Posts Tagged ‘steven moffat’

I’m happy to admit I only decided to read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon because I, like many others, have a thumping great crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. This entire review will be written through the filter of how much I love this TV series, and my primary assumption will be that Gatiss and Moffat have reinvented the “Sherlock” stories into the form that they clearly should have existed in all along. I appreciate this is probably enough to compel Conan Doyle Purists to take out a contract on my life, but since I don’t (as far as I know) have any Conan Doyle Purist readers, I’m going to assume that’s not really much of a problem.

Holmes is so much part of our cultural landscape that even illiterate peasants like me know quite a lot about him. Victorian London, deerstalker hats, violin-playing, middle-aged flat-share, cocaine addiction, a whole lot of homo-erotic tension poorly concealed beneath a late marriage and a housekeeper, Professor Moriarty, dressing-gowns, deerstalkers, tobacco smoke, blah blah blah, Holmes dies then comes back to life again, not quite sure how it ends. Written out like that, it’s probably not surprising that I wasn’t all that excited about reading the original stories.

In preparation for reading the book, and to make sure I was approaching it in the right spirit of intellectual enquiry, I did a quick audit to discover what my friends and I all “know” about the cultural significance of Sherlock Holmes:

1. Holmes is the world’s first fictional detective, and therefore responsible for the Crime genre
2. Holmes is somehow something to do with superheroes, not really sure how, but for some reason he keeps turning up in comics and films and so on
3. It’s all a bit homo-erotic and odd

Strange But True: All books automatically become 15% more enjoyable if you imagine this man in the title role

1. Holmes is the world’s first fictional detective, and was therefore responsible for the Crime genre
There’s no doubt that Holmes is hugely important in the history of crime-writing. Apart from anything else, he was hugely influential in the implementation of modern forensic practice (the number of times he has to rail at the idiots who have walked all over the crime-scene in their humungous Size Nines is slightly alarming). In this sense, he’s definitely one of the forefathers of Poirot, Whimsey, Marple, Morse, Wexford, Scarpetta and all the rest of them.

However, in the sense that I am not an awful lot like my grandmother, the Holmes stories are not an awful lot like modern detective fiction. There’s very little point in trying to guess the outcome in the Holmes stories. Sometimes this is because you don’t have all the facts – Holmes’s denouements quite often include a casual mention of some small but vital piece of evidence he read (but you didn’t) in last week’s Evening Standard. Sometimes this is because the “facts” are made up by Conan Doyle, and we now know they are impossible. (I especially like the story where the explanation for a man behaving like a monkey every nine days is because he has been taking monkey-extract to try and become more sexy.) And sometimes this is because the psychology of the characters is laughable to the point of stupidity.

Take “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”, for example. Grant Munro comes to Holmes and tells him that his previously-married wife has been deceiving him. She has borrowed £100 and begged him not to ask why, but has apparently spent this on installing a lover with a strangely yellow face in a nearby cottage. Rather than just, you know, freakin’ ask her about this or anything – because asking would be breaking his promise – he decides to consult Holmes. Holmes’s initial theory (which would make sense) is that the figure in the cottage is Mrs Munro’s first husband, but the eventual solution (which makes no sense. Seriously) is that the “yellow-faced” figure is Mrs Munro’s child by her first husband, dressed in a mask for the purposes of concealment. Husband number one was black, and since their child is visibly mixed-race, Mrs Munro decided to keep her a secret. However, she then started to miss her very much, so decided to smuggle her over to England and keep her in the cottage, and visit her occasionally. Quite how long she thought she might get away with this is anybody’s guess. The moment where Mr Munro takes the child in his arms, welcoming her into his family, is really pretty lovely; but hiding the child in a cottage for an undefinite period, and funding said cottage by asking your husband to give you enormous sums of money you never account for? Surely the stupidest solution to any parenting dilemma in the history of man.

I can see why he didn't see that one coming.

In fact, generally speaking, Conan Doyle’s characters are pretty cardboard and unbelievable. It doesn’t help that he was an ardent believer in Phrenology, which means that his characters tend to look like who they are. Evil people look evil, sneaky people look sneaky, dissolute rakes look like dissolute rakes…you get the idea. Of course it’s possible that Watson is just a superhumanly good judge of character, and can instantly spot a wrong ‘un; but it doesn’t make for an exciting big-reveal finish.

Saying that, and mad-Victorian-pseudo-science aside, the stories are often pretty exciting. Think of them as adventures rather than mysteries, and it all starts to make a lot more sense.

Which brings me nicely onto my next point:

2. Holmes is somehow something to do with superheroes, not really sure how, but for some reason he keeps turning up in comics and films and so on

And you know what? Having read the original stories, I can see exactly why this is. Holmes is far more like Batman than he is like Poirot. (Indeed, with his short fat physique, relentlessly Continental outlook, odd facial hair decisions and determined commitment to psychology over forensics, it’s possible to see Poirot as Holmes’s wilful polar opposite.) Like Batman, he has powers which are almost but not quite superhuman. Like Batman, he’s often called in by the police when they need a bit of help. Like Batman, he’s an oddly sexless figure who seems oblivious to any sort of female wiles. Like Batman, he’s volunteered himself to keep the streets of his home-town safe from criminals, and often puts himself in great physical danger to do so. Like Batman, he has a devoted sidekick. And like Batman, he has a Nemesis…although I have to say that if the Joker had only appeared in one story and then died at the end, I imagine the entire series may have been a little less successful.

Also had a spurious anti-homo-erotic housekeeper.

