What Sherlock Gave Me (Part 2)

IMG_0209.JPGAt the curvy road sign, I’m told, I’ll see a driveway, and I should turn left there. When I climb out of the car, I’m greeted with cool mountain smells, cricket chirps, and hugs. I’m handed a hamburger with swiss cheese melted on it, held between two English muffins, and pointed toward avocado, homemade basil pesto, and roasted onions to dress it up with. Still munching, I’m shuffled back into my shoes and taken for a stroll down near the river, handed St John’s Wort and tangy, minty weeds to taste. We go by a homemade trebuchet, but don’t fire it. I go across a pond on a log, stiff and cautious, and I have to crouch halfway across and take deep, relaxing breaths. My friend waits patiently on the other side, saying nothing, but waiting to make sure I get across okay.

Back at the house–safe and dry, and really, if I’d fallen, it would’ve been my own stiff clumsy fault, and not the log’s–I’m given another burger, this one lamb, and a beer, and a piece of yucca, which tastes kind of like dehydrated cucumber. Like if NASA wanted to make cucumber-flavored astronaut ice cream. The house is big, I suppose, but it’s hard to tell, because the floor plan is defined by the hill on which the house sits, so everything is around corners and up steps and through Jack-and-Jill bathrooms. There’s no cell service.

We dish up bowls of ice cream and go downstairs in stocking feet, spreading out on a couch and a bed. Sherlock, the BBC version, is projected onto a blank wall. There’s an electrical outlet on the wall that keeps wandering across my attention at odd moments.

I’ve seen “The Hounds of Baskerville,” but never watched it with people, and the funny moments are funnier, the startling moments are more startling because the person next to me is jumping in surprise. There’s conversation afterward. Explanation. Discussion of this episode vs Doyle’s originals. Plans for next time.

Outside afterward, on my way to my car, it’s gotten a bit cooler but not as much as you’d think, really. The canyon had already started to cool off when I arrived. I look up at the stars running riot across the sky, unobscured by city lights.

So this is one of the things that Sherlock–the stories in their entirety, not just the BBC version–has given me. Besides the amusement and the reassurance. It gives me moments like these. Hamburgers and hugs and good conversation. Comfortable faces. Moments away from life. This lonely man, Sherlock, who doesn’t have friends. Just one. Gives me nights like this.



If you know me, you know I’m kind of a snob about Sherlock Holmes. I’m a snob about pretty much any work of literature that’s adapted to film or television (except for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Yes, I know that’s the weirdest of all possible exceptions). And I love Sherlock, but–except for Jeremy Brett–I tend to get irritated by his on-screen versions. When I heard that Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law were starring in a Sherlock movie, my first reaction was that it had been cast backwards. Why wasn’t Jude Law playing Sherlock? Surely that made more sense? The movie allayed my suspicions somewhat (and, in all honesty, my one criticism of Brett’s Holmes is that he’s too much of a staid, inactive British gentleman, so I was happy to see Sherlock finally kicking some ass, as he does in the books), and Sherlock Holmes is enormous fun to watch, but I don’t see much of Arthur Conan Doyle’s world in Guy Ritchie’s interpretation. If the old Granada series, with Jeremy Brett, skewed Sherlock too much toward the brainiac, Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock skewed too much toward the action hero. There’s a couple of Holmes pastiches that I like, but for the most part, I don’t think they’re worthy of the character name Sherlock.

When I heard about the Moffat/Gatiss BBC adaptation, I was curious, and ready to be dismissive. Sherlock with a cell phone? With a DNA lab? Is this just going to be CSI in the London fog? So much of Sherlock’s ability to infer and deduce is dependent–at least in part–on the staid, predictable, class-defined society that was Victorian England. What would Sherlock do in a chaotic, modern metropolis? What would Moriarty do? Collude with Tony Soprano? But Sherlock redeemed itself, mostly on the strength of its incredible casting and acting. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman get the friendship of Holmes and Watson closest to right–by which I mean closest to what’s in my head.

