Modern fandom wouldn't exist without Conan Doyle’s famous creation, writes Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.

In 1893, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shoved detective Sherlock Holmes off a cliff. The cliff was fictionally located in Switzerland, over the Reichenbach Falls. But Conan Doyle did the dirty work from his home in London where he wrote. “It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr Sherlock Holmes was distinguished,” narrator Dr John Watson says in Conan Doyle’s story The Final Problem, which appeared in The Strand magazine in December 1893.

Conan Doyle himself seemed a little less emotional in private. “Killed Holmes,” he wrote in his diary. One can imagine Conan Doyle, slicked-back hair shimmering in the candlelight, twirling his ample mustache with glee. He later said of his famous character: “I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards paté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.”

The public reaction to Holmes’ death was unlike anything previously seen for fictional events.

Conan Doyle may have thought, at the time of finishing Holmes off in print, that that was that. If he did think this, he did not understand fans – particularly fans of Holmes – very well. The public reaction to the death was unlike anything previously seen for fictional events. More than 20,000 Strand readers cancelled their subscriptions, outraged by Holmes’ premature demise. The magazine barely survived. Its staff referred to Holmes’ death as “the dreadful event”.

Legend has it that young men throughout London wore black mourning crêpes on their hats or around their arms for the month of Holmes’ death, though that has recently been questioned. (Some Holmes aficionados have suggested the story could have been an exaggeration perpetuated by Conan Doyle’s son in interviews.) Outraged readers wrote to the magazine in protest: “You brute!” one letter addressed to Conan Doyle began. Americans started “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs. Conan Doyle stuck to his guns in the face of the protests, calling the death “justifiable homicide” – referring, presumably, to his own justifications, not Moriarty’s.

This sounds, of course, like just another day on the internet in 2015. But at the time, Conan Doyle had every reason to be shocked by the torrent of vitriol. Fans simply did not do this before then. (In fact, they weren’t even called “fans” yet. The term, short for “fanatic”, had only recently begun use in reference to American baseball enthusiasts.) Readers typically accepted what went on in their favourite books, then moved on. Now they were beginning to take their popular culture personally, and to expect their favourite works to conform to certain expectations. They seemed to actually expect a reciprocal relationship with the works they loved.

Fan frenzy

Sherlock Holmes’ avid readers helped to create the very modern practice of fandom. Interestingly enough, Holmes’ intense following continues to this day, spawning endless reimaginings, such as the US crime-solving series Elementary and the BBC’s Sherlock, which returned with a highly-anticipated special on New Year’s Day, its modern-day Sherlock and Watson returning to Victorian times.

Because of Holmes, Conan Doyle was, one historian wrote, ‘as well-known as Queen Victoria’.

Holmes first appeared in 1887, in the novelette A Study in Scarlet. He was popular from the start – so popular that soon Conan Doyle began to regret having created him, since Holmes stories so completely overshadowed what Conan Doyle considered his serious work, such as his historical novel Micah Clarke. Readers lined up at newsstands for The Strand on publication day whenever a new Holmes story was to appear inside. Because of Holmes, Conan Doyle was, one historian wrote, “as well-known as Queen Victoria”.

Holmes fans were truly the emerging middle-class, the exact sort of group whose tastes would be denigrated by snooty critics as populist for more than a century to come. They were the ones priced out of concerts, the ones who had to wait for the cheaper versions of popular novels. Historian David Payne describes them as “largely the lower-middle and middle-middle classes of the cities, the non-intellectual, non-public school, hardworking, rising… people – the first true mass moderns.” The Strand targeted them with what we’d now recognise as exciting, high-concept genre stories – mysteries and science fiction – from writers such as HG Wells and Jules Verne.

The demand for Holmes stories seemed endless. The Strand would pay Conan Doyle nicely for whatever he could give them. But he hadn’t meant to spend the rest of his life inventing and solving fictional crimes. He’d meant to make some money to support his real art, novels full of what he felt were important ideas and political statements. 

In 1903 he went one step further, resurrecting Holmes with the explanation that only Moriarty had died in the fall.

By 1893, when Conan Doyle was 34, he’d had enough. He wanted to be Sir Walter Scott. So he had the evil Professor Moriarty push Holmes down the falls. It took eight years, but by 1901, however, public pressure grew so great that Conan Doyle wrote a new story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, featuring Holmes before his fall. In 1903, in The Adventure of the Empty House, he went one step further, resurrecting Holmes with the explanation that only Moriarty had died in the fall, while Holmes had faked his own death. Fans rejoiced.

Life after death

Holmes fans have only grown more obsessive since then. The only difference is that now we’re used to super-fandom. Even so, the BBC series Sherlock, in particular, has stoked the most passionate strand of Holmes fandom in some time. Fans of the show, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a modern-day Holmes, frequent the London sandwich shop favoured by Sherlock and his Watson (Martin Freeman), Speedy’s Café. They crowd the streets when the crew films on location, to such a point that it has caused production problems. (Nearly a thousand once showed up at the Baker Street location, which is Gower Street in real life.)

In China, fans have popularised elaborate fan fiction positing this particular Sherlock (whom they call “Curly Fu”) and Watson as a gay couple. Japanese fans pore over Sherlock manga. Korean pop group SHINee recorded a tribute song. Cumberbatch fans have their own squad name: ‘Cumberbitches’, known for their Beatles-level reactions to the dreamy star.

As a TV show, Sherlock has maintained a complicated relationship with its fans. Sometimes the producers throw in a scene to wink at fans – or in the first episode of series three, an entire episode built out of fan theories about how Sherlock faked his own death, also a callout to The Adventure of the Empty House. But the show’s co-creator, Steven Moffat, has often been dismissive of fans, while Cumberbatch uncomfortably wrote off Sherlock fan fiction as absurd. Never mind that the show itself could be considered ‘fan fiction’ based on Conan Doyle’s Victorian-age work.

I think Doyle began the idea that super-intelligence comes at the price of some kind of social dysfunction – Steven Moffat

Of course, Sherlock’s ability to cause such intense emotion among its fans is only an indication of how much they love it. What’s remarkable is that Sherlock Holmes fans have been engaging in such histrionics over the fictional detective for more than 120 years, through many, many adaptations.

Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss, who also plays the detective’s brother Mycroft, has credited Conan Doyle for creating characters that transcend time: “I think more than anything, what people have responded to is the fun of the show, which is so much what Doyle’s stories were actually like,” he told Al Jazeera America. “Over years and years of accumulating various versions and Victoriana, people had slightly lost sight of the fact that they’re enormous fun! They’re quick reads, they’re jolly thrilling, blood-curdling thrilling adventures and really, that’s what we wanted to do.”

Gatiss has also pointed out that Holmes is one of the original fictional detectives – most other crime-solvers created thereafter were copies of him or a direct reaction to him: “Everything onwards is people drawing a line from Sherlock and Doctor Watson. Agatha Christie does it explicitly and makes Poirot short and round as opposed to tall and lean. He needs a Watson, so she creates Captain Hastings. Everywhere you go, this is the model. That’s why it’s imperishable I think.”

Just look at the landscape of current TV heroes, many of which play on Holmes’s brilliant-but-damaged formula. “Even outside the world of detection, I think Doyle began the idea that super-intelligence comes at the price of some kind of social dysfunction, something that we’ve grasped as a narrative possibility ever since,” Moffat has said. “He’s a genius, therefore he’s a bit strange. I don’t know how often that happens in real life, but it happens a lot in fiction.”

In other words, pushing Sherlock Holmes off a cliff has no chance of killing him. He’ll always come back, in this lifetime and the next. The fans will see to it.

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