THE RISK OF “THE REVEAL” (Part I)
Tampering With or Augmenting the Legend of Sherlock Holmes
Sherlockians are a picky lot. And there are degrees of Sherlock Holmes fandom fastidiousness ranging from “I love Holmes in all his incarnations” to “How dare you mess even one iota with Conan Doyle!”
For those in the second camp, these “iotas” are a moving target, and rarely agreed upon. There are many reviewers (both amateur and professional) who claim that this or that pastiche or movie tampers with the legend and is therefore not authentic or is a completely modern take. Often they are simply wrong.
Take the humor, for example. Some comedic Holmes versions are obvious parody, and some pastiches are deadly stiff and serious, but, in fact, canonical Holmes—while essentially melodrama in the older sense of the term—can be quite witty. (Note: We use the word melodrama pejoratively now, but it was not always so. It used to mean stories with heightened action and emotions, not exaggerated ones. Doyle’s Holmes stories were characterized at the time as melodrama.)
Also, Doyle did not specialize in “locked room” mysteries, and Holmes did not operate entirely out of his head. Unlike his brother, Mycroft, Sherlock Holmes was very much a man of action. While we know him for his superior intellect (and mostly inductive rather than deductive reasoning), he was frequently on the spot gathering evidence, spying, interviewing, posing as this or that, burgling, climbing up walls or into attics, or racing about in cabs, trains, boats, carriages of all types, or on foot—once stepping into quicksand.
They are, after all, the “Adventures” of Sherlock Holmes.
A common criticism of newer Holmes work, particularly in the movies, is that “there is too much action” and therefore not like Doyle’s creation. This, I’m afraid, flies in the face of reality. Check out the following illustrations by Paget for the originals. Except for the axe-wielding man in the window, these all feature Holmes. Hmmm….
Let me also point out that Sir Arthur was writing short stories and novellas, with perhaps one intense scene of action in each, if that. But a novel or a movie is a longform story, and the construction requirements of storytelling in this form are different.
Illustration: Near miss in Pall Mall.- MacBird
Longform story requires more big “turns” in the tale, higher highs and lower lows in the construction, much as a long suspension bridge requires more (and larger) pylons than a short one. “Turns” can be action/danger, a ratcheting up of suspense, or a surprise in character development. Longform also demands more character development as well.
Illustration here –“ Watson! Watson!” – MacBird
And there’s another issue with extending Sherlock Holmes tales to novel length, which applies to the detective specifically. One must create a mystery that is complex enough for the smartest man in the world to be unable to solve by page 30. Some Holmes novelists do this by creating sequential cases, sometimes tangentially related.
My solution to that is to convolve more than one case into a larger, complex, and interlocking case. It is constructed like a triple helix, one that Holmes connects sooner than the reader, and withstands the test of logic. Art in the Blood featured a kidnapping, an art theft, and several murders. Unquiet Spirits, my latest, involves death threats to a French scientist, a missing chambermaid, and long-held family secrets.
Another concession to longform that I make is to define an underlying theme in my Holmes novels. While Sir Arthur did not lean heavily on theme in his short stories, nevertheless Holmes’s musings (nature, philosophy, science, religion, newspapers, writers, the police, country living, education, romance, and the arts, just to name a few) are sprinkled throughout canon in a manner not unlike a master chef’s seasoning of a much admired specialty dish. They are powerful underpinnings that illuminate both the man and his times.
Doyle gives us tantalizing glimpses into Holmes’s philosophy. He is apparently able to expound on “the Buddhism of Ceylon” (Theraveda/Vipassana, forerunner of today’s “mindfulness” meditation), quotes Goethe frequently, and, in The Naval Treaty, he muses on the new school being built to educate poor children with the comment, “Light-houses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wise, better England of the future.”
I believe that moments like these, and even more importantly, the delightful character interaction between Holmes and Watson, his “conductor of light,” are the gems Holmesians seek out when combing through the stories. Or perhaps a fluffier analogy is … they are the cream in the cream puff. They’re the stuff we really love.
For me it is the friendship, the “ride” along with the smartest man in the world, and the comfort of Sir Arthur’s occasionally scathing but ultimately optimistic worldview that I believe define the stories as much as the actual mysteries. While Holmes’s disdain for idiots gives us plenty of fun, this man is ultimately all about serving justice and doing good in the world. There is an inherent kindness and decency conveyed by Watson that is bracing and provides a welcome refuge from our increasingly harsh and judgmental modern world.
There have been many variations on Holmes penned in the 130 years since Sir Arthur’s indelible creation. A few characteristics consistent in successful ones are:
Sherlock Holmes is:
- A logical, brilliant thinker, inclined to scientific reason
- But underneath the logic and drive, a deeply emotional man
- Celibate by choice
- A man with one close friend, and that is Watson
- On the side of the angels
- Naturally fit, though worryingly thin and prone to severe depression when not stimulated by a case
- A man with a sharp and occasionally mischievous sense of humor
- A superman in many respects but with very human failings; he is not always right, he has a certain vanity about his “powers,” has mood swings that he self-medicates (cocaine when depressed, morphine presumably when agitated)
- A gentleman generally, though can be rudely antisocial and does not suffer fools gladly.
- Immune to physical stress while working, but a creature of comfort at home
- A man who claims to not understand women, an arguable notion, but quite possibly true
- An artist in the true sense of the word, with all the attendant gifts and flaws.
And certainly there are more. His encyclopedic knowledge of crime and related topics, for one. The canon gives us little of Holmes’s background other than that his family were country squires, he went to university but did not finish, and his grandmother was the sister of the artist Vernet.