The Sherlock Factor


In case you hadn’t noticed, Sherlock Holmes is back in style. Robert Downey Jr. is reinventing him in movies and there are successful TV revivals coming out of both Britain and the U.S. There are also Holmesian and near-Holmesian versions in the bookstores as well, often with a steampunk flair. The Baskerville Affair trilogy, beginning with A Study in Silks, numbers among them. The sudden onslaught of Sherlockiana does beg the question, why him, and why now?

There’s probably a team of sociologists organizing a symposium on The Sherlock Factor, but I think the answer is fairly simple. Holmes represents rationality. He comes wrapped up in a complicated package that we love to poke at—as characters go, he’s delightfully flawed—but at the end of the day he delivers the bad guys and he manages to do so with a minimum of fuss and bother. He can mix it up when he needs to, but nine times out of ten he’s a scalpel where so many are sweaty, lumbering blunt instruments cluttering up the pop culture scene. He’s a refreshingly suave intellect with a pinch of deviltry and a bundle of interestingly self-destructive habits.

In my series, Holmes is the uncle of my main protagonist, Evelina Cooper. An orphan, Evelina is caught between her father’s legacy of the travelling performers and magic and her mother’s inheritance of wealth, education, and science. When I began writing this story several years ago, I chose the strange and fantastic milieu of the Victorian circus to represent her father’s people and Sherlock Holmes to represent her mother’s. I figured that they were easily understood shorthand for two equal but opposite impulses of the Victorian age—the drive to seek out inexplicable wonders, and the urge to put them under a microscope and make them surrender to rationality. Before her journey ends, Evelina either has to choose between these two paths or find a way to reconcile them. As such, Holmes represents one half of her central conflict—and one that she loves very much.

Although he is a secondary figure in my books, Holmes is an amazing character to work with and fun to see from a young relation’s point of view. He’s Evelina’s odd uncle and a mentor figure. She wants to solve mysteries, too, but she’s not brilliant right out of the gate. He helps her out in A Study in Silks, but eventually she learns to fly on her own. Her uncle is her touchstone and measuring stick and eventually they come to work side by side—although I’ll say right now these aren’t conventional cases. Holmes did say, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Here, Evelina’s talents include magic. The supremely scientific Holmes prefers not to deal with the supernatural, but in a world rife with spirits and spells, he doesn’t pretend it’s not there.

As I was writing this, I did go back and reread much of Conan Doyle’s original Holmes story. The interesting thing about the “real” Holmes is that he admires capable women and has no difficulty giving them a role to play in the investigation. Giving him a niece who is adventurous and smart wasn’t a huge stretch. But one thing that did cross my mind was how Evelina’s would-be love interests must have viewed him. Intimidating or what?

But I think this leads me back to the original question of Holmes’s resurgence in popularity. It’s not hard to make the leap from Conan Doyle’s detective to a modern sensibility. Though a man of his time, he was willing to see women as effective allies or enemies. He was willing to question everything, every authority, every institution to find the truth. Even his existential boredom between cases isn’t out of place in our time. Of all the Victorian icons, he may be the one that’s closest to us. It’s no wonder we’ve invited him into our living rooms again.

(originally published on All Things Urban Fantasy)

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