Sherlock Review: The Six Thatchers

This review was originally written for the Baker Street Babes, and I’m sharing it here. It can also be found here on the BSB website.

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WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR “THE SIX THATCHERS.”

One year from “The Abominable Bride.” Nearly three from the last regular-season-order episode “His Last Vow.” The combination of seemingly-interminable hiatus, international build, and a fandom given to painstaking analysis means that “The Six Thatchers” came onto screens less like a single episode of a mystery series and more like the receptacle of the collective weight of metric tons of expectations.

The question is: Did it deliver?

The answer is a complicated yes and no and maybe. I’ll delve into all three, in an effort to make a complicated episode (and the complicated opinions of members of our podcast) into something coherent.

First of all, what delivered? Without a doubt, the core cast of Sherlock is one of the finest in the business and perhaps one of the best ensembles that has ever graced television screens. With his usual sharp precision, Benedict Cumberbatch settled into the role of a Sherlock Holmes who is on edge but still completely recognizable as the established character. His rapid-fire deductions during the case montage were as entertaining as ever, and his smugness when he tracked Mary’s location and confronted her was a wonderful cheeky moment. Even more enthralling, in my opinion, were his razor-edge interactions with Mark Gatiss’s phenomenal interpretation of Mycroft, one of the only characters who is consistently able to unsettle our hero and bring his vulnerable side forward. Rupert Graves’s Lestrade, Louise Brealey’s Molly, and Una Stubbs’s Mrs. Hudson were all on point, though not extremely prominent in this episode. (We hope for more of them in the coming weeks.)

When all is said and done, though, the acting plaudits for this episode belong most of all to Amanda Abbington and Martin Freeman. Freeman’s Watson is, as always, a multi-layered man with a seemingly-simple facade that overlays a world of emotion and passion. The final scenes, of course, have pulled a great deal of focus from the rest of the episode, but Freeman plays the earlier scenes of the quiet desperation of a new father losing touch with his wife and experiencing the temptation of another woman with piercing vulnerability. He’s an actor who never settles for the comfortable version, and he forcibly compels the audience to feel his internal conflicts. Abbington, in her swan song on the show, plays a Mary whose past has finally caught up with her. We watch her, like a hunted animal, run from the inescapable, and she’s mesmerizing on screen. Even in scenes that, as plot points, I didn’t care for, I found her screen presence enthralling. Her Mary is by turns brittle, sweet, funny, and finally desperate. In the end, she made me care. As Babe Ashley Polasek says in our reaction episode, even though she didn’t particularly enjoy how the episode arrived at it, Mary’s death made her cry. It was just that well-played. The chemistry between Freeman and Abbington as John and Mary wasn’t so much tender as brutal, and when they finally said goodbye, their pain mingled into something almost unbearable to watch in its intensity.

I’d also be remiss in not mentioning the wonderful direction of Rachel Talalay, new to Sherlock, but veteran of hits like Doctor Who and The Flash. Her deft hand brought atmosphere, style, and beauty to the episode and made some very complicated sequences work and retain visual coherence. “The Six Thatchers” has a gorgeously operatic quality, and the bold images of the aquarium, the stark simplicity of Mycroft’s office, and the richness of the foreign settings created a feast for the eyes.

Finally, the episode had many brilliant references to the Doyle Canon and the world of pastiche. Most prominently, the overarching plot was a very high concept take on The Sign of Four, in which the Agra treasure that should belong to Mary Morstan is lost at sea. As a part of AGRA herself, Sherlock‘s Mary meets her demise under water (in the London aquarium). Seen as a unit, “His Last Vow” and “The Six Thatchers” play out the story arc of the novel. Additionally, the concept of six busts of a historical figure being destroyed is a reference to “The Six Napoleons,” one of Doyle’s stories, which has the solution that Sherlock expects in the episode–the missing Black Pearl of the Borgias. When Mary takes her around-the-world jaunt, each disguise is a reference to a Canon case or disguise Holmes used. A more emotional reference is the use of “Norbury,” a name in the episode, but a place in Doyle’s story “The Yellow Face.” In both cases, Holmes makes an error in judgment, and the word “Norbury” comes to symbolize his own awareness of his tendency toward hubris. Of course, Mary’s death is Canonical as well; after the Great Hiatus, Watson mentions that he’s lost her, but he doesn’t specify how. Acclaimed pastiche author Nicholas Meyer also received a direct shout-out in the episode, through the title “The Canary Trainer,” one of his books. (The showrunners enjoy referencing Meyer; they referred to his most famous Sherlockian work, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in “The Abominable Bride.”)

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Unfortunately, alongside these brilliant elements, other aspects of the episode didn’t quite work as I’d hoped. I could come at this from several angles, but since this review is already getting long, I’ll try to keep it concise. If you listen to our upcoming reaction podcast, you’ll hear that we had strong criticism of the plot of “The Six Thatchers” and of the implications of what it means for the future of the series.

First, taking the plot alone. It was meta. (I’m not even sure meta is a strong enough word for how self-referential it was). We in the Babes enjoy a bit of meta, and for the most part, we were big fans of “The Abominable Bride,” which was about as meta as you can get–or so we thought. The problem is, at least partially, a context issue. A one-off Christmas episode can take a mind-palace trip that shows us Victorian versions of our beloved characters and dissects their psychology. By placing them back in their original contexts it bought the collateral necessary to get away with it. That is most definitely not the context we find ourselves in with “The Six Thatchers.” We’re back in the “real world” with our modern heroes and their daily jobs and problems. But apart from very brief deductive montages, we didn’t have an episode of Sherlock Holmes being Sherlock Holmes, solving cases, being a detective. We were almost entirely in navel-gazing territory, where the characters’ problems were almost entirely created by themselves. At some point, if Holmes spends most of his time solving problems created by or primarily involving him (the ending of the ep) and his friends (most of the rest of it), there’s a curiously claustrophobic and inward feeling to the action. Even as it goes global, it feels small, smaller than it should.

