Is Sherlock Holmes a Children’s Hero?

KBS Krishna, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala

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Sherlock Holmes is idolized by children. But is he a proper role model? Considering the problems with lionizing Holmes, the paper looks at issues and challenges with regarding detective fiction as children’s literature. Further, alternate detective heroes for children are posited – such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, who are probably better role models.

Children’s literature is “the body of written works and accompanying illustrations produced in order to entertain or instruct young people” (Fadiman). As this literature gives equal importance to education and entertainment, the texts belonging to this category can be seen as not just utilitarian but also as having social responsibility. Depending on the milieu, children’s literature varied in the importance it gave to these characteristics.

In early civilizations, literature itself was in its infancy, and the oral literature that was produced to be told generally by the fireside included tales that interested and educated children and adults alike. These were usually tales of gods or heroes or beasts, propagating virtues such as humility, ambition, courage, love, and harmony.

When literature moved from the oral to the written form, the moral aspect of these tales led to their finding a place in the texts that children were meant to study and emulate. Aesop’s fables, Kathasaritsagara, Panchatantra, the Jataka tales, etc., are examples of this. They provided instruction in the form of entertainment.

The importance of passing instruction through simple tales that children could enjoy was well recognized by early 18th century British writers. Jonathan Swift’s (1667-1745) Gulliver’s Travels (1726) exemplifies this. Swift’s work depicts an English doctor’s misadventures in various fantastical lands, while satirizing the British preoccupation with war and empire building. However, children enjoyed and still enjoy this tale as it comprises elements of magic and adventure that appeal to their young minds. This led other authors to try their hand at adventure and attract young readers. Initially, this was frowned upon by parents and teachers, as they felt that such stories corrupted the young. However, by mid nineteenth century these tales were accepted, albeit as a necessary evil. As Dennis Butts points out:

The emerging children’s literature, with its growing tolerance of children’s playful behaviour, its recognition of the importance of feelings as opposed to reliance upon reason and repression, and its relaxation of didacticism because it was less certain of dogmas, all reflect what was happening in the world beyond children’s books. It is surely remarkable that, whereas fairy tales had to fight for recognition in the 1820s, no fewer than four different translations of Hans Andersen’s stories for children […] have been published in England in the year of 1846 alone. (159-160).

Thus, late 19th century children’s literature included not just moral stories but also tales of adventure. Works such as R M Ballantyne’s (1825-1894) The Coral Island (1858), Lewis Caroll’s (1832-1898) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), R L Stevenson’s (1850-1894) Treasure Island (1883), Rider Haggard’s (1856-1925) King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Anthony Hope’s (1863-1933) The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) became popular with children. All these works, while they celebrate honesty, courage, and hard work, have ample amount of the magic ingredient: adventure.

The nineteenth century was also a period when science and reason were celebrated, and detective fiction with its emphasis on logic and deduction naturally became popular. Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin stories, Wilkie Collins’s (1824-1889) The Moonstone (1868), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s (1835-1915) Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) owe their success to public’s interest in science — although it must be admitted that the morbid fascination of the Victorian public with sensationalism was no less important.

The upshot of this success of crime fiction with public resulted in the recognition that these were also tales of adventure. Hence, detective fiction also became a part of children’s literature. By the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories, detective fiction became grist for the voracious child’s mill.

However, they still were not considered respectable or desirable for children till mid-twentieth century. This is best exemplified by the manner in which detective fiction or crime literature is treated by noted children’s authors of this period such as Frank Richards (1876-1961), Enid Blyton (1897-1968), and Richmal Crompton (1890-1969). Richards in his Billy Bunter stories shows how the “Fat Owl of the Remove” as Bunter is called by his playmates, is regularly punished by his form teacher Mr Quelch for indulging in sensational literature. Crompton and Blyton too display a similar attitude. Crompton’s William is punished by his elder sister and parents who consider his reading detective novels as a fascination with the gory and grotesque, and Snubby in Blyton’s Mystery series is depicted as smuggling such literature as he is not allowed to read them.