But Hollywood isn’t done over saturating us with Holmes. It’s like it’s trying to make up for the previous twenty years of leaving us alone with Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. Now CBS is making its own series. Sherlock will fit right in with the rest of CBS’s stable of off-kilter geniuses who solve crime with various brands of genius and varying degrees of social hostility (Numb3rs, The Mentalist, Gil Grissom on CSI, etc). But it’s not so much Sherlock I’m suspicious of. Sherlock’s character, abrasive yet courteous, is relatively easy to grab onto and focus on the one or two aspects of his personality that a writer wants to focus on. Sometimes Sherlock–literary Sherlock–is oblivious to social norms and cues, and sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he cares about offending people, sometimes he doesn’t. He’s impatient and efficient and doesn’t want to waste time with small talk or explanations (until it suits him). He likes to put people off their guard by making alarmingly personal observations about them prior to interviewing them about the problem he’ll be investigating. And that’s the sort of character that’s fun to play with and relatively easy to write, once you crawl into his head. But a character lurks in the background of the foreground, one much maligned and mistreated in previous adaptations, reduced to either comedic relief or source of expository dialogue. Much subtler, much slipperier, and much more beloved than Sherlock Holmes–at least as far as I’m concerned–is John Watson. Who, in CBS’s version, is now a woman.

For obvious reasons, adaptors of Conan Doyle’s work have trouble with the female characters. First of all, there aren’t any. Mrs. Hudson answers the door at 221B Bakes Street and Mrs. Watson shows up just often enough to tell her husband to ditch work and go hang out with Sherlock, and other than that, all the female characters are clients of Sherlock’s. So many adaptations have taken it upon themselves to inflate this client or that client’s importance and give them larger roles, usually Irene Adler, The Woman, the one who actually foiled Holmes, but whose role in the books is nowhere near as primary as it is in so many adaptations (both Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the BBC’s Sherlock have her colluding with Moriarty, which is just flat wrong, especially when you consider that she isn’t even a criminal in her story, “A Scandal in Bohemia”). I wish I knew why nobody has thought to do anything with Helen Stoner from “TheAdventure of the Speckled Band” or Violet Hunter, the brave governess from “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” Nobody’s interested in getting to know Watson’s wife (wives?) better, no, we want to watch Holmes bounce around and be obnoxious, but our late 20th century niceties won’t let us leave Mrs. Hudson all alone to represent her gender. So, turn Watson into a woman. Okay. Maybe it’ll be interesting, and maybe it’ll work narratively. It certainly gives the new series territory to explore. On the other hand, I wonder if CBS is using is progressiveness and creativity in one direction (yay strong female characters!) to cover up its conservatism in another, and avoiding the implication, or even the discussion, that Holmes and Watson might be gay.

Full disclosure: I don’t believe that Holmes and Watson are gay. Arthur Conan Doyle–bluff, straightforward, blunt and upright British chap that he was–would never write such a thing. It wouldn’t even occur to him. But in the network television world, in the internet world, in the world of fanfic, it’s really hard to have a show centered around two characters and not have those two characters get it on eventually (the only exception I can think of is Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson from Law & Order: SVU). It’s easier to avoid sexual tension between two particular characters in an ensemble show (mostly because you can take up all your time using other combinations of people for sexual tension), but Holmes and Watson aren’t, and never can be, part of an ensemble. A female Watson allows the show to play with sexual tension in a way that’s socially acceptable. So we’ll see how this goes.

Watching the Elementary pilot, I kept waiting for that moment of recognition that I sometimes get watching a good adaptation. That moment when the character that you’re watching collides for a moment with the character in your head, and you think, “Ahh! There you are! I’ve missed you!” But it never really happened. There’s too much that’s different, and CBS doesn’t let us spend any time getting to know the characters in a way that isn’t combative (and, okay, Sherlock can be a pretty combative and manipulative conversationalist, but you couldn’t give us at least one scene where Sherlock and Joan weren’t trying to one-up each other?)

