Why did Sherlock Holmes become so popular?

I am watching the DVDs of an early 1970s British TV series called “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes”. As you may surmise, it is an anthology of one hour stories about other fictional detectives written at the same time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (both great, as Allen Sherman sang in his “Oh Boy” song) was written his creation. There are references in wiki to some of these other stories being more popular than Holmes.

So why did Holmes and Watson survive in popular culture while others such as Dr Thorndyke (forensic expert) and Max Carrados (blind detective) fade away? Did Doyle hit upon the right formula in having Holmes both smart and a good fight while having an opium addiction? Did having a sidekick who while reasonable smart in the original stories, was turned into a lovable buffoon with flashes of competence by Nigel Bruce in the Universal films that ran on TV when I was growing up? Did Doyle accidentally hit on a great publicity gimmick by killing off Holmes, having a “pre death” adventure in "The Hound of the Baskervilles"and then brought him back from the dead? Was Doyle/his publisher quicker to realize that movies would help since film studios over time will remake the familiar rather than try something new?

There were stage adaptations of Holmes years before any films were made. I do not recall any similar cross-media merchandising of Sexton Blake or the others.

Besides, they are ripping good yarns.

Elementary, my dear Jim’s Son.

Quite Right. The American Actor and writer William Gillette turned several of Doyle’s stories into the play Sherlock Holmes that certainly helped popularized the character. *Gillette also “invented” the use of the Calabash pipe that has become so associated with the character.

Doyle himself wrote a few plays – The Mazarin Stone started out as a play, which is why it’s the only Holmes story told in the third person.

Holmes was an archetype, while the others were just kind of gimmicky. Conan Doyle wasn’t that great a writer, but Holmes was such a wonderful character that this was unimportant. I think a better writer might have split the sleuthing duties between Holmes and Watson, Holmes doing the brilliant deductive reasoning and Watson trotting out the arcane scientific knowledge. But then, we wouldn’t have this iconic super detective.

Robert Ludlum was a far better writer than Ian Fleming, but Bond will be remembered long after Bourne. So it is with Holmes.

Holmes always was popular. The “Rivals” were just other detectives by writers who saw the Holmes popularity and jumped on the bandwagon (Holmes debuted in 1887; Dr. Thorndyke in 1907; Max Carrados in 1914). Since Holmes was the first, and always was popular, he continues his popularity; most of the other detectives were just variations in one way or another on Holmes. The mysteries can be first-class, but the characters were at most a gimmicky variation on Holmes (Carrados was a blind Holmes, for instance).

Holmes also benefits in popular culture by having an arch enemy in Moriarty and a love interest in Irene Adler. Neither were major characters in the canon – Moriarty appeared in only one story, and is talked about in one story after his death, while Adler only appears once. But they do allow for a foe who is Holmes’s equal, and a love interest.

There were plenty of other great detectives after Holmes (see if you can track down a copy of Ellery Queen’s 101 Years Entertainment), but none matched him as an archetype of pure intellect.

I would say it’s because the mystery portions of most of the Sherlock Holmes stories were actually decent mysteries. There was a well-defined puzzle to be solved, lots of information and potential suspects, a clear answer at the end, and enough internal logic that the authors seemed to be playing fair with the reader. A lot of the other mystery writers at the time produced stories that were incredibly convoluted.

Brilliant dialogue: the curious incident of the dog in the night time, “This is the second most interesting object I’ve seen since coming to the north of England,” etc.

Brilliant characterization: Holmes is the perfect intellectual hero: very well informed in all that touches his work and a pioneer in forensic science (the new test for old blood in A Study in Scarlet, the use of a microscope in "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, etc.), cold and aloof, yet brave and, at the bottom, warm hearted. After all, Holmes would work weeks on cases for poor people without extra renumeration just because the problem interested him. Watson embodied all that’s decent about the British middle class. Indeed, in “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” Holmes tells Watson he cannot imagine anyone else who would make a better representative of the British public.

I also agree with ITR champion that many of the short stories work quite well as mysteries.

A nitpick, RealityChuck: We never see him, but Moriarity is a player in The Valley of Fear. Other than that, your analysis was spot on.

The real mystery of Holmes is why nobody tried to imitate Poe earlier. Holmes mentions Dupin once, deprecatingly, but Doyle obviously used him as a model. Poe’s reputation had grown after his death enough that Holmes could use his detective’s name as a throwaway comment and assume that his readers would get it. But there weren’t any major imitators in 50 years.

There were plenty of mysteries. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone was a huge success in 1868. It’s not first, even though Wikipedia says it is. The popular writer James Payn published one in 1864 that had appeared as a magazine serial first and there are several other examples. By 1887 detectives were familiar to readers. They were just waiting for someone to put all the pieces together.

