Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s acerbic, supernaturally gifted logician and analyst, Sherlock Holmes, “consulting detective” is one of the world’s leading and ridiculously popular fictional characters. The cocaine addicted sleuth of Victorian London, 221B Baker St. to be exact, a creation of Doyle’s fertile imagination, has more to do with modern life than we can imagine, or so posits Gary Lang in his documentary The Real Sherlock Holmes airing on History Friday, September 28.
New interest in Holmes is palpable. The BBC’s radically fresh series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elementary, an American version with Jonny Lee Miller set in New York (premiering on Global this Thursday, September 27) both came shortly after Guy Ritchie’s film starring Robert Downey Jr., which also spawned a sequel. Modern versions have examined the possibility that Holmes was bipolar, a side to him that earlier readers read as eccentricity.
Holmes’ faithful and patient sidekick Watson offers a yin to Holmes’ yang throughout the body of work. Watson provides some bedrock for Holmes’ restlessness and appreciates his brilliance. Their relationship is examined in The Real Sherlock Holmes with surprising theories and puzzles. But it is Holmes’ scientific developments that dominate this documentary.
Doyle, a physician, through Holmes, introduced readers to an intriguing field of scientific study specifically tailored for the search for clues and evidence on and about a dead body and crime scene to aid police in murder investigations. Today it’s called forensics. According to Lang, Doyle’s exciting methodologies changed the way crimes are solved today as well as set the stage for subsequent literary mysteries, like those of Agatha Christie, Dash Hammett and Raymond Chandler and for endless TV police procedurals and films. Seventy-five actors have played Sherlock in 211 films and Holmes has been paid tribute to in books, films, TV and videogames.
Pop culture critic Scott Brown, who appears in the documentary, says “You could go back and say that Holmes was the Model T of all modern science fiction, of mystery fiction, of genre fiction.” In 1887, A Study in Scarlet, the debut of Sherlock Holmes, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual and immediately captured public attention. From there Doyle went on to immortalize Holmes in four novels and 56 short stories in magazines. Doyle tried to end the series, but public outrage forced a Holmes revival, a literary technique seen often in modern pop culture.
Lang looks at Holmes’ lesser known, but more important legacy, as an original thinker who set the path for 21st century innovation. Interview subjects ranging from NASA scientists, intelligence agents, private eyes and fans provide a fascinating account of Holmes’ influence on space travel, computers, espionage and science, including natural, physical and forensic.
Lang shot the film in London, Canada, the US and various locales around the world to document the vast reach of this fictional detective. There is interview footage of Doyle himself, a jovial middle aged man with a sparkling smile and calm demeanor who literally turned the cultural world on its ear and yet he’s empathically different. He describes Holmes’ tremendous popularity and premature death – Londoners wore black armbands when The Final Problem had Holmes fall to a grisly end – and the ingenious way Doyle solved that problem.
One of the most interesting revelations is the worldwide enthusiasm and high regard in which Sherlock Holmes is held still today, 125 years after his first appearance. The latest renditions of Holmes didn’t just come out of the blue. He is a hero certain enough for all of us in uncertain times; he represents intellectual creativity at a time when culture is at a nadir. Holmes seems always to have been there, solving crime, helping to make the world a safer and enlightened place. No wonder so many have mistaken Holmes for a real person. They want someone like him, a superhero.
The Real Sherlock Holmes premieres on History Friday, September 28 at 9:00pm ET. For more information, visit history.ca.