the imaginative conservative logo

sherlockIt’s hard to avoid it. Sherlock fever is everywhere, and all across the Internet, American viewers are feverishly keeping up with the Third Season of BBC One’s hit television show, Sherlock. In case you’ve been immune to the virus since 2010, the gist of Sherlock is that it is a thoroughly modern take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Great Detective.” What this means of course is that the show is replete with sexual innuendos (after all, two men sharing a flat have to be lovers, right?), discussions concerning Sherlock’s chemical imbalance (does he have ADHD? or is he just a sociopath?), and enough tech-worship to warm the digital heart of Apple Inc. To make matters worse, the men behind the BBC’s latest runaway hit have turned a highly rational and scientific-based character into something almost supernatural. To quote the excellent journalist and author Dr. Timothy Stanley, “the modern Sherlock isn’t a brilliant detective who solves crimes with disguises and a chemistry kit. He’s a god. And gods can do whatever they want.”

To be fair, anyone who has ever come across the Conan Doyle originals can attest to the fact that the literary Holmes is not all that believable either. Hardly any of us know a Sherlock Holmes in real life, and even if he did exist, he wouldn’t make it past twenty-five. The emotionally cold, yet highly erratic Holmes is shared between the show and the stories, but what Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat get wrong is their Holmes seems more often than not like a petulant child, rather than a gifted gentlemen who did not suffer fools easily nor deal with inactivity in the healthiest manner possible.

For the show’s primarily postmodern audience, the gentlemen character is a foreign object indeed. And this isn’t just the case in Britain either, for the American equivalent of Sherlock—the uninspiring Elementary—presents a far more crass Holmes with all the dangerous foibles that come with a too lenient moral climate. Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock is an English ex-pat who has a drug-fueled past, an unquenchable thirst for scarlet women, and a long-standing grievance against his father. In short, this Sherlock, like his more asexual double across the pond, is a thoroughly postmodern male with all the glamorous deficiencies.

The greatest deficiency of all is that both characters are almost purely men of action. During the first two seasons of Sherlock, we have watched as Benedict Cumberbatch has defused a bomb, stared down multiple guns, and has even survived a beating in prison. Over on CBS, Miller has squared off against serial killers, terrorists, and corrupt hedge fund managers. These are explosive events, and as a result both Sherlock and Elementary are packed full with action and enough red meat to entertain the desired teenaged male demographic.

By comparison, the Sherlock Holmes of literature is a milder hero. Sure, Conan Doyle’s creation is plenty capable of physical violence. While at university, Holmes boxed in the light heavyweight division, and throughout the canon (which ran from 1887 all the way until 1927), Holmes is proven to be a crack shot and a master of baritsu—a martial art that is a barely fictionalized version of bartitsu, a syncretic combat system that was developed by the British engineer E.W. Barton-Wright. But none of this is of the first importance. What really matters about Conan Doyle’s most famous character is his brain, and in most of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the detective and Dr. Watson hardly ever have to worry about raising their fists.

This mostly had to do with the cases themselves. For the most part, the first era of Sherlock Holmes (1887-1893) is completely full of melodrama, with cases concerning the ruined reputations of middle class women and the poor choices undertaken by middle class men. In “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” Holmes and Watson are called in to solve the disappearance of Robert, Lord St. Simon during his wedding reception. As it turns out, Lord St. Simon’s departure was the result of his bride-to-be, the American Miss Hatty Doran, recognizing her first husband, who had presumably died in the American West. The crime then in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” is bigamy, or rather the shadow of bigamy. It’s hard to imagine either one of the current Conan Doyle “adaptations” tackling such a subject, and even if they did, one could presume that they would inject the type of salaciousness that one encounters in grocery store checkout aisles.

In another case (“The Adventure of the Yellow Face”), Holmes’s conclusions turn out to be wrong, and once again, no crime has been committed. Effie Munro, the American wife of the Englishman Grant Munro, and the yellow-faced character that she has been hiding in the family’s home turn out to be only guilty of miscegenation. Effie’s first husband, John Hebron, was an African-American, and as a result their child (whom Effie hid behind a mask in order to avoid country gossip) is racially mixed. In the end, Grant embraces the child as his own, and Holmes and Dr. Watson leave contented with the knowledge of a happy Munro family.

This then is what is missing in today’s Sherlockian craze. The original Holmes is fallible and predominately cerebral. He is not a comic book character, and most importantly he is not a smirking, spiritually-troubled, and angst-ridden outsider. He is, to put it simply, an eccentric gentlemen in the tradition of Dr. Samuel Johnson. In fact, Holmes recognizes this comparison, and in the stories he frequently calls Dr. Watson his Boswell.

So, if you would like a more appropriate representation of the “Great Detective,” then the best place to start would be the Conan Doyle short stories and novels themselves. For your viewing pleasure, you’d be best served to discover the Granada Television series, which ran from 1984 until 1994 and starred Jeremy Brett—the single best Sherlock Holmes ever to grace any screen, big or small. Surprisingly, the Soviets adequately captured the quiet elegance and loyal heroism of the decidedly British and capitalistic Holmes, and the films starring Vasily Livanov as Holmes and Igor Maslennikov as Dr. Watson are a must-see for all serious devotees to one of world literature’s most enduring creations. Skip the Millennial Holmes and leave Watson (both John and Joan) with the therapist. I am sure that they can blog just fine without us.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Published: Feb 6, 2014
Benjamin Welton
The product of northern West Virginia’s identity complex, Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer, music critic, author, and poet whose work has appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, Thought Catalog, InYourSpeakers, and many more. He graduated with an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Vermont, where he taught Basic English composition for two years. His first book—Hands Dabbled in Blood—was published in June 2013.
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post
  1. I love the new series, but it does have its flaws. My greatest disappointment has been that they could hardly get Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, more wrong. In the new series, he’s a powerful, shadowy, mover-and-shaker deep with the British government. Here’s Wikipedia’s description of the original:
    Possessing deductive powers exceeding even those of his younger brother, Mycroft is nevertheless incapable of performing detective work similar to that of Sherlock as he is unwilling to put in the physical effort necessary to bring cases to their conclusions.

    …he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. Again and again I have taken a problem to him, and have received an explanation which has afterwards proved to be the correct one. And yet he was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points…
    —Sherlock Holmes, speaking of his brother in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”
    That goes against the grain for me. Adaptations should leave the basic nature of a character unchanged. They particularly shouldn’t change the core character trait.

    And I agree with you. The Granada series with Jeremy Brett has been by far the best, in part because it gets the characters right and portrays the period beautifully. Dr. Watson in the series is much like Doyle’s Watson, a slow-thinking but reasonably intelligent man. All too many of the older British Holmes movies turn him into almost a comically stupid foil for Holmes.

    –Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: