0. Terms of Engagement
Mystery fiction is a profoundly consolatory genre. Whether it is set in a Loamshire country house, a snow-bound train or the streets of Victorian London, the mystery novel is all about fashioning order from the chaos and misery of our daily lives. Grisly accidents and unexpected deaths may appear to be merely the random fluctuations of tragic chance but a skilled detective will always see through the fog of circumstance to the real nexus of cause-and-effect. In a world where humans are subject to the impersonal vastness of social forces and the unrelenting entropy of the physics, the skilled detective doubles as a revival tent preacher. By solving crimes and unpicking the mysteries of the world he reminds us that we are not merely subject to the world but agents within it. It is not blind cruel chance that kills but people. People whose schemes can be uncovered. People who can be punished. By reclaiming human agency from the chaos of the world, the skilled detective saves us from the realisation that life is short, cruel, pointless and unpredictable.
If your average mystery story detective is a revival tent preacher then Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is the ever-living Hermeneutic Christ. Holmes is defined entirely by his capacity to see patterns of human agency in the chaos of our daily rejectamenta. Salvation lies in frayed collars, muddy boots, uneven gaits and pocket lint. For Holmes, scratches on mobile phone casings are not the results of random collisions with coins and keys but indications of alcoholism and strained family backgrounds. For Holmes, tan lines are not caused by the impact of weather and random wardrobe choice but an indication of a military career. If the message to take away from the Enlightenment, scientific materialism and the death of God has always been that we do not matter then Sherlock Holmes is our Redeemer as in his sharp eyes and exquisite brain everything matters.
Sherlock’s Little Mistakes is an attempt to redress the balance in favour of chaos and meaninglessness. In a series of columns, I intend to examine the episodes of the BBC’s new mini-series Sherlock (2010) and make the case for Sherlock being wrong. I mean to argue for the caress of tragedy and the kiss of blind chance. What if it didn’t all make sense?
1. The Facts of the Case
A Study in Pink begins with a series of seemingly unrelated and inexplicable suicides. Beloved husbands, young men and a junior government minister are all shown happily muddling through life one minute and knocking back poison the next. Needless to say, the police are stumped but they are quite adamant that these are simple suicides. Needless to say, Holmes knows better.
Holmes is only called in by Scotland Yard when a fourth body turns up. A body whose now-departed consciousness managed to scrape “Rache” on the floor using its fingernails. This scene is a riff on a corresponding scene in A Study in Scarlet (1887), the first of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories. In the original story, “Rache” is assumed to be an unfinished reference to someone named ‘Rachel’ but Holmes realises that it is actually the german word for revenge. In the TV version, these interpretations are neatly swapped over; “Rache” is not German but a reference to the victim’s estranged daughter Rachel, whose name serves as a password that allows Holmes to track the victim’s phone and the murderer with it. Holmes sends a text message to the victim’s phone and lays a trap for the killer.
After an exciting foot-chase through Soho, Holmes discovers that the taxi he was chasing had not been rented by the murderer but by an American tourist. Indeed, Holmes is nowhere near identifying the killer until the killer turns up at his front door in order to collect him.
The killer turns out to be a taxi driver who, having been diagnosed with an incurable condition, could drop dead at any moment. In order to feel alive, the killer talks his victims into committing suicide by presenting them with a game :
- Two indistinguishable vials, both containing pills.
- One vial contains poison, the other contains a placebo.
- The killer will move one of the two vials towards his victim.
- The victim must work out whether the vial before him is the poisoned chalice or the sugar pill.
Variations on this game appear not only in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (1973) but also the anime adaptation of Noboyuki Fukumoto’s gambling manga series Tobaku Mokoshiroku Kaiji (1996). The game is particularly well chosen for our purpose as it is essentially a game of pure chance that is dressed up as a game of strategy. With only one move and no data from which to draw conclusions, any attempt to deduce which vial contains the poisoned pill will be absolutely indistinguishable from blind guess-work. It is impossible to know whether the vial pushed towards you is even pushed towards you for a particular reason, let alone what that reason might be. To pick is to guess.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes realises this but is still drawn to make a selection: Surely, there must be some basis for the killer’s choice of vials. Surely, there must be some stray fact that betrays his reasoning. Surely, his reasoning process might be deduced somehow therefore allowing Holmes the Christ-like Hermeneut to save the day and reclaim order from chaos…
The answer never comes to light as Watson appears at a window and shoots the killer dead. The killer refuses to reveal his reasoning to the frantic Holmes but he does cry out one word under torture. A word that must bring tangible spiritual relief to a being such as Holmes. A word that signifies that there is order behind the chaos. That there is agency. That there is desire and will and hunger. That word is ‘Moriarty’. It is a word that we shall return to in future.
2. How Things Might Have Been
How do we know that the cab driver talked all of those people into suicide? We know because the taxi driver tells us so. But what if he didn’t do it?
Imagine that you are a dying man. You have no family. You have a comparatively shitty job that has you working nights. Nobody will miss you when you die and you know that you could die at any minute. Suddenly, you receive a phone call. Possibly from a lawyer like Kobayashi in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1996) – a front for a criminal mastermind. The mastermind makes it his business to ensure that the police are never in a position to capture him and so he buys off and forces out any junior officer with enough potential to one day pose a threat to him. This is why Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and forensic examiner Anderson (Jonathan Aris) have achieved high office despite being completely incompetent. Suddenly, you hear rumour of someone working as a “Consulting Detective”. This Consulting Detective is no drainpipe-climbing PI but a talented, insightful and fanatical hermeneutic campaigner. A man who has set his course be the star of reclaiming meaning from the chaos of everyday life. This man poses a threat to the mastermind but he cannot be bought off and he cannot be forced out of the police force as he is not a member of it. This mastermind wants you, the killer, to deal with this consulting detective.
He promises you a load of money up-front and he promises to give money to your family or anyone you wish after your death if you manage to convince Holmes to take poison. So you pick up on the fact that Holmes is working with the police and you pick up on the fact that he is convinced that a bunch of random suicides are linked. You turn up at his flat, you present yourself as the killer. There is no killer but Holmes is utterly committed to the role of human agency in random events. He has Faith that you exist. Credo Ut Intellegam. As in The Princess Bride, both vials contain poison. After all, you have nothing to lose. The trick is to get Holmes to take the poison. You do this by appealing to his intellectual vanity and his belief in human agency. If he cannot ‘outwit’ blind chance then he is nothing. You must exist because people do not die for no reason. There must be logic. There must be reason. There must be order.
Of course, no such order exists. Your plan is destroyed when Holmes’ flatmate shoots you through a window. As frustrating as it may have been for Holmes, a deus ex machina of this size is entirely fitting: death always appears at random. Our deaths do not make sense. Life does not make sense. This is why we read mystery novels. This is why Sherlock Holmes’ popularity has endured for over a century.
Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Vector and The Escapist. He maintains a film and literary blog entitled Ruthless Culture and he writes a monthly gaming column at Futurismic entitled Blasphemous Geometries.