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Not So Elementary, Watson

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

a film directed by Guy Ritchie


a television series on the BBC created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat


a television series on CBS created by Robert Doherty

The Game’s Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays)

a play by Ken Ludwig, directed by Aaron Posner
Cleveland Playhouse, November 25–December 24, 2011

The Narrative of John Smith

by Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Rachell Foss
British Library/University of Chicago Press, 138 pp., $15.00
Universal Pictures/Photofest
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear, 1945

In the 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows—the sequel to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes—the actors Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law completed their transformation of the great detective and Dr. Watson into Victorian action heroes (with just a touch of “bromance” to their relationship). The two movies (with a third in the offing) might not be your father’s cinematic Sherlock Holmes—for an older generation Basil Rathbone and the doltish Nigel Bruce will always be the denizens of Baker Street—nor are they mine. I remain fond of Jeremy Brett’s neurotic Holmes and the stolid, admirable Watsons portrayed by David Burke and Edward Hardwicke in the Granada series of the 1980s.

More recently, viewers have been transfixed by the six episodes—three in 2010, three in 2012, with more to come—of the BBC’s enthralling Sherlock. Setting the stories in the present, the creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (best known for revitalizing the classic science fiction serial, Dr. Who) update and rejigger everything and yet remain true to the spirit of the original works. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a kinetic, pallid Sherlock, dressed in vampiric black, and brimming with Asperger’s-like intensity.

The Byronically handsome actor is wildly popular, with one group of female fans being inspired to form the online group the Baker Street Babes and some others even calling themselves Cumberbitches. Taking the more difficult role, Martin Freeman creates a war-damaged Watson who is, despite his steady and romantic nature, at heart an adrenalin junkie. Life with Holmes allows Watson to reexperience some of the exhilaration of battle. Their deepening friendship is beautifully delineated.

Just this September, CBS inaugurated yet another take on Sherlock. In Elementary, Jonny Lee Miller portrays Holmes as a recovering drug addict, heavily tattooed, with a painful past. Dr. Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu, is his quietly professional minder, hired by a wealthy father to look after a troubled son during the latter’s sojourn in modern-day New York City. Together the duo end up assisting the NYPD, even as details of Holmes’s past gradually emerge. At first, there seemed a little too much about Miller as an emotionally wounded brainiac (à la House or Monk) and not enough Sherlockismo to the CSI-style plots. But you can’t take your eyes off the charismatic actor, or Liu for that matter, and the series has grown better and better.

While all these screen interpretations of Holmes and Watson are, more or less, enjoyable, they have also served to generate renewed interest in the written record: Arthur Conan Doyle’s original, incomparable stories. My own initial encounter with the great detective, more than fifty years ago, remains one of the great reading experiences of my life—and generations of readers can offer similar memories. At the beginning of fifth grade the TAB Book Club sent around a newsletter listing its latest classroom offerings. In my 2012 book On Conan Doyle I describe

the newsletter’s capsule summary that compelled me to buy The Hound of the Baskervilles—as if that ominous title alone weren’t enough! Beneath a small reproduction of the paperback’s cover—depicting a shadowy Something with fiery eyes crouching on a moonlit crag—blazed the thrilling words: “What was it that emerged from the moor at night to spread terror and violent death?” What else, of course, but a monstrous hound from the bowels of Hell? When I opened my very own copy of the book, the beast was further described on the inside display page:
“A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.”
Eager as I was to start immediately on this almost irresistible treat, I staunchly determined to put off reading the book until I could do so under just the right conditions. At the very least, I required a dark and stormy night, and the utter absence of distracting sisters and parents. Finally, there came a Saturday in early November when my mother and father announced that they would be visiting relatives that evening—and “the girls” would be going along. Yes, I might stay at home alone to read. The afternoon soon grew a dull metallic gray, threatening rain.
With a dollar clutched in my fist, I pedaled my red Roadmaster bike to Whalen’s drugstore, where I quickly picked out two or three candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a cold bottle of Orange Crush. After my family had driven off in our new 1958 Ford, I dragged a blanket from my bed, spread it on the reclining chair next to the living room’s brass floor lamp, carefully arranged my provisions near to hand, turned off all the other lights in the house, and crawled expectantly under the covers with my paperback of The Hound—just as the heavens began to boom with thunder and the rain to thump against the curtained windows.

