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  • David MacGregor

The Backstory

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.  

                             Sherlock Holmes ("A Scandal in Bohemia")

It was on July 25, 2010, that Benedict Cumberbatch went to bed a well-respected character actor and woke up the next morning to find that he had become a popular culture phenomenon. This was thanks to the premiere of the BBC's Sherlock television series, which almost immediately became a transmedia sensation. Those cheekbones! Those eyes! The fashion! That hair! The cinematography! The soundtrack! Those cheekbones! Almost immediately, there were whispers that finally, at long last, after three centuries—here was the definitive Sherlock Holmes.

The only problem with that bold claim was that much the same phenomenon had occurred in the 1980s, with the premiere of Granada Television's Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett, who was also hailed as the definitive Sherlock Holmes. Track back to forty years before Brett, and there was no debate whatsoever that Basil Rathbone was the definitive Sherlock Holmes. Except that at the turn of the 20th century and for almost four decades after that, stage actor William Gillette had been universally acknowledged as the definitive Sherlock Holmes. So then, four definitive versions of Sherlock Holmes, and what they all shared aside from the same name is that they weren't remotely similar interpretations of the character. How could that be?

Attempting to answer that question set me on the path to writing Sherlock Holmes: The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Arguably the most successful and popular fictional character ever created, since his 1887 appearance in the pages of Beeton's Christmas Annual, countless other fictional creations have come and gone, but Sherlock Holmes has somehow remained popular and relevant in a dizzying number of variations: pastiches, films, plays, radio, TV, comics, advertisements, board games, video games, fanvids, and so on.

As culture and society have evolved over the past 133 years, the character of Sherlock Holmes has done a remarkable job of evolving as well. Exploring this phenomenon took me into a field known as "reception studies," and I hasten to reassure any readers suddenly overcome with a wave of nausea at the prospect of a high-octane, buzzword-infested, academic treatise on Sherlock Holmes, that I would never inflict that on anyone, myself included. That said, the expectations and tastes of audiences do change over time; for example, Alfred Hitchcock's groundbreaking film Psycho was a shiver-inducing horror movie sixty years ago, but for modern audiences it now plays more as a comedy. Frame by frame it's the same film, but because the social and cultural experiences of a modern audience are different than those of the original audience in 1960, so is the response to the film.

And so, I set out to trace not only the history of the character, but his audience as well. Why did readers respond with such fervent enthusiasm to Arthur Conan Doyle's original short stories in The Strand Magazine? Why was it an American actor's romantic version of Holmes that was hailed to the skies in the early 20th century, and a British actor's high-functioning sociopath version that hit all the right notes with 21st century fans?

Days, weeks, months, and years of research resulted in this attempt to answer those questions to the best of my ability. Thank goodness for digitized magazines and newspapers, thank goodness for obscure films and videos uploaded to the internet, and most importantly, thank goodness for the legions of fans determined to keep the Holmesian flame burning bright.


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