However, this is in essence hypocritical on the part of Richards, Blyton, and Crompton — as they include elements of crime and detection in their stories. Richards shows how the adventurous boys of Greyfriar’s School manage to outwit criminals as varied as jobless gypsies out to burgle or kidnap, to crooks of international repute attempting to steal jewels that have supernatural abilities. Crompton too shows how William is impressed by detectives, and tries his hand at outsmarting robbers. It might be argued that both Crompton and Richards do not make crime or detection as a quintessential part of their writing, but only include it as adventure. Blyton, on the other hand, gives detection a major role in her stories. Her various children’s series such as the Secret Seven, the Famous Five, the Five Find-Outers, the Adventure series, the Secret series, and the hitherto mentioned Mystery series, have at their heart a crime and these books show how the children, who are the protagonists, detect these criminals while displaying admirable courage and industry.

The success of these authors resulted in the mushrooming of similar works. Hence, by mid twentieth century, children’s literature included works such as the Hardy Boys series by Franklin W Dixon, Nancy Drew stories by Carolyn Keene, and the Three Investigators series by Robert Arthur (1909-1969) and W C Carey. The last mentioned were published with ostensibly the recommendation of Alfred Hitchcock, and immediately found favour not only with children, but adults.

As these stories apparently included moral education they gradually were accepted by parents as well, and in the second half of the twentieth century were unquestionably accepted as part of children’s literature by critics such as Sally Sugarman, Jonathan Shipley, Juan Arteaga, John Champion and Tanya Bryne. This acceptance also led to a reappraisal of earlier detective fiction writers such as Doyle and Collins, and such writers were deemed to have virtues hitherto unperceived.

The rediscovery of Collins towards the fag end of the twentieth century led to the reissue of his major works, not just in their unabridged form but also as abridged texts for the consumption of children and adolescents. His The Moonstone, albeit in abridged form, is, in fact, prescribed as a supplementary reader for intermediate students by the Board of State Education in Andhra Pradesh.

Similar is Doyle’s case; although it must be admitted that it was not so much a discovery as it is of acceptance. Doyle’s stories featuring Sherlock Holmes hardly ever lost popularity since their initial publication. But even Doyle would have been surprised that these tales are included as part of the curriculum by various education boards in India. This is because by prescribing it as compulsory reading the education boards are sending out a message that Holmes can be used as role model for children.

But role models play an important role in the development of children, as Manjari Singh and Mei Yu Lu point out:

Heroes and heroines in good literature are portrayed as complex individuals, so it is necessary to analyze them in a holistic manner by paying special attention to the interplay of both positive and negative traits. Many main characters are strong role models because they rise above their own negative traits or weaknesses and overcome personal challenges. We often find protagonists inspiring because they demonstrate the need for individuals to be resilient and to respond proactively to challenging circumstances. Discussing heroes and heroines with children presents countless opportunities for considering how character traits are expressed in others, and how children can develop positive character traits in themselves. (Singh and Lu.)

While it is true that the Holmes stories may be used to teach children “to respond proactively to challenging circumstances”, the protagonist is a character with a dark side. Doyle depicts him as a chain smoker, a sociopath, a cocaine addict, and a misogynist. Moreover, there are various factoids that are included in the canon such as ‘the mind is an attic and the space in it is limited where the acquisition of new knowledge would lead to the erasure of other information’, and that ‘starving the body helps in the thinking process as the blood supply that would have gone to the stomach to help digestion would go to the brain’. Such factoids are ridiculous, and it may be argued that even if children do believe these, they are not positively dangerous.

However, Holmes also propagates the virtue of smoking. In “The Man with the Twisted Lip”, Doyle depicts Holmes as considering the mystery as a three pipe problem, and smoking through the night to solve it. Such romanticizing of smoking is not only undesirable but dangerous as children have impressionable minds.

