The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: arthur conan doyle

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?”: A Reflection on Meaninglessness, Despondency and Freedom

One of the great moments in the Sherlock Holmes canon comes at the very end of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box“, and features the great detective in an unusually pensive and apparently depressed mood. It is at the end of a particularly trying and tragic case:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

Sidney Paget. Sherlock Holmes illustration

Illustration by Sidney Paget from the original publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories

In this case, even the chance to exercise his deductive powers in the interests of justice doesn’t serve to shield Holmes from the bleaker truths of human existence and human relations.

Such bleakness, while not charactersitic of Doyle, is somewhat of a feature of the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. A classic example that has remained with me from first reading the book in my youth comes from W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915):

the sage gave [the king]the history of man in a single line; it was this: he was born, he suffered, and he died. There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence.

Also worth noting is the protagonist’s response to this “history of man”:

Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty.

This is an interesting philosophico-psychological twist: meaninglessness can bring, not just despair as it did (albeit not on a permanent basis) to Holmes, rather it gives one a sense of freedom and power.

Holmes tortured

Jeremy Brett playing Holmes in despondent mood at the end of the film The Master Blackmailer (1992)

Perhaps the reader disturbed by Holmes’ despondent reaction in “The Cardboard Box” should imagine him reading Of Human Bondage, and thereby coming to terms with the meaninglessness of his endeavours. By 1915, Holmes had already retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs. He could have done worse things with his free time than reading Maugham’s long, semi-autobiographical novel, and so could the contemporary reader, who perhaps does not pay enough attention to the rather unfashionable Maugham, a writer who has for a long time now been “eclipsed” in the public attention.


Structure in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Charles Augustus Milverton” (1903)

Charles Augustus Milverton” is among the Sherlock Holmes stories that have gained most attention from adapters, despite being a story almost without the elements of deduction for which the great detective is known. It does have a memorable villain – one who is recognizably and expressly the villain from the beginning of the story, which is relatively unusual in Holmes stories (even in ones like “The Speckled Band” where Dr Grimsby Roylott is pretty obviously the villain from the beginning, he’s not expressly so). But Milverton, before we meet him, we know we hate him, and that Holmes considers him “the worst man in London”. This explicit and direct association of evil with a human embodiment throughout the story is the best reason I can come up with for the prominence of this rather undistinguished narrative in Holmes adaptation history: a 100-minute feature in the Brett-Hardwicke series; the “His Last Vow” episode of Sherlock; “Dead Man’s Switch” in Elementary; to name a few (Wikipedia has more).

Milverton from the original illustrations. As Watson notes, he looks rather like Mr Pickwick.

Milverton from the original illustrations. Watson notes that he looks rather like Mr Pickwick.

In the cheap Wordsworth edition of The Best of Sherlock Holmes (comprising 20 short stories) which is one of the volumes I use for my general reading of the series, “Milverton” takes up 18 pages: 367-384. This is around the median length for the series. If one was to divide the story up into its cardinal functions, a la Barthes in “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative”, it would go something like this:

Milverton secures some of Lady Eva Bracknell’s youthful love letters [implied]

M. threatens Lady E. with disclosure of the letters if she does not pay him two thousand pounds. [implied]

Lady E. approaches Holmes with the problem. [summarily recounted] (368)

Holmes invites M. to discuss the matter. [implied]

M. arrives at Holmes’ apartment for said discussion. [presented] (369)

M. and Holmes discuss the matter, but fail to reach agreement. [presented] (370-372)

Holmes attempts to forcibly take the letters from M., but fails. [presented] (372)

Holmes gains entry to M.’s household as a plumber. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes undertakes a romance with M.’s housemaid in order to get information on the layout of M’.s house. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes decides to raid M.’s study for the letters. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes convinces Watson to help him. [presented] (373-374)

Sequence: Holmes and W. go to M’s house, enter his study and steal the letters. [presented]. (375-378)

They hear someone approaching. [presented] (378)

They hide behind the curtain. [presented] (378)

Milverton enters the study. [presented] (379)

{Here follow various catalysers, all of which signal a waiting on M.’s part; consequently Holmes and W. must wait in hiding: suspense}

A woman enters the study. [presented] (379)

She raises her veil. [presented] (381)

{Catalysing talk between M. and woman. She is clearly a past victim of his blackmailing. She is successively recriminative and threatening. He is successively unrepentant and alarmed}

She takes out a revolver. [presented] (381)

She shoots M. several times. [presented] (381)

W. makes as if to stop her. [presented] (381)

Holmes grabs his arm to prevent him. [presented] (381)

Woman grinds her heels into M.’s upturned face. [presented] (381)

Woman leaves. [implied] (381)

Holmes and W. come out of concealment. [presented] (382)

Holmes locks the door from the inside. [presented] (382)

Holmes and W. hear voices and hurried footsteps approaching. [presented] (382)

Holmes takes all of M.’s letters. [presented] (382)

Holmes and W. hear a banging on the door. [presented] (382)

They exit swiftly. [presented] (382)

{Various catalysers which signal a chase between Holmes and W. and the inhabitants of M.’s house, ending in escape to safety for Holmes and W.}

{Here follows the first section break in the story. Signified is an ellipsis. The night of the story’s main action gives way to the morning after. Suspense mode gives way to epilogue.}

Lestrade of Scotland Yard is ushered into Holmes’ apartment. [presented] (383)

Asks for Holmes’ assistance in M.’s murder. [presented] (383)

{Catalysing dialogue in which one of the presumed murderers is described. Holmes notes that it sounds very like Watson. Mode: humorous]

