Monday, November 19, 2012

Worlds without a Doyle.

If you live in the modern world, your name is "Sherlock Holmes," and nobody ever comments on it, chances are that you live in a fictional universe.

At least a couple articles have shown up online of late dealing with this premise. The main character of CBS's Elementary roaming New York City without anyone going, "Hey, I loved your stories!" or "No shit, Sherlock!" just seems a little odd. After all, his name is supposed to be "Sherlock Holmes."

Something about Jonny Lee Miller telling people that his name is "Sherlock" without ever getting a response seems more off than Benedict Cumberbatch doing so, the latter residing in a modern London, with a modern-yet-familiar Watson, and a lot more updated Canonical details. But let's leave that for now.

The point that the articles I've seen bring up is that in the world of Elementary, since no one seems to remember any Sherlock Holmes stories, there must have been no Arthur Conan Doyle. It's an understandably short-sighted conclusion, after all, creating Sherlock Holmes is what put Doyle on the map, and to most people, that's all he ever did. Novels like The Lost World or The White Company, and short stories like The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, just don't show up on their literary radar.

But Conan Doyle can easily exist in this world of Elementary (or BBC Sherlock) where Sherlock Holmes did not exist pre-Y2K. A writer of historical novels and science fiction who became a crusader for spiritualism -- while he might not have been as famous as he was in our history books, he surely would have found some place there. Wiping him from existence along with his creation really deprives us of an opportunity to consider what that marvelous fellow would be remembered for without Sherlock Holmes. Professor Challenger, perhaps?

It's great fun to see such a premise raised in media outside the little bubble of traditional Sherlockian publications, but it is definitely missing the follow-through a true Doyle fan would provide. We're probably not going to see the writers of Elementary do a Doyle-based, historically-linked episode. The Sherlock boys might get tempted to give Watson a modern agent named Doyle, since their Watson is a writer. A true fan of Conan Doyle, however, might  give the question of a Holmes-less Doyle a treatment to rival the alternate histories of Abraham Lincoln. (I still think that Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith is the closest thing to Sherlockian scholarship outside of Sherlockiana that I've seen.)

And even beyond Doyle, it might prove an interesting exercise to consider ourselves in the worlds of Elementary or Sherlock. What might we fans be doing without the hundred years of Sherlock Holmes that led to either of those shows? (Neither of which would exist, of course. And as much as I'd like to be without Elementary, it seems a steep price to pay.)

One thing is for certain: Sherlock Holmes always seems to find some way to give us mental exercise. He's something like a god of intelligence that way. With or without his Moses, Conan Doyle.


  1. I think that these articles crop up in the wake of Elementary (I don't remember any of these regarding Sherlock) shows that the writers - whatever they say about the show - unconsciously feel that JLM's character is just a pretender to the name. JLM claiming to be Sherlock Holmes doesn't feel natural. No such feelings arise when Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock walks up to the desk at Shad Sanderson Bank and simply announces himself with "Sherlock Holmes", because he owns the character.

  2. Hello,fellow Sherlockian.I just remembered there's a reference to Conan Doyle in The Reichenbach Fall:

    "In a twist worthy of a Conan Doyle novella, Mr. Sherlock Holmes was yesterday revealed to be an expert witness at the trial of ‘Jim’ Moriarty."