How not to write a Sherlock Holmes story…

March 30, 2010 | Rants and Raves | By: Mark VandeWettering

The late Jeremy Brett, possibly in the truest portrayal of Sherlock Holmes

I interrupt your normally scheduled ham radio and computer checkers postings to frankly just rant about something: I was listening to XM Radio’s old time radio channel, and there was an entirely forgettable Sherlock Holmes story. I’ve previously mentioned that much of the Sherlock Holmes fiction not done by Conan Doyle is crap, but I thought I’d enumerate a list of the things that I think are absolutely fatal to a Sherlock Holmes story.

  1. Romantic involvement for Holmes. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! Did anyone not read A Scandal in Bohemia? It begins:

    To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind.

    Attempts to give Sherlock Holmes romantic interest just make an extraordinary character ordinary.

  2. Misogyny. While Holmes has no real interest in women romantically, he behaves in a largely chivalrous manner. His lack of romantic interest in women is not caused by bitterness: more like a complete lack of emotional understanding. While he may find the motives of women “inscrutable”, he is for the most part rather deferential and charming, until the case is solved at least.
  3. Watson as a bumbler. Watson is a doctor, a writer, and a former soldier. I blame Nigel Bruce for this far-too common portrayal.
  4. Ghosts. While certain Sherlock Holmes stories begin with mysteries that appear supernatural (The Hound of the Baskervilles perhaps being the most obvious example) but in the end, the explanations are always rational. The Hound wasn’t Cerebrus, it was a mastiff covered in phosphorus. Magic and the supernatural have no place in the rationalism of Holmes’ universe. (Conan Doyle’s personal excursions into spiritualism seem not to have crept into the persona of Sherlock Holmes.)
  5. Interactions with either fictional or actual characters from history. Stories which rely on interactions with Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, or Albert Einstein are just contrivances that try to suck you in by dropping names rather than telling stories.
  6. That damned deerstalker hat and pipe.
  7. Saying “Elementary, my dear Watson”. You won’t find the phrase in Conan Doyle’s works, but it has become a cliche in poor imitators.
  8. Stories which overplay the extremes of Holmes’ character, either negative (his drug use, his fits of boredom where he peppered the walls of 221B with his revolver) or his virtue (while mostly chivalrous, he wasn’t above showing impatience and petulance with those he feels unworthy). The beauty of Conan Doyle’s portrayal is at once the extraordinary nature of Holmes’ character, but also the reality of it.

Why did I bother to write this stuff down? No real reason, other than that I really enjoy the canon of fifty six short stories and four novels, and have read them all multiple times. The least of these are better (in my opinion) than 99% of all the subsequent works using these characters. As much as I’d like to complain about how much bad fiction there is out there, there is something truly great: that the characters themselves have passed into the public domain, and are free for all of us who have enjoyed the originals to adapt with new ideas and new adventures.

That’s pretty cool too.


Comment from Dick
Time 3/31/2010 at 4:14 am

Sherlock Holmes is my favorite character of all time! I do, essentially, agree with your observations. I dislike later Holmes stories that run far afield from the essential character of the Great Man. The only version that I found interesting was “The Seven-percent Solution” which was written and eventually filmed in the 1970’s.

Yes, Bruce’s version of Watson was totally false. But his buffoonish characterization was endearing. Brett as Holmes was perfect casting. Unfortunately, as he became seriously ill and became puffy because of cardiac medication, his physical resemblance to Paget’s illustrations diminished. A few of his last performances were decidedly over-acted.

A big thrill for me was visiting the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London a couple of years ago.

Drinking my morning coffee from the Sherlock Holmes mug I purchased in the gift shop.

Dick N2UGB

Comment from Søren
Time 3/31/2010 at 10:27 am

> Conan Doyle’s personal excursions into spiritualism seem
> not to have crept into the persona of Sherlock Holmes.)

I’d heard that Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes to caricature the scientific skeptics who criticized his fascination with ghosts, fairies, psychics, etc.

In the first novel, “A Study in Scarlet“, Holmes is described as “little queer in his ideas—an enthusiast in some branches of science” … “perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion”. He is “little too scientific for my tastes—it approaches to cold-bloodedness” and has a “passion for definite and exact knowledge [that] may be pushed to excess”.

Despite this unflattering initial portrait Holmes’ character took off, and Conan Doyle ended up earning a good living writing Holmes as a hero, which (if I’m correct about Conan Doyle’s original intent) seems pretty ironic.

Comment from Alan
Time 3/31/2010 at 6:20 pm


I read the books as a kid in the 70’s and loved the Granada series in the 80’s and 90’s. I agree total with you that Brett gave the truest portrayal of Holmes. For me he gets the character and mannerisms just right. Edward Hardwicke, who partnered Brett for most of the Granada dramatizations, does an outstanding job as Watson.

When I lived in Manchester I was fortunate enough to see both in the play ‘The Secret of Sherlock Holmes’, which had a reasonable run at the Wyndham Theatre in London before setting off around the UK. As you will recognize from the title this is not a Conan Doyle story, it is by Jeremy Paul who worked on some of the Brett TV adaptions.
The story is interesting and adds a different slant on the whole Holmes persona when the secret is revealed. I believe the script of the play is available. It was wonderful to see Brett and Hardwicke on stage, playing the two legendary characters, and showing that amazing rapport at work. As for the secret? Well that was a fun twist which, since it was not a Conan Doyle story, I can reject or wonder about.

Here is another personal view of the play, please note the spoiler warning.

Coincidentally, the play is currently touring again, with Peter Egan and Philip Franks as the duo. Here is today’s review of the Edinburgh performance.

Alan, VA3STL

Comment from Doug Weathers
Time 4/9/2010 at 6:25 pm

I greatly enjoy the Mary Russell books by Laurie King. The first one was “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”.

They have at least two of your fatal flaws, but they are IMO still extremely well written and great fun to read.

I would be interested to know if you have read any of these books yet. If not, I recommend you give “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” a try.