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Steam-Powered Hard Drive: Sherlock Holmes As Modern Superhero From 1887-2012

Olivia Wolfgang-Smith

As the world continues to celebrate Sherlock Holmes, PopMatters takes readers on a tour of the famous fictional phenomenon that spans books, radio, television and films.


Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman
Network: PBS

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry, Jared Harris, Gilles Lellouche
Year: 2011

The winter of 2011-2012 saw multiple enormously popular adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Guy Ritchie’s blockbusting sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows opened at #1 on December 16, 2011, earning over 39 million dollars in its first weekend. Two weeks later, on New Year’s Day, BBC’s Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss-created modernization Sherlock premiered its second season to 10.66 million UK viewers. This trend has been near constant since the fictional detective’s first appearance in the late nineteenth century; the original stories were so popular that Conan Doyle’s attempt to kill his protagonist and end the series (1893, “The Final Problem”) was overruled by public demand, and the reluctant author resurrected Holmes for another 32 short stories.

Although he is most often cited as a crucial stepping-stone in the development of the detective story, Holmes appeals to audiences fundamentally as a superhero. In 2012 as in 1887, we love him for his ability to make sense of our ongoing series of “modern” worlds and distill this information overload until it is concrete and graspable to the rest of us. Contrary to common critical opinion, Conan Doyle’s tales and their adaptations are about neither escapism into an imagined world nor the nostalgia of gaslights and calabash pipes, but rather the fundamentally real and fiercely modern. Holmes’s business is decoding the encrypted and gaining control in an uncertain world, and thus he never goes out of style.

Audiences have long depended on Holmes as a sensory and observational hero. His casework puts criminals behind bars, yes, but at a more basic level he is simply right about things; he is exceptional in his understanding of the world. His clients hire him when other, ordinary people literally cannot survive the attempt to solve a problem. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes is brought in after “one [investigator], it is said, died… of what he had seen, and the other twain were but broken men for the rest of their days." Holmes is hyper-literate, able to literally read objects and situations in a way that nobody else can. “If only I had been there!” Holmes laments, hearing of Baskervilles’ famous “footprints of a gigantic hound.” “That gravel page upon which I might have read so much has been long ere this… defaced by the clogs of curious peasants." For us “curious peasants” Holmes is more than a detective; he is a protector, a superhero.

Leaving London by train to investigate mysterious occurrences at Baskerville Hall, Watson is comforted when he glances back and sees “the tall austere figure of Holmes standing motionless and gazing after us”, an ever-watchful guardian. And of course, his deductions do not simply answer questions; they save lives.

Holmes performs this ongoing task at a great personal cost, making sacrifices for the good of his “ordinary” co-characters. His abilities disqualify him from typical social interactions -- even his fans express their admiration in clinical terms, such as Hound’s Dr. Mortimer gushing, “I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well-marked suborbital development. Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure?” More common than well-meaning skull grabbers are Holmes’s detractors -- particularly in Sherlock, where Holmes’s colleagues seem determined to find something wrong with him. They call him “freak” and “psychopath” (“A Study in Pink”), and unofficially diagnose him with Asperger’s Syndrome (“The Hounds of Baskerville”). Preserved from the source text is the suggestion that Holmes’s deductive abilities isolate him from human emotional contact.

This isolation is frequently self-imposed, a crucial component of Holmes’s intellectual habits. In Hound Watson notes, “seclusion and solitude were very necessary for my friend in those hours of intense mental concentration." Holmes claims that “a concentrated atmosphere helps a concentration of thought", musing that “getting into a box to think… is the logical outcome of my convictions”. This suggestion of absolute isolation and sensory deprivation seems almost to predict the metaphor of Holmes’s brain as computer processor, now realized in Sherlock’s portrayal of the detective as a kind of human iPhone -- visualizing text, interactive maps, and bizarre associative mnemonics, his thoughts always accompanied by quick, chaotic montage, extreme close-ups, and rushing sound effects as he processes raw data and computes deductions. Holmes’s neurological server is constantly burdened with others’ problems, with the result that his “common knowledge” is full of rudimentary gaps -- he is not aware, for example, that the earth orbits the sun. Holmes thinks so that we don’t have to; he has forfeited common knowledge for uncommon insight, and in return he is mocked and isolated for his strangeness.

More significant than the social side effects of Holmes’s abilities are the psychological -- apparently, he finds the information he processes as overwhelming as others do. His extraordinary gift for observation cannot be switched on and off, and as a result he goes through life constantly either manic with excitement or depressed with chronic boredom. He suffers from insomnia and attempts to regulate his mental state with caffeine, nicotine -- Conan Doyle’s Holmes speaks of “three-pipe problems”, Moffat’s of “three-patch problems” (“A Study in Pink”) -- and cocaine.

