One thing we seem to love as an audience today is detective stories. It’s a relatively new area of interest; when you look back, the oldest of these stories date back a century, maybe two. It’s hardly a literature that has withstood the test of time. So it’s a little surprising, when you think about it, that almost all television and a good amount of literary fiction has grown out of these mysteries.
Personally, I love mysteries. Rather, I love puzzles. Every kind. I even ask my friends not to ask me what I want for my birthday; whatever it is, I’d rather it be a surprise. But right now, most of the new creations that have developed out of the genre’s original detective stories aren’t very rich in themselves. They are often crime mysteries that are typically solved in a single episode; because of the time constraints and the number of episodes in a given season, they fall into a repetitive pattern. The only real difference between these various quite similar shows is the leading characters’ lives and dilemmas. Often, it is their love lives, and they, again typically, fall in love with their partners. Or at least we see constant romantic tension and misunderstandings between them.
One show that, to my knowledge, has managed to get past these cliches is BBC’s “Sherlock.” It’s well written, well acted and well adapted. For those of you who don’t know, Sherlock Holmes was originally the protagonist of a series of detective stories written by the 19th-century British mystery writer Arthur Conan Doyle. I say the show is well adapted not only because it has successfully managed the transition from literature to television, but also because it takes the classic stories and sets them in 21st-century London. The famous Sherlock Holmes can solve crimes by looking up information on his smartphone, or receiving intelligence from his “homeless network.” It’s a new, modern Sherlock whose cynical and unsociable nature does not have to be covered up by a facade of traditional chivalry. The stories are all adapted from the originals, with playful rewordings of the titles, so that “The Study in Scarlet” becomes “The Study in Pink,” and “The Naval Treaty,” “The Naval Treatment.” The show has had three seasons, but with only three episodes each (for a total of nine), almost movie-length stories. Perhaps it is this scarcity that makes possible its quality, and that creates a demand for more. If “Sherlock” had ten or twenty episodes in a season, its creators would not be able to pour as much thought or research into them, and the adaptation would be mediocre. Another reason why the show’s makers have been allowed the luxury of “quality over quantity” is that both of the lead actors are very famous and internationally recognized. Their schedules are, apparently, extremely tight, so we don’t simply get a new season every year on a regular basis. Sherlock Holmes is played by the emergent Benedict Cumberbatch of “Star Trek: Into the Darkness,” “The Fifth Estate” and “Parade’s End”; the more somber Dr. John Watson is played by Martin Freeman, who most recently gave life to Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit trilogy. Watching this version is very rewarding because it’s like a mental exercise; unlike the more classic adaptations of the stories, BBC’s “Sherlock” is constantly dropping hints and clues that you can’t put into place until you’ve watched the episode a second time (unless you have a very good memory).
The BBC has also, less famously, adapted another writer’s series of detective stories from the past: those of Agatha Christie. She worked in the mid-20th century, so her novels incorporate some elements that are a little more familiar to us, at least from history classes. Almost every British actor of note has probably been in one of these movies, there are so many of them. The adaptations are based on the stories featuring Christie’s two most famous detectives: Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. They are very interesting and quite entertaining. What has caught my attention the most about them, however, is this tendency to create recurring characters as detectives. Why do mystery writers build up these detectives and center their stories around them, when we know next to nothing about their backstories or emotions? They are simply model citizens who are exceedingly clever.
Yet another example of such a character is Father Brown. Of those I’ve mentioned so far, he’s probably the least known. He was created by G. K. Chesterton, who was not only a mystery writer, but also a political thinker. He created a quiet, humble priest whom everybody underestimates until he solves the crime that no one else can.
Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple and Father Brown are all characters who have no professional qualifications for what they do, so these recurring detective leads are all underestimated by their fellow characters until they show their genius. Holmes distinguishes himself somewhat by being arrogant and vile on occasion, so people remember him and can sometimes recognize him as the brilliant man he is. But the humble Belgian Poirot, the friendly elderly lady Miss Marple and the meek Father Brown all fly under the radar. That is why they are so successful in finding out everyone’s secrets. Therefore, the writers must have thought that creating these recurring characters about whom we find out very little would be more powerful than creating a new detective for every story. The fact that we know almost nothing about them, despite how frequently they appear, elevates them. If we knew things about them that would humanize them, they would become like us, and there would be no thrill. This way, they are distant, clever and ideal; they become characters who have made their mark in the history of fiction.