With the finale of Sherlock season four potentially concluding the reworking of the classic tales of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, I thought it was time to explore my love affair with the nation’s favourite detective. What is his lasting appeal? Why does his mystique draw people in?
I first recall becoming acquainted with Sherlock Holmes during GCSE English when we covered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We read The Adventure of the Speckled Band and The Man with the Twisted Lip, both of which I immensely enjoyed. I don’t recall thinking much more about it until 2010; my now husband and I had not long moved into together and there had been some buzz about Sherlock on social media, but I wasn’t paying much attention. A Study in Pink was vastly popular and my husband persuaded me to watch it with him, even though he had already seen it. It was immediately appealing to me– perhaps it was John’s tragic and lonely life after the war; perhaps it was Sherlock beating the corpse with the riding crop, either way, I was sucked in.
Sherlock has enjoyed much success over the last seven years, and I’m sure it is responsible for introducing Doyle’s work to a new audience who previously may not have been interested. For me, like with most of the art I enjoy, Sherlock has given me escapism, an intellectual work out and a mirror in which to see myself.
“Don’t make people into heroes, John. Heroes don’t exist, and if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them.”
It seems the first series in particular was focussed on the thrill of the case – the game is on! The mysteries were exciting, as were the perilous circumstances our Baker Street Boys found themselves in. I love the reassuring glance between Sherlock and John at the end of The Great Game when they decide it is better to shoot the bomb vest, killing them both, in order to stop Moriarty. As the show has progressed, the focus seems to have shifted from the fun, cool (“Get into the car, Dr. Watson.”) and awe inspiring feel to deconstructing every character and relationship. Why is Sherlock the way he is? Why can he be so intelligent and not know the earth moves round the sun? Why can Sherlock solve a case but not understand how to manage Molly’s feelings towards him?
“You want me to shake hands with you in hell? I shall not disappoint you.”
In season four, we’ve found out. I suppose it was inevitable to break the sometimes formulaic case cycle and shift to some more substance, to a character driven plot established a little in season three. Although not particularly well received, season four has been intriguing in many ways. The episodes of Sherlock are so detailed, and so long, they can move at a pace which suits the plot but also the development of the characters’ relationships. I especially liked John’s dalliance with the young lady he meets on a bus, who turns out to be Eurus Holmes. His impulses, his guilt, it’s all very relatable, especially when he confesses all to a dead Mary. Life can be unsatisfactory, untidy and lacking in explanation and conclusions. John teaches us this.
Sherlock too undergoes a significant transformation in season four. Although previous series and sequences have hinted at what’s underneath the harsh exterior, it is finally realised in all its vulnerability and power. The sequence in The Final Problem featuring Sherlock attempting to save the life of Molly by getting her to tell him she loves him is tragic genius. He doesn’t want to manipulate her, but he doesn’t want her to die. His struggle is real and isn’t it real to us all? Sherlock’s need to save John, even at the expense of Mycroft, is overwhelming. Sherlock’s tenderness towards the little girl on the plane/Eurus, before and after the game is over shows a side of his personality we haven’t seen before. He is forgiving and he is kind.
“If I wasn’t everything that you think I am, everything that I think I am… would you still want to help me?”
In 2015, we saw a very different iteration of Sherlock Holmes in the outstanding Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen as Sherlock. Almost as an antithesis to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, McKellen’s Holmes is an aging, vulnerable and frustrated old man trying to solve one last case. Although now without John, Mrs. Hudson and Baker Street, Holmes still relies on his housekeeper and her son to keep him going.
It’s as if Holmes can’t exist without other people; I suppose this is poignant as the stories of him are written by John. Perhaps Sherlock is to others what they need him to be? Perhaps it’s the other way round?
Ultimately, for me, the tortured detective, the addict, the hungry intellect is what draws me to Sherlock Holmes. What makes me love him is the game he plays to disguise himself; he’s wise and cunning, but caring, loyal and above all, human.
In terms of the Sherlock, I would be interested in a series five. Though I have to confess I thought the direction, the score and the realisation in season four was lacking in places, especially in comparison to sequences such as Sherlock’s suicide in The Reichenbach Fall or when Sherlock is shot by Mary in His Last Vow. It has been overcomplicated a bit and I think a return to a simpler premise would be best. But I love the character, the man, the myth and would like to continue to see it explored in different forms. Perhaps in the meantime I should read more of the original stories!
“You told me once, that you weren’t a hero. There were times I didn’t even think you were human, but let me tell you this, you were the best man, the most human, human being that I’ve ever known, and no one will ever convince me, that you told me a lie…I was so alone, and I owe you so much.”