More Sherlock!

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes — Creative Commons (bellaphon)

Earlier this month I took a break from blogging about history, teaching, and theology in order to share my love of Sherlock Holmes — most recently as the character was embodied by Benedict Cumberbatch in a BBC show that will have its second series of episodes premiere Stateside next year.

Until that premiere, I’ve tried to hold off on reading much about that series, for fear of encountering spoilers. But not long ago The Guardian ran an article in which the show’s co-creators inadvertently hint at a basic paradox for fans of Sherlock Holmes:

1. Asked if the show might continue into a third year, Steven Moffat doesn’t dismiss the possibility and points out, “Well, there were 60 originals….” By this, he refers to the fifty-six short stories and four novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that Holmes’ fans sometimes describe as “The Canon.”

2. Yet earlier the article points out that Moffat and his collaborator, Mark Gatiss (who also has a small but significant role on the show), draw freely not only on the Conan Doyle stories but Holmes adaptations for film and TV. Remarks Gatiss, “Everything is canonical.”

On the one hand, Sherlock Holmes (perhaps more than any other character in English literature) excites a kind of protectiveness amongst the most devoted of his fans, originally exemplified by a society called the Baker Street Irregulars. (The BSI gave rise to “scions” like the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota — that group’s name a tip of the cap both to one of our state’s predominant ethnic groups and Holmes’ disguise during the three years after his supposed death at the Reichenbach Falls. Pietist Schoolman reader Tim Johnson happens to curate the University of Minnesota’s renowned Holmes collection.) Whether reconciling seeming contradictions within it or exploring its themes from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, these scholars have exegeted the Holmesian Canon in the pages of publications like the Baker Street Journal with all the seriousness typically associated with study of the other, older Canon.

At the same time, Sherlock Holmes (again, perhaps more than any other character in English literature) has spawned so many other short stories, novels, comic books, plays, and film, radio, and TV scripts that if they were all published together, they’d surely be hundreds of times longer than the actual Canon. As Ellery Queen once wrote, in introducing one collection of Holmes pastiches:

…more has been written about Sherlock Holmes than about any other character in fiction, and more has been written about Holmes by others than by [Conan Doyle] himself.

Some of these have sought to be utterly faithful to the original (e.g., the Jeremy Brett TV series) while others, like the BBC Sherlock and Guy Ritchie’s now-two films with Robert Downey, Jr. (and, far better, the impeccably cast Jude Law) have attempted to modernize the stories, characters, and settings. (Or to satirize them — see Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which anticipated Sherlock in finding humor in strangers misunderstanding the nature of Holmes and Watson’s friendship). Indeed, for some of us, the later adaptations have done as much as A. Conan Doyle to shape our image of Holmes, Watson, Moriarty, Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, Irene Adler, et al.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1914 photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - University of Texas Libraries

Given the seriousness of Sherlockian scholarship, one might expect the “Irregulars” to be utterly humorless about the liberties taken by people not named Arthur Conan Doyle with his most famous creation.

Shoot, some of them think aloud that Conan Doyle took liberties himself. That author apparently wearied of writing mere mysteries and rather coldly decided to kill off his master detective in the short story “The Final Problem,” published to the horror of the Anglo-American reading public in December 1893. (Merry Christmas!) Holmes and Watson made a brief reappearance in 1901, when Conan Doyle published the most popular and best Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, but it was clearly set before “The Final Problem.” (Conan Doyle also alluded to Holmes in a couple of little-remembered short stories published in 1898: “The Man with the Watches” and “The Lost Special.”) But then two years later Sherlock Holmes made a miraculous reappearance in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” and new stories kept appearing off and on until April 1927 (“The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” being the last published).

Here’s the rub: some Sherlock scholars have speculated (tongue at least partly in cheek) that the Sherlock Holmes who returned in “The Empty House” was an impostor, acting somewhat differently in the later stories (e.g., he no longer used cocaine, quoted German or French, or — with one exception — played violin — I rely here on William S. Baring-Gould’s The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, vol. II, pp. 327-28). Criticizing such unexplained changes in character and generally finding the quality of mysteries to be substantially lower than in the classic pre-1893 tales, others even doubt the “canonicity” of some later stories, especially those collected in the Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927), two of which don’t even include Watson.

