The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes: Why Do We Love Doyle’s Detective?

Why are Britain’s Granada TV productions of the Sherlock Holmes stories, presented in America on PBS’S Mystery series, so good? And—not quite the same question—why have they been so universally and enthusiastically recognized by public and critics as being so good, as being in fact easily the best adaptations of the

Holmes literature ever committed to film? The acclaim has been so unreserved that it’s clear a chord has been struck in the breasts of Holmes aficionados. Something in the originals has been honored by these dramatizations that has never been honored before. What is this something? I think that an answer to this question will bring an important aspect of the Holmes literature into focus.

The artistic components of the series account for the show’s high quality but don’t necessarily explain the enthusiasm of its reception. Nevertheless, let us glance at those components first.

The scripts are faithful to the plots of the originals but not slavishly faithful. The various writers employed (under the supervision of Michael Cox, John Hawksworth, and June Wyndham Davis) have understood that there is no such thing as a truly faithful cinematic adaptation of a literary work that does not live as film. For example, “The Greek Interpreter,” a story which ends rather flatly with a mere summation of how its villains, after eluding Holmes and the police, were later dispatched under mysterious circumstances, was successfully expanded by the adapters with an action sequence in which Holmes captures the scoundrels aboard a passenger train. And “The Devil’s Foot,” with a pernicious drug at the core of its mystery, was greatly altered to include a sequence that showed Holmes shaking off the influence of his own drug of choice, cocaine (an escape that is mentioned by Doyle but not dramatized). This addition gave the adaptation an emotional underpinning denied to the original.

As good as the writing are the scenic elements of costume and set design, photography, editing, and overall direction. The late Victorian and Edwardian London of Sidney Paget’s illustrations (in the Strand magazine where the stories first appeared) is wonderfully evoked. How startling and how satisfying it is to see Holmes not always in a deerstalker but often in a top hat, and how appropriate that the nocturnal hunts down alleyways and along docks are rendered in the blues of Whistler’s Nocturnes. The occasional laggardliness of the pacing (the films should really be forty minutes in length but have been stretched out to the standard fifty minutes that sells to American TV) is almost excused by the veracity of period details and atmosphere.

Razor-sharp in profile and diction is Jeremy Brett’s Holmes. He dances the part, sweeping clients into armchairs with a gesture worthy of a danseur noble, crawling over carpets for clues as if he were metamorphosing into a bloodhound, betraying excitement at the prospect of a new case with an ocular spark and a twitch of the cheek muscles that seem as carefully choreographed as what he does with his limbs. If there is anything to complain about in Brett’s performance, it is that he never seems to let the camera and viewer discover anything for themselves. He thrusts his Holmes at us rather than drawing us in to him. And so this Holmes comes across as almost more of an actor than a scientific investigator. Yet, in Brett’s defense, it should be noted that there is an actor in Doyle’s creation, as is apparent in the detective’s love of disguise.

As Watson, David Burke was succeeded, joltlessly, by Edward Hardwicke. Both actors perfectly embodied the old-soldier decency and doughtiness of the sidekick, and Hardwicke added a sly, sometimes irritable humor to the man.

Yet it is not through brilliance of adaptation or acting or design or direction that the Granada series has shown its unique faithfulness to Doyle. After all, Basil Rathbone, wasted as he was in trashy pastiches, was quite as remarkable as Brett without being so ostentatious. Brett often teeters on campiness; Rathbone was brisk, restrained, and to-the-point. The Rathbone Hound of the Baskervilles (the only faithful adaptation in the Rathbone-Nigel Bruce series) was much more atmospheric, horrifying, and even more lucid than Granada’s Hound, which was the only dismal failure in the new series. And, as far as deftness of characterization or swiftness of action or lucidity in presenting Holmes’ methods go, nothing can equal the BBC radio broadcasts of the late ’40s (now available on recordings) starring the dream team of John Gielgud as Holmes, Ralph Richardson as Watson and Orson Welles as Moriarty. What, then, is the essential contribution made by Granada’s craftsmen if their successes with characterization, action, and atmosphere are not unique?

Think back to your first reading of the Holmes stories. Like myself, you probably first came across them in childhood, and they may even have been, as they were for me, your first encounter with literature originally intended for adults. Was there something about the first few pages that struck you as curiously slow or even a bit boring? I don’t mean the genial, often funny openings in which Watson chided Holmes for his egregious household eccentricities (the tobacco in the slipper, the pistol practice on the walls). I’m referring to the pages that ensued once Holmes sat the client down and urged him or her to recount the matter of his problem. The narratives that followed were often so lengthy that they took up half the space of the entire short story. Young readers, weaned on the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew—slam-bang yarns that threw their teenaged heroes into the midst of trouble on page three at the latest—weren’t used to stories that required the hero to sit in an armchair while listening to an ordinary, unheroic person describe in some detail how his quotidian existence was upset by a mysterious circumstance. There are even certain cases in which the client’s account takes up nearly the whole story while Holmes’ intervention is perfunctory and brief. These accounts require patience of young readers who naturally want to see the detective-hero racing about, dodging bullets and biffing villains on the jaw. (It is precisely this juvenile appetite that is satisfied by the film The Seven Per Cent Solution, in which Holmes goes in for little or no ratiocination in solving his main case but only hops aboard trains, fights duels, and has cocaine-withdrawal hallucinations.)

