In 1946, a Sherlockian Edgar Smith asked a very important question: "What is it that we love in Sherlock Holmes?"
Smith touched on the nostalgia for a bygone age. He referenced Holmes's ability to right wrongs. He saw that the deep psychological basis for our love of Holmes was possibly too complex to completely fathom. But in the end, he theorized that what we saw and loved in Sherlock Holmes was ourselves, sitting in our comfortable Baker Street rooms . . . looking forward to adventures to stimulate us? Smith doesn't go that far, but Holmes was definitely no Nero Wolfe or brother Mycroft.
Smith wrote of a "tremendous capacity for wisdom" as one aspect of the Holmes we saw in ourselves, and he was right. Sherlock Holmes is our potential, a version of ourselves that doesn't seem all that far away from who we are, yet always just past arm's reach. That last part, for some, is easy to miss. We never become Sherlock Holmes, with that infallible confidence that we have deduced exactly what the situation is, and that we understand all sides of the picture.
But what we can emulate in Sherlock Holmes as much as possible, is the attempt to observe as much as we can. And to understand how another person might think. And to keep learning: "Life is a series of lessons with the greatest for last."
Sherlock Holmes challenges us to be observant. To point out facts. Not our opinions. Not our theories. Facts. Sometimes, pointing out something that seems fairly obvious to us, however, is something someone might be purposefully turning a blind eye to. And then, we do sometimes get the Grimesby Roylotts: "Holmes, the meddler! Holmes, the busybody! Holmes the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!"
Boy, how do you not suspect someone's guilty when they raise that much of a fuss? Sometimes, our Grimesby Roylotts are even fellow Sherlockians . . . not the ones who are the first to welcome you, but the sheltered Stoke Moran weirdo who is used to being tolerated by the local villagers. But what did Sherlock Holmes do about Grimesby Roylott?
He just kept being Sherlock Holmes. He listened the Helen Stoner. He looked at the situation for himself. We don't want to say he exposed Roylott's snake, lest we be misinterpreted, but he did give that thing a whap or three. (Man, does "Speckled Band" have subtext!)
But even Sherlock Holmes had a friend who could whisper "Norbury" to him when needed, and a friend who definitely wasn't just a yes-man. It was fun to revisit "Charles Augustus Milverton" last week and again see Watson laying down the law with Holmes about his criminal venture.
"You are not coming," said Holmes.
"Then you are not going," Watson replied. "I give you my word of honour -- and I never broke it in my life -- that I will take a cab straight to the police-station and give you away, unless you let me share this adventure with you."
Holmes tries to shut it down with "You can't help me," but John H. Watson isn't taking any of Holmes's shit on this one, shooting back a "How do you know that?"
It is perhaps Watson's most glorious moment, the one where he shows us that he isn't just the tagalong. He's the partner.
In a time when the Victorian age is just another fantasy world to us, so distant from our own reality that its everyday is nigh impossible to ever know, there is still something for us to love in Sherlock Holmes, just as Edgar Smith found in 1946. Without the distraction of nostalgia for the 1940s equivalent of our 1950s or 1960s, however, I think we can dig a little deeper into the love or Sherlock Holmes and John Watson outside of their old-time trappings. (BBC Sherlock will forever be the proof-of-concept that drove that point home.)
Because there is just so much there to love, especially when the unlovable parts of life might be getting us down.