First of all, I am already annoyed by the premise of this relationship (Lucy has been hired by Sherlock’s father to be his constant companion to keep Sherlock sober, since he’s just out of rehab). I don’t know much about being sober–someone who is in recovery please help me out here–but a “sober companion,” seems like a really bad strategy for keeping somebody sober. People struggling with addiction don’t need babysitters. A definitive and slightly alarming character like Sherlock Holmes needs one even less. There is no possible way that, if he gets it into his head to have a relapse, Lucy Liu can stop Sherlock from going out and scoring. And at this point in their relationship, it’s clear that Holmes is not going to rely on her emotionally the way a sponsor would. He’s not going to call her if he feels tempted.

And Sherlock starts right out seemingly trying to alarm and brush off and confuse Lucy Liu. Oh, and I just realized, that woman, leaving the brownstone as Lucy came up the stoop? Probably a prostitute. If that’s true, we already have two things that Arthur Conan Doyle never envisioned: a deliberately rude Sherlock, and a sexual one (not an asexual one. A sexual one). Sherlock confirms this a few minutes later by explaining to Lucy (unnecessarily and unasked) that he actually finds sex distasteful, but “his brain and his body require it to function at optimal levels, so I feed them as needed.” Way to take statements that the literary Holmes makes about food and sleep and apply them to a subject that literary Holmes never even broached, CBS. Combined with the fact that he’s not wearing a shirt when he meets her and he’s trying to deliberately make her uncomfortable, I have to say that this series is going to have to watch itself before it treads unconsciously into misogyny. Making another man feel uncertain of his footing has a distinctly different undertone than doing the same thing to a woman, CBS, please tell me you understand this.

And Sherlock is putting on dirty laundry. Something else the real Sherlock would never do. And Sherlock apparently has an overprotective, overbearing father. I get that Sherlock Holmes is a fast-paced character (especially if you’re going to mimic Benedict Cumberbatch), but the show itself needs to slow down and set shit up better. Set up Watson. I watched an hour f this show, and I feel like I don’t know much of anything about either Watson or Holmes. I know their biographies, but I don’t know what matters to them, I don’t know if they’re happy, I don’t know what motivates either of them. So far we seem more enamored with setting up how Holmes is weird and Watson is troubled and less with figuring out whether we like them or care about them. This Sherlock seems to have more in common with Gregory House than he does Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes.

Ahhh, Sherlock keeps bees. Point to the producers of this series. I don’t think that any other adaptation has included the bees (mostly because in the canon, that’s what Sherlock does after retiring), but still, I’m happy to meet Holmes as an apiarist.

There are other little niggling things here and there. Sherlock asks, for the first time in any adaptation, a question that I feel is a stupid question. Why would a pretty person get plastic surgery? wonders Sherlock. I don’t know, Sherlock. Why are successful people depressed? Why do rich people commit suicide? Maybe she had body dysmorphia disorder. Maybe she didn’t know she was pretty. Only ugly people get plastic surgery? Really? That’s the basis you’re starting your logical deductions from?

So Sherlock talks really really fast, but is not on drugs. He says alarmingly personal things to Lucy Liu (who is still Lucy Liu to me, and not Joan Watson), and she doesn’t get pissed off, she doesn’t get alarmed. She doesn’t even escape the situation. She turns the subject back to him (seriously?) before leaving the room. Is she trying to hit him back? Is she trying to retaliate in kind? What the hell? There’s something gross to me, that I can’t quite pinpoint, about watching Watson engage with Holmes in this combative way. Holmes and Watson are supposed to balance each other (as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson do, in which Watson either doesn’t engage in Holmes’ combative banter, or he reacts emotionally, not intellectually). The problem is, having a Watson that’s troubled and unhappy the way Lucy Liu’s Watson is, she’s surviving by trying to cut herself off from her emotions. You can’t have a Watson/Holmes pairing that’s entirely intellectual. Holmes is the head of the pair. Watson is the heart. A Watson who is trying to cut himself off from grief and guilt–who’s trying to not feel things–can’t bring anything to the relationship that Holmes himself doesn’t bring.

And then there’s the moment when Sherlock hangs up on the NYPD forensics guy, and there’s a dial tone. I don’t know that iPhones could do that.

