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

[24 May 2012]

By Sean Bell

“Anything that happens, happens.
Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen.
Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again.
It doesn’t necessarily do it in chronological order, though.”
Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams.

For your consideration, here are a few things that have happened, will happen or are currently in the process of happening:

In January, a second season of Sherlock, the BBC’s surprisingly successful modern-day update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal consulting detective, was broadcast in the UK to near-universal praise from critics and audiences alike, managing to stand out even at a time when global culture is more suffused with Holmesian influence and detritus than any time in living memory. It was considered by most to be a smart, stylish, engaging and darkly humorous take on the character that became an archetype, and who continues to fascinate us 125 years after his first appearance in the world of fiction. PBS Masterpiece brought Season Two of Sherlock to US audiences this May.

Later this year, we can also bear witness to Elementary, a suspiciously similar American production from CBS, starring Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, which also aims to bring Holmes into the 21st century (this time with contemporary New York as its setting, so as to spare American audiences from the baffling alien complexities of London). The BBC will no doubt be watching the show very carefully, and so will its lawyers.

Additionally this year, a smaller, lower budget, superficially similar but far less noticed detective series, Dirk Gently, bravely returned to British screens for its first full season after a quietly acclaimed pilot. It also gave us insight into the thought processes of a brilliant, eccentric private investigator; it also gave us sentient robots, Pentagon conspiracies, ‘Zen navigation’, quantum physics and the use of brie as both a crime-solving tool and a handy portable snack. Unfortunately for American audiences, Dirk Gently has yet to receive a US air-date, but for a few of us, it was the biggest and most entertaining revelation of all.

It is sadly apt then, that 2012 is the year which would have seen the 60th birthday of Douglas Adams, the author of the original Dirk Gently novels, as well as the celebrated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pentalogy, who tragically died of a heart attack in 2001, aged only 49, robbing the world of his irreplaceable wit, and a unique, inspiring, endlessly humane perspective on a vast and absurd universe.

It’s all to do with the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, you see.

“Every man at the bottom of his heart believes he is a detective.”
—John Buchan

A little while ago, I met up with a friend—an old accomplice from university who knows where some of the bodies are buried, and even helped with a shovel on occasion—so that we could complain violently at each other. It’s something we do periodically, as a cathartic means of relieving the built-up frustrations of work, the absence of work, and life on Earth. We’ve been doing it for years, so presumably we’ll both stop being angry, embittered cranks any day now. However, in what could be a subconscious attempt to disprove this, we’re arguing.

“I am sick to death of ‘quirky’ detectives,” said my friend, spitting the adjective like a gypsy curse. Looking back, I’m not sure how we got onto the subject of crime fiction, but we appear to feel strongly about it. “All I want,” he continued, “is a show about a few good cops, doing their job really well.”

“Really?” I asked; I am genuinely perplexed by this. “Christ. That’s the last thing I want.”

He gives me a pointed look that silently says, “Well, quelle bloody surprise,” and the conversation moves on, so as to avoid undue bloodshed. As fans of crime fiction will be quick to point out, we are really discussing two different things: my friend is talking about police procedurals, which I tend to greet with about as much enthusiasm as the sight of the actual police appearing on my doorstep, and I’m talking about detective stories, which are an entirely different beast, indeed.

Fiction is almost always concerned with humanity, one way or another. Crime fiction is no exception; its insights and entertainments come not so much from crime itself, but through explorations of the personalities wrapped up in it—villains and victims, police and detectives, murderers and thieves, private eyes and amateur sleuths. While there is undeniably much fun to be had in the intricate mechanics of a heist, the unravelling a grand conspiracy, or the elegant deconstruction of a mystery that is seemingly impenetrable, it’s the personalities who conduct such affairs—vivid, compelling, powerfully individual and almost always larger-than-life—that make such exercises memorable and addictive.

“The murderer is right in this room. Sitting at this table. You may serve the fish.”
—Nick Charles, The Thin Man (1934)

As with any genre, there’s no provable rule that says police procedurals cannot be good; that’s simply my personal prejudice, and even I’ll admit a few exceptions. Castle, brazenly formulaic though it may be, has achieved some genuine warmth and character chemistry in its portrayal of a police station where the cops are halfway human. But few would deny that the true joy of the show is Nathan Fillion, for whom it provided a long-overdue star vehicle, and whose winking, narcissistic, celebrity presence (portraying, naturally, a bestselling crime author, whose lurid imagination allows him to play detective in a world of rentacops) lights up the screen and makes my point all the better.

Characters in procedurals, by their very nature, are bound by both the rules of their profession and the nature of the genre, and seem to slide more easily into dull, show-bible stereotypes, no matter how colourful they attempt to be; if you want proof of this, look to the reliably successful, relentlessly pointless CSI: Wherever franchise, with its interchangeable casts of box-ticking nonentities. The Wire, with its near-Dickensian obsession with intricate character development, willingness to break the rules of TV drama and a refusal to show clear sympathy with one side of the law or the other, made it a rare exception to this trend.

