Re-posted Review: ‘The Abominable Bride’

Originally published at Wix on Jan 5th, 2016

In November 1945, the London socialist rag Tribune published ‘Good Bad Books’, an essay by George Orwell that is strangely forgotten by even the old hack’s most devoted admirers. Strange, not because it’s his finest work and should be prepared for ejection into space in a capsule as our prime example of journalistic craftsmanship, but because there are few arguments so well-made by a so-called proponent of ‘high-art’ that the pop-culture generation might hold up as an excuse for why the pulpy and the preposterous tends to stick around.

The title — lifted from ‘The Defendants’, G. K. Chesterton’s case for penny dreadfuls — was used by Orwell to mean a book “with no literary pretensions, but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.” Into this category, he flippantly but firmly inserted the Sherlock Holmes stories, and by the category, he meant to describe books that were “ludicrous”, “absurd”, and all manner of other words a contemporary audience might consider rather cruel, and probably doesn’t associate with the Holmes tales since they set up a permanent home in the Classics section of most bookshops. But the intention was not dismissal; rather, the whole essay is an affectionate boost of Holmes and his pulpy, loveable ilk. Orwell perceived — rightly — that for all their silliness and fundamental implausibility, they would keep their place while “innumerable ‘problem novels’, ‘human documents’ and ‘terrible indictments’ of this or that have fallen into deserved oblivion.”

This silly vitality, I think, is the reason we all fell in love with Sherlock as adapted by Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss. It wasn’t because the BBC series added a new dimension of psychological complexity to century-old characters. It didn’t; their anxieties and neuroses and limits have shifted in context, but the Sherlock and John of 2010 onward are as driven by the same desire to near-mechanically lay bare a problem as Holmes and Watson were in the 1890s. Nor do we love it because its depiction of contemporary London is truly, radically different to Conan Doyle’s late-Victorian setting. It isn’t; in Gatiss’ own words, the show “fetishizes modern London” in precisely the same manner, not as a place in which great reverbrations echo through the city from the character’s actions, but a place that looms up over the characters, spitting out colourful grotesques, full of the kind of delicious, unnecessary detail you can practically swim in, hunting amongst them for the mystery’s key. We love Conan Doyle’s stories because, I think, at their core they essentially perfected the form of the pre-Chandler/Hammett crime story. An insoluble problem. A setting alive with possibilities. At the middle of it all, a great engine of a brain and its faintly bemused translator, working together to sift those possibilities and dissolve that problem. We love the Moffatt/Gatiss adaptation because it brings those insoluble problems and lively settings into a world we more readily recognise. [1]

Natasha O’Keeffe as Emelia Ricoletti, the Bride.

The Abominable Bride tries, to break with this basic set-up. Adaptations of the Holmes tales are and will remain endless, and the newest hack has to make his mark somewhere. But it is peculiar that, for all its ambition, its ideas, and its creators’ playful attitude towards the laws of time and space, that it should all unwind so disastrously. One really cannot help but think, as this nonsense unfolds; perhaps this is a story that doesn’t need to be overthought.

Aesthetically speaking, director Douglas MacKinnon and his crew have the Victorian setting down pat. Martin Freeman is charming as an older sort of Watson; not a blusterer, bungler, ladykiller or tagalong, but over-earnest, clueless about the slight regard he’s held in, and appealingly over-excited by new adventure. Benedict Cumberbatch fits this buttoned-up Holmes like a bony hand in a silk glove, far better than he ever suited the increasingly unpleasant Sherlock; it’s a strange and slightly cruel joy to at last see him play a character who is actually constrained by his surroundings, rather than perpetually free to let loose whatever horrible thought’s just crossed his mind. When the episode is simply being a Victorian murder mystery, it radiates charm, the Gothic atmosphere thick and rich and genuinely frightening. Narrative complications can and should abound in a Holmes story, for the sake of the twists and the turns, and in that sense this episode worked, if only because Gatiss and Moffatt really are the best in the business for the playful execution of a surprise. [2] But it’s when they go for thematic complexity, for something beyond mystery, that the tale falls down absolutely dead.

