- This article was published in the book Sherlock Holmes Is Everywhere.
Symbols have fascinated me all my life, and, I imagine, interest most people. Symbols provide a distillation of knowledge, a shorthand image to a whole, a key that unlocks an entire subject. Perhaps the most widely recognized are religious symbols: a cross for Christianity; a crescent for Islam; a Star of David for Judaism; etc. Some other popular symbols include the Peace sign, the Infinity loop, or simple arrows to denote direction. Symbology can be very precise, or fade into more nuanced, vague, or obscure meanings–such as an owl for wisdom or simply a color, like red for anger, or black for death. Sometimes several layers of imagery can combine, such as blue + water = the peaceful, soothing ocean. This is often used in literature and film, as a way to set a mood or as backdrop for a scene to unconsciously influence the audience. It can be done well or poorly–perhaps most infamously with the opening, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
One of the best examples of literary symbolism is found in the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, specifically in his character Sherlock Holmes. As with most good authors, Doyle wrote what he knew and he was a product of Victorian England. His famous detective lived in the “present” London of his time, so as readers we all have come to know the roaring fireplaces and wingback chairs inside of brownstone buildings, or the cold, fog-shrouded, cobblestone streets outside with their dimly lit circles of light around the lamp posts beckoning us onward around the next corner into mystery. In fact, due largely to movie-adaptations of his tales, I would hazard a guess that most people’s mind’s eye image of London is exactly that–Victorian Era and mysterious with the clip-clop of horses hooves echoing in the fog. In the mental image there are no spiraling skyscrapers, laser shows, or spinning Ferris wheels until they physically get off the plane today and walk the streets of modern London.
Part of the reason for this timelessness was touched on by Salman Rushdie. Sherlock Holmes’ Victorian London is a literary place, an “imaginary homeland” as Rushdie termed it. In an essay and later book titled Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie stated, “An old photograph in a cheap frame hangs on a wall of the room where I work. It’s a picture dating from 1946 of a house into which, at the time of its taking, I had not yet been born. …‘The past is a foreign country,’ goes the famous opening sentence of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, ‘they do things differently there.’ But the photograph tells me to invert this idea; it reminds me that it’s my present that is foreign, and that the past is home albeit a lost home in a lost city in the midst of lost time.” This is the key to all stories, the timelessness of the mythic landscape. All things are possible there, unlike the boring old reality of here.
Now, there are plenty of literary and cinematic things that become famous or iconic. Everyone knows the menacing music of Jaws. Or recognizes the “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute of Mr. Spock. However, Sherlock Holmes is quite unique. In no other genre that I can think of, Holmes is preeminent. He holds an unmatched symbolic status. For example, let us look at the reigning King of Horror, the aptly named Stephen King. Despite the fact that he has written dozens of blockbusters (and is in fact the bestselling horror author of all time currently), which have been adapted into numerous, sometimes hit movies, he is not iconic. Despite the cinematic accolades tossed onto Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining and the unnerving performance by Jack Nicholson, the character Jack Torrance is not iconic. Jack Torrance does not embody the notion of horror in most people’s minds. Not a town named Salem’s Lot. Nor a rabid dog named Cujo. Nor a car named Christine. Some horror characters do, though, embody that feeling much closer to a symbolic status– Dracula, or Frankenstein’s monster, or perhaps a werewolf, are much more iconic. That is, when you see an outline of a werewolf, you get an instant sense of Horror, of the entire genre stylistically.
This is what Sherlock Holmes brings to the table. Sherlock Holmes embodies the entire concept of Mystery. Much more than simply “the world’s most famous detective” his image has become the very symbol of Mystery itself. His deerstalker and pipe are instantly recognizable as denoting Mystery. There is not a corresponding symbol I can think of for any other creative genre. Even an outline of Darth Vader or his lightsaber does not convey the entirety of Science Fiction, rather solely his distinct Star Wars universe, much like the outline of the starship Enterprise can convey the Star Trek universe, but not the idea of Science Fiction en masse. However, Sherlock Holmes is Mystery.