Mostly it’s the forehead, but Jonny Lee Miller, who plays Sherlock Holmes in the CBS television series Elementary, looks more like Sherlock Holmes than any Sherlock Holmes I can name.
More than Benedict Cumberbatch. More than Jeremy Brett. Certainly more than Robert Downey Jr.
I know. That last one, blasphemy.
Also, I know. I’m leaving out somebody important. I’ll get to him later.
When I say Miller looks like Sherlock Holmes, I mean he looks like how I pictured my ideal Sherlock Holmes whose image my imagination pieced together out of Sidney Paget’s illustrations for Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, what I gleaned from the stories themselves, and my own wishful thinking about what I’d look like when I grew up: very tall, very lean, with a very high forehead, a very sharp nose, blue-eyed, fair-haired, and…young.
The last was important to my conception of Holmes and not just in helping me identify with him. Every Holmes I’d seen on TV when I was a kid---that would have included Rathbone, Cushing, and Stewart Granger, an undeservedly forgotten Holmes but to my mind then disqualifyingly white-haired---looked to me like an old man and I knew from the stories, where I encountered Holmes first, that he was in his twenties when he began his career as the world’s first and only private consulting detective and still only thirty-seven when he apparently went over Reichenbach Falls with Professor Moriarity.
But as much as he looks like Sherlock Holmes as I’ve always imagined him, he hasn’t convinced me he is Sherlock Holmes.
In fact, of all the Holmeses I’ve mentioned and the one I haven’t yet, he’s the least convincing Holmes. Downey is more like Holmes, even though his Holmes is something of a joke, the joke, being, however, the answer to the questions, What if Holmes and Watson were more like the sides of themselves that only occasionally show in Conan Doyle’s stories, usually in references to cases Watson hasn’t chronicled yet but from what little Watson tells us we can guess are much more adventurous, dangerous, violent, and outlandish than any of the stories on hand? What if instead of being the staid and proper Victorian gentlemen they’re usually portrayed as we get to see them as a pair of swashbuckling soldiers of fortune, not just the prototypes for a long line of movie and TV and mystery novel detectives but the precursors of James Bond?
That side of them is in the stories. Holmes can wield a sword, he’s a crack shot with a pistol, and he’s a master of martial arts. He has actually been a spy on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Even the part of the first Downey Holmes movie you might have thought was an outrageous invention by director Guy Ritchie, Holmes “relaxing” by taking part in a bare-knuckle prizefight, is inspired by a moment in The Sign of Four. Holmes, we find out, has been an amateur boxer and good enough that one of his old opponents, a professional named McMurdo still thinks Holmes missed his true calling when he left the ring to take up detective work.
“Very sorry, Mr. Thaddeus,” said the porter inexorably. “Folk may be friends o’ yours, and yet no friend o’ the master’s. He pays me well to do my duty, and my duty I’ll do. I don’t know none o’ your friends.”
“Oh, yes you do, McMurdo,” cried Sherlock Holmes genially. “I don’t think you can have forgotten me. Don’t you remember that amateur who fought three rounds with you at Alison’s rooms on the night of your benefit four years back?”
“Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!” roared the prize-fighter. “God’s truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o’ standin’ there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I’d ha’ known you without a question. Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.”
“You see, Watson, if all else fails me, I have still one of the scientific professions open to me,” said Holmes, laughing. “Our friend won’t keep us out in the cold now, I am sure.”
I don’t think his name gets said in the movie, but according to IMDB, the boxer Downey’s Holmes defeats with a trick of a handkerchief is McMurdo.
Physical strength, athleticism, a capacity for violence even a relish for it, and a love of adventure and danger for their own sakes are intrinsic to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Holmes. Holmes’ brother Mycroft spells it out for Watson and us in this exchange from A Scandal in Belgravia.