This episode also asked viewers to accept the idea that John Watson, a character whose loyalty to his friends and loved ones has been his primary trait in the series thus far, is carrying on a late-night extramarital flirtation while his new baby cries in the next room. Three-Continents Watson might be flattered by a woman’s attention on a train; the man we know and love, however, would not let it go beyond that. He’s not perfect, but nothing in the series or the source material paints him as anything other than a faithful partner. I understand the plot’s reason for this–the fact that Watson’s anger at Holmes after Mary’s death is projected anger at himself. That’s possibly the biggest problem. It feels like John’s actions served the plot, rather than the other way around.

Finally, as enjoyable as it was to watch Mary traveling the world as different characters (and it was great fun), it was all a bit much. Sherlock has always had a heightened quality, but it’s anchored in reality. The international espionage elements of “The Six Thatchers” didn’t feel in any sense anchored in reality, and the previous episode it called to mind, in our opinion, was “The Blind Banker,” which also struggled with feeling a bit ridiculous for similar reasons. (Don’t get me wrong; as with this episode, there are aspects of “The Blind Banker” we greatly enjoy, but along with many fans, we consider it one of the weakest of the series.) This criticism has nothing to do with the stellar performances. In fact, if this is Amanda’s James Bond audition, we heartily support her being cast as the first International Woman of Mystery.

In a more general sense, we’re concerned about what this episode says about this show’s trajectory. Sherlock has always been a show about a detective, rather than a detective show; that’s a given. One of the main things that drew us in at the beginning was the side-by-side interplay of what we learn about the man through the mysteries he solves. Memorable moments like Watson yelling about Holmes’s lack of care, Holmes asking whether something is “not good,” and the heart-shattering moment of the Reichenbach Fall were all wonderfully poignant character moments, but those moments were earned by being integral parts of the mysteries the episodes and seasons presented. Once those mysteries fall away, the series becomes nothing but a very heightened show about the relationships between an extremely small group of people. “The Six Thatchers” was phenomenally acted, but in the end, the primary story wasn’t much of a mystery at all.

If we take Sherlock Holmes out of his time, that’s fine. If, as in TAB, we put him back in his time and change up the focus of his story, also fine. What concerns us most is this episode seemingly trying to do both–giving us the modern Holmes of most of Sherlock (obviously), but failing to give him back his primary function as a solver of mysteries. Additionally, by placing such a huge rift between Holmes and Watson, while taking Watson somewhat out of character, the show has also endangered the primary relationship of the source material, the core friendship between the detective and his doctor. Holmes alone is not the Holmes we know and love; he’s diminished. To be fully realized as a character, he needs his Boswell (or blogger).

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Let’s finish up on the maybe question. We don’t know what’s coming in the rest of this series of Sherlock beyond general information, and it’s possible we may end up with a different view of “The Six Thatchers” by the end. The Moriarty question still looms over the show, and one of our criticisms in this episode was that it didn’t link Sherlock’s ongoing obsession with any tangible clues. We may find later, however, that it dropped clues we didn’t grasp. Also, if the resolution of the Holmes-Watson rift is strong enough, we may look back and find that the conflict was worth it, or at least less troubling. More than anything, if the next episodes return to tightly-plotted mystery with clues and deduction, we’ll be very grateful, because while we love the characters of Sherlock dearly, what we love most is learning about them while they do the work of solving mysteries in the world around them.

I’ve now seen “The Six Thatchers” three times, and I thoroughly enjoyed each viewing. Even when, in our opinion, Sherlock isn’t quite firing on all cylinders, it’s still very good television with excellent production values. Though not our favorite in terms of story, this season opener will live on in our minds for its beautiful visuals and stunning performances, and we will miss Amanda Abbington’s presence. Criticism aside, she made Mary vibrant and alive and wonderful, and we won’t forget her or what she added to the world of the show.


How to purchase my Sherlock Holmes novels:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

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29 Sherlockian Faves for my 29th

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Tomorrow is my 29th birthday, and I’ve decided to celebrate with a list of 29 of my favorite things about the world of Sherlock Holmes.

1) The ACD Canon

Nothing compares to the 56 short stories and four novels penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Now that most of the stories are in the public domain, it’s easy to find them on the Internet for anyone who wants to take a look. My favorite story is “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” but there’s something I love in every single one.

Doyle is often credited for creating amazing characters and intriguing mysteries. He’s less often given his due for how funny the stories are and how much truth about friendship and tolerating differences they contain.

Visual media adaptations are a wonderful way to enter the world of Holmes, but there’s no reason to stop there. The canon beckons, and Sir Arthur has so much to offer.

2) The Granada/Jeremy Brett Series

Jeremy Brett’s life was, in many was, a tragic one, but he (and his Watsons) left behind a stunning legacy–hour after hour of beautiful television adaptations of the canon, painstakingly and brilliantly traditional in character.

Unlike many of my friends, I don’t consider Brett my favorite actor to play the role, but he is certainly one of my favorites, and his immense legacy defines the question of what it means to portray Sherlock Holmes.

