My love of Sherlock Homes started out all wrong, I’ll admit it. When I was eleven, my family just barely had enough money to rent a two-bedroom house for the seven of us, so as you can imagine, there wasn’t a lot of cash for entertainment. And television wasn’t an option because we didn’t have a set. But my parents were resourceful people, and in addition to nightly storytimes, my siblings and I were soon introduced to a wonder of a bygone era: the local public radio station broadcast radio dramas several nights a week. And so, evenings were spent drinking milky tea, and shushing each other as we gathered around the radio to listen to Inner Sanctum, The Shadow, a host of now-forgotten detective mysteries, and the one that would forever stick: Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Homes. From there of course, my love took a more orthodox turn as I began to devour the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle on my own, which Mom also began to read to us. But there was still a bit of perversity in my approach. As soon as I had access to a TV and TV Guide, I would scour it for anything Sherlockian. Rathbone’s WWII Holmes, Nicholas Meyers’ psychoanalyzed Sherlock, Billy Wilder’s more risqué detective—I watched them all with a sort of weird equanimity, even embracing the silliness of the late arrival Young Sherlock Holmes. It is likely this strange mixed-genre introduction that kept me from being much of a purist when it came to Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone would always be model of the man for me, but my exposure to the books made me loathe the bumbling of Nigel Bruce. I was equally at ease with the idea of Moriarty as a bonafide supervillain and as a monster created out of Oedipal conflict. And the question of whether Irene Adler was ever actually loved by Sherlock was one that for me could be endlessly asked because there was no right answer. So when the series Sherlock started in 2010, I was more than ready for the direction in which Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat took the detective and his world. In fact, the update made perfect sense to me in a lot of ways. Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock had been on the cutting edge of forensic science (if not astronomy) and technique in his day. So of course a contemporary Holmes would not bother to clutter his beautiful attic/mind-palace with data; he would instead master the technological tools available to him to quickly access what he needed when he needed it. He would not be a sexist relic; people either interest or annoy Holmes regardless of gender, so Donovan’s sin isn’t that she’s a woman—it’s that she’s inept (or, normal, rather) and foolish enough to waste herself on Anderson. He would not smoke a pipe, let alone something as ridiculous as a Calabash pipe (the one he’s always depicted as smoking but never did in the original stories); I’ve lived in London, and while you can theoretically sustain a smoking habit there, it’s damned difficult and would be seen as silly if it involved a pipe, minus the weed, of course. And yes, two men in their mid-thirties sharing a flat would raise more than a few eyebrows, especially when one of them has no interest in women and the other cannot seem to sustain an interest for more than a few weeks. And it wasn’t just that Gatiss/Moffat made interesting decisions in how to adapt Sherlock to the 21st century, or even that they were also smart ones. It was that those decisions actively made even those of us who were purists rethink who Sherlock was once you completely stripped away or inverted or otherwise questioned the things around him that we thought of us inseparably Sherlock. Gatiss and Moffat could only do this because, as uber-fans of the stories and adaptations themselves, this is what they themselves had done—stripped him down. Hence Sherlock became more than just an adaptation of those stories; in a sense it was a crucible in which, by changing Holmes, we learned what was unchangeable—what was essentially him—and thus equally at home in any moment in time. Not that the two had no fun in this effort. Quite the opposite. Part of what has made Sherlock such a joy is the sense of the mischievous that they’ve brought to their adaptation—whether in the form of sly asides to the original Conan-Doyle stories or the biting but affectionate chemistry in the dialogue between series regulars. They remember that Holmes was a bit of a Loki, a prankster who pulled all manner of tricks on people for the sheer pleasure of seeing them surprised or confounded or just levelled. And time and time again this has been their own modus operandi with us, culminating once in “The Reichenbach Fall/The Empty Hearse” where we watched both Moriarty and Holmes die (and the latter live again) and now, in “The Abominable Bride” where events of those earlier episodes are reconsidered. Or is it later episode? Set in Conan-Doyle’s original London of the 1890’s, “The Abominable Bride” should give us a Sherlock that feels more familiar. It is no small measure of the success of the Gatiss/Moffat that this is not actually true. Their superlative rebranding of the detective has been so thorough that it feels odd not to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock enveloped in the great Belstaff coat, swiping at imaginary Minority Report-like images in the air. The smoking jacket, the hansom cabs, the gas lighting are now suddenly, weirdly, alien to us. What is not new is so many of the exchanges, especially those in the first half hour of the episode. At first, it seems a strange decision to recraft, for a second time, such seminal moments in Sherlock lore—the first meeting between Holmes and Watson being the most stark example. My husband, watching over my shoulder, asked with some annoyance, “Are they just going to do the entire first episode over?” Which, like many of Watson’s comments, was quite clever in its ignorance. Not being a fan of the character himself, the