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The Fourth Wall: There's no mystery as to why Sherlock Holmes is so popular

Arthur Conan Doyle was said to have told his mother that he had “grown weary” of his signature creation — to the point where he killed off Sherlock Holmes, only to revive literature’s most famous detective a decade later after considerable pressure from a public that had not grown weary of his adventures.

Conan Doyle should have known better. Having observed readers’ enthusiasm for Holmes (and, of course, for Dr. Watson), the author easily should have deduced that he had created a living, breathing icon — even if said icon was a drug-addled, misanthropic, emotionally stunted know-it-all who not only believed the Earth revolved around him but, if challenged, could prove it.

It’s just those qualities, though, that make Holmes everlasting. Canonical followers barely abide a funny Holmes, a friendly Holmes, a Holmes who is the life of the party — no matter how hard Hollywood tries to shoehorn Sherlock into such contrivances.

For instance, “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” in 1987 had a cryogenically preserved main character thawed out by a descendant of Dr. Watson’s. But, if you want to see evidence of a truly trying adaptation, degenerate some brain cells and watch last fall’s insipid “Holmes & Watson,” with Will Ferrell and John C. Riley.

You might say that the resident of 221B Baker Street is among the first mortal superheroes.

Even more Holmes is on the way. The acclaimed BBC films with Benedict Cumberbatch, and the popular, tongue-in-cheek movie series starring Robert Downey Jr., are each in the early stages of new installments.

Recently, we’ve had Johnny Depp as a lawn ornament detective in “Sherlock Gnomes,” and even in the current film “Pokemon Detective Pikachu,” the animated title character wears a deerstalker cap.

One of the more memorable offshoots was 2015’s “Mr. Holmes” — a stellar look at an aging Sherlock (Ian McKellan) battling time and dementia as he tries to solve a mystery that got away.

The film includes movie-within-the-movie scenes from a Sherlock Holmes story — with the actor portraying Holmes being Nicholas Rowe (who starred 30 years earlier in the teenage-adaptation “Young Sherlock Holmes.”)

It’s a role that has been played more often than any other in cinematic history (everyone from Basil Rathbone to Milton Berle to the android Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” has adorned himself with cape and pipe) and has inspired directly or indirectly generations of detective novels, plays, films and TV series.

In the end, though, Holmes is Holmes, in the same way that Lear is Lear or Superman is Superman.

You might say that the resident of 221B Baker Street is among the first mortal superheroes.

To solve crimes, he robes himself in a ritualistic costume. He has a sidekick. He is expert in any number of arts, sciences and physical endeavors. And matters of the heart are, well, complicated.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of Arthur Conan Doyle’s birth. Holmes (give or take how you note his murky origin story in “His Last Bow”) is 165. And yet, they are still with us.

The entirely entertaining “Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of the Four” ends its run this weekend (sorry to say, the final shows are sold out) at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre.

When we hear a movie Holmes say, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” we might wince because we know Conan Doyle never had Sherlock say what has become the detective’s most famous “quote” it’s a bit of unnecessary stage business meant to connect the audience to the actors.

Rick Robinson, the director of the piece who also adapted the script from the novel, talks in a promotional video about the challenge of “stepping into Conan Doyle’s shoes” to treat the iconic characters with the respect they deserve while opening the storyline to light and dark embellishments.

The comedic touches, both subtle and broad, in the production work because they take nothing away from the case at hand — precisely because Holmes is portrayed as the constant, the mast around which swirls all sorts of chaos.

This week also saw the return of the under-appreciated CBS series “Elementary” for its abbreviated seventh and final season.

Set in the present-day, and with a woman Dr. Watson (who begins the series as recovering addict Holmes’ “sober companion”), the show refuses to camp up the character, but rather succeeds because the inner workings of Holmes’ mind are deftly interwoven into cases that revolve around primal motives and methods that would prevail in any time period.

“Elementary” also works because Jonny Lee Miller plays Holmes as all the better performers do — at once ingrained within and set apart from the universe in which we find him.

Along with Cumberbatch and (for my money, the best) Jeremy Brett — from the British series that ran in the U.S. over PBS stations — Miller comes the closest to what we expect of Holmes.

And that, after all, is what it comes down to our expectations of a character.

When we hear a movie Holmes say, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” we might wince because we know Conan Doyle never had Sherlock say what has become the detective’s most famous “quote” it’s a bit of unnecessary stage business meant to connect the audience to the actors.

We don’t need that artifice. We don’t want to be reminded that we are watching a show. We want to be carried away.

“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having,” Conan Doyle wrote about another passion, “just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

Give us Sherlock, Watson, an unsolvable mystery and a couple of hours to lose ourselves, and we’re right where we want to be, pedaling.

When he eliminates the impossible, Mail Tribune copy desk chief Robert Galvin is left with the improbable at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com.

Robert Galvin