The final thing that annoys me about the latest Holmes adaptation hasn’t even happened yet, but I have no doubt that it will (it happens in BBC’s version, in Guy Ritchie’s versions, everything except the Granada series, which faithfully adapted pretty much every story). It’s a part of the Sherlock stories that almost always overlooked–the fact that Holmes doesn’t always investigate murder. In fact, murders and deaths make up less than half the stories in the canon. A few times, Holmes investigates mysteries of “national importance” (lost treaties, lost naval plans, spies on British soil). He get clients who have received strange correspondance (either nonsensical or written in code, and on one memorable occasion, body parts), clients whose loved ones have disappeared, landlords who have strange or threatening tenants, professionals who have been asked to do strange and inexplicable things in the course of their employment (wear a bright blue dress, cut their hair, copy out the encyclopedia). He helps either prevent or solve jewel heists and bank robberies. Sometimes, he investigates problems only to find that nothing illegal has happened, and sometimes something illegal happens and he solves it outside of the boundaries of the law. Holmes investigates problems that are interesting–but interesting isn’t always synonymous with severe. But I feel pretty certain that, in Elementary, every single week we’re going to watch Holmes solve another impossible murder. Because that’s all network crime show writers think to write about.

The sad thing is, even given all of the above complaints, I’ll probably still end up watching Elementary. Because it’s Holmes. And because I’m weak.

Sherlock & Me (orig. posted Oct. 18, 2010)

“Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox & Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid.  It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious problems which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine…”

    –The Problem of Thor Bridge     

    (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)


I think when I was in high school, we read the “Speckled Band” in class, and other than that my impressions of Holmes and Watson were the usual cultural constants of deerstalker cap, meerschaum pipe, late middle aged proper Victorians.  Hounds and speckled bands and Bohemian scandals.  That’s about it.

My grandfather, who was a professor of biology, loved Sherlock Holmes.  He was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars for over 40 years, he had this leather bound set that I remember from my grandparents’ house in New Orleans.  My grandfather died when I was in middle school, and because he was in New Orleans and I was in Littleton, I wouldn’t say I knew him well.  I know these things: his name was Dr. Walter G. Moore.  He always read the newspaper, cover to cover, in the morning, reacting to the stories with quiet exclamations like “Oh, mercy,” and “Hoo hah!”  (I’ve never heard anyone else say “Hooha!”, but it was a general all-purpose exclamation of surprise or dismay.)  He was quiet and didn’t talk much.  I don’t remember us ever having a drawn out conversation.  But I used to sit at his feet and play with toys while he read a book or the paper, in perfect co-existence with each other.  He was a gentle soul.  He loved all six of his children and treated them with respect (as evidenced, I think, by the fact that all of his children turned around and treated all of their own children with love and respect that, as I grow older, I realize I’m lucky to have received).  He was handy around the house.  He loved dogs and jazz music.  He loved my grandmother.

My family lucked out in the aftermath of Katrina.  We lost no family members.  By far the biggest blow was the loss of my grandparents’ house and the 65 years worth of family history embedded there.  It took my aunts and uncles several months to go through all the refuse, pulling out what they could to salvage, and when they were done, the remnants of my grandparents’ lives together could fit into a 10’x10′ storage unit.  For my grandmother’s 90th birthday, we all gathered in New Orleans, and one of the things we did was split up all the stuff (my grandmother didn’t want the vast majority of it, or thought it was time to let it go.  She’s been living with one of my aunts since the storm).  Except for the big double bed, none of it was monetarily valuable.  (And as an aside, I have to say, that six kids, 14 grandkids, and an assortment of in-laws could split up what amounts to an inheritance with not a single squabble is, I think, a tribute to the kind of parents my grandparents were.)

Things I got: A couple of the specimen bottles my grandfather used to use to collect water samples from the bayous.  One of my grandmother’s window ornaments.  The cuckoo clock.  And about twenty years’ worth of The Baker Street Journals, which is a quarterly newsletter devoted to all things Sherlock.

