social prejudices found in the originals. I am calling this faction the Social Improvers. And finally there are those re-writers who have an urge to bring Holmes down from the pedestal upon which Doyle, with only a few reservations, had originally placed him. Let’s call these re-writers the Critics. I shall examine all these groups, and the way that Holmes migrates in different ways throughout their fiction. They all tend to share a love of the great originals, with many of them attesting to how important these stories have always been to them in their lives. There is also a universal and refreshing absence of guilt about the task they have set themselves. Anyone attempting, say, to improve on the novels of Dickens or Tolstoy must of necessity approach this task with a mixture of apology and self-justification for having the nerve to take on works of such genius. But the Holmes stories always set out to be popular rather than awe-inspiring. This is certainly how Doyle felt about them, even to the point of getting so tired of Holmes that he tried to kill him off, far too prematurely for his many fans. When William Gillette, the American actor, once asked Doyle if he could introduce a love interest in his Holmes drama, the author briskly cabled back “You may marry him, murder him or do what you like with him” (Miller 123). This cheerful advice has indeed been gratefully taken up by very many others ever since.

1. Armchair Psychologists

12Let’s start with the re-writers I have termed the Armchair Psychologists. There is almost no psychological speculation in the original Holmes stories, reflecting the largely unpsychological mood of the times when judgements on others tended to be couched in moral rather than in explanatory terms. In biographies at that time and before it was usual to consider any famous person’s childhood as having anything of interest to say about the man or woman to come, with the consequence that it was often barely mentioned at all. In novels too, notable villains like Dickens’s miserly character Scrooge from A Christmas Carol are shown as having had very deprived childhoods yet there is still no real attempt by the novelist to link this experience with what they become as adults.

13The most extreme example of the psychological approach to Holmes is found in Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), later made into a film. In this novel, Holmes comes over as a seriously deluded cocaine addict, still obsessed by Moriarty. But this character rather than being a master of crime turns out to have been a mere master of boys, having once taught the young Holmes mathematics at school. But he also seduced Holmes’s mother, who was subsequently shot dead by her jealous husband who then took his own life, leaving the young Sherlock with an unhealed trauma for the rest of his life. Watson eventually tricks a desperately addicted Holmes into making a visit to Vienna to consult the up and coming neurologist Sigmund Freud. Gradually his therapy starts to work, with Freud pointing out to Watson that

[u]nder the saturating influence of the cocaine, Moriarty’s illicit liaison with Herr Holmes’s mother assumes its true emotional proportions – and they are boundless! (…) Of course (…) all these conclusions he buries deep in his soul – in an area to which I have tentatively applied the clinical term ‘unconscious’ – never admitting any of these feelings to himself, but exhibiting the symptoms of his ideas, nevertheless – in his choice of profession, in his indifference to women…and finally in his preference for the drug under whose influence his true, innermost feelings on the subject are eventually to be revealed (217).

14So here is Holmes effectively psychoanalysed and found severely wanting – an extreme example of character migration indeed. As in other re-imaginings of Holmes, his cocaine consumption plays a much larger part than it does in the original stories. In these he is shown using cocaine only twice, although Watson does refer to this habit, which he detests, on other occasions. But this is a good example of what happens in character migration when external developments since writing the original have led to entirely new attitudes to what was originally on the page. In this way, attitudes once seen as comparatively normal, such as the occasional anti-Semitism found in Shakespeare or the easy acceptance of the accumulation of wealth gathered from the slave trade, as in some of Jane Austen’s novels, can no longer escape more emphasis and sometimes judgement in modern re-writings.

15In the originals Holmes as a character and personality is never explained – he is just who he is. In Doyle’s own words, writing about his most famous character in his autobiography, “if I have sometimes been inclined to weary of him it is because his character admits of no light or shade. He is a calculating machine, and anything you add to that simply weakens the effect” (Memories 92). But this sort of characterisation no longer suffices in most fiction these days, where every main character tends to go with some sort of psychological explanation too. The originals have an advantage here in terms of being able to get on at a good pace without bothering about possible psychological motivation at all when, as Holmes would have it “The game is afoot” (The Abbey Grange 491). (Like ‘Elementary My dear Watson!’ this phrase too has now become permanently associated with the great detective even though Holmes and Watson only utter it once each).

