Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and the Limits of Deduction

Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes in Murder By Decree (1979)

Knowing your correspondent’s love for all things Sherlock Holmes, a well-meaning friend recently tried to argue in favor of the recent Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes film.  (Good God, and more to come, with a sequel on its way!)  A kind gesture on the part of my friend to be sure, but it ultimately led to the melancholy observation that there has not been a serious mainstream Sherlock Holmes film in 30 years. 
A grim thought, indeed.  But why, I wondered, why was that?
The last straight, non-comedic Sherlock Holmes film was Murder By Decree (1979) -- a terrific film, I think, with a particularly fine Sherlock Holmes in Christopher Plummer (ably supported by James Mason as Dr. Watson).  The film concerned Holmes and Watson in pursuit of Jack the Ripper, the resolution of which is a massive government conspiracy and resulting cover-up. 
The very reason the film worked is, I think, may also be one of the reasons it was the last straight Holmes film: in the course of his investigations, Holmes discovers that the entire establishment that he represents is corrupt at best, criminal in its actions, and murderous in its intent.  "We've uncovered madmen, Watson, wielding scepters.  Reason run riot, justice howling at the moon," gasps a dispirited Plummer.
Admittedly Murder By Decree is a particularly Watergate-era film, but it was an important first step in what I think of as the limits of deduction.  Right around this time, Post Modernist theory emerged as a 'legitimate' mode of criticism in many universities.  Essentially, the mindset of the past 30 years is that truth is a malleable concept, that different people recognize different truths, and that 'absolute truth’ (or irreducible fact) was merely a construct reflecting the philosophy of the person(s) who held that truth.  This concept has been ruthlessly manipulated by politicians of the last decade or so (with sneering dismissal of 'the reality based community') and by academics, who, it seems, hold little value or respect for the disciplines that they teach. 
Now, the Post Modernist spin that science and/or truth is only a geographical construct is flummery of the most appalling nature (I would have liked to have seen Jacques Derrida hold many of his assertions directly prior to major surgery or while stepping off a plane in flight), but its effect on the overall popularity of detective fiction in general (and Sherlock Holmes in particular) has been devastating.  In a world where the establishment is criminal (Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, whomever) and there is no 'absolute truth,' where is the place for a figure like Sherlock Holmes?
Hence, the limits of deduction.  Perhaps, in this Balkanized environment of a variety of different truths and dismissal of objective fact, the notion of a keeper or finder of absolute measurable, reducible fact holds no cultural currency.  To turn Sherlock Holmes into a Robert Downey action figure to amuse the groundlings who inhabit our movie houses seems (if you'll excuse the phrase) the only logical next step.

Tomorrow - Jeremy Brett as the Master Detective.

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