Elementary – Early Thoughts On the Latest Sherlock Holmes Pastiche

There’s been quite a bit of speculation on whether or not we Americans can make a successful television series out of Sherlock Holmes.  Particularly following on the heels of the BBC’s wildly popular and praised Sherlock (of which I am a HUGE fan).

What no one seems to be mentioning is that it’s all been done before.  Multiple times.  I mean, what were House and his oncologist friend, Wilson, if not surrogates for Holmes & Watson?  Or those two guys on USA network’s Psyche?  Or, to varying degrees, the dynamic duos in The Mentalist, Bones, Monk and Perception?  I’m willing to bet money there are others.  Any time writers combine a quirky, socially awkward genius with a knack for solving crimes and a more practical partner to play straight “man” –  they pay homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations.  Even introducing a female Watson is by no means revolutionary. Out of the previous examples I gave: The Mentalist, Monk and Perception all place strong women in Watson’s shoes.

I point this out not to detract from CBS’s latest addition to the long and distinguished tradition of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but to establish precedent (something very important to Holmesian enthusiasts).  If you’re questioning the authenticity of Elementary based on a.) it being American-made, b.) set in New York City and c.) the introduction of a female Watson – fear not.  Elementary is so well done that within minutes these concerns fade into the background.  True fans know: the popularity of Sherlock Holmes stories is derived from the chemistry between the two main characters – Holmes & Watson.  And Jonny Lee Miller & Lucy Liu have it in abundance.  Elementary incorporates the canon but isn’t afraid to stray just far enough into new territory to keep things fresh.

I just thought of another example – Mulder & Scully on the X-files.

Borrowing an innovation from Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Miller’s Sherlock is a recovering addict.  Whereas past Watsons have acted as Holmes’ caregiver in theory – Liu’s Watson is one in fact.  She is a “sober companion” hired by Holmes Sr. to live with Sherlock and keep him on the straight & narrow.   Liu has taken the route of less awe and more annoyance in her portrayal, which is consistent with most modern versions.  To be honest, removing gender from the equation, I found Miller’s Sherlock to be the more groundbreaking (in a throw-back kind of way) interpretation of character.

Based on the first episode, it seems Miller has chosen to be much less overtly obnoxious than the BBC Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch.  While I love Cumberbatch, I found myself liking Miller, too.  For opposite reasons.  It’s easy to forget that only in the more recent interpretations has Sherlock Holmes been so self-absorbed, pompous and attention seeking.  Doyle’s Holmes, while brilliant and peculiar, was never cruel or mocking.  Perhaps he could be a little condescending at times – but often deservedly so.  And always with an indulgent edge, particularly towards Watson.  Miller plays much more closely to the original stories.  There are scenes in Elementary where it is apparent Sherlock realizes he should stop, that he is straying too far from social norms and into territory where he could do real emotional damage to those around him.  But, when pressed, he is unable to stop himself.  Miller’s detective needs to solve problems.  Why can’t he realize that it’s not always helpful to reveal the answers?  He compulsively sees everything.  Why does he have to reveal everything he sees?

Plus, I’m very pleased to report that the Sherlock Holmes we meet in Elementary is not infallible.  Nor, it seems, is he immune to women.  The producers have been adamant that there will be no romance between the two main characters.  Which opens up a whole other host of interesting possibilities.  Doyle’s Watson marries, possible more than once.  (There’s a very funny essay by Jane Nightwork entitled “Dr. Watson’s Secret” discussing Doyle’s inconsistencies regarding Watson’s first – and mysterious second – wife).  And, despite what the recent Guy Ritchie films would have us believe (proof that a Brit can make every bit of a hot mess of these stories as an American), Holmes never showed a seconds worth of jealousy about his friend’s domestic bliss.  So why shouldn’t Liu’s character in future seasons fall into a relationship outside of her and Holmes’…ummm…relationship?  Why not explore the impact it might have… or not have… on the great detective?

While the first crime was a bit lackluster in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter.  The producers need to pull off the relationship, the camaraderie and the emotional connection between the hero and heroine to make this show a success.  And at the same time layer in some of the more beloved elements of the original books – the Baker Street Irregulars, Mycroft, “the woman”.  Hopefully they know enough to stay far away from the original cases at the risk appearing derivative of the BBC’s SherlockElementary needs to go bold to capture viewers.  A female Watson got our attention, but they’ll need to go even farther to keep us tuned in.

Elementary airs Thursdays on CBS.

The West End Horror – Or How NOT To Write A Sherlock Holmes Pastiche

I think The Seven-Percent Solution was the first Sherlock Holmes pastiche I ever read.  It’s been quite a few years, but I remember liking it quite a bit at the time.  Enough that I sought out all of the original stories and inhaled them in a weekend.  Perhaps my tastes have changed – or perhaps Meyer’s follow-up doesn’t live up to its predecessor – either way The West End Horror: A Posthumous Memoir of John H. Watson, M.D.  is an absolute horror (not at all in the way the author intended).

