Thursday, August 1, 2013

Murder is easy. And kind of wrong.

One of the things I've always loved best about Sherlock Holmes is his diversity.

Take the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, wherein he first hits his stride. An adventuress who may or may not be a blackmailer. Con artists who are also bank burglars. A step-father who's an amateur master of disguise. And then, a murrrrr-derrrrrr.

It took Holmes four episodes in his original literary series (the two prior books were "literary movies," so to speak) to get to the capital "M" crime. Four episodes. And out of the twelve episodes in that first series, that case is the only one he investigates that is pure "after-the-fact" murder. He has clients who come to him thinking they are going to be killed. He has clients who come to him because someone in their life has disappeared (and usually doesn't turn up dead). But filing The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes under the category of "murder mysteries" would be wrong. Dead wrong.

Murder has become the go-to crime in the mystery genre since Conan Doyle wrote Adventures, but it's a little like profanity in a stand-up comedy routine. It has it's place, but it's also an easy way for the less talented to get a reaction. Of course, these days, you not only have to murder someone, the lesser lights have to do it in increasingly grotesque fashions, make their killers that kind of crazed serial murderer who would fit very handily into a Batman comic book.

In real life, murder is a horrific, horrific thing, and it's hard to find entertainment in it once you've seen the devastation if can wreak on lives. On the other hand, in fiction, murder mysteries with a handy solution are almost like an assurance that death happens for a reason, the tidy solution explaining the murder giving the reader solace that death itself has reasons for occurring. Either way, is it something we really have to have?

In a culture where we are constantly being marketed with fear-pushing hype (Yeah, Weather Channel, tell us again why naming winter storms "Brutus," "Draco," and "Khan" is for our own good.), in a time when nightly serial killer plays are an entertainment staple, it would be nice to see more modern Sherlock Holmeses who could do as Holmes once did, and entertain without the body count. Just as Sherlock Holmes doesn't always have to fight Moriarty, he also doesn't have to always fight Jack the Ripper. (Sherlock versus the Ripper never seems to play out as well as you'd think it would, in any case.)

I've always enjoyed the fact that when death is hanging around in this world, I could still escape to Holmes's London for a romp around town in "The Blue Carbuncle," or a trip to a famous university town to look into "The Creeping Man" . . . and nobody has to die for that little entertainment. Only a little over half of the criminals found in the Canon of Holmes are murderers, so there's a lot of room to have a little non-deadly fun when you need it.

I hope future creative folk carrying on the legend of Sherlock Holmes remember that fact occasionally. Holmes can definitely be a lot more fun when his clients aren't the homicide division of Scotland Yard.


  1. Occasionally I go on a Discovery ID binge. My favorites are poisoners, and Doctors Gone Wrong, scenarios which occasionally overlap. But you know what is also endlessly fascinating? Financial crimes. American Greed is just mesmerizing, both in the way those crimes are perpetrated--and in the fact that, usually, the criminal and the victims are both equally avaricious. Other wise, the latter would have thought something like "25% above market return? What is he smoking?" I remember going with my mom to a meeting in which the speaker kept talking about "growing your business." As a college student, I kept wondering "but...where is the product? What am I making or selling? How can I bring people in if I don't even know what I'm doing?" I felt really stupid for not getting it....but if more people were that stupid, we'd have fewer successful Ponzi schemes. Anyway!! I would love to see someone really do a lengthy examination of what, precisely, was involved in the Baron Maupertuis case. They'd have to be good at math--and explaining math--which is why I'll never do it myself--but in the hands of the right person, it could be as exciting as any murder.


  2. Interesting piece. I had thought of the cases in quite that way before.