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Saho King
Dr. Lynda Haas
Writing 39B
8 June 2014
The Attraction of Holmes
The mystery genre came into prominence during the late Victorian Era with the
increasing popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle
revolutionized the genre by combining the inspiration he drew from Poe and other writers in the
past with aspects of adventure, intelligence, and emotion. Literary scholars often credit Doyle
for establishing the popular conventions of the genre, some of which are the ineffective
policemen, the mastermind criminal, the loyal sidekick, and the detective hero. The Sign of
Four, Doyles second novel, stars the now iconic Sherlock Holmes; it follows Holmes and
Watson as they embark on an adventure to uncover the mystery surrounding the disappearance of
Miss Morstans father. As the investigation unfolds, they discover a complicated past of
bloodshed and betrayal over the exotic Indian Agra treasure. Throughout, Holmes
characteristics are revealed and many of the traits discovered are now the fundamental building
blocks for the detective character. Most scholars agree that godlike genius, keen powers of
observation and deduction, and a shroud of mystery collectively characterize Holmes as an
eccentric outsider with dual-personality.
In the Doyle chapter of his scholarly book-length study of the genre, An Introduction to
the Detective Story, Leroy Panek claims that one of the major areas of attraction in Holmes is his
split personality. He describes the paradox of Holmes as a rational drug addict, a sloppy
precision, and a lazy athlete at the same time that he is an expert without working at it who
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is able to snap out of lassitude into action (93). Readers are naturally drawn to a character who
is accomplished without effort, but who also has a side that is surprisingly human and relatable.
The paradoxical nature of Holmes character is illustrated in The Sign of Four: Holmes snaps out
of his depression and dependency on cocaine as soon as he gets the case from Miss Morstan and
then quickly reverts to laziness and drugs once the crime is solved. For Holmes, cocaine is a
method to achieve mental exaltation and cure himself of the boredom brought on by his genius.
During the period of investigation, Holmes embodies a completely different person full of energy
and vigor, telling Watson that he cannot sleep or relax because the problem is consuming
[him] (Doyle 1375). For the detective, a life without brain-work or a case to concentrate on is a
dull routine of existence (Doyle 183) and not worth living at all. The detective profession
essentially requires Holmes to dedicate his life to solving other peoples problems and leaves
him with no significant personal life outside of his work. Kirby Farrell, author of Heroism,
Culture, and Dread in The Sign of Four, argues that Holmes lives vicariously through his clients
and their experiences, so without any cases to work on, his life is dull and lacks mental
stimulation (47). While both Farrell and Panek acknowledge that the boredom resulting from
Holmes genius plays a part in his drug use and need for mental exaltation, Farrell furthers this
point and describes the inevitable isolation Holmes suffers due to his knowledge. In his scholarly
text, Farrell claims that the process of investigation produces power, yet it also entails alienation
which in turn discloses the fearful smallness of mankind and leads to despair and the
compensation of drugs (48). In conclusion, the scholars agree that Holmes genius is a double-
edged sword that makes him an outsider this characteristic has prevailed and become a
standard convention of the detective in the mystery genre.
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Just as many academic writers agree with Farrells idea that Holmes is an outsider,
ambiguously above the law, in danger of obsession and despair, (40) they also point to Watson
as the contrast he is considered the norm. In Doyles series, Watson is portrayed as the average,
Victorian middle-class man, and always a proper gentleman. John McBratney, the Chair of the
Department of English at John Carroll University, argues in his scholarly article, Racial and
Criminal Types: Indian Ethnography and Sir Arthur Conan Doyles The Sign of Four, that
Holmess divigation from the normemphasizes his resistance to conventional notions of type
and the disciplinarity it maps (161). For example, at the end of The Sign of Four, Watson
decides to marry Miss. Morstan and follow a more conventional life plan. Holmes, on the other
hand, tells his friend that he would never marry because love is an emotional thing, andis
opposite the true cold reason which I place above all things (Doyle 2163). Holmes preference
for logic and reason makes him less inclined to follow the accepted, orthodox path of the
Victorian Era. Holmes tendency to be unconventional allows him to do things that other would
not and see things from a unique perspective. McBratney goes on to say that Holmes has unique
qualities that make him the only man who can save the system from those who wish to exploit,
scuttle, or invade it. He may seem beyond the system; indeed, it has been argued that Holmes is
the outsider who makes the population inside the social system secure (162). McBratneys
perspective on being an outsider is presented in a more positive light than Farrell, but they both
agree that Holmes can do what he does and be good at it because he is the other: because he is
apart from the norm, he can therefore act outside of the law. Maria Konnikova, a columnist for
The New Yorker online, also inadvertently supports the claim of Holmes being an outsider in her
novel, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by splitting the human mind systems
into the Watson system and the Holmes system. She writes that the Watson system is the natural
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thought process of most people that is operated by lazy thought habits, while the latter system
is aspirational (18) and much more thoughtful and reflective. She goes on to say that to think
in the Holmes system is a difficult task and would bring the average person to exhaustion (21).
