You Can’t Go Holmes Again

Well, to an extent you can. I won’t pretend I haven’t devoured the rebooted Mark Gatiss/Steven Moffat Sherlock, whose second season started running in the US this week. In fact I have watched the first season over a few times, and am about to launch into the first episode of the second season for a repeat viewing — the remixed Irene Adler story Scandal in Belgravia.

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman,” commences Dr. Watson in the 1890s, quickly asserting that his eccentric roommate cherished an intellectual, not a romantic regard for the American opera-singer and “adventuress” who deftly checkmated Holmes’ efforts to recover evidence of her dalliance with crowned heads. You read that Lily Langtry was the probable model, but to me, barely out of my teens, the swoon factor involved American, opera contralto, adept at passing as a man. Yes to all! if opera contraltos can be said to include amateurs who belt out Stride la vampa in the shower. I would even consent to tie the knot with a thudpucker named Godfrey Norton if I could cherish the smug memory of outsmarting Sherlock Holmes and winning his eternal regard. Fantasies like this lighten many dreary days for a woman who doesn’t get the bodice-ripper thing at all, at all.

I am not at all sure about Moffat’s Irene Adler. A lesbian dominatrix with a partner, suddenly fascinated with the mentally agile Sherlock, she recalls Frank Miller’s Catwoman (“Tell me, Selina — why do you hate men so?” “Never met one.”), who throws herself for a split second at Batman, another crime-solving monk accustomed only to male society. Moffat’s Adler is ruthless and reckless, frankly challenges the law and the British Government, struts not in male attire but bucky-tail naked, and generally lacks the playful good heart that made the character for me in my downy years. Moffat has, instead, given us that corny thing, a cosmetically feminine model-slender lesbian who enjoys taunting men sexually and eventually gets a crush on one. I don’t know any real lesbians who behave this way, though I’ve met several men given to pathetic fantasies of the sort.

I’m going to watch it again anyway. The pace of the plot is right up there with the last movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (which Holmes doubtless had a crack at in his time), and it will take at least three viewings to catch all the Conan Doyle references, plus you could eat Benedict Cumberbatch with a silver spoon, so perhaps the remixed Irene is to be forgiven.

Here are some of my favorite Sherlockian pastiches:

Good Night, Mr. Holmes (Carole Nelson Douglas) — a nice little retelling of the Scandal in Bohemia from the viewpoint of Irene and her Watsonian female companion, leading into a series that concludes with a tasty riff on Prisoner of Zenda. One of the few Irene Adler revivals that observes my cardinal rule: No openly depicted romance between Irene and Holmes. It’s just tacky.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Laurie King). Mary Russell, the first-person narrator of Beekeeper and several uneven sequels, eventually reveals to us that Holmes and Adler were briefly a couple, but long ago by the time of Russell’s meeting with the detective, when Russell is barely seventeen and he past sixty. King’s deftness of characterization and knack for mystery writing incline me to forgive an Adler intrigue which has already receded into the past. Holmes takes the boyish, bookish Russell as an apprentice, and King actually gets away with this. I think her portrayal of the loyal Watson is a little unkind, but overdue hommage to Mrs. Hudson is hugely appreciated.

Sherlock Holmes and the Mysterious Friend of Oscar Wilde (Russell A. Brown) — Nobody seems to like this one but me. A campy gay parody, but cleverly done with reference to the absurd homophobia of the day and a sputteringly hilarious domestic spat between Holmes and Watson (“It is my gasogene and you will leave it here if you move out”), prefiguring the many moments in the Moffat series in which people assume the two are frankly a couple. Silly, but historically deft when it comes to the mysterious friend.

The Holmes-Dracula File — Fred Saberhagen could have, you’d think, come up with a more inspiring title. Never mind. He it was who finally found a way to plot a story around the Giant Rat of Sumatra (“a tale for which the world is not yet ready”). Given the chronology, a Holmes and Dracula story has occurred to more than one writer — Loren Estleman’s Adventure of the Sanguinary Count, a graphic novel titled Scarlet in Gaslight (deliciously featuring Sarah Bernhardt) — but I think Saberhagen pulls it off best.I am waiting to see what Moffat does with the Giant Rat, since he has already given us James Phillimore, “who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.”

I tried my hand at this kind of thing once myself, but I never got past Watson being huffily outraged at some lascivious pre-Raphaelite paintings (“Brangane Exchanging Places With Yseult in the Bed of King Mark”) that harbored clues to the disappearance of an epicene young painter. I can’t remember where he went.

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6 thoughts on “You Can’t Go Holmes Again

  1. Amazing that the new season premiered down here the same time as you got it–we’re usually a year behind.

    Anyway, i’m a Holmes-a holic and Jeremy Brett remains unsurpassed in my opinion. I saw him do Holmes on stage in London too-really cool.

    I was unsure about this new series but was hooked from the start–the way they work in the references and remain reasonably faithful to Doyle while using technology and other modern realities. You do have to watch a couple of times before catching everything. I wasn’t too sure about the way they portrayed Moriarty in that pool scene and I was sure that Mycroft was Moriarty in the first episode. Anyway, I’m watching and enjoying–glad you’ve found this series too. My favorite line of this episode–when he tells those little girls “You don’t go to heaven when you die. You’re taken to a little room and burned.”

    You might want to have a look at The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes edited by Greenbergand Waugh.

    • I think the idea was to keep us convinced until the last minute that Mycroft was Moriarty. I didn’t realize till this season that Mycroft is played by co-creator Mark Gatiss — slow study.

      I kind of like that little touch of “I’m crazy enough to think that acting crazy is fun” in the pool scene, though it went on way too long.

      I have that collection. I haven’t had it down off the shelf for a while, like possibly ten years, but when I saw that Stephen King had had a go at writing Holmes my heart sang.

    • I feel the same way and think that in my case it’s because (1) they’re in danger of wearing out the gay jokes (2) the story lines are now leaning on too much James Bond-y stuff about the British government rather than ordinary people’s mysteries.

      Doyle was perfectly happy to throw in some submarine plans or an illustrious client here and there, but his best moments rarely involved hush-hush state stuff.

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