Sherlock Holmes was, of course, the fictional creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, yet the character is so enduring and vital, and has taken on such a life of its own, that plenty of people find it hard to credit that the man never existed.
The ‘consulting detective' first appeared in the 1887, in an issue of the Strand magazine. In all, he appeared in four novels and sixty six short stories, written over a period of more than thirty years. Every tale follows basically the same formula; in a masterly display of intellectual bravura Holmes solves a case (usually a murder) through the application of sharp observation and deductive reasoning - all narrated by the admiring sidekick, the everyman figure Doctor Watson, who is sometimes called upon to do a bit of donkey work. As well as an intellectual genius Holmes is master of disguise and a talented amateur chemist; very occasionally he has to resort to fisticuffs though if there is any shooting to be done, that is handled by Doctor Watson.
Doyle said the inspiration for the character was the famous Doctor, Joseph Bell, who similarly used inference to draw conclusions from observation. But really Holmes was a quintessentially Victorian creation, demonstrating the power of reason to bring forth truth - as so many scientists of his day were doing.
Holmes applies all kinds of forensic techniques, paying great attention to, for example foot prints, handwriting, and tyre tracks, and doing chemical experiments to determine trace evidence. Such things are commonplace in policework now, of course, but these were new developments to the Victorians.
There are precious few references to Holmes life outside his detective work and his personal life is never mentioned; yet his character - aloof, arrogant, uninterested in fame - shines through all the stories. He may be a cold and dispassionate calculating machine yet he is humanised by wonderful details, concerning, for example, his untidiness (he kept cigars in the coal scuttle and tobacco in a slipper); his penchant for the violin and the pipe, and a suggestion of human frailties - he was (at least in the early stories) a keen user of cocaine. Other details of his character, though, have been created in the popular imagination; in the stories, he never says ‘Elementary, my dear Watson' or wears a deerstalker hat.
Conan Doyle tired of his creation after a decade, and killed Holmes off in The Final Problem, which appeared in 1893; he and his arch nemesis Moriaty were described falling together, locked in combat, over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Eight years later, Doyle bowed to public pressure and brought Holmes back, in what many consider the greatest Holmes story of them all, the brilliant novel The Hound of the Baskervilles'.
Holmes' enduring popularity has led him to be depicted more often in film than any other fictional character; the best interpretations are those of Basil Rathbone, in a series of films made during the Second World War, and, in modern times, Jeremy Brett, who did a superb job in the TV serials ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes'. A new Holmes film by director Guy Ritchie is due out in 2009, though as it depicts Holmes as an action hero, it seems unlikely to be on a par with these classics.
Afficicianados can sate their Holmesophilia at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, at the (real) address of his (fictional) consulting rooms, 221B Baker Street, London (tickets £6; daily 9.30am-6pm). There are plenty of exhibits and replicas here, as well as staff in period costume, and you'll have to keep reminding yourself that he was a fictional character. Plenty won't believe you: the museum has an archive of letters sent from fans, addressed to the great man himself.