From the Mean Streets to Baker Street

Monday, September 26, 2011

The following essay is from the book Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy, a collection of contemporary essays available October 11, 2011, and appears courtesy of Open Court Books. 

It’s hard to recall the first detective who stole my heart. I’m sure he was wrapped in a trench coat, blowing smoke in someone’s face, but there have been so many through the years. As a young girl, I crushed on Charlie Chan and an assortment of detective heroes on Saturday morning television, curled up on my parents’ basement couch, alone, just me and my screen sleuths.

My serious relationships began with exposure to hard-boiled PI’s—the stuff of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. These guys—and they almost always were guys—were the heroes of film noir, the film tradition rooted in post-World War II disillusionment, inspired by the grit and grime of hard-boiled pulp fiction. Even before I knew I wanted to be a detective, I was turned on by the world in these films. And especially by the detectives who inhabited it. They spit out cool dialogue, knew strange, interesting people in every pocket of the city, and always attracted the most alluring and resourceful women. It didn’t hurt that they also brought down one or two bad guys.

And they did it on their own. They were lone wolfs, private dicks, ex-cops who had been cast out from their former departments. It made perfect sense that I would be a sucker for them. Even at a young age, I saw myself as a loner and aspiring rebel.

Sherlock Holmes, the most famous sleuth of them all, was noticeably absent in my little black book of detectives. In movies, I always associated Holmes with Basil Rathbone. When I caught his detective on the screen, I routinely turned the channel for more colorful personas, or waited for the next Saturday morning’s detective to make his appearance.


The Evidence

Recently, while channel surfing on early morning cable, I stumbled upon Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), one of fourteen films in a series of Sherlock Holmes mysteries released between 1939 and 1946. These were the films that likely introduced me to Conan Doyle’s world and his Baker Street detective. But this time, I didn’t find myself switching channels. To my surprise and pleasure, I liked what I saw. Although Holmes hadn’t changed through all these years, I had.

I know works of art don’t change through time, but certain ones seem to transform themselves in response to the spectator’s own transformation. So it wasn’t surprising that this recent viewing of The Secret Weapon jumpstarted my reevaluation of Holmes and Rathbone, and my relationship to them.

Similar to the setting all those years ago, I watched the Holmes film on an early Saturday morning. But much had changed. I was no longer in my parents’ basement, curled up on their couch in my PJ’s. My parents—and their home—are long gone. I don’t think I even own a pair of pajamas. My life is no longer a mysterious journey waiting to unfold—it’s a journey that is already more than half over. And, in the years since my first exposure to Holmes and my early fixation on detectives, I had fulfilled my fantasy—I worked as an investigator with the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards, a civilian investigative unit that handled misconduct charges against police officers. The work was a long way from Scotland Yard, but it was close enough. Holmes and I now had something in common: we were both investigators.

Now I could appreciate Holmes, especially Rathbone’s portrayal. It was as if I was meeting him for the first time. Despite his faraway world drenched in London fog and his Baker Street address, Holmes didn’t feel like a distant, remote figure. He was no longer the brittle, mechanical sleuth-robot that I recalled from my youth. He was now the witty master of disguise, fully loaded with a dry sense of humor and razor-sharp mind. He was modern. He was cool. He was even a bit sexy in a tweedy kind of way.


Tea For Two versus Table For One

While Holmes on screen offered some new satisfactions all these years later, I still wondered how he stacked up to my noir heroes.

In an early scene in The Woman in Green (1945), the action slows down while Holmes prepares a cup of tea for himself and Watson. After he pours Watson’s tea, he drops a splash of milk into the cup. He doesn’t ask—he just pours.

This familiarity—this intimacy—was one of the most striking discoveries and satisfactions during my investigation of the early Holmes films. There’s something touching here, as if Holmes and Watson are an old married couple, aware of the subtlest details of each other’s lives, an awareness cultivated by a long life of togetherness. Holmes clearly has been paying attention to clues and details beyond the scope of an official investigation.

Unlike Holmes, the hard-boiled detectives are defined by their loner status. It’s not that there aren’t people in their world: cops from their police days before they were kicked out of the department; good-looking secretaries who know the right kind of booze to keep stocked in their desk drawer; and an assortment of marginalized oddballs that they can call on day or night. But when push comes to shove, these detectives are alone—and they know it. They don’t have sidekicks or partners. If they do—like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon—the partner usually gets knocked off a few minutes into the story.


