Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Gently and the Case of the Eccentric Detective

by Sean Bell

24 May 2012


Eliminate the impossible? Why bother?

Further adaptations, continuations and parodies are countless, in comics, cartoons, stage-plays, radio dramas and beyond. When the final tallies are taken, Sherlock Holmes may prove to be more widespread in his influence and more permanent in his appeal than James Bond or Harry Potter combined.

Naturally, portrayals vary, but dedicated Sherlockians can name those traits of the character which are timeless, and should remain unchanging. Possessed of intelligence like fantastical clockwork, cold and unerringly precise, Sherlock’s is a human mind that uses human reasoning, and yet is unlike anything ordinary humanity could imagine or aspire to. His habits, especially his vices, provide fascinating clues to what lurks behind the unemotional calculating machine—the periodic fits of depression, the mysterious attachment to music, the bohemian disregard for society and its conventions, and those occasional, infamous retreats into narcotic oblivion…

When the final tallies are taken, Sherlock Holmes may prove to be more widespread in his influence and more permanent in his appeal than James Bond or Harry Potter combined.

One of most seemingly inexplicable things about the case of Sherlock Holmes is how so many have formed such a deep emotional attachment to such a profoundly unemotional character. But as Benedict Cuberbatch, who plays Sherlock‘s titular detective, put it in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times Holmes is “an odd entity. He’s a sociopath and there is a vicarious thrill you get watching someone who carves his way through bureaucracy and mediocrity like a hot knife through butter.” (”‘Sherlock’ and ‘Star Trek’: Benedict Cumberbatch lights it up”, 9 May 2012)

In the UK, the hyperventilating praise heaped upon Sherlock by an overeffusive critical community makes more sense in retrospect; for top-quality drama, British audiences have increasing come to rely on offerings from overseas, whether in the form of lavish American ensemble sagas like Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire, or imports from Europe like Romanzo Criminale and The Killing. In the gruesome depths of recession, British television has mainly retreated from ambition and experimentation into talent shows, reality TV and other trashy, cost-effective endeavours. So the appearance of Sherlock was not only a reassuring proof to many that British television could still do this kind of thing, but that it could do it well.

Admittedly, now that Sherlock has a sense of its own popularity, there’s a creeping sense of self-satisfaction in how seriously it takes itself, almost as if Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the two enormously talented writers responsible for the show, sometimes forget they have repackaged a character for a new generation, not created one. The self-conscious use of ‘modern’ paraphernalia—the internet and text messaging are rather ungracefully shoehorned into a number of episodes—rarely seems necessary, and while the show stands as proof that Sherlock can work in a modern setting, there seems no pressing reason for such an update beyond novelty.

As ever, the appeal lies in the personalities, which Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock captures beautifully. John Watson, played by Martin Freeman, neatly parallels his Victorian original as a doctor returning from the Crimean War by becoming an army medic invalided back to London from the current war in Afghanistan, and Freeman gives him a depth rarely seen in the classic sidekick role, as well as a conflicted fascination with violence and risk which makes him a perfect foil for Holmes, the intellectual and physical daredevil who acts as the world’s only ‘consulting’ detective. Sherlock succeeds in not only making Holmes’ genius believable, but in making his eccentricities funny and his (justified) arrogance a joy to observe.

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in Elementary

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in Elementary

Regarding Elementary, Sherlock’s would-be American rival, few details have been released so far. This version’s Sherlock, played by Johnny Lee Miller, will apparently play up the tantalising drug references of the early stories by making the detective a full-blown addict, fallen from grace with Scotland Yard, who after a stint in rehab winds up living in Manhattan with Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), a former surgeon and addiction therapist. who becomes his inadvertent companion when he begins consulting for the NYPD.

Neither Miller nor Liu has quite had the career they deserved, each of their filmographies boasting a similar clutch of interesting oddities, but few unqualified masterpieces. Johnny Lee Miller may well prove himself in the part, though I live in fear of what accent is eventually going to rise to meet such a transatlantic role (how exactly the Scottish-born Miller managed to sound less convincing as an Englishman in Plunkett & Maclean than he did as an American in Hackers is still beyond my understanding).

