February 14th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

QUEENSLAND STATE ELECTION Governments want belt-tightening, but voters want jobs

CANBERRA OBSERVED The Coalition government's self-inflicted troubles

SOCIETY Joblessness drives the retreat from marriage

EDITORIAL IPCC pushes for new binding climate treaty

NATIONAL AFFAIRS What's behind the Australian Liberty Alliance?

ISLAM Middle East's bishops urge Christians to work with Muslims

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Productivity Commission's IR inquiry doomed before it starts

POLITICAL PARTIES Why Victoria's Liberals are perennial losers

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Greece launches diplomatic offensive against EU austerity program

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS UK-US special relationship 'hanging by a thread'

CULTURE Further inquiries into the case of Sherlock Holmes


BOOK REVIEW Chronicle of a world we have lost

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Further inquiries into the case of Sherlock Holmes

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, February 14, 2015

The second season of Elementary, the crime drama series set in New York, has finally been released on DVD. It continues in its depiction of a multi-faceted drama of justice and redemption, using a contemporary version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary creation, Sherlock Holmes (played by Jonny Lee Miller), as its centrepoint. 

Jeremy Brett as

Sherlock Holmes

In an early episode, at a drug-addicts’ anonymous meeting, Holmes wonders what he would have been like had he been born in a different era. Of course, we need not wonder — we know. The canon of original stories was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a quieter era. 

The canon shows Holmes to be a difficult person, but nowhere near as difficult as Elementary or the British series Sherlock (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) makes out. His restraint is likely to be the result of the strict mores and social structures that informally governed English society.

Granada has released Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection on DVD, starring Jeremy Brett. This is the most faithful, all-encompassing adaptation of the texts.

Jeremy Brett’s Holmes has been voted as the greatest version of them all. Brett inhabits the character, as no one else. It is likely he inhabited him a little too much, as the pressure of being Holmes was linked with the actor’s recurrent health problems and death.

This Holmes is acerbic and excitable, ruthless and given over to odd enthusiasms. He is a drug-user (although, on Brett’s insistence, his character is later made to give up the habit), a heavy smoker and a difficult person to be around. He is kept together by a gentlemanly code of honour, one that is focussed on the providing of solutions. Thus, without problems, he is bored, restless and irritable.

Dr Watson was played by two actors — first by David Burke, emphasising his energy; then by Edward Hardwicke, giving him gravitas. Eric Porter was especially noteworthy as an authentic and chilling Professor Moriarty. 

The series, which was produced for British television between 1984 and 1994, was deliberately cinematic in its visuals and its soundtrack, as well as being stunningly well-written. It is a masterpiece of the highest order, and one that is mostly suitable for family viewing. 

A great advantage of the series is that, in adapting the original stories, it gives a wider range of cases for the detective to investigate. Other adaptations tend for more melodramatic problems. In the canon, as in this series, Holmes also deals with other matters — of theft, of blackmail and of various strange happenings. 

But the principal difference between the different adaptations is how they see the role of Holmes within the story. Conan Doyle and the Granada series focus on Holmes as the cipher who deciphers the mystery. He is as much as a mystery as those he investigates. Elementary also seeks to decipher the mystery of Holmes, and so the story is as much about his redemption as of his work.

These differences play out throughout detective fiction. Ross MacDonald was explicit that his detective, Lew Archer, was a mirror to reflect and explore the dramas of others, “a character so thin, that if he turned sideways he would disappear”, he remarked. 

G.K. Chesterton, likewise, used Father Brown — and his many other detectives — as lightning-rods to attract extreme philosophies and show how they would play out if brought to their logical conclusions. 

As for Conan Doyle, he used Holmes for many ends. The stories advocate for a rigorous, “scientific” approach to the investigation of crime, as well as an almost Dickensian appeal for justice for all in the seething mess that was Victorian London.

By making Holmes an outsider, Conan Doyle stumbled upon what became the essential character of the detective — that he is a man apart, so that he might more clearly observe. But this does not mean that Holmes was just a thinking machine.

Chesterton saw that it was not just Holmes’s being an outsider that made him a great detective — he was also a man, like other men. Chesterton drew on this for his detectives. 

Father Brown stepped outside of himself in order to step into another man’s shoes, to “become the murderer”, as he himself confessed in a later collection of stories. It is this capacity for imagination that also gave Holmes his edge, a capacity that sees him comment as much about the art of detection as about the science of it.

In her 2013 book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova uses the Baker Street sleuth’s character to bring together and illustrate developments in the study of creativity and problem-solving. This fascinating study identifies mindfulness as being the key trait of Holmes. Mindfulness here is active, but reflective — that is, engagement with the world as opposed to passive acceptance of appearance and biases.

She points out that it is the choices Holmes continually makes that turn him into the world’s greatest detective, and that we ourselves can also make those very same choices. By recognising his own blindspots, he can see past them to solutions. He can also see how others are blinded, and find ways to make them see. 

Perhaps, with Holmes’s methods, we too can find solutions to the problems that vex us.

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


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