I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since I first discovered the stories as a teenager. Since then I’ve read every original Doyle story at least five or six times. I have the beautiful (and massive) 3–volume Annotated Holmes edited by Leslie Klinger sitting on a shelf in my office. I’ve read a great many of the homages and pastiches written over the years and I’ve even had a couple of Holmes stories published.
Naturally, I’ve welcomed (and dreaded) the plethora of Holmes adaptations that have appeared – both authorized by Doyle’s estate and those that have sprung up now that copyright has expired.
I enjoy them all, from Robert Downey Jr.’s action hero Holmes to the recovering addict of Elementary to the motor mouth rendition of Benedict Cumberbatch (is it just me or do other people sometimes find that Holmes talking so fast you can hardly understand him?) But, of course, none of them reflect the character that Doyle wrote or intended so many years ago. The closest to that were the early Jeremy Brett renditions – though even his portrayal went off the rails by the end, whether because of him or the direction he was given.
I blame it all on Sigmund Freud, which of course is a bit like saying I blame it on Nicholas Meyer who wrote the novel and screenplay of The Seven Percent Solution (for which he received an Oscar nomination). There Holmes, recovering from his cocaine addiction, meets up with Sigmund Freud and together they solve a mystery. Meyer, who also wrote the first three even-numbered Star Trek movies (fans will get that significance) cleverly revealed the modern fascination with Holmes which focuses on his use of cocaine (only mentioned in a very few of the stories), Moriarty (mentioned in even fewer) and the psychological implications of a man who appears – at least at first – to have sprung fully formed out of the nature of the times. He must have a tortured past, right?
The Holmes of Victorian England was not like that at all. Rather, he was meant to represent the power of reason operating in the service of justice. It was about neither the self (the egomaniacal Holmes of Sherlock) or about overcoming weakness. It was actually meant to be about the power of intellect to cut through the fog of social convention and get to the heart of social ills. Holmes was a crusader – much as Doyle was himself – who cared more about justice than the law.
Holmes is, of course, an enduring character, for the same reason that many of Shakespeare’s plays continue to resonate. The attraction is not in the perfection of the writing or the way in which all the questions are answered and all the details laid out. Rather it is because there are gaps that allow us to insert our own interpretation into the story.
Holmes becomes the detective we need at the time. That’s why he can be transformed from the cool rational – if flawed – observer of the spider’s web of crime to the tortured intuitive megalomaniacal participant in world spanning plots. It is all in the interpretation.
But you should go back and see for yourself. But I should warn you – the values of Victorian England as written by an upper class male weren’t always pretty.
But that’s ten minutes.