Maybe it’s just a surname thing, but I’ve loved the Sherlock Holmes stories as much as I’ve loved any bit of fiction, since I was old enough to understand them. Hell, as much as they’re one of the progenitors of comics, they’re probably a progenitor of my interest in them.
And so I lie abed in my plague-ravaged state, and watching that best of Holmes, Jeremy Brett. If you have not seen the Brett Holmes, then for god’s sake, do so at once. Brett takes all the complexity of Doyle’s Holmes and translates it brilliantly to screen.
It’s this complexity that has ensured that I have retained my love of Holmes, while the appeal of the superhero comics that followed him and his peers has faded. For all that the first time a reader encounters him, he’s beating a corpse with a cricket bat, there’s a marvellous subtlety to him.
Holmes is founded on a bit of Victorian thinking that says that one can deduce huge amounts about people from their appearance and manner. That the mask one presents society is in fact, the truth, or if it is not, that it is readily apparent as a falsehood to the even slightly-trained eye. Were this not true then for all his vast deductive prowess, he would, in a word, be fucked.
(A thought: compare this with Dr Jekyll, who, of course, presents the world with a very different face than that of Mr Hyde and thus, could not possibly be the culprit…)
But for all Holmes relies upon the surface, he himself is an arch-liar, and, indeed, admires it in others. The only two villains he ever evinces real respect for are Moriarty and Irene Adler, “The Woman” of “A Scandal In Bohemia”. Moriarty of course, was a university professor, and pulled the wool over the eyes of the world, and Adler simply sharp enough to get the better of even Holmes.
But Holmes himself presents a face to the world which even by modern standards is callous and rude, and Victorian society would (as I understand it) have found at times, completely unacceptable. And it’s very easy to take him at the surface, as a deducing machine, devoid of human feeling.
Here we have a man who has trained himself to be like this. Who has by his own admission, foregone massive amounts of the human experience, because one’s “brain-attic” can only hold so much, and he has chosen to make sure his is the best tool in existence for solving criminal mysteries.
Unlike his modern weak and feeble step-child in Batman, he has no personal reason to do so. This isn’t about revenge. It isn’t about money, either. His fees do not vary, save where he waves them entirely, something he seems to do quite regularly. No, there’s only one reason he does what he does – he gives a fuck. For all he’d like to present himself as coldly analytical, and only interested in the intellectual challenge, it’s all a big lie. He gives a fuck.
But, importantly, especially for the period, and for all his own shouting about it, it isn’t law he gives a fuck about. It’s not even necessarily justice. He’s quite willing to let a guilty man go free unjustly, if catching him serves no end but to imperil the happiness of the innocent.
And this, of course, is what I mean by subtlety. He himself would not articulate any of this to you. To himself, he is a servant of law, or at worst, of justice, and largely devoid of feeling.
But at times, just tiny moments, we can see that he hasn’t forgotten his basic humanity. “I have never loved […] but if I did” And in that “if I did” is a world of character. He himself is an inversion of the mask that he tears off his adversaries – they hide villany being a facade of decency, while he hides his good character behind layers of unfeeling obsession. But of course, as champion of truth, it’s important to remember that with Holmes, for all there is decency within him, what you see is still very much truth, for all it hides something deeper inside.
As I said – subtle and complex, and to me he remains one of the finest fictional creations in the English, or indeed, any other, language. As I said, if you’ve never seen the Brett Holmes, then do so, but more especially, if you’ve never read the stories, then do that, first.