Let Sherlock Die

Review of ‘Sherlock: Season 3

     “If ever a murderer was to be haunted by the man he had killed and to be forced to atone for his act, it was the creator, turned destroyer, of Sherlock Holmes.”

     – Richard Lancelyn Green

     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to hate Sherlock Holmes.  Conan Doyle had had higher literary aspirations (he wrote several novels, among other things), and was dismayed by the exclusive attention his fans gave to Holmes.  He also apparently got tired of thinking up all the clever little crimes and cleverer solutions that allowed Holmes to distinguish himself.  He wrote, “Holmes is becoming such a burden to me that it makes my life unendurable”.

     It was with relief that Conan Doyle threw his detective off the Reichenbach Falls (on the night he finished ‘The Final Problem’, his diary reads, “Killed Holmes”), and it was with reluctance that he resurrected him, in response to overwhelming fan outrage.  Perhaps that reluctance is why Sherlock Holmes’ return to life has never been convincing; it required the bare minimum of effort, the hasty imaginative work of an author who wanted it all to be over with.

     I was raised watching Jeremy Brett in ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, and I really believed that I would never love again.  Others have tried to be Holmes (Basil Rathbone was too villainous; the movies with Robert Downey Jr. were a hack job), but I imprinted on Jeremy Brett and could envision no other.

     Thus, it was with an entirely closed mind that I approached the BBC modernization ‘Sherlock’, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.  I was prepared to loathe it – I am skeptical of modern adaptations as a rule, and, besides, I had found my Sherlock.

     I was wrong: ‘Sherlock’ was brilliant.  I watched and rewatched the first season, anticipated and then accordingly loved the second (which ends with ‘The Reichenbach Fall’).  Cumberbatch was a different kind of Holmes than Brett: he was colder, crueler, more broken.  Brett brought a subtle warmth to the character; where he was eccentric and driven, Cumberbatch was dysfunctional and obsessed.  Both were convincing to me, and both struck me as valuable interpretations.  Holmes as a literary character always needed to be fleshed out; he was more method than man, and Brett and Cumberbatch gave very different, but very compelling, substance to Conan Doyle’s frame.

     The writers of ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ stuck doggedly to the text; the writers of ‘Sherlock’ wrote new stories for a new time, and while they were uneven, they did at times attain dizzying heights of referential cleverness.  I am a sucker for clever things, and I was entirely persuaded.

     ‘Sherlock’ was helped along, of course, by Cumberbatch, who managed, by the skin of his teeth, to channel a truly massive charisma into a twitchy intensity.  Cumberbatch was helped along, in turn, by Martin Freeman, who plays the best Watson I have ever seen.

     So you can imagine my excitement about the premiere of the third season.  Can you also imagine my disappointment upon seeing it?  Holmes lives again, but not really.

     It seems the writers have got carried away with the charm of their actor, and they’ve lost Holmes.  He’s Benedict now, pretending to be a French waiter, enjoying his own sex appeal.  While the first two seasons allowed Holmes to be darkly witty, he was never funny (on purpose); he’s funny now.  More, he’s zany, he’s a cut-up, a trait so antithetical to the deep intellectual seriousness of Sherlock Holmes that it’s jarring to watch.  The plot of ‘The Empty Hearse’ is thin to the point of nonexistence, but that’s fine – the plots of Sherlock Holmes stories were often thin.  The problem is that the series has forgotten that Sherlock Holmes is much, much more than Benedict Cumberbatch in a peacoat.

     Perhaps we should have learned from Conan Doyle:  Holmes can’t come back from the Fall, not the same.  Perhaps the fans, then as now, and myself among them, who clamored for more, were wrong; perhaps it is better to have loved and lost than to believe the adored object has returned, only to discover it a poor substitute.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes: All 4 Novels and 56 Short Stories, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

For a discussion of how much Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes, read the semi-eponymous first essay in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, by David Grann.

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