Monday, December 23, 2013

A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes

I like to judge a book by its cover.  This might be partly because all my life, people have been insisting I shouldn't, and partly because I am not Sherlock Holmes.  I cannot determine which books are "good" by smell, taste, or weight.  The only hope I have for judging books without having already read them* is by examining their exterior or asking someone else's opinion.

Based on the evidence at hand, I suspected A Study in Lavender:  Queering Sherlock Holmes was a "good book."  I reasoned it would have to be at the very least a relevant book.  Sherlock Holmes is an immortal literary character who overshadows all other famous detectives, real and fictional alike.  In recent times, there has been considerable debate about Sherlock's identity.

The BBC series Sherlock has struggled with this debate intensely.  To understand the problem, you need a working understanding of a phenomenon called queer-baiting.  The gist of it is that a depiction of a character implies LGBTQAI identification without actually intending to explicitly show or express the character's identity.  This practice is intended to attract the LGBTQAI audience without offending homophobic or transphobic sensibilities.  Basically, the practice exploits minorities for cash.  In the early days of the series, many people believed Sherlock identified as gay on the show.  That's certainly one easily accessible reading of the material.  The words in context certainly give viewers the impression that he could be.  But then Steven Moffat, showrunner of Sherlock, confirmed Sherlock is not gay, and that he had no intention of making this clear.  And the series continues to exploit that community to this day.  You can read more opinions about queer-baiting in fandom here and here.

This is an important problem because progress made today in media will affect what tomorrow's media looks like.  Groundbreaking moments like this impact what can happen later.  Queer-baiting makes no progress, it only gives the illusion of representation.  I wish we had more Gene Roddenbery types and fewer Steven Moffats.  I think pop culture needs more writers willing to "boldly go" rather than people who would prefer to capitalize on the status qua, and it certainly wouldn't hurt if actors took a stand as well.  Without an acts of sabotage by William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols' continued performance as Uhura, an iconic television moment would never have taken place.

But back to the reason I chose this book.  I hoped it would comment on BBC Sherlock.  Though it is an anthology of short stories rather than an academic piece, there was a preface that gave some information about the history of Sherlock Holmes and the queer community.

It is hard to fault a book centered on characters as old as Sherlock Holmes and Watson for being somewhat outdated, certainly considering the time that has passed since its publication.  The book states that BBC Sherlock "more or less flat out says Holmes is gay" which is unfortunately somewhat inaccurate.  BBC Sherlock is notorious for leaving this impression in the first series and then turning away from it in the first episode of the second one.

The rest of the background given is intriguing and gives good context for a working understanding of the series and its characters.

Here is an opinion I've reached having read this book:  A good mystery should be solvable with the clues the author has given you.  In my consumption of this book, I realized my enjoyment was greatly hinged on whether I could solve the case as Sherlock did.  There were stories in this anthology that were beautifully written with flawlessly constructed mystery plots, and then there were also a couple that I did not enjoy so much.

Some favorites contained within the anthology:
The Kidnapping of Alice Braddon by Katie Raynes
The Case of the Wounded Heart by Rajan Khanna
The Bride and the Bachelors By Vincent Kovar

I should also mention that many people enjoy an asexual reading of Sherlock Holmes, which is not represented in this particular work.



*Judging a book after you've read it is only marginally useful as you cannot then decide it was a waste of time and demand your time back, huffing about rip off authors.  The best I can do at that point is to warn others or promote the book to those who might enjoy it.  I think it's generally more useful on the individual level to judge the book beforehand.