-Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
I remember some time in the early 80s, the Sherlock Holmes copyrights expired, leaving the stories and character open to the public. This concerned me, largely because I liked the character and was worried more trash like The Seven-Percent Solution and would be written.
The last thing the world needed was more movies such as Without A Clue with Watson as the real genius and Holmes as a bumbling idiot, I thought. I believe that some characters and settings should be treated with respect because they are ridiculous enough without needing to be mocked. Still, some people just can't leave well enough alone, and others are filled with such bitterness in their own lives they feel the need to spread it around.
Over the years, the canon actually has been treated with a fair amount of respect, however. There have been some poor attempts, but for the most part it has been a set of tales people do appreciate and want to give justice. Jeremy Brett's BBC run as the great detective was so brilliant and iconic I doubt anyone will ever equal or come close.
There are still some stories which are under copyright, though. About 10 of the stories are still protected and owned by the Holmes estate (mostly the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes stories) and will be released from copyright in 2022. It has been nearly 85 years since the last Sherlock Holmes story - The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place - was published.
Still, people keep putting out various versions of Holmes, including two major television shows. BBC's Sherlock has been a smash hit with 8 episodes over two years, and Elementary on CBS appears to be doing well enough to be renewed next year. Both are attempts to reimagine the detective in modern times, with different settings. The BBC version is the more successful of the two, although Elementary isn't as awful as it first sounded (a female Watson, set in New York, etc). And, of course, there is the film version with Robert Downey jr doing his usual brilliant work.
Almost all of these new attempts to write Sherlock Holmes, however, are missing a key component to Holmes' personality. They get his brilliant mind pretty well. They get his analytical ability, his observational skills, his deductive discipline. They write his eccentricities, which range from the colossal rudeness and insensitivity (in Sherlock) to childish tantrums (in Elementary). They portray his arrogance and confidence well. And all the actors involved are talented enough to make these characters interesting to watch.
No, what they miss is critical to why Holmes was a likable sort, a hero rather than just a very effective detective. You can admire these Sherlocks for their skill and intelligence, and often they are even amusing. But they're missing something that Doyle brought to his character and few writers have been able to replicate.
To understand this, you have to dig a bit more deeply into the original stories and study the character. When you do so, you find a consistent pattern of behavior, a worldview that Holmes displays in each story.
Whenever Holmes is dealing with a truly weak, poor, and needy client or witness, he is incredibly gentle and soothing. He seems to sense the delicate nature of these people and their need for compassion, and is careful to treat them delicately as well.
Examples of this in the books are numerous, but are most often when it is a woman in a position of little or no power mistreated by others. The Case of the Golden Pince-Nez and others where a maidservant or woman in need comes to him are always shown where he has very patient and gentle with the helpless and seeks to soothe and assure them that all is in hand.
When he deals with the powerful, the rich, and the arrogant, it is the opposite. He has little patience, no tolerance for their blustering, and cuts through their attempts to control the situation with immediate clarity. Holmes has no fear of authority or position, and while he is respectful of due authority, he has no patience with arrogance. When he deals with kings, he gives them their due titles and respect - but will not allow them to abuse their authority.
Consider A Scandal in Bohemia which he almost immediately forces his client to reveal his true title and position. Or when he faces Lord St Simon in the Case of the Noble Bachelor:
"Good-day, Lord St. Simon," said Holmes, rising and bowing. "Pray take the basket-chair. This is my friend and colleague, Dr. Watson. Draw up a little to the fire, and we will talk this matter over."Respect for the position, but no tolerance for arrogance.
"A most painful matter to me, as you can most readily imagine, Mr. Holmes. I have been cut to the quick. I understand that you have already managed several delicate cases of this sort sir, though I presume that they were hardly from the same class of society."
"No, I am descending."
"I beg pardon."
"My last client of the sort was a king."
"Oh, really! I had no idea. And which king?"
"The King of Scandinavia."
"What! Had he lost his wife?"
"You can understand," said Holmes suavely, "that I extend to the affairs of my other clients the same secrecy which I promise to you in yours."
Holmes also is very dedicated to justice, if not always law. He is merciless against the unjust, tireless to protect the innocent and mistreated, and will bring a case to a resolution that brings justice, if not always legal satisfaction. In several cases, Holmes found the truth and did not bother to tell the police about it. In The Blue Carbuncle, he lets the thief go because he believes the man is scared enough to never repeat the crime. In The Three Students, Holmes declines to follow through punishment on the student, telling him instead "For once you have fallen low. Let us see, in the future, how high you can rise." In fact, in the twelve stories that make up the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes book, only one actually faces criminal prosecution.
It isn't that he takes no precautions. He puts dummies up to be shot instead of himself, he cautions Watson to arm himself when he suspects danger, he disguises himself and uses the terrain and setting to his advantage. Holmes does so out of a reasonable understanding that he won't be able to finish the job if he isn't there or is too incapacitated. But his courage is almost overwhelming, he grins at the thought of facing down danger, even when he admits it.
Now, consider these characteristics. Sherlock Holmes is reverent when it is fitting, kind to the weak, protective of women, honors authority but will not bow to arrogance, seeks justice and truth at all costs, shows immense courage and seeks out his quest at all odds.
JOUSTING AT DRAGONS
He's a knight, following the code of chivalry like a knight from the round table. When there is a damsel in distress, he immediate mounts his charger (the local trap or taxi) and charges to battle with the dragon, whatever the cost. He seeks justice and right no matter what the danger or who the enemy might be. He always acts with honor and dignity, treating each with respect until they demonstrate themselves to be disrespectable.