Holmes refuses to help L.  [presented] (384)

{Another section break, after which a short summary of Holmes and W. going into Oxford St. and stopping outside a shop displaying portraits of celebrities and beauties. W. notes one with certain features; features which recall to the reader the woman of the night before. He notes the great and distinguished name of this person. Holmes and W.’s eyes meet, and Holmes puts his finger to his lips. Implied: they have identified M.’s murderer. Implied also: this is the end of the sequence. Justice is done. The story ends on that gesture of Holmes’}

As a set of cardinal functions, most of the material of “Charles Augustus Milverton” is concentrated between pages 378 and 383. This is the lesson of the structural analysis. What, then, is the purpose of all of this mysterious extraneous matter between 367 and 377? Is this mere padding, or is it, in fact, the real matter that makes the Holmes stories what they are. The rather humdrum and unremarkable nature of the plot suggests the latter.

The story is not that functional in the narrow sense – just a few simplte moves. What, then, makes up these tracts of unfunctional material. To which of the four Genettian narrative movements to they belong? Summary, Scene, ellipsis, descriptive pause? Or some quite other movement to be established? This will fall to be dealt with in a later post. For now, to return to the issue of the many adaptations this story has engendered. As I went into in a previous post, the Brett-Hardwicke series takes as one of its main points of departure a scene that is not even a scene: not presented by Watson as our homodiegetic narrator, but summarily recounted by Holmes to the narrator. It is a matter of small cues, almost immaterial functionally and in terms of volume of the narrative vanishingly small, but that nevertheless have that kernel of suggestiveness which adaptors can make use of.

But the other notable feature of the story is the working out of justice. Where this differs from other stories, is that justice is done through what is legally murder. Further, the absolute outlier as a scenario among Holmes stories is that Holmes and Watson could have tried to do something.

No interference upon our part could have saved the man from his fate; but as the woman poured bullet after bullet into Milverton’s shrinking body I was about to spring out, when I felt Holmes’s cold, strong grasp upon my wrist. I understood the whole argument of that firm, restraining grip—that it was no affair of ours; that justice had overtaken a villain; that we had our own duties and our own objects which were not to be lost sight of. (381-382)

These lines are the hub of the story, suggesting a moral dilemma adaptors have been quick to seize on, certainly the makers of Sherlock and “His Last Vow”. Watson insists as post facto narrator that they could not have saved Milverton, but, I repeat, they could have tried, and that is where this story has its interest. Note, also, that the quoted passage is given after the murderess has left. The moment of Watson’s almost-intervention is actually just a flashback, a sentence or two later than strict diegetic chronology would dictate. If we had put it in its place, we would note that not only did he not intervene during the shooting, but he also didn’t intervene during the time after, when she ground her heel into M.’s face (and shouldn’t Lestrade have mentioned the detail of the woman’s shoe? Did it not suggest another actor on the scene?). The cathartic power of sadistic violence against a very bad person is fully harnessed here by the use of this deus ex machina of the woman who has been  victim to M at some past time. She does what Holmes would like to do, and what, the author implies, all right-thinking, justice-loving persons would also like. The connection between Holmes and justice is never more strained, more troubled, than in this story, so the scope for ethico-moral readings or for ideological shifts in adaptation is great. All of this is in the context of our cultural love for Sherlock Holmes. The power of “Charles Augustus Milverton” is not of this story alone, but is strongly intertextual: it is its place within the Holmesian canon that makes it of interest, and what it says about this great character. Otherwise, it would simply be a lazily plotted potboiler; which, in a sense, it still is, but once the character of Holmes, with all of his pre-established indices and connotations, is added, it becomes a lot more interesting.

Watching Sherlock Holmes “The Master Blackmailer” (1992): Seduction and Guilt

The classic Granada series with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes was coming to the end of its run when they decided to tackle Doyle’s story “Charles Augustus Milverton”, a work which features “the most unpleasant villain in the entire Sherlockian canon” (David Stuart Davies, “Introduction”, The Best of Sherlock Holmes, Wordsworth, 2009). Rather than the standard 50-minute episode, they apportioned it a feature-length 100 minutes. How to make a 20-page story last 100 minutes? By simply expanding the acts, in this case, and not really complicating Doyle’s story at all. The story, about how Holmes and Watson decide to burgle the house of a blackmailer too smart to be defeated by legal means, and then witness his murder by an angry victim of his blackmailing shenanigans, is a simple and linear one. It’s notable, too, that there’s no mystery, no clever clues to be unravelled – rather, it gets by on suspense and drama. The reason why it’s a relatively popular Holmes story is not because it’s clever – it decidedly isn’t – but because, as Davies pointed out, it has a nasty and memorable villain.

Given the thinness of the plot, a simple expansion like that undertaken by Granada is going to find it hard to keep the attention. One move typical of this series and apparent in this episode is the use of the spectacle of privilege to create viewer engagement – principally in long shots that subordinate narrative progression to the visual splendour of the character’s possessions, as in the shot below where Milverton himself is in the background and the foreground is crammed with ornamentation and artworks.

Milvertons' House

Milverton’s house

This is a feature too of the non-Doylean scenes that are used in the film to flesh out Milverton’s victims. Rich, beautiful young people, lounging around country house on sunny days spouting mindless, poorly-written dialogue. The film sinks into mediocrity in the episodes in which neither Holmes nor Milverton are present, and makeweight characters fill the scene.

Another spectacle of privilege scene

Another spectacle of privilege scene with Watson meeting Milverton at a society gathering. The painting they’re viewing takes centre-stage in the shot.