Jeremy Brett’s Holmes may not ever have aspired to be a pirate, but there’s a roguishness to him that suggests he’d be sympathetic to the pirate’s point of view and would have made a good one if he’d wanted. Brett was fifty-one when he took on the part---Cumberbatch was thirty-four when he started---and he knew better than to try to play Holmes young. But his Holmes is a man in his prime, still vigorous, and full of pent-up physical energy, which often shows most when he’s at his most still. It’s the stillness of a big cat, relaxed for the moment but always prepared to pounce. So it isn’t surprising that his Holmes can straighten out a bent fireplace iron, knock down a local bully in a bar, scale walls and climb drainpipes, and, as he does at the beginning of The Final Problem, take on and fight off three of Moriarty’s hired thugs in a scene that, with a little strategic slow-motion, could have come right out of Guy Ritchie’s movies, and it’s a scene that’s not entirely made up for television. At the beginning of the Doyle story, Holmes shows Watson the knuckles he bloodied punching a club-swinging goon in the mouth in the course of escaping a string of Moriarty-plotted attempts on his life that afternoon.
While we’re on the subject, Basil Rathbone---who made The Hound of the Baskervilles when he was forty-seven---couldn’t help inspiring images of swashbucklers and pirates, swordplay and feats of derring-do in his audience, since it was movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood that made him a star. Of course, he played villains in both and in more than his fair share of other movies, but that was also an attractive feature of his Holmes. It added a sinister cast to his character. Which fits. As Doyle’s Holmes himself likes to point out, he’d have rivaled Moriarty as a master criminal if he’d turned his talents to crime, an idea Holmes seems to think is a recommendation.
But I’ve seen no pirate in Miller’s Holmes. No swashbuckler. I get no sense of any pent-up physicality. His Holmes vibrates but with a nervous energy that seems fueled more by caffeine and sugar than a sign of eager muscles demanding to be put to use. A 21st Century Londoner living in contemporary New York City, Miller’s Holmes is something of a hipster, which is fine. Doyle’s Holmes is a “bohemian,” and bohemians were sort of the hipsters of their day. But Miller’s Holmes looks to be in about the same physical shape and about as likely to spring into violent action as any average frequenter of Brooklyn coffee houses on a Sunday morning engrossed in the Times Style section and still a chai latte and a third biscotti shy of operating at peak performance.
Miller gives his Holmes a number of very Holmesian qualities and puts his own, attractive spin on them. He’s persuasively brilliant. We can see he’s keenly observant, clearly taking in everything Holmes would take in, including all that he’ll decide can be disregarded. He wouldn’t, as Downey’s Holmes does, claim to see “everything.” That would be a waste of effort. But he is seeing.
He’s witty. Every good Holmes has a wicked sense of humor. He’s a quick and crafty liar. He knows when and how to play games with witnesses, suspects, the police, and anyone blundering into his way or tries to interrupt his thinking while he’s pursuing a clue. He’s brusque past the point of rudeness, but he’s not wholly insensitive. It’s just that when he’s focused and at work, his thoughts run away with him and his mouth. He enjoys being a difficult character and even seems to think it’s one of his charms. He talks a lot for someone who’s said to often go days without speaking. In fact, he’s something of a motormouth. But that’s in keeping with Doyle’s Holmes, who, for all he pretends otherwise, enjoys explaining himself and discoursing on his methods and past cases.
But he just doesn’t strike me as sufficiently dangerous.
He’s not inactive. In fact, he can hardly sit still. And he’s not physically timid. He hasn’t done anything like it in the episodes I’ve watched, but I can imagine him climbing out a window and out onto the ledge of a high-rise apartment to test a theory, just as Cumberbatch’s Holmes does in The Blind Banker. But I see him doing it because he has to and not for the thrill of it as well, as Cumberbatch’s Holmes also does. Miller’s Holmes has strength he can muster when needed and he can be violent and to effect. We see him swing a police baton the way Doyle’s Holmes sometimes does his walking stick, with the confidence that comes from lots of practice and the determination that comes from an intent to cause real damage.
Depressingly, in this case he’s not motivated by practical necessity. He does it for that most clichéd and disingenuous TV detective show tropes---revenge for a crime committed against someone he loves---which writers employ to permit their heroes anything while still making a claim on our sympathy.
He could do more of this. It’s just that he’s not been required to. And that’s what I’m getting at. For all his lapses into lethargies and long periods of silent meditation, Doyle’s Holmes is a man of action, a swashbuckler with a touch of pirate, because his stories require him to be.