If not presenting a case to shrink the Canon, it does at least suggest a “canon within the canon” (as Martin Luther might put it): all stories and novels written before 1903. (Though I think “The Empty House” and some other entries collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes hold up pretty well, and I actually prefer the 1914 novel The Valley of Fear to 1887’s A Study in Scarlet, of which it’s a virtual rewrite.)

But I think the wiser response (and that of most “Irregulars,” it seems) is to accept that Conan Doyle was anything but sanctimonious about his creations, and cared little for “canonicity.” During the 1893-1901 hiatus, Conan Doyle not only wrote a parody of a Holmes-Watson conversation (1896’s “The Field Bazaar”; another parody, “How Watson Learned the Trick,” appeared in 1924) but a Holmes play. But when it didn’t attract any interest (!), he let the American actor William Gillette rewrite the script. According to the Conan Doyle biography by fellow detective novelist John Dickson Carr, Gillette (who supposedly had never read a Holmes story before this point) was bothered by one question: “What liberties might he take with Conan Doyle’s famous character? At last he wrote to Conan Doyle: ‘May I marry Holmes?’ ‘Marry him or murder him or do anything else you like with him,’ Conan Doyle is reported to have replied.”

Gillette’s play premiered in Buffalo, New York in October 1899 and first reached London two years later. He ended up playing the role over 1300 times (at one point acting alongside a lad named Charles Chaplin, in the role of Billy the Page) and inspired the depiction of Holmes by the most famous American illustrator of the Canon, Frederic Dorr Steele.

Here we get back to Mark Gatiss’ insistence that “Everything is canonical,” for Gillette’s play was so popular and influential that it fixed such Holmesian conventions as the deerstalker cap (rarely used in the original British illustrations from the Strand magazine) and curved pipe. His play also inspired the famous line “Elementary, my dear Watson” — though it wasn’t phrased as such until a brief series of early talkie films starring Clive Brook.

Rathbone and Bruce in The Secret Weapon (1943)
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson in 1943's Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon - Wikimedia

That four-word phrase, of course, was never written in Conan Doyle’s short stories or novels, but it was so closely attached to Holmes and Watson that when Hollywood got around to making its most enduring adaptations, it was inevitable that the new Holmes would speak the line — and, at least occasionally, wear the deerstalker and smoke the curved pipe. And that Holmes is — to my mind — still the greatest filmed version of the character: the Master as portrayed by the distinguished English actor Basil Rathbone.

When he first played Holmes, in 20th Century Fox’s 1939 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Rathbone had already lived an eventful forty-seven years. I assume he is the only person to have won a Military Cross for heroism on the Western Front in World War I and been nominated twice for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The first nod came for playing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (1936), a role that afforded him one chance to win a fencing duel on screen; he later lost memorably to drinking buddy Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood and, after starting the Holmes films, to Tyrone Power in The Mask of Zorro. While Rathbone ended his career typecast as Sherlock Holmes, he first donned the deerstalker having been typecast as a villain. (In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he was so set as a supporting player that he didn’t even receive top billing — taking second spot behind the wooden Richard Greene, here portraying Sir Henry Baskerville and later to achieve mild fame as a TV Robin Hood.)

Watson and Holmes by Sidney Paget
Watson and Holmes as drawn by Sidney Paget for the 1893 story, "The Greek Interpreter" - Wikimedia

But it’s hard to believe that it took so long to cast Rathbone as Holmes, he looks so strikingly similar to the most famous illustrations of Holmes, by Sidney Paget. (And for better or worse, Nigel Bruce epitomized the thoroughly British Watson in the mind of the casting director.) But The Hound did well enough that Fox rushed out a second Holmes film in 1939, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which loosely followed Gillette’s play and found Holmes matching wits with Professor Moriarty in a rather silly scheme to steal the Crown Jewels. (The 2009 Guy Ritchie film has Robert Downey, Jr.’s Holmes recreate a scene from the 1939 Adventures: Holmes experimenting with the effects of violin scales on flies in a jar. “Everything is canonical.”) Those two films were set in Victorian times, then the lower-rent studio Universal picked up the series in 1942 and updated Holmes and Watson to the present day. They hewed even less closely to the Canon than The Adventures, rarely doing more than lifting plot devices or characters. (Professor Moriarty showed up three times in the person of three different actors — best: Henry Daniell, whose performance is the only reason to watch The Woman in Green.)

