De-constructing Sherlock Holmes

It is hard for me to be enthusiastic about the latest wave of pastiches out there. I can list all of these complicated, thoughtful, essay-inspiring reasons but it boils down to this:

When the Emperor asked his thoughts about human sacrifice, P.G. Wodehouse’s George answered he didn’t like them.

I heartily concur, and I confess, the current trend to deconstruct Sherlock Holmes strikes me as a strange form of sacrifice. Bear with me.

There are too many writers that lack love and respect for not just Sherlock Holmes, but for Arthur Conan Doyle himself.

What Doyle did was amazing. More to the point, it was on target. He illuminated with his cases the deep, emotional need for the public to believe that there are Sherlock Holmes in this world.

Doyle wrote plenty of other things–he tapped into our ability to wallow, delightedly, in a good ghost/monster story, and scandalized us with his tales beneath the red lamp. He gave us sympathetic villains and completely repulsive “good guys” and people who simply didn’t exist in the black and white of law, order, and society.

There were outsiders in his stories; the disenfranchised; the people who were important because Sherlock Holmes was on the case. The stories demonstrated that it was so easy to abuse and mis-use the vaunted ‘softer emotions’ which were held up as the virtue that separated us from the beasts–he showed us one can feel with logic and protect with reason.

In a world determined to live in a fairytale, Doyle was a Grimm who collected stories. They could both tell in unflinching words the cost of Dickens’ Want and Ignorance upon humanity. Both wrote pools of blood, and terrible crimes to befall the wicked and innocent alike. But unlike the Grimm his ‘unhappy endings’ were left open–perhaps reminding the reader that as long as we possess indignation for injustice, a crime is never escaped, nor a case completely closed. Will we, the reader, be the next person to speak up?

Like Hans Christian Anderson, Doyle could illuminate the beauty within humanity–and his characters ability to appreciate what they had or cast them aside was a major bone of their contentions. The little girl with the yellow face was a beautiful swan all along–the Greek Interpreter’s voice was the only thing that saved his life.  What was Mary Morstan but a real, breathing princess–who would have traded it all to have her father, and who accepted the theft of her father’s stolen treasure with the freedom to marry?

Like Madame d’Aulney, Doyle was born of nobility and did rather un-noble things by embracing outside thought. They invented words that needed to be created. She is the generatrix of “fairy tale” he, “the smoking gun”. Both were ahead of their time. Both were criticized for their willingness to write approach-ably to the common masses.

Like Joseph Jacobs, Doyle’s inspiration was drawn from all over the world; his stories can be centered in London…but just as likely in a raw, wild land the readers had only heard of–and many, many crimes, we learn, began elsewhere only to come home to their own land–a quiet comment against the belief that one may escape one’s past.

And, like Andrew Lang, Doyle found a bottomless well of creation for stories in the world before him–and like Lang, one always had the potential to seize victory from the jaws of defeat–if one was willing to face what they feared the most, and more bizarrely for convention, bow to ask for help.

So, I ask, why is it, are pastichers suddenly so committed to breaking down what made Doyle’s creation so great, and splicing him willy-nilly on an unmatched rope? Why is it, they have to break down someone in order to raise up another character?

I’m sad about this.

Why can’t we put Doyle’s toys back on the shelf when we’re done with them? I’ve read what feels like a metric ton of “alternative facts” stories, where Mrs. Hudson or Lestrade or (_____) are the real stars of the show. Some of these are still enjoyable–mostly because there is still a respect for the creations.

But any time you build up a character by knocking someone else down you add to a nasty tradition that begins and should have ended with how Hollywood gave the role of Watson to Nigel Bruce and said, “This is what you have to do.”

As a kid I adored the Rathbone films, and I cringed at all the cringe-worthy Nigel Bruce moments. But as I grew up I realized I wanted something more; there are only so many escapades where you can be the only working brain in a crowd of misfits. Solar Pons got us through a few dry spells but books were rare and you never knew if you were going to crack open a cover and find a Super Sherlock Saves the Day/Universe or a loving tribute written in the style and tradition of the original. In this era, we see re-made plotlines constantly. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve seen remakes of stories that haven’t grown cold yet.  Honestly, I’m not talking about HAMILTON here. HAMILTON is brilliant for how it makes people think. And yet there is some sort of odd belief that in order to tell “your own, unique version” of Sherlock Holmes’ universe, you have to bash it into pieces first.

I disagree. That’s sloppy and you’ll get a D in English class. “Deconstructing” seems to be the in-thing now. It wouldn’t be half as awful if the so-called writers were actually reading the stories they were butchering with such crazed, addict-grade glee.

They’re not reading the stories!

These lazy people, who have enough wherewithall to get out of bed and whack out a novella in 30 days and get it published are still somehow inexplicably too mortgaged in time to learn about the world of Sherlock Holmes. There’s no excuse for this! Why is The Speckled Band considered such a masterpiece? Did they think about the multitudinous layers of plot, character, and atmosphere? Why do we cheer when Violet Hunter escapes? Did they think about the inescapable threads of human sadness in HOUN? They aren’t paying attention to these creations, who are all believable in their failures and successes.

I’m nauseated when this crowd avoids full exploration because it is condemned as “old and boring”. It isn’t, but you are, and you’re about as welcome as a bridal party in a gay bar.

Repeating previous statement: a loving tribute in the style and tradition of the original.

You can’t claim to “love” Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and all the others in this world and write contrary to that purpose.

His stories are written for a purpose.

If we write Holmes like a super-hero, then we are writing for swift gratification for a problem that won’t be duplicable by mere mortals. Besides, that goes completely against the message of Sherlock Holmes: He wanted to prove to the world that his methods were replicable; that anyone, if they so chose, would apply his methods and solve crimes.

That was terribly important to Holmes. He knew that his mind would break apart without stimulation, and what better, endless career than that of crime? Crime never ends. Crime never sleeps. It merely goes into hiding. There will always be a need for such a man who wants this work!

Consider that context, where if we write Watson as a vainglorious idiot, then we sell Holmes short for putting up with him. We make Holmes a poor, petty man who keeps a pet biographer, someone for his personal gratification and vainglory.

(It shakes me up when people think the police in the Rathbone films are just like the police in Adam West’s BATMAN series–no they are not. Commissioner Gordon and the other police were fine actors playing parodies. The police in the Rathbone films were fine actors playing once-respected characters as though they were idiots. There’s a difference).

If we write Holmes for satire, then we’d best be as clever as Oscar Wilde–cleverer, actually. Because satire means being on top of world events and how we’re really all related to each other in the grand scheme of things.

If we write a supernatural villain against Holmes, then we had better ask ourselves why we want to make it Holmes, instead of other perfectly fine creations of Doyle–and while we’re at it, have a friend look at the manuscript and tell you if it sounds like a plot out of Dark Shadows. Nothing says obvious like lining up a parallel plot with the show that stole ALL the plots in theatre.

But in the long run, it comes down to this: What is the writer getting out of this? Why are they doing what they want with the characters? What is the emotional investment? Too often it is just laziness–plucking another’s toys off the shelf and role-playing with them with all the grace of playing PLANET OF THE APES with STAR WARS action figures. It doesn’t quite cut it.

You can call them Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, but unless they are true to the spirit of Doyle, they will just be cheap mannikins recycled into a plot and pay for your ticket at the door.




Published in: on July 24, 2017 at 9:07 am  Leave a Comment