Holmes mental capacity and ability is a major factor in making Holmes an outsider. Konnikova
sets Holmes apart by writing that he is not the norm in the way he thinks so although she
doesnt call him other, she describes him as such.
Some scholars argue that one of the reasons for Doyles success was because he modified
the detective character to be more interesting and mysterious than those in the past. Unlike the
other authors before him, Doyle decided to keep the focus off of the detective and on the action.
While the stories suggest that Holmes is a complex and eccentric character with incredible
intelligence and keen powers of observation, they do not reveal much else about him. The
readers learn almost nothing about Holmes life and family; instead, they are captivated by the
crime-solving action (Panek 92). Even though Holmes is the main character, the focus is kept
away from him and Doyle makes certain that the main plot of the story is the account of the
investigation and resolution (Dove 10), which Dove argues is one of the four essential
conventions of the detective genre. Also, Doyle never describes the protagonists appearance and
the readers are left to rely on the illustrators imagination. In Theory and Practice of Classic
Detective Fiction, a collection of essays compiled by Jerome Delamater and Ruth Prigozy, a
writer argues that the detective evinces odd personal habits: He conducts chemical experiments
in his rooms, keeps tobacco in the toe of a Persian slipper, and during periods of intellectual
boredom, uses cocaine (22). Holmes is also a violinist and a botanist, which are interests that
seem to have little relevance to crime-solving. These various hobbies are one of the few things
that the readers remember and they add to the characters mysteriousness. Furthermore, Doyles
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use of second person narrative in most of the Sherlock Holmes stories is partly responsible for
maintaining the air of mystery around Holmes. Doyle is careful to reveal as little as possible
about the detective and his background. The readers are limited to Watsons knowledge. In
what may be the secret of his attraction to readers, McBratney argues that Holmes is that
individual who remains an insoluble mystery to his fellow human beings, beyond the reach of
even those means he uses to solve crimes (161). The scholar goes back to the idea of Holmes
being an outsider of incredible proportions that the readers desperately want to understand.
While agreeing with McBratney, Panek goes a step further in the Doyle chapter of his
academic text to argue that the mystery of Holmes increases the anticipation in the story: On the
whole, the author keeps Holmes under wraps to heighten the wonder of the surprise at the end of
the story. Holmes, nevertheless, is a creature of immense attraction (92). McBratney and Panek
concur that the secret behind the attraction of Holmes is that the readers know very little about
him, which was a unique characteristic developed by Doyle that made the detective so iconic.
The Victorian Era was a period of vast and turbulent change that is reflected in the stories
written by Sir Author Conan Doyle. He revolutionized the detective genre and established a
number of conventions that have now became an expected and necessary component in the
stories. Most scholars believe that one of the reasons for the success of the Sherlock Holmes
stories lies in the fascinating detective hero. With Holmes, Doyle created a protagonist that the
readers are attracted to and interested in. In his stories, including The Sign of Four, the detective
is portrayed as an outsider with unique and mysterious characteristics. Not only that, Holmes has
a split-personality, where he possesses incredible knowledge and keen powers of observation,
but can also be extremely lazy if nothing interests him. The modern audience is still captivated
by these qualities and conventions, which are still widely used in the contemporary detective
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stories and media adaptations, such as the British TV series Sherlock and the recently released
Sherlock Holmes movies directed by Guy Ritchie.


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Work Cited
Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Sign of the Four. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. Kindle
eBook. Online.
Panek, Leroy. An Introduction to the Detective Story. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State
University Popular Press, 1987. Print.
Farrell, Kirby. Heroism, Culture, and Dread in The Sign of Four. Studies in the Novel 16:1
(1984): 32-51. JSTOR. Web. 01/15/2014.
Dove, George N. The Reader and the Detective Story. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State
University Popular Press, 1997. Print.
McBratney, John. Racial and Criminal Types: Indian Ethnography and Sir Arthur Conan
Doyles The Sign of Four. Victorian Literature and Culture 33:1 (2005): 149-167.
JSTOR. Web. 01/15/2014.
Konnikova, Maria. Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. New York: Viking, 2013.
Print.
Delamater, Jerome and Ruth Prigozy, eds. Theory and Practice of Classic Detective
Fiction. New York: Praeger, 1997.