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Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot – thoughts on plotting, writing, dating and updating

Does good writing not date even if elements of it do? If different writers come up with the same idea does that mean one copied the other?

These were questions which came to mind as I watched the latest episode of Sherlock last night. I like this Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation – in particular, those little word clouds are brilliant. They’re perfect ways of getting a lot of important information across quickly and in a way that works on TV, while just by using them they help brilliantly to transpose Sherlock Holmes to the internet age.

Sunday night’s episode was The Sign of Three. One of the plot devices – SPOILER if you’re intending to watch it on catch-up – involved two attempted murders.  What made me sit up was the way that the first was undertaken simply as a rehearsal for the second. No other motive, just a rehearsal.

As it happened, neither murder went to plan and both intended victims survived. But it struck a chord with me, because I’d just finished reading an Agatha Christie book where the exact same thing happened. It’s called Three Act Tragedy, and it turns out that the culprit, an actor, performs his first dastardly deed purely as a dress rehearsal for the second one.

Did the writer(s) of Sherlock know about the Christie plotting and use it, albeit in a very different context (fair enough in my book) or was it just coincidence? As well as being a clever reference to the classic Sherlock Holmes story and a nod to a little twist at the end of the episode, was the use of the number three a deliberate nod to the Agatha Christie title?

Either way, it was a clever device. When you’re trying to work out who a murderer is, a good start is by looking for motive. Love, hate, money, fear of exposure are all way up there; a rehearsal isn’t.

I’m pleased to say that I worked out who the murderer was early on in the Agatha Christie book (I didn’t in the Sherlock episode, I might add). I even picked up on the motive for the first murder – i.e. being purely a rehearsal for the second.

That second murder in the Christie novel, however, also had only the thinnest of motives; in fact to modern sensibilities, no motive at all. The murderer wanted to marry someone; he killed his friend because the latter knew that he was already married. Even in the 1930s, when Agatha Christie wrote this, that seems pretty unlikely. Then again, if you look at the original Sherlock Holmes stories, there are some pretty unlikely scenarios and hefty gaps in them too.

And some of the details and settings that both Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle came up with are pretty mind-blowing to us today. Ordinary middle class people with servants, and many with no need to even work to earn a living, for one thing.  Not to mention the absence of most scientific approaches to detection, though that’s unsurprising given that they were largely unheard of at the time.

Both Christie and Conan Doyle have their lesser imitators. I once read a collection of short stories called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, detective tales written by other Victorian and Edwardian novelists. After about the fifth clumsy, leaden story I gave up.

But Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot both endure, in print, and updated by modern hands for film and on TV. The plots are ingenious, for the most part, and most of the time we can’t work out who the murderer is, so the dated scenarios and unlikely details don’t matter. The other great advantage of both Holmes and Poirot are, of course, that both detectives are fascinating, well-rounded individuals.

So the writing, the characters and yes, the clever plotlines, endure. I’ll still happily read the occasional Agatha Christie. And whether or not I recognise a particular plot device, I’m sure I’ll enjoy the next episode of Sherlock.


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