But there are a few nice moments that make this, overall, worth watching. One of my favourites comes 26 minutes in, when Holmes and Watson (the avuncular and likable Edward Hardwicke) are inspecting Milverton’s house from the outside, and noting the emphasis on security: locked gates, high walls. Watson notes: “He’s a man who loathes the human race.” Holmes: “What circumstances might bring him to that?” Watson: “Hmmm, boy brought up in lonely isolation, starved of affection, probably in one of London’s outer suburbs.” Cut to Holmes, who’s grimacing uncomfortably at that description of Milverton, obviously relating to those circumstances himself. Then they move on to other things. It’s a lovely moment, nicely underplayed: no actual direct information given on Holmes’ mysterious pre-Watson life, just a bare hint conveyed in a momentary expression.


Holmes reacts to Watson’s characterization of Milverton

A further element of the plot which is well explored while being nicely underplayed is the whole Sherlock-Aggie situation. This comes from a rather infamous passage in Doyle’s story, worth quoting in full:

“You’ll be interested to hear that I am engaged.”

“My dear fellow! I congrat-“

“To Milverton’s housemaid.”

“Good heavens, Holmes!”

“I wanted information, Watson.”

“Surely you have gone too far?”

“It was a most necessary step. I am a plumber with a rising business, Escott by name. I have walked out with her each evening, and I have talked with her. Good heavens, those talks! However, I have got all I wanted. I know Milverton’s house as I know the back of my hand.”

“But the girl, Holmes?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“You can’t help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table. However, I rejoice to say that I have a hated rival who will certainly cut me out the instant that my back is turned.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, “Charles Augustus Milverton”, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904)

Doyle doesn’t return to this revelation at all, so we don’t know what happens to Aggie. Does she marry the “hated rival” mentioned? But this short passage in Doyle becomes a main thread of “The Master Blackmailer”. There are several scenes showing Holmes and Aggie as they hug, kiss and mess around together. There’s a complex mix of emotions visible in Brett’s Holmes in the scenes: tender, awkward, humorous, but always perhaps still with an eye on the main prize of information about Milverton and his household. In the shot below is the moment when Aggie asks Holmes for a kiss, and he responds forlornly: “I don’t know how”.

Giz a kiss

Aggie: Giz a kiss  Sherlock: I don’t know how

Sherlock’s Guilt

And in some interesting scenes in the aftermath of the seduction scenes, Holmes’ feelings of guilt about his behaviour in seducing the maid are made clear. In the scene where he reveals the scheme to Watson, the contours of Doyle’s dialogue is followed, but Brett plays Holmes as testy and irritable when Watson questions him. At the end of the conversation, Holmes looks out through the rain-spattered windowpane, and pronounces in gloomy tones: “What a splendid day it is!”

"What a splendid day it is!"

“What a splendid day it is!”

Later, a new scene is added where Holmes visits Milverton at his house. This allows him to meet Aggie without his plumber persona. Milverton doesn’t recognize Holmes as his former plumber, but Aggie does. Holmes doesn’t acknowledge her – to do so would blow his cover, after all – but after she introduces him, there’s a long shot of her face as he walks away. Another great shot because of the slow and subtle build-up of emotion in Aggie (very well played in this episode by Sophie Thompson). One might also take this scene as a tacit rebuke to the Sherlock Holmes of the story, and to its author, who left this jilted housemaid as an uncharacterized plot-function.

Aggie sees her affianced lover.

Aggie sees her affianced lover.

And even then, they’re not finished. In the film’s closing scene, Holmes is once again seen in an unfamiliar light: subdued, depressed (Holmes does mention being prey to depression in Doyle, but it’s not really dramatized in the stories or in this series), and, it seems, torn by guilt.

No, Watson. there are certain aspects of which I am not proud. Bury this case deep in your pile.

Then the film ends on a couple of shots of Holmes looking tortured as he recalls something affecting, presumably the Aggie affair.

Holmes looking tortured in the film's closing scene.

Holmes looking tortured in the film’s closing scene.

Finally, then, though this is a very imperfect and sometimes boring film, it does have areas of interest that go well beyond the source text. A small hint in the source is used for an exploration of Holmes’ psyche: his tender side, and his conscience. The tacit and restrained way in which these issues are addressed is effective, and I think compares well to the more overblown explorations of character in recent episodes of BBC Sherlock (e.g. the “redbeard” explanation for Holmes’ oddities – simplistic cod-Freudianism). If not consistently entertaining, it is one of the most memorable adaptations of Sherlock Holmes that have yet been made.

At the time of writing, “The Master Blackmailer” in its entirety is available on YouTube. Embedded below:

The Stark Munro Letters (1895)

This book, now available free on the kindle, is one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s lesser-known works – a large category including all of Doyle’s considerable output bar the Sherlock Holmes stories and dino-adventure story The Lost World. This particular one is from 1895, a time when Conan Doyle had just killed off Holmes (only to bring him back a few years later) and was consciously trying to do more “serious” work – like many very popular writers he became obsessed with being “serious”. In line with this ambition, The Stark Munro Letters is a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, which is as focused on articulation of the intellectual development of the title character as on his actions. Stark Munro is an obviously autobiographical character – he is a newly qualified small-town doctor struggling to make ends meet, just as Doyle was in the early 1880s (the time in which the book is set).

