Tag Archives: sherlock holmes

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

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Pulp Pictures: Guy Ritchie & “Sherlock Holmes” Detective Fever!

21 Dec

When Sherlock Holmes comes to the silver screen this Christmas, brace yourself for howls of protest. Guy Ritchie’s revisionist Holmes will no doubt unearth a school of Arthur Conan Doyle enthusiasts happy bemoan both the homoerotic subtext and the protagonist’s anachronistic headgear. But, trilbies and sex aside, this particular detective is the most portrayed movie character and is clearly an icon as durable as they come.

PULPable‘s previous forays into the icon of the detective placed the real-life detective police of Victorian England at the beginning of a pulp time line. Scotland Yard’s finest fascinated Charles Dickens, who described them as “respectable-looking men of unusual intelligence”. From their inception in 1843, the detectives employed phrenology, physiognomy and psychology to reconstruct crimes, foreshadowing Darwin’s belief that “every complex structure [is] the summing up of many contrivances”. For more on the original gumshoes, read PULP Precedents: Putting the Detective into Detective Fiction here.

“Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s protagonist was the maestro of summing up contrivances and reaching a natural conclusion.

Original illustration for the death of Holmes, by Sidney Paget

Conan Doyle had begun writing in the Pulp magazines of the late 19th Century, and in 1887 readers first picked up The Strand Magazine to read his Holmes and Watson stories. The good Doctor related Holmes’ tales, while the detective strung together in turn his own narrative from the smallest deductions. Illustrations breathed life into an icon and created the archetypical sleuth. What Guy Ritchie’s detractors may be forgetting is that Dime Magazines and Penny Dreadfuls were very much the mindless action movies of their day.

The 20th Century embraced the detective zeal: Pulps such as The Strand and The Argosy blended familiarity and exoticism in the name of entertainment, inventing genres in just about every issue. Dashiell Hammett became the dean of hard-boiled noir in Black Mask and “gave murder back to the people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse”, while Philip Marlowe slummed it with ne’er-do-wells and strutted with Hollywood actresses while exposing the underside of L.A. in the early 20th Century.

In his original issue trenchcoat, the noir detective brought to the cinema aisles a black and white moral certitude. As much as Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant might bring stylised masculinity and self-conscious hamminess to their films, the Holmesian mechanics of mystery made their way onto television in the form of classic whodunits and scene-of-the-crime detection shows ranging from Columbo to CSI. Forensics and post-Freudian psychology had grown in importance and while the 1940s heydey of detective noir had waned, Conan Doyle’s sense of “eliminate the impossible…” had become accepted science, bolstered as it was by forensic evidence and the discovery of DNA. Bringing justice to an increasingly anarchic world, all in the name of entertainment, the detective had survived.

In the first true detective novel, The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins asked his readers, “do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head?… I call it the detective-fever.” No matter how bad the movie may (and almost certainly will be), who in all honesty could object to Robert Downey, Jr. playing himself, playing a movie producer’s comic book version of Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s Victorian London? The fever, it seems, has yet to be fully extinguished.