The new BBC Sherlock is immense fun, and I shall definitely set the video to record the whole series. (For those who haven’t seen it yet, it updates the Holmes stories to 2010. Sherlock is played by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, with more drama-queen panache than even Jeremy Brett managed.)
The series seems destined to be pretty good on its own terms, so don’t let the following nit-picking put you off watching it.
A lot of the updating is effective. Watson has just arrived from Afghanistan, exactly as in A Study in Scarlet. These days, though, an understanding Mrs . Hudson enquires whether the two gentlemen sharing a flat will be in one bedroom or two. Texts take the place of telegrams, and taxis of hansoms. It works.
My cavils come with the introduction in this first episode of the name of Moriarty. Until now, Simmers’s law of Holmes adaptations has been that those making a big deal of Moriarty were likely to be not very good, while those that kept him out of it are likely to be better.
You have to remember that Moriarty only appeared in The Final Problem, the story that Doyle intended as the end of the Holmes series. Until then the stories had involved a number of villains, including members of some vengeful secret societies, but the motivation of these was always more or less rational.
In the best of the stories, Holmes noticed the strangeness of the ordinary. Tales like The Man with the Twisted Lip (my own favourite of the whole collection) discovered unexpected secrets within the great metropolis and its respectable suburbs.
Conventional minds would never have discovered these secrets, but Holmes’s methods of deduction were not altogether unprecedented. The things that he noticed were those that the respectable pretended not to notice in those they met – the frayed cuffs, stained fingers, the mud-splashed clothes. It was bad manners to mention such matters. Yet of course, ordinary people had always noticed these things, and like Holmes had made their deductions about the character and life of the person concerned. Holmes turned ordinary social nosiness to a scientific method; no wonder the public loved him.
When Doyle tired of his hero and decided to kill him, he did so by a shift of genre. The detective who had lived in an atmosphere of detailed realism (even in far-fetched tales such as The Red-Headed League) now moved into a different world, with overtones of epic, but owing more to sensational melodrama and the Mysteries of London kind of pulp fantasy. The Napoleon of Crime is essentially a non-realistic figure, but one can see why Doyle thought that nobody less would be fit to destroy the Great Detective.
When Doyle responded to pressure from public and publisher (and maybe from his bank-manager, too) and brought Holmes back, Moriarty made sporadic appearances in the stories, but never, I think, in the best of them.
It is in Holmes’s afterlife that the figure of Moriarty has grown. Pasticheurs and adapters seem infallibly attracted to the figure, often, I think, to the detriment of their productions. When Holmes is facing his arch-enemy he is not doing what he does best, examining the apparently ordinary surface of conventional life and discovering the strangeness beneath it.
So it was with last night’s first episode of Sherlock. The story whizzed along more or less convincingly, until Holmes was brought face to face with a murderer whose motives were interesting if not entirely credible. Then the influence of Moriarty was introduced to those motives, and the whole thing fell apart rather – at least for me.
What I’d really like to see is a Holmes who looks as closely at modern London as Holmes did at his, uncovering mysteries as believable yet unexpected as that of The Man with the Twisted Lip. In comparison, Supervillains are boring.


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