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Mystery of the Quivering Detective

Posted by Dirck on 10 September, 2013

In the past few weeks, my wife and I have, along with a friend who regularly visits, been squeezing our money’s worth out of Netflix (which is a relatively juiceless variety here in Canada) by rewatching Sherlock.  We all three of us enjoy it, and it bears more than one watching.  The end of “The Reichenbach Fall” put us into a renewed flurry of speculation and a great torment of anticipation of what the next season will reveal.  It also left the question of what to watch next, and I proposed we continue delving in Doyle via our set of DVDs of the Jeremy Brett version from the 1980s.

The credits ended, “A Scandal in Bohemia” began, and a few minutes later, our friend made a noise of wonderment.  Holmes was so different!  It was not the sort of subtle difference that needed Holmes’s amazing powers of deduction to notice, either, but without watching Brett and Cumberbatch at the same role (more or less) in close proximity I don’t know I’d have spotted it myself.  Sherlock Holmes is not the man he used to be.

Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, which I have always thought of as definitive, is a somewhat eccentric person to be sure, sometimes drawing his feet up into the armchair he’s sitting in and making the occasional wild statement.  However, he is also an example of immense self-control.  There is a volcano there, to be sure, but is a volcano being held in check by an astonishing power of human will.  Brett distills the notion of Holmes offered previous, at least by Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing (and the former is held as definitive by almost everyone older than me) of someone who has his own reins firmly gripped.

Looking at Holmes today, though, we find a much different creature.  He’s quirky.  He’s twitchy.  He’s given to high-speed patter as a primary means of communication, rather than reserving it for moments when time is short and need presses.  He flouts all civil convention.  I’m not only looking at Cumberbatch, but also Robert Downey Jr.   The former is Holmes in the modern world, but the latter is a modern portrayal of the period character, and they are very similar beings.  Jonny Lee Miller, to a somewhat lesser degree (and also in a modern setting), is the same beast, and this is suggestive.

It suggests that we in the modern world are so driven by frantically-paced media that we can’t accept a Holmes who sits quietly with his fingers steepled in front of him while a solution coalesces, but insist on one who mutters and flaps his way to the conclusion.  That’s a troubling development, although having observed it I can’t say I’m totally shocked.  Attention-span shrinkage is hardly a new discovery.

When I decided to examine this publicly, I though I should see whether either manifestation is more true to the source.  A quick skimming of Doyle offers this:

Sherlock Holmes was transformed when he was hot upon such a scent as this. Men who had only known the quiet thinker and logician of Baker Street would have failed to recognise him. His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard black lines, while his eyes shone out from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downward, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whipcord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase, and his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or, at the most, only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply. Swiftly and silently he made his way along the track which ran through the meadows, and so by way of the woods to the Boscombe Pool

Somewhat ambiguous, and like most descriptions of Holmes in action it would support either depiction.  There is “Swiftly and silently”, though.  “Silently,” not, “mumbling a constant stream of half-intelligible patter.”  Perhaps Brett and his precedents were on the right line after all.

Today’s pen: Parker “51″
Today’s ink: Herbin Vert Empire


2 Responses to “Mystery of the Quivering Detective”

  1. AndrewMB said

    his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or, at the most, only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply…

    Just to add to the quote you cited. While a snarl is not patter it is described as quick & impatient, both of which describes Cumberbach’s portrayal accurately.

    I do agree with you that your skimming quote can be interpreted for any of the actors, thus a good hurrah for all the directors & actors involved.

    Cumberbach successfully takes Sherlock into the modern age. That is why I am so drawn to it. It is done very well. Besides, Doyle lives on, as well he should.

    • I was comparing notes on the matter with my wife last night, and she thought that in comparison to Downey, Cumberbatch was a good deal closer to the Brett-style “smoldering volcano” than I give him credit for. And you’re quite right that the impatient snarl fits him quite well, even if it does get vented in the Baker St. digs. He probably, and this slants back towards my premise, can get away with “quiet thinker” for all that, in this age where people show pictures of every meal to everyone, and post publicly every transient thought.

      “…of which I am not guiltless,” he said reflecting on some things he’s posted about the ‘nets.

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