Mr. Holmes and Other Cold-Hearted Heroes

The Many Friends of Sherlock Holmes

By Kersley Fitzgerald

I've noticed a trend recently in fictional characters who are brilliant, but emotionally cold. They are usually detectives of some sort. Very good at solving the case, but unaware (or uncaring) of how their words and actions affect others. The archetype has said "The game is on," and that's how human suffering is seen — as a game.
Oh, enjoying the thrill of the chase is fine, and creating the distraction of the game I sympathize entirely but SENTIMENT...sentiment is a chemical defect found in the losing side.
- Sherlock in Sherlock
Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is one of the modern culprits. Although there are other Sherlocks to choose from, Elementary's Jonny Lee Miller is too personally broken to qualify, and the Sherlock Holmes movie's Robert Downey Jr. is too needy. Although, really, Sherlock has always been needy. Starting in the books, although he lives for the "game," the game is incomplete unless he has Watson or Lestrade to pat him on the head and tell him he's clever. Still, the game is the thing, even if the playing field is Watson's wedding (Sherlock's "The Sign of Three") or his honeymoon (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows).
Sherlock: Look at them. They all care so much. Do you ever wonder if there's something wrong with us?
Mycroft: All lives end. All hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage, Sherlock.
- Sherlock
Last year saw the addition of another example in Scorpion's Walter O'Brien. A genius (who's more than willing to tell you about it), he has taken it upon himself to collect and protect other geniuses who have been wounded by a world that doesn't understand the "mentally enabled." While he cares for his team, Walter's social skills are so lacking he makes Sherlock look cuddly. In the pilot, he hires a naturally empathetic waitress — in part because she has a genius son Walter would like to mentor, but also because Walter realizes he needs someone on his team who can keep him from insulting clients. Not that he cares about the clients' feelings, but because it's bad for business.
I imagine John Watson thinks love's a mystery to me, but the chemistry is incredibly simple and very destructive.
- Sherlock in Sherlock
The latest addition is Kirsten from Stitchers. The reason given for her icy personality is that she has no ability to track time (and possibly a head injury from an accident when she was a child). She can't tell if an event occurred five seconds ago or ten years ago. Her detachment from others makes her almost impossible to insult, which is an interesting twist.
Oh, do your research. I'm not a hero, I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Merry Christmas!
- Sherlock in Sherlock
This is just a sampling. I've started reading Estelle Ryan's Connections series about an art analyst who is on the Autism spectrum, and I suspect Dr. Temperance Brennan from Bones would qualify, although I've never watched the show. Then there's Patrick Jane from The Mentalist, who didn't care about other victims if they couldn't help him solve the murder of his wife and child. And, of course, a plethora of action heroes, up to and including half the cast of Person of Interest.
...What is it like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring!
- Sherlock in Sherlock
I've been trying to figure out why such characters are so popular. There's something appealing about being clever and right and relatively untouched by the pain relationships can bring. Most of the characters mentioned do have friends they care for, and they would be upset if their friends were harmed. But either because of being neuro-nontypical or because of hubris, they don't tend to get their feelings hurt. And their dedication to the truth — to the game — outweighs any responsibility they feel for emotionally harming others. Their goal is to be right with little consideration for how it affects their victim.

**Warning: Spoilers for Mr. Holmes**

But there is now a new Sherlock on the scene. In the movie Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen's Sherlock has been retired to the country for thirty-five years. Facing increasing memory loss, he fights to remember the resolution of his last case — a case he deduces must have been a horrible failure if it resulted in his self-imposed banishment. On the outside, his life is pleasant. He has a housekeeper (Laura Linney) who is grouchy and wants to leave, and a replacement for Watson and Lestrade in her clever young son, Roger.
There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. Proverbs 18:24b
Mr. Holmes spends his days reading, teaching Roger how to keep bees, and fighting his failing health. Slowly, the story of his last case comes out. In the final confrontation, he was right. He understood the subject of his investigation in a way no one else had. But for once in his life, she understood him, as well. Then she asked him for something he'd never considered: a lasting, emotionally intimate human connection that would benefit them both. He considered, but he was a detective, and the case was solved. The game was over. No need to burden it with sentiment. Thirty-five years later, he remembered the outcome and what a horrible mistake it had been to reject that emotional bond.
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. Proverbs 17:17
It is through logic that the younger Sherlocks, along with Walter and Kirsten and a slew of other fictional characters, solve crimes and even save lives. They walk through the world on a higher cloud, mostly untouched by sentiment and emotional need. In Mr. Holmes, that detachment is not a character quirk or a tool in the investigative arsenal, but the death-stroke of the persona carefully built. It is only by learning to care, vulnerably, that Sherlock's life, and heart, are saved.
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35
I think most of us would understand the advantages of being emotionally detached from the world. To be an expert at solving puzzles while not being expected to touch lives — it feels safe. But it's not how God made us. He made us for relationship. He gave us the members of the church to change us — improve us. Anxiety disorders and brain development disorders aside, God didn't intend for us to be proficient but cruel. Even if it seems such a lifestyle would bring accolades without the burden of emotional injury.
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:10
It takes a similar humble vulnerability to come to Christ. To repent is to admit that we're wrong. To accept Jesus is to admit we can't live on our own skills and beliefs. In everything from salvation to day to day life, we need Him. But Jesus doesn't stop there. As much as the overly sensitive or we introverts would prefer otherwise, it's through relationships that God grows us. He didn't create us to be robots. In that, Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock may be the most authentically human of the three primary examples. His intellect is less than useless without Joan, Gregson, Marcus, Kitty, and Alfredo to guard his heart. And as much as we might wish otherwise, the same goes for us.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:2

Published 8-11-2015