There’s a degree of plot external to Munro’s musings, mostly concerned with a fellow doctor James Cullingworth, based on Conan Doyle’s onetime friend George Budd. Cullingworth is a man of great charisma and energy, but also selfish, unreliable, and even somewhat vindictive. He does seem to be another rumination by Conan Doyle on the Carlylean Hero doctrine, though a more ambivalent one than Holmes, because though Cullingworth is a Hero in the sense of being a man of many and great talents, he turns out not to have the moral fibre integral to the Hero. Cullingworth himself expounds a theory of the “properly balanced man” that is reminiscent of Carlyle:

A properly balanced man can do anything he sets his hand to. He’s got every possible quality inside him, and all he wants is the will to develop it. (loc 1144)

Cullingworth considers himself, as well as a doctor, a novelist and an inventor, and is convinced of his own mastery of all these fields. Recall Carlyle:

The grand fundamental character is that of Great Man; that the man be great. Napoleon has words in him which are like Austerlitz Battles […]. burns, a gifted song-writer, might have made a still better Mirabeau. (On Heroes, loc 1113)

Doyle subverts this theory by putting it in the mouth of the unreliable Cullingworth, and by Munro’s judgement that Cullingworth’s novel is actually of inferior quality, and his inventions lacking in practical utility. Elsewhere in the novel, Munro reflects on Genius, and considers Carlyle’s line that genius is “transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all” (Frederick the Great, Kindle: Library of Alexandria, loc 4882):

Carlyle’s definition always seemed to me to be a very crisp and clear statement of what it is NOT. Far from its being an infinite capacity for taking pains, its leading characteristic, as far as I have ever been able to observe it, has been that it allows the possessor of it to attain results by a sort of instinct which other men could only reach by hard work. (loc 48)

The reader may recall that Holmes also deals with this definition, but without referencing Carlyle explicitly: “They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains […]. It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.” (A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 3) Holmes is evidently acting as a mouthpiece for Conan Doyle here, as is Munro later. Conan Doyle is evidently interested in greatness as an intrinsic trait, as, in truth, was Carlyle, notwithstanding his emphasis in the quote from Frederick on “taking trouble”. Considering both Holmes and some Carlylean Heroes, it appears that intrinsic talent and work tend to go together, anyway: the Hero unites natural talent with moral fibre; the said moral fibre will compel him to work at his talent, and so achieve greatness. Holmes is both gifted and industrious: he finds his gift for “observation and inference” (“The Gloria Scott”) early in life, and hones it assiduously thereafter.

There’s another passage of reflection from Stark Munro closely recalling the great detective:

Most things on this earth, from a woman’s beauty to the taste of a nectarine, seem to be the various baits with which Nature lures her silly gudgeons. They shall eat, they shall propagate, and for the sake of pleasing themselves they shall hurry down the road which has been laid out for them. But there lurks no bribe in the smell and beauty of the flower. Its charm has no ulterior motive. (loc 1667)

Holmes makes similar remarks in “The Novel Treaty”, but goes so far as to conclude that “[o]ur highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.” This has always struck me as an odd comment for the character to make, though it’s interesting that he makes it before several other characters involved in the case; it’s definitely unusual for Holmes to become distracted before clients/suspects in this way and start musing on irrelevancies – several scholars have written about this passage, and been puzzled by it, but none that I’ve read have haven’t mentioned the speaking-before-clients/suspects aspect. I’ll have to return to the story to see if something else is going on with Holmes here, beyond a genuine expression of his worldview. As I wrote earlier, Holmes’ advocacy for Winwood Reade in The Sign of Four indicates a sceptical viewpoint.

It’s in The Stark Munro Letters that Conan Doyle goes most substantially into religious questions. He has two basic convictions that he’s trying to work with and develop:

1 Religion in its then current state is inadequate and a tissue of half-truths and outmoded superstitions: “Is religion the only domain of thought which is non-progressive, and to be referred for ever to a standard set two thousand years ago?” (loc 206) “There was a time when it took a brave man to be a Christian. Now it takes a brave man not to be.” (loc 539)

2 Atheism is unthinkable: “The very existence of a world carries with it the proof of a world-maker, as the table guarantees the pre-existence of the carpenter. Granting this, one may form what conception one will of that Maker, but one cannot be an atheist.” (loc 414)

The second point is rather problematic, as Munro simply chooses an object for which we know there to be a creator (a table; creator: a carpenter), rather than one of the myriad objects which are not made by any identifiable entity (e.g. a rock) and gives this as proof that all things have a Maker. It doesn’t take a philosopher to identify this as very sloppy thinking; to which, in truth, Conan Doyle was quite prone. In any case, this is only the beginning for Munro. If Christianity is definitely misguided, but there definitely is a God, then how to comprehend and describe this deity? This is, undoubtedly, the difficult part. Where is the intellectual scheme that will make such a move possible? Here again we see the importance of Carlyle:

I had so identified religion with the Bible that I could not conceive them apart. When the foundation proved false, the whole structure came rattling about my ears. And then good old Carlyle came to the rescue; and partly from him, and partly from my own broodings, I made a little hut of my own, which has kept me snug ever since, and has even served to shelter a friend or two besides. (loc 402)

Munro’s religion is based on Nature: “Nature is the true revelation of the deity to man.” (loc 410) By attention to Nature, one can observe that “[w]isdom and power and means directed to an end” (loc 415) are everywhere apparent. One further  notes that “ALL is good, if understood” (loc 886). Munro reflects that “it is fine to think that sin may have an object and work towards good” (loc 923). Munro accepted that evolution explained development of biological organisms, but evolution was effect before it was cause (loc 421). There was something before and behind even this:

The survival of the truest is the constant law, I fancy, though it must be acknowledged that it is very slow in action. (loc 1515)

No; let me be frank, and say that I can’t make cruelty fit into my scheme. But when you find that other evils, which seem at first sight black enough, really tend in the long run to the good of mankind, it may be hoped that those which continue to puzzle us may at last be found to serve the same end in some fashion which is now inexplicable. (loc 857)

Munro’s philosophy is resolutely positive, it’s all about the “survival of the truest” and so forth. There’s no empirical evidence for this, though, as Munro implicitly admits when he notes that it’s “very slow in action”, and again in his discussion of cruelty. It’s very much a “leap of faith” doctrine, rather than one rooted in observation of the workings of the world and of Nature, as is claimed. The will to faith was strong in Conan Doyle, and the foreshadowing of his later spiritualist leanings are already very clear in Stark Munro, with its insistence on the divinity and moral purpose of all things, even where empirical evidence suggests quite otherwise.

