It’s kind of sad when I start reading one of the canon stories and end up screaming “I know that scene! It’s from ‘His Last Vow’!” before I’m two paragraphs in, and then spend the rest of the story sad that I don’t actually get Charles Augustus Milverton yet. Yes, I knew going in that I wouldn’t, but I was still disappointed, because that is somehow possible. Cognitive dissonance, anyone? But that’s part of what happens when an adaptation becomes nearly as popular (some would argue the “nearly” in the case of “Sherlock”) as the canon. If it’s done right, the reimagining takes on a life of its own, and that can make the boundaries a little less clear sometimes.
When you’re a fan of both, with the details of those two similar worlds mingling in your head, those lines blur enough that it can be hard to read the opening salvo of “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and not think of the “Sherlock” Series Three finale. There’s Watson, being dragged out of his house in the middle of the night by a worried neighbor (and the gentle nudge of his wife). There he is, waltzing into a seedy opium/drug den to drag said neighbor’s husband home after two days down the rabbit hole (with less tough-guy baddassery necessary than Martin Freeman’s Watson required to get the job done, maybe). And there he is, too; running into a disguised Holmes hiding among the unwashed masses in order to get information for a case – dealing with Milverton in the episode, with another missing husband in the story itself.
This phenomenon isn’t specific to Holmesian properties, of course. Anything that’s been adapted from one media format to another runs the risk. Have you ever had trouble remembering if that Harry Potter quote you really loved came from the book, or if it was specific to the movie version? Is that how that person died in “The Walking Dead” comic? Did a different character do that thing in Catching Fire? When you’re a fan of multiple versions of a property, you have to expect a little line blurring.
(And when you’re a fan of period, quasi-historical drama, you find yourself wondering “Did the real George Washington do that, or AMC’s Washington? Would the real General Washington please stand up?”)
For Holmesians/Sherlockians (yes, those are two different things, trust me, but that’s a different conversation entirely. I feel like I’ve said that before, though…), there’s over a century’s worth of adaptations that can potentially get twisted around in your head. Am I remembering this from the Bruce version? Brett? Downey, Jr.? Miller? Cumberbatch? Was it in a pastiche? Canon? Is he a heroin addict, or is he using cocaine? Morphine? Opium? Wood alcohol? How flirtatious is the interaction between Holmes and Irene? Wait, she only worked with Moriarty in the movie, right? Or was it also the show? She never met him in the stories, did she?
You need a flow chart sometimes to keep track of the various details that apply to this version or that one just to keep them straight and separate in your head. (This is how “Elementary, my dear Watson” became part of the lexicon, despite never existing in the stories; it cropped up in a film and suddenly it is Holmes’ most well-known quotation.) Trust me, I’ve had to apply that filter to my own Holmes trivia when trying to build Charlotte’s world and make choices in some cases – like Watson’s gambling – if I wanted to run with a strict interpretation of the canon or go with a popular theory/conceit. To do that, I had to sit down and play my own game of “Real/Not Real.”
Or maybe I’m just getting old, or suffering from Holmes Overload. I read my first non-Holmesian fiction in about four months this past weekend. It’s possible my brain’s reaching Holmes critical mass.
So, what actually does happen in this story, you may be asking, since there’s not a world-class blackmailer wrecking havoc on London? Why was Holmes hanging out with opium addicts and “pretending” to be one? He’s investigating the disappearance of Neville St. Clair, who went missing the previous Monday from the exact opium den our favorite detective is found surveilling. Mr. St. Clair actually disappeared right in front of his wife; she’d happened upon that alley and that establishment and saw her husband calling out from the second-floor window of it entirely by chance.
She also hasn’t seen him since, either. When she stormed into the building with police in tow (after being shoved off by the proprietor on her own), they found a disfigured beggar and the building blocks Mr. St. Clair had purchased for his children in the room and his jacket, weighted down with coins, on the bank of the river behind the building. Holmes is convinced St. Clair is dead, even when a letter arrives from him to his wife assuring her he’s fine and will explain when he can. A night of smoking (tobacco, not opium, in case his time in the opium den had anyone worried) and thinking leads Holmes to reevaluating his theory; a visit to the jail later and the whole matter is happily solved.
I won’t spoil it for you, of course. Let’s just say, to quote the Ninth Doctor, “Everybody lives.” Also, nobody ends up in jail, but that’s not as unusual in Holmes canon as it can be in the adaptations. The definition of justice is something else that can get blurred between Holmesian realities.