Profiles in Pipes –– Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective has lived quite the cultural life so far. Whether you know this character as The Great Mouse Detective, a cryogenically frozen sleuth living in the 22nd century, a Japanese private eye named Sara Shelly Futaba, or you’re familiar with the more traditional guise––Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street––the fact remains that you know him. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed human character in film and television history.
Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels involving the Victorian detective, but he’s since appeared in over 25,000 additional adaptations in plays, TV shows, and feature-length movies. The original inspiration for the character was one Joseph Bell––a professor at the University of Edinburgh that Conan Doyle knew and admired. However, it can be definitively said at this point that the character of Sherlock Holmes has taken on a life of its own. The deerstalker hat, the famous catchphrases, and the calabash pipe were all later inventions––added by artists and actors to further develop the character.
Even during Conan Doyle’s career, though, it became clear to the author that he’d lost control of the Holmesian story. Though he grew weary of writing Sherlock Holmes’ pieces, he could find no way to separate himself from the iconic detective. He quoted his publishers' ridiculous prices for Holmes features––hoping they would reject them. They didn’t, and he became rich as a result. His own mother discouraged him from moving on from Holmes. When he did try to finally kill off Sherlock Holmes in an 1893 story in The Strand, 20,000 readers canceled their subscription to the magazine, and Conan Doyle was hounded and browbeat into reviving the character.
When it comes to Holmes’ most enduring prop––his pipe––adaptations are as varied as the character himself. Comedic interpretations may saddle Holmes with a massively oversized calabash pipe. Other, more serious takes on the character usually offer a more modest briar, and some omit the pipe completely. For the record, the “canonical” Holmes smoked everything––from cigars and cigarettes to pipe tobacco (along with other drugs from time to time).
What can be said about a character as diverse and diffuse as Sherlock Holmes? In one sense, very little. Any vestiges of an overarching story involving Holmes have long been muddled by varying works. And even hallmarks of the character have been played with, altered, abandoned, and then rediscovered over the years. The one thing that we can be certain of is that, as long as there’s a mystery to be uncovered, the world’s most famous detective will emerge from the shadows––somewhere and somehow––to solve it.