Monday, December 28, 2009


Believe it or not, Sherlock Holmes continues to receive mail at 221b Baker Street, London—as if he were a real person! That’s how strong a hold the great inspector has on pop culture. No doubt the current film, Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr. will keep his popularity alive. And if one wants to play detective, they can find plenty of fascinating truths surrounding this super sleuth.

For instance, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle credits real life medical lecturer Dr. Joseph Bell for inspiring the character of Holmes.

“You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it,” Conan Doyle said of Bell.

Bell was a master of keen observation, logic and expert diagnosis. He also helped to pioneer the use of forensics. Plus, Bell was adept at deducing the occupation and key details of perfect strangers, which Conan Doyle discovered while working with the doctor at the University of Edinburgh.

As for the current motion picture, director Guy Ritchie and his creative team relied on solid factual material to establish a plausible period, circa 1890’s London. For example: history points to more than one “secret society” (like the film’s Temple of the Four Orders) strongly tied to government and politics. In fact, filming took place at the real Freemason’s Hall --home to a powerful sect often charged with seeking world domination by conspiracy theorists.

Also credible for the time was the use of cyanide as a weapon, albeit with the right diabolical mind behind it (in 1854, a British chemist advocated the use of a cyanide weapon during the Crimea War; in 1887; the New York Times attributed the death of several horses to cyanide poisoning; a few years later a group of Russian nobles tried to kill famed mystic Rasputin using cyanide). The use of guns and artillery appears accurate for the time, although Holme’s attempt to create a gun with a silencer would not be realized until around 1909.

It’s also interesting to note that the filmmakers stay true to Conan Doyle’s depiction of Sherlock Holmes despite the missing deerstalker cap and curved pipe, which were never in the books (the curved pipe used by an actor so as not to hide his face). The film’s use of hand-to-hand combat can be traced to the novels. The Sign of Four portrays Holmes as an expert boxer and in The Final Problem, Sherlock draws upon his martial arts prowess to defeat his arch enemy Professor Moriarty. In real life, actor Robert Downey Jr. has been studying Wing Chun Kung Fu for over 6 years and Ritchie practices jujitsu. The two men combined their love of these martial art forms to create a distinctive style of fighting seen in the film.

However, one aspect of the film seems factually suspect-- the use of rhododendron leaves as an agent to feign death. The only notable evidence found was a particular plant species capable of killing a horse.

A huge casebook of fascinating facts can be unearthed on Holmes. But suffice it to say history will forever note this detective’s enormous influence on modern day crime investigation practices. Although in their infancy at the time Conan Doyle was writing, Sherlock’s trademark techniques – from forensic science to collecting trace evidence to ballistics and beyond—have now become reality. Elementary? Not hardly, Watson.

More on Arthur Conan Doyle

Interview with Robert Downey, Jr.

Notable Sherlock Holmes films:

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Seven-Percent-Solution

Young Sherlock Holmes