Hence, a child who idolises Holmes and hopes to become a scientific intellectual might take to smoking in a vain attempt to become like him. Such a fear is not far-fetched. In fact, even Doyle speaks about what we become depends on the kind of knowledge we acquire. Ironically, he does this in his first story of Holmes, where he portrays the various skills of his hero, and how such learning helped him to become the world’s first private consulting detective. This is done in the form of a list that Dr J Watson, the narrator of these stories, prepares, as he attempts to understand what Holmes’s profession is:

  1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
  2. Philosophy.—Nil.
  3. Astronomy.—Nil.
  4. Politics.—Feeble.
  5. Botany.—Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  6. Geology.—Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
  7. Chemistry.—Profound.
  8. Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
  9. Sensational Literature. —Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  10. Plays the violin well.
  11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
  12. Has a good practical knowledge of British Law. (Doyle 9)

Thus, children might prepare a list of things that are necessary to become like Holmes, and this might include not just the pursuance of the above-mentioned skills, but also his vices such as smoking, drinking, and doping.

While it is undeniable that the Holmes stories propagate various virtues such as honesty, integrity, courage, and patriotism, the presence of such vices in a character who is idolized by children makes this text undesirable. Hence, it becomes necessary to posit alternatives to this, which are free from such unwanted elements.

A perusal of detective fiction shows that such an endeavour is not impossible. Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809-1849) Dupin stories, Agatha Christie’s (1890-1976) tales featuring Miss Marple, and Ross Macdonald’s novels are prime examples. Poe’s Dupin is the original ratiocinator, who inspired Doyle amongst others to attempt detective fiction. Moreover, his stories do not include valorisation of vices. However, the problem with these stories is that they are very few in number as Poe had written only three Dupin stories.

This is not a problem in Christie and Macdonald’s case, and could thus be posited as serious alternatives to Holmes stories as children’s literature. The Miss Marple stories with their focus not just on scientific deduction but also on creating a harmonious world through its depiction are ideal for children. The protagonist in these novels is an elderly spinster, who is free of vice, and understands human nature. Her love and concern for humanity is a virtue that can and ought to be propagated.

If Marple due to her old age does not immediately find favour with the young and the restless, Macdonald’s Lew Archer is a veritable alternative. Archer is depicted by Macdonald as not just as a logical thinker, a hard working patriot, and a brave crime fighter, but also as an energetic person who attempts to not just help the victims but also the criminals. For Macdonald, a criminal is a society construct, and he believes that sympathy and empathy could lead to a world which is free of evil. An idealist at heart, his Find a Victim (1954), depicts his detective ruminating on how severe punishment might lead to a juvenile delinquent turning into a hardened criminal. In the novel, Macdonald describes how Lew Archer, too, escapes such a fate, and became a detective. By this, the author propounds the importance of kindness and empathy in a world that is rife with strife and corruption.

These are virtues that children would do well to emulate, and thus, it is high time that School Boards and Publishing Houses take note of it. These works by Dupin, Christie, and Macdonald can be prescribed in the curriculum, as they would not only whet the appetite of the child for detective fiction, but also teach them morals and values without valorising vices. Similarly, publishing houses too can make these texts available in abridged forms or package them as children’s literature.

As adults it is our responsibility to pay attention to this fact ass we live in a world where news is sensationalised and children are exposed to corruption and vices from a very young age, it is necessary that the heroes they idolise are ideal.


Butts, Dennis. ‘How Children’s Literature Changed: What Happened in the 1840s?’. The Lion and the Unicorn. 21: 2 (1997): 153-162. Print.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. Vol. 1. Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1892. Print.

…………….. “The Man with the Twisted Lip”. Eastoftheweb. N.P. ND. Web. 2 October 2015.

Fadiman, Clifton. “Children’s Literature”. encyclopedia britannia. N.P. 1 December 2014. Web. 2 October 2015.

Hunt, Peter. An Introduction to Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.

MacDonald, Ross. Find a Victim. New York: Warner Books, 1954. Print.

Routledge, Chris. “Crime and Detective Literature for Young Readers.” chrisroutledge. 2010. N.P. Web.2 October 2015.

Singh, Manjari and Mei-Yu Lu. “Exploring the Function of Heroes and Heroines in Children’s Literature from around the World.” ERICdigest. 2003. N.P. Web. 2 October 2015.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. 1726. London: Dover Thrift Editions, 1996. Print.

Dr KBS Krishna is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. His PhD was from the English and Foreign Language University, Hyderabad (CIEFL), on the depiction of cities as nightmares in Hard Boiled American Detective Fiction. His short stories and poems have been published in various International journals.

The Golden Line: Volume 1, Number 2, 2015

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