3) Internet Memes

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4) Young Sherlock Holmes

In 1985, Paramount tried to jumpstart a franchise about a teenaged Sherlock Holmes (and Watson). The idea didn’t take off, but I still find Young Sherlock Holmes an extremely enjoyable watch, and I count star Nicholas Rowe among my favorite actors to portray the detective, enough that I wish he would have another go as an adult.

5) Big Finish Audio 

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The often-overlooked art of audio drama is one where Sherlock Holmes continues to flourish, particularly in the capable hands of Nicholas Briggs and the Big Finish team.

I recently had a chance to help interview Nicholas about the challenges and joys of playing Sherlock Holmes in an audio format. Listen here

6) Dodgy Adaptations 

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We all know of Holmes adaptations that are disputable–some people love ’em, other’s hate ’em. Then there are those adaptations so terrible they’re like the Sharknados of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

If you want to see the mother of them all, check out the one simply titled Sherlock Holmes and put out by The Asylum. You will not be disappointed.

7) BBC Sherlock 

Three series of pure bliss, that’s what show creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have given us, along with the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and a host of gloriously idiosyncratic side characters. I was skeptical when I first heard about the idea of a modern Holmes, but I gave it a try anyway, because of the people involved. Nine episodes later, I’m still stunned by a piece of art that continues to be both gloriously traditional and thrillingly of-the-moment, all at the same time.

8) The Fandom

I’ve never engaged with a fandom as much as I’ve engaged with the world of Sherlock Holmes in the past three years. I’m perpetually stunned by the sheer creativity, brilliance, and good will. I know Holmesians in their 80s and Holmesians in their teens, along with everything in between. Like in every fandom, there’s a conflict now and then, but overall, I’ve found the world of Sherlock Holmes to be an astonishingly pleasant place.

I’m not exactly sure why, but I like to think Sherlock Holmes and John Watson appeal to the best in all of us.

9) The Russian Series

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I’ve never been lucky enough to see the classic Soviet Holmes series from the 1980s with English subtitles, but there’s a new Sherlock in town. He’s quirky, extremely Russian, and ultimately as clever and captivating as any I’ve ever seen.

This is a new discovery for me, and I have yet to see more than the feature-length first episode, since translation is currently occurring, but here’s a link to start the journey along with me. (Make sure to turn on the English subtitles if you don’t understand Russian.)

10) 221b Con

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Conventions have long been a chance for fans to connect and enjoy shared interest in particular shows, books, and films, and 2013 saw the inaugural year of 221b Con, a weekend filled with Sherlock Holmes-themed parties, panels, and insane fun.

I had a wonderful time at 221b Con (enough to be back for 2014), and what delighted me most was the range of ages, genders, and interests. BBC Sherlock devotees rubbed shoulders with Brett-philes, and young and old mingled in a wild cacophony of Sherlockian glee. It was truly a celebration of Sherlock Holmes in every form.

11) The Guy Ritchie Films

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Holmesians are somewhat divided on the Ritchie-Downey Jr outings, but I’m a huge fan. I don’t watch them expecting purist canon adaptations. I’m looking for a stylized, fun romp through Holmesian settings and stories.

Jude Law is justifiably venerated for his Watson, but I don’t think Robert Downey Jr gets enough credit for portraying the complexity and vulnerability of Holmes’s personality, aspects that are sometimes overlooked in other adaptations.

12) The Baker Street Babes

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In Holmesian terms, they complete me. The Baker Street Babes is an all-female Sherlock Holmes-themed podcast. We cover everything from the canon to The Great Mouse Detective, and we have a blast doing it.

If you love us, please consider taking a moment to vote for us in the Podcaster category of the Shorty Awards.

13) Sherlock Holmes’s Introversion

Holmes is not a traditional hero. He’s moody, introverted, and uses his mind to solve most of his cases, rather than his physical strength. He’s physically capable, but his superpower is his mind.

I love the fact that just as Western society finally begins to appreciate the advantages of introversion, Holmes is a role model and emblem for introverts everywhere.

I wrote about this topic in depth here.

14) The Great Mouse Detective

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15) Forensic Advances

It’s not often that a fictional character impacts the real world to the extant that Sherlock Holmes did. When the character was created, the police were barely using forensic techniques, and Doyle’s texts were required reading for police training for quite a while. He’s credited with having a huge part in changing the face of police work to be what it is today.

16) Dr. Joseph Bell 

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Had there never been a Joseph Bell, there might never have been a Sherlock Holmes. As a young man, Doyle saw Bell deducing patient complaints the way he later wrote Holmes making deductions about his clients, and the idea of an immortal character was born.

17) Graphic Novels

Sherlock Holmes has been the subject of many phenomenal graphic novels over the years. A notable current example is the racebent, modernized Watson and Holmes series by New Paradigm Studios.

18) Holmesian Scholarship

Sherlock Holmes isn’t only a hobby. He’s also the subject of all kinds of serious and tongue-in-cheek scholarship. (It’s hard to separate the two, but why try? They’re both great to read.)

One place to find all kinds of fantastic articles about Holmes is the Baker Street Journal. Another is the recently-published collection One Fixed Point in a Changing Age: A New Generation on Sherlock Holmes.

19) Playing the Game

Doyle’s inclusion of near-factual events and near-historical characters has long tempted fans into playing The Game, which simply means reading the stories as if Holmes and Watson are real historical figures and fitting all of their exploits into a historical context.

