Tag Archives: ripper

PULP: “Sherlock”, House & Holmes

27 Oct

Hugh Laurie, House and Holmes

n a season five episode of House, Hugh Laurie is presented with a birthday present: a copy of the Manual Of the Operations of Surgery by one Dr. Joseph Bell. A medical lecturer at Edinburgh University during the late 19th Century, Bell was most famously the inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes; Gregory House is, in turn, based on Holmes, down to his apartment number (221B) and his on-again off-again roommate (Dr. James Wilson instead of Dr. John Watson).

While House is just a riff on Arthur Conan Doyle‘s detective, there have been plenty of faithful adaptations, and Holmes remains the most frequently portrayed character on screen. So escaping the shadow of previous Holmeses – from the gentlemanly Basil Rathbone to the restrained lunacy of Jeremy Brett – has always been an issue for any new actor taking on Sherlock.

A new BBC adaptation gets around this problem, in part, by transplanting Holmes to contemporary London. Featuring the wonderfully-monikered Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, Sherlock stays close to the original stories in tone, and Cumberbatch is adept at channeling the mania of Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey, Jr.


But Sherlock’s cool, deductive mind, in the 21st Century, has become tech-obsessed, cold, and sociopathic by comparison to Conan Doyle’s original. He prefers to text than to talk, the abstraction of texting allowing Holmes to perform his “thinking-out-loud” deduction without having to enter a dialogue with Watson, and he solicits business as a “consulting detective” via a personal website. Though technology plays a role in solving the mystery in “A Study in Pink” – the first episode of this debut season – its role is more important in its relation to Holmes the man. As is the case in most recent adaptations, Holmes’ Asperger’s-like symptoms of social maladjustment are tempered only by his brilliance.

This isn’t to say that Sherlock is no fun. On the contrary, the writing team comes from prime pulp entertainment stock – Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have both written for, and Moffat now runs, the BBC’s Doctor Who. In places, Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Holmes,

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, and Martin Freeman as John

though not as dark as other incarnations (he is addicted to nicotine patches, not to Conan Doyle’s cocaine or House‘s painkillers), seeme like a more nuanced version of Who‘s saturnine genius. In terms of both appearance and manner, Cumberbatch would have made a good Doctor, but it is perhaps more interesting to see play up the darker facets of a character such as Holmes. If he had played the Doctor, he would have been constrained by Doctor Who‘s family entertainment label.

Balancing out the abnormal Sherlock is an actor who has specialized in paragons of British normalcy, Martin Freeman. As John Watson, a military doctor recently returned from service in Afghanistan, Freeman helps ground both Watson and Holmes in their new, contemporary setting. And Watson’s blog – set up as a form of therapy for PTSD – ties contemporary technology into the original Conan Doyle stories: Watson blogs in order to document his adventures with Holmes.

Afghanistan is the most startlingly contemporary reference in the show, and might come to play a bigger role when the writers have the chance at a full series (so far, only three movie-length episodes have been produced). Watson is warned by a police officer that Sherlock is one step away from psychopathy, that he “gets off” on murder, violence, and the dark underbelly of crime that still thrives in London.

Watsons: Martin Freeman & Jude Law compare notes

But the most novel aspect of Sherlock is how this dark side of Homes is mirrored in Watson: the doctor is already missing the adrenaline rush of war, and he seems to be as fascinated with their investigations of gruesome crime as Holmes is.

But Sherlock Holmes has a long-standing pedigree when it comes to gruesome crime. Conan Doyle’s inspiration, Dr. Joseph Bell, was consulted by the Metropolitan Police during the Jack the Ripper murders. According to hearsay, Bell claimed to have identified the Ripper, and submitted the name of his suspect to Scotland Yard. Though the name he submitted has never been revealed, the murders stopped as soon as the police had received Bell’s letter.

It seems that Bell’s deductive powers may have been just as legendary as Conan Doyle led us to believe.

DLR

Advertisements