I interrupt your normally scheduled ham radio and computer checkers postings to frankly just rant about something: I was listening to XM Radio’s old time radio channel, and there was an entirely forgettable Sherlock Holmes story. I’ve previously mentioned that much of the Sherlock Holmes fiction not done by Conan Doyle is crap, but I thought I’d enumerate a list of the things that I think are absolutely fatal to a Sherlock Holmes story.
- Romantic involvement for Holmes. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! Did anyone not read A Scandal in Bohemia? It begins:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind.
Attempts to give Sherlock Holmes romantic interest just make an extraordinary character ordinary.
- Misogyny. While Holmes has no real interest in women romantically, he behaves in a largely chivalrous manner. His lack of romantic interest in women is not caused by bitterness: more like a complete lack of emotional understanding. While he may find the motives of women “inscrutable”, he is for the most part rather deferential and charming, until the case is solved at least.
- Watson as a bumbler. Watson is a doctor, a writer, and a former soldier. I blame Nigel Bruce for this far-too common portrayal.
- Ghosts. While certain Sherlock Holmes stories begin with mysteries that appear supernatural (The Hound of the Baskervilles perhaps being the most obvious example) but in the end, the explanations are always rational. The Hound wasn’t Cerebrus, it was a mastiff covered in phosphorus. Magic and the supernatural have no place in the rationalism of Holmes’ universe. (Conan Doyle’s personal excursions into spiritualism seem not to have crept into the persona of Sherlock Holmes.)
- Interactions with either fictional or actual characters from history. Stories which rely on interactions with Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, or Albert Einstein are just contrivances that try to suck you in by dropping names rather than telling stories.
- That damned deerstalker hat and pipe.
- Saying “Elementary, my dear Watson”. You won’t find the phrase in Conan Doyle’s works, but it has become a cliche in poor imitators.
- Stories which overplay the extremes of Holmes’ character, either negative (his drug use, his fits of boredom where he peppered the walls of 221B with his revolver) or his virtue (while mostly chivalrous, he wasn’t above showing impatience and petulance with those he feels unworthy). The beauty of Conan Doyle’s portrayal is at once the extraordinary nature of Holmes’ character, but also the reality of it.
Why did I bother to write this stuff down? No real reason, other than that I really enjoy the canon of fifty six short stories and four novels, and have read them all multiple times. The least of these are better (in my opinion) than 99% of all the subsequent works using these characters. As much as I’d like to complain about how much bad fiction there is out there, there is something truly great: that the characters themselves have passed into the public domain, and are free for all of us who have enjoyed the originals to adapt with new ideas and new adventures.
That’s pretty cool too.