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"I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic..." [STUD] 

Reading press releases early in 2012 on the premise of CBS’s Elementary was a cringe inducing affair for many Sherlockians, me included. A drug-addicted Sherlock Holmes sent from London to New York for rehab; a Dr. Watson who’s hired by Holmes’ father to be his sober companion. Like many, I thought CBS had taken one small aspect of the characters of Holmes and Watson and based a series upon it, all in a bid to differentiate themselves from other recent Holmes franchises.

Using Sherlockian precepts ("No data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.") I awaited the show with as open a mind as possible. What I saw was a smart, witty show, two leads with lots of chemistry and an ability to channel Holmes and Watson into the 21st century. Now, I find no cinematic Sherlockian adaptation perfect. Elementary is as very good as some and better than most. If that seems faint praise, I assure you it is not.

CBS could have made the drug use a plot devise to get Holmes to New York to meet Watson and never bring it up again. Conversely, they could have turned to show into a polemic on drugs or Holmes and Watson Go to White Castle. They did none of those things. Instead, they respected the source material and Arthur Conan Doyle. They tackled a difficult subject with understanding, compassion and humor. It has not gone unnoticed.

In April, 2013 the Prism Awards, given “to writers, producers, actors and actresses for their accurate depictions of mental health and substance abuse”, how it affects the person involved and those around them, awarded the EIC President’s Award to Elementary “for its continuing, in-depth integration of substance use and recovery into its storyline and characters.” At the Sentinel for Health Awards, given for exemplary achievement in television storylines that inform, educate and motivate viewers to make choices for healthier and safer lives this September, Elementary came in Second Place in the category of Primetime Drama (Major Storyline).

However, what Sherlockians care about is the dignity of the character in any depiction of this controversial subject. For some, any filmic drug use has the potential to come across as The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, Douglas Fairbank’s 1916 Holmes parody where detective Coke Ennyday wears a holster loaded with cocaine-filled syringes and has a drink served to him by an ancient boy-in-buttons of gin, laudanum and prussic acid (shades of Robert Downey Jr.). Among Sherlockians there is not universal agreement on the effect Holmes’ cocaine use had on his person or profession.

In A Study in Scarlet (Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887) Doyle has Watson dismiss any thought of drug use: “I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.” But the very next adventure, The Sign of Four (Lippincott’s Magazine February 1890), opens with Watson’s famous question to Holmes, "Which is it today, morphine or cocaine?"  The novel is framed by Holmes injecting himself with a seven percent solution of cocaine. This was keeping in Holmes’ eccentric and bohemian nature and cutting-edge scientific knowledge. 

Cocaine was one of the late 19th century’s wonder drugs. Its numbing effects made it useful as a local anesthetic; its stimulating effect made it helpful in fighting fatigue and melancholia; it was touted to fight nausea. It was available to anyone in England at the local chemist (druggist) until 1916 when a doctor’s prescription was needed. Jack Tracy with Jim Berkey in 1978’s Subcutaneously, My Dear Watson: Sherlock Holmes and the Cocaine Habit, list many of the products available in Holmes’ day in which it was an additive: “snuff, in candies, in coca-leaf cigarettes, as ointments, pills, hypodermic solutions, gargles, ‘chewing paste’, and even suppositories.” Until 1903, cocaine was an ingredient in Coca-Cola. It was available in wines, including Vin Mariani, endorsed by Pope Leo XIII for its beneficial effects, and Hall’s Coca Wine “a marvelous restorative in cases of Influenza, Convalescents, and those suffering from Mental and Physical Fatigue, General Depression, Sleeplessness, Throat Complaints.”

The dangers of cocaine were not generally known to the public or physicians at the time. It is prescient of Doyle to have Watson rail against Holmes’ “[t]hree times a day for many months” injections in The Sign of Four:
"Count the cost! Your brain may, as you say, be roused and excited, but it is a pathological and morbid process, which involves increased tissue-change, and may at last leave a permanent weakness. You know, too, what a black reaction comes upon you. Surely the game is hardly worth the candle. Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed? Remember that I speak not only as one comrade to another, but as a medical man to one for whose constitution he is to some extent answerable."

The attitude towards cocaine use in the early stories is one of gentle disapproval: on his first visit to Baker Street after his marriage Watson finds Holmes “alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature…He had risen out of his drug-created dreams, and was hot upon the scent of some new problem” [SCAN]; except “for the occasional use of cocaine he had no vices, and he only turned to the drug as a protest against the monotony of existence when cases were scanty and the papers uninteresting” [YELL]; a “self-poisoner by cocaine and tobacco” [FIVE].

 At finding Holmes in disguise and on stake-out, he assures Watson that he has not “added opium-smoking to cocaine injections and all the other little weaknesses on which you have favoured me with your medical views." [TWIS]

After Holmes’ return from his presumed death mention of drug use in the Canon becomes more tangential: “Holmes's iron constitution showed some symptoms of giving way in the face of constant hard work of a most exacting kind, aggravated, perhaps, by occasional indiscretions of his own" [DEVI]; “As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable” [CREE]; in our only glimpse of his bedroom we’re shown the paraphernalia of Holmes’ obsessions: the pictures of celebrated criminals which adorned every wall, a “litter of pipes, tobacco-pouches, syringes” [DYIN]. (All emphases mine - JCO'L.)