In reviewing the book, I’ve written as if my experience of the book was very much abstracted from the reading of fiction as narrative, and focused on fiction as elucidation of ideas. But in fact, as a narrative I found this book very readable and interesting. I’m a sucker for late 19th-c., early 20th-c. bildungsromans: David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Portrait of the Artist, Of Human Bondage, This Side of Paradise, Tono-Bungay; more recently,  I discovered Paul Kelver by Jerome K. Jerome (definitely not a classic, but one I still found plenty of interest in). Given that predilection, I was always going to enjoy Stark Munro, especially given the vitality and simple elegance of Conan Doyle’s prose. For all his insight, however, the philosophy he tried to impose on life was, basically, bosh, and it was for this that he wanted the book to be judged. Some may find Holmes’ “true cold reason” a little arid, but Conan Doyle could with profit have applied a little of it to his own arguments in The Stark Munro Letters.

“The Religious Opinions of Sherlock Holmes”, A Case of Witchcraft

On Sherlock Season 3 – Get Back to Work, Sherlock!

*Contains spoilers for season 3 of Sherlock*

Now that season 3 of Sherlock is over – all 3 feature-length episodes of it – it’s time to try and separate it from the massive hype that surrounded it. Season 3 of Sherlock went down a lot of new avenues: Sherlock gets a girlfriend; John gets married; Sherlock is more understanding about the emotional role John plays in his life. You could say he’s “growing as a person” or “developing as a character”. There’s slightly less case-solving, particularly in the first two episodes, and more analysis of relationships and feelings. This is quite different from other Sherlocks, especially canon.

In the whole canon by Arthur Conan Doyle, 56 short stories, and 4 novels, there’s no story not revolving around a case where certain strange occurences are revealed by Holmes to belong to some design, usually criminal, and the architect of the occurences is unmasked. That’s what structures the stories, and very little room is given to exploring Holmes’ feelings. That’s kind of the point: he doesn’t think about emotions, he just gets really, really into his job, all his mind and body is on it:

His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard, black lines, while his eyes shone out from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downwards, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whip-cord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase, and his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him, that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or at the most only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply.

Pretty intense. It’s maybe that total immersion in the work that’s so compelling; we’d all love to like our jobs that much. Of course there’s a lot of dialogue between Holmes and Watson not strictly on the case at hand. Usually, it’s Holmes’ theorizing on the nature of detection, on psychology, on knowledge or on life in general. Holmes’ theorizing or philosophizing to Watson often opens the stories, and sometimes the actual talk, serious but leavened with a certain bantering between the two, is actually the best part of the story – some of the plots are pretty forgettable, while some are unforgettable (“The Red-Headed League” is maybe my favourite). What he never talks about is himself, his background, his emotions, what made him what he is. He doesn’t feel the need to explain himself: why he is so different, and so obsessed by deduction. He doesn’t need to, he’s so zoned in on his work that he doesn’t question it or worry about his own unconventional personality.

In this respect of Holmes’ unselfconscious nature, Doyle is very consistent. Holmes is always himself, and never says or does anything that jars: I honestly can’t think of one Holmesian episode that’s implausible within the terms of his character set out in the beginning, in A Study in Scarlet (some of his knowledge is inconsistent with Watson’s description of his areas of expertise set out in that book, though). In other words, Holmes never jumps the shark. Jumping the shark involves stunt plot development and stunt character developments and occurs when a series’ premise is exhausted or the writer’ have lost touch with it. The opposite danger for a long running series is formulaism, and this Conan Doyle probably does fall into, with some story lines repeating earlier ones. “The Three Garridebs” is quite like the aforementioned “The Red-Headed League”, for example. But still, Holmes in T3G is still Holmes doing what Holmes does, and he hasn’t changed.

A caveat: I’m giving Doyle a pass on the killing off of Holmes in “The Reichenback Falls” and bringing him back in “The Empty House”, partly because almost ten years passed between them, so it obviously wasn’t his way of making things happen to ensure more stories; and partly because he did it in the first place to kill off Holmes, and it seems he did sincerely mean to kill him off, before the constant public calls for the Great Detective wore him down. That development was so out of character from the rest of the stories we can let it slide.

Sidney Paget illustration from first publication of "The Musgrave Ritual"

Sidney Paget illustration from first publication of “The Musgrave Ritual”

But series 3 of Sherlock has seen a lot of Sherlock and everyone behaving oddly. There’s a very thin line between developing a character, and falling back on generic plot developments like marriages, new relationships, and the ultimate shark-jumper, returns from the dead. Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Marge is watching a really dumb daytime soap and it has a priest rush in the door:

WOMAN Father McGrath, I thought you were dead!


