While Batman (another favorite of mine) has tried to usurp the title in modern times, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?s Sherlock Holmes was the first one termed ?The World?s Greatest Detective.? Why? He wasn?t the first fictional detective. Edgar Allan Poe?s C. Auguste Dupin is normally given that honor. Dupin solved The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter as well as pointed the way to finding the murderer in The Mystery of Marie Roget. But Dupin is hardly the first person who comes to mind when you hear ?detective,? in spite of the fact that the yearly award for the best mystery novel is called an Edgar.
Sherlock?s claim to the title does not come from? having the most cases in print. Agatha Christie?s Hercule Poirot aces him out on that count. Holmes solved cases in 56 short stories and 4 novels, while Poirot’s awesome case load was 33 novels, 50 short stories and a play, making his creator much more prolific. While some might prefer Poirot, even the Dame of crime herself admitted that Sherlock inspired Hercule when she said, ?I was well steeped in the Sherlock Holmes tradition; so I considered detectives. Not like Sherlock Holmes, of course. I must invent one of my own. . . . . There was Sherlock Holmes ? the one and only. I should never be able to emulate him.? In other words, Hercule was her copy that, like most copies, was not quite as good as the original. She made him eccentric and cerebral, like Sherlock, but less macho and more prissy, almost effeminate. Sherlock goes over the Reichenbach Falls wrestling with Dr. Moriarty, while Hercule committed suicide after killing a murderer. Hard to think of Sherlock suffering from such angst. More cases or not, Holmes is still the guy you?d like to have on your side, brain and a bit of brawn. He was a boxer and trained in martial arts (an early form developed by an Englishman who had lived in Japan, bartitsu, which Doyle mistakenly termed baritsu) as well as a crack shot (who could shoot the letters VR on the wall of his flat while lying on his side). He could protect you while Poirot would be waxing his mustache and searching for his heart meds.
Don?t get me wrong. I?m not saying that being a tough guy is what made Holmes the greatest. If so, Parker?s Spenser would win. As a former professional boxer and the mysterious, deadly Hawk as a sidekick, he?s the detective most likely to commit mayhem. He?s well read, able to quote his namesake, the English poet Edmund Spenser, among others. Yet he seems to solve his cases more with muscle than with mind. While Holmes, according to Doyle, had no knowledge of literature and philosophy, he was an expert in fields that applied to solving crime. Chemistry, botany, anatomy and current affairs were his areas. And he was a master of deduction. Can you imagine Spenser saying, ?How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?? While a quote from the Faerie Queen might be more erudite, it does not solve mysteries. Holmes is also the one who established the tradition of a sidekick, a person with whom to discuss the case and to act as backup in tough situations. While Dr. John Watson may not have had the deductive skills of Homes, he was an ex-army officer and handy with a revolver. Hawk without the attitude? Spenser, especially when Hawk was with him, might be a better bodyguard, but I?ll take Holmes to figure out who-done-it.
Dashiell Hammett?s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler?s Philip Marlowe were pretty good detectives and no wimps, but they did not solve their cases by observing the clues and deducing the truth. They investigated and often stumbled upon the solution by questioning the suspects and witnesses. Sherlock Holmes, in many ways, was the first forensic scientist, studying footprints and cigar ashes. His CSI: London predated any of the TV shows about American city CSI?s. He set the bar without the use of modern laboratory equipment and it is a high one. True, some of the solutions were not exactly plausible, such as a rope-climbing snake that can hear a whistle and the invented Radix pedis diaboli (?Devil?s-foot root?), but far worse sins have been committed by other mystery writers to wiggle out of a difficult situation.
It is not any one trait that makes Sherlock Holmes the world?s greatest detective, but a combination of them. While not a renaissance man, he is skilled in all those talents that make a good detective. And it?s downright fun to hear him analyze a person?s occupation, habitat and/or past by mud on the trousers, wear of a boot heel, wax on a hat or teeth marks on a walking stick. While a few of his clients dismiss such as parlor tricks, I chuckle at their obtuseness. And so do many others. While he may not be lovable, Sherlock is fun and fascinating. That?s why Doyle?s readers refused to let him kill off the detective, forcing his resurrection from his fall down the Falls. That?s why there are a multitude of clubs and groups that avidly debate aspects of his personality, friends, family and cases, and Sherlockian is the well-known word to describe them. That?s why a small army of actors have portrayed him, both in the original cases, as well as in myriad adaptations of storyline and era. That is why Morg Mahoney, my female detective, is a big fan of his and tries to emulate his powers of observation and analysis. Sherlock Holmes is, without a doubt, the winner of the title of ?The World?s Greatest Detective.?