Five years ago, I pitched a brilliant idea to an editor I know: a modern take on Sherlock Holmes. Instead of shooting cocaine, he smokes pot! Instead of being a violin virtuoso, he plays the sax! Instead of Watson publishing his stories about Holmes … well, wherever he supposedly published them, he’d have a blog! And, instead of being a wounded army doctor just back from Afghanistan, he’d be a wounded army doctor just back from … whoa! Afghanistan! We could call the book “Sherlock.com” so folks would know this wasn’t your grandpa’s Sherlock Holmes.
(Good titles are hard, people. Just ask the guy who came up with “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.”)
The editor’s response (after rousing himself from what looked like a very satisfying nap): “Sherlock Holmes is played out. Have you thought about Robin Hood?”
(Note to self: Dust off that pitch about con man Robert N. Hood and his band of merry hacker/ninjas.)
Of course, I didn’t have to let one editor’s apathy shoot the whole thing down. But I wasn’t confident I could pull off a modern Holmes. I was already writing a series of stories and novels about a pair of cowboys who use Holmes’ methods to solve mysteries in the Old West, so it wasn’t the Sherlockian angle I found intimidating. It was writing a first-person novel from the perspective of a 21st century Brit that scared me. I’m American. Very American. Like, I-might-have-biscuits-and-sausage-gravy-for-dinner American.
I toyed with making either Holmes or Watson a Yank and relocating the book to Washington, D.C., or Chicago or maybe New York, but, nah. Holmes belongs in London the same way Superman belongs in Metropolis, Batman belongs in Gotham and Wonder Woman belongs … where does Wonder Woman belong?
Anyway, I put the idea on the back burner. Then I put it in the fridge. Then I threw it in the garbage when it started to smell like two-year-old applesauce. In other words, I let it go. And you know what happened next: Someone else picked it up. A few someone elses.
Do I think that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, co-creators of the phenomenal BBC Holmes update “Sherlock,” were sitting at the next table when I described my idea to friends over dinner in 2007? Heavens, no! Those guys are geniuses. That they had the same idea is what tells me it was brilliant in the first place. (Plus it’s hard to imagine them hanging out at a Cheesecake Factory in Marin County.)
Do I think that Rob Doherty, showrunner of the new CBS Holmes update “Elementary,” had my editor’s office bugged? Perish the thought! TV people don’t pay any attention to silly ol’ books. (Of course, they do pay attention to TV, but let’s not get into that …) Even during that 2007 Cheesecake Factory dinner, I knew it was only a matter of time before somebody had the same brainstorm.
“If I don’t write this,” I can remember saying, “someone else will.”
Because the thing is, Holmes updates were nothing new even then.
During World War II, Holmes and Watson (as played by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) went head-to-head with the Nazis in several Universal features. The 1987 TV movie “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” brought our hero out of suspended animation in (then) modern Boston. The 1993 TV movie “Sherlock Holmes Returns” also used suspended animation (and the recycling of stale ideas) to transport the master sleuth to contemporary San Francisco. More recently, the ultra-low-budget 2010 film “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes” pitted Holmes and Watson against rampaging dinosaurs. (An even more startling and unlikely reboot came the previous year, when Holmes was somehow transformed into Robert Downey Jr.)
And it doesn’t end there. In books and comics, Holmes has squared off against Jack the Ripper, the Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, zombies, Martians, Jesus Christ and the Warren Report. He’s traveled all the way to exotic Minnesota to solve baffling crimes … five times! Fans around the world can tolerate the constant reimaginings because Holmes’ qualities transcend any particular time and place. He’s brilliant. He’s observant. He’s eccentric. He’s flawed — but he’s good. And he always has his loyal friend by his side: Watson, the stand-in for all of us who stick with Holmes through thick and thin.
So it doesn’t strike me as surprising that CBS would offer up yet another spin on the character, even if that spin is a tad familiar. The only question is this: What will the next new angle on Holmes be?
I have an idea … but this time I’m keeping my mouth shut till it’s done.
— Steve Hockensmith
Steve Hockensmith is the author of the “Holmes on the Range” mystery series as well as the New York Times bestseller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls.” He can be found online at www.stevehockensmith.com and in the real world in his office drinking too much coffee.
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