Mystery novels and stories are catnip to puzzlers, because they’re an entertaining way to exercise our deductive skills and enjoy puzzling outside our usual fare of apps, games, and paper puzzles.
And surely there’s no greater boon to the mystery-loving puzzler than the ongoing adventures of Sherlock Holmes in all his forms. Not only is there are series of feature films starring the Great Detective, but there are two television programs focusing on his singular brand of puzzling: Sherlock and Elementary.
[Note: I will be discussing both seasons of Elementary, seasons 1 and 2 of Sherlock, and the season 3 premiere. So consider this your spoiler alert.]
Beyond the normal whodunnit storytelling that frames both shows — a staple of the genre that traces back to the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories and novels — there are smaller puzzles to unravel.
Perhaps the most famous from the Doyle canon is “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” where Holmes solves a curious pictographic code in the hopes of preventing a heinous crime.
And both Sherlock and Elementary frequently return to this cryptographic trope, for both dramatic tension and storytelling twists and turns.
Episode 2 of Sherlock, “The Blind Banker,” has a cryptographic mystery at the heart of the story, one that echoes “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” and its similarly perilous stakes.
Codebreaking is also at the core of the season 2 premiere, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” as Sherlock attempts increasingly complex ways of cracking the code of Irene Adler’s phone. (There’s a marvelous scene where he introduces a dummy phone in order to copy her keystrokes is foiled when Irene realizes the dummy phone is a fake, and in turn types in a fake passcode. It’s a terrific exchange of gamesmanship.)
The cipher used in the season 3 premiere, “The Empty Hearse,” is another prime example, and one that quick-witted viewers could solve alongside Sherlock, as he and Mary decipher the message and pursue Watson’s kidnappers.
Elementary has had its fair share of codes as well. The season 2 episode “The Diabolical Kind” featured numerous techniques for coding information — from hidden spaces in seemingly innocuous drawings to elaborate letter-shifting codes akin to the Caesar cipher — all of which Holmes unraveled with ease. (Sadly, the puzzlers in the audience aren’t given much opportunity to crack the codes themselves.)
But each show has also played on the natural human ability to find meaningless patterns in chaos and interpret them as hidden messages. Sherlock‘s season 2 episode “The Hounds of Baskerville” had Watson chasing down a Morse Code message that turned out to be nothing more than flashes of light.
And Elementary‘s most recent episode had an excellent sequence where Watson read too much into a former mobster’s statement about “a mutt” who would be “in the ground tomorrow.” (Watson suspected the “mutt” referenced a suspect’s mixed ancestry, while “in the ground tomorrow” would point toward the suspect’s Jewish heritage and burial traditions.) Holmes correctly dismissed both as red herrings.
Both Sherlock and Elementary had a bit of fun exploring characters fixating on small clues, only to be misled. It’s an intriguing path to take when the main character of each show bases so many conclusions on similarly minuscule bits of data.
With such a richness of Sherlockian material on television these days, both mystery fans and puzzlers have plenty to sate their appetites.
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