‘Sherlock: The Abominable Bride’ best of the series so far

The British crime drama “Sherlock” has brought Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective duo into the modern age with the charismatic Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character and Martin Freeman as his colleague, Dr. John Watson with varied results. The scripts have touched on the original stories as starting points, but like most contemporary incarnations insist on making Sherlock’s greatest defeat a triumph. Attempts are made to balance this by giving more pro-active characterizations of minor characters (e.g. Watson’s wife), yet in this series, Sherlock seems impossibly heroic and undefeatable. “Sherlock: The Abominable Bride” does bring the concerns of women forward but it also looks at a piece of Sherlock lore that in this modern age isn’t so easily dismissed: His drug use.

During Victorian times, the use of morphine as a medication and pain reliever was common place. Morphine was used during the American Civil War resulting in the soldier’s disease of addiction. At the time, it wasn’t known that morphine was more addictive than alcohol or opium. Morphine was not a controlled substance in the U.S. until 1914.  According to the Victorian Web, in early to mid-Victorian periods, one could easily buy laudanum, cocaine and arsenic. It wasn’t until 1868 that the Pharmacy Act limited the sale of opium and its derivatives. The Dangerous Drugs Act in 1920 finally banned the use of such drugs.

Sherlock Holmes has an estimated birth year of 1854. The original stories begin in 1881. “The Last Bow” where Holmes is 60, takes place in 1914. In the original stories, Holmes takes a 7 percent solution of cocaine using a syringe. He also uses morphine. Watson considers Holmes’ cocaine drug use as his only vice. By “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter,” Watson has managed to get Holmes off of drugs, but Watson still considers Holes an addict and the addiction is “not dead, but merely sleeping.”

“The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter” was first published in 1904 in the Strand Magazine and later collected and published in “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.” The name of this special episode of “Sherlock” comes from a story first published in 1893 in Strand Magazine, “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.” That particular story is narrated by Holmes, himself. In the story, Holmes makes a passing mention of of a case that is never explored in the original stories, “Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable bride.”

The episode begins by immediately plunging into the Victorian era. Dr. John Watson is the narrator and instead of being involved in a contemporary Afghan War, he is seriously wounded and discharged from the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Being at loose ends, he goes to London and happens upon a friend, Stamford (who in the original stories never appears again), who introduces him to Holmes. Holmes is conducting medical experiments which might have seemed strange to Victorians, but would for the modern audience make sense in the development of forensic sciences. Holmes immediately deducts who Watson is and why Stamford has brought Watson to meet them.

From there, we flash forward. Watson has successfully sold stories about Holmes in “The Strand” and both are famous.  “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” has just been published (The actual story was published in January of 1892 and was the ninth Holmes story published, after “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and before “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”) Some of the fictional inventions have gotten out of hand. Watson complains that the illustrator has gotten out of control and he has been forced to grow a mustache in order to be recognized.

Mrs. Hudson meets them as they arrive at Baker Street and complains, “I never enjoy them well, I never say anything do I?” She continues, “I’m your landlady, not a plot device.”

Inside, Holmes and Watson find a client, a woman who seems to be a widow because she is heavily veiled and dressed in black. Watson misses what his friend quickly knows: The client is Watson’s own wife. She complains that will all of their adventures, this is the only way she can see her husband.  The complaints of women are very much a theme of this adventure, at least while we’re in Victorian England.

Inspector Lestrade comes to Baker Street with a real problem: a puzzling case in which a woman first commits suicide in public and then murders her unfaithful husband. Emelia Ricoletti dresses herself in her wedding gown and goes out on her balcony where she then begins shooting passersby with a gun. She is pale and a garish bit of red lipstick has been generously applied. She then shoots herself through the mouth, the spatter of blood appears on the white curtain behind her. She falls dead, and a corpse is found.

Yet later that evening, when her husband leaves an opium den, he is confronted by a Emelia in her wedding gown and she shoots him.  Holmes visits the morgue where a Dr. Hooper positively identifies the corpse as Emelia. How did the corpse kill her husband?