These humanizing faults work to put Holmes within emotional reach of his audience. He makes mistakes; he is tortured by boredom, addiction, and self-loathing. Particularly in Sherlock, Holmes is largely an anti-hero -- a free agent who fights for the law but claims not to care about the lives he saves. “I may be on the side of the angels,” he says, “but don’t think for one second that I am one of them” (“The Reichenbach Fall”). This is an oft-repeated sentiment within the show. Although fiercely moral, Holmes is constantly complicating and renegotiating his relationship with that morality, chafing under the label of “hero” in a way that humanizes even this most superhuman of characters into a realer, more powerful and relatable force.

Real as he may seem, Holmes is still exceptional and he is a singular superhero in that his methods can be emulated. No matter how imaginative, fans of Superman or Spiderman cannot fly or sling webs, but Holmes enthusiasts can endeavor to, as Michael Saler puts it in Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes, “keep [their] eyes open, and find out things” and “to find wonder in the everyday through observation and logic." Holmes is exceptionally literate, yes -- but it is a form of literacy, not a supernatural power, and even ordinary people (as represented by Watson) can learn to read the world the way he does. Although he takes pride in his skill, Holmes stresses that it is nothing unattainable -- “my eyes have been trained,” he explains in Hound; “the world is full of obvious things that nobody by any chance ever observes." He is no magician; he delights in revealing his tricks.

The perennial nature of Holmes’s heroism renders him a force of cutting-edge global modernity rather than, as most critics see him, nostalgia for the bygone days of Victorian England. For Conan Doyle’s original readers these stories were contemporary crime dramas, not period pieces. Katherine Mary Wisser explains in The Creation, Perception and Perpetuation of the Sherlock Holmes Phenomenon that “Holmes was participating in the world of these readers… Perhaps more than anything else, Holmes was of the time." Being an early adopter of new technology is one of the ways that Holmes stays ahead of his nemeses -- throughout Conan Doyle’s stories, he makes indispensible use of chemistry, the telegraph service, trains, ocean liners, and other “modern” conveniences and disciplines. In addition to being aware and accepting of new technologies Holmes is, as Saler notes, a cultural optimist, celebrating the rationalism, secularism, urbanism, and mass consumerism of Conan Doyle’s day. He finds magic and meaning in the real and new. The world of the original stories is not a nostalgic one -- and though many interpret Holmesian fandom as stemming from a passion for the past, in so doing they confuse the superficial trappings of Victoriana for the ultra-modern beating heart of the stories. Holmes could never be stuck in the past; he’s too observant. He is unchanging only in that he is never at a loss, comprehending every era.

This is evident in the fact that many adaptations of Conan Doyle’s stories update the celebrated logician’s adventures to their own contemporary, “modern” eras. This includes the celebrated 1939 film series starring Basil Rathbone as the deerstalker-clad detective, which often recast Holmes and Watson as action heroes outsmarting Nazis. In Sherlock, Moffatt and Gatiss bring the trajectory of modernization fully into present-day London, with Holmes no longer steam-powered but rather fueled by cellular phones and wireless internet. The social issues tackled in the stories are similarly updated, with sexual orientation, mental illness, and the trauma of war as foregrounded themes. Wisser notes that in their original release, “the setting and characters in the Holmes tales were well received because they were well known to the market” -- although the intricate stories provided entertainment and escapism for their audience, the world Holmes decoded for readers was the one outside their windows. A passion for cutting-edge technology and socio-cultural attitudes is simply consistent with the characters. In morphing the texts into modernized forms, Holmes adaptors do not in fact change the stories so much as maintain the source culture’s structure of feeling, allowing modern audiences to relate to Holmes and Watson as directly as the original readers did.

This consistency-through-evolution of adaptation has been paralleled by the distribution of the content itself. Delivery technologies continue to evolve with the stories, so that although Holmes’s spirit is unchanged he appears in different technical contexts and costumes -- the short stories first published in sequential installments in The Strand; the radio plays of the 1930s; the gritty HDTV series of the 2010s. Even Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, although set in 1891, modernizes the tropes and spirit of Conan Doyle’s world. An apparent period piece, it still follows modern blockbuster conventions to the letter, stuffing the story with chase scenes, explosions, high-contact fisticuffs inexplicably shot in bullet-time, steampunk machinery, and ham-fisted homoerotic innuendo between brothers in arms. But beneath the bells and whistles, Holmes himself is still cerebral at heart, a brilliant logician whose real theatre of conflict is the mind. All Holmes adaptations are radical modernizations in that they preserve in amber the media expectations of their time; all are united in their steady centering on the all-seeing, never-changing Holmes himself.

