Even lovers of Sherlock Holmes may have learned something new about the great man on Sunday 16 August at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
Matthew Sweet, BBC Radio 3 presenter, and Mark Gatiss, actor, and co-creator of the Sherlock TV drama series, together presented a fantastic programme of music related to Sherlock Holmes. Mark Gatiss read several passages from the original Conan Doyle stories alongside the music. I learned that the original Holmes was a lover of the opera and especially Wagner; and that Irene Adler, “the Woman” (the one person who outwitted Holmes) was an operatic contralto who had performed at La Scala Milan. In addition to this, although Conan Doyle himself was not much of a musical buff, nevertheless his creation Holmes had a very abstruse taste in and knowledge of music; he was an expert on the “polyphonic motets of Lassus.”
Additionally, Holmes’ gift for playing the violin was one aspect of the great detective which Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt chose to adhere to firmly when they re-created him as Sherlock for the twenty-first century. The deerstalker cap came much later; but the violin was a necessity from the very beginning.
Once again I wondered at and rejoiced in the fact that when we create fictional characters we may give them skills and abilities and awareness far beyond our own; and when they come to take on their own life in the minds of our readers, then who would ever guess the limitations of their creator? An uplifting thought indeed for novelists!
When we visited on Saturday, as Sherlock fans, we found much to enthral, amuse and intrigue us. I was particularly captivated by a number of paintings of Victorian London in the fog, which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used to such great effect in his Sherlock Holmes stories.
He used the fog of London almost as a character in its own right, as a metaphor for human life, and for the mysteries Holmes was called upon to unravel. Sherlock Holmes’s familiarity with the rail network, the bus routes, the streets, pubs and cafes was used not only to give the stories character and depth but almost to power them. The exhibition enriched my understanding of how setting itself fires and drives a writer’s creativity.
The number of actors (the highest on the list, to my mind, are Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch) who have portrayed Holmes in the media is just one indication of the hold the character has taken on the public imagination.
An inspiring and illuminating exhibition which I recommend to all lovers of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft tells Watson in the latest BBC recreation of this much-loved character, has the mind of a scientist or a philosopher; yet he chose to be a consulting detective. When he was a child he wanted to be a pirate. And Conan Doyle tells us Holmes is also a consummate actor. He will disappear into another room, don a completely different outfit, and emerge “in the character of” somebody else. This enables him to mingle with like characters and listen to their conversations and gather information. Of course, as Sherlock tells us airily, most of it will be irrelevant; but his genius is for alighting on exactly the details he needs, and filtering out everything else.
Scientist, philosopher, pirate, detective, actor: there are times as a novelist when you employ skills which would probably feature in the Person Specification for every one of these jobs.
A Sherlock Holmes story usually involves a conundrum for the great detective to unravel. His talent is for changing one in a set of presumptions. Then several obstacles and caveats disappear. Removing one notion can immediately cast several other scenarios as feasible.
In Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gatiss’s reinterpretation of Sherlock for the BBC, the great detective is shown to display certain features of Asperger Syndrome; i.e. he’s not good at the nuances involved in personal relationships. Yet he works always to restore balance and legality and order to people’s lives.
A line I love from the end of Conan Doyle’s story “The Dying Detective” is: Good evening Inspector. All is in order and this is your man. Holmes had appeared to be dying of an Asian disease, in order to trap the killer into a confession. The need for order and balance is inextricable from human relationships – otherwise there can be no warmth, compassion, or responsiveness. These are the keys to a good relationship: rewards for and recognition of relational goodness. And this is the paradox: Sherlock rewards Dr John Watson in this way. Thus he demonstrates his friendship which intermittently lifts him out of his habitual way of relating to people.