It’s Elementary

Sherlock 2What if Sherlock Holmes was a woman?

By Phillip Ratliff 

Though Sherlock Holmes is, in his many manifestations, a supremely logical character, we can forget how intuitive he can be. We see the full force of this intuition in A Study In Scarlet, when Holmes sizes up a passerby with a mere glance. Holmes deduces that his subject must be a former military man, citing as evidence the man’s demeanor, his “air of importance,” the way the man swings his cane, even the way he trims his whiskers.

There are all sorts of alternative explanations for any one of those traits. (Detractors find the acceptance of such hunches as gospel one of the Holmes oeuvre’s least plausible features.) Holmes’s assessment of the man’s demeanor is the sort of ineffable something Holmes picks up on. Trying to dissect what he sees render his insights uselessly atomistic. Holmes is confident enough to just “go with it” and plug his hunches into a hypothesis about who this person is. Holmes, on this point, is at once both logical and practical. If the individual data inputs are the teeth on a key, his conclusion is the one keyhole that accepts it. His logic confirms his intuitions even as his intuitions feed into his logic.

Holmes draws from two epistemological styles, the logical and the intuitive, but conventional wisdom might also say he’s tapping in to two gender styles—one decidedly male, the other female. Reconciling the male and female, the yin and yang of his being, as adroitly as he does marks him as nothing short of a genius. And with that term, genius, we’re in another gender-saturated land. The concept of the universal genius, one who can tap into all available modes, synthesize the irreconcilable, that, too, is burdened with centuries of baggage.

A friend of mine, UAB playwright Lee Shackleford and his wife and collaborator, media psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford, have been wondering lately if those perceptions of genius might be reconsidered. And they are turning to the Holmes mythos to do that. The Shacklefords have created a version of Sherlock Holmes-Watson titled Herlock. As you may have guessed, it casts the Holmes and Watson characters as females.

The couple has brought in veteran Hollywood effects director David Duncan to direct the first episode of Herlock, which they envision becoming part of a series. The first 40-minute installment is currently available on their website,

Sherlock 1In Herlock, Watson is now Jonny Watts, a UC-Davis grad student studying veterinary medicine. With a keen knowledge of comparative anatomy, Watts is also a wannabe mystery novelist and an accomplished Internet sleuth in her own right. It is through her own cyberspace investigation that she tracks down the elusive female Holmes character, known here as Sheridan Hume.

Sheridan is just like Sherlock: brilliantly logical, egotistical, and very open to collaborative input from others. Well, no. Actually that last one is conspicuously not a Holmesian trait, and it provides the main rationale for the reimagining.

Karen Dill-Shackleford says the literature on gender differences to problem solving is pretty clear on this point: Women collaborate and men compete. Much of this can be explained as socialization, and we can find all sorts of exceptions (I’d probably count myself one of those), but for a generalization, it’s a pretty good one.

Karen expected that there would be both practical and relational advantages ones to how Sheridan and Watts work together. After cracking their first case together, Sheridan is able to assert, in language at once redolent of and in contrast to her male counterpart, that she doesn’t need anyone but that Jonny possesses skills that complement her own.

Lee, the writer, is quick to point out that the Holmes-Watson partnership has long struck people as odd. (The BBC manifestation, Sherlock, picks up on this by making their Holmes and Watson the butt of “gay jokes.”)

“I’ve always felt that part of what works about the Holmes-Watson relationship, from Doyle’s stories to the present-day interpretations, is that Holmes and Watson each have needs that the other fulfills. So even though Holmes is unquestionably in charge of the partnership, he still needs Watson at his side. And in that way, it’s not a typically male arrangement,” Lee says.

Herlock fandom is growing, and the Shacklefords are crowdsourcing funding for additional episodes though Karen and Lee say they’ll use the funding to enlist guest writers committed to their approach.

It’s an approach that seems to be resonating with contemporary audiences.

“Jonny has to be more of an equal to Sheridan. Fans at the premiere loved that. Bless them,” Lee says.

Gia Mora portrays the lead character, Sheridan Hume. Two Birmingham actors are featured—Alana Jordan as Sheridan’s other half, Jonny Watts, and Vince Cusimano, as her in turn pushy, mushy boyfriend, Mario.

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