Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Great Detective: Ten Ways Holmes Influenced the Mystery Genre: Guest Post by Amber M. Royer

Amber M. Royer:  The Great Detective: Ten Ways Holmes Influenced the Mystery Genre

In A Study in Chocolate, the fifth book in my Bean to Bar Mysteries, my protagonist receives a copy of A Study in Scarlet, as a way of being called out by a Sherlock Holmes fan who is the book’s antagonist.  This killer is trying to take on the role of Moriarty (though this person is nowhere near up to the task) and is trying to cast Felicity as Holmes.  

I had a great deal of fun writing this fan dynamic – as Holmes is considered by many to be THE iconic detective. The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as, “the most portrayed human literary character in film and television history.” It’s not the first time I’ve referenced him. In the third book in my series, part of the plot surrounds a Holmes-themed LARP (live action roleplaying game) taking place on board a mystery-themed cruise. (I tend to reference all of my favorite detectives at some point – which isn’t that different from Doyle himself, who had Sherlock and Watson discuss Poe’s Detective Dupin, who was obviously something of the model for Holmes.  In a somewhat meta move, Holmes declares himself the superior detective, right in the first novel, A Study in Scarlet.)

Poe may have set the stage, but it was Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes that captured the public imagination and basically invented a new literary genre.  Here’s my top ten favorite things about the legacy Holmes left us mystery writers.  And mystery fans.
1. The “Consulting” Detective – Dupin and Holmes are two early examples of characters who are solving crimes, despite not being part of organized law enforcement. Dupin’s motivations for solving cases shifts in each of the three stories he is a part of.  But Sherlock Holmes is different.  He has intentionally educated himself in all the sciences related to criminology – leaving huge gaps in other areas of basic knowledge. Many fictional detectives that followed have had similar interests in criminology, keen skills of observation, and a need to either solve puzzles or find justice. Characters such as Shawn Spenser and Richard Castle wind up accompanying the authorities, in a true “consulting detective” capacity, but more loosely, this is the model for every amateur sleuth to ever sneak away from a cake shop or library to solve an inexplicably long series of murders.

2. The Sidekick/Sounding Board Friend – As an audience, we respond to Dr. Watson as the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories. This serves two purposes: to blunt Holmes’ abrasive personality, and also to give us someone whose shoes to step into to watch the detective’s brilliant mind. Watson-type characters still exist, obviously.  (My favorite current example is Chet, from Chet and Bernie, who happens to be a dog who is thrilled to watch his seedy-detective master solve crimes.) This idea gets flipped in series where the detective is the first person narrator (as in my series, and many other cozy mysteries). That friend character is still there – but more to give the protagonist someone to bounce ideas off of, and the opportunity to say out loud things the protag would only be thinking.

3. Fascination With Trace Evidence – Holmes was obsessed with forensic science, sometimes conducting experiments on himself, and maintaining a full chemistry lab at 221 Baker Street. The Royal Society of Chemistry even gave Holmes honorary membership. Their website says, “Holmes began, albeit it fictionally, a tradition that is now part of everyday policing around the world in which science and rational thinking are allied to combat evil.” So Holmes also gives us the pattern for CSI and Bones, and every other fictional detective that is focused in on science.

4. Created the Iconic “Detective” Look – The deerstalker hat that we associate with Holmes was never mentioned in the pages of the actual stories or novels. (Though there is a reference to "his ear-flapped travelling cap.")  We first get the illustrations of Holmes in a deerstalker from Sidney Paget, who illustrated the stories Doyle wrote for The Strand Magazine. While the actual hat would have only been worn for traveling, Paget continued illustrating Holmes wearing the hat in London – and the image stuck.  Now, just the illustration of a deerstalker hat by itself gives up a symbol for not only Holmes, but for detectives in general. As writers, our takeaway is: if you want an iconic detective, give that person an iconic look. Poirot twirling his fastidiously waxed mustache. Columbo with his rumpled raincoat.  Dick Tracy and his yellow fedora.  Adrian Monk with his wipes. This is part of what makes all these characters larger than life.

5. Highlighting Deductive Reasoning – Doyle gives evidence of his influence from Poe’s Detective Dupin’s focus on deductive reasoning. Several times in the stories, Sherlock compares himself to Dupin, noting the similarities. There are a lot of characters who in turn give nods back to Sherlock for their interest in deductive reasoning and crime solving. If you look at the opening credits of Diagnosis Murder, the collection of Holmes memorabilia is right there. In Castle, Beckett gives Castle a deerstalker when he goes out on his own as a private investigator.  Even when the nods aren’t there, characters like Shawn Spencer and Adrian Monk are showing off their hyper-awareness of detail that allows them to solve murders others can’t.