16So if the Armchair Psychologists linger longer now over the reasons for Holmes being as he is, they can at least try to make the psychological hunt exciting in itself, given that like the great detective’s own cases there are going to be plenty of clues to follow up before reaching a final solution. This is done to devastating effect in Michael Dibdin’s brilliant The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978). Here, Holmes is once again in a bad way, brought down by cocaine and his own inability to live without excitement. Shockingly to many of his fans even today, he is eventually revealed to be none other than the notorious real-life 19th London murderer, Jack the Ripper. Holmes is shown committing his horrible crimes from a compulsive need to continue outwitting everyone else. But by this time he has gone quite insane. As Watson sadly observes when he learns the terrible truth about his great friend,

[i]f Holmes was mad, it was, as one might have expected, a methodical madness. His great mind was in ruins, but in those ruins life went on. Did he know what he had done? In some remaining enclave of sanity, was he aware of what he had become? So it seemed, and finding the madness too powerful to master, he had grappled with it in the darkness of his soul and thrown it out, and called it Moriarty […] Everything of which he spoke was taking place within the confines of his own brain (148).

17This seems to me a genuinely creative example of character migration and the intelligent type of modern understanding that can inform it. As it is, Holmes and his arch-enemy Moriarty in the original stories are indeed exceedingly similar. Both are absolute masters of their art, and Moriarty at one stage even leases a house in Blandford Street opposite 221B Baker Street which in some ways is a mirror image of Holmes’s own lodgings. Both are contemptuous of the police with Holmes on occasions also taking liberties with the law as it stands. And there is indeed something distinctively paranoid about the way Holmes talks to Watson about Moriarty, referring to him as a giant spider or the very Napoleon of crime, and insisting that Moriarty not only is behind nearly all the crime committed in London but unless stopped is poised to take over crime in the rest of the world as well.

18The final pages of Dibdin’s novel show Holmes throwing himself over the Reichenbach Falls, thus eliminating both himself and Moriarty at the same time. Once again, this ingenious theory helps explain why Moriarty had not simply had Holmes murdered before in London, which he could so easily have done, or else why he did not bring a pistol with him for that final tussle with Holmes over the roaring torrents below. One can still return to the original after this and become caught up again in the story as it was. But this clever re-writing does draw attention to the way that Doyle made such effective use of fantasies involving paranoia and conspiracy theories in his detective writings. As well as Moriarty he also describes other sinister forces possessing a hidden malign influence on contemporary affairs. These include the Ku Klux Klan, the Mormons, the Red Circle, with its tentacles stretching from Italy to New York and on to London, the Italian Mafia and the Russian Nihilists.

19Fantasy touching on paranoia is as common and popular now in films and fiction as it was in Doyle’s time, offering ways of explaining what is variously wrong with society without having to go to all the bother of taking a more considered academic approach to the subject. Some modern re-writers continue to mine this rich literary vein, but others now seem more interested in highlighting the ills caused by society itself rather than by single or corporate villains, as we shall shortly see.

20So what of the various attempts to fill in the details of Holmes’s otherwise blanked-out childhood as an explanation of the man to come? There have been a number of books speculating about this, for example Shane Peacock’s series The Boy Sherlock Holmes (2007-2012). The six novels so far describe Holmes as the son of a Jewish intellectual and a high-born lady. Impoverished and a social outcast, as a brilliant adolescent he suffers the terrible trauma of thinking that he indirectly caused the brutal murder of his mother. He eventually falls in love with the charming young Irene Doyle, only to finally renounce her once he realises that any woman attached to him would always be in danger from his enemies in the world of crime. Putting away occasional lonely tears, the young Holmes is now ready to inhabit the emotionally inhibited shoes of his future self. A similar journey occurs in Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes series (2010-2013). Currently the only children’s writer endorsed by the Sherlock Holmes Conan Doyle Estate, he also portrays his young hero as still open to fear, love and hurt pride, only demanding a single kiss from the young woman he loves and who returns the feeling before deciding once again that the life-style he was going to choose left him no opportunity for any such emotions in the future.