Sherlock fans are notoriously obsessive.  Entire books have been written trying to figure out what order the stories in the canon go in, and how many wives Watson had.  Trying to uncover details of cases that Watson never wrote about.  Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper.  Holmes and Irene Adler.  Floor plans of the Baker Street rooms.  And on and on and on.  One hundred years hasn’t exhausted their need to know more, hasn’t filled in all the gaps.  I think Holmes appealed to my grandfather’s precise, scientific mind.  Almost a year ago, I also received some money from the sale of my grandmother’s house–she sold it to the Road Home Initiative and split the money up amongst her children and grandchildren.  I was going to use it to go to Europe, something I’ve wanted to do for awhile.  Instead, I was stupid, and ended up having to use it to pay off credit cards.  Which is such a waste and disrespect of what my grandmother gave to me, and I’m fucking ashamed of myself for it.  Thankfully, I do better with literary inheritances.

But in order to appreciate these quarterly journals, I have to be conversant in the stories.  So I started reading the stories, and discovered that I knew Holmes pretty well, but I didn’t know Watson at all.  And as I read them over and over, paradoxically, Watson is the reason I read them.  Not Holmes.  As I think about it now, I think Watson has a lot in common with my grandfather.

I read Holmes because it is, in a very real way, my grandfather’s legacy to me.  It may be the only thing I share with him.  Reading these stories connects me not only to Victorian England, but to mid-century New Orleans, and a smart, quiet man living his life the best way he knew how.

One of Watson’s stories starts out with the statement that, “Somewhere in the vaults of the bank Cox & Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box with my name, John H. Watson MD, Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid.  It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious cases which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine.”  This battered tin dispatch box is one of the more enduring pieces of Holmesian folklore, and many Holmes pastiches or fan fic purport to have been found in the mythical tin box.

The idea of this tin box has great allure for me.  I received my inheritance out of the wreckage of a wooden house, in the wake of realizing just how fragile and temporary our lives and possessions are.  To see 65 years of your family’s history blown apart like it that is incredibly jarring.  For me, to think that somewhere there is a battered tin dispatch box, waiting patiently, containing all this history…it’s like having an anchor to hold on to that keeps the chaos at bay.  To think that somewhere there’s a little pocket of time that I can slip through and find Holmes and Watson smoking pipes and putting their feet up by the fire…who wouldn’t want that?  Who wouldn’t want to feel like these things can last forever?

It’s fiction, of course.  Of all the millions and millions of dinosaurs, we only have a few hundred skeletons left to tell us that they ruled the earth.  Of the many millions of humans who have walked the earth, we know details of a far few.  Not even a fraction of 1%–most people live and die and are entirely forgotten within two or three generations.  And so many of those we only have by accident–we wouldn’t know anything of Plato or Aristotle if their libraries hadn’t been looted by the Romans, brought back to Rome, and somehow found their way into the possession of (I think) Cicero, who read the books and was so taken by them that he started writing about them himself and getting other people interested.  The Gospel of Q was discovered in an ancient Egyptian trash heap.  The Dead Sea Scrolls were forgotten in clay pots in a cave.  How many ancient works of wisdom were burned for fuel?  How many secrets were lost because the people who knew them were murdered, or just didn’t have kids to pass them on to?  How many sunk to the bottom of the ocean, or just decayed?  Humankind has forgotten far more than we can ever comprehend.  And yet we tell ourselves that we can know all there is to know about the past, if we just keep looking.

What would an archeologist conclude about my family, digging through that 10×10 storage unit?

Arthur Conan Doyle is aware of the transiency of life, of course.  One of Watson’s unwritten cases concerns “the strange case of James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.”  But in Holmes, everything leaves a trace, everything has a reason, and if only you can both see and observe you can puzzle it out.  Chaos has no place in Holmes.  Giant fuck-off storms that destroy entire swaths of landscape and lives have no place.  Not even Jack the Ripper has a place in Holmes, and he actually existed.  You could write the history of humanity as that of a species fighting off encroaching chaos with all that they can, and in Holmes, the fight has been won.  Holmes survived Hurricane Katrina when most of the rest of my grandmother’s house died.  How can I not hold on to all of that, with all that I can?  What else can I learn from my grandfather’s inheritance?

So, other than my generally obsessive personality, I think that’s why Holmes has such pull for me, why I’m so defensive of him.  He’s what my grandfather left me.  More than God, Holmes convinces me that everything in the world happens for a reason, and that chaos is not chaos, but merely our inability to perceive pattern.

I hope he’s right.