“Deerstalker….”  With just that one adjective, I easily conjure up the image of a tall, slim Victorian gentleman wrapped in a heavy tweed cape crouching down in the desolate moors investigating what seem to be giant hound prints.  I didn’t even need the noun: “…hat.”

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Having finished Val McDermid‘s A Darker Domain, it was time to choose what to read next from the stacks of unread books by my bed.  I picked up Sharp Objects but was not feeling any immediate appeal.  My eye caught the image of a curved pipe on the cover of The Sherlockian, a debut novel by Graham Moore published in 2010.  At about 130am, I placed the book on the floor face down, open at page 87.  The game was afoot!

Just before I cracked Moore’s book open, I remembered the first time I fell for the lanky, neurotic, opium-smoking detective: through Jeremy Brett‘s fantastic portrayal of Holmes from 1984-1994.  Brett’s appeal is his wry humour, his intensity, and his wonderfully dry smoky upper-class British accent.  Over 75 actors have played this role – the most actors portraying any character – with Robert Downey Jr. being the latest actor to put his stamp on the character on film.

On television, PBS recently broadcast a smart updated version with the actor Benedict Cumberbatch playing the main role.  His Holmes is a little colder, a little crueler, a little more clueless perhaps about matters of the heart – even his great attraction to Irene Adler is extraordinarily cerebral despite her being a very alluring dominatrix.  His Watson, played by Martin Freeman (who is staring as Bilbo Baggins in the upcoming version of The Hobbit – can’t wait!) is the heart of the piece, at times baffled by, angry, or hurt by his friend – but always loyal and steadfast.

CBS is currently capitalizing on the popularity of the know-it-all detective in another updated version called Elementary airing September 27th starring Jonny Lee Miller with Lucy Lui as his Watson.  Here, Holmes is a recovering addict who used to work for Scotland Yard but is now acting as consultant to the NYPD.  I am definitely planning on watching to see how the writers tackle and translate the original material to play in contemporary New York and for a US audience….

So what is it that keeps readers, producers, actors, and viewers riveted by this particular detective?

I believe the allure comes from a desire to believe that there is somebody who is in a way “better” than us, who can take the angels’ perspective in order to interpret the detritus of a crime and make sense of what appears senseless, to bring order out of a set of disparate clues – a desire to believe that, regardless of real-world statistics, no crime is unsolvable.  After all, it’s hard to believe in contingency and randomness, to have faith in chaos and the abyss.

While his genius and his cool detachment from the darker, seamier elements of human nature (despite his opium-smoking) sets Holmes apart from the rest of us, admirers don’t begrudge him his skills nor chaff at his condescending attitude.  Perhaps we sense that, because of these very talents that elevate him, Holmes is not vulnerable, and, without vulnerability, he cannot enjoy what is most beautiful in the messy, emotionally-wrenched chaos that is life.  We guess that such a character cannot immerse himself in what is ultimately best about living beneath the angels: loving – and being loved by – another human being.  Even angels have been jealous of us for that.

– Eleni Anastasiou, September 10th 2012

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