Discussed by Nikki Stafford, author of Investigating Sherlock
“It doesn’t make sense, Sherlock. Because it’s not real.”
In the second collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Musgrave Ritual,” features an opening that has intrigued fans of the series — and in particular, Sherlock showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat — for years. As Watson is rummaging through some of Holmes’s old files, he begins asking him about early cases that Holmes worked on before he even knew Watson. As Holmes replies, it’s clear that not all of the cases were solved.
“They are not all successes, Watson,” said he. “But there are some pretty little problems among them. Here’s the record of the Tarleton murders, and the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, and the adventure of the old Russian woman, and the singular affair of the aluminum crutch, as well as a full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife.”
Moffat and Gatiss have made use of the case of the aluminum crutch twice in the series thus far, as people first meeting Sherlock have praised him on his earlier successes, “especially that one about the aluminum crutch,” and now they move to the last case he mentions. Because Holmes never mentions it further in the story, it gives the two writers a clean slate with which to write their own story on it, while squeezing it into the already existing storyline and serving to explore Sherlock’s mind palace much further.
And as a result, we get “The Abominable Bride,” the first new episode of Sherlock since January 2014. And it was brilliant.
As I illustrated at length in my book Investigating Sherlock: The Unofficial Guide (ECW Press, 2015), Sherlock’s mind palace had become quite convoluted in season three. There’s a lot going on there, and with the continued attempts to bring out Sherlock’s humanity, it’s jumbled his previously ordered mind palace to the extent that where in season one he would simply zip in there, grab the piece of information he needed, and get back out — so on the outside it appears that he was just trying to remember something — by season three he was becoming trapped within its rooms, finding things that brought him solace, putting people he loved into the individual rooms so he could have therapy sessions with them in there to help him sort things out. The reason? Before, the mind palace stored all of the intellectual information he needed to solve cases. Now, it contains the emotions that help him understand the cases much better, but which also complicate things enormously.
I loved the opening of this episode, where we got a “Previously on Sherlock” montage that, at first, looked like the writers’ clever “nyah-nyah” opening that served only to remind us that we’ve only gotten three episodes every two years. But after seeing the episode, I realized that every clip in that opening would come up again in the episode, so it was brilliantly done. And then, we’re told, “Alternatively...” and the timeline rushes back to the 1880s, where John is fighting in the second Afghan War, which is exactly how Doyle’s book, A Study in Scarlet, opens.
As I mentioned in my book, their first meeting is reenacted in the first Sherlock episode, “A Study in Pink,” but Sherlock is more standoffish than in the book, where instead he’s hopping around with delight at some finding and is actually quite pleasant and friendly. And so, to show that difference, the writers give us a slightly different meeting, one more in keeping with the book version (he’s not exactly friendly in the conventional sense, but at least smiles). Just as A Study in Scarlet opens with Watson’s memories of the devastating Afghan War, John’s voiceover quotes directly from the opening of the novel to convey the same nightmares: “The second Afghan War brought honours and promotion to many. But for me, it meant nothing but misfortune and disaster.” Where in “A Study in Pink,” we simply see the nightmares, with no voiceover from John, this is more in keeping with Watson’s more objective way of writing about his experiences (even though, as Gatiss and Moffat have explored in the series, one need only read between the lines to realize just how subjective Watson’s writing really is). The next few lines are also taken from the novel, and he meets Stamford again, and they go to the Criterion bar (in “A Study in Pink,” they changed it to the Criterion coffee shop), and then leave to meet Sherlock.
And from there we fast-forward. John’s new story on Sherlock, “The Blue Carbuncle,” has just come out, and it’s already a big seller. In case you missed the reference, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” was a story set at Christmas, just as this one is, thus fulfilling this episode’s designation as a Christmas special. (Incidentally, for Doctor Who fans, it’s also a story about a rare and invaluable gem that’s hidden inside a Christmas goose. I wonder if rereading that story gave Moffat his idea for the Doctor’s Christmas special...)
From there the episode follows what seems to be a traditional narrative, with the whodunit followed by Sherlock’s bafflement and ultimately him solving the case. But before we get to the loopiness of the time-shifting that begins to happen two-thirds of the way through the story, let’s discuss the wonderful overarching theme of this episode.
Ever since the series began, people have wondered aloud why Moffat and Gatiss chose to set the series in the 21st century rather than surrounding the characters with Doyle’s gaslight and hansom cab world of Victorian London, as most of the adaptations have done. In this episode, at least one of the reasons becomes clear: because in the present day, the women are allowed to be far more powerful characters with more agency than they were ever allowed in Doyle’s books. What sets Adler apart from other villains? The fact that she’s a woman. The Woman. Holmes was outwitted by a woman, and that’s something that stymies him for the rest of his days. If Adler had been Ian Adler, it wouldn’t have been a big deal at all.
In the stories, the female characters are wives who have been wronged, or who are worried about the safety of their husbands and come to the detective and his partner for help. Or it’s Mrs. Hudson, who was so insignificant to Doyle himself that he accidentally called her Mrs. Turner on an occasion (in the TV series, Mrs. Hudson refers to Marie Turner as the landlady next door). Mary comes to Holmes and Watson as a distraught daughter who intrigues both men with tales of treasure on the high seas, and then marries Watson, where she becomes a silent character from that point on who exists only in the background of stories before being quickly and quietly killed off so Doyle didn’t have to concern himself with her anymore. Every detective and mortician is male, as is every doctor and police officer, which wasn’t chauvinism but simply a fact of its time. Women are the source of many of the problems of the books, and perhaps the most intriguing of them — Ricoletti’s abominable wife — is explained in the manner I already quoted above, never to be mentioned again.
Let’s look at that word for a moment: abominable. It’s a pretty fantastic word to begin with, and, perhaps because many of us grew up with the Rudolph Christmas story, conjures up something monstrous with giant teeth. It’s an adjective that seems far worse than “terrible” or “horrific.” Abominable suggests something we want to avoid altogether, something that’s not just terrible, but abhorrent. The dictionary defines it as something disgusting and revolting, and even has a moral repugnance attached to it.
Ah, morality. That wonderful Victorian concept that’s coming back with a vengeance. Everyone who’s ever spent half a minute on Facebook now knows that everything seems morally repugnant, mostly because we’ve just run out of other adjectives to describe it so we’ve added a moral component to it. And in the Victorian period, the worst kind of wife would have been one who was not only revolting and disgusting, but morally repugnant.
So, why was Ricoletti’s wife so abominable? Who knows? She just was. End of story. Now let’s move to this other case that I once solved, Watson. All you need to know about that woman is that she was abominable.