Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century

 Posted by on June 28, 2014  Add comments
Jun 282014

Call me old-fashioned if you want to, but I’m against this business of setting Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century.   I don’t like it.  Sherlock Holmes needs to live in a grimy, smog-polluted London, a place of muddy streets, hansom cabs and urchins, a city of footpads, sword-sticks and homicidal surgeons.  A place where a man such as Holmes can have an enigmatic past.

Holmes should never inhabit a technology-ridden 21st century where everything has been so demystified that a chap is unable to remain interesting and a little melancholy.

Besides, how can a cocaine and opium-using detective have any credibility outside Victorian England?  It’s simply absurd.  Holmes without the drugs is Holmes without Holmes.

Oddly enough, I don’t mind it when he wakes up from suspended animation and finds himself in the late twentieth century.  That’s fine since he’s still the same Victorian detective.   I can even understand the propaganda use of war-time films since, apart from anything else, the English 1940s were still in black and white.  Grainy, Victorian, and distinctly old-fashioned, as it should be.  There was room in the 1940s for indeterminate, ambiguous, blurred characters like Holmes, in a way that doesn’t exist any more under the  steely light of modern, sanitised, politically-correct searching robotic eyes.

When I was a lad, and that’s not yesterday or the day before, I loved everything about Arthur Doyle’s stories, although to be truthful, his notion of what constituted logic was always a little shaky.  The great detective, despite everything you might have been told, wasn’t all that good at deductive reasoning, possibly due to his over reliance on cocaine and opium.  Reading the stories, you want to take him aside and explain, No Sherlock. There are other reasons the lock might have had tiny scratches invisible to Inspector Lestrade but not hidden from you and your magnifying glass.  Many other reasons apart from your conclusion that the man must have been drunk.  A million other possible reasons, including a shaky hand.

Where was Mycroft when Sherlock was making these leaps of logic?

It’s not that I want to belittle Holmes with this.   On the contrary, I want him to be perfect, and sometimes his creator, Doyle, let him down, as imperfect creators are inclined to do.  And to be fair to Dr Doyle, he did his best to animate his Victorian Adam, even providing him with a superior Eve in the form of Irene Adler, Holmes’s match in every way, all the better to explain his later sexless melancholy in case anyone might scandalously think he leant towards those of his own gender.

Instead of deduction, to prove that Holmes could not exist in the 21st century, let me try a little induction instead.

It seems to me that without Professor Moriarty, Holmes would be nothing.  A mere bagatelle.  Without the fierce mirror of his antagonist calling him to account, Holmes would be little more than a trickster, a conjurer, a fraud, much like the people these days who claim to contact the dead through the seedy technique of cold reading.  Holmes would be just another shabby Jesus roaming the shores of Galilee in search of a follower.

When I was a lad, a professor was not simply an expert in his own field.   In order to become a professor of anything, it was necessary to achieve a broad range of erudition.   Professors were people of significant intellect and wide-ranging eclectic interests, able to engage an entire salon in witty banter and learned badinage, while at the same time defending three contradictory philosophical propositions against a hostile choir of lesser academics, none of whom has consumed strong drink.

Today, professors are people who did very well in their exams and became very good at their specialities.  And while it’s true that many are well-read, broadly-educated, eclectic, talented individuals, such qualifications are no longer the sine qua non, in this post-education era, when it’s all about getting a job.

There’s no room for Moriarty in this technocratic, utilitarian century, I’m afraid, and therefore, no room for his beloved antithesis, Sherlock Holmes.

Hound of the Baskervilles Sherlock HolmesThat’s my QED, but I’ll leave you with one final thing.   Today, I wandered into my favourite cosy corner for a nice cup of tea after the market, my Saturday morning ritual without which the week is no good, and my hand happened to fall on a newspaper supplement, something I would normally never touch, but needs must when there’s nothing else available to read.

It contained an ad for a gadget.

Put a STOP to annoying dogs barking, humanely and efficiently, it said.

Discounting the possibility that it didn’t want to stop dogs barking humanely or efficiently, I immediately worked out, using my Holmes-like powers of deduction that it was a gadget to stop dogs barking without hurting them.

A built-in microphone senses barking and triggers a harmless high-pitched sonic pulse, the ad promises.   The dog hates that noise and it soon learns not to be barking near the gadget.

Now, cast your mind back to the Silver Blaze story, the curious incident of the dog in the night time.

What did the dog do in the night-time?

Nothing.  That was what was so curious.

Why did the dog not bark when an intruder led the racehorse from its stall?   Simple, in the 19th century world of Sherlock Holmes:

Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.  It was Straker who removed Silver Blaze from his stall and led him out on to the moor.

Not any more, I’m afraid.

These days, Sherlock would have to say,

Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well or else the intruder secreted a hidden voice-actuated ultrasonic emitter in the vicinity of the stall, in order to induce a Pavlovian response in the dog.  It may have been Straker who removed Silver Blaze from his stall and led him out on to the moor but on the other hand, it may not.  It’s impossible to say.

Somehow, it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.  Let’s keep Sherlock Holmes where he belongs, if that’s all right with everyone here.


As usual, I contradict myself, but there you are.  Isn’t that why you come here?  This is what I said in 2010 about the new Sherlock series.


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