Doyle’s Holmes and Watson travel in a fictional world where the violent, the macabre, the bizarre, and the borderline supernatural are routine. While many of the stories are, on the surface, realistic in a 21st Century literary sense and some are even humorous, and the mysteries and crimes in them are somewhat tame---A Scandal in Bohemia, The Blue Carbuncle, The Red-Headed League---most of them at least hint at much darker and dangerous realities. They might start out in a puzzler as seemingly comic and inconsequential as in A Case of Identity but any one of them might turn into The Sign of Four and send Holmes and Watson out into the night and the fog to dodge poison-tipped blow darts and shoot it out with the villains boat to boat during a chase down the river. In short, a lot of what happens in the Guy Ritchie-Robert Downey movies are only exaggerations of what happens in the stories. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are adventures, romantic action-adventures, and Holmes and Watson are action-adventure heroes.
Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t set out to invent the modern detective story and, apparently, quickly lost interest in Holmes, even as Holmes grew in popularity. He even grew to resent him, which is why he killed him off in The Final Problem. The Holmes stories were getting in the way of his writing the kind of adventure tales he preferred to tell and on which he thought his reputation as a writer would be made. Consequently, he routinely used Holmes as an excuse to tell one of those sorts of stories.
So Doyle wasn’t writing about puzzling out mysteries and solving crimes. At the center of most of the Holmes stories is a romantic adventure tale that may include a crime but is more likely building towards one and Holmes and Watson have to work fast to prevent it. They are often coming to the rescue and to do this Holmes usually, but not always, has to puzzle out a mystery. It’s interesting and amusing that Holmes figures out that Doctor Roylott is using a trained swamp adder as a murder weapon, but it’s important that Holmes is there in the nick of time to beat back the snake and save the girl.
For this to matter, we have to care about Helen Stoner as an intended victim and about Roylott as a villain. (By the way, there’s never a doubt that he is a villain. Few of Holmes’ cases are whodunits. Most are howdidtheydoits or howdotheyplantodoits or willtheygetawaywithits.) This means she and he have to matter as characters in a story that matters. It's the same for the heroes, heroines, victims, and villains in the other adventures. They matter because the story matters. The story matters because they matter. You can look at it either way. What it amounts to is that Holmes and Watson are characters in their adventures, quite often supporting characters, arriving like the cavalry as those adventures are reaching their climaxes.
If we weren’t afraid for Helen Stoner, if we weren’t afraid of Doctor Roylott, it wouldn’t strike us as such an impressive feat on Holmes’ part when he figures out what the speckled band is. If we didn’t come quickly to like and admire Irene Adler and develop a rooting interest in her outwitting Holmes, his tricking her into revealing where she hid the photograph would be just that, a neat trick. If we weren’t made to fall half in love with Lady Brackenstall ourselves, it wouldn’t worry us that every bit of evidence Holmes turns up points towards her lying about the circumstances of her husband’s murder.
The stories matter. The characters matter. The mysteries are secondary. And many of the stories are sensationalistic. Doyle's influences include more than Poe’s Dupin and his influence extends beyond Agatha Christie and Rex Stout. Doyle crosses over into high Kipling---The Sign of Four, The Crooked Man---or gives in enthusiastically to the influences of Wilke Collins and his fellow Scot Robert Louis Stevenson---The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Resident Patient, The Creeping Man, The Sussex Vampire. Sometimes---The Dancing Men, The Gloria Scott, Wisteria Lodge, and The Greek Interpreter---he’s paving the way for Jack London and Joseph Conrad.
Of the eight episodes I’ve seen, only two have had plots like those kind of stories. In an episode titled Dirty Laundry, Holmes investigates the murder of a woman who turns out to have been a member of a sleeper cell of Russian spies living as an average American family in the suburbs. I know. Shades of The Americans, right? But Elementary got there first and, besides it’s based on a real and recent news story. And Doyle would have approved of the plot. Holmes finds himself drawn into the world of spies and international intrigue in a number of stories, including The Second Stain, The Red Circle, and The Bruce Partington Plans. But in those adventures, the real stories belong to the people caught up in the intrigue. In Dirty Laundry, what the spies were up to barely matters. Holmes is never in danger of being drawn in to their adventure because there isn’t any adventure. Their story is just the background for the puzzle the writers have given Holmes to solve.
Thursday night’s episode, The Red Team, was about a conspiracy to kill off all the members of a federal counter-terrorist study group that had devised an unstoppable plan for devastating New York. (It’s telling, though, that the title isn’t an allusion to The Red-Headed League.) It came closer to providing Holmes with an actual adventure. The characters almost came to life in their own rights and their story was almost a story. But in the end it was about solving another puzzle and what story it had was a continuation of the revenge trope that excuses the hero for everything.
