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Intersection of Life and Faith

The Heart of Holmes

  • Gary D. Robinson theFish.com Contributing Writer
  • 2009 23 Dec
The Heart of Holmes

With his trademark audacity, Harlan Ellison used to say that every man, woman, and child on the planet knows Mickey Mouse, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Robin Hood, and Superman.   Hyperbole aside, it's hard to deny the worldwide popularity of these characters.  Since their beginnings in print, they've flown, swung, and deduced their way into all media.  Decades-- even centuries-- later, they continue to make their presence known.   Appearances on TV and the big screen insure they never get too far from our consciousness.  Just when we're starting to sing along with the radio,

I don't believe that Robin Hood
Is still alive in Hollywood,

the legendary archer gets another movie deal with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.  The same goes for Sherlock Holmes as Robert Downey Jr., the latest of dozens to play the role, gets ready to do his deductive stuff. 

One definition of an icon is "one who is the object of great attention and devotion."  What is it about Sherlock Holmes that keeps us coming back for more?  Jeremy Brett's delightfully imperious portrayal set the bar high.   Yet he seemed puzzled by the character's appeal:  "I wouldn't cross the street to meet him."  So why has this straight-laced Victorian holdover, whom Brett called "a wounded penguin," endured?   The answer is in Scottish author and physician Arthur Conan Doyle's first adventure.  The remarkable powers and quirky personality we associate with Holmes were there at the start.   In A Study in Scarlet (1887), Doyle introduced a hero who was a study in contrasts.  If the deerstalker cap encapsulates him for us, the contrasts in his personality endear him to us.  

To begin with, Holmes displays an amazing gift for deduction, drawing large but accurate conclusions from the smallest observations.  For example, in the short story, A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes deduces that Watson had gotten very wet lately and that he had "a most clumsy and careless servant girl."  Amazed, Watson asks how Holmes knows this.  The detective replies:

It is simplicity itself... My eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant boot-slitting specimen of the London slavey [female servant]. 

He makes great use of trace evidence such as shoe and tire impressions, as well as fingerprints, ballistics, and handwriting analysis.   In fact, it's hard to imagine CSI without Holmes' pioneering in forensic science.   His knowledge of chemistry is profound.  He also knows quite a lot about anatomy, geology, and the law.  His arsenal of abilities includes martial arts, boxing, and swordsmanship.  Though he doesn't often carry a gun, he's a good shot when necessary.  Of course, everybody knows Holmes is a master of disguise.  Naturally, these powers and abilities make him a formidable opponent of evil. 

There is a downside to this marvelous creature, however.  On the light end, his smoky, untidy digs at 221B Baker Street made him a trial to his longsuffering landlady, Mrs. Watson.  On the dark end, there's Holmes' infamous addiction to cocaine.  Even though Dr. Watson considered the drug to be his friend's "only vice," it served to highlight a basic flaw in the detective's personality.  Seemingly, his only stimulation—his only joy-- is problem-solving, the absence of which leads to depression.  He displays no warmth, no affection.  His famous disdain for women inevitably led some readers to suspect a homosexual relationship with Watson -albeit in the closet of his creator's mind.  

Yet, at least once, Holmes demonstrated that he could find a woman attractive.  His female adversary Irene Adler, who appeared only once, left such an impression that she's mentioned several times in other cases.  Watson speaks of her in reverent tones as The Woman

As for that friendship with John Watson, The Adventure of the Three Garridebs tells us exactly what we want to know.  When Watson is wounded by a villain, he describes Holmes' reaction:

It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.  All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

That "moment of revelation" is what makes the difference between a mere pop hero (say, Nick Carter of the same era) and an enduring icon.   Pop heroes are a dime a dozen.  They ride in, punch, shoot, ride out.  From the Saturday matinee cowboys of the forties to the muscle-bound cannon-toters of the eighties, the landscape is littered with discarded do-gooders.   But a few heroes remain, undimmed by the years, waiting in the wings just long enough for a new generation to discover them. 

We discover an icon in Watson's "moment of revelation."   Here's Superman, grief-stricken over the lifeless body of Lois.  Here's Tarzan, his face a mixture of pain and wonder at the death-dealing power of a rifle.   We need our heroes to display abilities with which we can vicariously triumph if not aspire to, but we respond best and longest to the hero who shows that he's not made of steel but flesh.  

"There's the scarlet thread of murder" says Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, "running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it."  If Holmes often appears dispassionate, we've seen enough to know what really drives him.  It's passion, and not just for justice.  We love ol' Sherlock's brain.  We wish we had one like it.  But we love him because we know that down below that great brain beats a greater heart. 

Posted: December 23, 2009

Gary D. Robinson is a preacher, writer, and actor living in Xenia, Ohio.  Check out his blog at www.garydrobinson.com.