The Game’s Afoot! Media Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

By | February 10, 2014

Like many, I’ve been hooked on the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes reboot Sherlock, which concluded its third series a couple of weeks ago and which, I am happy to hear, has been renewed for a fourth. The idea of setting Sherlock Holmes in the present day is not without precedent; after all, many literary, film, and TV detectives over the years have been variations on the basic template that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle devised in the original Holmes adventures. But the idea of taking the great man himself into the 21st century was a bit of a novelty. What catches my attention watching the series is the dependence that Holmes and Watson have on modern communication technologies. They are never parted from their mobile phones, Holmes is a constant texter (Irene Adler’s reprogramming of his text chime in “A Scandal in Belgravia” has to be a series highlight), Holmes has a Web site and uses the Internet to conduct research, and Watson blogs their cases.

Some purists may deem all this blasphemy, but it’s very much in keeping with the spirit of Doyle’s original Holmes, who was no Luddite. I’ve read all the original stories and novels (the “canon”), and Holmes was not hesitant to avail himself of all the communications technologies available in Victorian London. He wires (telegraphs), avidly reads the Daily Mail agony column (personal ads) to glean information (in The Sign of the Four, set in 1888, Holmes takes out a personal ad to trap a would-be suspect, which is not a million miles removed from the text message he has Watson send to the murder victim’s missing cellphone in “A Study In Pink,” set in 2010), and, late in his career, Holmes even owns a telephone. In “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” (set in 1902), Watson lets his fingers do the walking and uses Holmes’ telephone directory as a research tool.

If you are a great detective, you use whatever tools are at your disposal to search for clues and get information without being too hung up on whether it’s old or new technology, or that it’s even technology at all. Holmes has a great brain and great powers of observation and deductive reasoning, but the things that got into that brain have to come from somewhere. In the 19th century, it would have been books, newspapers, and other examples of the communication technologies available at the time. In the 21st century, it’s the Internet and mobile phones. And if the show is again remade in the 22nd century, Sherlock Holmes 3.0 will very likely be using a whole new set of technologies. It’s what the great brain does with the information that matters, not where it came from.

I mention all of this because as printers, marketers, and other types of content creators and disseminators, we are often quick to disparage newer technologies. I’m just as guilty as anyone; I fail to take Facebook or LinkedIn seriously or as anything other than toys, despite the fact they have become important communication and marketing tools. My bad.

I was at a Canon Solutions America anniversary event last week, and one of the speakers was a large commercial printer who not only offered transactional printing, but also electronic transaction services. And this makes perfect sense: demand for printed transactional materials (credit card statements, et al.) is being eaten away by electronic transactions, so getting into the business of what is taking away your business is a brilliant move worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself. Because if you ignore all these new technologies, well, Reichenbach Falls awaits…

Whether you are a great detective searching for clues to try to catch villains, or a marketing solutions provider trying to get potential customers to pick up clues to lead them to certain products or services, you need to use all the tools that are available. Offering non-print services with print services is, well, just “elem—” oh, you know.

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4 thoughts on “The Game’s Afoot! Media Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

  1. Phil Brown

    Hi Heidi: Loved your post today on Sherlock. And a great metaphor for the day’s current techie events.
    I would point out that during Conan Doyle’s peak time: 1890-1910 there were some other bright lights which the writer never alluded to, notably Albert Einstein, who managed to pen his Special Theory, and his General Theory of Relativity.
    I always found it odd that Conan Doyle never mentioned him in his writing.
    He was more than “a dabbler of science…a picker up of shells on the shores of the great unknown ocean…”
    Nevertheless, I thought your essay today was right on the mark.

    This for you:

  2. Richard Romano

    Thanks, Phil. (No worries; it’s hard to keep track of us over here. I get confused sometimes!)

    Thanks for the link…Funny, back when ties were de rigueur, I avoided wearing them as much as possible. Now that people are wearing them less and less, I find myself wearing them more and more. Go figure. (Actually, I’m waiting for Victorian couture to become fashionable again…)

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