One day when Dr. Somerton was down with a fever a little Andaman Islander was picked up by a convict-gang in the woods. He was sick to death, and had gone to a lonely place to die. I took him in hand, though he was as venomous as a young snake, and after a couple of months I got him all right and able to walk. He took a kind of fancy to me then, and would hardly go back to his woods, but was always hanging about my hut. I learned a little of his lingo from him, and this made him all the fonder of me.
[…] We earned a living at this time by my exhibiting poor Tonga at fairs and other such places as the black cannibal. He would eat raw meat and dance his war-dance: so we always had a hatful of pennies after a day’s work. [The Sign of Four, Chapter XII]
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not averse to the casual Imperial racism of his time. Again and again, his stories featured natives or crudely drawn shadowy-yet-exotic parts foreign – of which Tonga, the dart-blowing ‘pygmy’ of The Sign of Four, is the most famously egregious example. Tonga is practically denied humanity, so savagely separate to the Victorian gentleman around him is he depicted as being. But Tonga isn’t the only one: in ‘The Three Gables‘, a “huge negro” with the improbable name of Steve Dixie barges into Holmes’s study in a flurry of malopropisms and comical misunderstandings; in ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge‘, a wife’s passionate, muderous nature is explained by her Brazilian heritage; ‘The Red Circle‘ assumes that all, or at the very least most, Italians are basically connected to the mafia.
That a 21st century writer should also resort to these sorts of ethnographic shorthand is troubling. True, the broad stereotypes of Conan Doyle are often extended to the English – who, where upper class, are all starched collars and upright dignity and, where working class, mangled vowels and questionable probity – and in part they are part of the fabric of the playful adventure story; but they are also relics of an earlier time, when, with half the globe red, other, more genuine, voices were rarely permitted. In ‘The Blind Banker’, the latest episode of the BBC’s new series, Sherlock, Steven Moffatt tries a little too hard to recreate the Victorian in the modern city.
His story starts – with echoes of ‘The Gloria Scott‘ – with an old university friend. It ends – recalling ‘The Veiled Lodger‘- with sinister circus performers. In between, there are all sorts of other references: the detailed knowledge, as with Henry Baker’s hat, of men’s accessories and their seasons; an enthusiasm for cryptography which matches that in ‘The Dancing Men‘; and a promising young police inspector for whose career Holmes has “high hopes” (for Dimmock read Hopkins). The affection for and knowledge of the original stories exhibited byMoffat cannot be questioned. In a curious way, this modern dress production has a Sherlock at its centre who is closer to Doyle’s than Rupert Everett’s more traditionally garbed Holmes in The Silk Stocking, also a BBC effort.
So it is that a story set in the modern milieu of London – all gherkins, grafitti and chow mein – nevertheless feels somehow as one with our inherited image of the great detective. Partly this is the wardrobe – Watson wears cardigans which serve the function of waistcoats, Holmes great winter coats and a scarf tied like a louche cravat – and partly it is the set dressing, which leaves 221B practically unchanged from the one inhabited by Jeremy Brett. But there is also the question of tone and topic, and here ‘The Blind Banker’ pays homage to the wrong parts of Doyle. It centres on, yep, an exotic crime syndicate; its members, yes, are the sort of racial types which might have troubled Allan Quatermain – stealthy assassins and ruthless, heavily accented, ‘generals’. It’s a nifty transposition, but unworthy of the hip, modern spin the series seeks to give the concept.
Elsewhere, there’s much to enjoy, although the dialogue is not as sharp as in the series opener. Cumberbatch and Freeman remain splendid in the main roles, and the central mystery is decidedly more difficult and engaging than in ‘Study in Pink’ (though that ain’t saying a lot). The action sequences aren’t bad, either. But the episode also feels not quite as tight as the premiere, and that silly Chinaman stuff undermines the whole edifice. (Oh, there’s an indeterminately ethnic swordsman at the start, too.) If Sherlock is to maintain its credibility as an anti-period piece, it needs to be more like ‘The Yellow Face‘, in which Conan Doyle showed compassion – rather than condescension – for the denizens of a multicultural England.