The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"My Baker Street Boys": Magical Realism & Sherlock Holmes

"I know you two. And if I'm gone, I know what you could become, because I know who you really are: a junky who solves crimes to get high, and the doctor who never came home from the war. Will you listen to me? Who you really are, it doesn't matter. It's all about the legend, the stories, the adventures. There is a last refuge for the desperate, the unloved, the persecuted. There is a final court of appeal for everyone. When life gets too strange, too impossible, too frightening, there is always one last hope. When all else fails, there are two men sitting arguing in a scruffy flat like they've always been there, and they always will. The best and wisest men I have ever known, the Baker Street boys, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson."


We begin with Vincent Starrett:

Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game's afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears—
Only those things the heart believes are true.

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.


From The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes: "But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes or Watson … Shall they not always live on Baker Street? Are they not there this instant, as one writes? … Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain, and Moriarty plans his latest devilry. Within, the sea-coal flames upon the hearth, and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease … So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart: in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895."
That's one thread of the closing montage's narration given to the deceased Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington). The other part--Mary's loving characterization of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson as "the best and wisest men I have ever known"--is an expansion of Watson's epitaph of Holmes from Doyle's own The Final Problem.

So we end with a commingling of Doyle's own words with the insight from one of the first great fans, and reach an endpoint. It'd be tempting to reduce that ending to ""Print the legend," but that'd be facile and false. No, it's an acknowledgement that we, as Mary tells us, need the legend, need Sherlock Holmes. Even now, in 2017.

The thing to remember about both Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss is that they are both writers, first and foremost. And geeks, too. Gatiss has written 8 novels and a biography of James Whale; Moffat has written sitcoms, science fiction teleplays and series, and comics. In all of his writing, Moffat has explored the lies we tell ourselves and others, and the importance of what Strindberg called the "life lie."

A common complaint regarding this last (I think) season of Sherlock is put best by Sophie Gilbert in the Atlantic, who wrote that "season four’s three episodes have doubled down, focusing largely on the tribulations of the show’s main characters and nodding only occasionally at intriguing puzzles."

Except that's never been what drove Sherlock, either Conan Doyle's character or Moffat & Gatiss's revival. Conan Doyle started with a brilliant, compelling teacher, and dropped him into came fiction. But unlike Agatha Christie and her peers, Arthur Conan Doyle had a very limited interest in mysteries, and none in "playing the game" with the reader. Take Doyle's "The Final Problem" itself. There is no mystery or puzzle to solve at all; Holmes tells Watson about the "Napoleon of Crime," informs his friend that he must flee while the police wrap up the case, the two head for the Continent, and Watson is lured away, only to discover that Holmes has killed and been killed by Moriarty. That's it. The whole point of the story is to put Holmes in a no-win scenario, and give him a death worthy of Skarp-hedin. It's about the sensation, the legend, as Mary says, not the mystery. This is more common in the Holmes canon than you might think. Of the 12 stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, three--"A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Speckled Band," and "the Five Orange Pips" come with the antagonist pre-identified--Irene Adler and Dr. Grimebsy Roylott--are identified by the client, and Holmes knows the Ku Klux Klan is the antagonist from the eponymous orange pips. There is no mystery. In at least two of the other stories--"The Man with the Twisted Lip" and "The Beryl Coronet," the mystery is wafer thin, placed for the character beats, and to let Holmes show off. In "The Blue Carbuncle," the main point is to have a Christmas story in which Holmes "compounds a felony" by showing mercy. That's half of one of what are widely considered to be the two best Holmes books.

And you can't complain about Moffat and Gatiss adding action sequences at 221B (The Empty House, anyone?), or at Sherringford, for that matter, unless you want to explain how they're ridiculous, while Holmes and Watson involved in a nighttime boat chase, their guns blazing away at a pigmy whose blowing curare tipped darts out of a blow pipe at them.

You heard me. A sodding blow pipe, with curare tipped darts. That's not an "intriguing puzzle," it's next door to Dr. Evil.