21Many other re-writers also feel the need to explain away Holmes’s lack of interest in sex – another indication of how modern preoccupations cannot now leave uninvestigated various aspects of characterisation once virtually ignored in a previous, more inhibited age. But once again, I wonder whether Doyle is having the last laugh here? Adventure stories have always needed heroes able to up sticks and travel at a moment’s notice. Commentators have had endless trouble trying to explain how Watson is always able to leave both his wife and his medical practice in order to go off on another adventure with his friend. But Holmes’s austere celibate state means that he never has to look for excuses to anyone. He also has no money problems and no house to run. A domesticated Holmes, by contrast, would have faced Doyle with a new set of problems to solve. Much better keep him as he is, already an unlikely figure in Victorian England in his absence of interest in women but far more so today, so leading to the modern need to look for further explanations.

2. Future Speculators

22Now let’s take on another group, the Future Speculators. We know from the originals that Holmes took up bee-keeping in Sussex. But how did he fare? What happens to a great mind when it ages? Can this process in retrospect tell us anything interesting about the person involved at the younger age when we knew him best? This concern is taken up in Michael Chabon’s excellent Final Solution (2004). Here we find Holmes aged 89 and in poor health. This is not a purely random affliction. As Watson himself writes in his preface to The Last Bow, “the friends of Mr Sherlock Holmes will be glad to learn that he is still alive and well, though somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism” (3).

23But the date in Chabon’s novel is now 1944 and Holmes is facing the only enemy he can never defeat – extreme old age. Or as Chabon has it, “the conquest of his mind by age was not a mere blunting or slowing down but an erasure, as of a desert capital by a drifting millennium of sand. Time had bleached away the ornate pattern of his intellect, leaving a blank white scrap” (37). In another passage, he adds that

[h]e did not fear death exactly, but he had evaded it for so many years that it had come to seem formidable simply by virtue of that long act of evasion. In particular he feared dying in some undignified way, on the jakes or with his face in the porridge (…). The prospect of setting himself on fire with his own pipe conformed to his worst ideas of the indignity that death would one day visit upon him (78).

24Such passages allow us to experience that most unfamiliar of sensations where Holmes is concerned: pity and compassion. Attempting to solve one last problem, he feels he has failed, and suffers what are for him the terrible consequences of finding he is no longer able to cope as he would once have wished. Or, as Chabon puts it,

[w]ith the consciousness of failure, a grey shadow seemed to steal over his senses as if, steady as a cloud, a great obstructing satellite were scudding across the face of the sun. Meaning drained from the world like light fleeing the operation of an eclipse. The vast body of experience and lore, of corollaries and observed results, of which he felt himself the master, was at a stroke rendered useless. The world around him was a page of alien text (85).

25Is there a sly act of revenge upon Holmes here? I don’t think so. It is more a matter of revealing his essentially human fallibility. Quoting Chabon again,

[t]he application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings – the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted – had he not? – by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic cryptographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies’ wings. One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African grey parrot (125).

26This reference to a parrot arises from the main plot of the novel, where Holmes does indeed finally manage to solve a problem while also saving the life of a young Jewish refugee. But I think this whole passage is also a gentle rebuke to Holmes and to the whole detective genre about the way that clues are always shown as leading to a final solution. Yet life – and detection – is not always like that. Doyle knew this too, but chose not to act on it. Chabon knows otherwise, but still lets Holmes down gently and all those readers who enjoy sharing this sort of omnipotent fantasy. But as we shall see, there are other authors more critical of Holmes for different reasons.

3. Social Improvers

27Incorporating new social awareness can bring its own problems to modern re-writers. To inject 21st century attitudes into 19th century characters would sound strained or even false, but not to do so might suggest that modern authors have still much to learn about present-day sensitivities. Doyle’s original stories occasionally ride roughshod over numbers of social issues which today call for more careful handling and therefore time spent away from the main plot. We shall see more of how this particular difficulty is dealt with now when examining that group of writers I have called the Social Improvers.

28This group consists of re-writers who determinedly bring a modern consciousness into their narratives. In James Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes. The Stuff of Nightmares (2013) there are mentions of social evils well known at the time but invisible in Doyle’s own writings. These include references to female trafficking and the trade in young female virgins, homosexual brothels and sexual orgies. On a lighter note, Mycroft refers at one stage to a bomb left in a public lavatory (24). I cannot be the only reader who has sometimes wondered how Holmes and Watson managed this side of things when hiding for hours or travelling in non-corridor trains. (There would be no problem, of course, once on their own on Dartmoor). Without going any further into such matters, Lovegrove shows a willingness to take on issues which, however minor, were once thought unsuitable for mention in fiction. The same could be said of Watson’s overhearing at a moment of great tension what he calls a “highly degrading epithet” (270). Just to have put the thought of what exactly this epithet might have consisted of into readers’ minds would have been beyond anything Doyle would have attempted.

