So now, at last, it all makes sense. Murder Rooms: The Dark Origins of Sherlock Holmes (Thursdays, May 18 and 25; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) encourages us to believe that the great detective, the very first Baker Street Irregular, was not only a fictional embodiment of the nineteenth century’s cult of genius and its passion for explaining absolutely everything from cirripedia to sexuality but also an inspired figment of the romantic imagination. All that busy deducing was to compensate for psychic wounds, holes in his creator’s heart. In a dressing gown or deerstalker, consulting his violin or feeding his cocaine habit, he mourned a long-lost love. In a Wagnerian opera, he would have been a bassoon.
From what we already knew about the early life of Arthur Conan Doyle – his artist father who descended into alcoholic dementia, his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, his clerkship with the forensic pathologist Joseph Bell, on whom he’d model Holmes – and what we have since learned about Dr. Bell’s second career moonlighting as a police consultant, teleplaywright David Pirie has embroidered a two-part Mystery! in which young Arthur, at first suspicious of Bell’s diagnostic parlor tricks, will end up assisting his crusty mentor in the investigation of a series of murders apparently targeting the first generation of female medical students at the university. With one of these students, Elspeth Scott, young Doyle is so smitten as to discover the subjective and indulge the subjunctive.
It’s a gloomy Edinburgh we drop in on in 1878, where the poor are punished for failing to prosper and women are punished whether they’re poor or not. And it’s a dandy puzzle we meet there – involving missing cats, slaughtered sheep, murdered prostitutes, a dead fiddler, a box of ears, a pile of coins, and lots of quoting from the Bible, as well as arsenic, strychnine, laudanum, syphilis, “moral insanity,” and more than one visit to Bell’s “Black Museum.” And it will be puzzled over by the usual complement of skilled practitioners – Charles Dance (The Phantom of the Opera) as Sir Henry Carlyle; Robin Laing (Cadfael) as Doyle; and, crucially, Ian Richardson as Dr. Bell, who is equally persuasive telling Arthur that “I have long considered a monograph on criminal fathers” or advising the rest of his students that “the charlatan is always the pioneer; the quack of yesterday is the professor of tomorrow.”
But everything depends on Elspeth. We must be as smitten with her as young Arthur is, as ready to pack up and follow her to Africa. And when Dolly Wells (Sleepy Hollow) takes off her cross-dressing cap to let down her dark red tresses – once we’ve seen her late at night secretly dissecting – we are smitten as well. Never mind the red herrings (of which there are a dozen). Or the clumsy acrobatics of the chase (the Brits, maybe to their credit, just aren’t very good at choreographing violence). Or even the ambiguous coda (of what use are even the most brilliant powers of deduction if “men murder without reason”?). Having consorted ourselves with such an Elspeth, we have no trouble imagining a lifetime of trying to rectify the universe from which she’s missing.