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.

A Little Too Elementary, My Dear Watson. The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr (Audio Book)

The Italian Secretary is Caleb Carr’s attempt at a Sherlock Holmes mystery – and as far as that goes it’s not bad.  The character’s stay true to the originals, Carr has nicely captured Watson’s narrative voice, and the mystery itself is no more or less plausible than any of Doyle’s.  The text is significantly helped in being read by Simon Prebble.

But when held up to others of the genre (Sherlock Holmes stories written by authors other than Doyle having become a genre unto itself) how does it rate?  It doesn’t add anything to the canon, like Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution or Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind.  There’s no reinterpretation of old material, like what Neil Gaiman  did with his Lovecraftian take in the short story A Study in EmeraldThe Italian Secretary is just a basic Sherlock Holmes mystery that has a tendency to drag on bit… a bit being 352 pages.

Quick Segue:  One of my biggest gripes lately has been doorstop books that could have been improved through judicious editing.  When it’s a book featuring  Sherlock Holmes, a character introduced in short stories and two novellas, it seems particularly ridiculous.

The mystery of The Italian Secretary involves a ghost story set in Scotland  (with the obligatory Mary Queen of Scots connection, of course).  This didn’t bother me as much as it seems to have  some Holmes enthusiasts who felt that it was out of character for a man as logical as Sherlock Holmes to believe in ghosts.  Indeed, Watson displays the same disbelief in his narrative.  But Carr has done his research.  Arthur Conan Doyle was keenly interested in spiritualism & the occult (like many of his contemporaries).  Knowing this it doesn’t seem out of character for Holmes to share that credulity.   And, the fact is, Carr needed his ghosts.  I found ghosts to be significant to this story in more than one way.

The central Scottish ghost story is mildly entertaining, but it is the tertiary ghost story  where I think Carr had gold.  It takes place on Baker Street and bookends the narrative.  In it we explore the consequences of believing in “ghosts” or, more accurately, believing in what does not exist.  Holmes has a nice soliloquy on his and Watson’s ghost sightings, their decision whether or not to acknowledge what they saw and what that choice can mean.  I couldn’t help but see a parallel being drawn to the fact that for a time there were those who believed that the detective and his friend existed outside of the stories.  Carr handles this B-storyline with a much lighter touch than is used in his treatment of the rest of the novel.  It is the direction I think he should have taken, but unfortunately didn’t.

My overall feelings about The Italian Secretary are probably more complex than the book merits.   If you must read it, I’d recommend skipping all but the first and last chapters.   If you decide the skip it altogether, you haven’t missed much.

Vive le Genre!

Lately there has been a renewed interest in genre fiction. Whether it’s Stephen King’s lurid covers on retro paperbacks in the grocery aisle, Michael Chabon’s serialized adventure story in the New York Times Magazine, or Arturo Pèrez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste swordsman-for-hire series, – the pulp novel is suddenly being taken seriously. And I’m glad. Books written & read for entertainment and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Graham Greene, Dumas, Dickens and Faulkner were the mass market darlings of their times. It seems that some books, like wine and Juliet Binoche, only get better with age. But before you jump into the latest crop of retro-flavored genre fiction, here are my recommendations to establish your street cred:

Wilkie Collins – Collins, who last topped the best seller lists in the 1860’s, is on the edge of most readers’ radars.  His best known works are The Woman in White & The Moonstone, so either would be a good introduction.  Both books are filled with over the top plot contrivances (complicated revenge schemes, heroines locked in asylums and Hindu jugglers to name just a few) that make them entertaining reads in ways the author probably never intended.  In addition to solid writing, Collins can arguably be credited with creating the English Detective novel.   Dubbed a “sensationalist” author, it is my opinion that his stories seem less dated and maudlin than his contemporary (and mentor) Charles Dickens.

Arthur Conan Doyle – Everyone has heard of Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle created a character so popular, who so captured the imagination of his readers, that societies exist to this day that study the short stories and novellas as canon.  While most are dazzled by the deductive reasoning of the hero, I contend that Doyle’s greatest stroke of genius is Watson. It is Watson who lends the tales the semblance of fact with his offhand references to past cases and conversational, first person narrative.  He’s much more personable than Holmes, and ten times more entertaining.  If I sound a little bitter, it’s because the man never seems to get the credit he deserves.  It is unquestionably because of John Watson that the Sherlock Holmes stories are some of the best short stories ever written.

H.P. Lovecraft – Lovecraft was another short story author who used first person narrative to brilliant effect.  His narrators mentally deteriorate in the course of their stories – slowly driven mad when confronted by alien and unspeakable horrors.  I need to repeat that… UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS!  Only Lovecraft could mold such a seemingly quaint old fashioned phrase into a vessel of terror!  Read him, you’ll understand.  They invented the phrase “blood chilling” for this man’s stories, and if they didn’t they should have.  You doubt me?  Google the Necronomicon.  A book that people, to this day, still believe exists. And which was entirely a creation of Lovecraft’s imagination.  Convincing readers that fiction is fact is impressive in anyone, but particularly so when the author wasn’t even trying.

Fritz Leiber – Fritz Leiber is the creator of my favorite swords & sorcery buddy team – Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. This dynamic duo were cast in the tradition of fantasy heroes like Tarzan & Conan (Fafhrd is a Barbarian & the Gray Mouser is a Thief and former sorcerer’s apprentice), but they take themselves a lot less seriously. Two Lankhmar adventurers who have seen better days, their luck going up and down with the whims of fate, they first meet after each loses the current love of his life. Rakish, if a little shabby, they get themselves into and out of trouble (and under various female characters’ skirts) with the kind of panache to make James T. Kirk green with envy. Old Gods, underwater kingdoms, magicians & thieves’ guilds all make an appearance and add to the fun. Leiber has a cheeky sense of humor that keeps the stories light, despite some dark happenings. There’s a silliness about these tales which is a large part of their charm. Originally published in those old 60’s & 70’s magazines with names like “Fantastic Stories” (it doesn’t get any booksexy-er than reading them in the original), all the stories are collected in paperback editions that are a little bit more attainable. Lucky us!