Do Your Research

Over the past few days, I’ve watched a lot of Sherlock Holmes.  The entire second series of BBC’s Sherlock, along with the season premiere of the second season of Elementary, CBS’s Holmes adaptation.  Sherlock is a unique character.  And, of course, it’s my nature to wonder why.

Sherlock notices things.  He makes connections where previously, connections did not exist.  He puts two and two together to make four while the first two was buried under a landslide twelve years ago and the second two was in disguise, living under an assumed name in Tibet.  He beats himself up over getting tiny details wrong, then forgets the order of the solar system.  He cares nothing for the emotions of other people and sees his own emotions as weakness.

He is insane on so many levels.  And yet, we love him.  Why?

“Because that’s what people DO!”

No, Moriarty.  You’re wrong.

There’s something about Sherlock that makes him completely unique, able to solve every problem the universe throws at him, and still not care.  Many others have tried to duplicate this feat.  Most of them have failed.

Think of kid detectives everywhere.  Adult detectives everywhere.  Why can’t NCIS cases be solved in thirty seconds, eh?  Why take an entire hour?  Why can there only be one Sherlock?

The original reason was simple– exactly what makes him weird.  He’s a genius.  And he’s insane.  When we see him insult someone so callously with the intimate details of their failing marriage, we decide that it’s because he is uninhibited by emotion that he can think so quickly and remember so much.  We agree with him; average people are crippled by their emotions.  There’s no reason to believe that.  I like my emotions just fine, thank you very much.  The only reason is that he’s smarter.  And the only reason we think he’s smarter is because he’s unhindered by emotions.

If you’ve followed me this far, I think you can tell this is circular reasoning.  Holmes believes that emotions are bad, which makes him smarter than us– and because he’s smarter than us, he believes emotions are bad.  That’s not logic.  It’s just delivered so quickly we can’t see it.

Is he a genius because he’s insane, or insane because he’s a genius?

So why can’t we proclaim a few more of our favorite detectives insane, so they can pull conclusions out of thin air?  Why can’t every author write a Sherlock Holmes?  Why must all our best detective stories be adaptations of the same story?

Let me tell you, Holmes’s success in modern times is not completely due to his genius insanity.  Not completely.  It was enough to gain fame when the first Holmes stories were published, but since then his public image has changed immensely.  That is good news for the adaptations.

See, the good adaptations rely on a little bit of bias and foreknowledge on the audience’s part.  Take, for instance, that line in Sherlock season one episode one, A Study in Pink: “She’s German. ‘Rache.’ German for ‘revenge.'”  Pushing aside the fact that Anderson wouldn’t logically jump to any such conclusion unless he was actually German, this was actually a hint at the original story A Study in Scarlet, when someone claims “Rache” is short for “Rachel” and Sherlock says it’s German.  Yes, it was clumsy, but it was a parallel that only fans of the book would pick up on.

Now, it doesn’t stop there, because who needs little jokes to interest them in a character like this?  No, indeed, this requires something more powerful.  Such as a bias.

What do you think of when I mention Sherlock Holmes?  Who else has that name?  You think of the character and only the character, because Sherlock Holmes only means the character.  There’s no reason to think anything different.  And the character… the character could only be one thing, one person, one type of person.  The famous detective who can pull serial killers out of a hat.

The adaptations feed on that.  They take your idea of Holmes and use it to craft detective stories no other character could pull off.  Who can really do what Sherlock does?  There is not a human alive who could do it.  Sherlock wasn’t modeled after someone.  He’s hardly even possible, let alone human.  It’s fiction, as fiction as you get.  And thus, we allow it.

It’s what we expect, nothing more, nothing less.  Sherlock Holmes is the greatest detective ever.  Who cares if no one could actually know the difference between the mud from this part of London versus that part of London?  He’s the greatest detective ever!  We let him get away with highway robbery.

If Sherlock Holmes didn’t have the reputation he has now, we wouldn’t like any of those adaptations.  We’d see them for what they really are, just reruns of the same characters, same story, over and over and over again.  Without his insanity, we would actually see the plot holes– there is more than one reason for a stain in that area of the shirt.  And honestly, as brilliant as Holmes is, sometimes I wish he wasn’t so popular.

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13 thoughts on “Do Your Research

  1. Always have loved Sherlock Holmes. The reason he works as a character — in the original stories and in the adaptations — is suspension of disbelief. As a writer, I see that. My purpose when I write fiction is to present my audience with a character they absolutely fall in love with, even if they hate what the character does and/or stands for. That’s better, actually. If I can make my audience love a hateful character, then I’ve “got” them and I know it. Sherlock is an idiosyncratic character who I’d kick out of my house because of his socially asinine behavior, but we love him because he was so well-crafted.

    If the stories had been written from Sherlock’s POV, it wouldn’t have worked, but because it was written from Dr. Watson’s POV, we love Sherlock because Dr. Watson loves Sherlock.

    1. Absolutely. I love Sherlock as much as anyone, and I applaud Doyle for creating and writing such a wonderful character. And yes, I agree that it’s Dr. Watson’s bias that makes the stories work, along with the suspension of disbelief. You’re completely right. However, the point of the post was to point out that Sherlock is built on circular reasoning, and the adaptations work only because of our preconceived notions of Holmes.

      1. Well, that would be true. The British series — my husband and I absolutely love it — but it’s the character that drives the story and you do have to suspend disbelief to accept the leaps of logic. Neither of us has been able to watch the one where Watson is a woman and Holmes is an addict. It just strains our incredulity too much and it’s got nothing to do with the gender. It’s that the character does feel “right” to us so the leaps of logic don’t feel believable.

      2. Yes. It’s that series in particular, when compared to other detective shows, that particularly accents the weird intellectual leaps. In all the other shows, they’d have traffic cams tracking the unmarked van through the city– in that, they just taste the dirt and say, “They’re headed to the Metropolitan Opera!”

  2. This is a good post. And of course, Holmes is amazing. As always, you have interesting theories as to why.

    However, I’m now being nit-picky. Holmes, the character, was actually modelled after Sir Doyle’s teacher. Now here’s where I get fuzzy on the details. Doyle was studying to be a surgeon, I think, and the man he was learning it from was a genius with incredible deductive skills. The idea of Holmes came from there. This teacher of Doyle’s later came very close to catching Jack the Ripper, except that the evidence was either inconclusive or destroyed, I don’t remember exactly.

    Unless you mean that Holmes wasn’t modelled after another fictional character…in which case, never mind my blabbering.

      1. Hehe, yep. At a party once, this teacher of Doyle’s was talking to a woman and he suddenly diagnoses her with some sort of disease. Astonished, she says that yes, she does suffer from it, and how did he know? He said it was in the way she was standing, etc etc.

        The woman says, “But sir, you could be Sherlock Holmes!”

        He smiles and says that he really is.

        Now how cool would it be to be that guy?! XD

      1. Huh, really?
        Maybe it’s the same guy, then…either way, I would have done anything to meet him!

      2. “We even know the man who was the model for Holmes – Joseph Bell (1837-1911), a brilliantly deductive surgeon who was Arthur Conan Doyle’s mentor at medical school in Edinburgh. Robert Louis Stephenson wrote to Conan Doyle from Samoa: ‘I hope you will allow me to offer you my compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Only the one thing troubles me: can this be my old friend Joe Bell?’ Conan Doyle confirmed by return that Bell was indeed the inspiration for his detective.”

        Doyle, Arthur Conan (2012-12-13). The Complete Sherlock Holmes: with an introduction from Robert Ryan (Kindle Locations 176-180). Simon & Schuster UK. Kindle Edition.

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