I did this in my first novel, The Detective and The Woman, in which I wrote about Holmes meeting inventor Thomas Edison.

20) The Tropes

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The pipe, the hat, the cape…Sometimes I roll my eyes at the overuse of the tropes we’ve come to associate with Sherlock Holmes, but it’s always a fond eyeroll.

Like a secret handshake, Holmes tropes are the little emblems of a shared world. They’re the things that remind us that whether we’re watching Sherlock or a Basil Rathbone film, we’re all appreciating the same thing.

21) Basil Rathbone

Speaking of Rathbone, his classic films illustrate the timelessness of the character of Holmes, taking the detective out of the Victorian context to fight Nazis and other miscreants.

22) The Mary Russell Series

I first encountered the Holmes canon as a child, but during my teens and early 20s, my strongest link to Holmes was through Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series, stories about the post-retirement Holmes and his partnership with a young woman.

If it wasn’t for Laurie, I don’t believe I’d be a pastiche author today. Her writing broke the glass ceiling of what I thought was possible in the world of Sherlock Holmes.

23) Irene Adler

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She’s The Woman, she outsmarted Sherlock Holmes, and I love her.

24) Holmes’s London

In my books, I refer to London as Holmes’s mistress. Doyle’s writing is so atmospheric that it’s as if the setting is a character in its own right. The name Sherlock Holmes is instantly synonymous with hansom cabs, dirty streets, and gas lights–an alternate universe London that never existed but really, really should have.

25) Nicholas Meyer and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer remains one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes pastiches ever penned, and Meyer followed it up with two respected sequels.

Seven-Per-Cent isn’t perfect, but it’s a brilliant take on Sherlock Holmes that introduces him to Sigmund Freud and manages to turn a lot of things we think we know about Holmes on their heads–without seeming disrespectful in the least.

26) Continuity Errors

Eternal thanks to Sir Arthur “Continuity” Doyle for things like having Mary Watson forget her husband’s name, inexplicably calling Mrs. Hudson Mrs. Turner, and various other major timeline shenanigans.

Reading Holmes would be way less fun if it all made sense.

27) 221B by Vincent Starrett

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Here dwell together still two men of note

Who never lived and so can never die:

How very near they seem, yet how remote

That age before the world went all awry.

But still the game’s afoot for those with ears

Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:

England is England yet, for all our fears–

Only those things the heart believes are true.

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane

As night descends upon this fabled street:

A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,

The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.

Here, though the world explode, these two survive,

And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

–Vincent Starrett

28) Epic Mashups

There are some truly fabulous mashups of Sherlock Holmes with other universes–Doctor Who, Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera–the list could go on forever.

One of my personal favorites is the book My Particular Friend by Jennifer Petkus, which reimagines Holmes and Watson as women in Jane Austen’s Regency England.

29) It’s Personal

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We all bring something different to the experience of Sherlock Holmes; we all get something slightly different out of it. And yet, we can all find common ground through our love of the greatest detective character the world has ever known.

That’s why it’s brilliant.

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The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

7 Canonical References in His Last Vow

Spoilers ahead; you know the drill. Continue at your own risk.

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This episode was as canon-heavy as “Hearse” and “Sign,” so I’m simply hitting the high points here as I did with those.

1. The Drug Den

The place John finds Sherlock at the beginning of the episode is a direct nod to “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” in which Watson goes in search of a man named Isa Whitney at an opium den and finds not only him, but his friend and colleague, Sherlock Holmes, who is disguised and working on a case. In addition, John’s mistake of thinking the woman who comes to visit him and Mary is looking for her husband instead of her son is a sly reference to the fact that Isa is the woman’s husband in the story.

2. Watson Name Issues

This may be slightly debatable, but I find it too interesting not to include. “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” referenced above, is the story in which Mary Watson inexplicably calls her husband “James” instead of “John.” That the writers chose to reference that particular story in the same episode in which the viewers learn that Watson’s wife has a real name other than “Mary” is a delightful confluence of ideas.

3. Magnussen

Lars Mikkelsen’s Magnussen is an obvious parallel to Charles Augustus Milverton, Doyle’s master blackmailer, described by Holmes as, “the king of all the blackmailers. Heaven help the man, and still more the woman, whose secret and reputation come into the power of Milverton! With a smiling face and a heart of marble, he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry.” Doyle, in turn, based his creation off real-life blackmailer Charles Augustus Howell, who was found mysteriously murdered with a ten-shilling coin in his mouth.

Several of Magnussen’s specific traits come straight from Doyle, in particular his glasses and his disturbingly affable manner. There’s an overall skeeviness to Milverton that jumps off the pages of the canon, and Sherlock managed to capture it more perfectly than I’d hoped.

To learn more about Milverton, a villain well worth your time, have a look at this post and read “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” here.

4. Billy Wiggins

At the sound of his name, I heard millions of canon lovers shrieking in glee, through the haze of my own euphoria.

In canon, Billy is the name of Sherlock Holmes’s young page, and he’s featured in the novel The Valley of Fear and two stories, “The Problem of Thor Bridge” and “The Mazarin Stone.” He’s also featured in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes plays.

Wiggins is the name of another young character, the intelligent child leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’s street-prowling network of urchins. He appears in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.

Cleverly, Moffat chose to unite two young associates of Holmes–one known for only his first name, the other only his last–into one single character of young but not childish age, smart enough to have the potential to carry on Holmes’s legacy, but also retaining Wiggins’s trademark cheeky personality.

