James Lovegrove is the New York Times best-selling author of The Age of Odin, the third novel in his critically-acclaimed Pantheon military SF series. He was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1998 for his novel Days and for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2004 for his novel Untied Kingdom. He also reviews fiction for the Financial Times. He is the author of Sherlock Holmes: Gods of War and Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares for Titan Books.
Hercule Poirot is an annoying prig. Miss Marple is an interfering old busybody. Father Brown is a pious moralist. Gideon Fell loves bamboozling others. Lord Peter Wimsey is a patronising snob. Inspector Morse is a boorish alcoholic.
Let’s face it, the great fictional detectives are a pretty unpleasant lot, aren’t they? They’re the sort of people you’d hardly give time to in real life, let alone welcome into your house. Even Agatha Christie herself tired of her most famous creation, the fastidious little Belgian, and grew to dislike him intensely, once dismissing Poirot as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”.
Sherlock Holmes isn’t much better, to be honest. He is arrogant. He is overbearing. He is condescending to those less clever than him, which is pretty much everyone. He has the shortest of fuses when it comes to patience, and continually berates and mocks the only man he can call a friend, Dr Watson.
Why is he still such a popular literary figure, then? Why does he inspire such loyalty and devotion in his fans, worldwide? Why are they still making movies and TV shows about him, nearly a century and a half after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first dreamed him up? Why do authors, myself among them, write Holmes pastiches, and why do readers lap them up? Why is he still the most loved fictional detective of them all?
My theory, for what it’s worth, is that Sherlock Holmes is the ideal big brother. As we all know, he himself is a younger brother, seven years junior to Mycroft; but he fulfils the role of senior sibling both to Watson and to the reader.
Like a big brother, he is cool (in every sense). He is that bit smarter. He leads the way. He’s the one who gets you into scrapes, and gets you out again. He’s fit and strong and tall. You can’t help but look up to him. You know he’ll look after you.
All of the above mentioned detectives are phenomenally intuitive and intelligent. They are all firmly on the side of the angels.
What distinguishes Holmes from his peers, however, is the fact that he doesn’t work alone. He is firmly part of a two-man team.
Yes, Poirot has a sidekick, Captain Hastings. But Hastings is very much a subordinate. Poirot never even pretends to treat him as an equal. In some of the adventures, Hastings doesn’t appear at all.
Miss Marple has a string of young friends and relatives, mostly nephews and nieces, all of whom help her along. But mostly she does the thinking work by herself.
Father Brown, too, is a loner – although God is his co-pilot. Gideon Fell has a spouse, which makes him unusual in this context. But Mrs Fell is never given a forename and barely features in the stories.
As for Wimsey, he has Bunter, his valet. Bunter helps out in every aspect of his lordship’s life, from preparing meals to getting him dressed, and his skills in the field of photography sometimes come into play. But all said and done, he remains an inferior, a mere domestic.
Morse, meanwhile, has Sergeant Lewis, who is a capable policeman in his own right. But Lewis invariably follows Morse’s lead on a case and endures endless belittling and castigation at the other man’s hands. Rank divides them.
What sets Holmes apart, then, is that he has his “little brother”, Watson, whom he looks upon with exasperated benevolence. The two share an almost familial bond. The constant presence of Watson by Holmes’s side humanises him, and dilutes his less appealing qualities. If someone as straightforward and decent as John Watson can see the good in Sherlock Holmes, then so, by extension, can we.
Sherlock Holmes: The Thinking Engine, Titan Books, £7.99
March 1895. Hilary Term at Oxford. In the newly built extension to the University Galleries, Professor Quantock has put the finishing touches to a wondrous computational device that, he claims, is capable of analytical thought to rival that of the cleverest men alive. A challenge that Sherlock Holmes cannot ignore. He and Watson travel to Oxford, where a battle of wits ensues between the great detective and his mechanical counterpart as they compete to see which of them can be first to solve a series of crimes. As man and machine vie for supremacy, it becomes clear that the Thinking Engine has its own agenda and Holmes’ and Watson’s lives are on the line as a ghost from the past catches up with them.