Reviews of A Study in Scarlet (1887) and related work
- Sequel: “The Final Problem” (1893)
- Sequel: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
- Parody: “Sherlock Jr.” (1924)
- Adaptation: Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)
- Parody: The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)
- Adaptation: Sherlock Hound (1984)
- Adaptation: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
- Parody: “A Study in Emerald” (2003)
- Adaptation: House (2004)
- Adaptation: Sherlock Holmes (2009)
- Document: “Sherlock Holmes Against Conan Doyle” (2017)
A Study in Scarlet (1887)
Arthur Conan Doyle (writer).
Read in 2020.
In Dr. Watson’s own words:
I don’t deny that it is smartly written. It irritates me though. It is evidently the theory of some arm-chair lounger who evolves all these neat little paradoxes in the seclusion of his own study.
It’s borderline science fiction. In his very first appearance, Holmes has invented a chemical test for haemoglobin that would have been as important as he suggests, though it’s no DNA test. Later, he describes his own “science” of observation, which helped inspire real-world criminal forensics. Alas, the psychology is bad. Endeavouring to forget whether the Earth revolves around the Sun will not make you a better detective. Watson decides, purely from the sight of the victim’s resting face, that it’s “difficult to feel anything but gratitude” for the murder. The concept of probability is conspicuous in its absence, even more so than in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), but there’s plenty of blood and fisticuffs as a means of false distinction between Holmes and the arm-chair loungers. On the whole, it’s a lot closer to superheroic fiction than to science fiction, with a long nonsensical detour into the contemporary Wild West.
Though he’s not on hard drugs yet, Holmes is otherwise complete as a bad-boy antihero: A narcissist in his manic phases, chuckling and laughing openly at his clients with “a world of sarcasm in his voice” instead of helping them understand. Watson thinks he’s “as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty”. Despite visiting the scene of the crime, Holmes is generally the sort of arm-chair lounger he himself derides. The mystery of the exotic crime, and the subordinate mysteries of Holmes’s deductions about it—given as they are before the evidence is presented—are marginally more entertaining than the riddles of “Zechariah” (ca. 516–400 BCE) but follow the same basic pattern. Doyle and Holmes put themselves in a superior position of secret knowledge and expect admiration for it. When pressed, they fall back on baseless authority: “You must not ask me that at the present state of the affair.” Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin does this too, but it’s even more pronounced here.
I suppose that Holmes’s arrogance and tediousness are intended to work on three levels: They’re supposed to be comforting, in that they show Holmes as inferior to the reader; they’re supposed to round out the character and give some shade and balance to his similarly endearing strengths; and finally, they’re part of Doyle’s scheme to portion out the mystery plot in an appropriately sensational manner, serving a dramaturgic function. It’s curious how this all relates to crime: It doesn’t. There’s nothing in Holmes to explain his devotion to detective work, probably because he’s patterned after a medical doctor. Doyle refers more openly to Dupin and to (Émile) Gaboriau’s Lecoq, the pioneers of detective fiction. He would later apply the same character concept to other fields, in Moriarty and in Mycroft.
‣ “The Final Problem” (1893)
Arthur Conan Doyle (writer).
Read in Swedish in childhood, along with a number of other collected Sherlock Holmes adventures, possibly all of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893).
Moriarty constitutes an escalation into superhero/supervillain territory. Physically fighting him exacerbates the effect. These were poor choices, and the later retcon didn’t help.
References here: “Elementary, Dear Data” (1988).
‣ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
Arthur Conan Doyle (writer).
Read in Swedish in childhood.
Conceived as a more original novel in the style of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, then reworked to include Holmes, to poor effect.
‣ “Sherlock Jr.” (1924)
‣ Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)
Seen in 2018.
An awkward adaptation of Holmes (the character, not a Doyle story) to a contemporary mid-WW2 scenario with a bomb-sight MacGuffin.
‣‣ The Woman in Green (1945)
Seen in 2019.
Rathbone. Stately and simplified to the point of boredom. It is curious how colours—green and red—play such a significant role in a greyscale film made this long after colour films were invented and popularized. The credulous use of hypnotism is unsurprising for a Doyle adaptation, except in the detail that believers congregate in a ”Mesmer House”, despite Mesmer himself having died and fallen into disgrace and some obscurity by the time the film is supposed to be set.
‣‣ Dressed to Kill (1946)
Seen in 2020.
