It’s a good time to be a Sherlock Holmes fan. There are now plenty of adaptations to choose from. There’s the BBC’s Sherlock if you like visual inventiveness and whip-crack dialogue. For a more traditional procedural that does interesting things with characters, there’s CBS’s Elementary. For Hollywood thrills you can go back a few years to the films starring Robert Downey Jr. as the great detective. For series in the Holmesian spirit without the same characters there’s the medical drama House or the mystery/comedy Psych.
However the setting may change, there are some key elements of Sherlock Holmes’s character that remain the same: the keen powers of observation and deduction, the cycles of intense focus on a problem and lethargic dissipation, the antisocial habits that make him near impossible to live with.
Oh, and Sherlock Holmes is a total jerk-ass.
The standard interpretation of Holmes in modern media is that he is an asshole with no patience for anyone else, either because he’s not neurotypical in some fashion or because he just can’t be bothered to care about anything so pedestrian as decent manners. He gets away with it because he’s just so brilliant.
Well, lately I’ve been rereading the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Conan Doyle, something I’ve been meaning to do for years. I’ve gotten very used to the modern Holmes, so I was surprised to rediscover that the original Holmes wasn’t like that at all. In fact, Conan Doyle’s Holmes is compassionate and generous.
No, really, he is. Especially when dealing with someone in distress who needs his help. Here, for instance is how Holmes welcomes Watson and a wounded man looking for his help:
He received us in his quietly genial fashion, ordered fresh rashers and eggs, and joined us in a hearty meal. When it was concluded he settled our new acquaintance upon the sofa, placed a pillow beneath his head, and laid a glass of brandy and water within his reach.
“It is easy to see your experience has been no common one, Mr. Hatherley,” he said. “Pray, lie down there are make yourself absolutely at home. Tell us what you can, but stop when you are tired and keep up your strength with a little stimulant.”
– “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”
And here is how Holmes puts a frightened client at ease:
“Good-morning, madam,” said Holmes cheerily. “My name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my intimate friend and associate, Dr. Watson, before who you can speak as freely as before myself. Ha! I am glad to see that Mrs. Hudson has had the good sense to light the fire. Pray draw up to it and I shall order you a cup of hot coffee, for I observe that you are shivering.”
“It is not cold which makes me shiver,” said the woman in a low voice, changing her seat as requested.
“It is fear, Mr. Holmes. It is terror.” She raised her veil as she spoke, and we could see that she was indeed in a pitiable state of agitation, her face all drawn and gray, with restless, frightened eyes, like those of some hunted animal. Her features and figure were those of a woman of thirty, but her hair was shot with premature gray, and her expression was weary and haggard. Sherlock Holmes ran her over with one of his quick, all-comprehensive glances.
“You must not fear,” he said soothingly, bending forward and patting her forearm. “We shall soon set matters right, I have no doubt.”
– “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”
Now, it’s true that Holmes isn’t always so polite, but he is rarely outright rude. The only people to whom Holmes is actually mean are those who don’t take him seriously or question his methods. He prefers to have a little fun at his detractors’ expense, though, rather than berate them openly. Here Holmes reveals the true culprit in the death of a shady horse trainer to the horse’s owner, who had been dismissive of Holmes’s work (spoilers for “Silver Blaze”):
“… You have done me a great service in recovering my horse,” [said Colonel Ross.] “You would do me a greater service still if you could lay your hands on the murderer of John Straker.”
“I have done so,” said Holmes quietly.
The colonel and I stared at him in amazement. “You have got him! Where is he, then?”
“He is here.”
“In my company at the present moment.”
The colonel flushed angrily. “I quite recognize that I am under obligations to you, Mr. Holmes,” said he, “but I must regard what you have just said as either a a very bad joke or an insult.”
Sherlock Holmes laughed. “I assure I that have not associated you with the crime, Colonel,” said he. “The real murderer is standing immediately behind you.” He stepped past and laid his hand upon the glossy neck of the thoroughbred.
“The horse!” cried both the colonel and myself.
“Yes, the horse. And it may lessen his guilt if I say that it was done in self-defence, and that John Straker was a man who was entirely unworthy of your confidence.”
– “Silver Blaze”
Whatever else the literary Holmes may be, he is a gentleman. That gentlemanliness is one of the things modern adaptations are missing and in my opinion they suffer for it.
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