Created by Mark Gatiss andSteven Moffat
By Graham Moore
Near theclimax of the first episode of the new miniseries Sherlock, constables from New Scotland Yard are industriouslytearing apart the eponymous hero’s Baker Street flat. Inspector Lestrade’s teamhas come to believe that the arrogant consulting detective is not only holdingout on them in a serial murder case, but is the likeliest suspect himself.Harsh words are exchanged and one officer tosses out an epithet: “Psychopath!” BenedictCumberbatch, whose lethal glee in the role of Holmes can barely be contained,snaps “I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.”
The notion that theSherlock Holmes’s talents betray a diagnosable pathology is a familiar theme;Nicholas Meyer famously put Holmes on Freud’s couch for The Seven-Percent Solution. In twonew versions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ever-reborn hero, we can spy our currentfascination with the figure of the brilliant but socially maladjusted savant,just a symptom or two shy of a DSM-specified disorder.
Sherlock,in which Cumberbatch stars, is a loving if heavily re-engineered adaptation ofthe well-known adventures of Holmes and Watson, which time-shifts its centralpair a hundred years forward without so much as a backward glance at Victorianfrippery, steampunked or otherwise. Instead, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’screation for the BBC and MasterpieceMystery! remixes Conan Doyle’s detective stories for the era of GPSsmartphones and CSI-style forensic labs. The tone is one of darkly deadpancomedy: a good many of the classic exchanges between the swift-thinkingdetective and his clay-footed friend John Watson (still a war-veteran doctor)are recast to milk laughs out of Martin Freeman’s mingled wonder and rue overhis fate as a sidekick to a pale-skinned Byronic scarecrow who sports mannersonly slightly more acceptable than those of Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House.
The slick productionhurtles viewers through a London landscape composed of surfaces both glossy andgritty, with a showy velocity that nevertheless mimics the stories’ addictivepower. And this Sherlock has all of the digital age’s playthings at hand totake the place of his namesake’s library. Gatiss and Moffat thankfully aren’trestricting themselves to the diet of dully damaged serial killers that crimedrama seems to feed on these days. In “The Blind Banker,” aninternational smuggling ring plays a charmingly old-fashioned role, providingthe sense of exotic menace that characterized Holmes tales like “The Signof Four”. While Watson blogs Sherlock’s adventures, the prosaic ubiquityof the Internet itself barely registers. The adventure is exuberantly physical,with lots of leaping from balconies and rooftops, kidnappings and gunplay. Isuspect a real-world Sherlock would find a way to solve these crimes without stirringfrom his recliner. But he’d make lousy television.
Graham Moore’smystery The Sherlockian is by contrast aquiet affair, generating a surprisingly melancholy mood. The novel approachesits great original obliquely—Holmes is frequently evoked, but resolutelyabsent. His stand-in, however, offers noteworthy parallels with Cumberbatch’sSherlock: Harold White is, if not a high-functioning sociopath, then certainlyeasily locatable on the spectrum of social dysfunction that runs from”charmingly geeky” to “functions best at fan conventions.”At twenty-nine Harold is marked not only by his speed-reading talents, but alsoby his “astigmatism [and] sweaty, shivering hands.” What’s mostnotable about him however, is his obsession with all things Holmes, down to thedeerstalker hat that he wears sheepishly, not unlike an aging Trekkie who can’tquite give up a pair of Spock ears.
Newly inducted into theBaker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only society of Sherlockianscholar-enthusiasts (based on a real group who commune by trading obscureHolmes quotes and quaffing Scotch), Harold finds himself moved to investigatewhen a prominent member, who had claimed to have found a lost Conan Doylediary, turns up dead in his hotel room. The word “elementary” isscrawled in blood on the baseboard as an apparent taunt, the diary is nowhereto be found, and Harold takes on the dual quest for murderer and missingjournal, in company with a more socially adept and personally alluring reporternamed Sarah, who is willing to play Watson if it’ll get her, she says, herstory.
Alternate chapters,meanwhile, give us a parallel mystery starring Arthur Conan Doyle himself, inthe days after the writer had first tried to dispose of his overbearinglypopular (for the author at least) hero in the story “The FinalProblem,” only to discover that the Holmes-adoring public regarded him assome kind of murderer, or at any rate a supreme killjoy. Matters get out ofhand when a letter bomb is sent to Conan Doyle at home. The police won’t treatthe case seriously, and so Conan Doyle—in company with theatrical manager BramStoker, the future author of Dracula—sets out to find the bomber.In so doing, though, he stumbles onto a crime of far greater moment, and soonhe’s following a serial killer’s trail (Conan Doyle really did get brought into help solve crimes, though this one is a fiction). Hampered though he is bythe fact that as a respectable physician and author he has few of Holmes’sskills, he becomes devoted enough to the chase to shave his moustache and puton a dress.
Throughout both cases,Graham plants effective red herrings and false trails, and the two storiesinevitably intersect, with the final scenes of one providing rationale for theother at a suitably resonant locale. The conclusion clears up the mysteriestidily and offers Harold a vision of life without the deerstalker hat, butthere’s little here to raise a shiver. The literary red herring Conan Doylehimself offered in the Sherlockian canon was that Holmes’s intellectual triumphswere what readers should admire, yet all the while the real seduction was theatmosphere of romance: a hansom rattling through the fog, or strange beastscreeping around the precincts of some twisted squire’s secluded manor. Haroldhimself pines for the gaslit nightworld through which his hero prowled.
Gothic chills,fortunately, can be accessed in any era. I’m cheering for Cumberbatch andFreeman’s return, and their excursions onto, let’s say, a moonlit moor—roamed,perhaps, by a genetically modified hound?