5. Unreliable Narration

Throughout the canon, there are numerous times when Holmes and Watson say things about themselves that, through their actions, are shown to be untrue. It would take ages to pinpoint them all, but generally, Watson thinks he’s much less clever and more foolish than his actions display, and Watson and Holmes speak of Holmes as being much colder and devoid of human feeling than his behavior reveals him to be.

I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but the Sherlock writers’ continual insistence on having Sherlock describe himself as a high-functioning sociopath fits squarely in this category. In this series, particularly, the viewers have seen Sherlock repeatedly act in ways that are the opposite of sociopathic, and the lengths he’s willing to go in “His Last Vow” to protect the people he obviously loves go completely against the idea that he lacks empathy or is unable to form attachments. Even his obvious feelings for his brother go against the idea.

“His Last Vow” also included Mary in the assessment, having her agree that she, too, is a sociopath, which is clearly untrue, based on her genuine love for John and Sherlock, expressed in extremely unusual ways though it may be. This post is not long enough to do intricate psychological assessment, nor am I qualified to do so, but many of the actions of both Mary and Sherlock go against any definition of sociopathy, not just in the area of attachment, but in other areas as well.

Canon lovers tend to value the unreliability of Doyle’s narrative voice, recognizing the subtlety it took to craft characters who, like real human beings, often fail to understand or accurately characterize themselves. Sherlock, intentionally or not, has chosen a similar path.

6. Sherlock’s Personal Justice

Many people have done extensive analyses of Sherlock Holmes’s attitude toward justice in the canon. The Norwood Builder on Tumblr produced an excellent and easy-to-understand one here. The point is that Holmes often (according to TNB about 25% of the time) takes things into his own hands when the law cannot address them adequately.

“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is notable because it contains one of the most striking examples of this. For those who are unfamiliar with it, in the original, Holmes looks on as Milverton is killed. He does not pull the trigger himself, but he does nothing to stop or turn in the woman who does, because he considers her act to be justified.

In “His Last Vow,” Moffat chose to have Holmes himself carry out the execution, but the spirit is very much the same. Magnussen is an unspeakably vile man whose power places him outside the reach of normal retribution. Holmes’s strong internal view of justice cannot let him go unpunished, particularly as Magnussen endangers the lives of his friends and loved ones. As he does many times in Doyle’s stories, he chooses to carry out justice himself.

7. Sherlock as a Spy

The idea of Sherlock Holmes going undercover as a government operative comes from “His Last Bow,” a story from the latter part of the Doyle canon, in which Holmes goes undercover to aid the English war effort on the eve of World War I.

BONUS: Janine

In the canon, Sherlock Holmes gets engaged one time, to Charles Augustus Milverton’s housemaid. When he tells Watson, his friend is first delighted and then horrified to learn that the relationship is completely for the benefit of the case. As in “His Last Vow,” however, Agatha the housemaid doesn’t end up caring any more than Janine does.

In an episode heavy with action and emotion, it was great to get this nod to one of the funniest things (in my opinion) that Doyle ever wrote. Seeing poor John try to understand the idea of Sherlock in a romantic relationship is a mental picture that will live with me for years to come.

And One Non-Canonical Reference: William Sherlock Scott Holmes

The writers of Sherlock have made it very clear that they are fans not only of the Doyle stories, but of other adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. When they gave Holmes’s full name as William Sherlock Scott Holmes, they were not channeling Doyle, but rather a reference to the Wold Newton family, a massive fan creation that connects many fictional characters, including Holmes. Learn about it here.

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The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

Sherlock Review: His Last Vow

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As with my reviews for “Hearse” and “Sign,” this one will contain a spoiler-free section followed by a marked spoiler section.

Part I: Spoiler Free

Well, twelve days later, we’re one season further in the progression of Sherlock, finished with a third series that gave us a finale that was at the same time one of the most and least traditional episodes the series has produced. Penned by writer and showrunner Steven Moffat, “His Last Vow” was, in many ways, a close re-telling of “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” — to a point.

Canon devotees will find a huge amount to love about the episode, which gave nods to Doyle both great and small, through plot events and characters. Those who have joined the fandom for the show alone will also find ample examples of what makes Sherlock great as a series.

It’s difficult to talk about this episode without spoilers, but suffice to say that Lars Mikkelsen imbues Charles Augustus Magnussen with every hateful fiber of Doyle’s master blackmailer, and in some ways, in my opinion, the connections Moffat wove between the story and characters we already love improved a great story by adding depth and suspense.

In terms of direction, “His Last Vow” wasn’t my favorite, but the superb acting and writing were enough to overcome a few confusing moments. Amanda Abbington proved once again that she can go toe-to-toe with two of the best actors in the business, and touching performances by Mark Gatiss, Louise Brealey, and the delightful Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham (Benedict Cumberbatch’s real-life parents) rounded out the emotionally harrowing story.

“His Last Vow” completes this season’s superb trilogy in a fitting way, bringing to a conclusion the questions it raised, and bringing us, the audience, closer to the characters we’ve come to love, all while letting us tag along with a nail-biting mystery. May Series 4 not be long behind.

Part II: Spoilers

It was frenetic; it was suspenseful; it was heartbreaking. “His Last Vow” finally gave us the truth about Mary Morstan and showed how far Sherlock Holmes is willing to go to protect his friends.

