Friday, October 05, 2012

What you can get away with in Elementary school

I would like to propose a small alteration. Instead of:

“When you eliminate the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”

let us have:

“When you eliminate the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, means you haven’t got the whole picture yet”

The Sherlock Holmes line works for him exclusively because he is fiction and written in a world conjured to fit only him. No one but Holmes is allowed to spot a clue, no one but him is allowed to correctly deduce anything. And the only clues that exist are precisely the ones that will lead him to the villainous criminal.

If there’s a spot of blood on a wall, for instance, it’s to do with this case. It cannot ever be that there was another unrelated gang killing in the same spot twenty minutes before.

Similarly, in the latest retelling of the tales, Elementary, Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) correctly spots that shards on the kitchen floor come from two wine glasses and that therefore the victim knew her assailant.

The deduction is correct only because Holmes made it. I deduce instead that, say, the victim saw it was wine o’clock, started knocking back a jar or two of the old vino until she was heading toward being legless and managed to smash her first glass. “Oh, well,” she says, throwing her arms wide with drunken abandon, “I’ve got another one just like that.” And off she goes, drinking from a new glass until the cycle would’ve repeated but for how she was murdered.

This is absolutely not possible, it is an entirely wrong deduction. But solely because Holmes didn’t make it.

This is the case with all fiction, it’s just that sometimes it’s taken to extremes. Sherlock Holmes is the world’s greatest detective primarily because he says so. I don’t know why people believe him – and yet they believe him to the degree that folk around the world really do write to this fictional detective asking for his help on real crimes.

You know that. You’ve heard that. I’ve never heard what those crimes are. You’ve got to suspect that they’re probably not on a par with his usual cases. I mean, they immediately lose some sense of urgency just since people are writing from overseas. They are also writing to a fictional character who by definition never lived but just to be sure was also killed off in 1893 but never mind that, focus on the overseas bit. Something that makes you write overseas for help is either going to be such a gigantic case that the police can’t help you or it’s going to be so piddling small that the police won’t help you.

It’s piddling small, isn’t it? Maybe it’s a variant on Occam’s Razor, but I would offer that if something is either epic and earth-shattering or dull as ditchwater, it is always going to be ditchwatertastic.


The greatest detective in the world gets asked for help finding lost poodles instead of hounds. He also, lest we forget, doesn’t exist. From this, he gets his reputation.

I have had friends I liked very much, and even admired, to whom you could say: “A Study in Scarlet, page 63” and they would tell you what was on the page. It’s a kind of religious devotion in that it has the same remarkable accuracy of the devoted the same willingness to ignore elephants. Fans speak of Holmes’s brilliance yet even with all the clues laid out for him – only for him and only the right clues – still Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has to cheat over some plot points.

The Sherlock Holmes short stories don’t hold me. I have enjoyed the novels much more but they have left me blinking at plot chasms and that niggles at me, it gnaws at me, actually it flat-out maims my interest.

Just not because I like plots.

The more I write, the less I am interested in plots. It’s character that matters to me and actually dialogue. Have I said this to you before? Were we in a pub at the time? If I don’t believe what a character is saying, I don’t believe the character. If I don’t believe the character, I don’t care what happens to them. Have a fantastic plot, I’m already gone.

Always, always, I just want to be scooped up by the characters and into the world of the story. Without question, I’ve utterly missed plot holes because I’m caught up in the tale. I’m fine with that. I’m more than fine with that. I might wonder about it technically if you point it out to me afterwards, but whatever you get away with in a film is fine by me.

I’m plainly just not that taken with the character of Sherlock Holmes or I wouldn’t mind, I wouldn’t notice failings in the tales or their retellings.

You know I’m right. You just also know that I haven’t written anything that’s lasted 125 years, been filmed over 200 times and has one high-profile and very successful British TV version plus a very high-profile and at least initially quite successful American TV version at the same time.


Adaddinsane said...

Professional envy.

Ken Armstrong said...

I love that the two main actors of Danny Boyle's 'Frankenstein' are both making a nice living of Sherlock.

Nice post. Dialogue sets the 'game afoot' for my writing... every time.

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