October 25, 2012Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill his creation Sherlock Holmes, but the fans wouldn't stand for it – he had to bring him back to life. Now Doyle himself is long dead (nobody brought him back; isn't that a cheat?) and now other people keep reinventing Sherlock.
The formula is oddly simple. Really smart, eccentric, rude, but observant British fellow outsmarts the police by solving crimes that baffle them.
Easy to imitate.
And yet, if you name your character "Sherlock Holmes" and bring in a few details from the Doyle oeuvre – a sidekick named Watson, the violin, the cocaine habit – people have a special place in their heart for it.
Or they hate it completely, because it's "wrong."
What kind of story do you tell? The mystery genre has evolved and fragmented since Doyle was writing his Sherlock Holmes stories. Do you play it as "cozies" – domestic settings, the climactic scene where everything is revealed in the drawing room? Or do you get into the same mystical conspiracy storyline that Doyle himself loved? Or do you turn it into a procedural?
In a way, the TV series House M.D. was Sherlock Holmes in a medical setting. Really annoying "hero" with hints of inner tragedy and contradiction; sees things nobody else can see. The character was written to be so arrogant and rude that I found the series unpleasant to watch, though Hugh Laurie is such a fine actor, with such charm, that he made it a success.
But following the Sherlock formula with a different name isn't enough. PBS has carried episodes of the recent British update called Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. He has the combination of good looks, exuberance, and an intelligent-looking face that works to bring off a rather cheerful Sherlock.
Cumberbatch's Sherlock isn't so much rude as oblivious – he doesn't mean to be nasty, he simply isn't thinking about other people's feelings. It's a weird contradiction – after all, the whole point of Sherlock Holmes is that he notices everything. So to have him zero in on one track, while blocking out other things – like the feelings of people he depends on – is oddly contradictory.
Still, it works, in large part because of the utterly sweet Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. (Freeman, you'll remember, played the naked stand-in in Love Actually.)
The weakness of Sherlock is that, try as they might, the Brits still don't understand how to do episodic television. They do great miniseries, but packing a feature's worth of story into 44 minutes remains beyond them. So the Sherlock stories feel thin and stretched; there's not much there.
In America, however, everybody doing detective television lives in the shadow of the incredibly packed storytelling of the Law & Order franchise, and it shows. The genius of the L&O series was and is that no scene ever does just one thing. The mystery plot advances while the character stories also unfold. Not a line is wasted. The writing is so tight that most of the time you couldn't drop a single line of dialogue.
And if you can't do that, or at least come close, you really can't compete in the hour-long (44-minute plus commercials) format.
So here's the American take on Sherlock Holmes, a new series on CBS called Elementary. (The title comes from Holmes's penchant for explaining things to Dr. Watson with a condescending "It's elementary, my dear Watson."
There are some departures from the familiar story that will either exhilarate or annoy diehard Sherlock Holmes fans. For one thing, Watson is now a woman. But since the woman is the ever-brilliant Lucy Liu at her deadpan-snotty best, it's hard to resent the change. In Elementary, Watson isn't a stooge – Watson has been hired by Holmes's family to watch over him and keep him from relapsing into his drug habit.
In other words, she has authority – even if he doesn't recognize it – and in the back-and-forth she takes it and dishes it out as we've never seen a Watson do before. The writing not only sounds smart, it is smart.
The other potentially annoying change is that the series takes place in modern New York City. Yes, this choice was made for budgetary reasons – and to pander to the American audience. But they have a good backstory to explain it, and it's just plain cool to have Sherlock Holmes go head to head with insufficiently observant American cops. Certainly Brits will be glad that for once it isn't Scotland Yard getting shown up week after week.
Jonny Lee Miller is absolutely wonderful as Sherlock. Not many actors could hold their own on the screen with Lucy Liu, who doesn't have charisma so much as command. Their pas de deux is a wonder to behold.
And Aidan Quinn, one of our best character actors, is wonderful as the American detective who brings Holmes in as a consultant and tries to keep him out of trouble (like Robin Tunney's Teresa Lisbon character in The Mentalist, minus the sexual tension).
It's so nice that we live in an era when you can download episodes you missed. Since Elementary hit the ground running, you can start at the beginning and get the full effect; or you can pick it up where it is.
Long before the Kindle made ebooks convenient to carry around, Samizdat Express has been offering bundles of high quality ebook versions of classic literature that has entered the public domain.
It used to be that you'd buy their books on CDs – dozens or hundreds of books per disc.
No, you'll never read all of them. That's not the point. You'll read some of them, and have the others "on the shelf" should you ever decide to go deeper into a dead writer's works.
Sometimes that's wonderful – I think of Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray. Sometimes it's useful simply to realize that, yes, George Eliot really is the most tedious writer not named Hawthorne.
Well, CDs are so passe; we buy our ebooks differently now. And Samizdat has also changed by offering its Quench Editions: smaller libraries of good quality books at very good prices.
Instead of buying a CD of which you'll read only a few, now you can buy and download much more select groups: All six of Trollope's Barsetshire novels for three bucks; all six of his Palliser series for another three. Or four dollars for 26 books by Thackeray.
I know – you can get versions of these books for free. But most of the time, the free versions aren't optimized for ebook readers; often they're no more than OCR versions with all kinds of annoying errors.
For Samizdat, moving to the shopping cart model of online selling is quite a change, but I think they'd done a great job. I've already bought and used several of their collections. Best of all, because the libraries are intelligently grouped, you can browse, discovering writers you've never heard of along the way.
Give them a try at http://www.samizdat.com/quencheditions/ . It's a great way to catch up on books you've always meant to read – in good, cheap editions.