Even Holmes’s flat reminds us of this key difference between the Baker Street detective and his American cousins. Holmes’s flat is stuffed with evidence of a full life—souvenirs and mementoes reflecting a history crowded with relationships and a world beyond Baker Street. This is in stark contrast to the typically sterile apartment of the noir detective. In many of the hard-boiled stories, we don’t even visit the hero’s home. When we do, it provides insight only through the absence of clues. And the hard-boiled hero’s office offers little more. Its location in the shabbiest part of town and the drab, beat-up space are constant reminders of the hero’s place in the world. This man travels light—whether it’s because he’s on the run or because he knows there’s nowhere to go. But Holmes has roots and seems comfortable and comforted by his surroundings. He’s a classic hero who is both respected and respectable, unlike the noir anti-hero, who is usually looked down upon and alienated.


Same Tools, Different Problems

As an investigator, I, too, worked in a drab, beige office devoid of color and hope. My mean streets were the streets of Chicago. For more than eight years, I looked for witnesses, victims, alleged victims, and clues on a wide range of police brutality cases—everything from people complaining that a cop handcuffed them too tightly to allegations of severe beating—even shooting—by a cop.

It didn’t take long to learn that I was nobody’s friend and everybody’s enemy. It took only a little longer to learn that everybody told lies and that nothing was what it seemed. This cold reality was one of the greatest challenges of the job; it was also one of the draws that kept me there.

The theme of deception is prominent in both detective worlds, although it is often played out in different ways. In rediscovering the old Holmes-Rathbone movies, it was no surprise to see Holmes’s adversaries adopt an assortment of disguises and personas. What caught my attention was Holmes’s own mastery in the art of deception. Unlike the noir hero who is often the victim of deception, Holmes employs deception as an investigative tool.

In The Secret Weapon, Holmes is introduced in disguise, one of several that he adopts throughout the film. We meet him in a Swiss chalet, where his elderly, white-haired, German book peddler has a rendezvous with a couple of shady characters. Holmes as book peddler amusingly pokes fun at “this Detective Sherlock Holmes.” This witty introduction establishes Holmes as chameleon, a versatile performer who is able to transform himself into myriad personas in the service of his investigation.

But Holmes’s skill as masquerader offers more than witty play. Later in the film, Holmes disguises himself as a roughneck sailor, a physical and emotional antithesis to his pipe-smoking, well-bred detective. I was surprised—and delighted—to see Rathbone’s cerebral, logical Holmes give way to this rough-and-tumble character. Not only does he do some serious tough-talking, he also gets flat out physical. Sure, he’s no Mitchum or Bogart, but the brawn seems real enough, a part of Holmes and not just an external trapping.

In The Spider Woman (1944), Holmes again reveals his skill in the art of masquerade. After Holmes fakes his own death, we discover him in disguise as an elderly, bushy-browed postal worker. He arrives with a delivery to the Baker Street flat just as a grief-stricken Watson and Mrs. Hudson are sorting through Holmes’s possessions. During his exchange with Watson, he spews out, in a heavy Cockney accent, one verbal assault against Holmes after another. Mrs. Hudson catches on, but Watson, always the loyal partner, is ready to fight for Holmes’s honor. Of course, the audience is onto the deception and Holmes’s fun. The real pleasure in scenes like this is being part of the game: waiting and watching as Holmes plays with his colleague who’s always a couple of steps behind. Here, the game of deception reminds us, once again, of that essential element in the Holmes stories—Holmes and Watson’s relationship.

In one of The Secret Weapon’s most memorable instances, Holmes also poses as Herr Hoffner, one of four scientists who have been given secret information that will aid the Allies. Holmes stages his own abduction in order to gain entry to Moriarty’s lair—he will do whatever it takes to solve the crime and stop the evil. He is obsessed.


The 3:00 AM Moment

I understand obsession. Maybe that’s what drew me to investigative work. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons I had to get out. During my years on the job, I saw a lot of decent investigators. But the best ones, whether they were civilian investigators like me or sworn police detectives, were the ones who couldn’t let go. The ones who woke up in a sweat at 3:00 am choked by the question they should have asked.

Holmes is obsessed, but it’s a different obsession than the kind associated with my hard-boiled dicks. These guys also want answers. But their obsession is to make double-crossers pay for their duplicity, especially the femme fatales who betrayed them. Holmes’s obsession is all about the work—he needs to solve the puzzle.

The investigator in me was newly inspired as I watched Holmes bear down on each of his cases. He sizes up Sir George’s daughter when she pulls up to the flat in Woman in Green. She must have something in her purse, he tells Watson, because “it was picked for size not style.” And she must have left home in a hurry, because she’s not wearing gloves. In The Spider Woman, Holmes calls out Watson for reading a newspaper while they’re on holiday. The tip-off: Watson’s hat is on backwards, cluing Holmes that he must have a newspaper stuffed inside. But Holmes’s power of observation is not limited to extracting clues. “Nobody ever looks twice at a postman,” he tells Watson, after revealing his postal worker get-up. He is also a keen observer of human nature.

