I have had a Sherlock Holmes start to the year. Not in a solving murders with wordplay sort of a way, but in an experiencing lots of Sherlock Holmes sort of a way. After watching the first episode of the fourth series of Sherlock on the BBC, (and thoroughly enjoying it), I was inspired to pick up a book my wife had bought me a while back: The Hound of the Baskervilles.
I have to admit to being an Arthur Conan Doyle philistine. I vaguely recall trying to read Sherlock Holmes as a kid, but can’t remember much. I remember finding it a bit dense; to be honest I think I was simply too young.
I have, however, been a huge fan of Sherlock since it started, finding the characters, scripting and atmosphere extremely appealing. It was freewheeling, both very light and very heavy. It drew you into the friendship between Holmes and Watson in a way that reminded me very much of Kirk, Spock and McCoy; a genuine, affectionate camaraderie which invited you in as a thrilled fly on the wall.
I had been presuming along the way, that these features were the more modern aspects of the story, brought in to engage a 21st century audience. I suppose I had always imagined the storytelling and characterisation by Arthur Conan Doyle to have been stiff, stoic, dense or slow. It was with very pleasant surprise, therefore, that I found the same swiftness, humour and humanity in The Hound of the Baskervilles that had so appealed to me in Sherlock. I found myself smiling, thinking, ‘this sounds exactly like Sherlock and Watson in Sherlock!’, realising immediately that what I was really expressing was admiration for how faithfully Thompson, Moffat and Gatiss had scripted the characters. I was able to quite clearly hear Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes in 19th/turn of 20th century form alongside Freeman’s Watson.
Even some of the snarkier nuances, the kind which really smack of 21st century playful cynicism, such as Holmes’ penchant for affecting a deeply incredible insight through superhumanly complicated reasoning when in fact he has deduced from some obvious, salient clue; that’s all in there, back there at the dawn of our current era. Without exaggeration, reading The Hound of the Baskervilles was joyous not simply because of the grim fun of the story, but how recognisable it all was. Holmes’ 21st century texting stands in for his heavy use of telegraph in the 19th century. His relationship with Watson and his handling of others is unchanged. And of course the format, a written report by Dr Watson, is now translated, naturally into a blog, the Watsonian perspective maintained.
It is an interesting and scintillating experience, looking at human perspectives on the past, through fact or fiction. What so often shines through is not the differences, but the similarities.
And it is with this new familiarity of the foundation of Holmes’ mythology (I now need to go on to read the rest), that I saw the strength of the method of Sherlock. If the creators of the new, extremely 21st century Holmes had not fit so excellently with the works of Doyle, the audacities, scope and more modern adaptive characterisation simply wouldn’t work. It is a weakness of the Guy Ritchie films that, despite affecting a haughty Victorian English accent, wielding a pipe and solving crimes, the essential verve of Doyle is lost. The stories lacked grounding. With Sherlock so aware of its history, and so willing to use it as a firm foundation for a modern towering narrative superstructure, it embraces the best of both worlds.
As I say, I’ve still to read the rest, and I look forward to it – perhaps all the rest that I have accredited to Sherlock is present in Doyle’s works too.
On a closing note, I’m excited by the direction of this latest series. The second episode, The Lying Detective, was particularly unnerving and genuinely heart breaking. Again, very well written and directed, but so much credit has to be sent to way of the central cast, all of whom were on absolutely top form. That closing revelation too. Wow.
I’m a late convert, but I understand now the magic of these characters and why they endure with such vigour. It’s not because of what they can become; it’s because of what, in the right hands, they can always be: an affectionate and incisive reflection of universal complexities, truths and humanity that will always be present in an ever-changing world.