The fact is, Nicholas Meyers does so much wrong in The West End Horror (it doesn’t even merit a plot summary) that it’s the perfect jumping off point on how not to write a Sherlock Holmes pastiche.   So here are my 5 simple rules on what NOT to do when writing your own Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Rule #1 – Don’t Name Drop.

In this, as he did in the The Seven-Percent Solution, Meyers includes a supporting cast of real life figures:  Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Gilbert & Sullivan and Sigmund Freud (in a repeat performance).  I suppose he’d argue that he included them because of their connection to the London theater, which is the setting for the mystery – but they could have all been replaced with entirely fictional characters and I can’t imagine anyone would have noticed.

We’ve all seen authors insert historical figures into a fictional narrative before *cough* Ahab’s Wife *cough* in what I can only assume is a misguided belief that by surrounding a fictional character with “real” people said character will in turn appear more real.  Sometimes it works.  More often is doesn’t.  More often the real-life figure appears historically inauthentic and the author has only succeeded in reinforcing that we are reading a work of fiction.

As in all things on this subject it’s best to follow Sir Arthur’s example.  Keep it ambiguous. Plop Holmes in a historically and geographically accurate setting.  Make passing references to an unexplored backlog of cases; in this way establishing a past, present and future for our characters.  If you must employ a character who has an actual birth certificate never give a name.  Let the readers connect the dots.

Rule # 2 – There is no Holmes without Watson.

Dr. John Watson writes about Sherlock Holmes.  Period.  There was no one else in the world on intimate terms with the man.  No one else who was there for every case.  No one else in whom the Great Detective put his trust.

And let’s face it… who else would put up with the arrogant twit?

With the exception of Mitch Cullin’s brilliant novel A Slight Trick of the Mind I’ve never read a pastiche where the omission of Watson didn’t create a great, gaping hole in the page.  Make no mistake – we love and admire Holmes because Watson loves and admires Holmes.

And for the love of all that is holy – Holmes  is not marriage material!

Which leads me into Rule #3.

Rule #3 – Holmes, married????! Pshaw!  My dear chap, Sherlock Holmes is the confirmed bachelor.

At the risk of alienating a certain group of Holmes’ fans – I’m not sure what else I can say about this.  My personal feelings on the subject are as follows:  Doyle wrote mysteries, not romances.  If you want to write a romance, or a mystery that features a romance, create your own Great Detective and give him another name.  Because, no matter how you slice it, Sherlock Holmes is a misogynist.  I’d say it was a part of his charm, except he’s not all that charming either.

Rule #4 – Don’t make excuses.

The conceit of Meyer’s pastiches are that he, Nicholas Meyer, has come into the possession of a long-lost manuscript of Dr. John Watson which reveals to the world a hereto unknown chapter in the life of the Great Detective.  The manuscripts are usually  damaged, with whole sections illegible, in a thinly veiled attempt to stave off the Holmesian enthusiasts from inundating Meyers with letters pointing out his inaccuracies.

I’m not sure why he worried… Doyle obviously didn’t.

You say pastiche,  I say plagiarism. No matter what you choose to call it – you’re ripping off Arthur Conan Doyle. If the man was still alive you’d be in court.  So once you’ve taken that bold step in your borderline criminal career, spare me the ethics.  Read the original stories and pilfer the hell out of them!!!!  Steal characters, case names, explain away those inconsistencies with wild and improbable leaps in deduction… or just ignore them altogether.

Rule # 5 – Sherlock Holmes Does Not Lower Himself to Fisticuffs

That’s right Guy Ritchie!  I’m talking to you! (Though I do sorta’ enjoy Jude Law as Watson).

The only physical exercise Holmes gets is a bit of a chase after escaping bad guys.  And even then I can’t imagine him accelerating above a determined trot.  As for physical combat… He and Watson carry pistols for a reason. I believe Holmes occasionally engages in swordplay – that’s perfectly acceptable as he’s able to maintain safe distance between himself and his opponent.  But hand-to-hand combat?  Risk a facer??? A possible concussion???   Anything that might damage that amazing brain?  Doubtful, dear readers.  Highly doubtful.

_______

Obviously, Meyers is not responsible for the complete list (even at that he doesn’t quite make the grade).  Ah well.  If, like me, you feel that the holidays & Sherlock Holmes just go together – please share your favorites (and least favorites) in the comments section.

And here’s what’s in my TBR Pile for the weekend:

Yup…that’s what I’ll be reading on Saturday evening: curled under a blanket, a cup of cocoa on the table next to me and my two dogs loudly and happily barking at the innocent and unsuspecting passersby outside (aren’t they adorable?).  Happy Christmas All!

Publisher:  E.P. Dutton & Co., New York (1976)

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