And yet it is the client’s narrative that is at the heart of each story. And what yarns they are! A mysterious whistle in the night and a young girl shrieking “the speckled band!” before falling dead; hundreds of red-haired men queuing up for job interviews; a governess forced to crop her hair by a sinister employer who capers and jokes at tea time; a supremely respectable businessman who gesticulates wildly at the window of an opium den; a wealthy young wife who seems to be turning into a vampire with designs on the blood that flows in her stepson’s veins. Late Victorian though the settings are, these are tales that might honor the pages of the Arabian Nights. As Julian Symonds has observed in his splendid study of crime fiction, Bloody Murder, “Doyle was a fine story-teller, and one quality that keeps the Holmes tales alive where so much work by his immediate successors is dead, is that they are such good stories. We are hardly ever offered a mere puzzle, but a story about people briefly but vividly seen…. Sometimes this opening passage leads on to the revelation of a crime committed or in preparation, sometimes it opens out into an adventure story, sometimes it shifts back into the past and an explanation by the visitor. Occasionally Watson apologizes for the small part played by Holmes in a story, emphasizing the fact that what concerned Doyle was the adventure as much as the detection” (my emphasis).

It is precisely Granada’s scrupulous preservation of the adventure story embedded in the overall detective story that is the unique strength of the series and makes it the most authentic rendering of Doyle yet seen. By refusing to abridge these marvelous flashbacks and by casting them at full strength (with actors like Natashe Richardson, Rosalie Crutchley, and Daniel Massey) the filmmakers have emphasized what the more careful readers of Doyle have always known: that the stories, taken as stories and not as mere puzzles, have a mythic resonance; that “The Dancing Men” is a nightmarish study of how the criminality out of one’s past can wreck present bliss even though the criminality isn’t one’s fault; that “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is a Jekyll-Hyde study not utterly unworthy of the Stevenson prototype; that “The Copper Beeches” is a brilliant retelling and modernization of the Rapunzel fairy tale; that “The Norwood Builder” is a study of vicious sterility taking revenge on sexual normality and familial love; that “The Second

Stain” is an almost Ibsen-like study of a woman who nearly wrecks the career of her husband only because she wants to preserve his image of her as the perfect wife; and that The Sign of Four and “The Bascombe Valley Mystery” are, along with many other Holmes tales, lurid visions of colonial chickens coming home to roost on the British homeland.

Doyle’s Christian Devotees

This aspect of Doyle’s storytelling thus highlighted, we can now proceed to speculate about some of Doyle’s most famous readers: G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Father Ronald Knox, and other writers of high Anglican or Roman Catholic persuasion who were themselves detective story writers of distinction as well as Christian apologists. Why were so many of them fervent Holmesians? From my argument above, I adduce two reasons:

As stated, the Holmes stories exist as much as exotic tales as detective puzzles. Writers like Sayers and Chesterton, with their love of medieval literature, and in their disdain for the literary naturalism dominant in their own time, saw in Doyle’s detective stories a momentary restoration of the fabulous to fiction (the tale as opposed to the novel). In his essay, “A Defence of Detective Stories” (1901), Chesterton wrote, “since our great authors (with the admirable exception of Stevenson) decline to write of that thrilling mood and moment when the eyes of the great city, like the eyes of a cat, begin to flame in the dark, we must give fair credit to the popular literature which, amid a babble of pedantry and preciosity, declines to regard the present as prosaic or the common as commonplace…. A rude, popular literature of the romantic possibilities of the modern city was bound to arise. It has arisen in the popular detective stories, as rough and refreshing as the ballads of Robin Hood.”

My second speculation applies to Chesterton alone. He was a fervent anti-imperialist and had a lifelong animus against even so great a writer as Kipling for being a de¬ fender of the Empire. Chesterton believed that the real responsibilities of British governors lay at home on British soil and not on the road to Mandalay. Well, as Kenneth Rexroth has written, “Doyle, himself an Irishman and an outsider, catches and transmits the intense individualism and the universal consent (of Victorianism), and instinctively emphasizes the source of this vast, unstable, dynamic balance—empire… India, China, the South Seas, the Far West, his characters come home from the ends of the earth to blackmail and murder each other.”

So, is it too far-fetched to believe that Doyle’s excellent fantasies contain a cautionary note about the dangers of empire addressed to the beneficiaries of empire—his middle-class readership?

In any event, let us be grateful to the makers of the Granada Series (to be resumed in the fall, according to Jeremy Brett, with a two-hour production of “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”) for making us see these minor classics of popular fiction freshly, for reminding us of past enjoyment, and for letting us experience this enjoyment again in a new medium.


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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