hubby wasn’t fooled for a minute into thinking we were seeing moments from the original stories redone—because he had no context for those, having never read them. Instead, he sussed out that those thirty minutes were all about rewriting this version of the Holmes legend. Setting the stage not for any Sherlock, but for this Sherlock specifically. Moffat’s particular cleverness in dealing with his audience is rather breathtaking, whether he directs it at Doctor Who fans or Sherlock ones. There is always more than a bit of the Loki, the Holmes, in anything he lets slip about these two projects, so it was hardly surprising that going into “The Abominable Bride,” despite the fact that fans had been privy to a rather breathtaking number of what might otherwise seem like spoilerific on-set photos and the news that the episode would be set in Victorian London, we still had no idea what we were watching for most of the episode. Where did this fit in the canon of Sherlock? What was this stage being set for? The answer, as always, takes us back both to the original and into that Sherlock canon in a way that makes perfect, brilliant sense. While CBS’s Elementary made Holmes’ drug use/abuse a central issue in their story, Gatiss/Moffat largely brought it up only as a red herring (the nicotine patches) and to dismiss it. Re-introducing it here and complicating it by making it less an escape for Sherlock and more an investigative tool (assuming you buy Holmes’s rationalization over Mycroft’s more cynical insinuations) is almost shocking simply because they had already convinced us to stop thinking of the character of Holmes as anything as commonplace as a substance addict despite it being such established lore. To then base an entire episode on it? This is why this property could not be in better hands. The shift to Victorian England, despite the intentional jarring it was meant to evoke, gave us another aspect of the series that always works so well. The 1890’s stage is beautiful, rich in detail, and shifts our characters into another world, but a believable one for the people we’ve grown to love on Sherlock. Mrs. Hudson may corseted tight in her long gown, but she is no less the devoted but slightly disgruntled mother-figure we love, reminding the boys “I’m your landlady, not a plot device.” Lestrade, his “regulation tread” on the staircase announcing his arrival on the doorstep of his acknowledged investigative superior. And Mary—amazing Mary—working as a spy for brother Mycroft in aid of their non-specific friend England. Even in the one place where a character is remarkably changed, the way it is done fits the clever tone of the series, and here you must forgive me a bit of a ‘shipper tangent. Molly Hooper in Watson-recognized drag is a great transgressive moment if you know a bit about the fandom. The question of what to do with the mousy pathologist would have been a difficult one for the writers since, although there were female physicians in Victorian England, a woman running the morgue would not have been acceptable. So gender-swapping her might seem like an easy if a bit silly answer. And Louise Brealey certainly handles drag-Hooper well, clearly enjoying the change. Gatiss and Moffat have, of course, played with the Hooper/Holmes relationship, and the fans’ embracing of it, giving us the rather amazing kiss that really wasn’t in “The Empty Hearse.” The fact that the audience is supposed to know that there’s nothing going on romantically between Sherlock and Watson (while almost everyone on the other side of the fourth wall assumes there is) has not stopped a legion of fans from writing volumes of fanfiction about just such a relationship, thereby setting up a possible fan conflict between those who see Watson as the detective’s soul mate and those who feel that place is reserved for Molly. Except this isn’t what has happened. Not only is there no conflict, there’s little difference. Authors shift back and forth between the two paramours and, more interestingly, don’t. The Sherlock/John/Molly triad is a well-established subgenre and one in which Watson is often the emotional bridge between Molly and Sherlock—helping the detective to understand what she needs from the relationship. So when Gatiss and Moffat reconfigure the dynamic between the three, while it appears that they are creating a romantic obstacle between Molly and Sherlock by making her livelihood dependent on maintaining a male identity (and theoretically making her less accessible), they actually make a sly wink at this community by having John be the one who really “sees” Molly for who/what she is while Holmes is completely blind to the obvious. Throw in fact that although he is tuned into Molly, he is completely oblivious to what is going on in his own established relationship, and it’s hard not to see the writers having a bit of perverse fun here. The other place where they play, in rather fascinating ways, is with the idea of the textual, canonical Sherlock. And here is where things get much more subversive. The entire set-up–the idea of Sherlock sinking into his drug-induced mind palace to solve a century-old crime to help him understand how Moriarty could possibly be alive after clearly blowing the back of his head off—is Holmes essentially creating another version of himself, a Victorian one. But in doing so and retreating to his own subconscious, he frees himself to confront a reality of his recent life and the writers use this to explore that essential question more generally associated with Moffat’s other property: Who is this guy, really? Sherlock started as a character in London newspaper serials, told from a point of view as though he actually lived and worked in the same place and time as those who were reading about him. Through many incarnations, other things have been grafted onto his character—the deer-stalker cap, the Calabash pipe, “Elementary, my dear Watson’—none of these appear in the original stories but they are as much a part of what we think