The opening nod to “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and the introduction of (Billy) Wiggins were wonderful treats for canon lovers, and the first half hour trajectory of the episode appeared to be sticking almost completely to the Doyle story–until Magnussen’s would-be shooter pulled off her face mask.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Mary Morstan had a past, and I thought it was fitting that we never found out exactly what it was. Through her story, we learned even more completely what a truly good-hearted person John Watson is. We also learned that Sherlock Holmes has a personal vision of justice–one in which he appraises people’s characters in his own way, forgiving the woman who put a bullet through him and putting his own bullet through someone else.

I imagine there will be debate about Sherlock’s final solution to the Magnussen problem. First of all, it’s canonical. Though he doesn’t fire the bullet himself, Holmes stands by and willingly lets Milverton be killed in front of him when he could easily prevent it. Secondly, the question of the killing itself. Both in the canon and in Sherlock, Milverton is the most despicable of criminals, even more so than Moriarty. He may not have personally pulled the trigger, but he is unequivocally responsible for the deaths of hundreds, probably thousands, of people whose lives he’s ruined. He’s as close to pure evil as Doyle comes in the canon. He’s also beyond normal justice. He’s so powerful and so connected that what Holmes allows (in the story) and carries out (in “His Last Vow”) is an act that is in service to queen and country, family, and friends. He saves Mary, but he also saves the world from extraordinary evil. Does a moral question remain? Perhaps, but Doyle found Milverton worthy of death, and Sherlock chose the same course for Magnussen for the same reasons.

As I stated above, the directing of “Vow” bothered me a little bit. I missed (previous director) Paul McGuigan’s extraordinarily deft touch and found myself lost for a few seconds more than once, trying to understand the passage of time and order of events. This didn’t keep me from enjoying the episode, but I couldn’t help but think another director’s pacing and style might have done it slightly better justice.

Ultimately, thinking back to Series 1, Episode 1, “A Study in Pink,” it’s as if we’ve made an extraordinarily long and rewarding circle. “Vow” ended with Sherlock Holmes doing for John Watson what Watson did for him at the end of the beginning–eliminating his greatest threat. It left us with a Holmes who is needed in London once again to confront a familiar threat, with his best friend by his side and a brother whose love for him is made no less potent by the complications of its expression. Once again, I keep thinking of Inspector Lestrade and his elegantly simple assessment of Sherlock Holmes as a great man who might some day be good. Series 3 of Sherlock has completed the transformation, and I look forward to what’s to come.

(With special thanks to my friend @tastytrix on Twitter, who started me thinking about the circularity of Sherlock’s and John’s actions. Follow her; she’s fabulous.)

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The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Sign of Three, Sentiment, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A Canonical Defense

This post will contain spoilers for the first two episodes of Sherlock Series 3.

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Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset, namely, what this post is not intended to do: This post is not intended to convince anyone to like “The Sign of Three,” Sherlock the show, or anything else. Liking is a matter of taste, and no one should be bullied because their taste is different from someone else’s.

That aside, what is the purpose of this? Well, it’s pretty obvious by now that this series of Sherlock has been polarizing from the get-go, particularly “The Sign of Three,” which aired January 5th and has been the source of debate ever since. Some people loved it; some people hated it–I’ve seen very few opinions in between. The specific criticism I’m addressing in this post is the idea that the level of emotion, sentiment, and overall warm-fuzzies in “The Sign of Three” was somehow anti-traditional, in opposition to, or different from the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I’ve now written two posts outlining canonical references in “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three.” What I’m doing now is mounting a more in-depth canonical defense of “Sign,” using specific ideas and quotes originated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I’m going to do this three ways: Holmes’s character arc, story themes, and direct quotes. By no means is this intended to be an exhaustive survey of the whole canon; we could be here all day. I’m simply providing a jumping-off point to remind us all how Sir Arthur, surely the ultimate authority on the character of Sherlock Holmes, wrote, and what he actually had his character do and say and how that relates to “The Sign of Three.” After all, if we’re going to throw around comparisons to the canon, we want to know what it actually says, right? Let’s get into it.

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Part I: Holmes’s Character Arc

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was in his 20s when A Study in Scarlet, the introductory Sherlock Holmes story, was first published. He was nearly 70 when The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published. In the intervening years between the two, he published over forty stories about Holmes, and those stories, contrary to cultural perceptions of Sherlock Holmes, do not paint a picture of a static character who remains entirely the same.

The protagonist of A Study in Scarlet is very young (only a few years out of university, Watson tells us) and certainly the seemingly cold, calculating, socially awkward Sherlock we meet in “A Study in Pink.” He continues that way for some time, leading Watson to say of him in one of the earliest stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” that, “All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.”

Lots of entertaining adventures and comradeship ensues, and then something big happens, something huge, in fact. In “The Final Problem,” Sherlock Holmes decides that giving his life is worth saving his friends. He leaves a note. Let’s talk about it. In this short death-note to Watson, Sherlock Holmes calls him “dear” no less than three times, and states, “I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you.” This is a man who has friends and acknowledges them and regrets giving pain to the one he cares most about. It’s not a stretch to imagine the man who penned these words penning a speech that calls John Watson, “the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing,” as Sherlock did in “The Sign of Three.”

Moreover, in the canon of BBC Sherlock, all of series three is taking place post-hiatus, when Sherlock is back from the dead. Most scholars of Doyle would, I believe, agree that there are some general differences in the canonical Holmes stories pre and post-hiatus. One of the most notable, in my opinion, is a believable softening of Holmes’s character as he ages. In his first return story, The Empty House, he says, “So it was, my dear Watson that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.” This is hardly a man who shies away from stating his obvious affection for his best friend.

