Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are on the run. Hiding in a damp alleyway somewhere in the back-end of Marylebone, they catch a breath, handcuffed together, and regroup. James Moriarty, Sherlock’s greatest enemy, has framed the world’s only consulting detective for a string of crimes, all of which he purported to solve; even his closest allies within the police force are now doubting that their erstwhile collaborator was ever anything more than an elaborate, sociopathic conman. “Everybody wants to believe it, that’s what makes it so clever,” Sherlock reflects. “A lie that’s preferable to the truth: my deductions were a sham. No-one feels inadequate, Sherlock’s an ordinary man.” Sherlock Holmes knows that we want him to be humbled.
Efforts to topple the great detective from his self-selected lofty heights have a long vintage. They began with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who famously attempted to rid his career of the success that had so blighted it by sending Holmes careering off the edge of a cliff; it is a need which has continued to be fulfilled right to the present day, in manners as disparate as Michael Chabon’s in The Final Solution or Mitch Cullin’s in A Slight Trick of the Mind, both of which imagine Holmes in his creaking senescence, and Matt Frewer’s in four TV movies for the Hallmark Channel, in which Holmes is a joke of a character, zany and cartoonish in a fashion that renders him a laughable caricature. Attempts to humanise Holmes – Rupert Everett’s turn in The Case of the Silk Stocking – or to uncover his psychology – Nicholas Meyer‘s The Seven Per Cent Solution - have the same ultimate end: to find a chink in Holmes’s armour, and to prise him open.
It is to the credit of the latest series of Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s reimaginng of Conan Doyle, that it takes this trope and uses it for another purpose: to, on the contrary, re-affirm Holmes’s other-worldliness. To one extent or another, the gambit may be slightly weakened by its similarity to the plot of Moffat’s most recent season of Doctor Who, in which a disassociated super-being with few meaningful relationships has only one option if he is to avoid the power of his own myth: fake his own death (and here Benedict Cumberbatch’s pitch-perfect Sherlock is given in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ the motivation of Holmes’s creator), and recede from the immortal limelight. On the other hand, and with a hat tip to the reputedly “preternaturally urbane” Graham Sleight, I’ve been mulling over Jon Blum’s post about ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’, the first of the latest Sherlock trilogy, and along with much of the rest of his analysis tend to agree that beneath the surface resemblance between the Doctor and Sherlock beat three quite different hearts.
In fact, let’s begin with the Belgravian imbroglio. As Blum points out, the episode caused some consternation, since many viewers felt its depiction of Irene Adler – a character who appeared in the first of Conan Doyle’s short stories, got married, and left again – fell short in its gender politics of a literally Victorian forebear. Moffat’s Adler is a professional dominatrix with a string of high-profile clients (an earlier age may euphemistically have called her an ‘adventuress’) who seeks security not from a twist of gold around her finger but by blackmailing the British state. When Holmes arrives at her home, dressed as in the original story as a doddery clergyman, this Adler sees through him; when Holmes tricks her into revealing the location of her hidden valuables, this Adler has booby-trapped the safe; and, when orchestrating her escape, this Adler has no need to dress as a man and do a moonlight flit – she incapacitates Holmes, using his body against him.
That Adler is ultimately and rather triumphantly defanged is also true; but, it seems to me, her role is not to defeat the series’ hero (since nor does she achieve this in the source text): it is, in a manner far more potent than a few Watsonian lines at the end of a story, to test and undermine his commitment to reason and rationality (a characteristic so fundamental to the Holmes character that even Guy Ritchie’s foppish iteration shares it). Holmes’s feelings for Adler – again, so much more far-reaching and plainly stated than in the source text – lead even he to question the central, Spockish tenets of his existence. All limbs and rolling eyes, crashing to the floor, Holmes is out of control not because he cannot solve a puzzle, which of course he may always do at the very last minute, but because he has been incapacitated, literally brought low.
Likewise, in ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’ (the first of two titles this season which play with plurals), Holmes is confounded by the barrier which exists between the world and his mind. In this case, his senses are assaulted by a non-corporeal influence, glimpsing a gigantic hound on the moors – even though, as he insists, ‘hound’ is an archaic term wildly out of place in a world of SMS and first-name-terms, and despite the fact that, to paraphrase Jeremy Brett’s dyspeptic Holmes of ‘The Last Vampyre’, “werewolves don’t exist!” How to respond, then, to a problem which does not yield to the rationalistic observation method Sherlock brings to bear upon every problem? He is for a while at a loss, and confesses an extended moment of real doubt to John (a masterful Martin Freeman, who will not receive the attention of Cumberbatch but deserves all the plaudits). Holmes – naturally – ultimately solves the mystery. But he does so by passing through a Gethsemane, and the audience enjoys it. We – and here we should sigh a sad, patronised, joyless sigh – ‘identify’.
All of this leads to a new kind of precipice, both figurative and literal: Sherlock, defeated and check-mated, is goaded to self-annihilation by Moriarty, atop the roof of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital. At the end of an episode which gleefully retells The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first of Basil Rathbone’s appearances as the detective and the source both of the courtroom drama and the Tower of London heist, the site of Sherlock’s first contact with John is refigured as an alternate location for what Conan Doyle long ago wished would be his last. The Reichenbach fall of the title, however, is not a torrent of water but a movement from unconquerable rescuer of a stolen Turner to potential suicide standing at the edge of a tall building as his greatest enemy brands him a less than worthy adversary. “I’m disappointed in you, ordinary Sherlock,” groans Moriarty, chagrined that even his finest adversary is, in the final analysis, no match for his genius – just normal, just human. Just a sham.
Of course, all that follows – with different moves, but the same shape as Conan Doyle’s original Swiss tango – exists, as it exists in the real world which so confounded Conan Doyle’s assumption that Sherlock Holmes was mortal, to disprove Moriarty’s thesis. Sherlock, like Holmes, is extra-ordinary, capable of evading certain death, of solving every puzzle, of championing the power of human faculty. This is how we should understand and embrace him – not as an impossible ideal, a tabloid celebrity whom we, like Katherine Parkinson’s Kitty Reilly, are desperate to tear back down (see that issue with Moffat and women? It’s there, but let’s leave it for another day). Sherlock Holmes offers us necessary hope: we leave Freeman’s John walking into a bleak landscape of duller colours, having begged a tombstone to perform one last restorative miracle.
Across the churchyard, hidden and unseen – but prepared, like another figure of British legend, to return when we are most in need him – Sherlock Holmes, unhumbled, abides.