Periscope Depth

you can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice

Sherlock Holmes: first, a word about the source material.

The Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, written by Arthur Conan Doyle, are a lot of fun. I could read them for hours, and, as a bookish teenager, did. But you could hardly call them classics of detection. Doyle didn’t assemble clockwork mysteries for his protagonist, the asocial savant Holmes, to solve. He decided what he wanted to have happened, and then summoned a series of clues which would support that outcome. Take for instance this section from the very first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet:

The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded?’

The annexation of Burma? The Siege of Khartoum? The Battle of Abu Klea? A railway accident the day after he got back?

‘Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.

Ah, right. Of course. Clearly in Afghanistan.

A good Sherlock Holmes story is not about the mystery, rather, but about the man himself – Holmes, a master at chemistry, biology, geology, fencing, jiu-jitsu and the soils of London – and about the grotesqueness of the crimes he investigates. In both these regards, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes excels. Plus it’s a lot of fun to boot.

The plot jolts along at a rattling pace, obscured somewhat by Ritchie’s crack-the-whip editing and some questionable English accents. But Holmes, conceited genius that he is, always takes the time to explain things to the remarkably patient Dr. Watson. He also has a foil in femme fatale Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), whose place in the overall mystery I don’t quite get. She can never make up her mind whether she’s hindering Holmes or helping him, and the director seems equally confused. She hires Holmes to find a man, who ends up buried in a coffin that he’s summoned by the police to investigate. So … what did it profit her to hire Holmes, since events which they knew about were already nudging him in that direction?

But Ritchie never slows the coach long enough for us to inspect the damage that his tour of London has done to the undercarriage. From bareknuckle boxing pits to opulent hotels, from clanking shipyards to occult lodges, we see a city grim with industry. Holmes is a product of the Victorian Age’s fantasies of itself: a self-made expert in all the modern sciences who’s equally versed in the exotic customs of the colonies. He’s a man who can tread comfortably in all worlds. Ritchie, and his excellent cast, let us indulge that fantasy for just enough time to make it fun.

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