By John Rossi

He is the most celebrated figure in English literature. No, not William Shakespeare or King Arthur, but the lean, hawkeyed inhabitant of 221B Baker Street, Mr. Sherlock Holmes - perhaps the only fictional character who is the subject of a full-blown biography.

Arthur Conan Doyle, a bored English physician harassed by creditors, created Holmes in 1887 to while away the time as he waited for patients to show up. Now Holmes is the central figure of a major film opening on Christmas and starring Robert Downey Jr. as the world's greatest consulting detective. (Downey is a strange choice, although he and Holmes do share an affection for cocaine.)

What is it that has given the Holmes character such a hold on the public's imagination?

Doyle, as all good writers do, created an evocative, elaborate world that draws the reader in. It is the world of late-Victorian London, with its fogs and its dark, wet streets. Every detail of it is memorable. Holmes' rooms at 221B, for example, are a perfectly cluttered male refuge - comfortable chairs and settees, a desk spilling over with papers, a Persian slipper holding his tobacco, cigars stashed in a coal shuttle, and correspondence stuck to the mantelpiece with a jackknife.

The Holmes character is idiosyncratic and totally fascinating. And his relationship with his friend, Dr. John H. Watson - who is constantly astonished at Holmes' brilliance - is the forerunner of all detective partnerships. (By the way, although the good doctor often asks the detective to explain his deductions, Holmes never actually replies, "Elementary, my dear Watson.")

Doyle had a vibrant imagination. The four novels and 56 short stories starring Holmes, almost all of them narrated by Watson, contain most of what would become the traditions of crime fiction, including clues, dramatic chases, and life-and-death fights.

Doyle also created some of the most memorable villains in all of literature, the most famous of whom was Holmes' archenemy, Professor Moriarty - the Napoleon of crime, the archetype of every supercriminal in literature. There was also Col. Sebastian Moran, "the second-most dangerous man in London" and possessor of a deadly air gun. Irene Adler, the New Jersey-born woman who both charmed and defeated Holmes, was always referred to as "The Woman." And perhaps the most memorable of all of Holmes' cases revolved around the deadly Hound of the Baskervilles.

Doyle sprinkled hints of even more interesting cases throughout Holmes' adventures, whetting the appetite of his admirers. Who wouldn't want to know the details of "The Giant Rat of Sumatra," for which Watson tells us the world isn't ready, or "The Singular Affair of the Aluminum Crutch"?

What also makes the Holmes stories so fascinating is that Doyle did not hold them in high regard. They made him rich and famous, but he came to despise the characters he had created, believing that they detracted from his more serious writings - novels, such as The White Company, and his histories.

As a result, the stories are filled with contradictions and whopping mistakes. Doyle inadvertently refers to Watson as "James" in one story. He even inadvertently made Watson a bigamist, marrying him off in one story and then, having forgotten about it, giving him another wife in a later tale.

Such slips have led to one of the greatest conceits to grow out of the stories: that Holmes was a real man, and Watson his biographer. A legion of Holmes fans scrutinize the stories, which some call "The Canon" or "The Sacred Writings," looking for mistakes, identifying the real names of the fictional characters, trying to date the cases, and, in the process, forging a formal biography of the man and his times.

When Doyle killed Holmes off in a memorable struggle with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, the public was outraged. They clamored for more adventures, and Doyle eventually brought Holmes back, although he wrote the later tales without much enthusiasm.

At one time, the Sherlock Holmes stories were second only to the Bible in readership in the English-speaking world. They have been revived for the screen in every generation since Doyle's 1930 death - most memorably in Basil Rathbone's definitive film renditions and in Jeremy Brett's idiosyncratic performance for television.

The latest portrayal of Holmes promises to be updated, visually stimulating, and violent. It is a testament to Doyle's powers that no reimagining of the story - no matter how silly - seems capable of destroying the hold on our imaginations of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the immortal resident of 221B Baker Street.

John Rossi is a professor emeritus of history at La Salle University and a lifelong Sherlockian. He can be reached at rossi@lasalle.edu.