The idea of Lucy Liu as Watson is obviously stunt-casting, but intriguing, nonetheless. Given Watson’s usually unrewarding role as the ‘straight-man’, it will be disappointing if the character simply becomes the ‘straight-woman’, particularly since Liu is at her best when you take her off the leash and allow her to chew the scenery—her larger-than-life role in the hugely underrated Watching the Detectives danced gleefully on the edge of insanity, and was her best performance because of it—and at this point, the idea of a Watson whose eccentricity went some way to matching that of Holmes would be refreshing, to say the least. In fact, if the showrunners were so keen on gender-swapping, it might have been more interesting to have Liu play Holmes, but typically, intellectual arrogance and druggy self-destruction are usually seen as glamorous only in male characters, while women are expected to play dull, sensible companions who serve to restrain their entertainingly maniacal menfolk.

Despite the fact that CBS started work on Elementary after making an unsuccessful pitch to the BBC to simply remake Sherlock, which rather casts doubt on the show’s claim to originality, I cautiously look forward to it, as I’m sure many Sherlockians do. Simultaneously, as ever, we are primed for disappointment; for the moment when the next adaptation proves to be one too many, and the original point of the character is lost. As Sarah Crompton href=“”>wrote in the Daily Telegraph earlier this year, “the greatest tribute to Conan Doyle is that while his admirers treat him with reverence and affection and keep his reputation alive by making his hero a modern screen icon, they never quite capture the essential quality that attracted them to him in the first place.” (“The timeless appeal of Sherlock Holmes’s sexy logic”, 1 January 2012)

“Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams.

So I have watched Sherlock, and I will in all likelihood watch Elementary, and I don’t apologise for it. But I do recognise that the detective genre should be richer and more varied than that; that it has room for new strange and heroic intellects that do not owe debts to the character than become so omnipresent and all-consuming that Arthur Conan Doyle killed him off in order to finally be free of him, only to be forced into resurrecting Holmes from the Reichenbach Falls by a demanding public. Which is part of the reason why I love Dirk Gently so very, very much.

Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd in Dirk Gently

Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd in Dirk Gently

It can’t be denied that when Douglas Adams originally created him, the character of Gently was very much a reaction against Holmes; where Holmes famously eliminated the impossible, concluding that “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”, Gently prefers not to eliminate the impossible. In fact, Gently deals almost exclusively in the impossible—he bumbles through life powered by pseudo-science, half-facts, mad hunches, chaos theory, unlikely coincidences and above all, a reliance on “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” Such the the credo of Dirk Gently, ‘Holistic’ Detective, played to the hilt for television by a bug-eyed, wildly gesticulating Stephen Mangan.

His practices involve routinely lying to clients, not paying bills on the grounds that it only encourages them, stealing food, ‘Zen navigation’ (finding someone who looks like they know where they’re going, and following them) and a reliance on randomness to solve cases (which so far have involved time travel, a missing cat, and artificial intelligence). “The beauty of holistic detection, MacDuff,” he tells his assistant with infinite smugness, “is that we’re getting closer to solving the case, when it looks like we’re getting further away.”

Famously, Sherlock cares more about the case than the client. Gently goes one step further, and barely cares about case or client, just whether or not he’ll be paid, and how much he can string things out in the meantime. His bullshit hangs together by a single golden thread of possible truth, and he’ll hang as much as he can on there while charging for expenses that, he insists, absolutely vital to the case—such as a trip to the Bahamas.

Simply put, Dirk Gently is unlikable—vividly, loudly, profanely antagonistic, and there’s no hiding it. He is unlikely to appear on any child’s lunchbox. Where almost every version of Watson comes to view Sherlock’s methodology with unconcealed awe, MacDuff simply becomes evermore irritated by Dirk’s off-the-cuff chaos theory and con-tricks, particularly when they somehow yield results. That is the mystery of Dirk Gently: whereas we know for a fact that Sherlock Holmes is a genius, there is always the possibility that Gently’s whole routine is an act, a farce, a gag that has not yet reached its punchline. The jokes keep us laughing, but it’s this mystery that keeps us hooked.

Watching the show revel in its own ridiculousness throws the self-importance of Sherlock into sharp relief, and to those who appreciate it, gives a glimmer of hope that the we may not have exhausted the eccentricities of the Fictional Detective just yet. I deeply hope American audiences hae the chance to appreciate the show for themselves.

Both Holmes and Gently, and any other imaginatively evoked sleuth, allow us, however glancingly, to share their insight. But more importantly, they let us share in the comforting fiction that the crime, along with any other problem in the world, however intractable it may appear, can be solved by the application of powerful intelligence and unique perspective. In times like these, that is a tempting, if seemingly impossible fantasy.

But then, why should we eliminate the impossible?

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