What there is instead is magical reason, a universe in which the extraordinary can break into the ordinary, and Holmes, a rationalistic wizard, alone (well, other than Mycroft. And Irene Adler) can interpret the signs and make sense of it all. The impossible plot twists (pro tip: If you want to kill the woman in the adjoining bedroom, probably sending a snake into the ventilation shaft is not the most efficient plan. Nor is sending a luminescent dog out onto the moors the best way to kill that healthy young baronet.

In Doyle's "Final Problem" and "Scandal in Bohemia," the emotional reality of Holmes's valiant end and his . . . whatever he feels for Irene are the main point. they're arc stories, moving Holmes beyond where we first meet him.

And that's what Moffat and Gatiss go for. The mythological moment. The emotional logic, not the real mundane world of cause and effect. What can force Mycroft to show his love for his brother, and compel Sherlock to deduce it? What can make Sherlock into the good man Greg Lestrade thought he might one day be? Euros; the East Wind, that's what.

I'm not urging you to like it if you don't. Just understand, the link between Doyle and his modern day successors is straighter and more solid than so-called purists might like to admit.

I'll miss Sherlock, if this is indeed goodbye.

Still, over 4 seasons, two talented writers and two talented actors (with able support from an excellent supporting cast) got to play with the legend to see if its mythic qualities could work in our pixel-driven world.

More often than not, they pulled it off.

If it be forever, fare thee well, Sherlock!


Tregonsee said...

The Christmas episode, The Abominable Bride, also touched on this as the traditional and contemporary merged.

While hardly profound, I did think the homage to the classic film versions in the last shots was a nice touch: Rathbone Place.

rick allen said...


Though overall a fan of the new "Sherlock" I haven't so much enjoyed these closing episodes.

I was particularly disappointed in the last episode by its veering into a series of "games" based on standard moral conundrums. I thought that the repeated killing of innocents was exploitive and a cheap way to elevate the depravity of Euros.

Not that there weren't some wonderful touches, like the discovery of the absent glass (the title of a Father Brown story, by the way, "The Absence of Mr. Glass"] But the writers have taken this "high functioning sociopath" idea seriously enough to elevate it to a virtue, I 'm afraid. Holmes' murder at the end of season three is presented as something we root for, and was brushed aside as season four began. Holmes' occasional dismissal of religious belief as weakness and dimness I had no particular problem with--his reason is not the reason of the heart which reason knows nothing of--and in fact one quick speech by Euros interestingly extended Holmes' dismissal of religious faith to a dismissal of all morality as equally delusional. What I'm not sure is of whether the writers really saw the one as an extension of the other--we end, happily, with the Holmes we love, as the virtuous helper of the downtrodden and oppressed, the superhero in a deerstalker rather than a costume and cape.

Anglocat said...


I rather agree with you that the structure of the last episode had its weaknesses, but I think that Euros is intended to be identifying a weakness in Sherlock in his lack of a viable morality; as Moffat himself said, in explaining the finale:

"So we just wondered what would could do with his sister that would at least be different. And also, what if she would be extreme, and if she was even more heartless and even more intelligent than Mycroft. It would be the final stage of Sherlock learning to place some faith in his ability to make human connections. Obviously, the story of our series has been about Sherlock finding his way into that, starting to understand that all these things are not worthless, there are strengths to be gained from them. And, well, here we are. She illustrates that for him; she's so much smarter than him, but so much more mad. She doesn't have the balance of a human connection and of an understanding of basic empathy, until Sherlock reveals that, really, she's still a child in the end. That he is, as his mom says to him, "Always a grown-up." The thing about Sherlock Holmes is that he's actually more grown up than both his brother and his sister. But it is that part of himself that he didn't value — you know, his emotional side. Once you get to the main Sherlock Holmes stories in the middle of the run, Sherlock Holmes is a much more humane and wise figure than we've presented him to date, because the final stage is him learning the value of being like that and the peril of not being like that."

Anonymous said...

While I cannot dismiss the sagacity of Holmes, l must extol the rhapsodic philosophy of the bard of Decataur Avenue who said,

Day is night, night is day, night is night...Burma Shave

Ps Holmes cannot hold a candle to the Wirenius/Murphy creation, Alistair Wonderful

Anglocat said...

It's a great shame that "Mr. Wonderful" didn't get a second season. It was to be called, as I recall, "BOESKY'S BACK!'

Ah, the classics!