In his book Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, John G. Cawelti points out that both the hard-boiled formula and classical detective story have similar patterns of action: they both move from the introduction of the detective and the presentation of the crime, through the investigation, to a solution and apprehension of the criminal. But there are differences in the way this pattern gets worked out. One significant difference is “the subordination of the drama of solution to the detective’s quest for the discovery and accomplishment of justice.”


My attraction to the hard-boiled detective probably comes from my identification with this hero’s need for justice. I have always related to the noir hero’s interior struggle and quest for justice, rather than with the machinery of the crime. However, in re-watching the early Holmes films, I discovered an immense satisfaction in watching Holmes move through each case, one detail and observation at a time. His brand of obsession was an inspiration to the investigator in me. It reminded me of my own obsession and pleasure in the art of deductive reasoning and close observation. For me, there have been few highs as satisfying as those delicious investigative moments—asking the case-breaking question, exacting the truth from someone’s body language, or piecing together the mystery of what really happened at the scene of an incident.


Great Villains Make Great Heroes

In a way, it’s similar to the satisfaction of doing battle with a worthy adversary. As I’ve often told my writing and storytelling students, your protagonist is only as good as your villain.

The hard-boiled side of me has always enjoyed seeing my heroes rise up against an assortment of villains. But the greatest conflict for the hard-boiled hero has always been himself. The noir detective—at least the ones that have most intrigued me—is caught in a trap, partly the result of a corrupt world and often a corrupt woman, but largely the result of his own flawed machinery. In the world of Holmes, it’s the weight of an evil opponent that sets everything in motion.

In many stories, especially classical detective stories, the antagonist is in some ways a reflection of the hero. Alex Epstein writes in Crafty Screenwriting: “They can be two sides of the same coin. Batman and Joker are both angry, violent men who dress strangely and pursue their own ends outside of the law. Batman just happens to be fighting for good and the Joker for evil.”

In studying Holmes and his most famous adversary, Professor Moriarty, we can’t help wonder if detective and criminal are more alike than different.

One of the highlights in The Secret Weapon is a wonderful scene between Holmes and Moriarty in Moriarty’s seaside lair. The two foes, sitting across from each other in comfy-looking armchairs, chat casually about the challenge of finding a suitable approach to offing each other. Holmes, who’s been captured by Moriarty (or more accurately has allowed himself to be caught), lets his adversary know that any pedestrian method would be offensive. He suggests rigging up a device that would extract his opponent’s blood—drop by evil drop. Moriarty one-ups him by choosing this approach to destroy Holmes.

Of course, Holmes ends up getting away and traps Moriarty by tampering with his escape route, a secret elevator. During their final exchange, Moriarty falls down the empty shaft to his death. As Holmes looks down into the dark abyss, I can’t help thinking that he probably feels not only a sense of relief, but also a sense of loss. Like all great heroes, he must know that his power and strength are defined by the prowess of his enemies.

There’s something similar at play in The Woman in Green, the story of Holmes’s attempt to stop a series of grisly “finger” murders. Holmes quickly adds up the facts and realizes that his greatest adversary, Moriarty, is behind the scheme. When Watson reminds Holmes that Moriarty swung from the gallows and accuses him of having “Moriarty on the brain,” Holmes says he doesn’t believe Moriarty’s dead. He knows his enemy, just as he knows himself.

One of my most memorable adversaries was an officer who had been the “accused” on more than one of my cases. I recall our first meeting when he came in for his Q and A. I had a fair number of investigations under my belt at the time and felt pretty confident. However, even before the officer started answering my questions, I realized I was playing a very different game. The way he spoke, his flinty black eyes staring back at me, even the way he repositioned his chair, told me that I was up against something more dangerous and formidable than in the past.

Months later, I learned that the same officer would once again be sitting across from me, responding to my questions on a new investigation. I still remember the moment when I saw his name in my case file. I wasn’t upset that I had to face off with him again. I looked forward to it! I knew that his responses, his silences, his deceptions would all ultimately elevate my performance. I felt like a boxer or tennis pro or any other athlete who knows that her best game is the one played with the most skillful opponent. Just like later in The Woman in Green, when Holmes learns of Moriarty’s resurrection from certain death and that his suspicions were right, we see his frustration, but we also detect a sense of excitement: the game is still on.


Femme Fatales and Remarkable Women

For the noir hero, no adversary presents a greater challenge than the femme fatale, one of the staples of the genre. Without her and the sexual hold she has on the hero, the detective might not be forced to make a moral choice. And it’s justice and the moral world—rather than the law of Holmes’s world—that defines noir.