In other words someone coming back from the dead is lame, the paradigmatic instance of shark-jumping. But Sherlock S3 did it not only with Holmes himself (and without Doyle’s extenuating circumstances; they always meant to bring him back – the “death” was specifically for suspense purposes), but, it turned out, with Moriarty as well. We saw Moriarty shoot himself in the head in S2! How can he come back from that? If it turns out they had this planned and have a good explanation I’ll recant, but I have a suspicion that it was a post-facto decision, necessitated by the need to introduce a cliffhanger at S3’s end. Here we see how Doyle was helped avoid jumping the shark by the structure of the detective story: no need for cliffhangers; entirely self-contained. I wish the makers of Sherlock had allowed themselves dispense with the cliffhanger, but modern serials demand it. I can imagine the corporate types insist on it, as a means of keeping the great bovine public talking about the series during the fallow period. The cliffhanger, though, is not a good artistic technique, and doesn’t help neat, well-structured, self-contained storytelling.

Doyle always used to complain about the difficulty making up a detective plot, and the writers of Sherlock seem to have discovered the same, maybe explaining why S3 was so character-driven. Episode 1 managed to escape having an overarching detection plot by dealing with Sherlock’s return and John’s reaction. Episode 2 went further again, and devoted itself mostly to the lead-up to John’s wedding and the event itself. Sherlock is best man, and consequently rather than detecting, observing and  deducing his way  through  the episode, he’s going on a stag-night, preparing a speech, etc. The wedding itself takes up much of the episode, eventually including a murder mystery, but ending on another meditation of Sherlock’s loneliness after John’s marriage. Then there’s all this talk of “redbeard”. Who or what is “redbeard”? Evidently some sort of emotional trigger for Sherlock, some clue to why he is as he is, taking its cue from Citizen Kane’s “rosebud” or maybe even James Bond’s “Skyfall”. Again this points to the psychoanalyzing focus of the series. What is this need to establish one single point from which a personality such as Holmes is built? My view of Holmes is that for the character to work best his unselfconsciousness needs to be accepted, as does the idea that his methods and their results justify themselves – they don’t need to be traced back to childhood trauma. And even if they did the idea of a single incident creating Sherlock, and the single word that represents it, is too pat, and a bit of a cliché, as the examples above illustrate.

Overall if you break down the episodes into their constituent functions, working out the functional and indicial content of every piece of dialogue, every camera angle, those with reference to Sherlock and John’s characters, relationships and (in Sherlock’s case) personal backgrounds would surely prevail over those related to detection (I’m not going to do it, though). The problem with this is, if it’s about character, as the series go on:

Things will have to happen to the characters.

This is a problem. That will lead to boring repetition because the things that happen to people are limited and trivial – witness any long-running serial drama: marriages, affairs, divorces and romantic relationships in all their forms are the staple. All of which fits quite awkwardly with Holmes. It has to come down to the detection, and to interesting things happening, and Holmes involving himself with them, rather than interesting things happening directly to Holmes (which is unsustainable).

But even Holmes detection skills let him down in the last episode of S3. He can’t find anything on arch-villain Magnusson, such is the fiendish cunning of the man, so he shoots him in the head, killing him. That’s not clever at all! Yes, it’s a dramatic gasp-inducing ending. But at what cost to the character? Holmes loses his uniqueness when he’s reduced to shooting people. Even worse, when something this dramatic happens, the writers will feel the need to “top” it for the end of the next series. Sherlock has died (S2), killed – basically in cold blood (S3), so where is left to go on the personal drama scale? But I’d imagine the benefits of this development in plotting for the writers was twofold: it’s dramatic, as I said; and it’s easier to write than a detection-style denouement, which relies on a moment where Holmes reveals an observation that simultaneously obvious (when pointed out) and unpredictable. A tough trick.

So it’s easier to focus on Holmes’ character and to give him inherently dramatic actions. There’s a whole army of generic drama tropes to be called on. It’s just that these standard plot developments can’t be reconciled with Holmes. Drama doesn’t happen to him; he stands above the drama, observing, deducing and ultimately judging. That’s why I love Holmes; he can step outside of all the normal relationshippy things and live a life of total engagement with his great work, something we can all envy. Once he and his writers get selfconscious about that, he’s lost his thing: he’s just an awkward guy doing something rubbish like looking for love or trying to find his place in the world. He doesn’t need to find it. He’s already exactly where he needs to be, doing exactly what he’s good at doing. So, Holmes, my message for you is: stop trying to be like everybody else, and get back to bloody work!

Sherlock Holmes, The Lovable Quack

Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes is a recently published book by a PhD in psychology, Maria Konnikova. I’m studying the Holmes stories and their adaptations at the moment and Mastermind was going pretty cheap as an ebook, so I’ve had a look, and it’s got me thinking about the attraction of Holmes to many people, myself included. Konnikova theorizes two models of mind: the Watson system and the Holmes system. I won’t go into detail, as anyone familiar with Holmes and Watson can figure out the basic points of the contrast. As an early-stage academic writer and researcher in the humanities, one conclusion I’ve reached about my intellectual tendencies is that I’m more interested in specific analysis than generalizable theorizing. I sometimes recall the words of Carlyle on this:

[W]hat theory is so certain as this, That all theories, were they never so earnest, painfully elaborated, are, and, by the very conditions of them, must be incomplete, questionable and even false? (French Revolution, Vol. 1,Bk. 2, Ch. 7)

So rather than a general theory of mind and reductive binary categorization, I was interested in specific analyses of Sherlockian techniques or moments, of which Mastermind has some interesting ones, and some less so. The thing that struck me, though, and not for the first time, was how poorly Holmes’ own techniques often demonstrate his principles.  Holmes’ principles are excellent; ones quite applicable to my own occupation as well (I suggest):

