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.

Liberal Christians need to talk about sex

Having lamented conservative Christian’s tendency to overemphasise sexual morality, it is only fair to share the reasons I think Liberal Christians don’t talk about it nearly enough.

For a number of years, I’ve been attending various churches whose congregations would broadly be described as liberal. During that time I have heard sex mentioned once in a service. That was to admonish a preacher for using a wedding service as an opportunity to preach about abstinence before marriage. To be fair, that’s because the churches I’ve attended tended to be quiet and conflicted about their liberalism. Even those that are more assertive – like the church whose signs I blogged about earlier this week – tend to define their views negatively, asserting their differences from other Christians rather than discussing what they do believe.This reticence to discuss sex stands not only in contrast to an increasingly sexualised secular culture but also to evangelicals and Roman Catholics who tend to be willing to opine that sex should only be within heterosexual marriage.

To the extent that liberal Christianity has a message it’s tolerance but this is a very limited view. A hesitance to condemn is right but an outright refusal to do so is not. “Judge not lest the be judged” does not mean one cannot judge but that one must be prepared to live up to the standards you demand of others. Liberal Christians do not preach tolerance alone in other matters and are generally quite prepared to pass judgement on bigotry, greed and damage to the environment. And if you consider sex a subject uniquely immune to judgement, then may I ask you about your views on rape? Or if that seems an extreme example, may I ask if you’ve never been angered by a love rat? There is as much – perhaps even more – scope for people to be hurt where sex is involved as when it is not, and so we have to be ready call out people (including and especially ourselves) who do not “love their neighbour.” More fundamentally, while a call to tolerance can guide how we view the actions of others it is a useless guide to our own actions. Liberal Christians might not think that gay vs. straight is a matter of morality but we really ought to decide what is.

A common misconception about Liberal Christianity is that it is less interested in the bible than more conservative traditions. Instead, it does for Protestantism what the reformation did for Catholicism. Whereas the reformers tested the explicit traditions of Catholicism against what the bible actually said, Liberal Theology does the same with the implicit assumptions of the protestant tradition. The problem is that the bible is not actually a massively helpful guide. As this rather tongue in cheek infographic illustrates, the bible is not exactly clear on such things:


The mainstream view derives in no small part from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthions 7: “Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command.” But this is about as clear as mud. Marriage is not Paul’s ideal but a compromise for those who can’t manage abstinence. Which is hardly seems like a secure basis for a moral absolute.

So what does “love thy neighbour” mean in the context of sex and relationships? Is it a modified version of the mainstream view opened up to sexual minorities and with more compassion for those who fall short? Is it a free for all? Is it just decided on a case by case basis? Does it involve some new standard?

So what do I think? I don’t know, I’m a Liberal Christian after all. This is the problem. What I do know is that a faith that does not give it adherents – especially the young people raised in it – the resources to think about these questions is endangering its relevance.