While I had expected women and temptations in the world of Conan Doyle’s Holmes, I was surprised to discover Holmes, especially in the early Rathbone films, as a sexual creature. (In The Woman in Green, he notes the “lustrous eyes” of Moriarty’s accomplice.) Even more exciting was to see him face off with a strong female adversary—Adrea Spedding, Gale Sondergaard’s villain in The Spider Woman. Like Moriarty, she offers an opponent worthy of Holmes’s hero.

Early on, Holmes determines that his newest adversary must be a woman, noting that there’s something “subtle and cruel” about the crimes, murders caused by deadly spiders released into the victims’ rooms through air vents. He even calls her a “femme fatale.” As usual, Holmes’s reasoning proves right. Spedding, the mastermind behind the plot, proves a worthy adversary. She and Holmes spend most of the film in a tense—and flirtatious—cat-and-mouse, both putting on and taking off personas—and each aware that the other is doing so.


The movie ends in the perfect setting for a story built on duplicity and the grotesque: carnival fairgrounds. Spedding attempts to use Holmes as a human target in the shooting gallery, but her plan fails. As she’s led away by Lestrade, she smiles. If she’s going down, at least it’s at the hands of Holmes. And for Holmes, the feelings seem to be mutual. “Remarkable woman,” he says, and gives her props for picking the most logical spot to commit his murder.

What’s absent from Holmes’s interactions with Spedding, though, and in other encounters in these early films, is the sexual tension and frustration that oozes from encounters between the deadly woman and the hard-boiled hero. Still, there’s just enough hint of a sexual dimension to Holmes’s character: Under the right circumstances, who knows what might happen?

A Man and His City

While the Holmes stories do take us on occasion to carnival grounds and country inns, and the noir detective does break free of the urban setting once or twice, it’s the city that defines the detective genre. Cawelti writes:

The importance of the city as a milieu for the detective story has been apparent from the very beginning . . . We can hardly imagine Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes far from his famous lodgings at 221b Baker Street in late-Victorian London, surrounded by hansoms, fogs, the Baker Street Irregulars, and the varied and ever enchanting mysteries of a great urban area.

The modern city as a place of fascination and mystery is evident in the early Holmes films, as much as it is in the hard-boiled films. But in the hard-boiled films, the city is darker, scarier. The menace seems larger than any one source of evil. In the films I revisited—all set in modern England—the evil is out there, but we sense that it can be rooted out—as long as Sherlock Holmes is on the case.

In the final scene of The Woman in Green, after Holmes has foiled Moriarty’s sinister plot, he looks out at the city, Watson at his side:

Watson: What are you thinking of?

Holmes: I’m thinking of all the women who can come and go in safety on the streets of London tonight. The stars keep watch in the heavens, and in our own little way, we too, old friend, are privileged to watch over our city. 

This scene, like others throughout the Holmes films, provides a portrait of a city in which hope and order are possibilities. This rarely exists in the world of the doomed noir hero. Each set of films, Holmes-Rathbone and film noir, reinforces hope (or its absence) in its own language, an unexpected discovery as I revisited the Holmes I had once turned away.

I’ve always been attracted to the language of noir. In the best of these stories, the heroes speak a language that is part toughness and part poetry. Holmes addressing a woman as “My dear lady” doesn’t have the impact of a Chandler character saying “Listen, sister.” Where else but in noir can you find brutality wrapped up in beautiful words like Sam Spade’s closing lines in The Maltese Falcon or Joe Morse’s voice-over narration as he descends the steps at the end of Force of Evil?

But there is another passage (“This blessed plot, this England . . .”) delivered by Holmes at the end of The Secret Weapon. Sure, Holmes and the noir hero are both detectives, but they draw on two different literary traditions: one that offers a world where heroes can change their fate, the other where they are doomed by it.


Final Recommendations

In his iconic essay about the detective hero, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler writes:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor . . .

In the end, there are more similarities than differences between Sherlock Holmes and his American counterpart. Like Holmes, many of my noir favorites are men of honor. They, too, have lines they won’t cross. And just as the hard-boiled detective has a soft center, Holmes’s detective can pull out the tough guy when he needs to. Both men need answers, and they will persist until they get them. They are detectives.

I will always be true to my hard-boiled heroes. Maybe it’s a question of loyalty, one of the central themes of film noir. I can’t turn my back on these guys. But I now see that maybe there’s room in my heart for another type of detective: a detective who’s capable of leading with instinct and brawn, but instead chooses reason and logic. Maybe I’ve discovered that there’s something nice about a world with partners and friends and people who have your back. Maybe I like the idea of a detective who is not alone. And a world filled with hope.

Still, I don’t think I’ll be trading in my trench coat for tweed any time soon. But who knows? The investigation is far from over.