April 12th 2014

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Global warming to hit the latté set: IPCC

SCIENCE: Global cooling means the party's over

CLIMATE CHANGE: We are on the edge of the abyss

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Racial discrimination amendments rule out hate speech

OPINION: Claims of racism more damaging than the real thing

CINEMA: Christian critics pan the movie Noah

CANBERRA OBSERVED: MH370 disaster highlights maritime surveillance weaknesses

ENERGY: NSW farmers win breakthrough on gas exploration

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Why economists failed to predict 2007/08 meltdown

NATION-BUILDING: You say you want a revolution?

HUMAN RIGHTS: Andrew Forrest backs bid to stamp out slavery

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: China trade roils Taiwanese students

LIFE ISSUES: A poor prognosis is not an argument for euthanasia


CULTURE: The Case of Mr Sherlock Holmes

BOOK REVIEW: Taking God to School, by Marion Maddox

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The Case of Mr Sherlock Holmes

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, April 12, 2014

In the last issue of News Weekly (March 29, 2014), I reflected on the case of the current rival depictions on television of Sherlock Holmes — in the BBC series, Sherlock, and in the American CBS series, Elementary.

Dr Joseph Bell (Ian Richardson),left,

and Arthur Conan Doyle (Charles Edwards)

in the 2000/01 BBC TV series, Dr Bell and Mr Doyle. 

I concluded, to my own surprise as much as anyone else’s, that the seemingly more radical Elementary was more reactionary and more faithful than the seemingly more faithful Sherlock. Following from that, I’ve decided to try my hand at the Case of Mr Sherlock Holmes himself, to show him as he is, not as we would like him to be.

To do this, it’s necessary to deconstruct The Great Detective. Deconstruction can be a useful tool for analysis, and does not deserve its bad reputation. The Other Side may use it to be sceptical of truth itself, but that doesn’t mean that the consideration of influence is itself meaningless.

Two of Conan Doyle’s inspirations are well known — the American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Edinburgh physician Dr Joseph Bell (brilliantly depicted by the late Sir Ian Richardson in the BBC TV series, Dr Bell and Mr Doyle: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes).

But there is another: Oscar Wilde. Doyle had dinner with Wilde after publishing A Study in Scarlet. He was so impressed by him that he borrowed a number of his mannerisms for his consulting detective. Before, Holmes had been odd. Now, he was a Decadent — although his art was crime and its detection, not poetry or painting.

As for Holmes’ celebrated “Science of Deduction”, and his insistence that he “never guesses”, that is a rhetorical dodge. Holmes’ method is almost certainly inspired by that of the American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce’s method is abduction not deduction.

Academically speaking, deductive reasoning is moving from sureties to sureties; whereas abductive reasoning, and Holmes’ method, is moving from observations to “reasonable” inferences. There is no certainty in such reasoning, only a high chance of probability. This is why scholars speak of the “myth of rationality” about Conan Doyle and Holmes.

Conan Doyle was presenting two of the key thoughts of the Victorian era — the infinite power of scientific reasoning, and the necessary eccentricity of Genius. Both ideas were relentlessly ridiculed by one of Sherlock Holmes’s greatest admirers, and that other great master of detective fiction — G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton’s love of the thrilling adventures did not lead to a blind acceptance of everything that was said in them. There are constant jokes in the Father Brown stories about the expectation that the great detective will be an aloof and scientific artistic type, only to find a dumpy and friendly Catholic priest. His stories are richly philosophical in their consideration of the difficulties of living, in a way that Dorothy L. Sayers’ and Agatha Christie’s are not.

If anything, they more closely resemble American private-eye yarns with their awareness of the many dimensions of life. Ross Macdonald’s private detective, Lew Archer — probably the greatest of them all — even refers to himself as having “a secret passion for mercy, not justice”.

What can we thus “deduce” about Mr Holmes? One: that he is not telling the whole truth about himself and his methods, even if he thinks he is. Two: that there is more to him than what is presented in the stories. It is here that we come to the adaptations, for what they are doing is fleshing this out, thus making it more apparent.

For instance, in the BBC’s Sherlock, the show-runners have stated that Sherlock’s guff about being a high-functioning sociopath is just that. Their Sherlock feels deeply, but doesn’t know how to express or deal with his emotions or people. Moriarty calls him “the Virgin” and he’s obviously unnerved by sex and intimacy. The last episode makes clear that this is not because he’s gay, as the fandom would like, but because he’s still a precocious child who tries to reason his way through human relationships.

In the CBS’s Elementary, Sherlock is an intelligent drug-addict. His drug use came about in part because of his sensitivity to stimuli — he was seeking to drown out all that he could observe. His liking for static and the hum of bees offers a similar release, as does his taste for sex, while also allowing him to avoid “meaningful connections” that could hurt.

His remarks on the subject are meant to act as rationalisations, not reasons, illustrating his need to justify himself on some “logical” plane — when, as he himself admits, he relies upon his imagination and his empathy for his work. The other characters treat them as just another “sherlockism” rather than something serious.

This is no leftist Hollywood conspiracy, and not just because I’m sceptical of such conspiracies, as I’ve remarked before, but because this makes a convincing depiction of a troubled man.

If anything, Elementary shows the influence of Chesterton on detective fiction as a whole, and his contention that pure reasoning is an illusion, and that the ultimate role of detective stories is to explore the mystery of human existence through the prism of flawed and complex characters.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA). 

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