Sherlock Holmes: everybody seems to have an angle on him. I’ve put together six ways of looking at the most famous detective in all fiction – all patchy and partial – and I’ve love to hear people’s thoughts on them. Or the other angles you’ve found to Holmes…
1. Sherlock the Data Retrieval System
I was quite unimpressed with the animation of Sherlock’s memory in the episode Hounds of Baskerville from the recent BBC series. Given that the script gestured towards the medieval arts of memory and made a decent joke about Sherlock’s “mind palace”, it was a bit of a let-down to see him essentially playing with what looked like an invisible iPad. If Sherlock’s mental abilities are roughly equivalent to any given human plus a tablet computer and wifi, he’s looking down the wrong end of obsolescence in relatively short order. In fact, as soon Moriaty gets his iPad upgraded, the free world is in a whole shedload of hassle. It seemed a rather limp version of the towering intellect we remember from Conan Doyle’s stories.
But returning to those stories, it’s striking how many times Sherlock comes across as exactly that – a data retrieval system. The monographs he published on the varieties of tobacco ash and tattoos, the pride in recognising at sight the individual typefaces used by newspapers, the finicky obsession with his files: this isn’t a hero of the Empire, it’s Dave from IT. Only Dave probably takes off his lanyard when he gets home and has himself a life; Sherlock lives for this stuff. I’m all for foiling malefactors, and if knowing all the different kinds of dirt in London helps then chalk one up to Baker Street. But really, who memorises mud? Enough of this spreadsheet in a smoking jacket.
2. Sherlock Recurring
Is the BBC Sherlock a rare example of a TV series which is deliberately more coherent and less episodic than its written source? One of Sherlock’s strengths over the years has surely been the rhythm of the stories: the sequence of client, development, crisis and explanation. With variations it’s the rhythm we’re familiar with in later crime fiction from Poirot to Rumpole to Law and Order. Procedural before the procedure, so to speak. Though the world of Baker Street is much more static than we usually find in episodic TV series, which tend to combine the repeating structure with some long-running threads. (Most obvious when it’s done clunkily, as in Burn Notice.) Despite the very occasional minor flurry of change – Watson’s slightly confusing marriages spring to mind – each story offers a comforting framework in which the characters will return home at the end, if not to tea than certainly to tobacco.
Watson’s lack of knowledge about Holmes’ personal history also helps him recur. The cluster of strong personality traits we remember about him are presented as the fully formed character of a new housemate, not the result of emotional developments we’ve been allowed to follow. So the perpetual “present” created by the episodes, in which action takes place and time passes without causing change, can be enlivened by sudden swoops into the past. Giving Holmes a brother, for example. I wonder whether this variety of narrative time is particularly suited to both magazine publication during the 1890s and TV repeats channels during a Sunday afternoon. Either way I’m convinced it provides ideal conditions for other writers to add new adventures by way of tribute or parody.
3. Sherlock the Shippable
Not an area I know much about, but I gather a lot of “shipping” of Holmes and Watson goes on in adaptations and fan discussions. (If you know more about this, please leave a comment!) Hardly surprising, given that they’re two men who live together and have a strong following in modern fan culture. Does the origin of the source material make this an even more attractive idea? The idea of “the Victorians” hangs over so much of our public discourse, whether we invoke workhouses or Imperial overreach. The popular image of the Victorians as publicly prudish and secretly passionate has a powerful hold on us, and perhaps imagining a love affair between Holmes and Watson has a more specifically political charge. After all, it was the 1880s which saw the word “homosexual” become part of general English and it was to “Victorian values” that the Thatcher government appealed when imposing Section 28 of the Local Government Act which forbade schools from “promoting homosexuality” or “teaching…the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family unit”. Is there a particular frisson in finding two men in love at the heart of the tyrannical virtue which looms behind us?
4. Sherlock the Nietzschean
“He didn’t survive til the Second World War,” Austin said, pouring more gin into his teacup, “Because no-one knew which way he’d have jumped. Or rather, they thought they did know.” A few years ago, a friend of mine explained that Sherlock Holmes would have ended up as an English Nazi. A devotee of German romanticism, a man whose sense of superiority meant he regarded most of humanity as too bovine to bother with, an intellectual who decided to help people if he found it entertaining enough…you can see there might be warning signs here. And a surprisingly number of Holmes’ cases don’t involve handing malefactors over to the police, another hint that he finds moral rules and social obligations rather beneath him. Add this to a sentimental patriotism – though it must be admitted he doesn’t worship the countryside or an imagined “organic community” in the past. But let’s pause on the image of a man who blasts the Queen’s initials into his own wall with pistol bullets. I think Austin makes a pretty good case…
5. Sherlock the Consultant
I’ve argued elsewhere that the detectives of the Golden Age were created out of a need to provide an officer class for the forces of law and order. However, Sherlock’s insistence that he is “a consulting detective” has more the defensiveness of the professional middle class. His training in anatomy and his interest in precedents slot him in alongside the classic “professions” of law and medicine, as does his interest in individual cases in as examples of general principles. A good chap, Holmes, with a lucrative private practice, a keen interest in the theory of his profession and the ambition to publish. He enjoys the liberty to decide which cases he takes on, and is anxious for the approval of his peers, hence the publishing, which is problematic since his ego won’t admit that he has any. He claims to be the only member of his profession and perhaps that’s a good thing too, since it’s debatable how well some of his activities would stand up before any Standards and Ethics Committee.
In fact, the term “case” which I’ve been bandying about might be more revealing than it first appears. We’re thoroughly used to “The Case of The…” in detective fiction, but it’s not the title Conan Doyle’s readers would have recognised the stories under. The tales are “Adventure”, “Mystery” and “Problem”, with just one “Case”, the obviously different “A Case of Identity”. The title of the last collection, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, is probably a pun we’re missing, intended to frame the volume as a mock-authoritative set of case studies. The OED suggests that in the 1880s and 90s, “case” would have been much more redolent of law and medicine: there are a couple of examples relating to crime before this, but the word seems to catch on in the early twentieth century. The Sherlock Holmes who took on “cases” is a well-satisfied professional man, unworried by manual labour or shrinking returns on land, steepling his fingers as a potential client asks for his help. And after some consultation with his own experience, published cases and the recognised authorities on the subject, rendering his professional opinion.
6. Sherlock of the Home Counties
Despite the image of Holmes as the quintessential London figure, wreathed in smog whilst hailing a hansom cab, I’m always taken aback by how soon he heads for a railway station on the slightest provocation. Hurtling off to Surrey and Hampshire, he protects the inhabitants of the evocatively named “Home Counties” from two other locations. Firstly, the modern city, where no-one knows each other and where identities can be lost or exchanged. The metropolitan railway which swallows up a body in the “Bruce Partington Plans”, annihilating the meaning of space and time until Holmes forces it to give up its secrets. A respectable man disappears into an opium den until Holmes descends into its depths and retrieves him. Secondly, the terrifying expanses of the Empire – and more to the point, the crimes which may have been committed out there which won’t stay out there. The unknown beggar who appears at a charity sale in a respectable village. The robbery committed during a massacre in India. A reminder posted by the Ku Klux Klan. It’s not who Holmes protects, it’s where. And the answers he gives are to the questions the Home Counties ask: “But who are his people? Where is their land? Do we know them? What sort are they?”