Sherlock Holmes – were his abilities a blessing or a curse?

I’ve just watched an episode of Elementary and it raised an interesting point – are Holmes’ abilities a gift facilitating interesting work, or an illness that he uses the work to treat?

In episode 18 of season three, ‘The View from Olympus’, a causal lover asks Holmes to have a child with her. She doesn’t need him to have a relationship with either the child or her, she just needs him to (to put it delicately) do the biology. Towards the end of the episode, there’s a wonderful scene when Holmes finally explains to her why he must decline her offer.

She had previously tried to persuade him by telling him he is remarkable and a good person for using his abilities to help people. In their final scene together Holmes agrees that he is remarkable, but explains that this is the very reason why he can’t have a child:

“The things I do, the things you care about, you think I do them because I’m a great person, but I do them because it would hurt too much not to. It hurts Agatha, all of this (pointing out of the window across the city), everything I see, hear, touch and smell, the conclusions I’m able to draw, the things that are revealed to me, the ugliness. My work focuses me, it helps. You say that I’m using my gifts; I say I’m just treating them. So I cannot in good conscience, pass all of that onto someone else.”

I found this so touching, a clever and more sensitive interpretation of Holmes’ abilities than the usual ‘Look at me I’m brilliant’ approach. I have always argued that Holmes’ abilities to see connections between things, hidden meanings, minute observations, are more like a compulsion than a choice. I’ve explored this in my own writing, likening it to a form of OCD, an addiction almost. If it wasn’t for being able to channel them into his work, they would consume him.

I think Elementary explored this in a very eloquent and sensitive way, better than I’ve seen done before. It’s a very modern interpretation of Holmes, the flawed hero battling mental health issues and addiction. This suits a contemporary audience well I think. We need to get inside the heads of our heroes; we want that level of analysis and complexity, the tortured genius. Conan Doyle hinted at these things in the canon but its shows like Elementary and Sherlock that dare to take them one step further.  Holmes is evolving before our very eyes.

About barefootonbakerstreet

Author from Shropshire
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4 Responses to Sherlock Holmes – were his abilities a blessing or a curse?

  1. I’ve not watched “Elementary.” Based on what you’ve been writing about it, I suppose that I will — once it comes to streaming on Netflix!

    On that note, two other American TV shows, while not Holmes although very much based on him, explored the mental aspect of the “blessing or a curse” rather well: “House, M.D.” and “Monk.” The latter even had the main character, Adrian Monk, mutter the line “It’s a gift … And a curse” almost very episode.

    So, a gift or a curse? How about both? I aver that in the end, regardless of whatever mentation we apply to Holmes, it was — and is — his obsession that drives him. Now, is an obsession an aspect of mentation? It could be; as you noted in your wonderful post, it could be an aspect of an OCD. Or it might not.

    Like all thing in life, with the sweet must come the sour. If one has a posh car, then that’s great — until you realize that you’re afraid to park it on the street whilst you dine in a restaurant. Holmes was bestowed with and developed spectacular abilities. It’s nice to see the various shows, from our beloved “Sherlock” to “Elementary,” explore the consequences of them.

    All the BEST!


    • It is worth giving Elementary a try but you do have to give it time. It’s much more of a ‘slow burn’ than BBC Sherlock because the series/season is so much longer. It took me a long time to warm to it but I’m glad I persevered. I explore the ‘curse’ idea in my novel, especially looking at the similarities between Sherlock and Mycroft and their ‘afflictions’. It’s impossible to know what ACD intended but I do think he left tantalising clues hinting at autistic/savant traits in the Holmes brothers and Moriarty. Or at least, wrote things that can easily be interpreted that way. The interpretations, filling in the blanks, these are the things that have fuelled countless novels, pastiches, films etc. over the years and long may they continue to do so. Many thanks for your comment.

      • TonyM says:

        I shall! I watched the “Elementary” pilot when it premiered. I, like you, wasn’t too smitten. Since we’re now in a holding pattern awaiting “Sherlock” (and it looks like we won’t get a new season until 2017), I’ll more than likely go through “Elementary.”

        “Barefoot on Baker Street” is EXCELLENT!

        Be well!


      • Many thanks for your comments Tony, delighted you enjoyed Barefoot.

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