Sunday, September 15, 2019

A moment of disbelief in Sherlock Holmes

"When a woman has been seriously wronged by a man she no longer oscillates, and the usual symptom is a broken bell wire."
-- Sherlock Holmes, Victorian expert on women

Stumbling upon the line above this week after unintentionally binge-watching Netflix's Unbelievable really shines a light on just what a male-dominated place Sherlock Holmes comes from. Unbelievable is a drama based on an investigation into police handling of rape cases, and, that, my dear Sherlock Holmes, is definitely "seriously wronged by a man."

When I say "unintentionally binge-watching," that's exactly what I mean. Like many a weekend, I saw show was offering up another new show, and I watched the first episode just to see what was up. True crime isn't usually my thing, but Unbelievable drew me in. Instead of the usuual suspense generated by the "Are they going to get killed?" sort of story, Unbelievable bases its suspense on "Will the truth ever come out?" as we watch a life slowly being destroyed.

And finding the ultimate truth behind a situation is where Sherlock Holmes is iconic, right?

But in Victorian times, even in a fiction by a progressive author, the dominant male point of view can show up even in as simple a thing as watching a woman cross the street. "I have seen those symptoms before," Sherlock Holmes tells Watson, diagnosing female behavior like a doctor identifying an illness. In earlier tales he's said he doesn't trust women, he's said how secretive they are, and yet here, he's boldly proclaiming that he has this woman's story figured out.

The character of Marie in Unbelievable is exactly the sort of person who would throw Sherlock Holmes a sharp curve. She's a former foster kid who's been in the system so long and used to bad authority figures that she isn't going to just come out with clear, perfect information, especially in a situation where she's been badly hurt. Put her on the pavement across from 221B Baker Street, and she's going to oscillate, if not stop and not cross the street altogether. And in that moment, Sherlock Holmes would have her story entirely wrong.

Yet I'm not going to throw Holmes completely on to the Underground tracks this morning. He did get better as the Canon went on, something I laid out in my completely-outdated book Sherlock and the Ladies once upon a time. Holmes did show a concern and kindness for those whom he tried to help, and we have witnesses to that: Mrs. Cecil Forrester, for example, was so impressed by his kindness in handling a domestic incident that she sent another woman to see him.

Now that Elementary and Sherlock are off the air, though, I think we need another modern Sherlock Holmes to carry the legend forward, and let us see more of what our hero can do when completely freed of Victorian shackles. He's been very good already, and I know that "he," or whatever pronoun Sherlock next comes back with, could be better still.

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