(By the way, this ahistorical treatment of Holmes was nothing new; the previous contender for best Holmes film series, with Arthur Wontner as the detective, was set in the early 1930s. You can watch 1931’s Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour — blending “The Final Problem” and “The Adventure of the Empty House” — in its entirety on YouTube. Interestingly, Rathbone and Bruce also starred in a long-running radio series that started with the host visiting a retired Watson at his, er, California home, but the stories themselves were set back in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Here’s a personal favorite, in honor of the WWI-related trip I’m taking next month.)

Whatever the drop-off in quality of the twelve Universal films (and I’d take the tautly constructed 1944 thriller The Scarlet Claw over either of the Fox films), they illustrated the point that I was trying to get at in the first Sherlock post: that as much as Holmes is appealing because he’s so clearly tied to a particular place and time, he (and his friendship with Watson — played as a buffoon by Nigel Bruce, but still effectively capturing the loyalty and mutual affection crucial to the relationship) appeal so universally that they can thrive in almost any soil.

And the folks at Universal sure tried different soils. The first three were sheer WWII propaganda, with Holmes and Watson battling Nazis at every turn. Of these, only Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon holds up at all, mostly thanks to Lionel Atwill’s turn as Moriarty and the first appearance by Dennis Hoey as the befuddled (up until the last moment) Inspector Lestrade.

Later films treated the war more obliquely. In Sherlock Holmes Faces Death the Conan Doyle story “The Musgrave Ritual” (originally an episode from Holmes’ pre-Watson days at university) was nicely reconceived as a whodunit set in a convalescent home for British soldiers. Frequent series producer-director Roy William Neill even slipped in a hint of satire in The Scarlet Claw: essentially Hound of the Baskervilles relocated to rural Quebec, it closed with Holmes quoting a Churchill speech (as he had done in at least a couple of the earlier entries) about Canada being the “linchpin of the English-speaking world.” “Churchill say that?”, asks Watson, all innocence.

The Scarlet Claw epitomized a new theme in the Universal series: Holmes and Watson essentially guest-starring in other types of movies. In this case, they showed up in a vaguely supernatural thriller of the type Universal had mastered even before Bela Lugosi first played Dracula. (Just before taking his first bow as Holmes, Rathbone had starred in Universal’s Son of Frankenstein.) The following film, The Pearl of Death, was ostensibly based on Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” but was really a Universal horror flick meant to launch a new character, The Creeper (played by the acromegalic Rondo Hatton). The Woman in Green was a psychological thriller using what, in 1945, was already a tired convention of that genre: hypnotism. A couple of the later films in the series clearly evoked Agatha Christie as much as Arthur Conan Doyle: The House of Fear (1945), in which members of a club gathered in a haunted house die off, And Then There Were None-style, one by one; and the briskly paced Terror by Night, set on an overnight train journey to Scotland.

Rathbone as Holmes, 1939
Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in one of the 1939 films - New York Public Library

I’m sure that more recent performances have captured the character better than Basil Rathbone. Working within the Hollywood studio system in the early 1940s, he would never have been allowed to make Holmes as prickly and disagreeable as Brett and Cumberbatch have done. (Nor would it occur to anyone but Guy Ritchie to take an interesting but relatively minor facet of the character — his familiarity with martial arts — and turn it into Holmes’ defining characteristic.)

And yet… At the point in my life when I was most fervent in my adoration of Sherlock Holmes (ages 14-16), Basil Rathbone was Sherlock Holmes — to the point that I’m sure I imagined his voice speaking Conan Doyle’s words as I stayed up night after night reading the Canon. And because that adoration happened when it did in my life, I’m sure my preference for Rathbone will never entirely go away.

All of which to say: Gatiss is shrewd to proceed from the assumption that, in the world of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, “everything is canonical.” The two friends have been alive for almost 125 years now, undergoing subtle and drastic changes at the hands of each new writer, illustrator, or actor who gets his hands on them, and yet still remaining recognizably Holmes and Watson.

One thought on “More Sherlock!

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