In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes

On Sunday morning at 10 AM, the BritTrack YouTube aired a panel of guests discussing “The Sherlock Holmes Archetype.” Moderated by BritTrack Director Caro McCully, the group included Ben Nygaard, Keith DeCandido, Trisha Wooldridge, Jennifer Blackstream, and Rox of Spazhouse.

The discussion began with the elements that make up the Holmes archetype. The panelists agreed that Holmes must be the smartest person in the room, several steps ahead of everyone else. They also noted his hubris and the different, more remote way he connects with people. He notices clues other people could have noticed but didn’t, which is an example of his deductive ability. Once he points out those clues, other people understand why they’re important, and that helps ordinary people relate to the character. In addition, he’s very eccentric. The closest person to Holmes is Watson, who’s the only one who can even attempt to keep up with his reasoning.

The group also offered their favorite versions of Holmes. Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr., and Benedict Cumberbatch all received nods, with Ben Kingsley’s Watson character in Without a Clue, Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary and the Holmes of Laurie King’s Mary Russell books also having fans on the panel. DeCandido also noted that the Russell books do a good job of depicting society in the 1920s and 1930s. Blackstream added that the Elementary and Sherlock adaptations show Holmes’s genius but also reveal its downside, his lack of interpersonal skills.

McCully asked for everyone’s favorite non-Holmes TV shows featuring a Holmes-inspired character. They recommended Hannibal, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, House, Bones, DCI Banks, Ripper Street, Whitechapel, and Luther. While House is a medical show and not a crime show, its lead character shows hubris and eccentricities similar to Holmes’s and, like Holmes, is always the smartest guy in the room. Blackstream also suggested the 1960s Batman TV show on grounds that Batman talks down to the police the way Holmes does, has better technology than they do, and is smarter. He picks up clues they could have spotted, as Holmes does with Scotland Yard, and has Robin as his Watson. Rox of Spazhouse commented that Alfred serves as Batman’s Mrs. Hudson, and everyone laughed.

Discussing shows with less direct similarities, the panelists suggested Murdoch Mysteries, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., MacGyver, Houdini & Doyle, and Miss Sherlock. Rox added that the Thin Man movies have a hero who is a flawed character, is the smartest one in the room, demonstrates hubris, and has a wife to serve as his Watson though they’re screwball comedies instead of standard suspense.

The group then turned to Moriarty. DeCandido sees him more as a plot device than a character because he had no development and was created solely as a way to rid Conan Doyle of Holmes in “The Final Problem.” This strategy failed, of course, and Moriarty was then shoehorned into other stories. Wooldridge noted that The Master provides a counterpoint to Doctor Who in the same way Moriarty does to Holmes. Nygaard suggested that Alice Morgan of Luther serves as similar purpose. She’s sometimes ahead of Luther and is fairly emotionless. Blackstream added that, as with Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax and her evil sister, Moriarty is like a Holmes who went the other way. Rox added that the protagonist always needs a foil, even in comics. DeCandido then described Dr. Doom as Reed Richards’s foil, describing him as what Reed would be if he went bad.

McCully asked the panel about individual Holmes stories adapted in other forms, noting The Hound of the Baskervilles as the inspiration for Being Human. This spurred an extensive discussion of White Collar, with the panelists debating whether Neil Caffrey or his nemesis, FBI agent Peter Burke, was the Holmes equivalent. Burke seemed to take that title on grounds of having caught Caffrey twice, though Caffrey had bits of obscure knowledge that were sometimes critical.

Other suggestions included the Nicole Wallace character on Law & Order: Criminal Intent as a mix of Moriarty and Irene Adler and A Scandal in Bohemia as the inspiration. Panelists also listed the movie version of Clue and the TV programs Monk, Father Brown, Lucifer, The Rockford Files, Psych, Midsomer Murders, and Batman, along with others already mentioned and Marvel shows like Jessica Jones, Murder, She Wrote, and Luke Cage. Nygaard noted that in many such programs, the lead characters, like Holmes, go outside the rules, which is appealing to ordinary people who are constrained by rules. Woodridge added that House also gave its title character a tendency to circumvent rules. DeCandido added that such characters can ignore the rules because they’re so far ahead of everyone.

The leads in these shows also generally have contacts within the police department or are consulting detectives. Examples of these included The Rockford Files, Castle, Monk, and Psych. Having amateurs solve crimes instead of the police also offers ordinary viewers a chance to identify with the characters.

The panel concluded with McCully asking the group to each list one thing for viewers to check out and to explain why. Blackstream suggested Father Brown, noting that the author was a fan of Conan Doyle. She added that, in these unsettled times, readers need cozy mysteries with loveable side characters. DeCandido suggested the two Baker Street Irregular anthologies, admitting that he had stories in them but was recommending them anyway. Wooldridge added that she also recommends them but suggested House as a callback to Holmes in a different direction. Nygaard felt fans couldn’t go wrong with the BBC’s Sherlock. Rox offered the William Gillette’s 1916 silent film about Holmes. It was based on Gillette’s 1899 play about the character, the only one authorized by Conan Doyle. McCully added the BBC/WGBH joint production Murder Rooms: Mysteries of the Real Sherlock Holmes, which features Conan Doyle and his mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell, drawn into investigations.

On that note, with viewers having a multitude of Holmes-related works to check out, the panel concluded.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.