It is a grand mistake to theorize before one has the facts. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. (A Scandal in Bohemia)

The temptation to form theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession. (The Valley of Fear, Bk. 1, Ch. 2)

His uncompromising commitment to “severe reasoning from cause to effect” (The Copper Beeches”) is likewise impressive, as is the impartiality with which he tackles all fields of knowledge – a true interdisciplinarian; his ultimate aim is the simple yet profound one of seeing “all things […] exactly as they are” (The Greek Interpreter)  while his independence from all institutionalized forms of power marks him out as a true Hero, in the Carlylean sense. If we take Carlyle’s definition that: “A Hero, as I repeat, has this first distinction, […] That he looks through the shows of things into things.” (On Heroes, lecture 1) we find that Holmes fits it very well.

And yet, Holmes’ actual methods, far from eliminating the impossible through the use of severe reasoning, are often based on less secure grounds, sometimes the most crass generalizing. The only reason one can read Conan Doyle’s stories without paying much attention to this is that Holmes does always turn out to be right, simply because the narratives are constructed to reinforce the idea of his great intellect. So, Holmes can receive a telegram and announce that it is from a man, giving his reason as follows:

No woman would ever send a reply-paid telegram. She would have come. (Wisteria Lodge)

He has eliminated the idea of a woman sending a telegram as impossible! Thus, of course, it had to be a man. And it does turn out to be a man, but that is no testament to Holmes’ assumption being a safe one, simply to Conan Doyle’s commitment to showing Holmes as an (almost) infallible genius – and, perhaps, his lack of commitment to coming up with properly thought-out demonstrations of this. An even more egregious example of Holmes’ presumptuousness is from The Blue Carbuncle. He can declare that a large hat he finds must be the possession of an “intellectual”. Why?: “‘It is a question of cubic capacity,’ said he. ‘A man with so large a brain must have something in it.'” It has been said that Holmes’ reasoning is effectively not deductive but abductive, or reasoning to the best explanation, but often he falls far below even this lesser standard. Holmes, in short, is something of a quack, setting up as a professional science what often amounts to simple jumping to conclusions based on generalisations. Yet we all still love Holmes. Even I do. It is perhaps rather pedantic to find fault in the way I have done. This is not a real person, after all, but a fictional character. By his manner, his attitudes, his wit, and his explication of a certain worldview and a certain way of engaging with the universe, he fulfils our idea of a Hero. But also he quite nicely illustrates, as, probably, do most real-life heroes, the difference between appearing to be heroic, and actually putting that into practice. So anyone intent on being “system Holmes” 24-7 should realize that not only is it a hard thing to be, it proved impossible to even write for Conan Doyle, whose Holmes is really most Holmes when he’s talking about being Holmes, rather than being Holmes.

The Granada Sherlock Holmes: An Imagological Reflection

This blog has recorded in a prior post its predilection for the Sherlock Holmes series broadcast by Granada TV company in the 1980s and 90s, as well as opining that the said series is primarily motivated by an aesthetic of fidelity blended with an aesthetic of spectacular privilege: it sticks close to the dialogue and storyline of Doyle’s originals, but with loads of shots and camera movements motivated by the need to catalogue and linger on the sumptuous settings which predominate. I have also been struck by the series’ use of stereotype and willingness to accentuate Doyle’s “othering” of non-English and especially non-European characters, and by the “dynamics between those images which characterize the Other (hetero-images) and those which characterize one’s own domestic identity (self-images or auto-images)” (Beller and Leerssen, xiv) – the Imagology of the series, in a word.

A small but rather striking instance of the 19th-century approach to ethnicity in the series occurs in the adaptation of Doyle’s second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four (1890). The character of “the Islander” in Doyle’s novel is only really represented by his racial characteristics. The characteristics of his race include, according to Holmes (referring to a gazette in his possession):

The aborigines of the Andaman Islands may perhaps claim the distinction of being the smallest race upon this earth […]. They are a fierce, morose and intractable people […]. They are naturally hideous, having large misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features […]. So intractable and fierce are they that all effects of the British official have failed to win them over in any degree […]. Their massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast. (Chapter 8)

Armed with these generalizations, Holmes orders Watson to “Fire if he [the Islander] raises his hand” (Ch. 9). Before it comes to that, though, Watson finally gets a glimpse of the Islander’s face (from a boat, in another boat), and, as Holmes had suggested, it’s not a pretty sight:

Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty. His small eyes glowed and burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with a half animal fury […]. [T]he unhallowed dwarf with his hideous face, and his strong yellow teeth gnashing at us in the light of our lantern. (Ch. 9)

The Islander does then raise his hand, and Watson does shoot, and the unfortunate Islander is knocked overboard:

[W]e flashed our search-light in every direction, but there was no sign of the Islander. Somewhere in the dark ooze at the bottom of the Thames lie the bones of that strange visitor to our shores. (Ch. 9)

The Islander is definitively Other, then; even his name, when we finally are given it after his death, emphasizes his status not as individual but as representative of a certain geographically defined type of humanity – it is Tonga, another aboriginal island somewhere in the dark and unknowable depths of the Orient (in the critical theory rather than geographical sense of that term). He does not speak for himself, but is defined and categorized by the words of Holmes, which are later confirmed empirically by Watson.