By this time the negative effects of cocaine were more widely known. It was more difficult to paint drug use as an eccentricity, especially in the American home of the Canon in the early 20th century, the anti-drug Collier’s Weekly. Doyle could have just left us these faint hints or dropped any mention all together. Instead Doyle tells us the full extent drug use had on the great detective:

“Things had indeed been very slow with us, and I had learned to dread such periods of inaction, for I knew by experience that my companion's brain was so abnormally active that it was dangerous to leave it without material upon which to work. For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping; and I have known that the sleep was a light one and the waking near when in periods of idleness I have seen the drawn look upon Holmes's ascetic face, and the brooding of his deep-set and inscrutable eyes.” [MISS]

Doyle was no stranger to addiction. His artist father Charles Altamont Doyle was an alcoholic. As a twenty-two year old assistant surveyor in Scotland’s Board of Works, he married seventeen year old Mary Foley. Charles’ alcoholism kept him from advancing in his job and Arthur and his siblings grew up in “genteel poverty”. Charles’ addictive illness eventually ended his working career. Mary Doyle became the de facto head of household. In 1876, he entered a nursing home for treatment, the first of many such confinements. Later, he suffered from epileptic seizures. On October 10, 1893 he died at the Crighton Royal Institution in Scotland.

Addiction and illness are present throughout Doyle’s work. In the Canon there is Isa Whitney whose opium binge forces Watson to leave his warm hearth and travel to the Bar of Gold opium den to fetch him (TWIS); Jim Browner, a blue ribbon (a drinker who has pledged abstinence) who is driven back to the bottle, and to a murderous rage, by his scheming and jealous sister-in-law Sarah Cushing (CARD); Sir Eustace Brackenstall “was a good-hearted man when he was sober, but a perfect fiend when he was drunk, or rather when he was half drunk, for he seldom really went the whole way” (ABBE); even Watson’s brother, Holmes deduced, “was left with good prospects, but threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and, finally, taking to drink” died (SIGN).

While not factually biographical, the 1891 short story “A Sordid Affair” is most instructive. Two well to-do women are admiring a dress in a shop window, one of whom would buy it if it wasn't fifteen guineas. Poor dressmaker Mrs. Raby, who is standing behind them, speaks up. She can make the exact dress for ten pounds. Mrs. Clive accepts. Mrs. Raby, who stands to make five pounds profit, goes home to start. At home is husband John, six months sober and struggling to transition from clerk to artist and also struggling to accept his wife as breadwinner. Mrs. Raby worked tirelessly to finish the dress by deadline, but on Monday morning she awakes to find both the dress and her husband gone. A trip to the pawnbroker’s confirms her husband pawned the dress, but without the ticket Mrs. Raby cannot reclaim it. Desperate to keep her commission and business reputation, she uses the entirety of her savings to buy the dress in the window, which fortunately was Mrs. Clive’s size. Mrs. Clive and her friend try to weasel out of the commission by claiming the dress isn't as good as the shops’ but eventually pay the ten pounds. On her way home “tired, footsore, the loser in time and in money, with all her little hopes shattered to ruins”, Mrs. Raby sees her drunken husband being set upon by a jeering crowd of boys. With the help of a policeman, she gets John in a cab.
As the cab drove on, she drew his head down upon her bosom, pushing back his straggling hair, and crooned over him like a mother over a baby.
“Did they make fun of him, them?” she cried. “Did they call him names? He’ll come home with his little wifey, and he’ll never be a naughty boy again.’
Oh, blind, angelic, foolish love of woman! Why should men demand a miracle while you remain upon earth?
Doyle knew full well the effects addiction had on the addicts and those around them. He knew that the illness was the fiend and the sufferer the victim. Doyle didn't have to give us a Holmes who suffered “drug mania”. Yet he did. Perhaps he felt that pretending that a man who injected thrice daily doses of cocaine or morphine for months on end and not have an addiction did a disservice to sufferers and their loved ones. By giving us a brilliant man struggling with inner demons and a caring companion to help in the fight, however obliquely told, Doyle added depth to their friendship. It is another in the tantalizing list of “untold tales” that Watson teases us with.

As I watched Elementary, I realized that this was the story they were telling us. This element of addiction that was in the background of Doyle’s life and fiction was told by him with a compassion and understanding that wasn’t always apparent with his contemporaries. By framing Elementary as a “I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career” story, it has taken what could be seen as a weakness and made it a strength. Rob Doherty did three things: he differentiated his show while giving it a Canonical focus; gave us a 21st century spin on addiction that is very Doylean in its sympathies; and over the course of a season he has shown us the development of a friendship between Holmes and Watson, something no other series or even Doyle, for that matter, has done. By rejiggering the sequence of events in the Holmes/Watson story—the weaning of addiction then the development of friendship—Elementary strengthened that narrative of friendship which is at the heart of the Canon. 

Editor's note: James is a member of the Speckled Band of Boston, the John H. Watson Society and a huge fan of the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast.