The man living at 221B, Baker Street, keeps haunting my life.
I was talking to a friend, a few nights ago, and found out he never read the Holmes stories, nor watched to movies. This was a hard blow for my conviction that Holmes is one of the most immediately recognizable characters on the planet.
But two things soon emerged.
My friend had indeed watched the Robert Downey Jr movies, and he knew of the character, in a very nebulous way (and I guess the Robert Downey Jr movies did not help).
What caused my friend to steer clear of the Canon was his inability to get Holmes’ motivation.
Why the heck is this guy solving crimes anyway?
Now, an idle thought: back when I was a kid, and when my brother was a kid, meaning the 1970s and early 1980s, if you were a boy, Sherlock Holmes was somewhere on your radar.
I do not know about girls1, but for boys Holmes was sort of required reading, together (in the ‘70s at least) with London’s White Fang and Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Be it a Christmas or birthday gift, a school assignment (say, “read the Hound of the Baskervilles during your summer vacations and write a summary and essay”) or a book found in the local or school library, by the age of fifteen most kids in my generation had met Holmes.
Comic-book adaptations and movies were also another possible pathway to Baker Street.
I remember watching the Basil Rathbone movies on the TV when I was seven or eight, and later I caught a TV adaptation, called Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, shot in Poland that apparently never aired in the UK despite it being a British co-production with a British cast, with Anthony Burgess as a script consultant.
See? I’m not making this up.
I point all this out to explain that Sherlock Holmes became quite easily part of our shared culture. We had met him, in one guide or another, and in general more or less faithful to the Canon.
And we never questioned Holmes’ motivations.
So that, when confronted with the question, I was quite taken aback, and sort of improvised something like “it’s his job.”
And it was his job, right?
“Well, I have a trade of my own. I suppose I am the only one in the world. I’m a consulting detective, if you can understand what that is. Here in London we have lots of Government detectives and lots of private ones. When these fellows are at fault, they come to me, and I manage to put them on the right scent. They lay all the evidence before me, and I am generally able, by the hold of my knowledge of the history of crime, to set them straight. There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can’t unravel the thousand and first. Lestrade is a well-known detective. He got himself into a fog recently over a forgery case, and that was what brought him here.”
But my young friend was unconvinced.
It’s pretty thin as a motivation, he noted. The character lacks psychological depth.
I pointed out, at this point, that Holmes’ brilliant mind would have been overwhelmed by ennui and possibly depression, had he not been able to apply his intelligence to the unraveling of strange, “impossible” mysteries.
This, too, is a mainstay of the series and the character.
And this too was not enough to impress my friend.
Seen from his point of view, from afar, and through spurious sources, Holmes is to him an old character, flat and unappealing, an arrogant individual with a foolish comedy-relief sidekick, and what’s more marred by a distinctive lack of action scenes (a notion gleaned, I guess, from the fact that the Downey movies were described as “too action-packed for a Holmes story”).
But walking in front of a local bookstore, closed for the night, we saw a brace of “Young Sherlock Holmes” novels (unrelated to the movie of the same title), aimed at “young adults”.
Holmes as a teenager to make him more “relatable”.
Because kids of fifteen can’t get a story about someone that’s not fifteen, apparently.
I wonder how we did it in the old times2.
As a writer the whole thing got me thinking.
We want to write solid, fascinating characters – not necessarily appealing or relatable, but fascinating.
But what’s the perception from the outside, by readers – or potential readers, checking just the blurb?
What if they have seen different versions, doctored and transformed, related in name only to the originals that are the building blocks of what we are and, as a consequence, of what we write?
Is the supposed common background we share with our potential readers fading?
Isn’t that a true sign that we have been left behind?
When the cultural references that inform our work become wan ghosts to the majority?
I have no answers. But boy I feel old.
- I think they had other books, like Little Women or Pippi Longstockings and, where crime was concerned, either Nancy Drew (that was published in a line of “teenager’s mysteries”) or good old Miss Marple. ↩
and as I said, we had “teenagers’ mysteries” like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Three Investigators and a handful of locally produced mysteries for young people. But none of us was particularly warped and trautatized by reading Sherlock Holmes or Poirot or Nero Wolfe before the age of consent. Not that I know, at least.
As I said, I feel old. ↩