Holmes is a gentleman, but more, he's a typical Arthur Conan Doyle knightly figure. It helps if you know more about Doyle's other stories, especially Sir Nigel and The White Company. This is a repeated theme in many of his books; the British Knight of outstanding honor and chivalry who is an unequaled figure in his field, but who uses his abilities for the weak and downtrodden, not personal gain. Few are anything but humble and of modest means, but all strive for justice and right against any foe.
Now, consider this when you examine, say, Robert Downey jr's Sherlock Holmes. Yes, he's brilliant, yes, he's entertaining, and yes Downey is the finest actor of his generation, one of the best I've ever seen. And its not that you can't enjoy the movies. But look at the character, he's basically a reprobate who tricks his friend out of jealousy (in the first film), and while he works to defeat his enemies, is rarely engaged in any quest for justice or truth, but out of curiosity or events that sweep him along.
Or lets look at Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes. Again, very well acted, entertaining, and intelligent. Again, the stories are interesting, entertaining, and often humorous. In fact of all the three modern incarnations, the Watson in the BBC version is the best; the most true to the original character and yet capable and noble version. Yet missing from this Sherlock is the chivalry. Sherlock portrays the detective as a selfish, thoughtless jerk who cares nothing about anyone but himself and his fear of boredom. This Holmes is driven more by a need to prove he's great and solve puzzles than any desire to do right or fight injustice. This Holmes is closer to the gentleman of honor but only by proximity - he is set in Victorian England and thus shows the trappings of the gentleman in order to seem appropriate to the time, not out of any personal affection.
And Elementary, this is the show that has most missed the entire core of the character. The writers are far more interested in examining the relationship between the two characters, the psychology behind Sherlock's actions, concepts of addiction and behavior, and analyzing Sherlock Holmes than they are the character, the stories, or even the mysteries. Holmes in this story is again well-acted, interesting, intelligent, and often funny. He's just unlikable, immature, bizarrely irrational, often exploding with seemingly insane fits of rage and unpredictability that strikes one as psychopathic rather than quirky.
Holmes is portrayed by Johnny Lee Miller who is a very capable actor (although blonde??) but his Holmes is a dirtbag who sleeps with prostitutes, is covered with tattoos, struggles with heroin addiction, and is regularly disrespectful and insulting to people around him without real cause. He treats every single person like trash and unlike the BBC Sherlock rarely has any cause let alone a reasonable and proper one. This Sherlock is immature, even bumbling at times, with flashes of brilliance, but most of his work is not especially surprising or impressive. And in no place does he show any slightest knightly persona or tendency.
WHITHER THE MISSING KNIGHT
Why, you may ask, is this core characteristic of Sherlock Holmes missing in these new adaptations? Why do they fail to make Sherlock the honorable gentleman, the questing knight?
Part of the reason is the attempt to make the character "fresh" and "new." Away with those Victorian sensibilities, that hypocrisy and nonsense about honor. Our Sherlock isn't a gentleman, he's a scumbag! Our Sherlock has 3 day old stubble and tats! Our Sherlock is modern and edgy! He's in New York in the 21st century, viewers couldn't connect with a guy who treats people with respect!
But that isn't even a very large part of the problem. I've written in the past about how modern writers just cannot seem to conceive of heroism or write real heroes any longer. Its rare in a modern book or film that you see a true heroic figure - and when you do, its almost always from a very small group of writers or directors. And similarly, they can't seem to understand true evil or villainy, either.
In the place of the knight, we get the scruffy lunatic or the fixated game player or the likeable sociopath. In the place of justice, truth, and honor as motivations you get selfishness, fear of boredom, ghosts of the past. Psychology, not justice drives these men. In a world where the popular culture has discarded any notion of absolute justice and right, appeals to these notions make no sense. It isn't that they've thought through this so carefully, its that they're so immersed in relativism it never occurs to them to begin with.
So when they read Sherlock Holmes they think "what a lunatic!" not "what a gentleman!" They see his behavior as quaint and dated, not critical to his persona. Of course he scraped and bowed to a king, he was a Victorian (those perverts). My Sherlock will have nothing to do with that!
And the knight is lost in the push for post modernity, a need to wreck all things related to the past and traditions that have come before. The rethinking of Sherlock Holmes stole away from him all that made him an especially admirable character, not simply an amazing personality. Holmes is more than a deductive machine with eccentric behavior, he's a knight in evening dress tilting at dragons wearing monocles and bearing canes, not lances.
Honor, dignity, chivalry, and even being a gentleman are all things to be mocked, laughed at, torn down, and attacked, not revered or emulated. These things shame us by comparison, they make us feel small when we are not honorable or gentle. A man who behaves right and true in a culture of wrong and falsehood seems a lunatic and heretic, someone who must be silenced.
Its more than a lack of understanding of these concepts, it is an antipathy, a shunning of them. The knight can't just be ignored, he must be hated and mocked lest we all look poor by comparison. So Sherlock Holmes loses his central defining characteristic, the ideal of British manhood which Arthur Conan Doyle so greatly admired and thought all should strive for. And what's left, while often entertaining and amusing, just does not measure up. In 100 years, I expect almost no one will remember these Sherlock Holmeses, but the original will still be read and admired.
For more thoughts on the detective as a knight, I conclude with more Raymond Chandler from his brilliant essay I quoted at the top:
...but down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.