Some hypotheses as to the mystery of the resurgent sleuth


*Warning contains spoilers for series 1 and 2 of Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows*

Sherlock is back. This is true both in the sense that:

1)      a new series of the BBC drama starts this evening (YIPEE!!!);

2)      even though the last of Conan Doyle’s story was published in 1927, Holmes is popping up in an awful lot of culture.

At the present moment there are:

  • Gatiss and Moffat’s series for the BBC staring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
  • Guy Ritchie’s films Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. A third one is apparently on the way. These are essentially Victorian set action comedies.
  • The NBC series Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson. Like Sherlock, it brings Conan Doyle’s characters into the present day. In this version Holmes is solving mysteries in New York while recovering from drug addiction. Oh and Watson is a women.
  • Ian McKellen will play an elderly Holmes in an upcoming film called a Slight Trick of the Mind.
  • Series like the Mentalist and Law and Order: Criminal Intent that take their basic model from Holme’s adventures.

Furthermore, whereas previous TV and film versions of these stories tended to be stale pieces of Victoriana, recent versions tend to be extremely loose adaptations that nonetheless feel very true to the spirit of the originals. Writers seem to have rediscovered the energy, excitement and mischief that Conan Doyle injected into his stories.

This all raises the question of why Holmes seems to have so much cultural currency at the present moment. Here in no particular order are some theories of mine:


It’s not exactly a secret that the creative industries can be strikingly unimaginative. So any successful project seems to result in a herd of imitators.

There seems to have been some of this going on with Holmes’ resurgence. Elementary seems to be a rip-off of Sherlock. In fact, the BBC claimed that CBS had approached them about an Americanised Sherlock, and only made Elementary when they didn’t get permission to do that.

However, that’s not the whole story. The BBC series and the Ritchie films seem to have arisen independently.

1900 is here again (1): it’s scary out there

Holmes’ adventures take place between 1880 and 1914. Chronologically speaking, the final story is His Last Bow which sees Holmes match wits with a German spymaster on the eve of WWI. He is thus a product of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods when an apparently flourishing European civilisation slid towards the catastrophe of World War.

A recent Economist article noted that looking at 1914 and 2014:

the parallels remain troubling. The United States is Britain, the superpower on the wane, unable to guarantee global security. Its main trading partner, China, plays the part of Germany, a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation and building up its armed forces rapidly. Modern Japan is France, an ally of the retreating hegemon and a declining regional power.

We could also find parallels in the way turn of the century Britain was menaced by Anarchist and Irish terrorism.

It is striking the extent to which modern adaptors home in on these themes. For example, in Sherlock, there is Mycroft’s macabre plan to thwart a terrorist attack on a passenger plane. The first Ritchie film features religious extremists planning to attack parliament with chemical weapons. And in its sequel, Moriarty orchestrates terrorist attacks that aim to push the great powers into a war.

1900 is here again (2): London’s back

I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that Ritchie could go from directing films about present day London gangsters to ones about the Edwardian sleuth living a century beforehand.

Holmes’ London was the hub of the largest empire in history. It was a dynamic, crowded and divided place. In short, it was an exciting city and a great setting for detective stories.

Conan Doyle, a great supporter of Britain’s colonial project frequently uses London’s imperial and global character in his stories. The narrative arch of a lot of Holmes’ adventures could be summarised as: someone commits a dreadful sin somewhere in the world and flees to London to escape it but it catches up with them in the UK and face a reckoning. Holmes then has to investigate the aftermath.

The global cast of villains that Holmes faces include the Mafia, the Klu Klux Klan, the nascent Mormon Church, the Molly Macguires, Australian bush rangers and a poison dart wielding dwarf from the Andaman Islands.

After World War I, London became increasingly suburbanised, the rampant inequality was tamed by the welfare state and it declined as an international city. In short, it ceased to the metropolis Holmes roamed.

But now that London is back. It’s a global city once again, growing much faster than the rest of the UK, it’s the natural habitat of the superrich global elite and a result massively unequal, and also home to an extraordinary cornucopia of migrants. It’s once again a city worthy of Holmes’ attention.

We can see Holmes think

Both Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes, rely on a great deal of technical tricks to take us inside Holmes mind: rapid cuts, bullet time, words on screen etc. Many of these techniques were until quite recently either not available or harder to use with such regularit,. It’s hard to remember now but the way CSI dramatised forensic science was initially quite ground breaking and Holmes’ modern incarnations have to a great extent been following in its wake.

Being able to go into Holmes mind has the added advantage of freeing up Watson to do more than have exposition delivered at him.


Alongside the obvious themes of deduction and crime fighting, Conan Doyle’s stories are in a large part about the friendship between Holmes and Watson. This has lead quite a number of people to wonder if the intense companionship between the two men might indicate they were gay. I have always found this idea rather aggravating because to me it has always felt like a product of our collective inability to think about relationships in anything other than sexual terms.

One of the many strengths of Sherlock is how it uses our insecurities around male bonding for comic effect. I would speculate that this is possible to do because these fears are receding: as we become less paranoid about homosexuality, exploring homosociality becomes safer. Holmes and Watson are likely easier characters to portray when society is either largely unaware of homosexuality or largely accepting of it. In the decades between the two problems may lie.

As a side note, this theme seems to persist even when Watson is a woman. Elementary executive producer Carl Bevan has said of the relationship between his iterations of the characters that it’s

a bromance, but one of the bros just happens to be a woman.  He said that from the very beginning and I think it’s really an apt description.  There’s this idea that a man and a woman can’t be together on a show especially without needing to be together sexually or in love or whatever, and this is really about the evolution of a friendship and how that happens.  Watching that should be as much the story of this show as the mysteries that you see week in and week out about who killed who.  We love that and those stories will be great, but the mystery of this relationship and how the friendship comes into being, that should be something that draws people in every week, too.


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