Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holmes: Shaken, not stirred

Once upon a time, I ran into an atheist who claimed that the Bible was untrue, because--among other things--it confuses eight-legged bugs with six-legged bugs. Everyone since Carolus Linnaeus began working on his system of biological classification, we know the former are arachnids and the latter are insects. I didn't accept this argument because the Bible was written over 1700 years before Carl Linnaeus was born. The Hebrew word used here is translated into English as "creeping things." At the time of writing, the distinction between insect and arachnid did not exist.

Literary works need to be interpreted in the context within which they're written. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories in the 1880s. At that time the public understood a "consulting detective" to be something different than what we understand a detective to be today.

The success of Arthur Conan Doyle inspired hundreds of subsequent mystery writers. The work of this army of scribblers has elaborated the concept of the crime-solving sleuth. The mystery genre has split into two sub-genres: the cozy and the hard-boiled. The cozy probably best typified by Agatha Christie's Miss Marple who solves crimes by her incredible brain without ever leaving her sitting room. The hardboiled is probably best typified by Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer who solves crimes with a hot gat and two fists of iron.

In the last century people have read Sherlock Holmes and they've fit him into the changing categories of thought defined by the cozy and the hard-boiled. Are the Sherlock Holmes stories cozies or hardboiled? If you look at way Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett played Holmes in the movies, it's obvious: The stories about the violin-playing logician residing at 221B Baker Street are cozies.

Thus I was torn when I saw the trailers for the new Sherlock Holmes movie. What's with those explosions? What's Holmes doing in a boxing ring? But, the trailers had this cool steam-punk look to them. That looks cool. I absolutely love steam-punk. But the canon. I'm a big one for a movie adaptation being true to the original literary work. This made me want to spurn the movie. But the steam-punk. I was torn.

It's rather stupid to slavishly insist on faithfulness to the canon when you haven't read any Sherlock Holmes in years (but have seen lots of movie adaptations). As it turns out, the canon is a lot more action-oriented than I'd recalled. For example, Sherlock Holmes of the novels is an expert swordsman and pugilist. Pugilist? I'd forgotten that bit.

The Sherlock Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories is neither the cozy nor the hardboiled detective. He preceeds these categories and he combines properties of each. Counter-intuitively, the fistfighting Sherlock Holmes in the movie trailers is altogether canonical.

Tonight I went to see the Sherlock Holmes movie. Negatives: that Robert Downey, Jr. has a wide face and bushy hair. I would have preferred a longer, horsey face and stringy, thining hair. Christian Bale must have been busy with his Batman gig. That's the ONLY thing I didn't like about this movie. Downey's acting made the character work.

This Sherlock Holmes is a steam-punk James Bond. It seems incongruous that he should become an action hero, but it worked. The inner dialog of Holmes during fight scenes is a delightful trick which serves to show Holmes' cerebrial side. And I thought it worked marvelously.

So, what have we? The Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle's canon, a character created before the cozy/hardboiled split truly has elements of each. But this movie's screenplay was written in the 21st century, not the 19th. The categories of cozy and hardboiled become thesis and antithesis of a Hegelian dialectic whose synthesis is this movie. Go see it.


RandallS said...

Nice post and excellent observation - the Holmes tales combine aspects of both the cozy and the hard-boiled genre.

In one Holmes tale he talks about his brother Mycroft, who he says is an armchair theorizer without the ambition to go out and investigate - a true cozy approach. In another story (The Valley of Fear), Doyle devotes an entire section of the novel to a hard-boiled detective working for the Pinkertons.

While detective stories were popular before Holmes, in many ways Conan Doyle defined the genre.

steve poling said...

I've always had an admiration for Mycroft, being a mathematician, I rather hoped his vocation included a fair amount of codebreaking, with the public persona of slacker being Mycroft's way of disguising his work on his majesty's secret service.