The show’s writers seem to think we’re interested in Holmes only because we enjoy his being brilliant, But in their struggles to contrive problems for him to solve that require him to be brilliant, they over-complicate the plots, pile on the red herrings, play games with suspects and motives, and, when all else fails, kill off another character in order to give Holmes more clues to chase, making Holmes less of brilliant deductionist than an indefatigable multi-tasker, the opposite of Holmes’ approach in the story which is always to narrow his focus. By the end they’ve tied their stories into so many knots that there is no way for Holmes to be brilliant enough to figure it all out because it can’t be figured out, it can only be described. It’s left to Holmes to explain it to us in a way that makes it seem that he solved the case by the simple trick of reading ahead in the script.
What the writers forget---or failed to observe in their reading of the stories---is that Holmes’ brilliant deductions are often a matter of a single, but simple close observation. He’s noticed something that’s easily overlooked by others---the dirt on a shop assistant’s knees, the dog that did nothing in the night time. And when Holmes explains it, Watson or someone is bound to respond something like, “But that’s so obvious. Why didn’t I think of that?” The suspense isn’t in our wondering if Holmes will solve the problem or how he we will solve it---we know he will and we know when he does our own response will be the same as Watson’s. Part of the fun is chuckling over our own obliviousness.---the suspense is in our worrying that he might not solve it in time.
And the tension comes from the problem’s having been set by a particular person.
Even in the stories where Holmes’ detective work is more central, it’s not a one-man show. Holmes is matching wits with someone at least smart enough to challenge Holmes’ intelligence for a time. There’s a war of wills going on between Holmes and whoever it is, and although sometimes we can’t see his adversaries right away, because they’re as yet unknown or they are offstage and have to be chased down or, at least in one case, dead and, in another case, apparently dead. The point is that an adversary is an active and intelligent character worth Holmes’ time and energy. They don’t need to be and rarely are up to Moriarty’s level, but they have enough in them to present Holmes with a challenge that’s more than solving a puzzle.
Again, this makes them interesting characters in their own rights and gives them stories of their own. In Elementary this has been the case in one case. In the other episodes I’ve seen, the adversary has been only an explanation for the puzzle he or she has supposedly presented Holmes with, as if the writers are always working backwards, starting by saying, “This is a neat mystery we’ve concocted. Now what kind of person would do this?”
So the bad guys don’t matter because they’re just devices to explain the plots, and it’s the same with the victims, who are usually dead from the beginning anyway. And Holmes’ clients don’t matter because…he doesn’t have any clients.
Correction. He has one client. The police.
This Holmes is not a private consulting detective. He’s a full-time consultant for the NYPD and his cases are brought to him by the police, which is a significant change from the usual convention of Doyle’s stories. Many of Holmes’ most intriguing cases are brought to him straight by the victims or intended victims and this means they get to speak for themselves and immediately involve us in their distress.
On Elementary, however, we hear about them second-hand, from the mouths of cops in the voices of and words of cops delivering a report. It’s distancing and it has the effect of reducing them to plot devices in stories that are all about Holmes being brilliant, which, as I’ve pointed out, turns out to be trouble for the writers.
I don’t know why the show’s creators felt they had to give their Holmes this quasi-official position. It’s not true to the stories and it’s not original. Instead of connecting him with Doyle’s Holmes, it makes him just another in a line of TV detectives. Monk, Psych’s Shawn Spencer, Castle are “consultants” to the police too. In fact, Doyle’s Holmes would find this idea offensive. Holmes is routinely insistent that he did not work for the police. He’s a freelancer’s freelancer, a freebooter even, a soldier of fortune (I’m back to the swashbuckling.) and he demands a privateer’s freedom to conduct his business as he sees fit and not as the Law requires. And if that means doing things that are extra-legal or illegal---breaking and entering being one of his favorite tactics---that’s all to the best. More than that, he wants the freedom to choose his own cases. Most of all, though, he wants the freedom to decide for himself whether or not to hand someone over to the Law for punishment.
“…My sister thinks that I am going mad. Sometimes I think that I am myself. And now–and now I am myself a branded thief, without ever having touched the wealth for which I sold my character. God help me! God help me!” He burst into convulsive sobbing, with his face buried in his hands.
