Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Underdogs VS Super Sleuths

We've been discussing underdogs and I can see the appeal in them. But what about someone like Sherlock Holmes. He's so very clever, so far above us ordinary Dr Watsons, what is it about him that makes him so fascinating?

There seem to be elements of the Spock character in Holmes. He is ruled by intellect and logic.

Even now more than 100 years after the first Sherlock Holmes story was published, he exercises a fascination. The building society that opened at 221B Baker Street (built in 1932) received so much mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes that it appointed a 'Secretary to Sherlock Holmes' to deal with it.

Judging by Holmes's inability to form an emotional connection with anyone (particularly women) and his fascination with facts, a modern psychologist might describe him as emotionally cut off. Would you really want Holmes as a friend?

What makes the combination of Holmes and Watson so entertaining?


Anonymous said...

Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating character, but would you _want_ to be inside his head? I think hearing his unspoken opinions of other people, hearing his boredom, depression, experimentation with drugs and all Just Would Not Work.

So bring in a POV character like nice, comfortable, predictable, shockable but reliable Watson. His reactions to various things are conventional enough to pull us into emotional contact with the problem.

Now, some genres rely upon being inside a rather unpleasant head. A lot of "Men's Adventure" stuff. John Ringo's Paladin of Shadows is an example of a series that I think would be improved by the addition - the insulation - of a Watson. Some one who could hero worship, despite the flaws, and spare us the intimate look inside the head of a barely controlled sexual predator.

Amanda Green said...

Holmes is fascinating but not enough so by himself to keep me reading. Frankly, a Holmes story without Watson would probably have me throwing the book across the room rather quickly as my exasperation level re: Holmes rose beyond tolerance levels. In other words, I love the way Holmes solves the crimes, but I don't particularly like him and don't think he, alone, could carry the story. Or at least not as successfully as Holmes and Watson in tandem do.

Throw in Watson and you add a human factor that makes Holmes more palpable and gives the stories a more "real" feel. The stories are better, more rounded by having both characters there.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I must confess I hate Holmes. Yes, yes, I know, that by itself disqualifies me from writing mysteries. But there it is. Seized with a "I must read the classics" frenzy I bought a Sherlock Holmes book when I was about twenty. I THINK I read it, but it left my mind as quickly as it entered. There's just nothing there to hold me. To be honest, I only barely tolerate Agatha Christie's Poirot and Hastings which are a recast of Holmes and Watson. My favorite "supermen" are more like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, cloaked in the flesh of humanity and empathy, and while doing amazing things, still understandable as one of us, just better.

John Lambshead said...

Is their popularity based on the flawed hero seen through the eyes of Mister Normal Reasonable Man?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I think Amanda and Matapam have hit the nail on the head. Holmes is barely functional as a human being. He'd be withdrawn, supercilious and uncommunicative, if we met him.

But Watson is approachable. We can admire Holmes's perspicacity through Watson's eyes.

Having said that two of the Holmes stories are related by Holmes himself and two are written in third person (according to Wiki). I thought I'd read all the Holmes stories, so I'll have to go back and take a second look.

Another thing, is the nostalgia angle. These stories were contemporary, but now they are historical. There's no DNA matching, not surveillance cameras. They are a microcosm of a time and place.

Kate said...

Holmes is the Victorian version of a living computer. He's basically a thinking machine and not much in the way of real human, where Watson is very much an Everyman - decent, doing the best he can, and providing Holmes with an interface to the human world.

I'd much prefer to be reading about an underdog battler who misses half the clues, but is too stubborn to let go and still manages to reach the correct conclusion, flaws and all.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Another version of Holmes/Watson which I find more interesting, mostly because of the trappings surrounding the stories -- the food, the orchids, NW's cranky personality -- is Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. We are in Archie's mind the whole time, which both helps preserve Nero as a superman and makes it easier to read. But I think Nero is more human, or more self-admitedly human than Holmes. Even the airs he gives himself -- such as about sex, which he calls "those apetites we share with dogs" -- feel like a flaw, something done to protect a deep wound.

And Rowena, honestly, I don't know what holds me at a distance from Holmes/Watson. perhaps it's the archaic setting but that has never stopped me before. Perhaps it's the language, but I read Elizabethans for pleasure...

Something there is, though, that holds me at a distance, as through a sheet of glass. I have the same problem with Asimov's Foundation series, which I've read at least three times, and remember none and half a dozen assorted books everyone agrees are very good except I can't remember them. De gustibus non disputando and all that.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of the appeal of Sherlock Holmes was sheer puzzle solving. It was a challenge to figure it out before Watson had to demand an explanation. Agatha Christie was a bit the same, dry prose and intricate puzzles, always with the evidence in plain sight.

It's a very different kind of reader's reward than most things written now.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


It probably says something about me that I never found Christie "puzzle only." The Moving Finger, Sad Cypress (to a lesser extent), Nemesis, all of them seemed to me to be character studies. But then, kindly remember you're talking to a woman who still can't see WHY Wuthering Heights isn't a triumph of the comic art. So, it's entirely possible I'm completely insane. But in Holmes I completely see it as all being about the puzzle.
(BTW, for a modern fiendish puzzle WITH characters, try Jill McGown. It makes your head hurt, but it's good.)

Chris McMahon said...

Who wouldn't want to be Sherlock Holmes? The guy is so capable, with a razor sharp intellect. I have the same admiration for Spock - but that's taking emotional detachment just a little be too far, despite the alleged fling with Ahora.
I remember a classic scene from one of the TV versions. Watson is sitting there with a napkin around is ruddy face, trying to get the last pea on the plate with his fork while talking to Holmes. Stab. Stab. He keeps missing the pea. Then Sherlock steps in, takes the fork and mashes the pea, presenting the fork to the outraged Watson - 'Look what you have done with my pea?' Hows that for thinking outside the box.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I get the impression Holmes is incapable of forming a close emotional attachment with anyone.


I think it is the puzzle that people love and seeing how Holmes puts it all together.

The great thing about SF is that it can encompass all other genres, including mystery and romance.

Dave Freer said...

huh. My fave Holmes story (which owes nothing to the original)is about Holmes and Watson camping. They settle into their tent for the night. Much later Watson is woken by Holmes shaking his stretcher. "Watson, what does seeing all those stars up there tonight mean to you?"
"Well," says Watson, "The vastness of the heavens makes me aware of the immensity and complexity of the universe...
"No, Watson. Something a little more proximal than philosophical considerations."
"Well," says Watson, "I can tell that we're in the northern Hemisphere as I can recognise certain constellations, and from their position I can deduce the season..."
"well their clarity tells me it will be a fine frosty..."
"No, Watson, it means someone has stolen our tent."

The character works because of the other, just as many a good gag needs a straight man.

Dave Freer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is a bit late, but the reason why Holmes works is his very unpredictability. That and using Watson as the unreliable narrator. Because Watson constantly sees Holmes do the bizarre and unpredictable he makes no more note of Holmes actions that while seemingly weird hold clues to solving the problem. Agatha Christie used Hastings in the same way in her early Poirot books.