As the stories continue, so continues the increasing warmth. Famously, in “The Three Garridebs,” Holmes says to a criminal, “By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive. Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself?” The idea of Holmes making his first and last vow to protect his friend and family in “The Sign of Three” mirrors this quote closely.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll stop here, but an examination of Holmes’s character from the beginning to the end of the canon reveals subtle changes. A young man becomes an old one, and a mind that begins by valuing everything else above friendship is ultimately unafraid to acknowledge his warm attachment. For maximum evidence of the character’s progress, pick a story from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and a story from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes and read them in immediate succession.

Now that we’ve discussed the changes in canonical character of Sherlock Holmes, let’s move on to the pride of place that sentiment has in many stories from the canon.

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Part II: Story Themes

This is the section that threatens to get away from me with respect to length, because the idea that the level of sentiment inherent in the execution of the wedding theme in “The Sign of Three” is somehow in opposition to the canon of Sherlock Holmes is so erroneous that almost every story disproves it somehow. Nevertheless, I’ll try to hit some of the high points, while strongly encouraging those in doubt to go back to canon for themselves.

First, the mother of them all, A Study in Scarlet. For those who are unaware, the plot of Holmes’s first story is entirely based on romantic passion. It’s about a man named Jefferson Hope exacting revenge against those responsible for the death of the woman he loved. The section of this novel that concerns their love story (“The Country of the Saints”) has some of the purplest prose anyone could ever wish to find. For example, this description of Hope’s beloved,

“Many a wayfarer upon the high road which ran by Ferrier’s farm felt long-forgotten thoughts revive in his mind as he watched her lithe, girlish figure tripping through the wheatfields, or met her mounted upon her father’s mustang, and managing it with all the ease and grace of a true child of the West. So the bud blossomed into a flower, and the year which saw her father the richest of the farmers left her as fair a specimen of American girlhood as could be found in the whole Pacific slope.”

Suddenly, Sherlock’s gentle assertion that Mary is worthy of John in “The Sign of Three” barely seems to register on the sentimentality scale, and this is but one quote from a novel filled with such passages.

Let’s continue. Several Holmes stories contain weddings and wedding themes. Off the top of my head, I can think of “The Noble Bachelor,” “A Case of Identity,” and “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in which Holmes ends up being part of the ceremony.

Other stories are sentimental in other ways. “The Yellow Face,” which is notable for Holmes making a mistake in it as well as its intense lack of modern political correctness, is centered around a family melodrama, the climax of which is as follows:

“’And now to-night you at last know all, and I ask you what is to become of us, my child and me?’ She clasped her hands and waited for an answer.

It was a long ten minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence, and when his answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned   towards the door.”

Such emotional scenes are never far from Doyle’s pen, and several stories contain them. Additionally, “The Dying Detective” has a plot that almost entirely centers around Watson’s ever-increasing emotional desperation over the fact that he thinks Holmes is dying. It’s hardly a cracking caper; it consists of a middle-aged man trying to save his friend while experiencing utmost distress.

Yet another aspect of the canon, seen in The Sign of Four in particular, is the Baker Street Irregulars, the network of children Holmes employs to prowl the London streets looking for clues. Holmes fondly calls them, “the unofficial force,” and Doyle pens them with equal parts humor and sentiment. Those who found either the sentiment of “The Sign of Three” or the humor found in sections like Holmes’s encounter with the little boy named Archie anti-traditional would do well to re-read the chapter Doyle named for the Irregulars.

Now that we’ve looked at some (though far from all) of the sentimental themes in the canon, let’s look at specific Doyle quotes that echo the tone of “The Sign of Three.”

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Part III: Direct Quotes

Again, we would be here all day if I reproduced every single sentimental quote from the canon, so I’ll limit myself to a few meaningful ones:

“I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing.” (Holmes on Mary Morstan in The Sign of Four)

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“MY DEAR WATSON

[ it said ]:I write these few lines through the courtesy of Mr. Moriarty, who awaits my convenience for the final discussion of those questions which lie between us. He has been giving me a sketch of the methods by which he avoided the English police and kept himself informed of our movements. They certainly confirm the very high opinion which I had formed of his abilities. I am pleased to think that I shall be able to free society from any further effects of his presence, though I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you. I have already explained to you, however, that my career had in any case reached its crisis, and that no possible conclusion to it could be more congenial to me than this. Indeed, if I may make a full confession to you, I was quite convinced that the letter from Meiringen was a hoax, and I allowed you to depart on that errand under the persuasion that some development of this sort would follow. Tell Inspector Patterson that the papers which he needs to convict the gang are in pigeonhole M., done up in a blue envelope and inscribed “Moriarty.” I made every disposition of my property before leaving England and handed it to my brother Mycroft. Pray give my greetings to Mrs. Watson, and believe me to be, my dear fellow
Very sincerely yours, SHERLOCK HOLMES.” (Holmes’s farewell note in “The Final Problem”)

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“Then my friend’s wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.

’You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!’

It was worth a wound — it was worth many wounds — to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.” (“The Three Garridebs”)

Many, many more such quotes pepper the canon, and I cannot recommend discovering them for yourself highly enough.

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Conclusion:

The Doyle canon spans years of a writer’s life and a character’s soul. It is filled with the entire range of human existence. Yes, there is murder and mayhem, but there is also a bevy of weddings and romances and embraces.

