Naturally there has been much discussion about the recently released movie 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009) directed by Guy Ritchie, well known for British-set gangster movies notably 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' (1998), 'Snatch' (2000) and 'Revolver' (2005). He does seem to have suffered from diminishing returns and whilst he has a loyal fan base notably among men living in London, he has never recaptured the success that he achieved with his first feature movie in 1998. Moving from contemporary Britain to the 1890s might be a sensible step for him to break away a little from seemingly repeating the same formula over and over. He has managed to keep attracting high profile actors, Brad Pitt appeared in 'Snatch' and for 'Sherlock Holmes' he has Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson. Downey Jr.'s comeback which really got going in the mid-2000s has continued and does not seem to have suffered from appearing in Ritchie's movie, there is already talk of a sequel. Unsurprisingly for a Ritchie movie London is the setting and there is a lot of action. Interviews with the leading actors, notably, Law, have emphasised, however, that though the movie has the feel of something very 21st century, in fact in characterisation it is taking steps back to the original stories.
In the very hot summer of 1995, for £1.99 I got a complete set of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1887-1927 and set 1875-1904/14. I have also read a couple of the pastiches, possibly the best known 'The Seven Percent Solution' (novel 1974; movie 1976) by Nicholas Meyer and 'The Last Sherlock Holmes Story' (1978) by Michael Dibdin. There were four novels and fifty-six short stories written by Doyle. This is one reason why Holmes is such a good character for television serials. A short story is sufficient for an hour long television drama. As the 'Inspector Morse' (1987-2000) and 'Poirot' (from 1989) series have have shown a short novel generates a decent two-hour programme. Many modern detective novels are far longer and so cannot be as easily made into one-hour programmes. Doyle began the Holmes stories in the era when serialised stories in magazines were incredibly popular and, even as late as the 1920s, this format had not really died away.
Holmes was in fact in a very crowded markeplace. If you read collections of other genuine Victorian and Edwardian detective stories, notably in the collections, 'The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' (1970), 'More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Cosmopolitan Crimes' (1971), 'The Crooked Counties: Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' (1973), 'The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' (1979) all collected by Sir Hugh Greene and 'Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' (1982) and 'Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: 2' (1980) [this was a US publication hence an explanation for it being published in reverse order in the UK; no doubt there were difficulties in the similarity in title to Greene's books] both by Alan K. Russell and more recently, 'Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' (2008) by Nick Rennison, you can find dozens of fictional detectives from different countries, even a couple of female ones like Loveday Brooke, who have been severely overlooked, but none of them have endured like Holmes.
The reason why Holmes stuck out from the crowd at the time and still does today, is very much due to the elements that Ritchie has brought out in this latest movie. One element is the action. I have been rewatching the Jeremy Brett (1933-95) portrayal of Holmes in the television series that ran 1984-94 and Holmes is often pulling out his revolver (as does Watson) or at least a weighted cane. He also demonstrates knowledge of bare-knuckle boxing and bartitsu, a martial art developed in Britain 1898-1902 based on jujitsu. In the novels he is also described as a singlestick (i.e. staff) fighting specialist, it was overtaken by fencing in the 20th century but was an Olympic sport as late as 1904; Holmes generally uses his cane in this way.
It is unsurprising that Holmes is skilled in combat given his involvement with murderers and thugs of all kinds as well as ferocious dogs. If you read any of the 'rivals' books you see that these other detectives are mainly cerebral and solved crimes simply by thought. In many ways they are the precursors of the more genteel detective stories, notably those of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, that came to the fore in the 1920s and 1930s, presumably as their audience was from the generation who had seen too much of violence first or second hand through the First World War. Of course, though we are in a society, which certainly in the UK, has been seeing war casualties consistently for the past nine years, these days we certainly expect our television and movie characters to be armed and ready to fight physically.
Another element of Holmes which makes him appealing at the time and subsequently, and again is an element that appears relevant in the 2010s, is his moral ambivalence. In sharp contrast to many his 'rivals' and certainly detectives of the first two-thirds of the 20th century, Holmes is not necessarily a force for the status quo or even for the law. Whilst not working for the law per se he is, certainly at times, a force for justice. The Holmes stories establish the assumption of the slow or even bumbling official police (and in Holmes's case, also royal and civil services as many of his cases are political rather than criminal) that appears in so many stories, but Holmes does not always aid authority and at times sits as personal judge and jury on people he captures.
Sometimes Holmes's punishments can be seen as harsh, at other times he is lenient. Consequently, on beginning a Holmes story, in contrast to those of his rivals and most successors, there is no certainty that the status quo ante will be restored and that the 'correct' punishment will be meted out. I have always enjoyed such uncertainty in crime novels which is what drew me to the detective stories of people like Josef Škvorecký and Leonardo Sciascia, though for them the ambivalence usually comes more from the society in which the detective is operating rather than from the detectives themselves.
In an era when we have a character such as Dexter Morgan, a fictional police forensics specialist who is also a serial killer (novels by Jeff Linday 2004-9; television series 'Dexter' 2006 onwards), moral ambivalence seems to fit with what people are seeking in their detective series. In addition, since the 1970s we have seen even police detectives, let alone private ones, violating laws, breaking and entering and assaulting suspects to the extent that by the late 1980s it was being perceived as rather a cliche.
