Sherlock Holmes & Jay Gatsby
Sherlock Holmes was created by the Scottish writer, Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887 and is considered the model of modern consulting detectives, a fictional character that has endured across the world through detective stories.
Admired for his good looks and intellectual prowess, the mere mention of Sherlock always brings this character to mind. But with each new movie and television show, Sherlock has changed slightly in looks and behavior to match the styles and mores of that generation. But where did he come from? How did Doyle land on this forever character? What keeps his persona beloved to readers of all ages and genres?
Conan Doyle modeled Holmes’s methods and mannerisms on those of Dr. Joseph Bell, his professor at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. Holmes’s mysterious ability to gather evidence utilizing his distinctive skills of observation and deductive reasoning paralleled Bell’s method of diagnosing a patient’s disease.
The famous line, spoken by Sherlock: “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” set the stage for dissecting a mystery, much as Bell’s diagnostic wizardry.
Across the books, Dr. John Watson, Sherlock’s famous sidekick – through whom Doyle narrated the books and explained Sherlock’s detecting methodology – bear a likeness to Nick Carraway as the narrator and hero worshiper of Jay Gatsby. Their traits and vulnerabilities are referenced by both narrators.
Both Gatsby and Sherlock are handsome. Both hide their webs of intelligence and transcendent use of disguises. Both have cravings larger than life for decadent lifestyles and illegal pursuits. Both had no patience for stupidity. Both thrive on privacy. And both have vulnerabilities that endure them to readers.
“And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
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Both fictional characters have part of their lives narrated by a sidekick; trusted sidekicks, who count themselves lucky to be in the genius’s presence, men who tolerate psychological abuse to sit at the feet of their master – perhaps this is how Doyle experienced Dr. Bell when he was in medical school. Both narratives have no real idea who or what their hero truly is or what drives him or why their egotistical personalities aren’t more off putting.
Watson describes his associate, for surely they aren’t friends, as exhaustingly moody and complex with bouts of mania and depression. Gatsby vibrates with a mania that simultaneously engages and repels those around him. Holmes spends endless hours priming his pipe and smoking, playing the violin, and at times disappearing into an opium den. Gatsby spends countless hours dressing himself and his mansion to draw people to him and prove he is what he imagines himself to be, although he barely interacts with them. Like Sherlock, his role is an observer.
Sherlock treats his long-time housekeeper with absolute disrespect and yet, she adores him. He turns his interactions with Lestrade, the bumbling Scotland Yard detective, into a cat and mouse game. Since Gatsby is only one book, there is not a cadre of characters to return as Lestrade does in Doyle’s stories. But Fitzgerald brought a curious group of people to the page to promote Gatsby’s secrets and apparent ongoing bad behavior, probably criminal. Moriarty is the formidable antagonist for Sherlock, the one man on Earth that keeps him on his toes. Sherlock calls him the Napoleon of Crime. The antagonist of Gatsby remains a mystery. Most likely himself.
Every author dreams of the adoration both of these characters have borne over the decades. When Doyle killed off Holmes and Moriarty in 1893, there was an outcry against Holmes’s demise that found even the British royal family distressed. People on the streets wore black mourning bands and finally, the one blow that can bring a character back: More than 20,000 readers canceled their subscriptions to the popular Strand Magazine, in which Doyle’s stories ran. One can only imagine the fee Doyle received for resurrecting Sherlock.
Least you think Gatsby is “just a fictional character,” read this piece from the UK’s Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-great-gatsby-guide-to-taking-down-trump The analogies are quite grand.
Trivia: Holmes’s meerschaum pipe and deerstalker hat are not original to Conan Doyle’s writing. The American actor, William Gillette, introduced the curved meerschaum pipe on stage, possibly because it was easier on his jaw during the long performances. Sidney Paget, illustrator, introduced and used frequently the deerstalker cap in The Strand sequels, possibly because it was —it was the current fashion by etiquette for country living.
Cumberbatch has carried the mantle of Sherlock admirably, I think. His writers have him wear the egotism and intelligence and vulnerabilities well. And, of course, he’s lovely to watch on screen – well, not exactly lovely. You get it.