Things I Like: Sherlock Holmes

My love for Sherlock Holmes falls slightly outside my usual run of interests. (My usual run of interests, for those of you new to the blog, being more along the lines of attractive desperate women and stories about consequences.) Yet Holmes is a character I almost always adore.

1. In the currently-running BBC series Sherlock (the second season of which I have not seen yet, no spoilers please!) a police officer calls Holmes a psychopath. Holmes whirls and snaps at the man, the anger precise between his teeth, “I’m not a psychopath, Anderson, I’m a high-functioning sociopath, do your research.” This is a Holmes I love. I love the man completely adrift in humanity who makes a decision to use his powers for good and not evil.

He had to make the choice, you know. You know that at some point he sat down, possibly for days, and weighed his options. Good or evil. We have no way to know what went into the calculation, and goodness knows I pine to hear his thinking, the pros and the cons. But he had to decide.

This decision on Holmes’ part, this is very akin to the decision the X-Men make — to protect a world that hates and fears them. On a much smaller scale this is the choice that kids who are outsiders, or victims, or shunned, or neurologically atypical, or geeks must all make. When the world doesn’t seem to care much for you, when the world shoves, what do you do in return? Do you make the world a better or worse place? Do you grow up to become an abuser or a social justice advocate or a writer or an elementary school teacher or an administrative martinet? Do you use your powers, whatever they may be, for good or for evil?

Holmes’ decision is one we all have to make at some point. I love this version of Holmes because that choice fascinates me. I want to know how it is made.

2. I also love the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes of the recent movies. This Holmes is less sociopath and more unable to live inside his own head for more than a few moments. He casually insults people, but he also knows how to charm and sees the use of it.

RDJ’s Holmes is manipulative and codependent, and I like this about him. He is more comprehensibly human, afraid of experiencing personal loss, afraid of failure. There are people in the world, people I know, who move through life as though shot from a canon. They achieve, and succeed, and they always have a plan. And you can see just behind them the shadow of what they are leaving behind, even if you can’t identify it. RDJ’s Holmes is one of those people, walking briskly away from something that is totally irrelevant to the story at hand, save that it drives him on.

3. I also love the Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories. There is less character to love here, and more sheer brilliance. This is the Holmes I pine to be, the brilliant detective who doesn’t need anything but scientific truth. This Holmes appeals to my sense of order. Science, logic, rational thought, this is how I want the world to be. I want people to be deduceable, as well. In the Holmes stories, they are.

4. Laurie King is the author of a series of books, beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. I fell madly in love with Mary Russell upon first reading the books — brilliant, self-contained, damaged, arrogant Marry Russell — but I quickly fell for both her relationship to Holmes and Holmes himself.

This Holmes is a man, very human. He is brilliant but he is also older. He’s had time to move past some of the insecurity and arrogance of youth. He is also an incredibly dedicated student, constantly working to maintain and improve his skills. He is a man who used to be chasing a need to be right; now he is chased by visions of how things can go wrong. This is Holmes with not only intelligence, but wisdom.

In the best possible universe, when I am sixty years old I will get to be some combination of King’s Sherlock Holmes and Bujold’s Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. (And don’t you now want to eavesdrop on those two people sitting down to tea? Don’t you want to know what they would say to each other? Fanfic writers, give me that, mmkay?)


I was thinking about this due to an essay, A Scandal in Fandom: Stephen Moffat, Irene Adler, and the Fannish Gaze. It’s an excellent essay, and I don’t think I have more to say on it at this time. But it made me ponder what I personally get out of Holmes, and the variety of canon and fanon works pertaining thereunto. I think my take is that I essentially approve of all the Holmes interpretations that don’t make Sherlock distant and unengaged.

For me, personally, the core of Sherlock Holmes is a close-bodied grappling with the worst of humanity. Whether the contest is intellectual and clean, or visceral and bloody, Holmes is a character who is only alive when he is engaged with a problem. A Holmes who moves from cool and bored to cool and superior is not a Holmes I want to spend time with. I think both Moffat and King address this, in their very different ways. Laurie King’s Holmes is a man called out of retirement by life and youth and, yes, crime. The text explicitly acknowledges that he was stagnating, possibly dying, as a direct result of having no useful work. Moffat’s Holmes thrives on the conflict, the puzzle, the need to show his superiority. But it’s also clear that he stays engaged with other people, particularly Watson, to stay in touch with his own humanity. Two very different approaches with similar results.

Some days, I wish I could be Sherlock Holmes. Other days, I hope fervently that I am not. Whichever sort of day it is, though, I can’t let his character go.

One Response

  1. Always a pleasure to meet a Sherlockian!

    Great post about the different portrayals of Holmes. I would also recommend the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes.


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