Tom Keogh on the Many Lives of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

The Speakers Bureau presenter, film critic and author talks about the many iterations of two of the most iconic characters in Western literature and why they are particularly enduring.

Tom Keogh

Tom Keogh

Sherlock Holmes is one of Western popular culture’s most iconic recurring characters.

Since his inception in 1887, the brilliant-but-flawed detective has appeared in radio dramatizations, film, television, stage productions, video games, comic books, board games and more.

Film critic Tom Keogh is a Holmes fanatic and member of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau. He travels the state sparking conversation about his favorite sleuth – and Holmes’ trusty companion, Dr. John Watson – with the presentation Dr. Doyle and Mr. Holmes: The Cultural Staying Power of Sherlock Holmes.

During his talk, Keogh explores the changes in Holmes and Watson, from Basil Rathbone’s iconic Holmes in films of the 1930s and 1940s to nontraditional iterations like Michael Dibdin’s novel The Last Sherlock Holmes, which Keogh calls “a work of extreme revisionism and definitely not for the faint-hearted.”


Humanities Washington: What about Sherlock Holmes has made him such an enduring character?

Tom Keogh: First, Holmes is a genius and a specialist, and those are things that are perennially fascinating. He inspires a certain confidence because – like any specialist – he can see through the seeming randomness of life and events that are inscrutable to the rest of us. He sees through the fog of seemingly unrelated and non-connected details and observes connections and patterns, and he can rapidly form hypotheses about the “what” and “how” and “why” of things that mystify and confuse others. For those of us who don’t have the gift of extreme observation and the ability to see how strange facts fall into place, it’s comforting to know a fictional character who can do that.


Humanities magazine Jan.-Feb. 2013
Tom Keogh also recently discussed Sherlock Holmes in the January/February 2013 edition of the nationally distributed Humanities magazine.

Secondly, there is a price to pay for genius, and that is always a fascinating subject. While I believe Doyle’s Holmes is more roundly human and emotionally sophisticated than he often is credited for, there’s no question he’s a misanthrope, an iconoclast, an eccentric and to some degree a misogynist.

Finally, Doyle subtly imbued in his Sherlock Holmes novels and stories strong hints that Holmes, as a character, reconciles Doyle’s spiritualist beliefs (i.e., paranormal and psychic experience) with Doyle’s own analytical, scientific mind. It’s not that Holmes believed in the paranormal, but rather that his own highly-attuned, preternatural ability to induce the truth from obscure evidence reflects Doyle’s contention that we can all attune ourselves to such obscure realities as spirits, fairies, etc.

HW: How have depictions of Holmes changed since the character was created in 1887?

Basil Rathbone as the iconic Sherlock Holmes.

Basil Rathbone as the iconic Sherlock Holmes.

Keogh: Those changing depictions began almost instantly with Sidney Paget’s illustrations of Holmes accompanying the original publications of Doyle’s stories. Paget made Holmes better-looking than Doyle’s physical description of Holmes, and he gave Holmes the now-famous deerstalker cap. A couple of playwrights later wrote their own stage stories about Holmes in 1893 and 1894, and Doyle himself wrote a five-act play about Holmes considerably rewritten by, and eventually starring, actor-director William Gillette. Gillette added some of the elements typically associated with Holmes today, such as the curved Briar pipe and an early version of the “Elementary, my dear Watson” line. He also made Holmes a warmer character capable of love.

In other words, there were alternative Holmes already in Doyle’s lifetime, and many more have followed in books, movies, television, radio programs, graphic novels and more. We have bipolar Holmes, sophisticated Holmes, pugilistic Holmes, drug-addicted Holmes, comical Holmes and sociopathic Holmes. Most interestingly, we have versions of Holmes that capture both the darkness and the light of Doyle’s creation, and reflect the character’s capacity for emotion and growth.

HW: What have been your favorite versions of Holmes and Watson?

Sidney Paget's original 1891 illustration of Holmes and Watson.

Sidney Paget’s original 1891 illustration of Holmes and Watson.

Keogh: There is something to be said for the variety of Holmes out there. After all, we largely know him at a remove, through the observations and writings of Watson. There are only a few stories in which we find scenes of Holmes without Watson, and those don’t tell us a lot about Holmes’ inner life. So he is really not a whole-cloth character: He’s a mosaic made up of fragments of details offered over decades of stories and very skewed toward Watson’s point-of-view.

