Sherlock Holmes: A Canon of Friendship

Sherlock Holmes made an enormous impact on crime literature. His unusual methods (deductive reasoning, observation, and intuitive conclusions) were so different from the Penny Dreadfuls of the day, he became one of the most famous characters in history (only Bram Stoker’s Dracula has had as much fame). But what makes Holmes live on when history has forgotten many other fictional detectives?

Is it tremendous popularity during his author’s lifetime? Holmes’ “much-lamented death” caused people to protest in the street.

Is it a memorable entrance? No one will ever forget the first time Watson meets Holmes, enthusiastically gouging blood from his own thumb.

Is it macabre and unusual crimes? Holmes has them in abundance! The Speckled Band! The Case of the Engineer’s Thumb! The Solitary Cyclist!

Is it the nature of Holmes that draws us in, much as he fascinated Watson? His indulgence of cocaine whenever he lacks mental stimulation, his manic energy whenever he’s on a case, his genius and intellect? A man who, at the end of the day, curls up with a violin or smokes tobacco from a Persian slipper on the hearth? And affixes his correspondence to the mantel with a jackknife?

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created an unforgettable character in Holmes—an hero of lofty intelligence and forensics beyond his time, who was only outsmarted by “The Woman.” His Holmes can be diabolical (when he “charms” a maid for information) and compassionate (when he allows a perpetrator to escape). But a clue to his enduring fame may lie in one line, when Holmes tells a villain he would not have left the room alive “had you shot Watson.”

Holmes never lacked for a friend. Watson berated him for his bad habits, hid his cocaine, and entrusted Holmes with his own bank book, to keep his spending habits under control. They were good friends and trusted one another.

Doyle knew two things well—humans have a great capacity for evil and his professor and friend, Dr. Joseph Bell, was the perfect inspiration for Holmes.

If one reads up on Bell, they soon discover he was not a cold, shrewd detective with a poor bedside manner, but a much-praised, respected, and beloved doctor in Edinburgh University. And, some have argued, the father of modern forensics, since Holmes’ unique observational method originated in Bell. A studious observer of human beings, a meticulous physician, a hard-working scholar, and a man who could turn around a failing magazine with a week of burning the midnight oil, Bell was not a cocaine-addicted “brilliant madman,” but he was Doyle’s inspiration.

sherlockmurderroomsBefore Sir Ian Richardson died, he played Holmes twice in television films (intended as a longer series, but canceled due to competition from Jeremy Brett) and Dr. Bell himself, in the short-lived serial Murder Rooms. Cultivated from the creative imagination of David Pirie, who later wrote additional novels about the duo, the stories provide a rich re-working of Doyle’s most famous stories—my favorite being its twist on The Solitary Cyclist. The fictional Doyle is a hard-working, good-natured bloke, always up for an adventure, open-minded and in awe of his dear friend and professor, Dr. Joseph Bell.

He and Bell do not always agree, but their fondness for one another and mutual respect is the cornerstone of the series. What begins as a relationship of academic non-equals becomes a genuine friendship that supplies Doyle with a father figure. With his own father incarcerated in a mental institution, he yearns for the guidance and the council of an older man—and finds it in Bell. It’s Bell he turns to in times of trouble, Bell who cautions him not to put his faith in mediums, Bell who advises and encourages him in his practice. And Bell finds a son to love.

Though Pirie has fictionalized their lives, in this friendship he has enhanced what made the original stories so enjoyable. It’s not the macabre stories and unusual cases, nor the ability to tell a man’s history from the state of his cuffs, but the remarkable friendship between Holmes and his friend, John Watson.

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Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss took this dynamic to new heights in their television series, Sherlock. Sherlock is far different from Holmes—an amoral, egocentric braggart who his brother says “could become a good man,” if they can save him from himself. Such incredible brilliance has a great capacity for evil. His friendship with Watson turns him into that man. Watson, with great exasperation, chips away at his lack of social skills and brings about a change in Sherlock. By the series’ end, Sherlock has become not only a “great man… but a good one.” He has changed and grown for the better.

Other adaptations have also focused on the friendship between the two men—Stephen Speilberg explored it from the angle of them meeting at boarding school, in the zany Young Sherlock Holmes. The Robert Downey Jr. movies makes Holmes co-dependent and desperate to hold onto all of Watson’s attention. The strong friendship between them was in some ways, central to the success of the Jeremy Brett adaptations. And though Nigel Bruce’s Watson is a “total fool,” he held great respect for Holmes, and Holmes held tremendous affection for him, in the Basil Rathbone productions.

It’s said you can know the nature and quality of a person by their friends. We are most like the people we spend the most time with—we become better or worse with them at our side. The fictional Bell helped Doyle mature as a doctor and a man. Watson helped Sherlock find his soul. And if canon Watson helped Holmes find room for friendship in his rationality, Holmes opened Watson’s mind to new perspectives, to the loveliness of a symphony after a hard case, and to the belief good can prevail when a moral man is upon the case.

And there are worse things to learn from friends.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

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11 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes: A Canon of Friendship

    1. Charity Post author

      Did you? 😉

      I discovered it when I was about thirteen and even though it’s a bit weird, have loved it ever since, especially Nicholas Rowe. He made a perfect young Holmes.

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  1. iamcharlesbakerharris

    “We are most like the people we spend the most time with.” That’s very true (I’ve seen it play out over and over and over), but it always makes me wonder WHY it should be that way. Why are we so . . . malleable?

    Questions, questions, questions. 😉

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    1. Charity Post author

      Humans tend to emulate the characteristics of other humans as part of “mirroring.” Most psychologists call this a a survival bonding technique; humans are naturally group-oriented. Psychopaths are the only humans who do not “mirror” other people. One example of this is that almost everyone, when they see someone else yawn, automatically yawns — it’s their body’s way of merging with the other person and creating a connection; but a psychopath will not yawn, because they are out of sync with other people. (I imagine it’s the same with laughter, which is also something that “passes around” socially.) We merge, to survive.

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      1. iamcharlesbakerharris

        Wow. That’s so weird for me to think about. The fact that we mirror others, I mean. I do it all the time–I KNOW I do–so why is it such an unnerving thought?

        [I suppose the blanket answer would be BECAUSE KATIE THINKS TOO MUCH, lol . . . and I know I find everyday actions weirder and weirder the more I think about them. But this one seems especially odd to me, I guess.]

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            1. Charity Post author

              I can agonize literally for weeks over whether to buy a dress. A DRESS. Now imagine how much agonizing I do over relationships, over major life decisions, and suchlike. So yes, I feel your pain.

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