What The Abominable Bride is, at root (and stop here if you prefer not to have the plot somewhat spoiled), is a fantasy, not a murder mystery. By the end we’ve actually not progressed more than a few hours beyond the third season’s tedious cliffhanger. The Victorian episode does not ‘stand alone’ but in fact fits snugly into the series’ overall continuity, a fever dream Sherlock stimulated himself into out of (probably) boredom. The mystery is a thought experiment, Sherlock trying his hand at an unsolved case to see how he might’ve closed it. We aren’t actually going to be shown how a woman rose from her suicide’s grave to wreak vengeance on the men who wronged her and others — instead we get to watch Sherlock wander his mind palace, lose himself in his ruminations, and nearly die inside his own head.

This is the kind of idea that probably comes across as a delightful treat if one is content to let the implications of it simply slide by. It’s bad enough that Holmes, pulp icon from his deerstalker down to his slippers, really does not stand up to the kind of sociological complexity that the solution the writers concoct (more on that below) actually requires of him. It’s worse that it nakedly invites the accusation of “it’s all a dream”, or the suggestion of a badly unearned indulgence on both Sherlock and the writers’ part. A great deal has so far been argued about the episode’s feminist credentials, but I really cannot have any truck with this. Sherlock, the show, is a dreadful medium through which to convey feminist ideas. We are three seasons and a special deep now, and modern Sherlock’s misanthropic and outright cruel qualities, excused by weak-sauce claims to sociopathy, have matured into the full-fat hatefulness that made much of Season 3 unbearable to watch. The suggestion that the arch-Victorian Holmes empathises with these first stirrings of feminism, and recognises the abuse both he and his society have perpetuated, is admirable… and then doubles back to hateful once one recalls that the modern Sherlock is making this all up to fit his fantasy. Unable to actually solve the case, he invents a murderous conspiracy of vengeful women to fit in the absent solution’s place.

Which is, you know, heinous.

Louise Brearley as Hooper.

Worse, the intercutting of Holmes’ speech. itemising men’s oppressive cruelties, with Sherlock’s contemptuous and dismissive treatment of women in his own life ends up entirely pointless, once he at last wakes up and instantly forgets the lesson his subconscious was trying to teach him, preferring instead to sink back into yet another mystery surrounding that remorseless, unkillable pantomime dame, Jim Moriarty.

It’s the fantasy that wrecks The Abominable Bride. The episode does indeed have enough wit, technical craft and imagination to dodge the inevitable and dreaded accusations of it all just being a dream, but here, though we have the rare privilege of being inside his head, we remain at one remove too many from the vital matter of Sherlock’s case. [3] We do not experience the developments as Sherlock does, because Sherlock is inventing them out of whole cloth, and at liberty to add new details as he pleases. We have no access to the evidence, because Sherlock is merely remembering it at random within his feverish imagination. He does not, if he’s honest, really care about the fate of the bride, the cruelties she supposedly suffered, the oppression of women or even that he himself has been guilty of vicious cruelties. The story is ultimately a hilariously misguided swing for that ‘human indictment’ Orwell spoke about, when all it should be is an powerful atmosphere, a confounding puzzle, and a masterful problem-solver.

This really is forgetting the appeal, losing the thread, missing the point. This is not Sherlock Holmes, not here. Not when the entire episode is the Great Detective committing his own capital mistake: “to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” And there is something so inhuman, so callous, so dismissive of people and their foibles and shortcomings that even the marvellous brain that attracts us to this new version of Holmes is impossible to care about. Why admire that organ, when the heart below it is almost entirely rotten?

[1] This piece was written prior to the release of Season 4 and the series-wide reconsideration that those three diabolically awful episodes prompted.

[2] I can only apologise for this slimy bit of fawning.

[3] The degree to which this is true of most of Sherlock’s entire run is, in retrospect, not a little galling.

A writer who is very tired.