“A Study in Scarlet” was a modest success at best. “The Sign of Four” did better, enough to get Doyle an entry to write for The Strand, the premier magazine of the day in 1891. It was those twelve short stories that hit big. (They were reprinted almost immediately in America and were just as big there.) Those are about 90% of anything people remember about Holmes. Those stories alone did it. Before the play or movies or anything else, Holmes was huge.

If I had to WAG, I’d say it’s because in those stories Holmes is everything. He’s the towering intellect **and **he’s a man of action. He deals with the highest royalty **and **with ordinary people. He’s a chemist and a boxer **and **an actor **and **a success with woman. He’s knowledgeable about everything fine in that world and everything coarse in that world and is accepted as one of them by both. He outwits the police without stepping outside of the politest society. He has wit and a great way with comebacks. He has flaws, as well, outsized ones of ego and drug use and curtness that are the kind of flaws people like to humanize their heroes before the days of antiheroes.

Doyle hits every button in those stories, which are much better than the earlier two. If he had stopped there we wouldn’t remember Holmes any better than the others. He had to learn on the job. Doyle was only 28 when he wrote “A Study in Scarlet,” but he improved quickly. Most of his rivals got stuck in their first conception of their detectives. They didn’t grow. Doyle did.

That’s as impressive as Holmes.

Correct me if I am mistaken, but I believe His Last Bow was also written in the third person.

Those stories primed the pump, but the real breakthrough was the serialization of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901/02. *The Strand *'s circulation peaked during that run and readers lined up outside the offices to get the next installment. I don’t think the character would have become such a sensation if not for the anticipation and excitement generated by the serial format.

Are you serious?

Doyle hated Holmes. He didn’t want to do more stories. After the hit they made in The Strand, the editors were wild to have him back. He had been paid £25 for “A Study in Scarlet”. For the dozen stories starting with “Silver Blaze” he asked for and got £1,000 ($5,000). That was ten times the average middle class yearly income. The mania got so intense he felt he had to kill Holmes off in “The Final Problem.”

People wanted more. The first Holmes parodies start showing up in 1896. The William Gillette play was 1899. Didn’t help. People were crazy for Holmes.

That’s why the announcement of a novel, set before Holmes’ death, was met with such hysteria. The novel was the response to Holmes’ already enormous popularity, not the cause of it.

There’s always a factor of good fortune, luck, good marketing, and chance involved. Even today, we see that in abundance - we can point to crappy movies which do well and great movis which don’t. The entertianment industry is today, as it was then, verging on a lottery as far as the artists are involved.

I think you have it there. Something for everyone.

He’s also strong enough to casually straighten a bent fireplace poker that a thug bent to intimidate him. I’ve heard him referred to as an “early superhero” because he’s so, well, superhuman in a Batman-esque “officially has no powers despite doing superhuman stuff all the time” way.

Max Carrados Was such a short series. Sherlock Holmes was a long running series. I can think of a number of good detective stories that were similar to Sherlock Holmes, but the authors put out only a few stories in the series. Had these other authors published more I think they would have been made into movies and been more in the future generation’s minds.

I would class the Fu Manchu, Red Kerry, and Paul Harley stories by Sax Rohmer, Doctor Nikola by Guy Boothby, and Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah as something akin to Sherlock Holmes that people may have been more familiar with had they written more in the series.

You’re onto something, but ultimately, I doubt more Max Carrados stories would have turned him into a phenomenon like Holmes. Carrados never generated the popularity that Holmes did, and the gimmick was clever, but somewhat limiting.

As Exapno points out, Holmes was a publishing phenomenon. The closest thing today was Harry Potter and maybe Twilight. Max Carrados was never at that level.


Ever heard of Perry Mason?

There are 56 Holmes shorts, two novellas and two novels.

There were four collections of Max Carrados short stories. Chesteron wrote 52 stories about Father Brown. Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Burglar, by Doyle’s brother-in-law, had about 30 short stories and almost a dozen novels. Dr. Thorndyke, about 20 novels and 40 short stories. Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, the thinking machine, two novels and 50 short stories. Martin Hewett, four collections of short stories.

And there were probably a thousand (yes, literally) dime novels of Nick Carter.

Sam Spade, OTOH, appears in one novel. (And some short stories. I bet nobody here could even tell me how many without Googling.)

ETA: Perry Mason is today? Anyway, the best earlier example is Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. At one time he had the seven best-selling paperbacks ever. They may have outsold the 80 Mason novels combined, and those were almost all million-selling paperbacks.