/ TV

A World Without Sherlock Holmes

I recently caught up on the show Elementary, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes adaptation, and it raises a number of concerning questions about its worldbuilding and alternate history for me.

The show is set in a fictionalized New York City; a world with a steady stream of intriguing crime, a world where the police are okay, a world in which Sherlock Holmes is a police consultant and recovering heroin addict. But the divergence between this fictional city goes back further than 2012, when the show was aired -- back at least to 1887, the year in which, in the Elementary universe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does not publish A Study in Scarlet.

The story was rejected several times before it was published, so perhaps the show's Doyle gave up on the piece, and the name "Sherlock Holmes" was lost to a trash bin, consumed by worms. Even then, it's too much of a coincidence for me. I don't buy that, by sheer coincidence, a Sherlock Holmes is born nearly 100 years later and live out the same life as this forgotten character from an abandoned novel.

Even without the distinctive name (after all, he was originally christened "Sherrinford Holmes"), the details are too specific and identifiable. No, it must be that the story was never written at all and the character never invented.

So we are left with the question, why didn't Doyle write A Study in Scarlet?

Doyle was inspired to create the Sherlock character by his professor Joseph Bell, who impressed Doyle with his powers of deductions, and consulted with Scotland yard. The similarity evident to anyone who knew Bell, as we see in a letter from Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Doyle, "can this be my old friend Joe Bell?" If Doyle had never met Bell, there could not have been a Sherlock Holmes, and even if Doyle still wrote detective stories, without Bell as a model, the character would not be the one we know so well today.

Bell and Doyle met in 1877, ten years before A Study in Scarlet was published, when Doyle was a medical student in Edinburgh. Doyle served as Bell's clerk, but even without this direct connection, Bell was a legend among Edinburgh medical students. There is no way that the would not have crossed paths. So it must be that they not only did not meet, but they did not pass in the same circles at all.

It isn't surprising that Doyle returned to Edinburgh, where he was born, to attend university after finishing school in Germany, but he could have attended a different medical school. Or Doyle could have decided to study a different subject entirely. After all, he was the editor of a literary magazine in school; he could have gone directly into writing and revolutionized some other genre. For all I know, there is an iconic science fiction series beloved to the people of Elementary's NYC, written by a Doyle who was never a doctor.

Or maybe Doyle's parents' troubled marriage fell apart six years earlier than it did, and he was never born. Maybe Bell established his medical practice in another city. Maybe one of the two died in a random accident. Whatever the exact cause, it's clear that the idea of "Sherlock Holmes" was never conceived.

Without Sherlock Holmes, what would the detective genre look like? There's no need to un-publish The Moonstone or erase C. Auguste Dupin, so fictional detectives aren't out with the bathwater. We would not have Hercule Poirot who Agatha Christie wrote, in her words, "in the Sherlock Holmes tradition," but I don't think we need to shunt her out of the detective genre entirely. She had other inspirations than Doyle's work.

Mac OS 8 would have shipped with a differently-branded search tool, certainly.

Of course, the only people who can canonically establish the differences between Elementary and real life are the show's writers. While they haven't explicitly touched on this, we can reasonably infer that even without the morale boost of Doyle's propagandist Holmes story His Last Bow, the outcome of World War I remained more or less the same. Whether Doyle would have found his way to Spiritualism, and if not, whether Harry Houdini have found an alternative adversary to debunk, is less clear.

Maybe the lack of the literary Sherlock Holmes canon as a guiding light is what shaped the show universe's version of murder which is complicated and interesting rather than merely heartbreaking. Maybe without Doyle's writing we too would live in a world populated with sexy, mysterious crimelords.

There's another aspect to this as well. In a world where Doyle hadn't written those stories, Elementary makes a strong case that Jonny Lee Miller would have been born to parents with different surnames than Lee and Miller, parents who named him Sherlock. He wouldn't have followed their lead into an acting career, but become a detective.

Instead of walking into an audition in 1994, he would have solved some strange crime for Scotland Yard and discovered heroin. And we, the minor side characters, the extras of the world, would never lay our humble eyes upon the movie Hackers.

So thank you, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and to the inhabitants of modern-day Sherlock Holmes adaptations, I am sorry.

Mouse Reeve

Mouse Reeve