WAS YOUNGER THAN YOU THINK – In 1881, when Holmes and Watson began together, Holmes was only 27. In many adventures they were in their early thirties --vibrant young men, not the older gentlemen of most of the early film adaptations. In my two novels, set in 1888 and 1889, they are mid-thirties.
WAS STYLISHLY CLEAN SHAVEN – By the end of the 1880s, fashionable young men were newly clean-shaven, as was Holmes in 1881, which put him ahead of the curve. A moustache was the style of “the fighting man” like Watson, always a soldier at heart.
ENJOYED HIS DRINKS – Holmes was a connoisseur of wine but also drank port, brandy, and whisky – the latter always with soda from his gasogene. Spirits then were class and profession related, and in The Adventure of Black Peter, Holmes identifies a suspect as a seafaring man, solely on his choice of rum when offered other spirits.
LIVED WHERE TOSSED SALADS NOW STANDS ON BAKER STREET – So says renowned Sherlockian Roger Johnson, based on Holmes’ run through back alleys to reach “The Empty House”, which faced 221B.
WAS BIPOLAR? – Holmes’ frequent descents into depression coupled with his manic and unstoppable energy on a case provide a clear description of a condition we now might label bipolar or manic depressive. After one case he collapsed in a distant hotel room from which Watson had to retrieve him. Some theorise to this day that bipolar disorder is on a continuum with normal behavior, and is simply a rather extreme example of the “artistic temperament”. I explore this in my first Holmes novel Art in the Blood.
WAS BASED ON DR. BELL – Arthur Conan Doyle took as his inspiration for Holmes the very real Dr. Joseph Bell, his mentor in the Edinburgh School of Medicine, who similarly deduced patients’ professions, life history, personality and illness from tiny details. Less known is that handsome Dr. Bell was photographed wearing a deerstalker and Inverness cape.
PRACTICED MINDFULNESS MEDITATION –In the The Man With the Twisted Lip, he meditates through the night on a mound of pillows, a kind of “Eastern divan”. And in The Sign of the Four, he expounds to Watson on “the Buddhism of Ceylon”. This form was Vipassana, introduced into London at the time by The Pali Text Society.
Vipassana is now called mindfulness meditation, and shares with science the goal of understanding reality.
CARED/DID NOT CARE WHAT ANYONE THOUGHT – Holmes was rude to aristocrats, did not stand on ceremony, and occasionally received clients in his dressing gown. While this careless. bohemian behavior seemed dismissive, he was nonetheless quite vulnerable to flattery, making for an interesting dichotomy.
WAS A MALINGERER? – “Malingering is a subject upon which I have sometimes thought of writing a monograph,” says Holmes in The Dying Detective. Here he meant faking an illness, and yet the sense is humorous. In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes says, “I am the most incurably lazy devil that ever stood in shoe leather” and Watson, too calls himself “extremely lazy.” Both young men occasionally stretch the truth. After all, the canon proves they were anything but lazy.
HAD A SECRET PAST – That he has one can be inferred by his loneliness, his drug addiction, his reticence to discuss his past, – and that he has a single close friend, Dr. Watson. But the vulnerability of this slightly damaged solo voyager, who has also been described as the first superhero, makes him the biggest mystery of all. Canon tells us only that his grandmother was the sister of the artist Vernet, (giving him “art in the blood”), that he is the son of country squires, and that he left university under unknown circumstances. In Unquiet Spirits we learn that Holmes briefly attended the Scottish school Fettes, where he was a disastrous fit, but first took up boxing. This set up an incident at university where a sequence of horrific events coloured his feelings for women ever after, and indirectly caused his expulsion. The mystery of Holmes and women has been debated for a century. Unquiet Spirits hints at a partial explanation… without revealing all. It is important to keep the mystery, because the man as we interpret him is, of course, the man we love.
And we do love our Sherlock Holmes.
“Canon” refers to the original writings by Arthur Conan Doyle.