Some say Sherlock Holmes likes cocaine, others think he’s manic-depressive, while a few armchair analysts figure Britain’s most enduring crime fighter must have Asperger’s syndrome. Whatever the diagnoses, Sherlock Holmes, 127 years old, continues to mesmerize us as the uncannily observant master of deduction who makes pretty much every other fictionalized crime fighter look like a dunce by comparison.
Rightly revered as a nerd God for his mastery of cool logic and arcane factoids, the British sleuth, modeled by creator Arthur Conan Doyle on a brilliant Edinburgh University doctor, is also arrogant, self-centered, and moody. This, of course, makes Sherlock Holmes irresistible to actors.
Several dozen movies, TV shows, radio series, and stage productions unspooled during the 20th century and now, three contemporary projects offer rival interpretations of Holmes’ "I’m deeply flawed as a person but so superhumanly astute that you’ll never catch up" persona.
Rob Doherty, creator of CBS’s Sherlock Holmes-in-Brooklyn show Elementary, says he and his writers constantly trawl for esoteric information suited to star Jonny Lee Miller’s mind-melting deductions. "It’s weird," Doherty tells Co.Create. "I’ve found over the course of the season that different writers know different obscure things. Our staff writer, Jeff King knows a frightening amount about starting fires, extinguishing fires, building and dismantling explosive devices, so he’s become our in-house demolitions expert. Some factoids are discovered in the research we do for a particular story area. Other bits are just blurbs or details we find in our daily reading and scribble down on the off chance they might sound funny or interesting in Sherlock’s mouth."
Here’s a look at the current crop of dueling Sherlocks as personified by Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Robert Downey Jr., along with a slide show featuring two dozen actors, from Charlton Heston to Leonard Nimoy, who’ve portrayed Holmes through the ages.
The Hook: Elementary imagines Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes as a recovering British heroin addict in modern-day Brooklyn who cracks cases as consultant to the NYPD. The series uses characters drawn from the Sherlock Holmes canon but features original plots unrelated to Doyle’s fiction.
What He Knows That You Don’t: Malbolge. Holmes’s familiarity with the obscure programming language known as Malbolge enabled him to decipher a message scribbled on the back of a coffee receipt in the Leviathan episode.
Attitude Toward Dr. Watson: Evolving. Miller’s Sherlock has gradually warmed to Joan Watkins, played by Lucy Liu. She began the series as a high-end babysitter, hired to make sure Holmes stayed sober, but Dr. Watson now serves as an apprentice detective. Sign of progress: Mentor Holmes no longer refers to Watson as his valet.
Break With Tradition: Slacker chic. In place of cape and cap, Miller favors jeans, T-shirt, and work boots, typically showing up at the scene of the crime with a three-day beard and scarf thrown casually over his neck.
Venue: CBS. Thursdays at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central).
The Hook: Set in contemporary London and starring Benedict Cumberbatch of upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness fame, Sherlock, cocreated by Dr. Who auteur Steven Moffat, fixates on Holmes’s tech wizardry, biting wit, and special effects-enhanced brainstorms.
What He Knows That You Don’t: Supernovas. Challenged to prove that a Vermeer painting is a forgery in The Great Game, Holmes notices that a supernova in the background had not yet occurred during the Dutch painter’s lifetime and could therefore only have been painted centuries after the original work was completed.
Attitude Toward Dr. Watson: Testy. Antisocial and proud of it, Holmes at the end of Sherlock's second season overcomes his default setting—cranky—and admits a fondness for stalwart Dr. Watson, played with stammering affability by The Hobbit star Martin Freeman.
Break With Tradition: Technophile. Updating Doyle’s analog tools of the trade, this email-and-text-message-wrangling Holmes hacks computer passwords instead of cracking safes.
Venue: PBS. Production began in March on season three, which will air in 2014.
The Hook: Director Guy Ritchie, renowned for rough-and-tumble Brit thug crime flicks like Snatch, shocked traditionalists in 2009 when he threw Robert Downey Jr. into a bare-knuckle boxing ring and rebooted Holmes as a 19th-century thinking man’s action hero.
What He Knows That You Don’t: Graphology. In A Game of Shadows, Holmes analyzes Professor James Moriarty’s signature and concludes that the handwriting sample denotes a "Creative, morally abhorrent, and ultimately insane mind."
Attitude Toward Dr. Watson: Bromance. In Game of Shadows, Holmes seems jealous of the fiancée when Jude Law’s Watson prepares to get married.
Break With Tradition: In place of the iconic Deerslayer cap made famous in the 1930s by Basil Rathbone, Downey dons a derby hat and sunglasses.
Venue: Sherlock Holmes (2009), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), and Untitled Sequel (2015)