Why is crime of so much interest to us, whether fact or fiction? And why is there one fictional detective who stands head and shoulders above the rest, even though he was first introduced to the public 121 years ago? Sherlock Holmes has captivated readers and viewers across the world since his first appearance, with his solving of crimes that, at first seemed unsolvable.
The crimes where Holmes unravels the mystery, were invariably the crime of murder, for this is the crime that, above all others, seems to fascinate an audience eager to be confronted with details of a capital offence. The interest is, of course, understandable, for the snuffing out of a life eclipses all other deeds, no matter how despicable or horrific. Murder is the supreme robbery, the robbery of a life. We may be able to survive if we are robbed of our savings but, to be robbed of our life is a crime we can never recover from.
Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock’s creator, knew only too well what sold newspapers in the Victorian age, the same thing that sells newspapers today, and sells TV programs and films. Political intrigue, sexual scandal, natural disasters all sell, but nothing creates an attention-grabbing headline like a nice juicy murder. It creates a quiver of emotion in the beholder. And what are the immediate thoughts racing through the mind on these occasions? ‘Serves him right’, ‘What a bitch’, ‘Thank God it wasn’t me!’
But most of history’s greatest, and most despicable of capital crimes have involved a large number of deaths at one time; the Holocaust, of course, but also the hundreds of thousands in Africa, wiped out by vicious warlords, corrupt governments, inter-religious and ethnic ‘cleansing’ and many other sources of ruthless terror. Yet, we feel strangely distanced from these terrible things happening on another continent, thousands of miles away. It is only when a killing has a quality of place and person that we can easily identify with that our interest really peaks.
And why does Victorian London, the setting for most of Holmes’ cases, so intrigue, and in some strange way reassure us? Perhaps it is the simplicity of an age unencumbered by telephone, TV, budget air travel, the Internet or social media. For the armchair detectives around the world, following the great sleuth and trying desperately to second-guess the solution to the crime, can wrap themselves comfortably in a blanket of nostalgia for an age they can never have known.
When it comes to criminology, Sherlock Holmes does all the work for us, just the way he has done for his audience for well over a century. Once the great detective starts to ferret around, magnifying glass in hand, we know that a solution to a heinous crime cannot be far behind. Horse drawn Handsome Cabs, a city cloaked in fog, top hats, ladies in long dresses, policemen without any thought of carrying a gun, invite us to relax in a world far, far removed from the one we daily have to cope with. Indeed, Holmes has been successfully recreated in the modern world of London and New York by the TV series featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Millar. Yet there is something about the books that allows us the opportunity to recreate Sherlock, Watson, Moriarty, Mycroft, Inspector Lestrange, Mrs Hudson and the Baker Street Irregulars with whatever face and form we chose. Of course, Sidney Paget, the first, and probably best know illustrator of Conan Doyle’s books, presents us with a sketch of these famous literary characters, yet I think we still allow our imaginations to visualise the heroes and villains of that Sherlock’s world in whatever way we chose.
Murder is a foul crime, the foulest, except that in the Sherlock Holmes chronicles, it merely seems part of a delicately woven tapestry of mystery that offers us the comfort of a bygone age.