This distinguishing characteristic, common to Holmes adaptations, indicates that they rely not on the audience escaping into an imagined fantasy world but rather on Holmes participating in our reality. In Larger Than Literature: The World's Most Famous Detective, G. K. Chesterton calls Holmes “a really brilliant addition to the great literature of nonsense,” a genius who dedicates his intellect not to great thoughts but to the “wild poetry of the commonplace”. This theme continues into the world of the BBC modernization, with Sherlock’s Holmes a devotee of “crap telly", fascinated and frustrated by Jerry Springer type shows and the faulty revelations they showcase (“The Great Game”).

Like Holmes himself, the stories (and adaptations) dedicate their genius to the unglamorous task of aiding the common man. Chesterton claims that “men need stories", even that they “must have detective stories” -- and so references a peculiarity of Holmesian fandom, conveniently ignored by those critics who call Conan Doyle’s London a fantasy universe: audiences have long related to Holmes as a real person, and granted him a presence and role in the real world. Saler describes early readers fetishizing Holmes and Watson as nonfictional men, writing biographies, articles, and scholarly reviews “debating such fine points as which college Holmes attended and how many wives Watson had”. The Holmes stories marked an evolutionary leap forward in fan culture, due to the fact that “Holmes was the first fictional character that adults openly embraced as real while deliberately minimizing or ignoring its creator”. Anne Kirne reports that this phenomenon continues today, with fans of Sherlock launching an extensive guerilla “tribute campaign” called “Believe in Sherlock.” Flyers, posters, graffiti, and other fan creations reading “I Believe in Sherlock Holmes” and other slogans have sprung up in cities the world over.

The most common view of such responses is that they show fans escaping into a fantasy world, immersing themselves in something wholly imaginary. In fact, Holmes is an Althusserian ideology -- imaginary, yes, but in fact a means by which readers interface with the real world around them. Holmes is a fictional character with a superhuman literacy that enables him to read the coded messages of a nonfictional world -- he may not be real, but his insight into our reality and its attendant mysteries is. This phenomenon has taken much more tangible forms than fan appreciation. Transport for London’s Lost Property Office, located across from Holmes’s “residence” at 221b Baker Street, has dubbed the computer system that catalogs recovered items and attempts to trace their owners “Sherlock". Despite the fact that Conan Doyle wanted to kill Holmes off halfway through the detective’s career in order to move on with his own, audiences have not only kept the character alive but expanded that life until he feels -- is -- real, literally ensconced in Baker Street using his supercomputer processor of a brain to solve mysteries and restore lost items to their owners. We have ensured that Holmes keeps pace with evolution of the world he decodes for us.

This decoding has taken different forms in different eras -- in the stories’ initial publication, readers turned to Holmes to re-enchant a world leeched of magic by the skepticism of their era. Conan Doyle first put pen to paper during a period of technological and ideological transition, a convergence culture -- these are the cultural moments in which we feel we need Sherlock Holmes to show us the way. Thus, it makes logical sense that he is reemerging as a pop culture powerhouse in the 2010s.

Like his attendant technology, Holmes’s cultural heroism has evolved somewhat since Conan Doyle’s day. In Hound, observing the treacherous bog that abuts the moor, Watson laments that without Holmes’s insight “life has become like that great Grimpen Mire, with little green patches everywhere into which one may sink and with no guide to point the track”. In Sherlock’s adaptation of the tale, the mire is recast as “the great Grimpen Minefield,” landmines buried as security around Baskerville -- now a secret military base rather than an aristocrat’s country estate (“The Hounds of Baskerville”). But whether the layperson’s panic stems from an effort to “[touch] bottom anywhere in this bog in which we are floundering” (78) or to obtain a guide through a minefield, Holmes is always a storyteller’s effort to provide logical frames to explain whatever cultural moment is reading, listening, watching.

Chesterton notes that even a century ago Holmes had “emerged out of the unreality of literature into the glowing reality of legend”. Although he himself may be fictional, Holmes does something very real for his fans -- he renders their world alive with significance and meaning. In these early decades of the 21st century we are in a period of convergence culture, with old and new media forms competing, colliding, and expanding to bombard us with an overload of information and stimuli. We need help, now more than ever, from a superhero able to “see everything” and make sense of it all.

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