I can appreciate my friend’s earlier irritation—quirkiness for quirk’s sake can get annoying, fast. If all a fictional detective ultimately boils down to is “this one has a wheelchair, that one has a lollypop…” then eventually you stop caring about the distinctions. For a detective to endure in our minds, they must be more than a mere assemblage of gimmicks. They must stand alone, or at least apart, in whatever society that inhabit. They are brilliant, or broken, or both. They are proof that there are some things the law cannot do, and that justice can sometimes be achieved without it.

Of course, almost all considerations of realism as entirely moot; private investigators are more likely to be grungy, unprincipled characters who spy on cheating spouses or hack into the email accounts of celebrities rather than misanthropic savants identifying webs of criminal conspiracy too subtle and intricate for the proper authorities to perceive. Which just goes to show what a monumental feat of imagination a good detective story can be.

As A.A Milne put it in his preface to his ‘locked room’ whodunit, The Red House Mystery: “For the detective himself I demand that he be an amateur. In real life, no doubt, the best detectives are the professional police, but then in real life the best criminals are professional criminals. In the best detective stories the villain is an amateur, one of ourselves:  we rub shoulders with him… It is the amateur detective alone who can expose the guilty man…”

The best fictional detectives are always vaguely illegitimate and shoddy, with odd clothes and peculiar habits, and there’s something about that which appeals to that part of us which feels ill-at-ease and out of place with the rest of the world. It appeals to the outsider’s vanity—our weirdness redeems us. True, they may be financially insecure, ethically suspect or bewilderingly eccentric, but the detective, in fiction if nowhere else, is a free agent amidst the injustice and bureaucracy of modern life. They are celebrations of excesses in intelligence, which thrills us, and in personality, which bewitches us.

The best creations in detective fiction are generally the most distinctive. Nick and Norah Charles, from Dashiel Hammett’s The Thin Man, in addition to flaunting the rule of society (not to mention Prohibition law), also break pretty much every rule of detective fiction, too: despite Raymond Chandler’s dictum that “a really good detective never gets married”, Nick is happily and wealthily settled with his wife Norah, a beautiful young heiress who shares his passion for booze and witty banter, and who is the only one who can prod her permanently sozzled husband into doing any actual detecting.

Kinky Friedman, the former country singer and fellow traveller on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, has built a successful second career as a crime writer by creating a literary alter-ego for himself as a philosophical gumshoe, transplanted from Texas to New York, who kills time between his bizarre cases in his Greenwich Village loft drinking whiskey, reminiscing about the music business and having one-sided conversations with his cat.

The Spanish author Manuel Vázquez Montalbán invented the intriguing Pepe Carvalo, a private eye and gastronome whose complicated backstory includes spells in both the CIA and the Communist Party, and who tends to encounter crimes that cannot be solved without acknowledging dark truths about his homeland. And as recently as 2009, Thomas Pynchon triumphantly gave us Larry “Doc” Sportello, the world’s first psychedelic detective, trading the fedora for an afro and a drink problem for a marijuana habit, in Inherent Vice, his brilliant, sprawling thriller of conspiracy and murder in late-‘60s California.

These are but a few worthy mentions. And yet, if the past few years—or decades, for that matter—have proved anything, it’s that the detective genre still toils in the shadow of its greatest success; in reality as in fiction, no-one, it seems, can surpass Sherlock Holmes.

“Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature…”
A Scandal in Bohemia by Arthur Conan Doyle

In addition to the two TV incarnations on offer this year, Guy Ritchie’s overblown, cartoonish, steampunk-esque portrayals, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, have brought the character back to the cinema and enflamed the popular imagination for Holmes afresh. In November last year, Anthony Horowitz brought out his heavily publicised The House of Silk, the first Holmes book not written by the original author to be authorised by the Conan Doyle Estate, joining other such literary homages as Michael Chabon’s 2004 novella The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. Even House MD, now reaching a conclusion after eight seasons, began life with Sherlock parallels woven into its entire makeup, key to understanding its irascible protagonist; the drug use, the ‘Watson’ figure, the antisocial genius, even the apartment address 221B.

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=“http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/8987577/The-timeless-appeal-of-Sherlock-Holmess-sexy-logic.html”>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?

Sean Bell is a Scots-Irish-Armenian writer based in Edinburgh. His journalism has been published in the Glasgow Herald, the Sunday Herald, the Evening Times, the Scottish Review of Books and Death Ray magazine. He can be followed at www.twitter.com/SeanCMBell


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/158688-sherlock-holmes-dirk-gently-and-the-case-of-the-eccentric-detective/