The mystery behind Sherlock Holmes

WASHINGTON — More than 120 years later, the mystery behind Sherlock Holmes continues to intrigue audiences.

The cunning detective first appeared in 1887 thanks to Sir Conan Doyle, whose 56 short stories and four novels have since inspired multiple movies and TV shows featuring big names such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Lee Miller and, soon, Sir Ian McKellen.

“There is an infinite amount of material out there, and a lot to discover,” says Ed Fizelle, founder of

But the Holmes we have come to know is vastly different than the detective Doyle created.

The original character was dark, moody and addicted to cocaine. Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock” comes closest to portraying the seedier side of this great detective. In “His Last Vow,” Dr. Jon Watson (Martin Freeman) finds Sherlock disheveled and squatting in an abandoned house, surrounded by junkies and deviants.

In the Doyle canon, Holmes frequently indulges in cocaine, which he injected using a syringe, kept in a leather case. The drug was legal in Victorian England, yet Watson disapproves even in the original stories.

“He was moody. He was manic. He used cocaine because he got bored in between cases,” Fizelle says. “He wasn’t a nice guy.”

Despite his propensity for vice, Holmes always ended on the side of good.

“He was a loyal true person,” Fizelle says. “He was a good citizen and everything, but he was just on another plane from everybody else because he had this magnificent mind.”

That mind is what continues to captivate audiences. As Fizelle says, we have all had a “Sherlock moment” after losing a phone or set of keys. Earlier this week, a Twitter sleuth managed to track down 12 people suspected of viciously attacking two gay men in Philadelphia using nothing but a photo and Facebook.

“Everything is laid out in front of him the same way it’s laid out in front of Scotland Yard, but he has a better ability to observe what actually happened,” Fizelle says.

“He’s not superhuman. He’s human.”

The character of Sherlock Holmes first became popularized by stage actor William Gillette in 1899. He wore the now classic deerstalker cap, which did not appear in Doyle’s canon. Gillette’s prominence on and off the stage — his father was a state senator for Connecticut and his mother was a descendant of the Puritan Hooker family that founded the city of Hartford — also helped popularize the image of Holmes sporting a curved tobacco pipe.

He assumed the role more than 1,300 times in a span of 30 years, and even starred in a silent motion picture about the clever detective. He was also the first to use a magnifying glass and violin. Also, he was the first to use a phrase associated with the great detective, but which never appears in the literary canon: “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.”

In essence, Gillette helped create the Holmes archetype.

Gillette was also the proprietor of his own castle, which is located along the Connecticut River and is now a state park. There, he entertained celebrities of the day such as Albert Einstein, and presidents Warren G. Harding and John Calvin Coolidge, Jr.

When Doyle grew tired of his dear Holmes, he devised a criminal mastermind so devious and twisted that only he could bring down the great detective. Professor James Moriarty appeared in just one story, “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” but has since become a fan favorite thanks to Irish actor Andrew Scott in “Sherlock.”

The villain is described as the “Napoleon of crime.” He is, in fact, Holmes’ absolute match. As the detective starts to unravel his nemesis, he starts to understand that the two cannot co-exist. One of them must die.

This leads to a dramatic confrontation in which both characters plunge off the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. But sure enough, Doyle ended up bringing his beloved detective back, and explaining away his dramatic escape from death. Similarly, Cumberbatch stages an implausible fake suicide in the season 2 finale “The Reichenbach Fall.”

But if Doyle was tired of Holmes, why did be resurrect the character?

“I don’t think anybody really knows,” says Fizelle. “There’s an apocryphal tale that he was knighted because the king wanted him to come back.”

Regardless, Sherlock Holmes continues to live on thanks to modern technology that makes his crime-solving skills even more sexy to the audience. His next incarnation is due in 2015’s “Mr. Holmes,” starring McKellen.

Click through the gallery to see Sherlock Holmes throughout the ages.

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