Note: this post contains spoilers for some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and some episodes of Sherlock.
I’m a fan of the BBC series Sherlock. I enjoy the show and its inventive modern take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos. When I say that I have a problem with the show, it comes from a place of love. But I do have a problem with the show, and it largely comes down to this: not enough mysteries, too many puzzles.
Here’s what I mean by mysteries and puzzles. A mystery is when a real event is made obscure because we either don’t have all the facts or don’t see how the facts fit together. The pleasure of watching a mystery comes in the moment of revelation when we see past the obscurity to the truth and suddenly understand how the separate pieces fit together.
The original Sherlock Holmes stories are masterpiece mysteries. Most stories begin with a client consulting Holmes about some odd occurrence. Often, it is nothing overtly criminal or even threatening, just peculiar. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” a young lady comes to see Mr. Holmes because she has been woken in the night by a whistling sound followed by a clang. She had heard the same whistle years before, on the night her sister died; her sister’s last words were about a “speckled band.” Holmes investigates and finds that the bell-pull in the lady’s bedroom is a dummy hanging from a hook on the wall. At first, none of these facts makes any sense, but when the truth is revealed, everything falls into place. The client’s step-father is attempting to kill her for her inheritance, just as he killed her older sister. He has been sending a deadly snake through a grate from the adjoining room, down the fake bell-pull to her bed at night. To cover his tracks, he recalls the trained snake with a whistle, then shuts it in a safe, hence the clang. The sister’s last words were her delirious attempt to describe the creature that had bitten her. The mystery works because all of the clues turn out to have a rational basis. Once you know the truth, everything makes sense.
Sometimes, the obscurity in a mystery is deliberately created, but even then it serves a practical purpose. In “The Adventure of the Read-Headed League,” the client is lured out of his place of business by the promise of high-paying easy work in a fake company concocted by the criminals. They had a reason for getting him out of the way, though: they were digging a tunnel from his basement to a nearby bank for a robbery. Holmes easily sees through the con, but that still leaves the mystery of why the con was perpetrated in the first place.
Puzzles are different. In a puzzle, there is no reality hiding behind the obscurity, just obscurity for obscurity’s sake. When you solve a puzzle, there is no reveal. The clues don’t suddenly make sense. There is no “why” to a puzzle other than “Someone wanted to make a puzzle.”
Sherlock has a few mysteries. In “The Blind Banker,” spray-painted symbols and a disappearing bank employee eventually reveal a smuggling ring moving illicit Chinese antiquities to the European market. In “The Sign of Three,” a collection of seemingly unrelated events, including a wounded soldier and a ghost date, adds up to an attempted murder at a wedding.
Too much of Sherlock, however, depends on puzzles rather than mysteries. Once the clues are solved and the questions are answered, all we learn is that Moriarty is bored and wants to play, or that Eurus is unstable and wants a hug. There’s no satisfaction in the reveal, just some clever person expounding on how clever they are. Instead of discovering that the inexplicable pieces all mean something once you know what was behind them, we discover that they were all meaningless and there was never anything behind them at all.
Even a well done puzzle (and some of Sherlock‘s puzzles are quite well done) is still a puzzle. If I want a puzzle, I’ll do a crossword. I want mysteries in my mystery stories, not puzzles.
Image via IMDb
In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.