The London Museum’s exhibition celebrating all things Sherlock Holmes opens tomorrow. Susan Calman explains why she’s long been fascinated with the fictional detective and his creator.
©Museum of London
I love Sherlock Holmes.
Let me be clear, I’m not one of those young, modern fans attracted by the shiny gorgeousness of the Cumberbatch era (although Sherlock is, for me, as perfect an adaptation as you’ll ever find).
My passion for the deerstalker has bubbled under for more than 30 years. The first time I encountered Holmes was, like many people of my age, on a rainy Sunday afternoon on BBC2. The black-and-white films of Basil Rathbone were a constant background murmur during summer and Christmas holidays.
At the time my literary interests hadn’t expanded far beyond Enid Blyton, so it’s not a surprise I thought the character was a creation of Hollywood. It was only when my Dad handed me his old copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that I realised he had a life far beyond that created in a film studio. I delved into the books, not understanding some of the language (I thought a Hansom Cab was a good looking taxi) but loving the adventure and danger he faced. I was hooked and have been ever since.
Part of my fascination with Holmes comes from my fascination with his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was a Scot (always a bonus), and was born in Picardy Place in Edinburgh, just down the road from the Stand Comedy Club where I’ve gigged throughout my career.
But more than that he had an astonishing personal life that bled into his writing. Like his famous creation he personally investigated crimes, including two cold cases that had a huge impact on the course of legal history. In 1912 he published a book called The Case of Oscar Slater, a plea for a full pardon for the accused. It undoubtedly contributed to the pressure on the authorities to reopen the case and the later quashing of Mr Slater’s conviction. His interest in George Edalji, who had allegedly penned threatening letters and mutilated animal led, in part, to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal.
He was also an advocate of spiritualism, an interest that led to some unexpected support for curious cause célèbre. He lauded the famous 1917 Cottingley Fairy photographs, later revealed to be a hoax. He was friends with Harry Houdini until they fell out when Houdini failed to convince Conan Doyle that his tricks weren’t actually magic.
Sidney Paget, Portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1897, oil on canvas © Musée Sherlock Holmes De Lucens
Any character who has continued to interest readers for more than 100 years must have something at his heart that transfers on a very basic level across age, economics and culture
It’s easy to forget that the distinguished author of Sherlock Holmes was once derided for his very public defence of mediums and the spirit world. But he fought for his beliefs until the end and, shortly before his death in 1930, wrote: “The reader will judge that I have had many adventures. The greatest and most glorious of all awaits me now.”
But, my love of Sherlock is centred on one statement that sums up the core of the man. He may be eccentric, drug addicted and difficult, but he’s also incredibly logical. Yet, Conan Doyle blows that logic out of the water by revealing his character’s open-minded ethos, revealed by this quote.
“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
I love that theory and, incredible though it may sound, often apply it to my writing. If I’m stuck on a plot point or a character’s behaviour, I’ll remember those words and go for it. If I’ve eliminated every other idea, the one that I’m left with must be the answer. It’s a strangely freeing way of developing plots – however bizarre – and applying the Holmes logic to comedy can work, inspiring a strange stream of consciousness that can come up with gold.
Fundamentally, any character who has continued to interest readers for more than 100 years must have something at his heart that transfers on a very basic level across age, economics and culture. He is, apparently, the fictional character most portrayed on film. And, to a new generation courtesy of the BBC One series, he’s a relevant and exciting part of the zeitgeist.
For me, Sherlock is the man who unlocked my imagination, in fiction and in life. He is my improbable man who helps me make the impossible, possible.
Susan is a comedian and writer who sometimes appears on things like the News Quiz and QI.