In Granada’s take on this novel, not much is changed in terms of the dialogue in which the Islander is defined by Holmes. Watson’s description of the Islander’s face is missing, of course, but we do have what is perhaps the filmic medium’s equivalent for this description – a close-up shot of the character’s face. Some signifiers of sub-humanity are, I feel, present in this image, most notably the huge teeth, irregularly arranged within the mouth and uncommonly sharp (seen later in the film, he appears, though I’m no expert on hairstyles, to have both dreadlocks and an afro!).

The I

The Islander

What really caught my attention in this scene, though, was a small detail that was not taken from Doyle. The body of the Islander, here too, is not recovered, but not because they couldn’t find it. Instead, when Watson’s head-shot knocks him from the boat, he floats right by them, and they just stand by and watch, with expressions of disgust on their faces, letting him float off down the river and into the darkness, not even attempting to retrieve the body.

Death of the Islander

Death of the Islander

Watching the River Flow

Watching the River and the Islander flow by

The end of the Islander is metaphorical: he is a child of darkness, and thither he returns, but that metaphor only exemplifies the degree to which the Islander has been dehumanized, till he can become a piece of detritus on the river. Can you imagine an English gentleman (in top-hat and tails, let us say) coming to a similar end, howsoever evil he be? No, that moment, in its generic rightness, is only available for a certain stereotype, and implies in its audience (or its implied audience) a less than total realization of the humanity of the geo-ethnic other. It is a touch of which Conan Doyle, keen patriot and imperialist that he was, might have approved.

Manfred Beller and Joep Leerssen, Eds., Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National Characters (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007)

The Granada Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)

The  late 1980s- early 1990s Granada series adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories provide a nice contrast to the more recent efforts, showing a contrary approach to the source material and to the aesthetics of the classic adaptation. They also have good central performances from Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson and Jeremy Brett as Holmes.

The ITV Holmes is, firstly, motivated by a fairly strict, but not absolute, fidelity principle. Of course, as an essential property of an adaptation, fidelity has long since been judged a “chimera” by Robert Stam and other adaptation theoreticians. Yet as an operating principle, it is very much alive. I was recently reading Adaptations (Guerilla, 2007) by Ronald Harwood, screenwriter of, among other things, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2001) and Oliver Twist (2005), for the former of which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Harwood is in no doubt:

They [i.e. Adaptations] should always be faithful to the heart of what is being adapted […] I don’t think one should change genders for the sake of modern tastes. I don’t think one should invent relationships that would not have existed historically at the point or in that kind of novel, which people do all the time in adaptations. […] I think the author is the servant of the source material. I really do believe that, otherwise there’s no point in adapting it. (170,177)

It is a similar fidelity principle that operates in the Granada Holmes. This consists in the use of almost all of Conan Doyle’s dialogue. Non-Doyle dialogue is limited to purposes of expanding the meaning or running-time, rather than establishing new functions or indices of importance. Certainly in this very simplistic sense of using Conan Doyle’s dialogue, the Granada Holmes can be said to be faithful to the letter of the source, and thus to be operating by a principle contrasted to that of Sherlock, which updates the milieu to 21st-century London, alters plot points, and does not use Conan Doyle’s dialogue. Both are, in this sense, typical of the adaptations of their eras.

A second feature of Granada’s Holmes and of 80s-90s adaptations on English TV in general is the spectacle of privilege, as analyzed by Andrew Higson in “Re-Presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film”. This directorial style is characterized by long takes and deep focus, long shots, fluid camera movement dictated not by movement of characters but by “a desire to offer the spectator a more aesthetic angle on the period setting and the objects that fill it” (117). This is undoubtedly a prevalent mode of representation in Sherlock Holmes. The examples are numerous, but I’ve captured a couple from the feature-length film of The Sign of Four:

Athelny Jones enters Thaddeus Sholto's house

Athelney Jones enters Thaddeus Sholto’s house

"Well, well, well. Quite a nice little place you've got here."

“Well, well, well. Quite a nice little place you’ve got here.”

In this scene, Jones stops and looks around to take in the grandeur of Sholto’s possessions, his dialogue drawing the reader’s attention to the opulence. That is what is happening in this scene; there’s no narrative motivation for Jones’ admiration. This dialogue is not taken from Conan Doyle; a relative rarity, showing that the fidelity principle can be occasionally subordinated in the interests of the spectacle of privilege. Taken together, these two features characterize the classic adaptation made for English TV in the 80s and 90s.

The Granada Holmes has since its inception been highly regarded. With this estimate I wholly concur; Brett and Hardwicke (initially, David Burke played the role now more associated with Hardwicke – Burke quit for a mix of family and professional reasons after the first season. Disclosure: I’ve never seen any of the Burke episodes) make a good team. Brett in particular, with his bloodless pallor, his keen eyes and mobile mouth, and his twitchy movements which belie his age, is a great Holmes. Some interesting changes are also introduced: particularly interesting in this regard was The Master Blackmailer, the feature-length adaptation of “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, an aside by Doyle about Holmes’s seduction of a parlourmaid for the purposes of extracting information is turned into an intriguing meditation on Holmes’ secret side: his emotions. As Holmes worms his way into this young lady’s affections, an ambiguity is well maintained as to whether this is the real Holmes coming out, or just good acting on his part. This adds interest to a rather unremarkable plot which alone could barely sustain a 100-minute treatment.

In short, points of interest are not lacking in this series, nor is general excellence. I’ve still seen only a minority of the episodes (there are 41 in all, including 5 of feature length), but I can heartily recommend this, and put it forward as the best Holmes – even, in a sense, definitive.

  • Higson, Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film”, in Fires were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (London: Wallflower, 2006), pp. 109-129
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