Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century, edited by Lynnette Porter

Review by Chris Redmond

This excellent book, about which very little has apparently been said by either Sherlockians or Cumberbatch fans, is more readable than a lot of literary and cultural commentary on Sherlock Holmes. At the same time it is less superficial than a number of books about film and television adaptations that are little more than plot summaries and cast lists. It delivers new understandings, from several points of view, of the BBC (Cumberbatch-Freeman) “Sherlock” series, the Guy Ritchie (Downey-Law) film franchise, and a couple of peripheral products, though it appeared too early to offer anything much about CBS's “Elementary.”

It is subtitled “Essays on New Adaptations” and edited by Lynette Porter, a faculty member at Florida's Embry-Riddle University, who also wrote four of the 14 essays that make up the book. All the other authors are also based at American universities, apart from one who is at Red Deer College in Alberta, Canada, although some of them seem to have close British connections. That includes Porter herself, who has an interesting piece about Sherlock Holmes as a star of “cinematic tourism,” bringing visitors to Baker Street and Speedy's sandwich shop in London as well as the BBC studios in Cardiff.

An essay by Svetlana Bochman of the City University of New York deals with the original (canonical, Doylean) Holmes and the Cumberbatch Sherlock — we are supposed to call them so, to avoid confusion — as “technocratic” detectives, skilled in forensic science and, in the latter case at least, in social media. Both are brilliant and both are antisocial, but there are differences, says Bochman: “Sherlock Holmes' technocratic ease causes more discomfort to those around him in the 21st century than it does in the Victorian period.” In a second essay, Bochman writes about “Victorian propriety in money matters,” distinguishing the original Holmes, more or less a gentlemanly amateur (who nevertheless amassed a considerable fortune) from the modern Sherlock, who can barely afford to buy groceries because he actively shuns payment for his services.

In a thought-provoking chapter, April Toadvine of Saint Joseph's College tackles a particularly awkward question, the morality (indeed the mental stability) of a Watson — the BBC's Martin Freeman — who is as much killer as physician. Other essays discuss such matters as sociopathy; “the hero” in various forms; and — in an oddly interesting piece by Rhonda Harris Taylor — the degree to which Cumberbatch's Holmes is a “digital native” when measured against the information literacy standards of the Association of College and Research Libraries.

And, inevitably, the authors look at sex (“the potential homoeroticism innate in the relationship between Holmes and Watson,” as Carlen Lavigne calls it). Lavigne's essay, the first one in the book, reviews the careful ambiguities and double entendres that keep the issue alive for viewers and re-viewers of the BBC series. Anissa M. Graham and Jennifer C. Garlen, after helpfully tracing the presentation of a sexual or asexual Sherlock Holmes from the 1890s to 2000, focus on the two Guy Ritchie films; Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes is, they write, “a bisexual rogue.” Kayley Thomas of the University of Florida takes it from there, with an analysis of “bromance” and “homoeroticism” between Holmes and Watson, mostly as represented by Downey and Law. Her examination of “queer paratexts” is probably the most difficult few pages in the book.

In this department, I am inclined to like one of Porter's essays best, chiefly because it devotes a paragraph to quoting my own work (from In Bed with Sherlock Holmes) to the effect that a sexual relationship between the authentic Holmes and the authentic Watson is “hypothetical at best.” A great deal of fan enthusiasm for both Cumberbatch-Freeman and Downey-Law is based on the cherished belief, fed by a lack of cultural or historical perspective, that such a sexual relationship must exist; it flourishes in fangirl tumblrs and in a tsunami of slash or ship fan fiction. Porter's essay “True to Their Victorian Roots” glances only briefly at television and film, largely putting the homosexuality enthusiasts in their place by carefully examining how Anthony Horowitz's The House of Silk presents Holmes and Watson's attitudes when they are faced with sexual wrongdoing.

In addition to raising these many interesting issues — and, in a final essay by Porter, drawing attention to a pair of remarkable Holmes stories by Neil Gaiman — the book has extra value simply in the information it provides about, in particular, the BBC series. There are people, even Sherlockians (me, for instance) who have not watched the episodes repeatedly and do not have all the characters and plot points clearly in mind. Lavigne and other authors in this volume draw attention to them as they become relevant, in a way that clarifies both meaning and entertainment value.

As a bonus, an introduction (presumably also by Porter) contains a convenient list of actors who have played Sherlock Holmes, arranged chronologically from 1905 to Jonny Lee Miller of “Elementary.” The Holmes of the 21st century has, after all, a long and distinguished ancestry. I am very grateful to have come across this book.