6. Emphasized the Need for a Different Perspective – one of the hardest things about writing any sort of consulting or amateur detective is giving a reason why this person is the one solving the crime in question – instead of the authorities. With Holmes, it was his sheer deductive brilliance, honed at great cost to other areas of his education and ability to function in society. His obsession with following the clues gave him a different perspective. That’s still something we’re trying to do with characters today. I’ve focused on making Felicity’s shop a hub in the community, giving access to people who the police might not have thought to question. I’ve also given her empathy and a need to find meaning in loss (as she is a relatively recent widow) as the driving force.

7. Set the Pattern for the “Big Reveal” – I love the way in most mysteries, the clues come together, the detective figures it out, and then the audience gets a scene where the baddie is captured and all our suspicions are confirmed. (Or we find out our guesses were off base, and we’re genuinely surprised at the reveal of the killer’s identity. Which – if we can follow a logical thread of clues back to the introduction of the actual culprit, can be equally satisfying.) In the Holmes stories, we sometimes see Watson standing in our place, ready to receive the big reveal.  One of my favorite examples of this is in, “The Dying Detective,” where misdirection has kept Watson unaware of Holmes’s subterfuge, though the clues are clearly there.

8. Created the Modern Concept of Fandom – Sherlock Holmes captured the popular imagination of his author’s times in a way that hadn’t really happened before.  When Doyle wrote the story where he killed off Holmes, 20,000 people unsubscribed from The Strand Magazine out of outrage.  Some sources say people wore black and openly mourned. Not able to handle losing this favorite character, people started writing Holmes fan fiction as far back as 1897. (Holmes fans were the ones who coined the word canon, when it all started getting confusing.)  There are still Sherlock Holmes fan societies, keeping their favorite character alive today.

9. Adaptations – There have been numerous film adaptations of Holmes stories, as well as different takes on Holmes in both print and film. There have even been cartoons.  (The Great Mouse Detective, anyone?  That one was a favorite of mine, growing up.) The different takes on the character, even in media coming out near the same time, are fascinating – for example, the different ways the source material was adapted for Elementary vs. Sherlock – and the much stronger action-adventure interpretation of the Robert Downey, Jr. films. There’s a fun take in the new Enola Holmes films, which pictures Sherlock as the protagonist’s older brother, giving a different side to Sherlock’s personality.
10. Pop Culture And Meta References – There are a number of other literary characters who are huge fans of Sherlock Holmes. There are two episodes in Star Trek Next Generation where Data dons a deerstalker and the holodeck conjures up Moriarty for him to prove that he can dynamically solve a crime as well as a human (and later, Moriarty tries to escape the computer.)  Probably my favorite homage, though, is Detective Conan (also titled Case Closed), an anime where teenage detective Kudo Shinichi is forced to take an experimental drug that turns him into a child. On the run, he takes on the alias Edogawa Conan – based on his two favorite authors – Arthur Conan Doyle and Edogawa Ranpo, the pen name of the guy who played a formative role in the development of Japanese mystery and thriller fiction. The Holmes connection, runs through the story in subtle ways (they live in Beika City – Baker City – after all).  In the sixth feature-length film, Conan and his friends become trapped in virtual reality game that sets them down in Holmes’s London, and it is Conan’s knowledge of the Holmes characters that allows them all to survive. (The Case Closed series is still ongoing and extremely popular in Japan, with over 900 episodes and – at present – 25 feature films.) 

I’m sure I’ve missed a few of the things people love about Holmes.  What’s your favorite thing about this iconic literary detective?

Amber Royer writes the Chocoverse space opera series, and the Bean to Bar Mysteries. She is also the author of Story Like a Journalist: a Workbook for Novelists, and has co-authored a chocolate-related cookbook with her husband. She also teaches creative writing and is an author coach.



Deborah Ortega said...

Thanks for the story very interesting.

Mary said...

Very interesting article! I find the adaptations fascinating. Currently watching the Basil Rathbone/ Sherlock Holmes movies. His may be my favorite adaptation of Holmes with Jeremy Brett a close second or even tied. And while I really like Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, David Burke is my favorite for that character. And I also like the Chet and Bernie mysteries - what a creative take on the sidekick/assistant role.