The mid-1970s were an interesting time for American Sherlock Holmes fans. (Oh, very well: Holmesian enthusiasts, then. Don’t take yourself too seriously, do you?) 1974 saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s revival of William Gillette’s venerable 1891 stage play Sherlock Holmes, starring John Wood. The show ran for 471 performances on Broadway, nabbing three Tony nominations (one of them for Wood) and five Drama Desk nominations (two of them wins, for lighting and scenic design).
A notable result of this was that all things Sherlockian once again became a Hot Commodity in the U.S., much as they had been during the early-century Holmesmania inspired by Gillette. Publishers fairly tripped over one another getting editions of The Canon back into print, plus every backlist title having anything remotely to do with the subject, along with an impressive number of new ones—all of which fairly soared off the shelves. (I think it was around this time that Peter Haining was able to afford his second yacht.) This renewed rush of interest serves to explain the curious fact that, in 1974, a new novel billed as “Being A Reprint From The Reminisces of John Hamish Watson, M.D.” rose to Number 1 on The New York Times’ Best Sellers List and remained on that list for a whopping 40 weeks. That novel was The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and its "editor"—and, of course, its author—was a young writer named Nicholas Meyer.
Meyer himself deserves more space than I can fairly give him here. Suffice to say that in the three-decades-and-change since Solution's publication, Meyer has earned a well-deserved reputation as a novelist, screenwriter, film director and storyteller of uncommon taste, intelligence and wit (to say nothing of having written and directed the only Star Trek film to date that’s universally acclaimed by both fanatics and the disinterested alike as “the good one.”) All of Meyer's best qualities are immediately apparent in Solution, which is not only one of the three best Sherlock Holmes pastiches ever written, but a cracking good yarn by any standard.
The story plays fast, loose and mischievously with the period in The Canon known as The Great Hiatus, the time when Sherlock Holmes was missing for three agonizing years and presumed dead (by Dr. Watson and his enormous, heartbroken readership) at the hands of his arch-enemy, Professor James Moriarty. The "newly-discovered" memoir, purportedly written by the good doctor shortly before his death in 1939, reveals that Holmes’ nemesis was actually nothing more than a meek, harmless mathematics teacher; that the Great Detective, far from having died a hero's death, had been warped by his cocaine addiction into a paranoid psychotic teetering on the brink of a more ignominious end; and that Watson managed to save the life and career of the best and wisest man he had ever known only with the covert aid of Holmes' brother Mycroft... and an obscure Viennese physician named Sigmund Freud. In the process, Freud’s future work is invested with a touch of deductive genius picked up from his illustrious patient; many puzzling questions about Sherlock Holmes’ psyche, early life and choice of profession are illuminated; and, not incidentally, a global cataclysm is prevented, or at least delayed by several years.
Apart from being a terrific read and a masterful pastiche (Meyer gets Doyle’s literary style and Watson’s auctorial voice dead solid perfect), the book also pokes affectionate fun at the cult of Holmes, from the deadpan recitation of the means by which its editor happened upon this literary treasure, to the dryly hilarious footnotes illuminating crumbs of obscure Holmesian lore in such niggling detail as to shame a fully-invested member of the BSI, to the tacit acknowledgement of the (often willfully overlooked) fact that the canonical Holmes vs. Moriarty saga doesn’t make a lick of rational sense... and therefore must be a made-up tale, concocted by Dr. Watson to conceal facts for which the world was (naturally) not yet prepared.
It sounds like it would have made a terrific movie, doesn’t it?
In fact, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, directed by Herbert Ross from a screenplay by author Meyer, is the best Sherlock Holmes movie ever to come out of Hollywood. It manages to be so by pulling off several impressive feats: first, it's an effective adaptation of a terrific novel; second, it departs from that novel just enough to turn it from a literary experience into a full-blown filmic one without losing a single drop of the book's considerable charm; third, it's a lovingly crafted, meticulously detailed, painstakingly realized and—paradoxically, for a story whose fun lies partially in the games it plays with established canon—unabashedly canonical Sherlock Holmes adventure; and fourth, and most importantly, it is hellaciously entertaining. Not until Granada's definitive television series would Holmes and his world appear on any screen so well incarnated; and, as nearly perfect as the Granada series is in presenting The Authentic Holmes, Solution does it one better by having an order of magnitude more fun in the process. No Sherlock Holmes motion picture has matched it, let alone bettered it, to this day.
There are so many things to praise in this movie that it's difficult to know where to begin. I'll start with its cast, surely the most stellar array of actors ever assembled for a Holmes film. Oddly, for a movie all about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the actors playing Watson and Holmes are billed third and fourth—a measure not of their importance to the story, but of the remarkable fact that Ross and Meyer cast the parts, not by seeking the biggest or most marketable actors for the biggest roles, but the right ones for the roles. (As amazing as it seems today, that was, not always, but often, how they made movies in the 70s.) Here's the list, in order of billing, and don't be surprised if you find your jaw dropping periodically:
|THE VIENNESE DOCTOR: Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud|
|THE DAMSEL IN DISTRESS: Vanessa Redgrave as Lola Deveraux|
|THE FAITHFUL COMPANION: Robert Duvall as John H. Watson, M.D.|
|THE GREAT DETECTIVE: Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes|
|THE NAPOLEON OF CRIME—OR IS HE? Sir Laurence Olivier as Professor James Moriarty|