You’re a big fan of BBC’s Moffatian Sherlock. You’ve seen Downey Jr’s and weren’t that impressed. You’ve seen an episode or two of Elementary and were bored to tears. Beyond that, you don’t know much about the Conan-canon and have no idea how closely or loosely these modern adaptations follow it. This post is for you.
Sherlock Holmes FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the World’s Greatest Private Detective by Dave Thompson (Applause Books) is a remarkably thorough walk through the history of Sherlock, from its beginnings to its modern day re-imaginings, and it introduces the reader to more Sherlock-esque or Sherlock-inspired works for those who’ve exhausted Conan Doyle’s literary oevre. But that’s not you, yet. You know nothing of the four novels and 56 short stories. You didn’t even know that’s how many there were. Let’s start at the beginning.
“A Study in Pink” is the first episode of BBC’s Sherlock. “A Study in Scarlet” is Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock tale, a novel, in fact. You remember when Anderson (Jonathan Aris) suggests that the RACHE carved into the floor by the dead woman is German for revenge and promptly gets the door slammed in his face by Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) before the consulting detective informs us that RACHE is an unfinished RACHEL. But Sherlock Holmes FAQ tells us that Anderson’s theory was a call back to the original Conan Doyle story.
A body has been discovered in a derelict house in the south London suburb of Brixton. On the wall, in blood, is daubed the word RACHE–German for “revenge.”
In “His Last Vow,” the final episode of season 3, Watson (Martin Freeman) discovers Sherlock undercover in a heroin den and is concerned about whether or not he’s actually using. Sherlock Holmes FAQ tells us that this scene originally took place in “The Man with the Twisted Lip”:
Watson making his way into one of the east end’s most dangerous opium dens, to bring home the husband of one of his wife’s closest friends….Watson is astonished to find Holmes has got there before him, albeit on a very different mission. Disguised as an old man, he is seeking information about a missing man.
It is indeed true that even the original Holmes had a drug problem, which may help you understand why Lucy Liu’s Watson in Elementary is the sober rehabilitation compaion to Johnny Lee Miller’s openly addict Holmes. Of Conan Doyle’s Holmes, Sherlock Holmes FAQ says:
The man was an intravenous drug user, to the shock (vicariously pleasurable or otherwise) of his readers, but to the undisguised horror of Watson….Cocaine, Holmes’s drug of choice, was still legal at the time, a nerve tonic that was common in many households.
We all remember that moment in “The Reichenbach Fall” when Inspector Lestrade is in the police chief’s office and confesses that Sherlock Holmes has been consulting on most of their cases. Not only does it make Lestrade look incompetent to have someone who is now a suspected criminal mastermind in on police cases, but the fact that Lestrade & co. have been unable to solve any of these cases themselves makes them look even more incompetent. Police incompetence is popular in Sherlock and Sherlock-inspired stories. Look at channel USA’s Monk, for example. Detective Leland Stottlemeyer (who’s name, combined with Lt. Randy Deacon–later renamed Disher–is a clue that spells Le-St-Ra-De) is incapable of solving any of his cases without consulting the OCD private detective, and in the later seasons, the police force is degraded to nothing but jokers and monkeys. Sherlock Holmes FAQ suggests that one reason the police weren’t able to do their job is that they were focused on other, darker avenues:
Police corruption, according to a variety of period sources, was rife in the 1890s as at any other time in criminal history. So, as evidenced by the force’s continued failure to solve so many aforementioned criminal mysteries, was police incompetence.
In the same episode, Watson goes to visit Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) in a bizarre setting. Ignorant to the rules of the clubroom he’s just entered, he starts demanding of old men reading newspapers in their slippers to be told the whereabouts of Mycroft. First he is ignored, then he is shushed, then he is escorted and half-smothered by bouncers. Why? Because it’s the Diogenes Club, of course. No talking allowed! Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it. Conan Doyle invented it. Sherlock Holmes FAQ has this to say on the original story, “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”:
The pair meet Mycroft Holmes at the Diogenes Club, one of the gentleman’s clubs with which London once abounded and that the upper echelons of society regarded among the very finest things in life.
In that story, Sherlock says of the club, “My brother was one of the founders, and I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere.”
Okay, one more thing about “The Reichenbach Fall”–I’m sorry it’s one of my top three favorite episodes in the history of television and I could talk about it all day, and warning: spoilers ahead. Sherlock’s nemesis Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) keeps talking about “the final problem.” In the original canon, the events that largely take place in this episode are in a story called “The Final Problem,” wherein Holmes and Moriarty do not perish off the rooftop of a London hospital, but in the raging torrents of a Swiss waterfall. “The Reichenbach Fall” begins with Watson talking to a psychiatrist about the death of his friend Sherlock, and the story of how it came to be unfolds from there. Conan Doyle’s story was structured similarly. Sherlock Holmes FAQ tells us:
Holmes’ death at the end of the story was not intended to shock the reader. Rather, Watson laid out the sad news at the very beginning of the tale.
The main difference here is that Conan Doyle actually intended to kill Holmes off and didn’t reveal that Holmes is still alive until a later story when he was forced back into writing more Sherlock tales. Sherlock Holmes FAQ recounts the public uproar to the death of their beloved literary figure and how Conan Doyle was assaulted in the streets for the “murder” of Sherlock Holmes. Moffat and Gatiss, on the other hand, tease us into season three by showing us that Sherlock is still alive in the final scene of “The Reichenbach Fall.”
You’ll see in that last video, Moriarty begs to continue the game. What game? You’ll know that Sherlock likes to say, “The game is on!” (Or, at Watson’s bachelor party, “The game is…something,” after a few too many drinks. Sherlock Holmes FAQ tells us that the original Sherlock liked to say, “The game is afoot!” This first appears in the story The Adventure of the Abbey Grange.
Check back later at an undisclosed future date for part two, wherein we will look at the origins of Irene Adler, the hounds, and much more.
Sherlock Holmes FAQ presents a lot of Sherlock-inspired material for bonus viewing. (If you couldn’t get a hold of The Great Mouse Detective as a kid, it was because I was renting it out of the video shop every single week). If I might make a couple additional recommendations for Sherlock fans: (1) Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency–the books, the radio show, the TV series. Gently’s vocabulary is clearly ripped from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle (and quantum physics books). (2) Cruise of the Gods (TV movie). This is an obscure one, but if you want to see Steve Coogan as Sherlock Holmes on the beach in Miami and an exchange with his American Watson sidekick that goes, “How do you figure that shit, homie?” “Elementary, my dear bro,” before Sherlock shoots at and destroys a Floridian thug played by Rob Brydon…don’t miss it.
Sherlock Holmes FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the World’s Greatest Private Detective by Dave Thompson (Applause Books) is available from Powells and everywhere else books are sold.