There was a long silence, broken only by his heavy breathing, and by the measured tapping of Sherlock Holmes’s finger-tips upon the edge of the table. Then my friend rose and threw open the door.
“Get out!” said he.
“What, sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!”
“No more words. Get out!”
And no more words were needed. There was a rush, a clatter upon the stairs, the bang of a door, and the crisp rattle of running footfalls from the street.
“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature.”
So…no adventures or potential adventures, no stories only plots, no real deductions only obviously scripted exposition, no clients, no worthy villains, no real characters besides Holmes and Watson and the police, not even any sense of time and place. Too much can be made of the theatrical trappings of Doyle’s Holmes’ Victorian London, the fog, the gas lamps, the top hats and hansom cabs and cockney voices calling out in the dark. But Holmes lives in a particular place and he knows it inside and out, because he has to in order to do his job, and he knows it in more ways than geographically. He knows its characters and its character. New York City as a particular place doesn’t figure in Elementary hardly at all. It’s a generic city and its crime scenes are generic, a hotel laundry, a bank, a beach, a hospital, a corporate boardroom, an airport hangar, all of which for all we see and hear and for all it matters could be and might as well be in Boston, or Chicago, or Houston, Miami, Los Angeles, or Honolulu, anywhere that’s Big City, USA.
It all adds up to this. Jonny Lee Miller hasn’t convinced me that his Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock Holmes because so far he hasn’t appeared in anything like a real Sherlock Holmes story.
That could change, quickly and easily enough. I hope it does. As I’ve said, Miller’s Holmes has many Holmesian qualities and the swashbuckling side of him might show itself if he’s ever given a real adventure. And he has other traits that weren’t part of Doyle’s Holmes but which has become standard, thanks to that one Sherlock Holmes I didn’t name up top. Nicol Willaimson.
In The Seven Percent Solution (written and directed by Nicholas Meyer in 1976), Williamson made Holmes manic, neurotic, and more than a touch paranoid. He also made him dashing, overtly swashbuckling---the movie’s climax is a swordfight between Holmes and the villain on top of a moving train---and, if not young, youthful.
The Seven Percent Solution has finally been re-released on DVD and New York Times has a good article about how Williamson is The Holmes Behind the Modern Sherlock.
Of course, Williamson was playing Holmes as a drug addict, so some of these qualities are signs of his being coked out of his head. Brett’s and Cumberbatch’s are recreational users. Miller’s Holmes isn’t using. He’s in recovery. Which brings me to a couple other things that keep me from accepting Miller as the Sherlock Holmes.
He’s young, yes. The youngest Holmes yet, even though Miller is several years older than Cumberbatch. But he’s not young in the sense of being a young man. He’s young in the sense of being boyish. And not just any sort of boy. A little boy lost.
Doyle’s Holmes appears to have no parents. His only family is his brother Mycroft. We don’t know if Miller’s Holmes has a brother but he most definitely has a father. A very stern and demanding one. We haven’t met him yet but his presence is felt in that Holmes’ recovery is being paid for and overseen by his father. So instead of Holmes being in the position of an independent grown-up, he’s essentially a teenager who’s been grounded and who’s always looking for opportunities to sneak out of the house and have some fun.
He even has a babysitter to outwit and avoid.
You’ve probably noticed I haven’t mentioned someone very important to every Holmes. I’ll get to him…I mean her…no, both, him and her in a follow-up post. But for now it’s enough to know that Miller’s Holmes’ Watson is a stand-in for Daddy Holmes.
And if that’s not enough, Holmes’ addiction isn’t due to a habit of self-medication that got out of control.
He was driven to it by heartbreak and grief. Someone near and dear to him was murdered and he can’t forgive himself because he failed to save her.
It’s not much of stretch to play Holmes as psychologically damaged in some way. But I cannot accept as Sherlock Holmes a Sherlock Holmes we’re meant to feel sorry for.
CBS is showing a new episode tonight after the Super Bowl. I’ll be tuning in. There’s still a chance the show will grow on me and that Miller’s Holmes will grow up. I hope so, because, again, he still looks the most like my Sherlock Holmes.
Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aidan Quinn, and Jon Michael Hill, airs on CBS, Thursday nights at 10 PM Eastern time, 9 Central. A new episode will air tonight after the Super Bowl.