My fascination with Sherlock Holmes

SINGAPORE - Like millions of people around the world, I attempted to keep my cool as Jan 1 drew near.

No, New Year countdowns and fireworks aren't quite my thing. But something much more thrilling was set to unfold on the first day of the year - the return of Sherlock Holmes.

BBC's Sherlock, starring British actor Benedict Cumberbatch as the superintelligent sleuth, is one of my guilty TV pleasures, and its long-awaited third season sent electric shocks through the TV-watching public on New Year's Day.

The modern take on Holmes is as much a homage to the fictional character as it is a tribute to his long-time fans, combining well-picked source material with a contemporary setting and vibe.

Throw in a heady mix of intellect and infectious wit, and you have plenty of competition for the late Jeremy Brett, long regarded as the definitive Holmes.

There is a strange public fascination with the character and the idea of Holmes, a man both mysterious and massmarket. He is a perpetual face in the Guinness World Records as the "most portrayed movie character" - played by more than 70 actors in over 200 films; but never played the same way twice.

Scottish writer and doctor Arthur Conan Doyle managed, somehow, to conjure up a man of paradoxes and conundrums, a man of analytic perfection and intense emotional imperfection, a man so asexual but deeply sought after, serving up detective work with a side of drug use.

And although Holmes was not the first fictional detective to leap from the pages of a novel or short story, rarely has any other wielded such influence over the genre of crime fiction. But my fascination with Holmes didn't begin with him.

As a child, I grew up on a steady diet of Enid Blyton books, with a penchant for those featuring children who could problem-solve and go on rebellious adventures without the help of adults.

The Five Find-Outers and Dog regularly solved crimes ahead of the rather incompetent and bumbling local police constable, and The Secret Seven was a clever society run by children who waded into all sorts of exciting mysteries.

With every crime or mystery novel, there comes the drive to outwit the detective or even the author at his own game.

Even as a child, I was hooked on Blyton's straightforward cases, my mind working overtime to figure out who had sent out poison pen letters or masterminded a kidnapping or theft. I had soon devoured them all and needed something a little more complex and satisfying for my tweenage tastes.

This had me clearing out every Agatha Christie novel in the neighbourhood library as I grew acquainted with the queen of mystery and murder. I soon began to sniff at the slower-paced Miss Marple stories and gunned for twee Belgian detective Hercule Poirot instead, with his perfectly egg-shaped head (even if Christie found him "insufferable").

With Dame Christie, I learnt the art of the unreliable narrator; the triumphant twist in the tale and the big reveal; the meaning of an alibi and the elimination of suspects; and developed a strange proclivity for quaint English country houses.

But I suspect that reading too much of a single crime writer's works follows the law of diminishing returns. Narrative devices which I thrilled in recognising soon became dull and predictable.

Still, there was a secret delight I took in solving each murder before Poirot did, and on I trudged with Dame Christie, until my father scoffed: "She's nothing compared with Sherlock Holmes."

He handed me an imposing book 3 inches thick with a weathered cover and whispery pages that reminded me of the Bible. The tome contained the four novels typically included in the Sherlock Holmes canon - A Study In Scarlet, The Sign Of The Four, The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Valley Of Fear - as well as the 12 short stories which make up The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes collection. I tore through the entire volume, second-guessing myself as I marvelled at Holmes' science of deduction, his encyclopaedic knowledge, and at the same time, his utterly human flaws.

I suppose, like a good detective, a good crime writer is a quick study, particularly when it comes to the human psyche. A crime novelist has a grasp of reader psychology in the same way that his creation can sum up someone who has just swept into the room, from the stain on his pants to the crease in her collar.

But beyond that, I believe Doyle went a step further: He gave us the opportunity to be a voyeur, to imagine ourselves to be the closest person by the detective's side, all because of Holmes' loyal sidekick, Dr John Watson. Even if Holmes was, like Poirot, an equally "insufferable" narcissist, Watson brought a down-to-earth, human lens through which we could view the detective and relate to him.

As Watson struggled to keep up, so did I - and instead of trying to outsmart Holmes, I found myself thinking with him to piece together each new puzzle.

I doubt Holmes would have succeeded so phenomenally without his faithful Watson, and I wonder what Watson would have made of all this celebrity.

Perhaps he would have patted himself on the back and smiled, saying: "It's all quite elementary, really."