Television

The Case of the Missing Detective

Why do Netflix’s Sherlock Holmes adaptations keep sidelining Sherlock Holmes?

A racially diverse group of young men and women on the streets of late Victorian-era London. Many of them carry weapons. They look not wealthy, but stylish.
The heroes of Netflix’s Sherlock Holmes spinoff The Irregulars. Not pictured: Sherlock Holmes. Matt Squire for Netflix

The 20th-century literary critic Edmund Wilson famously disdained detective fiction, with the exception of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which he loved in part for their larkish energy, praising their “air of irresponsible comedy, like that of some father’s rigmarole for his children.” Like a lot of readers, he fell in love with Holmes at an early age, 12, and for Wilson, who took literature very seriously, the Holmesian canon was kid stuff, but of a very high order, “full of cliches, but these cliches are dealt out with a ring which gives them a kind of value.” Even the great detective’s most gaga stans, the kind of people who join societies dedicated to writing mock learned papers about Holmes’ doings between the cases described by the loyal Dr. Watson, treat Conan Doyle’s fiction as playtime.

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Not everyone seems to think Conan Doyle’s Holmes has much to offer young audiences anymore. Two youth-oriented Netflix spinoffs, the 2020 film Enola Holmes and a new series, The Irregulars, lean heavily on the Sherlock Holmes mythos yet also choose to keep him at arm’s length. In Enola Holmes, the title character (Millie Bobby Brown), Sherlock’s sister, berates him for abandoning her to the care of their older brother Mycroft after their mother’s disappearance. She wants to be an adventuring detective like him, but Mycroft insists on forcing her into the role of a conventional Victorian gentlewoman. Played by Henry Cavill, Enola Holmes’s Sherlock is emotionally remote and practically inaccessible. He gets no more than a handful of minutes of screen time, and the film’s culminating fulfillment comes when he obliquely signals his approval of Enola’s plans to set up her own detective agency.

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In The Irregulars, Sherlock is even more neglected, a character who doesn’t feature until the fifth episode, and even then is so strung out he’s basically useless. The series centers on the gang of Cockney street kids that the canonical Holmes employed to gather information because they could “go everywhere and hear everything” and were “sharp as needles.” A BBC series from the 1980s, The Baker Street Boys, had the same idea, but stuck closer to the original. The Boys (who include two girls), stumble upon and then solve mysteries while the great detective himself is otherwise engaged, and never shows his face onscreen, although he occasionally manages to drop the kids a hint or two. However, the Boys embrace Holmes’ methods, and the gang’s leader, Wiggins, mimics their employer’s deductive strategy, like a junior apprentice.

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The Baker Street Boys is in the spirit of the Holmesian canon, while The Irregulars amounts to an attack on it. At first it seems to follow the lead of The Baker Street Boys by having the Irregulars—now teenagers and played by a racially diverse quintet of actors—investigate crimes at the direction of a rather sketchy Dr. Watson (Royce Pierreson), while stealing no more than a glimpse of the doctor’s partner through a doorway now and then. When Bea (Thaddea Graham), the leader of the group, finally hunts Holmes down, he’s lying semi-conscious on her mother’s grave, too opium-addled to speak.

The canonical Sherlock’s drug of choice was cocaine, and that switch feels emblematic. In place of a man trying to do too much, this is a detective who can accomplish nothing. The Sherlock Holmes of The Irregulars is so different from the original character that he’s Holmes in name only. The ascetic, single-minded, anti-social detecting machine of Conan Doyle’s fiction becomes, when played by The Irregulars’s Henry Lloyd-Hughes, a smooth-talking showboater with a topknot and an 8 o’clock shadow who, in his heyday, loved nothing more than taking a bow on a music hall stage or drunkenly tattooing his friends. By the time the series takes place, his celebrated feats of deduction, by which the original Holmes was able to conclude much information about an individual by observing tiny details of his appearance, usually go wrong. And like all of the adults in The Irregulars, this Holmes is weak, untrustworthy, and unreliable, a perpetual failure and disappointment in the eyes of the teenage heroes.

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Even the universe of The Irregulars betrays the Holmes ethos. In the original stories, any event that appeared uncanny—the Musgrave ritual, the “speckled band,” the cursed hound of the Baskervilles—always turned out to have a rational explanation. This is both a fantasy of the omnipotence of reason and also basically accurate, although not in the fictional universe of The Irregulars. Every case the teen characters take on involves magical powers, all of them tied to a big, bad supernatural threat from another dimension that has led some critics to liken the series to Stranger Things. The Irregulars, however, lacks both the finely textured setting and the visual and metaphysical imagination of Stranger Things. The “rip” the characters spend the whole season chasing feels more like the formulaic peril defeated at the climax of a mediocre superhero film.

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At one point, in a flashback, Bea’s late mother berates Sherlock, declaring that “people enjoy your explanations because they give a false sense of order to chaos,” while “I think we are standing on the brink of something that doesn’t have order or reason.” This is delivered as if it were a masterful insight, and it’s true that part of the appeal of the Holmes stories lies in the dream that every mystery will yield to a sufficiently disciplined human mind. The wisdom of the original Holmes was indeed partial, which is one of the reasons he needs Watson. But the “chaos” that Bea’s mother warns of has nothing to do with, say, the waywardness of human emotions. She’s referring to a lot of claptrap about reanimated corpses, demons, killer crows, skin-walkers, and a big glowing hole in the wall that is so familiar from countless other forms of paranormal pop culture that it’s too banal even to be scary. At least the rationality espoused by the original Holmes has the advantage of being partially true.

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The original Holmes is also fun, a quality entirely missing from The Irregulars, a gloomy affair in which everyone moans endlessly about their family-of-origin issues like the characters in the Snyder Cut. Enola Holmes manages to hold onto more of the spirit of the original, but it still gets periodically swamped by soul-searching and posturing about women’s roles in Victorian society. It’s possible to expand the kinds of characters a Holmes story can include or focus on without losing the original’s lightness of touch. But perhaps that’s why Sherlock must be sidelined: Because for all his absurd rationality, he’s really the embodiment of irresponsible rigmarole, without a lesson to teach or a past trauma to weepily expose. In no time, he’d be shouting “the game’s afoot!” and heading off on an adventure not to expiate secret feelings of worthlessness or avenge a dead loved one, but just for the hell of it. And we can’t have that.

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