(This is a post about Sherlock, but I’m speaking of the wider series and not of any specific episodes. No spoilers are mentioned. You’re safe.)
The late, great detective novelist P.D. James said of the crime genre that its true value lay as a vehicle of exploring human relationships, instead of exploring crimes that humans commit. Good detective novels don’t spend their time focusing on gritty details of the murders that their pages are filled with, but instead take you inside the mind of the victim, killer, detective and the other host of characters which populate the novel. The difference between fun detective novels, such as the ones by Agatha Christie, and the great detective novels, such as the ones by writers such as P.D. James is that the former offer cardboard stereotypes interacting in a cardboard way; the latter present fully formed characters which kick you with their realism.1 Where does the recent BBC’s adaptation of Sherlock fit into this?
If you were to read the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, or see the various traditional adaptations of them done by a variety of television and film producers over the past fifty years or so, they obviously fit more closely into the ‘fun’ category than the ‘great’ category of detective fiction. Conan Doyle doesn’t want to use these books to explore the wider characters of London; he wants to use them to explore one principle character: Sherlock Holmes.
Yet Conan Doyle’s Holmes is hardly a man who you would find strolling around. With a mind which no-one else could have and a coldness which would give the White Witch of Narnia a reason to pull another jumper on, the Holmes of Conan Doyle is a celebration of what true, rational thought can do against beliefs in the supernatural. But that’s a celebration, not an exploration. We can’t understand the Holmes of Conan Doyle as really having any fears or lingering doubts or repressed emotions because Conan Doyle doesn’t want us to understand him having any of that. So what of the Sherlock of Mark Gattiss, Steven Moffat and Benedict Cumberbatch?
The Cumberbatch Sherlock is a true exploration of this man. It’s trying to understand how this high functioning sociopath functions. Through his various exciting adventures of trying to solve a case, save John or avoid his brother Mycroft, we’re able to see Sherlock’s thought process worked out but also begin to interrogate how his emotions creep into that. His love for John, Mary, his brother and Mrs. Watson. His hatred yet fascination for Moriarty. His absolute contempt of those who bring him boring cases. This lays out Sherlock. It uses crime as a vehicle for exploration. It swings the needle of this work from fun to great. And I think that’s what has made it such a hit.
In some ways though, I feel the show has overdone it. Increasingly, the most recent episodes (trust me, this is a spoiler free zone) stop focusing on the crime but on the relationships that run between Sherlock, John and Mary. The crimes are now running to the tune of the relationships, not the relationships running to the tune of the crimes. And that starts to miss the point of great detective fiction. Great detective fiction is about exploring how humans interact at this destructive, chaotic point within their lives where they are dictated to by the events that surround them. Once that element of chaos begins to disappear, the detective fiction moves to being simple drama, which has the danger of being bland. Which would be a pity with Sherlock.