What I am doing now is the literary equivalent of hiding carrots under a pile of chicken nuggets. I want people to read my serialised novel, The Companion, and to comment constructively upon it, but I can see from the blog statistics that all anybody is interested in at the moment is posts about Sherlock. I can cope with that. I am interested in Sherlock, too.
I envy this contemporary Sherlock many things.
First of all, I envy him his name. I used to think that my name, William, was rare. I went through the whole of my education being the only William in the whole school, except for a brief overlap with a pupil at Roundhay who was expelled for pelting the head boy with rotten pears. Now, I can hardly walk past a row of shops without hearing a mother shouting at her recalcitrant toddler who is my namesake. I have never heard of anybody, alive, dead, or fictional, called Sherlock, other than the great detective himself.
More than that, I envy him for his ability to get his own way. People expect him to do weird things, and mostly they put up with it. He tells some-one to shut up, and relative silence, not recriminations, is forthcoming. Some of what little human interaction he participates in, he gets to hide by acting (as evidenced by the door intercom scene in ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’). I envy him his ability to be regarded as a special case, relatively free from being psychologised and pathologised. Only once in the programmes so far do I recall somebody referring to Sherlock as having Asperger’s syndrome (in ‘The Hound of Baskerville’, as they were coming out of the Cross Keys).
The outstanding, but, in the long run, insignificant, exception to this is the scene in ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ in which Sherlock wants Watson to hit him, finds Watson uncomprehending, and tries to precipitate the outcome by punching Watson. There is a brilliant cut away and cut back to Sherlock with his face a few inches off the floor with Watson on his back and with his arm round Sherlock’s throat. That is possibly the best scene in all six programmes so far. You would scour the works of Conan Doyle in vain to find it, and yet it is made entirely with authentic ingredients.
Sherlock is a hunter. He prefers to work alone, but relies on others when it suits him. He never knows the final outcome of what he undertakes, but he presses it home with conviction because he knows that to do otherwise would mean certain disaster. He makes (and re-makes) everything up as he goes along, except his method for making things up as he goes along. This is why most human beings find him so unsatisfactory: because they greatly prefer a predictable mediocrity to an unpredictable genius. It is also why two of the people most interested in Sherlock are Irene Adler and Jim Moriarty: the only two people as much afraid of dying of boredom as Sherlock is.
Anthropologists have shown that, historically, hunting is virtually a waste of time. In terms of calories, it expends more than it captures. It may from time to time result in an increase in protein and mineral intake for the tribe that it serves, but its unpredictability means that it would never compete with agriculture as a means of subsistence, once the latter had been discovered. The thing that Sherlock is hunting for is the relief of boredom. It is the chase itself which sustains him. As soon as he finds his quarry, he is instantly transported back to starvation and the hunger for another case begins again. Meanwhile, those who have been trying to keep up with him wonder, quite understandably, why they set off in the first place.
The feminine side of human existence is represented in the story by the original character of Watson and the new character of Molly Hooper.
Watson in the present adaptation is the personification of the desire of the human race to be treated with civility and respect. It is perhaps ironic that Watson himself is in therapy (presumably for post-traumatic stress disorder suffered while serving in Afghanistan) because he behaves like a therapist to Sherlock. He draws boundaries. He tried to get Sherlock to recognise his own limitations. He has no hesitation in pointing out Sherlock’s faults to him, and in withdrawing from Sherlock if he misbehaves.
Molly represents that section of the human race which has partially resigned itself to being treated with an absence of respect, but which believes that Sherlock can eventually be saved from himself, even if that requires the playing of a very, very long game. The character of Molly Hooper, played so exquisitely by Louise Brealey, works because Molly is perceptive enough to see what is happening and articulate enough to give voice to it. The line “I don’t count,” so poignantly uttered in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, actually means, “I don’t count to you yet, you narrow-minded, arrogant, selfish bastard, but I will one day.” To that extent, Molly reminds me of my own creation, Violet. Sherlock might be compared to Kelvin, the other main character in ‘The Companion’, but the roles reverse from time to time.
The conclusion is that Sherlock, who hates being in the same room with this person or that person, is entirely dependent on humanity in general, because humanity, with its endless shortcomings, provides him with the one thing he craves above all else: more than the historical Holmes craved cocaine, or the contemporary Sherlock desires tobacco, they both crave data. The mass of humanity provides data. If Sherlock woke up one morning to find that alien abduction had de-populated the entire planet, he would not rejoice in being able to talk uninterrupted, because there would be no-one to show off to. There would be no-one whose sleeves, or collar, or calluses, or ink-stains, or mannerisms, or handwriting, or speech he could analyse. There would be no affairs, divorces, frauds, thefts, extortions, murders, blackmails, threats, suicides, or other forms of tension that he could detect and analyse. Without the mass of humanity, there would be nothing to laugh at, at all.