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Sherlock: A Holmesian Masterpiece

on Mon, 05/28/2012 - 00:00

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman
Although the Edgar Allan Poe creation Auguste Dupin—a Nineteenth Century sleuth who used an intellectual rationalization method to solve such mysteries as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—is often deemed the first fictional detective, it is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes that is considered the epitome of the genre.

Like Dupin, Holmes was not a member of professional law enforcement but an outsider assisting in the many cases that baffled Scotland Yard. Just as Dupin had “ratiocination,” Holmes had his own form of logical deduction which enabled him to make factual conclusions based on keen observation. While Auguste Dupin may not be a household name in the Twenty First Century, however, Sherlock Holmes continues to maintain an iconic reputation well over 100 years since his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet.

The popularity of Sherlock Holmes is obviously due to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original and entertaining stories but also owes a debt to the many big screen adaptations of the character, including the black-and-white films featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce from the 1940s and the more recent efforts of Robert Downey, Jr. British television writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, meanwhile, have arguably created the best Sherlock Holmes since the writings of Doyle himself with their small screen adaptation for the BBC, which airs in the United States on PBS.

While maintaining the social quirks, inherent humor and deductive reasoning that run through the source material, Gatiss and Moffat are able to modernize Holmes by inserting him into contemporary London. The resulting Sherlock is thus an amalgamation of the old and the new that likewise succeeds at reintroducing the character of Sherlock Holmes to a world already well aware of his cultural significance.

While the Holmes of Sherlock is immediately familiar, actor Benedict Cumberbatch adds a dash of energetic passion and charismatic sexuality to his performance that transforms the legendary detective from dry intellectual to flamboyant savant. Readers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories have long been mesmerized by Holmes’ ability to decipher the background of an individual based solely on an old pocket watch, forgotten walking cane or smudge of mud on a pair of shoes, and Cumberbatch raises the deductive reasoning of his character to the level of hypnotic. Coffee stains, smart phones and discarded napkins serve the same function on Sherlock but while the original Holmes referred to his observations as mere “elementary,” the newer version is driven by the enjoyment of astonishing his visitors.

“I am a showoff,” Holmes tells John Watson. “That’s what we do.”

If Benedict Cumberbatch builds upon the groundwork that came before with his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, Martin Freeman virtually reinvents the character of Dr. John Watson on Sherlock. In the hands of Freeman, the steadfast companion that chronicled Holmes’ achievements more than actually assisting in solving the mysteries has evolved into a genuine friend who helps to keep his neurotic flatmate grounded. Whereas the original Watson was either oblivious or ignorant of the offhanded insults that Holmes occasionally lobbed in his direction, Freeman’s John Watson is less tolerable while remaining equally loyal as well.

The Watson of Sherlock is also adept at unearthing clues himself in a more standard method than the overly thought-out deductions of his comrade. In the episode “The Blind Banker,” for instance, Holmes retraces the movements of a murdered stock broker via receipts found on the victim but eventually reaches a figurative road block. As he attempts to deduce the next destination, Watson arrives with the journal of a second dead man that plainly states the final locale.

In the novel The Sign of the Four, Sherlock Holmes explains to a delighted Watson that he has written various monographs, including one entitled, “Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos.” The contemporary Holmes, meanwhile, has his own website that lists 243 different types of tobacco ash. Instead of being impressed like his Nineteenth Century counterpart, however, the John Watson of Sherlock dismisses the achievement.

“You innumerate 240 different types of tobacco ash,” Watson casually remarks. “Nobody’s reading your website.”

Apparently people do read Watson’s website, however, a blog that details the adventures of Sherlock Holmes—much to the latter’s displeasure. “I’m a private detective, the last thing I need is a public image,” Holmes tersely explains while attempting to hide his face from the media by donning a hat found in the props room of a theater. The garment in question, however, turns out to be the classic deerstalker cap of the original Holmes, adding to the “public image” of the contemporary Sherlock in much the same way as the old.

Sherlock does more than assimilate the deductive methods of its title character and sidekick-like relationship of Watson as many of the narratives derive directly from the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle. The first episode of the television series is named “A Study in Pink,” as opposed to the first Holmes’ novel A Study in Scarlet, and while the mystery of an apparent suicide that is actually murder remains, it is developed in a grander and more detailed fashion.

Sherlock is equally adept at incorporating aspects of the original material and then taking them in an entirely different direction. In both the Scarlet and Pink versions, for instance, the letters “RACHE” are found etched in the woodwork of the crime scene but whereas it was the German word for revenge in the original, the newer Sherlock dismisses that interpretation and concludes the victim intended to spell “RACHEL” instead.

In “The Hounds of Baskerville,” meanwhile, Holmes initially feigns an inability to travel himself to Dartmoor—just as he does in The Hound of the Baskervilles—then quickly backtracks and says that he will indeed be making the trip along with Watson.

Sherlock Holmes has been a pop culture institution since his initial introduction in 1887, appearing in four novels and 56 short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, along with over 210 major motion pictures. Sherlock the television series remains true to the depictions of Arthur Conan Doyle while simultaneously adding fresh twists to the narratives and reimagining the storylines and characters within the framework of contemporary London.

It is no great feat to deduce that Sherlock Holmes will always be a larger-than-life iconic character, a denotation that only grows larger with every episode of Sherlock.

Anthony Letizia

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