The Imagining of Holmes

18th Feb 2016

The story of how the idea for a version of Sherlock Holmes in which the great detective is a working class lad living in modern day Middlesbrough is described in my previous blog article, It Was A Bizarre Sequence of Events.   But what about the development of Holmes himself, from the vagary of the idea, to the character that drinks and swears his way through Holmes Volume 1?  How did he come about?

Sherlock Holmes: Detective, Enigma, Boro Lad

The first thing was to strip him down to his essentials.  Wherever Sherlock Holmes is in time, location or even social stratum, there are some core elements that must be there.  The deerstalker and the pipe can go, these weren’t the invention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle anyway.  What must remain is the logic engine that is a master of observation and deduction.  It was these things, the core staples of the character, that gave me his profession as an “ethical computer hacker.”  

To me, the talents at the essence of the Holmes character have strong analogies in the world of information technology.  There’s the processing of data, which should go without saying and the cold logic which can be found at the heart of computing systems.  Even the deduction has its place, albeit not in the architecture of an information system. 

In the computing analogy, deduction maps quite conveniently to debugging, the process of identifying and fixing errors, or bugs, in computer program code.  Imagine you are given the job of debugging a complex computer system.  If nothing is apparent from the logs (for logs think forensic evidence) then you would need to work through the code to determine where the error is.  In complex system the chances are that the code will be broken up into components.  If you had worked through all the components but one and not found an issue, you be starting to think that the issue might just well be in the component you’ve not yet checked.  Probably the component you where you least expected to find an issue. Does this remind you of anything?

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

So, now we have the scenes in the book where Holmes is investigating the crime locations.  Where he’s stood still drumming the air with his fingers, or ghosting around the room. What he is doing here is debugging the crime scene.  He’s stepping through the code, the clues, he’s sucking in the available data and processing it in his incredible brain. 

So. our all-new Holmes is a computer programmer.  It’s the natural vocation for someone with a disposition for data and logic.  Holmes, however, is more of a computer than a computer programmer.  He’s not the type of character who’s going to settle into a nine to five job cutting dot com software in a team of programmers, no matter how many beanbags and rollerblading breaks they have.  I wish there were a better way of saying this, but he’s not a team player.  

So. we have an extremely intelligent, computer programming, lone wolf.   So what does he get up to?  How does he apply these talents?  Well, there are rules as to what you can and can’t do with computers.  These are generally known as laws.  Laws however tend to work best if you think you might be caught when breaking them.  Given Holmes has a self-awareness of the elevated intelligence he’s had bestowed upon him, he considers the possibility of lesser mortals identifying any transgression as slight to none at all.  Consequently, laws are seen as minor constraints that can be flexed should the necessity arise.  In the case of Holmes necessity may well be something as simple as the appeasement of his idle curiosity. 

Then we have the soon-to-be long-suffering Doctor Watson.  How does he, a respectable member of the medical profession, meet a computer hacker with scant regard for the law?  On this thought Holmes gets collared for one of his transgressions and Doctor Watson becomes involved in his rehabilitation.  This requires a slight tweak to Watson’s branch of medicine in which he becomes a psychologist, but it’s not a massive leap. We also get something for free.  I absolutely love it when that happens.  Watson meeting Holmes is one thing, but him sticking by his side is something in entirely another.  Making Watson a psychologist gives him a reason to be interested in the singularly unique character that is Holmes.  Watson’s day job concerns the workings of the mind, and no-one else’s mind works quite like Holmes’.  Watson is intrigued by the enigma of the man.

Finally, we have Mrs Hudson.  I had no problem with her keeping her role as Holmes’ landlady but really didn’t see a place for the matronly character of unswerving servitude you see in other interpretations. It just isn’t a dynamic you would find in modern-day Middlesbrough, or modern-day pretty much anywhere you would hope.  Making her his landlady is easy, she just has to own the flat he lives in, but you do have to give her a reason for being around.  Location wise is easy. You put her in an adjacent space.  Consequently, Holmes’ billet becomes a flat above a shop, which Mrs Hudson both owns and works in.   Locale itself may give a strong enough reason for a relationship to form between the two, but making them the same age and providing the backstory that they went to school together gives both her a reason to put up with his peculiar ways.  It also allows her to be a bit feisty with him. 

Making Mrs Hudson’s, or Martha’s, shop a fashion boutique is an idea that came and went and at the same time stayed.  Let me explain.  The original idea was that Martha’s boutique, Hud Couture, would be used by Holmes to source his disguises.  In the original Sir ACD stories Sherlock is always getting dressed up to integrate himself in some scenario or other.   If he had a cool dressing up box in the shape of a fashion boutique how good would that be?  The thing is I’ve never really liked the Holmes in disguise thing.  No matter the size of Jeremy Brett’s prosthetic nose, you could always spot him a mile off.  I therefore decided that my Holmes would disguise himself not with adornments but with shifts in his personality.  I saw him as an enigmatic character anyway, so why not extend his propensity for adopting different personalities and make it a tool of his trade.  A tool that allows him to blend into the situation he finds himself in.  We all do this to some extent. You’re a different person at work, as you are at home , as you are with your mates.  This idea aligned well with an early thought, hopefully demonstrated on the cover of Holmes Volume 1, that Holmes was that kind of character you’d seen a thousand times around town, but never really noticed.  To me he’s blank canvas, a logic engine, that paints on a character to match his surroundings and the situations he finds himself in.  

Another idea that never quite went in the direction in which it was pointed was that of Holmes’ vocabulary.  The thought at the outset was that Holmes would swear with the level of artistry seen in The Thick of It.  The Holmes in these stories would be a homage to the great Malcolm Tucker.  For whatever reason this never worked out.  It may sound a bit weird but the character of Holmes sort of took over.  He can only say the words that he should say.  He still swears, more so in the early stories I think, but this is more about his public persona that from Watson’s perspective loosens as their relationship builds. Unfortunately for the art of profanity, Holmes can’t be as universally nasty Malcolm Tucker.  His barbs need to be spared for particular people and scenarios. 

Holmes Volume 1 is available from Amazon UK in both paperback and Kindle formats, as well as being available from

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