It is Doyle’s Watson himself who goes from telling us in “A Scandal in Bohemia” that love and emotion are abhorrent to the mind of Sherlock Holmes to telling us that the detective loves deeply and is in possession of “a great heart as well as of a great brain.” Similarly, the creators of BBC Sherlock introduced us to a man who believed the only reason he needed a friend is because genius must have an audience and proceeded to develop that man, through trial and experience, into someone who understands the value of companionship and love, to the point of recommending it to his own brother.

Doyle was a writer who understood that reason and emotion are both necessary parts of a full life, and he peppered the canon with both, through his characters, his themes, and his plots. In its first two series, Sherlock showed us a great brain. In “The Sign of Three,” it gave us an equally great heart. I believe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would approve.

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The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

7 Canonical References in The Sign of Three

Spoilers ahead—read at your own risk!

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“The Sign of Three” is one of the most canon-heavy episodes of Sherlock to date, and there are many more references than I’m listing here. This is just a short exploration of some of my favorites.

  1. Clever Mary

“The Sign of Three” had numerous obvious references to The Sign of Four, the canonical novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which Watson and Holmes meet Mary Morstan, and Watson falls in love with her.  One of my favorites, which went through the episode, was the strong indication of Mary’s intelligence. During the wedding planning scenes, Mary remarks that she can tell when Holmes is fibbing, even when Watson can’t. She also has several conversations with Sherlock in which she relates to him on a level that shows her awareness of his positive qualities and his awareness of hers.

In The Sign of Four, upon being told that Watson intends to marry Mary Morstan, Holmes remarks, “I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met, and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way: witness the way in which she preserved that Agra plan from all the other papers of her father.” During this same conversation, Holmes says that he cannot congratulate Watson on marrying Mary and taking away the potential for her to become a detective.

In “The Sign of Three,” Holmes also speaks about not (initially) being able to congratulate Watson, but ultimately does so, basing his congratulations on the fact that the Mary found in Sherlock is worthy, just as Doyle’s version was.

  1. Mycroft’s Weight Issues

One of the humorous through-lines in Sherlock is Mycroft Holmes’s ever-present battle with his waistline. In “The Sign of Three,” we see him exercising, and Sherlock intimates that this is something he does regularly.

The creators of Sherlock have updated the concepts of drug use and smoking to be friendlier to a modern context, and this concept has been treated in a similar way. During “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” Doyle has Watson describe Mycroft this way, “Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother.”

To update Mycroft for the modern, fitness-obsessed world (and connect Mark Gatiss with one of his finest performances ever), the writers of Sherlock have let him lose the corpulence but continue to engage in a very human struggle with his weight.

  1. The Speech

Sherlock’s Best Man toast is undoubtedly iconic in the canon of Sherlock, and it made numerous references to stories from the Doyle canon. In particular, at the beginning, when he addresses his disdain for love and marriage, he paraphrases Watson’s description of him from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which reads, “All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position.”

Of course, Holmes’s actions in “The Sign of Three” belie his claims of being without love, just as his actions throughout the canon, and particularly post-Great Hiatus, give lie to Watson’s assertions about him.

  1. Mary’s Maid of Honor

“The Sign of Three” features Holmes enjoying an awkwardly gentle flirtation with Mary’s Maid of Honor, something it would have been difficult to imagine him doing at the beginning of the series, but which jives nicely with his character development in Series 3.

Similarly, in Doyle’s “The Lion’s Mane,” one of the few stories narrated by Holmes himself, he describes a woman named Maud Bellamy, “She listened to a short account from my companion, with a composed concentration which showed me that she possessed strong character as well as great beauty. Maud Bellamy will always remain in my memory as a most complete and remarkable woman.” It would be difficult to imagine the protagonist of A Study in Scarlet saying this, but Doyle did not make Holmes a static character.

Like a real person, the canonical detective grows and changes, and part of this change includes a softening toward people in general and women in particular. The writers of Sherlock have chosen to show this development in a similar way.

  1. Sholto

In Doyle’s The Sign of Four, Major Sholto is a friend and army colleague of Mary Morstan’s father. The character and circumstances are very different from those in “The Sign of Three,” which provides an entertaining puzzle for canon lovers watching Sherlock who can’t help wondering whether or not his actions will mirror those of the original Sholto, much like in “The Hounds of Baskerville,” which similarly used canonical characters in new ways.

  1. Holmes and Children

One of the most humorous sequences in “The Sign of Three” concerns Sherlock coaxing and bonding with a young boy named Archie, who ends up entirely taken with the detective and his gruesome occupation. Giving Holmes the ability to connect well with children is entirely Doylean.

The Sign of Four contains a chapter named for the Baker Street Irregulars, the group of children Holmes employs, and generously compensates, for prowling the streets to gain information for him. It’s obvious from Watson’s brief description of Holmes’s relationship with the children that they adore him and that he, in turn, is very fond of them.

Sherlock has largely used Holmes’s homeless network as a stand-in for the Irregulars, but it’s nice to see a reference to the detective’s canonical ability to enchant the younger generation. Interestingly, “The Sign of Three” also features Sherlock promising Archie that he will ask a grownup about something—indicating that he thinks of himself as more of a child than an adult, echoed in his final words to Mary and John at the end of the episode.

  1. C.A.M.

Mary and John receive a wedding telegram from someone with the initials C.A.M., which is the set of initials that belong to the antagonist of Doyle’s “Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” What exactly this means for Sherlock’s characters we have yet to discover.

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The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.