Naturally, anyone who starts The Hound of the Baskervilles will finish the book and cry for more. My local library possessed just one title by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it was the right one: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, with a preface by Christopher Morley (who, I later discovered, was the principal founder of the Baker Street Irregulars). In that essay—titled “In Memoriam”—Morley chronicled his own boyhood passion for the detective and his creator, recalling how he would check out a Conan Doyle book from the Enoch Pratt library in Baltimore and start reading on his walk home, pausing under each streetlight to devour one page after another.

There are, alas, only fifty-six short stories and four novels (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear) in the Sherlock Holmes “canon.” So where does one turn after the last, “Shoscombe Old Place”? There are essentially two options. First, like Morley, one can seek out the many other works of Conan Doyle, who was, according to the editor of The Strand Magazine, “the greatest natural-born storyteller of the age.” Most people first go on to The Lost World, in which Professor George Edward Challenger leads an expedition up the Amazon to explore a plateau where dinosaurs still roam the earth. Conan Doyle captures its quality in his epigraph:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.

Challenger reappears in four further stories, most notably The Poison Belt, in which life on Earth is threatened with extinction by a cloud of deadly cosmic ether. Unfortunately, the professor’s final adventure, The Land of Mist, is little more than an apologia for the spiritualist beliefs that its author publicly espoused during the last fifteen years of his life. In fact, Conan Doyle (1859–1930), like so many late Victorians, had long been fascinated by “psychical research” and the possibility of survival after death. His many superb ghost stories and supernatural tales testify to this. “Lot No. 249” and “The Ring of Thoth,” for instance, gave rise to the revived mummy subgenre (and almost certainly inspired the classic Boris Karloff film).

Some readers argue that the dashing, and often comic, exploits of Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard are better stories than those about the residents of Baker Street; George MacDonald Fraser acknowledges that they were an influence on his Flashman novels, though the chivalric Gerard is no cad and bounder. By contrast, the dastardly pirate Captain Sharkey—who appears in four stories—makes Long John Silver look like the kindly one-legged old seafaring man he pretends to be. Conan Doyle himself regarded his historical swashbucklers, The White Company and Sir Nigel, as his best literary work.

But, in truth, he could turn a dab hand to any kind of fiction. In The Tragedy of the “Korosko” he examined the reactions of a group of Western tourists kidnapped by Islamic terrorists, followers of the Mahdi. In the lightly comic Beyond the City the admirable heroine is a shrewd, emancipated woman. Mrs. Westmacott, who has just moved to the suburbs, is paid a welcoming call by the spinster sisters who live next door. She asks if they would like some stout:

“I am sorry that I have no tea to offer you. I look upon the subserviency of woman as largely due to her abandoning nutritious drinks and invigorating exercises to the male. I do neither.” She picked up a pair of fifteen-pound dumb-bells from beside the fireplace and swung them lightly about her head. “You see what may be done on stout,” said she.

When the elder Miss Williams protests that “woman has a mission of her own,” Mrs. Westmacott drops her dumbbells with a crash:

“The old cant!” she cried. “The old shibboleth! What is this mission which is reserved for woman? All that is humble, that is mean, that is soul-killing, that is so contemptible and so ill-paid that none other will touch it. All that is woman’s mission. And who imposed these limitations upon her? Who cooped her up within this narrow sphere? Was it Providence? Was it nature? No, it was the arch enemy. It was man.”

It’s worth pointing out that Conan Doyle headed up a movement to reform and liberalize England’s divorce laws.

If investigating the rest of the Conan Doyle oeuvre is one path for the fan of Sherlock Holmes, the second is to plunge more deeply into the Sherlockian world itself. One could, for instance, seek out stories about “the rivals of Sherlock Holmes,” as Hugh Greene called such Victorian and Edwardian detectives as Martin Hewitt, Dr. Thorndyke, Max Carrados, and Professor S.F.X. Van Dusen, aka the Thinking Machine. One might also explore the vast universe of Sherlockian “misadventures.” Holmes and Watson are, of course, two of the most parodied of all fictional characters; Conan Doyle even reprints one send-up, by his friend J.M. Barrie, in his autobiographical Memories and Adventures. Mystery writer and editor Ellery Queen thought the best of them all was Bret Harte’s hilarious “The Stolen Cigar Case”:

I found Hemlock Jones in the old Brook Street lodgings, musing before the fire. With the freedom of an old friend I at once threw myself in my usual familiar attitude at his feet, and gently caressed his boot.

P.G. Wodehouse, in particular, looked to Conan Doyle as his master, and made Jeeves and Wooster a kind of fun-house mirroring of the Baker Street duo. Better still, in one of his wonderful Mulliner stories—“From a Detective’s Notebook”—he goes all out in comic homage:

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