Thursday, January 07, 2010

Sherlock Holmes, Amorphous Sleuth for Any Era
By Charles McGrath
Published New York Times: January 5, 2010

Arthur Conan Doyle grew so to hate his greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes, that in 1893 he tried to kill him off, plunging him over the Reichenbach Falls. He called it “justifiable homicide,” saying, “If I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.”

Left - In print Holmes officially returned from his demise in a 1903 story in Collier’s. Granada

Had Conan Doyle been able to consult with the writers of “Sherlock Holmes,” the new movie directed by Guy Ritchie, he might have devised, as they did, more vengeful and imaginative perils, like having Holmes almost bisected by a buzz saw in an abattoir, or crushed by a runaway hull in a shipyard. As it was, Conan Doyle bowed to popular demand and the emptiness of his bank account, and in 1903, after the success of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” reluctantly resurrected Holmes for 24 more years.

Holmes is now unkillable — though purists will doubtless argue that Robert Downey Jr.’s rendition of him in the Ritchie film, which at times resembles a Victorian version of “Fight Club,” is a fate worse than death. Even Conan Doyle’s own demise in 1930 failed to finish off the great detective. Instead it propelled Holmes into probably the most successful and elaborate afterlife that any fictional character has ever enjoyed. He has appeared in countless movies, stage plays and television series, and has inspired a shelf full of literary sequels and knockoffs, as well as some cartoon versions. He has even been played by Daffy Duck.

Would Conan Doyle have disapproved of the Ritchie movie? Of course. And not just because Mr. Downey’s character, antic and mugging, even wearing shades at one point, and happier to solve a crime with a punch-up than with his brain, so frequently bears little resemblance to the one Conan Doyle wrote about. By the end of his life Conan Doyle had become an odd combination of fuddy-duddy and ardent believer in spiritualism, forever going to séances and table-rappings, and he would have been troubled by the new movie’s plot, which involves exposing some secret occultists who are in fact charlatans.

On the other hand, Holmes’s scenes here of bare-knuckled fisticuffs would have surprised Conan Doyle less than they have upset some of the movie’s critics. As a young man, Conan Doyle was an accomplished boxer, and in a couple of the stories he attributes the same skill to Holmes, though he probably never imagined that Holmes might have a cyborgian, Terminator-like ability to analyze the laws of physics and bone resistance before deciding how to smash his opponent into jelly.

By the time Conan Doyle died, there had already been scores of silent films based on Holmes, along with a dozen or so stage plays, several of which Conan Doyle saw. Holmes’s immense public appeal was precisely what annoyed Conan Doyle. He thought Holmes took attention away from his other, more serious writing, and it gave him no satisfaction at all that he had created one of the first great pop heroes, who transcended the sphere of the Victorian pulps and took on a larger, extra-literary life.

Had Conan Doyle been a better writer, the problem might never have come up. Holmes is so memorable because, like later superheroes, he is less a fully developed character than a collection of fascinating traits. Raymond Chandler once complained that Holmes was little more than a few lines of unforgettable dialogue and an attitude: the drug habit, the boredom, the violin playing, the show-offy logical deductions, which Conan Doyle freely admitted were based on one of his medical school professors.
The full piece at NYT.

1 comment:

Vanda Symon said...

I haven't seen the new movie yet, but will as I am intrigued to see what Guy Ritchie does to it. Also I'd go just to look at Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law!