The element of Holmes which takes the moral ambivalence further is his drug addiction. Holmes is shown as a regular cocaine injector and, at times, a smoker of opium too. Whilst we tend to think of our own time as one in which drugs are the most common the restrictions on things like cocaine were not introduced until after the First World War, partly as a result of frontline troops taking opiates during the war (there are interesting parallels between drug abuse in the trenches of the First World War and drug abuse by US soldiers in the Vietnam War). In addition, there was an increased moral stance after 1918 which saw prohibition of narcotics in the USA follow the prohibition of alcohol. All of this was wrapped up in the sense of the decline of the 'race' and physical weakness that had become apparent in the UK even in the 1910s when up to 40% of volunteers for the Army had to be turned away as being unfit, though usually for malnutrition rather than drug abuse. I once found a play from 1927 which, even then, showed the 'hero' seeking cocaine on a night out in London. This theme appears in some Agatha Christie stories, but by then, drug abuse was seen very much as an activity of the silly rich as it was for many decades that followed, and, to some extent, is today.
Another thing about the 'real' Holmes is his comparative youth. Doyle says that by 1914, in 'His Last Bow' (1927), Holmes is around 60, this means that for the period covered by the main stories we know, he ranges from 21 in 1875 to 50 in 1904. However, given his expertise in so many topics, the usual assumption is that he was middle aged. The latest movie is set in the 1891 when Holmes would be 37. Downey Jr. is 44; Law has just turned 37. Thus, whilst to many commentators they seem too young for the parts they are playing (Brett was 51-61 when playing Holmes, though certainly in the early series looked younger) they are in step with what Doyle envisaged. If you take all these elements togther - lead character: maverick in his late thirties, active, intelligent, skilled in various forms of fighting, ambivalent towards the law, sexually ambiguous, drug addict, mixes with high and low society you can see why Holmes fits perfectly for the kind of movies Ritchie makes.
Watson, played by Law, looks like a young John Steed (from 'The Avengers' series 1961-9; 'The New Avengers' 1976-7) which is probably unsurprising. Like Steed, Watson, though a doctor has military background and has served in India and been wounded which suggests frontline action. He is shown in the novels wielding both a cane and a revolver. In Doyle's stories, any suggestion of anything more than companionship between Holmes and Watson is ruled out. Watson marries Mary Moran after 'The Sign of the Four' (1890) set in 1888, though his wife has died by the time of 'The Mystery of the Empty House' (1903) which is set in 1894 and is the first story after Holmes comes back from his supposed death. To some degree questions about Holmes and Watson's sexuality stem more from later 20th century attitudes rather than those of the 19th century when all kinds of house sharing were common and thus could be a basis for different narrative imperatives.
The final question, then, is why, if Holmes and Watson have always been characters that would be right at home in a Guy Ritchie, gangster-style movie, are we so surprised to see them like this? To a great extent it comes back to the genteelisation of detectives in the post-First World War era. Ironically Doyle was still writing at a time when his ambivalent detective, though still popular, was effectively becoming obsolete. Instead the reading public had a desire for detective stories in which the status quo ante was always firmly re-established and even private detectives were bastions of the law, and, as importantly, of authority (which is not always the same thing).
After Doyle's death in 1930, Holmes was increasingly assimilated into the canon of the more comfortable culture of the 'stately home' detectives like Christie's Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey (in the series of novels by Dorothy L. Sayers published 1923-42) and Albert Campion (in Margery Allingham's novels published 1929-65; then by Philip Youngman Carter 1968-70). Partly this was through spoofs and the simplification of Holmes into the rather austere but amiable deerstalker-wearing character that most people associate with the name. Of course, we should all know how Holmes should be attired due to the detailed drawings accompanying the original stories, you can buy fully illustrated editions of the stories nowadays.
This process of making Holmes genteel was achieved most by the Basil Rathbone movies (1939-46) which also, with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, demoted that character to a far more bumbling role than he had held in the stories (this view had been countered in Meyer's and Dibdin's novels and most visibly in the 1988 movie 'Without A Clue' in which Holmes is simply a figurehead for Watson's detective work). It is against this Rathbone portrayal, often repeated (I remember seeing all the Rathbone Holmes's movies more than once in the 1970s and early 1980s) with Holmes as a bastion of authority, even the US military machine, that so much of what has followed featuring Holmes is set and it has proven difficult to shake off his Rathbone attire let alone that manner, to get back closer to the original, distinctive character.
George Orwell, wrote in 1946, the article 'The Decline of the English Murder' in 'Tribune', you can read it in full here: http://www.netcharles.com/orwell/essays/decline-of-english-murder.htm He argued in the light of the violence of the recently ended Second World War that murder in Britain was becoming more brutal and the coverage of murder cases and the fictional crime stories would become so too. To a great extent it is wrong, as many people do, to see Orwell as arguing that the Christiesque style of detective stories was coming to an end. Christie herself would remain a bestseller for the rest of her life (to her death in 1976) and continues to sell very well today. Orwell, in fact, was marking the point at which 'true crime' stories were coming more to the fore. An audience hardened by wartime experiences could stomach greater detail than would have been reported before.
Yet, as in the post-First World War period after 1945, you can see a desire for fictional murder stories that have the status quo ante restored, sometimes even back to the class structure of the pre-1939 period. Christie's novels of the time reflect some of the post-war social changes but because of that, in fact more firmly re-emphasise the continuing values of stability, especially in rural Britain. Thus, it is not surprising that for so long we were happy to accept a Sherlock Holmes who, whilst looking into Gothic elements of late Victorian life, seemed to be able to shine rational light into the dark corners and restore the civility that we all too often see wedded to the Victorian era. However, hopefully in a time which is more honestly like the late Victorian period in terms of poverty, disease, drug abuse and social division, it seems right that we again engage properly with a fictional character adept in such an environment.