Months later, Holmes has not solved the mystery, but he is summoned to see his brother Mycroft. The Victorian Mycroft  is morbidly obese. He and Holmes make wagers on his life expectancy while discussing a new case. That of Sir Eustace Carmichael who has, according to his wife, Lady Carmichael, received five orange pips.

“The Five Orange Pips” is an original Holmes story, first published in Strand Magazine in 1891.  The story involves a man named John Openshaw from Sussex whose uncle Elias Openshaw has returned from the U.S. after having served in the U.S. Confederate Army. His uncle receives a letter from India inscribed with KKK and containing orange pips (seeds). His uncle refuses to call the police and is eventually found dead. Holmes believes that the Ku Klux Klan were somehow involved and the death was not an accident. He believes that the culprits, the captain and two shipmates,  have escaped on the Georgia ship The Lone Star. Although he telegraphs the police in Savannah of his suspicions after learning the ship has left London, the culprits never make it there. The ship sinks in a storm.

In this movie, there seems to be no connection to the Civil War.  Holmes tells Lady Carmichael he will protect her husband and yet he is murdered by a ghost, after Holmes and Watson see a ghostly bride, hear glass shattering and then break glass themselves to enter the estate. Although Holmes tells Watson to stay by the place where they entered, he  leaves. Holmes doesn’t not prevent the murder. Lestrade consults with Holmes and mentions there is a note on the corpse of Sir Carmichael. It wasn’t there before and when Holmes looks, he sees the phrase: “Miss Me?”

Holmes then meditates on this case that is “so simple even Lestrade could solve it,” but in things become increasingly confusing as Moriarty appears. We are then thrown from Victorian England into the present day. Holmes is in the current century on a jet plane that is landing. He appears to be in a type of detox program with Mycroft, John and Mary at his side. Holmes insists that he needs to return to his mind palace to solve a great mystery of the past and then he will understand how Moriarty could have returned in the present.

Here I’ll give a spoiler alert. The solution is that Dr. Hooper is not a man, but a woman. She, Mary and others are part of a secret organization of unhappy women who are not satisfied with just attempting to gain the vote for women, but also want to get revenge on the men who wronged them. Yet the woman who Holmes believes is Lady Carmichael, the murderer of Sir Carmichael, is instead Moriarty. Shocked, Holmes wakes in the present, but is actually still dreaming. In the present he is attacked by a dead Emela (can we call her a zombie?) and that takes him back to Victorian times at the infamous Reichenbach Falls. There he battles Moriarty, but is saved by Watson.

From there, he decides to fall knowing that will wake him up. In the present, he is again on the airplane. Mycroft asks John to take care of Sherlock. Sherlock is now sure that Moriarty is dead, but had put into motion things that would happen whether or not he was alive. Yet just where are we?  When we shift back to Victorian England, we see Holmes and Watson in their Baker Street rooms and Holmes describes airplanes and cellphones to a skeptical Watson though we can see modern England through their window that overlooks Baker Street (The Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903 on Dec. 17).


There is a moment during this special where Holmes pulls out a locket that has a photo of, who else, Irene Adler. The question of love versus logic arises. Yet with the conclusion of this movie, one has to wonder if this is a step forward or a step back. The 1985 feature movie “Young Sherlock Holmes” was filled with Orientalism and had the enemy an Egyptian cult of Orisis. In “Sherlock: The Abominable Bride,” we have the suggested memory of one dangerous cult (the five pips and the KKK) and the threat of the first wave feminists. The creation of a murderous feminist cult coupled with the portrayal of Irene Adler as a dominatrix (who must be saved by Sherlock in Afghanistan and doesn’t find a fine husband) seems a disturbing trend in “Sherlock.” Yet as a journey through the mind of a brilliant man battling a crippling addiction, this episode is a pleasing twisting and intertwining of the past and present and the question of which is the reality.

“Sherlock: The Abominable Bride” was originally broadcast on Jan. 1 and then an encore broadcast was made on Jan. 10. It is currently streaming until Jan. 24.

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