Not precisely as writing avoidance, but certainly as a part of my, ahem, research into writing, I have been re-reading the entire Sherlock Holmes canon. The one by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that is. To round out the experience, my local (Denver) PBS station is very kindly re-broadcasting last season’s “Sherlock,” an update of Holmes’ adventures set in 21st Century London and starring, wait for it, Benedict Cumberbatch (a name I keep wanting to recite, somehow, as “Bumbershoot,” which I think is an English appellation for “umbrella”), who does make a particularly nifty Sherlock. I am also reading (us compulsive readers never read merely one book at a time) Laurie R. King‘s latest in her series on Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes, entitled “Pirate King”. I also plan to see the new Robert Downey movie in which he plays Sherlock and I always record and later watch the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, also on PBS. Here are images of Mr. Cumberbatch and Jeremy Brett. I found a picture of Sir Arthur, but could not, apparently, upload it.
I am relishing all of these excursions into Sherlockia, as I believe it is called, and I’m exploring, today, just why. Reading the original stories would seem to be an exercise in nostalgia, with stories that were original when they were written, but that seem quite familiar now. Even so, they are good stories, set well within the characters of Lestrade, Holmes and Watson, and with twists that seem organic and yet rather astonishing (if you, like me, have a tendency to forget plots over time, you have the pleasure of reading a “new” story each time you open a book, no matter if you’ve read it before).
Certainly the setting appeals — London in the smoke, the sound of horse-drawn cabs, men in frock coats and top hats, women in sweeping skirts, rain, fog and gaslight. Somehow in the new Cumberbatch series (if I use his name long enough, I’ll remember it and NOT Bumbershoot), they have managed to get across the “now” of London, truly a world-class, brilliant city, and yet evoke the original setting of the stories, for which I salute them. So that’s another reason.
But I think it’s the character of Sherlock Holmes that is so compelling. No matter how it is interpreted, from the original stories to Basil Rathbone, to Brett, Downey, and Cumberbatch, the character is sui generis — the world’s first and only consulting detective. And of course it is not only his excellences that appeal, but also his more problematic traits. The interpretation of those traits make the character of Holmes endlessly interesting, as if he were a real person. Is he a misogynist? Well, perhaps Irene Adler would not agree, and Laurie R. King has married him off to her creation, Mary Russell, so something else seems to be going on here. Is he an addict? Even Dr. Watson was not sure of that, but was sure — and this seems likely — that the thrill of the chase was Sherlock’s addiction, much more than cocaine. But just imagine these days, as a writer, creating a series character, one’s hero, with a substance abuse problem. It is done, of course, but then the book ends up being about the substance abuse. For Doyle, it was a concern, yes, but a sidebar. Sherlock’s skills overcome all such problems. I have read that Doyle, as a medical student, had a teacher who used — actually created — all the techniques Doyle later ascribed to Sherlock and who was the inspiration for the character. Perhaps somebody reading this knows the name of that man and can let me know it.
What does this have to do with writing, or any other possible focus for this journal? Just this: for me as a writer, the importance of Sherlockia, apart from the sheer enjoyment of watching and reading, is that the creation of an original, fascinating, intriguing character is paramount. I don’t know whether there are only seven basic plots, as some have stated, or 36, which others tell me, but the characters a writer creates can be limitless even while they are bound by the realities of human nature, as limitless (and as bound) as each human being on the planet. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a character in Sherlock Holmes that will live as long as people read or watch filmed entertainment. Something to aspire to.
Oh, and on another topic entirely, here in Estes Park, we are all quite giddy — the wind has dropped. After what feels like weeks, even months, the wind has died down. Calloo callay!
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Rather a good point, Bert. It isn’t really Sherlock, although I enjoyed the steampunk music and attitude. The best new rendition is the Cumberbatch Sherlock, truly updating and rethinking the canon — for example, instead of a three-pipe problem, it’s a three nicotine patch problem.
As a Arthur Conan (the non-Barbarian) Doyle fan for decades, it is distressing to watch Robert Downey in a bogus Sherlock Holmes role. These renditions of Sherlockia are genuinely stupid, and Downey, while a marvelous actor, does not work in the part. Some things Hollywood should leave alone out of respect for the author.