Sherlock Holmes – man of action and mercurial inteligence, righter of wrongs and endlessly reinvented hero. What makes him so popular and has made him so since he first appeared in 1887? There are some social factors that are undoubtedly important. For example, he appeared just at the time of the first Ripper murders in London, a good time to be an infallible detective! He also appeared as we began our inexorable change from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban based civilisation where staying alive required not enough food but identifying and avoiding the psychopathic neighbours foisted upon you by the world of weak ties.
But any detective could have answered these. The role of the fictional detective is to provide us with the security that good vanquishes evil. That’s what they all do. What makes Sherlock any different? A deep spiritual need.
Sherlock Holmes was the first detective to embody a popular science method of solving crimes. He doesn’t represent an institution, so he can stand for everyman. He doesn’t have access to a laboratory, but he is still sble to use a highly rational, scientific approach to solving crime.
At the time of his arrival the Victorian world was grappling with the implications of the Origin of Species published for the first time in 1859. A societal move yo a more human centric, rational and expanding world view was changing faith relationships. Move forward into the 20th Century and the sense of our scientific possibilities and powers grows ever stronger – including two wars that made us realise how much power we really could have over our environment.
Today science is entertainment. Programmes like Dara O Briain’s Science Club and Stargazing Liv have brought science to a whole new audience in a cool new way.
Sherlock Holmes’ ability to fight the powers if evil with the power of his mind fits especially well a wirld view that believes that if we were just clever enough all problems could be solved.
He is our saviour leading Dr Watson to enlightenment and saving us from all evils.
Yes, there are many other reasons for his popularity including his flawed “real” nature which warms us to him. But I think this aspect of Holmes talking very deeply into our world view is something that has been missed and offers an insight into the deep needs of our culture.