Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous literary characters of all time. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, he is as British as the royal family or taking high tea. But Holmes wouldn’t be as popular as he is without a devoted American following.
It took over a hundred years, but in 2009, an American—Robert Downey, Jr.— played Holmes on the big screen. In a movie critic Roger Ebert called “cheerfully revisionist,” Downey played Holmes as an action star. The Holmes stories have plenty of thrills—the boat chase in The Sign of the Four comes to mind—but they never had the kind of over-the-top action one finds in a 21st century popcorn movie. Still, the Downey movies showed how enduring Holmes is, especially for Americans.
Here are ten reasons why Americans have always loved Sherlock.
He’s a loner
Americans love rugged individuals, whether it’s Jake Gittes taking on corruption in Chinatown or Indiana Jones battling the Nazis almost single-handedly. Holmes liked to say he was the only world’s “unofficial consulting detective.” That meant he was his own man. He was self-employed, operating a one-man detective agency. His office was his comfy rooms at 221B Baker Street.
While he often had his trusted Watson by his side, Holmes was at his best working the streets of London by himself. If Holmes were interested in case, he’d soon dash out the door, collecting evidence and following leads. He was the ultimate bachelor—never married, certainly no kids, and he had a disdain for matters of the flesh. “I have never loved,” Homes tells Watson in “The Devils’ Foot.” While Americans love a good romance, Holmes took his individualism to an extreme: other people got in the way, especially women.
He has the perfect sidekick
When he wasn’t working alone, his trusted Watson was often with him. Dr. John H. Watson is the original sidekick. The Robin to Holmes’s Batman. The two are the original crime-fighting duo. Later, there’d be the Green Hornet and Cato, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Han and Chewey. It can all be traced back to Victorian London.
Watson was not only a good friend and sometime bodyguard, he was Holmes’s biographer and chronicler. Holmes himself only narrated one of his stories (“The Lion’s Mane”), but almost every other time, it was Watson who told the tale. Holmes complained that Watson tinged his stories with “romanticism.” Sherlock preferred a cold, analytical approach to detection. But Watson defended his work by saying he had made Homes a household word.
Depicted unfairly as a goofy bumbler and comic relief in early films, the original stories show Watson was no dummy (he was a doctor after all). He also was a lady’s man who could hold his own in a fight. Watson had served in the military in Afghanistan before he met Holmes and was wounded during his service. Like Holmes, he was tough and loved a good adventure. And Holmes knew it. “I am lost without my Boswell,” Holmes tells Watson in one of the earliest stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
Americans love a DIY hero. Holmes was a brilliant detective, but he didn’t graduate college. Instead, he dropped out after two miserable years. This was Victorian England, when most people didn’t go to college. Holmes likely was bored by the students and faculty alike. We don’t know much about Holmes’ early life. He was never on the police force. Did he have a mentor? We don’t know. It seems doubtful. Holmes seemed to emerge from the womb ready to solve mysteries.
In the original Sidney Paget illustrations, Holmes looks like a slightly annoyed college professor with a high forehead and thinning hair. One can imagine—as depicted in the 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes—Holmes causing trouble in school. We can only assume he learned everything—from chemistry to playing the violin—on his own. It made him a brilliant detective, but also left him with a chip on his shoulder.
He has problems with authority
Holmes’s (deservedly) high opinion of himself made him contemptuous of authority—for him, that meant the local police. He knew he was smarter than anyone in Scotland Yard, especially the incompetent Inspector Lestrade. And what was more—he was far more energetic. Holmes could go without sleep or food for long periods. Occasionally, he would get a big payday, but usually the thrill of the hunt was his real reward.
He was so contemptuous of authority that he didn’t even seem to care whether he or the police got the credit for solving a case. It didn’t matter, though, because he knew he was the real brains behind the investigation. And regardless of whomever came into his study, Holmes treated clients with the same aloof condescension.
In one story, Holmes declines a knighthood from the queen. He was a patriot to be sure, doing whatever he could to rid the world of crime and murderous monsters. But he had no use for titles and badges. Like a Wild West gunslinger, he was the law unto himself.
He’s not afraid to use a gun
Americans love their guns, and Holmes wasn’t above using one. While the English are far less obsessed with firearms than we are, Holmes sometimes packed heat. To be sure, Holmes preferred a game of wits to a shootout. But he was a crack shot, even going so far as to take target practice in his rooms at Baker Street. Holmes might have been a terrible flatmate at times, but Watson put up with his eccentricities.
In one of the earlier novels The Sign of the Four, Watson and Holmes shoot a villain dead after a thrilling boat chase. Usually in the stories, though, the threat of violence was enough. Sherlock often made Watson carry a pistol rather than use one himself. Regardless, Holmes dealt with violent criminals all the time. The Holmes stories are bloody, dark, and disturbing. People are murdered with everything from poisonous snakes, darts, and powders to silent long range “air guns” and harpoons. It was the era of Jack the Ripper, and the foggy (re: smoggy) streets of London, where all sorts of degenerates lurked about. Holmes had no illusions about how dangerous his job was. And he had no qualms about putting a gun to someone else’s head if need be.
