Monday, November 1, 2010

The Game's Afoot

Recently I watched Benedict Cumberbatch,the newest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, in the BBC series "Sherlock", prancing around ecstatically as he made a revelation during his case. He'd just discovered that a serial killer was lose in the city.

"We've got ourselves a serial killer," he says gleefully. "Love those-there's always something to look forward to." This is such a "sherlockian" thing to say. Anyone who knows Holmes knows that he is entirely invested in the impression that he is the smartest head in any group, that everyone is invariably the wrong to his right. He is so obsessed with the game and how he pits his genius to solve his cases, the emotional side of the situation does not faze him. Surely such behaviour usually turns the majority of us off? Generally we hate people who are so sure of their superiority and flaunt it in our faces. Yet many people adore Sherlock Holmes, and we've been doing it for over a hundred and twenty years.

I think my own situation is a testament to the allure of Sherlock Holmes. I read pretty copiously, but I generally avoid mysteries and suspense thrillers. I can get a bit lost watching anything but the simplest Scooby Doo mysteries, but I am fascinated by Sherlock Holmes and go through phases of keen interest. Case in point the fact that I've had the complete short stories for years. I read quite a few of them over time, but have not touched the book for a very long period. Now I'm systematically reading them all again, and even though I detect a hint of sameness in the structure of some of these stories, I am continuing to drive through them, held by the sensational story lines, the warmth of Watson and the attraction of Holmes himself.

There is no doubt that Sherlock attracts us. One of the reasons for our acceptance of him is that - to pickpocket a Jane Austen phrase - "he has the right to be proud". We have a fascination in watching genius at work. For me, that's why I like to watch a good lecturer doing his job or a conductor or musician coaxing brilliance out of their creations. As we read, we see Watson marvelling at Holmes' work, and we understand his hero worship because generally, we're right there beside him, gazing in awe. Holmes may be vain and sure of himself, but it helps that he's generally right in his impressions. He knows for a fact that he's smarter than everyone else in the room.

I also take great pleasure in learning about Holmes' eccentricities. At the moment, I am in a midway state: between those who are Sherlock experts, and those who know next to nothing of the character. I am still learning about him, still learning to picture him, and it's a fascinating image. Through Watson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could draw fascinating pictures with precise, detailed description. We see it in every story in the way he describes Holmes' clients. He depicts Holmes in terms which build a perfect image of him in our minds.

When I watch Holmes in other media, it is always exhilarating to see specific "Holmesian" traits manifesting themselves whether in a younger version or a mouse one of Holmes, but we are like Watson and we are always hungry for more. Holmes is reticent about his background, so we get little of his past life or his family except in certain stories, so even as we know him he still seems a bit mysterious.

In the Sherlock mini series, he describes himself as a functioning sociopath which puzzled me. Ironically, that may be one area where I think the character portrayed incorrectly. A sociopath is cold and calculating, and Holmes is often that, but I have noted several times when the stories suggested that Holmes was sympathetic, where he seemed roused to righteous indignation by wrong doing. Of course, he didn't run around becoming deeply and emotionally invested in every case that came his way but cool Holmes may be and manic and calculating, but I think he has more feeling than a sociopath. His relationship with Watson particularly puts me off the idea.

The Watson/Holmes relationship is another big part of the attraction for this character. I don't think we could tolerate Holmes without Watson to relate to and to like for himself. The doctor proves to be a brave, loyal, intelligent, loving friend (who I recently discovered was instrumental in helping Holmes rise up out of us drug addiction). No wonder Holmes appreciates and values Watson. I think he loves the Doctor with the fondness one has for a great friend, and in Holmes' case, an only friend. This is a big part of the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes movie which built up their relationship into a bromance which I enjoyed to the fullest.

If Sherlock's feelings for anyone else is fleeting, his affection for Watson is unerring. He needs his presence in a life where he otherwise seems fine with being alone. He takes him on many cases, making it clear that he finds his friend, keen, brave, resourceful even intelligent (though of course not as intelligent as himself). It's always clear that he's there for his usefulness and that Holmes values his contribution more than anyone else.

Their situation makes it almost impossible for them not to bond. Besides being roommates, they are partners in numerous harrowing and often dangerous adventures. They're inseparable comrades in arms while they keep watch for suspects and nameless horrors in the dead of night, and sometimes in real physical confrontations. They are perfect examples of the male partners that frequent so many movies.

Another thing I love about Watson is that he is also useful to the reader. Again, we would probably not like Holmes as much as we do, if there wasn't a Watson with whom we could empathize. He gives us a this amazingly detailed picture of Holmes (proving that he is a keen observer like his friend, just not with similar deductive powers) and brings him alive to us with fascination, appreciation and introspection. Besides liking the man for himself - for he is everything Holmes says he is - we can appreciate the role he plays in the narrative.That's why so many people, me included, feels either unhappy or uncomfortable when he is depicted as a silly bumbler or mere comic relief. Even when it's funny like in "The Great Mouse Detective" or "Young Sherlock Holmes"

I don't think Holmes has ever gone out of style, so I don't foresee a big revival of him because of the success of the BBC series, but as usually happens, many people who knew next to nothing about him will start to show stirrings of interest and a new wave of fans will emerge. No doubt we'll continue to see new versions of him cropping up here and there, and I look forward to every new interpretation.