The great detective as an asshole

This is not a proper post.

I was chatting with a friend, who mentioned re-watching Ijaazat recently. To which I mentioned that I no longer have the appetite for movies like Ijaazat or Devdas, primarily because I find that the protagonists of these movies tend to be asshole.

Which reminded me about something I though when I caught the first episode of Elementary: Sherlock Holmes was a dick, and Watson was getting into an abusive relationship.

After which I realized that this assessment of Watson and Holmes applies equally to Sherlock, and to many other series built on the Sherlock Holmes framework, such as Psych.

Despite the fact that Watson in Elementary has more agency than Watson in other similar series, I was clearly able to articulate this feeling about abuse in the relationship only after I watched Elementary. This was possibly because Watson in that series is played by a woman. Which is a sad commentary on me, but that is what it is.

Anyway, this preamble brings me to the point I wanted to make about why I never really warmed up to either Sherlock or Elementary. Because I had spent more than two decades nurturing an image of Sherlock, and the characters in these shows were entirely different.

I understand different people interpret things differently. I remember some actor saying that if purist don’t want to see different interpretation of Shakespeare, they should lock up the scripts in a safe. I am even happy seeing Holmes moved from the past into the now. I just wish they hadn’t called the character Sherlock, or had kept his character somewhat similar.

To illustrate what I feel, I will pick three bits from three Sherlock versions. I believe the difference in the characters of Holmes and Watson, as well as the difference in their relationship is clear in the excerpts.

“The sign of Four”, AC Doyle

“I have heard you say that it is difficult for a man to have any object in daily use without leaving the impress of his individuality upon it in such a way that a trained observer might read it. Now, I have here a watch which has recently come into my possession. Would you have the kindness to let me have an opinion upon the character or habits of the late owner?”

I handed him over the watch with some slight feeling of amusement in my heart, for the test was, as I thought, an impossible one, and I intended it as a lesson against the somewhat dogmatic tone which he occasionally assumed. He balanced the watch in his hand, gazed hard at the dial, opened the back, and examined the works, first with his naked eyes and then with a powerful convex lens. I could hardly keep from smiling at his crestfallen face when he finally snapped the case to and handed it back.

“There are hardly any data,” he remarked. “The watch has been recently cleaned, which robs me of my most suggestive facts.”

“You are right,” I answered. “It was cleaned before being sent to me.” In my heart I accused my companion of putting forward a most lame and impotent excuse to cover his failure. What data could he expect from an uncleaned watch?

“Though unsatisfactory, my research has not been entirely barren,” he observed, staring up at the ceiling with dreamy, lack-lustre eyes. “Subject to your correction, I should judge that the watch belonged to your elder brother, who inherited it from your father.”

“That you gather, no doubt, from the H.W. upon the back?”

“Quite so. The ‘W’ suggests your own name. The date of the watch is nearly fifty years back, and the initials are as old as the watch: so it was made for the last generation. Jewellery usually descents to the eldest son, and he is most likely to have the same name as the father. Your father has, if I remember right, been dead many years. It has, therefore, been in the hands of your eldest brother.”

“Right, so far,” said I. “Anything else?”

“He was a man of untidy habits,—very untidy and careless. He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died. That is all I can gather.”

I sprang from my chair and limped impatiently about the room with considerable bitterness in my heart.

“This is unworthy of you, Holmes,” I said. “I could not have believed that you would have descended to this. You have made inquires into the history of my unhappy brother, and you now pretend to deduce this knowledge in some fanciful way. You cannot expect me to believe that you have read all this from his old watch! It is unkind, and, to speak plainly, has a touch of charlatanism in it.”

“My dear doctor,” said he, kindly, “pray accept my apologies. Viewing the matter as an abstract problem, I had forgotten how personal and painful a thing it might be to you. I assure you, however, that I never even know that you had a brother until you handed me the watch.”


“Pilot”, Episode 1 Season 1, “Elementary”

WATSON: The day we met you deduced that I gave up being a surgeon to become a companion because I had lost someone close to me.
HOLMES: The truth is that you made a mistake during a surgery that cost a patient his life. It takes years of study to become a surgeon, not to mention tremendous ego.
Surgeons don’t just leave to become addict-sitters.They’re forced out.And they’re only forced out if they commit the sin of malpractice.
I knew it would be a sore subject so I made up the bit about your friend to spare your feelings.
WATSON: That was very big of you. How do you know the patient died? How do you know I didn’t just leave him paralyzed or in a coma?
HOLMES: The parking ticket! The one you had in your purse. You incurred it two weeks ago near the corner of 86th and Third. The only thing there is Carver Cemetery. Obviously you were visiting a grave.
Not a parent’s grave, of course, Google indicates that they’re both alive and well. Siblings? No. Carver is a pauper’s field. The picture that you keep on your phone of Mum and Dad says that they’re well-to-do. No sibling of yours would be interred in a place like that. The place doesn’t even have a proper parking area, hence the ticket.
So a surgeon who’s no longer a surgeon, a parking violation incurred outside poor man’s cemetery, and two parents who are as moneyed as they are alive. You add it all up. What does it say? You were visiting the grave of the man that you let die on your operating table.
It’s so incredible, the way that you can solve people just by looking at them.
WATSON: I noticed you don’t have any mirrors around here.
HOLMES: And what’s that supposed to mean?
WATSON: It means I think you know a lost cause when you see one.

“A study in Pink”, Episode 1 Season 1, “Sherlock”

HOLMES: You’ve got a psychosomatic limp – of course you’ve got a therapist. Then there’s your brother.
HOLMES: Your phone. It’s expensive, e-mail enabled, MP3 player, but you’re looking for a flatshare – you wouldn’t waste money on this. It’s a gift, then.
[WATSON has given him the phone and he turns it over and looks at it again as he talks.]
HOLMES: Scratches. Not one, many over time. It’s been in the same pocket as keys and coins. The man sitting next to me wouldn’t treat his one luxury item like this, so it’s had a previous owner. Next bit’s easy. You know it already.
WATSON: The engraving.
[We see that engraved on the back of the phone are the words
Harry Watson
From Clara
HOLMES: Harry Watson: clearly a family member who’s given you his old phone. Not your father, this is a young man’s gadget. Could be a cousin, but you’re a war hero who can’t find a place to live. Unlikely you’ve got an extended family, certainly not one you’re close to, so brother it is. Now, Clara. Who’s Clara? Three kisses says it’s a romantic attachment. The expense of the phone says wife, not girlfriend. She must have given it to him recently – this model’s only six months old. Marriage in trouble then – six months on he’s just given it away. If she’d left him, he would have kept it. People do – sentiment. But no, he wanted rid of it. He left her. He gave the phone to you: that says he wants you to stay in touch. You’re looking for cheap accommodation, but you’re not going to your brother for help: that says you’ve got problems with him. Maybe you liked his wife; maybe you don’t like his drinking.
WATSON: How can you possibly know about the drinking?
HOLMES: Shot in the dark. Good one, though. Power connection: tiny little scuff marks around the edge of it. Every night he goes to plug it in to charge but his hands are shaking. You never see those marks on a sober man’s phone; never see a drunk’s without them.
[He hands the phone back.]
HOLMES: There you go, you see – you were right.
WATSON: I was right? Right about what?
HOLMES: The police don’t consult amateurs.
WATSON: That … was amazing.

Reading through this again, I find I am just that bit more sympathetic to the American Holmes than to the BBC one. Actually, scratch that. The American one is stalker max.

2 thoughts on “The great detective as an asshole”

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