Friday, 12 August 2016

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (2entertain Ltd) | review by Rafe McGregor

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction may seem an unlikely venue for a review of the first full-length Sherlock special, shown on all small screens and some big screens across the UK on New Year’s Day 2016. Three mini-seasons (of three episodes each) and one mini-special (of just over seven minutes) in, however, the world of Sherlock is already brim-full of superhuman beings. The eponymous protagonist refers to himself as “a high-functioning sociopath” (one of the series’ most-repeated phrases, suggesting sociopaths are usually low-functioning), but his superpowers include: reading an entire life history in a glance, disarming sword-wielding assassins without breaking a sweat, destroying international crime syndicates single-handedly, successfully masquerading as an extremist in Karachi, riding a motorbike safely at breakneck speed, instantly recovering from consuming vast quantities of Class A drugs… and returning from the dead. His nemesis, supervillain Moriarty, has his own list of powers: controlling Cockney serial killers, Chinese secret societies, and Eastern European paramilitaries; breaking into the Tower of London, the Bank of England, and Pentonville Prison simultaneously; resisting “enhanced interrogation” indefinitely… and returning from the dead (which is what the special is all about). Even Mycroft, whose powers are intellectual rather than physical, can follow his brother’s clandestine footsteps across Europe, masquerade as a Serbian soldier without detection, and take charge of a Tactical Firearms Command team. In fact, poor old Watson is the foil to at least four superhumans as “His Last Vow” (season 3, episode 3) reveals that Mrs Watson is a (semi-retired) super-villain-turned-hero, able to fire a handgun with one hundred percent accuracy, pass through multiple layers of physical security without trace, evade the joint efforts of NATO’s intelligence services, instantly access information beyond the combined capacity of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ… and waltz in a wedding dress. All of which to say that the BBC’s Sherlock is very much a mix of genres, alternating between detective stories in an urban fantasy setting and high fantasy in a tragic clash of good and evil – not to mention regular dashes of comedy.

The mix of crime and speculative fiction is by no means a flaw (though I hope to have conveyed a mildly disapproving tone) and may well account for the show’s popularity – along with the star qualities Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Andrew Scott (recently Bond villain Max Denbigh in Spectre) bring to the small screen. The generic motley also serves, conveniently, to distinguish Sherlock from Elementary, CBS’s contemporary Holmes series, which is pure crime fiction and currently in its fourth season (of twenty-four episodes each). Given the template of detective-story-within-urban-fantasy, The Abominable Bride is exemplary, with murder mystery and high fantasy prised apart for most of the episode. Prior to the original screening, much was made of Cumberbatch and Freeman appearing in Victorian garb, suggesting that the special would be outside the overarching narrative of the series, but the first few seconds drop this pretence and story picks up precisely where “His Last Vow” finished. Minutes after Holmes’ departure into exile (and certain death) for the murder of Charles Augustus Magnussen (a particularly nasty villain), Moriarty’s face appears on all the television screens across the country asking, “Did you miss me?” Holmes is recalled, the plane turns around… and we appear to go back in time to 1895. The (Case of the) Abominable Bride takes its title from Conan Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual”, where Holmes mentions “Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife” as a case he investigated prior to meeting Watson. Doyle was fond of making these references to unpublished cases in order to give the impression that Holmes had a life beyond the printed page and they are scattered throughout the original short stories and novellas. Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction contributor John Hall (whose stories from issues 23 to 29 were collected in Five Forgotten Stories, published by Theaker’s Paperback Library in 2011) analysed them all in The Abominable Wife and Other Unrecorded Cases of Mr Sherlock Holmes (Calabash Press, 1998). Drawing attention to the fact that Doyle either let his imagination run away with him or was flexing his sense of humour – aside from abominable wives, there are remarkable worms, trained cormorants, red leeches, and flying false teeth – John takes “abominable wife” as a metaphor for all the references. The abominable wife serves a similar supplementary purpose in Sherlock, the idea being that if Holmes can solve the 1895 case he can work out the 2014 case of Moriarty’s resurrection.

Back in 1895, Emelia Ricoletti (made up to resemble Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight in an already over-used trope) fires two six-shooters into a crowded London street from her balcony before blowing her brains out. Her body is removed to the morgue, but that evening she conspicuously gives her husband both barrels of a shotgun in front of a police constable. Holmes, Watson, and a shaken Lestrade arrive at the morgue to find that Mrs Ricoletti’s corpse appears to have written “You” on the wall in blood after the murder of her husband. Holmes doesn’t get very far with the investigation, but a few months later Lady Carmichael hires him to protect her husband from Mrs Ricoletti, whose ghost has been seen walking in the grounds of their estate. Holmes and Watson fail to save Lord Carmichael, giving them two murders to solve. By two-thirds of the way through The Abominable Bride, it becomes clear that the Victorian case is taking place in Holmes’ “mind palace” (where he retrieves information from his near-eidetic memory) and that he is fixating on the (very) cold Ricoletti case because he thinks Moriarty has used the same method to fake his own death in “The Reichenbach Fall” (season 2, episode 3). The solution to the 1895 case is rather disappointing and I disclose no spoilers when I say that Mrs Ricoletti was indeed dead by the time of the second murder (where she was not positively identified), but not the first (where she was). This suggests that Moriarty is actually dead. Holmes shouts “There are no ghosts!” in 1895 and confirms “Moriarty is dead, no question” in 2014, but there are plenty of questions left unanswered, not to mention some ambiguity, at the conclusion of the 2014 case. If Moriarty is indeed dead, then The Abominable Bride is a giant red herring in much the same way as John characterises all of Doyle’s teasers (the references as abominable wives to the admirable husbands of the published stories). More likely it is just that, a teaser of suitable ambiguity aimed at whetting audience appetites for season 4. Unfortunately for fans, filming hasn’t yet begun and Sherlock won’t be on screens until 2017 at the earliest. In the interim, I recommend Elementary for a gritty and realistic contemporary take on the Great Detective. The Abominable Bride DVD contains two discs and if, like me, you are not enticed by the prospect of “over an hour of Bonus Features” there is always the double-sided poster to colour in (advertising Sherlock: The Mind Palace, published by BBC Books last year).

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