Finally, like most superheroes, Holmes belongs to his fans. All the best superheroes take on a life of their own. They can be endlessly re-cast and reinvented to suit the needs and dreams of a new generation. I’m sure that if I ever got my hands on Detective Comics #27, I’d be pretty disappointed by the writing. But the first time I read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, I was moved to tears by it. By moving out into our collective consciousness and letting us do pretty much whatever we want with him, Holmes has indeed become a Superhero.

And what is it that we all want to do with Holmes, I wonder?

3. It’s all a bit homo-erotic and odd
It was somewhere about the second page of the first story, “A Study In Scarlet”, that I realised what this was all about. Anyone who doesn’t read the scene where a young-ish Watson, invalided home from Afghanistan and looking for cheap accommodation, moves in with a madman who shoots patterns on the living-room wall when he’s bored and doesn’t know the earth revolves around the sun, is missing the best bit. From their initial relationship of utter perplexity with each other, their relationship slowly evolves into a deep and abiding love.

Is their love a true romantic entanglement? Clearly, we’re not the first generation to wonder. One thing we all “know” is that Conan Doyle was so worried by the sly innuendo surrounding two confirmed bachelors sharing rooms that he was forced to marry off Watson and install a housekeeper. Except that, like a lot of elements in the stories, there’s a definite divide at The Final Problem.

A surprising amount of Holmes-lore only exists before Holmes goes over the Reichenbach Falls. The cocaine-addiction, Watson’s marriage, the financial practicalities that force both Holmes and Watson to share living-quarters with a stranger, any attempt to pretend that Watson has stuff to do that isn’t being Holmes’s sidekick and most of the uneasy tension with Scotland Yard belong to the pre-Final-Problem stories.

Of course, “The Final Problem” has a big significance in the Holmes canon, since it represents Conan Doyle’s last attempt to escape his destiny of being known for Holmes and nothing else for the rest of time. Poor man, he actually thought he might actually be able to escape by pushing his hero over a waterfall, in one of the most crappily-constructed stories of the entire set. Incidentally, people who rave about “The Final Problem” as a glorious moment in detective writing: you are wrong. Moriarty, who hasn’t been mentioned at all in any way up until now, is brought in, in a casual oh-yeah-sorry-I-never-mentioned-before-but-I-seem-to-have-this-Nemesis way that makes my teeth itch (although I will admit to liking the description “The Napoleon of Crime”). Holmes and Watson go yomping off round the Alps, Holmes sends Watson back to the hotel room to check they didn’t leave the iron on or something, and while he’s gone Moriarty pushes Holmes over the waterfall. Only he lets him write a long letter to Watson first, explaining what’s about to happen. The end. All the action takes place off-screen, and one of the greatest fictional characters of the age is killed by some bloke who we never get to meet. The only person who can possibly have enjoyed this is Conan Doyle, who must have thought he’d finally escaped and would now be able to write other stuff instead.

The moment Martin Freeman realises his most significant career moment will no longer be kissing Lucy Davies.

But then there was a concerted letter-writing campaign by ravening fans, and Conan Doyle relented, and brought Holmes back to life. It definitely feels as if this is the moment when Conan Doyle decides to stop worrying about how things look, and just kind of go with it and do what the fans wanted. And almost as soon as he made this decision, the entire quality of the Holmes / Watson relationship changes.

Here’s a passage from a pre-Falls story, “The Man With The Twisted Lip”:

“[Sherlock] took off his coat and waistcoat, put on a large blue dressing-gown, and then wandered about the room collecting pillows from his bed and cushions from the sofa and armchairs. With these he constructed a sort of Eastern divan, upon which he perched himself cross-legged…So he sat as I dropped off to sleep, and so he sat when a sudden ejaculation caused me to wake up, and I found the summer sun shining into the apartment.”
(The Man With The Twisted Lip)

Sorry, I know it’s childish to laugh, but come on, right? I can’t make up my mind if this is Conan Doyle having a sly Julian-and-Sandy moment, or a genuine Freudian slip. But the point is, it’s only funny because we’re all still pretending that Watson has other people in his life who mean more to him than Holmes, and other things to do with his day than go around in a van solving mysteries. Post-Final-Problem, everything’s out in the open, and the world is a much better place as a result:

“When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and last time in my life. Certainly a grey mist swirled before my eyes. and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.”
(The Empty House)

I found this genuinely moving – in the same way I was moved by Martin Freeman’s performance in the modern re-telling. Watson’s dearest friend, who he loves more than anyone else, has just come back from the dead, and he’s overcome to the point of losing consciousness. In general, Conan Doyle isn’t great at writing emotion, but for once, he gets it right.

Is there a tinge of eroticism in this scene? The swooning, the brandy, the loosened clothing? There could be, but I don’t think there has to be. We all assume that the most important emotional connections of our lives will always be sexual as well, but there’s no rule that says it has to be. Holmes and Watson clearly love each other. Who cares whether that love is sexual or not?

Being a starry-eyed romantic, my favourite Holmes moment is probably the moment in “The Three Garridebs”, when Watson is shot during the course of the action. Holmes is utterly horrified, and shows it – a moment Watson clearly treasures:

“It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”
(The Three Garridebs)


I suspect that ultimately, this is why we all like Freeman and Cumberbatch so much. They’ve got the Watson / Holmes relationship absolutely right. Like Kirk and Spock – that other great emotional / logical couple of heroes who whizz around the multiverse discovering stuff and having adventures, they’re right on the cusp of stuff men are supposed to like (guns and action) and stuff women are supposed to like (men showing their emotions). In this modern incarnation, Holmes and Watson become the perfect platonic Bromance.

But of course, if you prefer, you can also just assume that they’re at it like rabbits.

There are about ten million billion different editions of Sherlock Holmes available, but the one I have is the Kindle edition, which is available for a parsimonious 77p.

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