“Crime is common. Logic is rare.”
—“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”
When reading “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” one might consider the question of heroism in the Holmes canon. Is Sherlock Holmes a hero? Did Conan Doyle intend for him to be construed as heroic? At first glance, in stories like “Copper Beeches,” it would seem so, given that the story plays out a fairly traditional “damsel-in-distress” plot. Upon closer inspection, however, there are considerable nuances that complicate equating Holmes’s actions with that of a traditional literary hero, even, perhaps, in his initial conception by his author. The story of how Holmes became a hero involves a literary—that is to say, a literal and a figurative—rescue.
The first instance of rescue would be that of Holmes himself. As discussed in the Introduction, “Copper Beeches” was originally going to not only be the last of the Adventures, but also the last of Holmes. As recounted, it was Conan Doyle’s own mother who saved the detective, and alerted Conan Doyle to something the author himself may not have allowed himself to see: that Holmes, in addition to being popular, had become something of a hero to the regular Strand readership. What might have caused this bout of short-sightedness? Several theories abound and to address them all would take volumes. It would, however, do well to mention two important ideas to move beyond Adventures and to begin to shed light on Doyle’s motivations for the future tales, as, alas, this would not be the last time Doyle’s murderous intentions regarding his character would get the best of him.
The first theory involves Doyle’s own appreciation of his reading audience, particularly in regards to their gender. Although the majority of the canonical stories seem bereft of women—as major characters or as anything more decisive than a hysteric client, worried wife, or conniving maid—it is important to understand that women, including Doyle’s own mother, were in fact reading the stories. As Deborah Wynne noted in her 2001 book, The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine, by the time of the publication of the first Holmes stories, weekly and monthly periodicals “presupposed a general family readership,” which included both women and, in some instances, children. In this, Doyle appears to have been generally oblivious. So much so that when the Holmes stories upon their publication in book form, became popular reading for a younger (and predominantly male) audience, particularly in America, Doyle went so far as to remove stories he felt were not appropriate for young audiences, although he had no such qualms about their serialization. Thus, women were reading of Holmes and saw through his eccentricities to a perceived heroic spirit within.
This leads us to a second theory regarding the relationship between the perceived “heroism” of Holmes and his popular reception: namely, that Conan Doyle never intended for Holmes to be the hero of the canonical stories. That role would naturally fall to Watson, whose own reminiscences, need a reader be reminded, one is, in fact, reading. For Conan Doyle, Holmes is an eccentric, morally ambiguous character, possessed of an uncanny ability for deduction and a savant-like appreciation for forensic investigation. Holmes is completely self-possessed and socially deviant, bordering on the pathological. And, Holmes possesses a dangerous degree of hubris. Placing him at the center of the tales, Conan Doyle no doubt wished Holmes—and, importantly, his method—to command much of the reader’s attention. But let us not mistake attention for attraction—Conan Doyle, and, by extension, his ideal reader, did not like Holmes. We find all the evidence we need of this through the character most befitting of the title of hero, as well as one who shares enormous similarities (and a few important differences) with his author: Watson.
The theory does initially bear out some aspects of the canon. Recounting nearly the entire canon himself, Watson certainly has a degree of authorial control over Holmes and he certainly exercises this control to highlight those flaws in Holmes’s character while still displaying respect for, and often rapt attention to, his methods. But this theory brings up many more questions than it seems to answer. Though Watson does have the heroic characteristic of good intentions, strong moral character, and physical presence that are absent in Holmes, he appears as a minor character in his own memory, and lacks the larger-than-life feeling that Holmes seems to communicate from the page, almost from the moment his character is introduced. Why not highlight him more? Allow Watson to emerge as a pupil of the Holmesian method, to thereby challenge his teacher? This theoretical sidestep, while certainly reinforcing the distinctive characterizations, seems to founder when the two are forced to compete for the heroic title. Thus, the second “rescue”—the one that actually occurs in “Copper Beeches” occurs only through the combination of Holmes’s intellectual prowess and Watson’s heroic acts of physicality. At closer inspection, it is perhaps this collusion that gives every reader of the canon exactly what they are looking for—cerebral, thought-provoking solutions to tangled mysteries and the ultimate triumph of right over wrong. For that to be the case, it is the duo of Holmes and Watson who, together, become the single hero.