According to a 2008 survey of 3000 British people, about 58% thought that Sherlock Holmes was a real person. You can see the other findings here. I am not going to comment on whether I think these findings are sad, or humorous, or a sign of the success or failure of the educational system. Now that I have read several Holmes tales for myself, I can understand how easy it would be to believe in the reality of Holmes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a genius with the pen. Rather than letting the detective tell his own stories, he wrote about Holmes from the viewpoint of Dr John Watson. In this way, Holmes could still remain a bit of a mystery to the readers. They can only know what Watson knows. So, for example, when Holmes dons a disguise and disappears into the dark corners of London, the reader is left with Watson to wonder what the detective is doing.
Another genius literary technique Doyles uses is criticizing his own work through Holmes. In almost half of the tales I have read thus far, Holmes accuses Watson of exaggerating his successes. His methods are elementary, he says, and anyone who practices observation can have the same success.
Doyle, writing as Watson, also mentions cases that Holmes has solved but that must remain untold. In this way, he leaves to the readers’ imaginations what other puzzles Holmes has pieced together. The ones that are in the books can’t be the only adventures, because Watson says so. See this quote from “The Naval Treaty”:
“The July which immediately succeeded my marriage was made memorable by three cases of interest, in which I had the privilege of being associated with Sherlock Holmes and of studying his methods. I find them recorded in my notes under the headings “The Adventure of the Second Stain”, “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty”, and “The Adventure of the Tired Captain.” The first of these, however, deals with interest of such importance, and implicates so many of the first families in the kingdom, that for many years it will be impossible to make it public. No case, however, in which Holmes was engaged has ever illustrated the value of his analytical methods so clearly or has impressed those who were associated with him so deeply. I still retain an almost verbatim report of the interview in which he demonstrated the true facts of the case to Monsieur Dubuque of the Paris police, and Fritz von Waldbaum, the well-known specialist of Dantzig, both of whom had wasted their energies upon what proved to be side issues. The new century will have come, however, before the story can be safely told. Meanwhile I pass on to the second on my list, which promised also at one time to be of national importance, and was marked by several incidents which give it a quite unique character. ““The Naval Treaty”, The Greatest Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, circa 1893
Sometimes, I find these introductory paragraphs from Watson dull, and I am tempted to skip over them. But I believe this is where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius can be seen the most. He adds just enough dullness to make Watson seem real, and he makes Holmes just mysterious enough feel real. It’s no wonder so many people believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real person.
I can assure you, I know that Sherlock Holmes is fiction. But I admit, there are times I wish he was real. I think he would be a fascinating friend.