Sherlock’s fall, The Empty Hearse, and magic tricks

Feature Louisa Mellor 3 Jan 2014 - 07:00

Now that The Empty Hearse has aired, we look at how it coped with the final problem: how Sherlock Holmes survived the fall…

Warning: Sherlock spoilers.

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige".

Christopher Priest, The Prestige, 1995.

“It’s just a magic trick” Sherlock told John Watson in January 2012 before jumping off St Barts' roof to get better acquainted with the pavement. It was a useful plant, that line, later used by Sherlock's writers as a banner to raise against crowds baying for explanations. Because after the pledge, turn and prestige of a magic trick have played out, what’s the one thing a magician should never do?

Tell us how he really did it.

“There are only so many ways someone can jump off a building and survive” Mark Gatiss said, hinting that the solution to Holmes' survival was more evident than some thought. “There’s a clue everybody’s missed” said Steven Moffat, sending us all off in the other direction. BBC execs kept the embers of speculation aglow by describing the mystery as the best-kept-most-hotly-anticipated-question-on-everybody’s-lips.

Gatiss’ script for The Empty Hearse continued the game by floating the idea of Holmes as an unreliable narrator. “If you’d pulled all that off, I’m the last person you’d tell the truth to”, said Anderson on hearing the Lazarus explanation. Moffat spun out the subterfuge at The Empty Hearse preview screening, introducing doubt as to whether “Sherlock Holmes has bothered to tell Anderson the truth”. “Indeed” replied Gatiss, adding “That is a very plausible version of how he did it.”

Plausible, but not an unequivocal answer is the message. It was a magic trick, remember. You wouldn’t ruin a magic trick by demanding to be told how it was done.

Magic, in many ways, is the last recourse you’d expect Sherlock Holmes to take. Conan Doyle’s character is the doyen of rationality. He dismantles the devil by showing us the luminous paint on the dog’s maws. He washes the beggar’s face to reveal the businessman who vanished into thin air. He gave us the much-quoted, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. Those are hardly the words of a magician.

The language of conjury though, insulates Sherlock’s writers against appeals for disclosure. By describing the fall as a magic trick, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat divest themselves of the job of having to ever give a definitive answer. They, like their version of the character, can talk about methods, indestructibility and truth protected by the knowledge that magic tricks are applauded without their secrets being revealed. The final act of a trick, as Christopher Priest writes above, isn’t the explanation, but simply bringing back what disappeared. That’s the prestige; that’s what gets the crowd cheering.

It was so when Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock at the turn of the nineteenth century – a retcon if ever there was one. After eight years of public pressure to pluck his most popular character out of that waterfall and give him the kiss of life, Doyle capitulated. Back Holmes came with a flimsy explanation of his survival involving a Japanese system of wrestling and a feat of impossible mountaineering. The public, presumably, shrugged off the details and jumped for joy. Here’s to twenty-five years more of Sherlock Holmes! Who cares whether or not his story stands up to scrutiny?

Gatiss and Moffat faced a very different problem resurrecting their Sherlock. In Doyle’s case it was a question of fans petitioning for their hero to stop being dead, and eventually succeeding. The original return from Reichenbach was an ad hoc business, improvised to fulfil a need. As long as he came back, plausibility and cleverness weren’t a priority.

Because we knew Gatiss and Moffat’s Holmes was always returning from the grave, we asked much more of them. We asked for the impossible in fact; to be surprised and satisfied by a solution that was as ingenious as it was watertight. We not only wanted the magicians to reveal their methods, but for those methods to have been designed by a mind as extraordinary as Holmes’.

There’s the rub. Despite the popular statements of belief in both Sherlock Holmes and Father Christmas, neither actually exists. Little wonder then, that Gatiss and Moffat had to find an alternative way out.

How did they manage it? With audacity, wit, and - like Doyle - by paying careful attention to the public mood. Gatiss knew about our theories, so he hooked us in for some good-natured teasing. He anticipated the seam of blasé dyspepsia running through parts of fandom, and pre-empted that criticism with a grin and a wink. If you lot aren’t going to satisfied, The Empty Hearse told us, you’ll at least be entertained. You can take a joke can’t you?

Not everyone is willing to. Some viewers, understandably, will think the ambiguity a fudging. They, like their avatar Anderson, will stay dissatisfied that we don’t yet know for certain, or that operation Lazarus (crash mat/lookalike corpse/squash ball/window dressing) has its own inconsistencies.

Others will allow that offering up fake solutions - the first two preposterous and the third at least plausible - without categorically revealing anything, has its own shades of brilliance. Irritably reaching after fact and reason may be a Holmesian trait, but readers and viewers don’t have to adopt it. With fiction, we can be kept in the dark about the mechanics of magic as long as we believe it.

After all, isn’t it essential to Sherlock Holmes that he knows more than we do? We need him to always be the cleverest person in the room. We need him to be in possession of knowledge we don’t have. The Empty Hearse knowingly and entertainingly made sure of that.

Read our spoiler-filled review of The Empty Hearse, here.

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