Writing Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

What character is more embedded in the Western imagination than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective, Sherlock Holmes?

I’m sure too much has been said about Holmes and Watson’s adventures, which is maybe why this video ended up being mostly fact-regurgitation. But it was fun fact-regurgitation, at least.

I cover a lot of basic information about Sherlock Holmes in this video, but surprisingly, I describe very little about the books I actually read. Maybe because with mysteries, once you know how it ends, there’s really no point in reading it.

But I’m not sure that’s fair to Sherlock Holmes.

the makings of a mystery novel

These books do tackle some complicated themes: religion, superstition, love, greed, and of course the classic good vs. evil stuff. They grapples with a lot of the concerns of the day: industrialization, overcrowded cities, colonization, etc. I could’ve totally done a deep dive into said themes, but that would’ve required actual preparation and research, which is totally against my religion.

Also, in a lot of ways, these mysteries aren’t so much about the “whodunnit” or the shock factor. More often, they’re about the “whydunnit”–what led the main player of the mystery to commit the crime in the first place. A lot of time is spent unraveling the backstories of these characters, and not just for the heck of it–it’s really meant to explore the internal and external factors that cause a person to either commit a crime, or become the center of one.

Of course, there’s always the fun of solving the puzzle, that intrigue and curiosity that keeps people coming back to detective novels time and time again. Like Sherlock himself, we crave the thrill of the hunt–and the more confusing yet compelling the mystery is, the more we want to hunt for the answer. Doyle does a very good job of setting up mysteries that are confusing, yet compelling.

the immortal holmes

More importantly, he does a good job of setting up a detective who’s compelling. There’s a reason why Holmes is still referenced today, why we have expressions like, “No shit, Sherlock.” He’s equal parts fascinating and enigmatic, human and nonhuman. It’s not so much important that he solves the mystery rather than it is finding out how he solved it.

You’re supposed to admire Holmes as Watson does, and at the same time, to shake your head and wonder, “Does the man ever eat or sleep?” Of course he does, because he’s a human being, but since we’re almost always with him when he’s on a case, we’re seeing him in his most intense mode–which makes him seem more like some kind of demigod.

I don’t think the point is that we idolize Holmes so much as the point is that we see why he’s being idolized. Crime is rampant in late Victorian England; the characters in the book (and more likely than not, Doyle’s audience at the time) need to believe in something that can change that. Sure, Holmes doesn’t put an end to crime altogether, (and even if he did, what would he do after that? BEEKEEPING???) but he enables a belief in the power of justice that people at times desperately need.

Not only that, but also in the power of logic and deduction to solve problems. Our brains are so limited, and half the time we can’t even deduce what’s going on in our everyday lives. So to get to witness a character that can extract these long explanations from these tiny details and figure out these grand mysteries, well, that’s just a little bit of fantasy, don’t you think?

murder he wrote

In terms of writing style, I can’t help but love the use of dialogue to convey exposition and move scenes along faster; this contrasts nicely with the longwinded explanations and backstories that sometimes serve to set the scene. Though not overly taxing, as I mention in the video, I still found myself bored of reading from time to time–but that’s entirely at the fault of my modern sensibilities.

I love Watson as a narrator for more reasons than just his relatability; I think he has a great voice, a likable personality, and some good character beats of his own (especially when he meets his future wife, Mary Morstan). Honestly, having read (now) all the novels, I think Jude Law’s performance of Watson in the movies is almost spot-on. Or maybe I’m just imposing his performance onto the books, as one does when they watch an actor portray a character from a book.

In conclusion, I enjoy reading Sherlock Holmes not only for what it’s done for the mystery genre as a whole, but also what it accomplishes on its own. Hopefully I get to read more of the short stories in the future, and if I do, I promise that that video will be less fact-regurgitation, more actually using my brain to think critically about the text.

Have you read any Sherlock Holmes? What are your favorite stories? What do you like/dislike about the World’s Greatest Consulting Detective? Who wore it best: Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch?

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