What is the point of Sherlock Holmes?

One of the panels I attended at Mysticon back in February was on Sherlock, Elementary and Holmes in general. At one point someone raised the question, just what use is Sherlock Holmes in the modern world? Given the scope of police forensic science and surveillance videos, what does he bring to the table?

I forget who responded but their reaction stuck with me: if modern police work can solve the crime, Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be on the case. You bring him in when police can’t crack the case, when the connections or the evidence are something ordinary methods won’t find — you need a genius.

This is not, actually, a new topic. Way back in 1963, detective Ellery Queen came to the same conclusion in The Player on the Other Side: there’s simply no place for a talented amateur detective in the world of modern policing. Over the course of the story, Queen naturally figures out he’s wrong. The killer is a lunatic whose non-linear thinking proves impossible for the cops to anticipate; it takes Ellery’s creative, out-of-the-box analysis to get the answers.

I think that’s generally good advice if you’re creating an exceptional, awesome protagonist. A cozy mystery can work with an ordinary crime because most cozy detectives are just regular folks, like Sarah Winston in my friend Sherry Harris’s Yard Sale series. There the challenge is to make it plausible the protagonist will crack the case (and has a good reason for investigating) when the cops don’t. For Holmes or Queen (or Nero Wolfe or Gideon Fell, etc.) the challenge is a puzzle that the cops can’t crack. This can be because the puzzle is fiendishly complicated; because the police are incompetent (usually not the best approach); or because the police have seized on a wrong theory or wrong suspect (much more plausible — it happens in real life after all).

I think this might be a useful insight beyond detective stories. Like the old rule about the hero needing a worthy antagonist, we have to give them an adventure they deserve. If an ordinary warrior can save the day, you don’t need Conan. If the Special Crimes Unit can take down the supervillain, you don’t need Superman (Superman does stop a lot of ordinary crimes and help out in minor matters, but it isn’t the focus of the story). One of the perennial challenges of comics is trying to provide heroes with challenges without simply turning every story into an apocalypse.

It doesn’t have to be exceptional power or intellect that makes the difference. Sometimes it’s just their spirit. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is neither mean nor afraid,” as Raymond Chandler put it. And there are lots of stories where the protagonist isn’t supposed to be exceptional, just an average (wo)man on the street/cop/reporter.

But if the hero is exceptional, the challenge should be too.

#SFWApro. Image by George Hutchinson.

 

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Filed under Sherlock Holmes, Story Problems, Writing

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