It’s no wonder the temptation is so strong for storytellers besides Doyle to get into Holmes’ head and explore and invent. My own favorite performances of Holmes, however, tend to stick closely to the spirit – though not necessarily the letter – of the character in Doyle’s canon. Jeremy Brett in the 1980s British television series and Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock are most rewarding. So is Basil Rathbone in the old films, and I have a special fondness for portrayals by Rupert Everett (Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking), Christopher Plummer (Murder By Decree) and a variation on Holmes by Bill Pullman in the little-known movie Zero Effect.

HW: There are quite a few popular films and TV shows that feature a Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson character right now: the Robert Downey Jr. film and sequel and the television shows Elementary and Sherlock. Why do you think people are interested in these characters in 2013?

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson in the BBC series Sherlock

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson in the BBC series Sherlock.

Keogh: For reasons cited above, Holmes has an enduring appeal, in part because he’s equally solid and malleable. He will always be there in Doyle’s text, a constant and a touchstone. But for various reasons he will also always inspire reconsideration and reinvention. He is much like other characters that have been reinvented continually over generations and even centuries (Robin Hood, King Arthur, etc.)

Yet he is also different from them because Holmes lends himself to radical reinterpretations of his life and world. Storytellers see him as a totem with many facets they can explore for all kinds of subjective purposes. Again, some of that comes from the fact that Doyle kept him at arm’s length from readers, i.e., through Watson.

HW: Which lesser-known Holmes story do you think could make a good movie, but hasn’t been made famous yet?

Keogh: “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” is very interesting, and I think we may see some of it as part of a narrative mashup in the next season of Sherlock. The story “His Last Bow” deserves a full film treatment as a farewell to Holmes.

3 thoughts on “Tom Keogh on the Many Lives of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson”

  1. Tim Symonds says:

    I’d like it if Tom Keogh could read my latest crime fiction novel,
    Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein’s Daughter

    In late 1903 Einstein’s illegitimate daughter ‘Lieserl’ disappears without trace in Serbia aged around 21 months. As Holmes exclaims in the Mystery of Einstein’s Daughter, “the most ruthless effort has been made by public officials, priests, monks, Einstein’s friends, followers, relatives and relatives-by-marriage to seek out and destroy every document with Lieserl’s name on it. The question is – why?”

    Publication date January 2014
    ‘Lieserl’s fate shadows the Einstein legend like some unsolved equation’ Scientist Frederic Golden Time Magazine

    Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein’s Daughter is available at or Review copies contact Steve Emecz at

    Tim Symonds was born in London. He grew up in Somerset, Dorset and Guernsey. After several years working in the Kenya Highlands and along the Zambezi River he emigrated to the United States. He studied in Germany at Göttingen and at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Political Science. Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery Of Einstein’s Daughter was written in a converted oast house in ‘Conan Doyle country’, near Rudyard Kipling’s old home Bateman’s in East Sussex and in the forests and hidden valleys of the Sussex High Weald.
    The author’s other detective novels include Sherlock Holmes and The Dead Boer at Scotney Castle and Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Bulgarian Codex.
    He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

    1. Abby Rhinehart says:

      Thanks Tim! I’ve passed your contact info and comment along to Tom.

      Abby Rhinehart
      Communications Officer, Humanities Washington

  2. Tim Symonds says:

    Many thanks, Abby – much appreciated! I am now just getting to the final ‘cut’ of my latest (fifth) Sherlock Holmes novel, set in Peking in 1907. It’s the final days of the once-powerful Ch’ing Dynasty. Holmes has hurriedly learnt Mandarin and gone to the Forbidden City to determine whether a rumoured assassination plot is against the young Emperor or his forbidding (and ruthless) aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi. Each represents a different path for China – the Emperor the progressive path, the Empress Dowager the ‘obstructionist’ and conservative path.
    The publisher’s designer is working on the cover. I’m having difficulty over the title. So far each novel title has commenced with ‘Sherlock Holmes And…’. I’m testing out ‘Sherlock Holmes And The She-Tiger of China’ but am not at all sure it’s right.

    I’m hoping to have the new novel out before the end of the year.

    With best wishes from deepest ancient England (East Sussex).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Humanities Washington

Get the latest news and event information from Humanities Washington, including updates on Think & Drink and Speakers Bureau events.