He’s a workaholic
Americans put in long hours, and Holmes would fit right in with our strong coffee and staying late work culture. He didn’t keep regular working days, but that didn’t stop him for clocking longer hours than most people. He might be on a case for days without sleep, and he hated being bored. While his intelligence was without parallel, Holmes was also far more energetic than anyone around him. He was a hustler. Holmes acknowledged that his older brother (by seven years) Mycroft had even better powers of observation and deduction than he did, but Mycroft lacked the energy that kept Holmes on a case until it was solved.
Watson was amazed by Holmes’s commitment to his work. In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” he tells us that Holmes was a man “who when he had an unsolved problem upon his mind would go for days, and even for a week, without rest.” And Holmes solves the mystery in that story after pulling an all-nighter. In a later story, “The Dying Detective,” Holmes fasts for three days and applies ghastly makeup to his face to trick a criminal into thinking he was on his death bed. Holmes wasn’t just a great detective, he was something of a method actor.
The adrenaline rush from an interesting case could give Holmes a long-lasting high. But the crash could be ugly. “I get in the dumps,” Holmes tells Watson at their first meeting,” and don’t open my mouth for days on end.” And he wasn’t kidding. Like the workaholics of Mad Men, there’s a price to be paid for toiling long hours.
He has “issues”
As a workaholic, Holmes needed to decompress. To alleviate his ennui, he would use cocaine—a 7 ½ percent solution, in fact. The injections stimulated his mind for a while as he hoped to crack a case. As a medical man, Dr. Watson disapproved. Early on in the stories, we see Sherlock shooting up. While cocaine wasn’t nearly as well-known as it would be later, Watson feared Holmes’s dependence would ruin his health. Holmes was flawed man to be sure, and Conan Doyle established a trope we’d see in countless detective movies later. Hardboiled L.A. detectives would have trouble with booze and women. In The French Connection II, Popeye Doyle starts taking heroin. The brilliant advertising executive Don Draper of Mad Men can’t put down the bottle. Genius carries a price, and we see that in Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes might’ve been arrogant and condescending at times, but he was the real deal. The word “authenticity” gets thrown around a lot. Everything from Mexican food to Johnny Cash might be labeled “authentic.” And while it is not easy to talk about authenticity in a fictional character, what is clear is that Holmes shunned artifice. He could deflate pomposity through snide comments and sarcasm. He didn’t want riches and fame. He made enough money to maintain his London lifestyle. He was a purist, living for the thrill of the case. You could call him an artist, really.
Holmes lived in a no BS zone. He had no patience for the police or others who might waste his time. He was blunt, always ready to tell someone where they stood. Whether he was playing his violin or shooting cocaine, whatever he did was out in the open. His honesty made him a popular detective. People could trust him. Whether it was a governess with no money or the highest-ranking people in British society, Holmes treated them the same way.
He has style
Just about anyone could spot a caricature of Sherlock Holmes: the tall man with the curled pipe (technically a Calabash Meerschaum), deer stalker cap, and plaid cloak. His outfit is as iconic as those of Dracula or Santa Claus. In lesser film adaptations of the stories, you might see Holmes in his full get-up for much of the movie. In fact, original Holmes illustrator Sidney Paget only drew Homes with the iconic cap a few times. Holmes rarely wears it in the Jeremy Brett BBC Holmes series (still the most faithful to the original stories).
Rather than wearing the same outfit over and over, Holmes was a chameleon, who could match the aristocratic dress of high London society one day, then don the rags of the London poor the next. Whatever he was up to, though, Holmes had style. Sam Spade had his trench coat and fedora. Poirot had his waxed mustache. Magnum PI solved cases in a Hawaiian shirt and Tigers cap. The more colorful detectives clearly owe a debt to Sherlock Holmes.
He’s the first superhero
The Holmes “look” is a costume. And really, Holmes is the first superhero. He’s most like Batman, a man with no actual superpowers (he can’t fly, time travel, or lift trucks), but who nevertheless uses his intelligence and resources for the greater good. He solves problems with ease. He doesn’t need to worry about money. His life in enviable in many ways, but he carries the burden of his own genius. Like Batman, he’s a dark character. And what is his famous cloak but a type of cape? Holmes is really just a Victorian version of the Dark Knight.
Like any great superhero, Holmes seems indestructible. He has an arch enemy, the wolf-like Professor Moriarty, whom he kills after a literal cliffhanger. In “The Final Problem” (December 1893) Holmes and Moriarty fight to the death at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Conan Doyle tried to kill off Holmes, but people wanted him back. After more than decade, Holmes returned. The character was too popular to die. In 1927, Conan Doyle published the last of the Holmes stories. But Holmes’s legacy—and Americans’ love for him—lives on.