We've seen Sherlock Holmes portrayed as a boy. On TV in BBC Sherlock, in movies like Young Sherlock Holmes or The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. And in books like The Childhood of Sherlock Holmes or the Boy Sherlock Holmes series. (Haven't actually seen that last one yet, but someone must have.)
Yet when it comes to pure Conan Doyle, the youngest Sherlock is the one we meet in "A Gloria Scott." That was tonight's topic for the Sherlock Holmes Story Society's discussion at Peoria's North Branch Library tonight. And, fittingly, we also had our youngest attendee ever, who who was only a few months old.
As usual, it was a good discussion that set the mind wandering down paths Sherlockian. Tonight's biggest takeaway for me was just how young Sherlock Holmes was when he started his career.
The Sherlock Holmes of "The Gloria Scott" seems miles and miles away from the Sherlock Holmes of A Study in Scarlet, yet there he is, going back to London to work on organic chemistry experiments, and when Watson first encounters him in Bart's, there Holmes is doing chemistry experiments to detect blood.
"It was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby."
So Holmes was doing detective work as a hobby . . . perhaps not even thinking of it as detective work until Trevor senior says the words, "it seems to me that all the detectives of fact and fancy would be children in your hands. That's your line of life, sir, and you may take the word of a man who has seen something of the world."
There is something that makes us want to draw out the timeline of Holmes's path from college student to detective, I think because we naturally want to measure that period as we would that of any normal person. But we're talking about Sherlock Holmes.
How probable is it that Holmes's last year of formal education ended with his trip to Trevor's home that summer? How possible is it that Sherlock Holmes went from college student to detective in under six months, and met John Watson within a year of leaving college?
"But Sherlock Holmes was described as a man of sixty in August 1914!" one might protest, sticking by the 1854 birth year that such a condition reveals. No, I would argue back. The Irish-American Altamont was "a tall, gaunt man of sixty." Actors aren't always the age of the part they play, and neither was Sherlock Holmes. And let's not try to pin any hard numbers to a random "middle-aged" comment in a later story that might have been more about Watson than Holmes himself.
A young Sherlock Holmes going from college to detection without finishing the former and diving into the latter with all the energy of a man in the earliest of his twenties does not seem at all out of character. In fact, it rather fits the prodigy of a detective rather like a glove.
With all the attention writers like to put to drugs, lack of emotion, or a diagnosable condition of one sort or another, just to give Holmes a weakness, one would think youth would fit that bill just as well . . . and actually has been used on occasion. But I suspect that we naturally don't want him too young, so as not to make the rest of us look bad, as well.
But young Sherlock Holmes might just have been the real Sherlock Holmes. And our TV adaptations have enjoyed taking us down that road of late, so who knows how far it might lead?