29Elsewhere Lovegrove has Watson refer to other famous figures of the time, from Charles Darwin to Aleister Crowley. Doyle himself made hardly any references to other living figures in his fiction, preferring to hide famous contemporaries behind phrases like “the illustrious client”. Lovegrove and other modernisers are happy to place Holmes and Watson more securely in their particular time and place. This is also done to particular effect in Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, already referred to, where Holmes while being cured in Vienna becomes involved in some of the players who helped bring about the First World War.

4. Critics

30Let’s now finally go to the re-writers I have labelled as the Critics. These also share characteristics with the Social Improvers, but are more overtly critical of Holmes as a person – something rarely found in Watson’s original narrations. There are no such reservations in Laurie King’s The Bee-Keeper’s Apprentice. Consider, for example, Mary Russell, the extraordinarily intelligent 15-year-old who becomes Holmes’s unofficial partner in 1915, long after Watson had left the fray. She is berating the now elderly Holmes for insisting on going ahead to the next encounter while clearly needing medical treatment himself:

I exercised my right to protect the partnership by putting a halt to your stupidity, yes, stupidity. You believe yourself to be without the limitations of mere mortals, I know, but the mind, even your mind, my dear Holmes, is subject to the body’s weakness. No food or drink and filth on an open wound puts the partnership – puts me! – at an unnecessary risk. And that’s something I won’t have (262).

31It gets worse three pages later, when Mary reveals to Holmes the implications of his having missed a vital piece of evidence:

There was no softening the blow. The bare facts were awful enough, but the implications inherent in my having to tell him were, for him, truly terrible. Twice now in little more than two days I had rescued him from a major error. The first might have been excused, though it nearly cost Watson his life; this one had been in his hands, under his nose, at the very time he had been searching for just such a clue. It changed the investigation, and he had missed it (265).

32Telling Holmes that he was wrong is perhaps another fantasy that even the most devoted readers have had from time to time, faced as they are in the originals by someone of such supreme egotism who never gets anywhere near to receiving an occasional come-uppance. But here it is still affectionately done, with Holmes surviving to finally fall in love with Mary Russell at the start of a relationship that is to see them through more joint adventures. Having a female take a leading detective role alongside Holmes is of course another provocative and in terms of the originals revolutionary move open to re-writers, and an example of gender as well as character migration.

33But other critics of Holmes are not always so kind. Anthony Horowitz in The House of Silk (2011) is less forgiving in the course of making some shrewd points. To start with, these do not amount to much more than showing Holmes occasionally getting things wrong. Cutting him down to size in this way has its comic moments, when for example the great detective is questioning a young man who has just entered the famous consulting rooms. After looking him up and down, Holmes opines,

‘You are a teacher, are you not?’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘There is chalk dust on the edge of your cuff and I notice a red ink stain on the inside of your third finger.’
Henderson (…) smiled briefly, showing stained, uneven teeth. ‘I am sorry to have to correct you, but I am in fact a tide-waiter, although I do use chalk to mark the packages before they are unloaded and enter the numbers in a ledger using red ink’ (171).

34So at last Holmes has got something wrong. However much we love him, legions of readers – and of course Watson himself on occasions – must have wished for the time when even if only once Holmes is shown to be humanly fallible. Horowitz provides just such a moment, but he also has more serious points to make, as in this passage: ‘‘it may be, after all, that this is your fault.’ This is what Watson hears Inspector Lestrade say to Holmes after one of the Bow Street Irregulars – the small army of street children who regularly help him out in the original stories – is found murdered.

