HOLMESMANIA: Paul Cornell on Baker Street's Finest
Right now, with three current and very popular versions of Sherlock Holmes vying for public attention, interest in the character has never been more intense. But the public's fascination with Holmes was almost immediate upon his first appearance, and has continued ever since. The heart of that fixation is, I think, that Holmes is a very specific fantasy, one of pure rationality, entirely divorced from emotion. Or rather, a fantasy of having the capacity to be so divorced, because Holmes is far from emotionless.
He presents originally, not, as modern versions have suggested, an eccentric sociopath, but as a fully functioning Victorian gentleman, who enjoys society and the arts. (He's a 'confirmed bachelor', and if one was ever gauche enough to question what that meant, the traditional answers involved preferring the ease of prostitutes to the tiresome business of courtship and engagement. Underlying that, of course, are many other options that that assumption covers up. That's a silence in the original text because it's a silence in the society it came from.) This is having your fannish cake and eating it, frankly, and was probably at the heart of the character's initial success. This man is superior to civilisation, but nevertheless, utterly part of it. He's one of us, chaps.
That rationality could be divorced from emotion is something of a myth, also at the heart of science fiction creations such as the Cybermen. What is a human brain without hormones, glands, the chemical bath it lives in and the unconscious processes that conceal evolutionary drives? Not much. Probably not a thinking machine at all. It's also doubtful that, even in Victorian times, a society or a suspect could really have been reduced to a series of rational functions. Does the stain on the man's hand mean he's a printer by trade, or does he just have a fetish for ink? However, the Victorians, with no knowledge of chaos theory, saw their societies as perfectible machines. Holmes was a fantasy of that viewpoint being confirmed, because here was the engineer who knew those machines perfectly, and thus could diagnose breakdowns. (He's pleasingly worried about going into the countryside, where data is spread more widely and in patterns he's not used to.)
In my new novel, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?, my intelligence analyst heroine, Ross, responds to 'whenever you have eliminated the impossible -' with 'let me stop you right there'. That's partly because in the world of the Shadow Police, a lot more is possible than Holmes ever would have envisaged, including 'ghosts' being the collective memories of Londoners, and thus including fictional characters such as Holmes himself rather than just the deceased. And it's partly because, as she points out, the whole quotation never did make sense. When you've eliminated the impossible, there always remain many possibilities, some of which will not be true. It sounds like a mathematical formula, but it isn't one, it can't be, and as such it's a little index of the fantasy the character represents.
In the book, my modern Metropolitan Police heroes find the ghost of Holmes lying in the Museum at 221B, a ceremonial dagger in his back. They have to work out how his 'murder' is connected to someone carrying out the crimes of the Conan Doyle stories at their original locations, in order. They also have to work out what 'the murder of a ghost' even means. Conan Doyle himself was a believer in the supernatural, which makes his creation of Holmes, I think, even more of a dazzling achievement. He worked out who the ideal hero for his market would be, and made him, even though said hero contradicted his own view of what life was really like. I like to think, therefore, that having Holmes at the centre of a supernatural thriller post mortem, having remained true to himself while alive, might have appealed to him. Along the way I examine many aspects of modern Sherlockmania, some with a fondly satirical eye, but above all, I hope we've honoured both the power of the original fantasy and the intent of his creator.
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Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? is published by TOR UK on 19/07/2016.
Paul Cornell has been Hugo-nominated for his work in TV, comics and prose, and is a BSFA award-winner for short fiction. He has also written some of Doctor Who’s best-loved episodes for the BBC, and has more recently written for the Sherlock-inspired TV show Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. He lives in Gloucestershire.
Find out more www.paulcornell.com and @paul_cornell.