of Sherlock as any of the things that were in those stories…and maybe even more so. But regardless of that, we still think of those stories as the Bible for Sherlock—the Baker Street Irregulars, the Sherlockian literary group, actually refers to them as the “Sacred Writings.” And anyone who wants to adapt the character of Holmes would be unwise not to be quite familiar with those stories. So when Gatiss and Moffat repeatedly have Benedict’s Sherlock explaining himself to Watson and others only to have Watson point out that what Holmes has just said is not his own words or feelings but the literary invention of Watson himself as published in those stories in the Strand—and John implies that even those are heavily fictionalized—we understand that even if we think we know who this character is, he himself does not. He is a fictional character forced to come to terms with his own fictionality, at the very same time that Gatiss/Moffat are also calling into question the centrality of the “Sacred Writings.” If we cannot go to Conan-Doyle for the final word on who Sherlock is, if Watson’s version of his fictional friend doesn’t even reflect the truth of the fiction, where on earth do we look for truth? Is it as simple as saying that all fictions are equally truthful? Not really. And in trying to decide exactly how I felt about this outing, I think this became a pivotal point for me because of the actual mystery (well, one of them). In the crime that Sherlock retreats to his mind palace to solve, a woman works with a group of other women to stage her own death, and then kills her husband. She then sacrifices herself so there is a body to be identified in relation to her own “original” murder, so it now appears that her husband’s death is the work of a ghost. This ghost is then used to murder other men, all guilty of some misogynist sin. Mary (through no means that is adequately explained) learns that the women are gathered and she and the boys surprise them as they mill about in robes chanting ominously and performing some sort of ritual. Until the moment of its resolution, the mystery is about par for what we expect of Sherlock. However, in the end, when Sherlock reveals that the robed figures are women intent or wreaking gendered vengeance, the whole things unravels from the kind of tight and logical denouement we are used to seeing from the Gatiss/Moffat. First, while the trick with the ghost is a good one, the goal of the group is presented as a terror campaign designed to change the gender politics of the Victorian culture. This makes no sense. Terrorism only works if the behavior you are seeking to change is clearly identified. These men are being killed for crimes that remain entirely secret. They may have mistreated their wives or other women, but this does not become public knowledge and so serves as a deterrent to no one. To the rest of London, this is literally innocent men being killed by a nasty evil female ghoul. Second, why on Earth do they find these women in a desanctified church outside London in Masonic get-up? These women are wives, mothers, maids, and morticians. They have neither the time nor the freedom of movement to be leaving the City in the middle of the night to play dress-up with chanting and torchlight and gongs for no one but themselves. It’s the very fact that they don’t that has led them to these straits. In other words, when Moriarty points out that solving the Rigoletti murders hasn’t really helped Sherlock to figure out his own plans, he is right in more ways than one—simply because, for the first time, Sherlock has actually failed to solve the crime at all. Despite the fact that we have seen him solve a half dozen other, more complex cases, and even though it appears he has solved this one as well, he hasn’t. Not all fictions are equally truthful. Nor are they all sorted out for you. The real question, of course, is not whether Sherlock solved the Rigoletti case, but whether he has solved the Moriarty one. He acts in the last moments with great confidence, as though he has. But that same confidence was with him minutes before in his Victorian world as he held forth on his “solution” to the Rigoletti case. And it’s the same confidence that convinced Watson that he was no longer using. Because Watson isn’t the only one creating fictions about the great Sherlock Holmes. Even the man himself has gotten in on the game. “Nothing made me. I made me.” Well, he’s partly right, anyway. And why shouldn’t he get in on the action? People have been creating and recreating Sherlock for a century and a quarter at this point. If anything, we should be surprised to have waited so long for the kind of meta-work that Gatiss and Moffat put into their adaptation. What I am no longer surprised at is how essentially good it is, how satisfying, which is no small feat considering they left the primary mystery unsolved and us hanging for another year. Thankfully, there for hundreds of Sherlocks out there to tide us over. And Gatiss/Moffat have left us with an interesting new way of looking at all those other versions. See larger image Sherlock: The Abominable Bride [Blu-ray] Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit films) star in this exciting installment of the global phenomenon, Sherlock. Once again, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are tasked with solving another impossible crime this time in Victorian England! New From: $19.99 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 2 Responses John E. Meredith January 19, 2016 Great review. You really made me feel it, and now I want desperately to get back into Sherlock. Log in to Reply Shawn EH January 20, 2016 I really didn’t expect for there to be any explanation for this Victorian foray, I just assumed Moffat/Gatiss wanted to show us they could do period, too. But I quite liked the parallels and meta-explanation we got, and especially the fun performances you pointed out in each case. Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.