‘Fault?’ Holmes jerked round as though he had been stung.
‘I warned you about mixing with these children.
You employed the boy. You set him on the trail of a known criminal. I grant you, he may have had his own ideas and they may have been the ruin of him. But this is the result.’
I cannot say if Lestrade was being deliberately provocative but his words had an effect on Holmes that I was able to witness for myself on the journey back to Baker Street. He had sunk into the corner of the hansom and for much of the way he sat in silence, refusing to meet my eyes. His skin seemed to have stretched itself over his cheekbones and he appeared more gaunt than ever, as if he had been struck down by some virulent disease. I did not try to speak to him. I knew he needed no consolation from me. Instead, I watched and waited as he brought that enormous intellect of his to bear on the terrible turn that this adventure had taken.
‘It may be that Lestrade was right’ he said at length. ‘Certainly I have used my Bow Street irregulars without much thought or consideration. It amused me to have them lined up in front of me, to give them a shilling or two, but I have never wantonly put them in harm’s way, Watson. You know that. And yet I stand accused of dilettantism, and must plead guilty. Wiggins, Ross and the rest of them were nothing to me, just as they are nothing to the society that has abandoned them in the streets…Would I have allowed a young boy to stand alone outside a hotel in the darkness had it been your son or mine?’ (128-9).

35So finally Holmes is faced by one of the unintended consequences of his lack of concern for others, including the most vulnerable. It is not a moment he enjoys. And perhaps this particular instance is not something many readers want to think about either. For years, from Erich Kästner’s classic tale Emil and the Detectives to the adventure stories of Enid Blyton, there have been stories showing how ever-resourceful small children can manage perfectly well on their own for long periods of time even in the most testing of situations involving serious crime. But on the whole this is more fantasy than reality. Lestrade is right here, however much Holmes and most other readers of whatever age would wish he were not.

36Horowitz also endows Lestrade with a Christian name – George – with Doyle before him only awarding him a bare initial. In the same vein, Watson early on apologises to readers for how he and Holmes used to belittle Lestrade in previous narratives. He now concedes that the Inspector was basically a good and capable man, ready to stand up for Holmes when – as he does in this story – he finds himself in serious trouble with the law. Always addressing him respectfully as Mr Holmes but always curtly replied to simply as Lestrade, we are reminded perhaps a little uncomfortably about how the good Inspector was regularly the victim of a type of condescension common at the time among those conscious of their own social superiority.

37Horowitz makes a similar point in the case of Mrs Hudson, Holmes’s long-suffering but always caring and hard-working landlady. But as Watson now puts it,

[s]he hardly ever complained and remained loyal to the end. Although she flits in and out of my pages, I actually knew very little about her, not even how she came to occupy the property at 221 Baker Street (I believe she inherited it from her husband, although what became of him I cannot say) After Holmes left, she lived alone. I wish I had conversed with her more and taken her for granted a little less (289).

38Once again, this seems to me an instance where modern sensibilities have a valid point to make about past social attitudes that now seem shaming in their lack of respect for other human beings. But perhaps the character who has most benefited from re-writing is good old Watson himself. Having suffered so much patronising scorn from Holmes in the originals, it is only fair that he is allowed to make some sort of come-back since. Because much as readers enjoyed siding with the omniscient and at times omnipotent Holmes, they all knew that in truth they were always more Watsons than Holmeses themselves, given that Watson’s initial reactions to any mystery, although invariably wrong, always seemed fairly sensible at the time. In James Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes. The Stuff of Nightmares, for example, it is Holmes himself who now leaps to the defence of his old friend. Here he is, answering back his brother Mycroft after yet another insult has sped Watson’s way:

‘Mycroft, Watson is as astute a judge of the facts as any man. He may embellish and romanticize his accounts of my exploits somewhat, in order to make them more pleasing as literary entertainment, but he has an eye for detail and a nose for the truth, and I will not have you impugning his character or his acumen.’

39Suitably and almost certainly unexpectedly gratified, Watson goes on,

I myself was flattered beyond measure by Holmes’s praise. He was not usually so unstinting with his compliments, least of all where my intellectual prowess or my writing skills were concerned. There were times in his company, and more so in the company of him and his brother together, that I was made to feel as though I were a member of an inferior species, a reasonably gifted ape perhaps. It was nice to be reminded that my companion thought more highly of me than that (27).

40So here is a good example of how the migration of a main character can always allow for changes to occur in other characters too. In the novels by Michael Dibdin and Nicholas Meyer already referred to, Watson emerges as a major character whose moral vision and depth of understanding puts Holmes to shame. This is just another example of how re-writing can lead to re-thinking too.

