In the Sherlock Holmes
stories, at least, the idyllic-seeming English countryside holds
its own dangers. In Victorian England, small towns were still structured
on the feudal model that had prevailed for centuries. In general,
a large manor house, such as Baskerville Hall, dominated its village.
And although the village people no longer led their lives serving
the master of the manor, a strict social hierarchy still dictated
that the master was the community leader in more ways than one.
The health or dysfunction of the family living in the manor house
could determine the whole character of a village. Holmes and Watson
pursue many mysteries in the countryside surrounding London, where
criminals carry on their nefarious activities away from prying eyes.
As Holmes remarks,
"It is my belief, Watson, founded
upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London
do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling
and beautiful countryside.… The pressure of public opinion can
do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane
so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a
drunkard's blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among
the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever
so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there
is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these
lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part
with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the
deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on,
year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser."
—from "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"
England has seen a century of
upheaval since the first Sherlock Holmes stories burst upon the
scene. The old, mysterious London has melted away with its "pea-soup"
fogs and plagues of sewer gas; British colonies have gained their
independence, one by one; manor houses are as likely to be museums
or bed and breakfast inns as private residences. The problems faced
by modern British society would seem to have left the Victorian
detective behind. Not so: the character that Conan
Doyle considered unworthy of his serious literary aspirations
still strikes a chord with modern audiences. As the world changed
around him, Sherlock Holmes, the reassuring protector of British
superiority, transcended his time, and today is loved for his weaknesses
and eccentricities as much as for his strengths. In the 21st
century, sequels and pastiches featuring the quintessential detective
are still being produced at a steady rate.
Arthur Conan Doyle's original readers recognized their city and
their time in the Sherlock Holmes stories. It was easy to imagine
that he was just around the corner, riding in the next hansom cab.
No wonder so many people believed that Holmes was real. Today, we
can return to those stories to immerse ourselves in the dank vapors
and dark alleyways of London, and glimpse another world in all of
its splendor and squalor.