Entering after eight and a half minutes, Holmes critizes Watson for not putting enough emphasis on intellectual values in the in-universe version of A Scandal in Bohemia (1891). Ironically, this exchange follows the film’s second scene, of music boxes sold at auction: A nonsensical scene. The auctioneer mentions neither that the music boxes are made by prisoners, nor that he has three of them, prompting the question why such finely crafted devices are being made by prisoners and simultaneously why, despite serial production by prisoners, they are being sold at auction in an art gallery, where each item’s provenance would normally be stated as a matter of course. This is transparently a ploy to set up a sequence of MacGuffins which also constitute a steganographic “puzzle”, awkwardly suturing the world of crime to the world of gentlemanly glamour and arm-chair detective work. Intellectual values don’t come into it. Instead, the purpose of the reference to the short story is romantic: The film contains a character patterned after—and actively imitating Watson’s version of—Irene Adler.
‣ The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)
Seen in 2016.
It gets by on the charm of the actors. The set pieces are disappointing even for a children’s parody of Sherlock Holmes.
‣ Sherlock Hound (1984)
Young Sherlock Holmes is an anthropomorphic dog, just like everyone else in Victorian England. He and the trusty Dr. Watson eat the very lovely young Mrs. Hudson’s cooking and always outwit dastardly Professor Moriarty, a purple wolf inventor with two clownish henchmen invented for the series.
A children’s mystery TV series with lots of harmless violence. It’s not actually anything like Conan Doyle’s detective books. Six episodes (out of 26), spread evenly through the first half, are directed personally by Miyazaki. He and Mikuriya supposedly shared series direction.
The first episode is unfortunately the worst, featuring sails that do not react to wind and huge boilers that can be repaired in half an hour after literally exploding. Miyazaki’s six are noticeably a cut above all the rest: I tested this on myself by not looking it up first.
The biggest systemic problem with this series is the total consistency of Moriarty as the villain past the very beginning, limiting the province of mystery to imagining steampunk methods of forgery and theft, as opposed to ever wondering who did it. Secondary perpetrators compete with Moriarty and do not last beyond the episode. It’s no wonder that Lestrade—never Gregson—is always there with a dozen officers to hunt for him. There is nothing else happening in England. Partly as a result, the last handful of episodes feel like an ordinary Western children’s show.
Great choices of music create a soft nostalgic frame. The anthropomorphism is well done. I assume the choice of it was influenced by RAI’s Italian co-producers.
‣ The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Seen in 2019.
There exists a parallel society among London’s animals. There is a mouse Queen Victoria, threatened by Professor Ratigan’s steampunk robot, and a mouse Sherlock Holmes, named Basil, who lives in the human Holmes’s house.
Anthropomorphism but on a naturalistic scale, hence subtly unlike Sherlock Hound (1984).
The human Holmes speaks with the voice of the dead Basil Rathbone, the apparent namesake of the rodent detective. The style of the adaptation does owe more to the Rathbone films than to Doyle, but its immediate basis is Basil of Baker Street (1958). Basil is somewhat neurotic in this version; perhaps a result of bowdlerizing his opium.
The film is largely competent in execution, especially the groundbreaking 3D CG clockwork scene towards the end, but the ideas are all empty imitations. From the opening scene, Fidget the bat is marked as evil by his peg leg, while Ratigan is marked as evil by his species, an obvious fact he’s very sensitive about. His henchmen are marked as evil by being working class. It’s the usual Disney morality.
References here: Stora döden – Den värsta katastrof som drabbat Europa (2000).
‣ “A Study in Emerald” (2003)
Neil Gaiman (writer).
This is better than the original Sherlock Holmes stories ever got. It’s wonderfully clever and compact, with excellent metaphors. Its only flaw is the premise that “Royalty” needs people, specifically our madness. This is contrary to Lovecraft’s actual cosmicism, wherein people are less important.
‣ House (2004)
Review applies only to the first five seasons out of eight.
A brilliant prostitute customer with a bum leg has his own top-notch department of diagnostic medicine at a private US hospital.
What starts out as fine episodic entertainment gradually transforms into a soap opera. This is unsurprising; in 2008, House was the most-watched TV show in the world.
If the show had ended plausibly, in rehab and forced retirement, the figure of House would have come off as much less of a canvas for feeble wish fulfillment and contrarian angst. It drags on into religious tendencies and sappily redemptive romance, orthogonal to the medical procedural genre. As in Black Jack, the medicine matters, but as a source of mystery, suspense and drama, not as a field of knowledge; the main interest is supposed to be the flawed superhuman of earlier Holmes adaptations.
‣ Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Seen in 2013.
‣ “Sherlock Holmes Against Conan Doyle” (2017)
Seen in 2020.
Doyle’s writing in general.
Despite the stated focus, there is very little primary material on Doyle’s attitude to the character. Bonus points for including Sherlock Hound (1984) in the catalogue of adaptations.