41Returning to Horowitz’s story, perhaps the most moving moment occurs when Holmes is himself arraigned in court. Watson is there to see the humiliation of his friend but he also remembers all those others that he and Holmes had come across who later fell foul of the law. Or as Watson himself puts it,

[i]t is curious to reflect now, at the very end of my writing career, that each and every one of my chronicles ended with the unmasking or the arrest of a miscreant, and that after that point, almost without exception, I simply assumed that their fate would be of no further interest to my readers and gave up on them, as if it was their wrongdoing alone that justified their existence and that once the crimes had been solved they were no longer human beings with beating hearts and broken spirits. Never once did I consider the fear and anguish they must have endured as they passed through those swing doors and walked these gloomy corridors. Did any of them ever weep tears of repentance or offer prayers for their salvation? Did some of them fight on to the end? I did not care. It was not part of my narrative.

But as I look back at that iron-cold December day when Holmes himself faced the forces that he had so often unleashed, I think that perhaps I did them an injustice, even villains as cruel as Culverton-Smith or as conniving as Jonas Oldacre. I wrote what are now called detective stories. By chance, my detective was the greatest of them all. But in a sense he was defined by the men and, indeed, the women he came up against, and I cast them aside all too easily. Entering the police court they all returned very forcibly to mind and it was almost as if I could hear them calling to me, ‘Welcome. You are one of us now (203-4).

42In this passage it is not only Watson who learns something but his modern readers do as well. No-one goes to detective fiction for moral profundity, which is no doubt one of the many appeals of this particular genre. But it is as well to be reminded every now and again, as here, that over-simplifications in fiction, however enjoyable, are always going to fall short of the more complex picture of what happens in real life.

43Our first reactions to Holmes, particularly when we are still young, have been well described by Vincent Starrett, writing for the Baker Street Journal:

[Holmes] stands before us as a symbol (…) of all that we are not but ever would be. …We see him as a fine expression of our urge to trample evil and to set aright the wrongs with which the world is plagued… He is the personification of something in us that we have lost or never had. For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker Street, comfortable, competent, and self-assured; it is we ourselves who are there, full of a tremendous capacity for wisdom, complacent in the presence of our humble Watson, conscious of a warm well-being and a timeless, imperishable content… this is the Sherlock Holmes we love – the Holmes implicit and eternal in ourselves (111-12).

44It is certainly more fun to enter an imaginary world where the good and clever so regularly win out against the forces of evil, with readers identifying with the brilliance of Holmes while also feeling pleasantly superior to the comforting if repeated failures of Watson ever to get things right. By presenting a more sophisticated view of this eternal struggle, Horowitz and other re-writers can still come up with exciting, gripping stories while no longer going along with some of the over-simplifications and moral short-cuts found in the beloved originals. In this sense, perhaps, character migration can also lead to reader migration, where we are gently but firmly led away from our first whole-hearted acceptance of favourite fiction towards taking a more nuanced view of it, both morally and psychologically.

45London possesses a Sherlock Holmes pub in Northumberland Street, home to a permanent Holmes exhibition originally put together for the Festival of Britain in 1951. This contains, among other objects, Watson’s old service revolver and the stuffed and mounted head of the Hound of the Baskervilles. But the main attraction is a replica of Holmes’ and Watson’s sitting room and study, full of the detail familiar to anyone who loves these stories. I am happy to be surrounded by all this memorabilia as are so many other visitors there, some from overseas – an example perhaps of tourist migration. But I am also happy to be reminded by other re-writing authors since that there is both more and sometimes less to be said about these stories, with the phenomenon of character migration making sure that in fiction, as in life, it is never going to be possible to have the last word.

46As it is, we do not limit our heroes to their stories alone. We can transplant them in time quite happily, just as they were transplanted into war-time Britain in the Basil Rathbone films or into today in the Sherlock series televised in 2013. Once we have discovered how much we love these characters they are with us for life, both in and out of their stories. Character migration in this sense always begins with the reader. If he or she wants to see how it may be done by others, they can read works by chosen imitators or even try their own hand at a story. Or else simply return to the originals and let their own imagination work free and go in any direction it likes as they accompany Holmes and Watson on yet another of their gripping adventures.

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Référence électronique

Nicholas TUCKER, « Character Migration: the Case of Sherlock Holmes »E-rea [En ligne], 13.1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 19 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicholas TUCKER

University of Sussex
Nicholas Tucker is a former Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at the University of Sussex. He is the author of The Child and the Book (Cambridge University Press, 1981) and many other publications.

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