When I was little I'd heard of Sherlock Holmes, but I'd never read any of the books, or seen any of the movies. I'd glanced at a picture of Holmes and Watson once (I got them the wrong way round, because Watson looked older and I assumed he had to be the clever one) and been sent to my room because The Hound of the Baskervilles was on and it was Far Too Scary. And actually, that night I think it began – shivering in my bed, while from Dartmoor, downstairs, came the howling of a gigantic hound!
I knew Sherlock Holmes was a detective, and detective stories were okay (even if they were mostly explanations and basically a bit like a game of Cluedo where you didn't get a go) but clearly this Sherlock Holmes story was different. Here was a detective who fought monsters...
'Who's Sherlock Holmes?' I asked my Dad, over and over again. In those days, it wasn't so easy to find out. The internet was a library miles and miles away and it took two bus rides to get there (that was the olden days equivalent of complaining about broadband speeds) and there never seemed to be any Sherlock Holmes books in the bookshops I went to.
Then, one weekend, I went to stay with my Granny and Grandad. Normally, I liked that, but this time I was grumpy because I was going to miss my friends, and my Mum and Dad. After I'd been left there (dumped, I'm sure I said) I went sulking up to my room – and there, lying on the bed, was a present. Maybe an apology, but who cared. Because it was a book, and even from across the room, I knew what kind of book it was: the cover was the dark silhouette of a man in a deerstalker against yellow fog.
Yellow fog! That was cool for a start! The Clean Air Act had much to commend it, but what about the poetry? On closer inspection, the book was the one you hold right now, A Study In Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A famous Sherlock Holmes adventure was the tag line. Yeah, like there was any doubt.
And actually, it wasn't just a famous Sherlock Holmes story – it was the FIRST one. The origin story. The beginning. Which makes me, I rather think, one of the very few people who read all the Holmes stories, for the first time, in the right order. As I turned that very first page of that very first book, it should have creaked and groaned like a mighty door – because I was entering a world I would never leave.
If I'd known everything that was coming, I wouldn't have been able to lift the pages! The hound on the moor, the snake on the bell rope, the despicable Moriarty and the beautiful Irene Adler, the Bruce-Partington Plans and the dog that did nothing in the night time. And then Basil Rathbone battling Nazis and the Spider Woman in a cardboard dream of wartime London, and Jeremy Brett bringing theatre dynamite to our dull little televisions in the wonderful Granada series, and Billy Wilder turning his brilliance to his childhood favourite and giving us the haunting and beautiful – and yet hilarious – The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes.
If you haven't read this book yet, off you go now. I hate spoilers, and as much as you think you know what's coming, you really, honestly don't. So go and read it now, and join me at the top of the next paragraph.
Hello again. And wasn't that surprising? How bold and deft and cleanly told. How not Victorian, how self-consciously modern. And what about Sherlock Holmes, making his very entrance, fully formed and terrifying? One of the greatest heroes in all fiction and how do we first hear of the great man? He's flogging a corpse in a dissecting room. Over one hundred years later, when Mark Gatiss and I were doing our own updated version of this story, we got a lot of acclaim for our bravery and brio at introducing our new Sherlock doing exactly that, but like all of our best ideas it was straight out of the original.
And our hero isn't exactly, well, heroic, is he? He's cold, conceited, humourless and weirdly preoccupied with his chosen profession. There's that terrifying list Dr Watson makes of his arcane abilities alongside the scary gaps in his knowledge. All those years ago, this wasn't what I expected of a hero. I expected charm, bravery, kindness – but you know what, I kept reading. And what kept me going were the deductions. Oh, those thrilled me. The first time they meet, Sherlock instantly knows that Watson is recently returned from Afghanistan. But how? Doyle made you wait for that one, didn't he? And then he visits his first crime scene, and tells everyone that the murderer had a florid face. I remember boggling – how was that possible? How could a face leave traces in the air? Again, Doyle leads you by the nose and you're gobbling up the pages, desperate how to find out how the trick is done.
By the end of the book, I wasn't sure I liked Sherlock Holmes – frankly, how could you? – but I'd never before been so captivated and thrilled by a character I'd read about in a book. And it was because he wouldn't let me settle, I never knew where I was. One minute I'd be in awe of his brilliance, the next he'd slap me in the face with his arrogance and cruelty. And that master-storyteller Doyle just keeps making it worse and better. In the very next book, The Sign of Four, he's taking drugs to alleviate the boredom between cases – I was genuinely shocked – but then he's deducing a man's entire life from a pocket watch and I was thrilled again. At the same time, he's being mean to Dr Watson, saying some unforgiveable things about women, and in a stroke of genius that Doyle was to repeat throughout the series, even roundly criticising the stories in which he appears! If you want to read the worst review A Study in Scarlet ever got, read the sequel – Sherlock Holmes officially hates this book as an account of his work, and it's high time some enterprising publisher quoted one of his put downs on the cover. I am often lost in admiration for Doyle's abilities, but the sheer audacity of that idea – the cheek and the confidence -makes me laugh every time.
There's another story running through these tales, and its one that creeps up on you, so slowly you hardly know its there. And like all things that occur to you to by degrees, it's the most important thing of all. All these brilliant tales, taken together, are the story of a friendship. The best and longest and warmest friendship in all fiction. That these two men love each other isn't in the slightest doubt, but its never ever, said, never mentioned. They have adventures together. Holmes is cruel, Watson is patient, Holmes is brilliant, Watson is brave but they're always together, always trust each other absolutely, and that's all there is to it. Like most male friendships, everything is assumed, and nothing is spoken of.
Oh, except for once. Just once, and that's your lot. If you're going to read in order, like I did, you've got a long time to wait for The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, but patience, and keep reading in order – you'll be blinking back the tears when the moment comes.
The other day, Mark and I were doing a press conference for the next series of Sherlock and someone, inevitably, asked what was the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes. Mark answered 'The deductions. And of course, the friendship.' If the Sherlock Holmes stories are the biggest hit in fiction – and they clearly are – then what we can deduce about the human race, from its choice of heroes? That above all, we love sweet reason, and good friendship.
I think I can live with that.