Welcome to the 21st century. The industrial revolution and subsequent World Wars have changed the landscape of humanity entirely. Gone are the days of Victorian Era London and in their place is a never before seen age of globalization. The world is moving at a breakneck speed, with streams of information connected like never before. Data is gushing from one point of the planet to another, leading to cultures being ever so increasingly homogenized, and fads are dying as quickly as they are being born. What a tumultuous time to live in; blink and one can find themselves in a state they have never been in before.
But what is this, another adaptation of Sherlock Holmes? Surely it must be one of only a handful. Surely, Victorian Era London cannot be that enticing a setting for the people of the modern world. Ah, but there lies the point of interest. Sherlock Holmes has been constantly adapted into different media, going through the motions again and again and again. He has been an action hero (Sherlock Holmes, 2009), a drug addict (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, 1976 and Elementary, 2012), a diagnostician (House, 2004), a 21st century Japanese woman (Miss Sherlock, 2018), a cartoon dog (Sherlock Hound, 1984), and has even found himself to be reanimated in the 22nd century (Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, 1999). Surely, some questions must be being raised at the moment, and this section will attempt to bring those into focus.
“Here I had heard what he had heard, I had seen what he had seen, and yet from his words it was evident that he saw clearly not only what had happened, but what was about to happen, while to me the whole business was still confused and grotesque.”
-John Watson, ”The Adventure of the Red Headed League”
Religion, philosophy and science; as of 2019 these three terms each carry an immeasurable amount of weight. While at a glance, they appear to be quite different from one another (with religion and science butting heads on various occasions), it should not be too difficult to think of the single thread that connects them. This thread is of course man himself, or to be more precise, man’s rather inherent desire to make sense out of the world, to extract some semblance of meaning from the chaos that is the universe. How many systems of faith have been implemented since the birth of the human race, and how many individuals have claimed to have found the “perfect” system of life? Indeed from Buddha to Plato, Christ to Confucius it appears that mankind has always yearned for ways to look at the world around them and say “This is what is actually going on; this is what we should do.” Then, out of the shadows, it appeared that science shot forward, knocking the two groups aside, yelling “No! This is what is actually going on.”
Amusing as the imagery may seem, it is imperative to look at the human being in as objective a manner as possible. Ask almost any average individual whether they believe humans are different from animals, and the general consensus will most likely be a resounding ‘yes’. Much can be said about the topic and research uncovers interesting new information every other day. For the sake of brevity, however, let the discussion observe two major traits that make man what he is. Firstly, the human being has a terribly high degree of self-awareness: he knows that he is an entity unto himself, separate from the environment and other individuals. Second, he has the ability to juggle ideas about realities outside of his immediate present moment, with the added bonus of communicating those ideas with other members of the species with relative ease. This leads to the crux of the discussion: the human being’s ability to ask “why”. As innocuous a trait as this may appear to be, it can be strongly argued that man’s capacity for language and his ability to look around him and ask questions has led to the very fabric of faith, philosophy and science. Indeed that is a bold claim, and indeed it is bound to anger many; unfortunately arguing in detail is beyond the scope of the current discussion. What the discussion does tackle, however, is the importance of human curiosity and how it has been crucial in the development of his species across the centuries.
So, why be curious? The most obvious answer that comes to mind is to be able to learn something, or more formally, in order to gain information. Most living organisms of the higher order tend to have a certain level of cognition that allows them to do so. After all, it would be terribly inefficient to function without being informed of one’s surroundings and the possible sources of food/prey. However, human cognition is different. Daniel Berlyne, in his 1967 paper titled “Curiosity and Exploration”, defines “epistemic curiosity” as that which applies predominantly to humans. It is the ability to acquire information in the form of “ideational structures” that lead to “internal symbolic responses” which can guide behavior in the future (Berlyne 31). In simple terms, it basically means to obtain information so as to get a better sense of the world for future actions, a good example being a child burning his finger on a hot stove not doing so again. This all may sound rather basic when looked at a microscopic level, and in a way it perhaps is. What happens then, when one is presented with an entire species stumbling around constantly learning to better survive? A leader is needed.
To use the term “leader” is perhaps the most apt way to shine a spotlight on this particular figure, but there is more to it than just that. Humans are, undoubtedly, social creatures, and societies need proper cohesion in order to function without falling apart. This has been true for as long as man has existed and the “leader” has been a guiding figure throughout. For the discussion at hand, the type of leader that needs to be looked at are primarily the ones that quell human curiosity, and who so better than the religious, philosophical and scientific ones? There is no doubt that people have idolized these beings throughout human history, and rightfully so. The early human being, looking wide eyed at the unforgiving, chaotic world around him would naturally gravitate towards a figure who would tell him what is going on. When the human heard that the earth was in the center of the universe, or that he was made in the image of the most perfect being in the universe, it gave his mind some much needed comfort, and the drive to carry on determined. Then, as technology and understanding marched on, the authority on what to do increasingly became shared between the groups who thought and the groups who experimented. Today, the image of Albert Einstein is arguably as well-known as that of Jesus Christ. In modern times, the human being starved for spiritual answers head towards churches and mosques, while those starved for technical answers head towards universities and laboratories. Both are very important to the human being, as one assures him on how his universe works in the present moment and the other assures him on how his universe will work after his death.
Perhaps the reader cannot be blamed for forgetting that the paper concerns the detective, Sherlock Holmes. The time has come to tie everything that has been said above to this fictional figure who has, to reiterate, countless adaptations spanning through time. Sherlock Holmes is a detective, an extraordinary one to say the least. When the police themselves need help, they come to him, such as in the case of A Study in Scarlet and “The Six Napoleons”. When ordinary humans in need of guidance need help, they too come to him. What do these groups seek? Answers. Holmes, with out of the box thinking, unorthodox methods and relentless pursuit of the criminal puts the clients and police force at ease. Much like ordinary humans looking to religious and scientific figures for guidance, the figures in Doyle’s stories see Holmes the same way. More often than not, he preserves his reputation as he cracks open the numerous cases that come his way. The readers and viewers who are witnessing the stories unfold also cannot help but be hooked on from beginning to end because of the innate curiosity they possess.
This is arguably a very large reason as to how Doyle retained interest in so many readers. It could very well be the same reason why the umpteenth adaptation of Holmes still draws in such large crowds; the appeal of a figure holding answers will always be a timeless concept, whether it be in 4000 B.C.E or the postmodern era of the 21st century.
This chapter has come to an end with the rather simple conclusion that humans crave for answers and the Holmesian figure constantly supplies it to them. However, there have been countless detective stories throughout the ages, with varying degrees of success and adaptations A worthy name is that of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Yet, Holmes is the name that is most remembered. Why? The answer lies just behind Holmes himself: within the character of Dr John Watson.
Berlyne, D. E. “Curiosity and Exploration.” Science, vol. 153, no. 3731, 1966, pp. 25–33. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1719694.