Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes have myriad adaptations, some with a cast of mice, some medical dramas, some featuring aliens and government conspiracies. Still others hew closer to the original nineteenth-century stories, whether in the form of a period piece, like the films starring Robert Downey Jr., or a modernization, like BBC’s Sherlock. My favorite of this genre is the undersung CBS police procedural/drama Elementary, which ran from 2012 to 2019. Starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, Elementary is set in modern-day New York, with Sherlock acting as a pro-bono consultant to the NYPD (he describes himself as a specialist in “deductive reasoning”). While former surgeon Joan Watson eventually becomes Sherlock’s partner in crime-solving, initially, her role is to be his sober companion.
Elementary stays faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s depiction of his protagonist as a drug user, opening with Sherlock escaping early from rehab, only to find Joan waiting for him, as she was hired by his father to help him stay sober. His struggles with addiction, time in 12-step meetings, and relationships with other addicts remain mainstays of the series throughout all seven seasons. The work that Sherlock performs, using his deductive reasoning skills for the police, is considered by both him and Joan to be an integral part of his recovery process. Crime-solving keeps his mind busy, giving him constant puzzles to solve.
At its heart, this is a show about solving puzzles. Sherlock’s job is putting together murder motives and methods; his hobbies are picking locks and stockpiling trivia. He gazes at the world as though it is one big jigsaw puzzle and everything needs to be placed just so to make sense. All the pieces are there; you just need to know how to look at them correctly. One episode even hinges on a love of crosswords.
Season one, episode eight, “The Long Fuse,” depicts a bomb going off in the vent of a web design firm’s office. When Sherlock and Joan are called to consult, they discover that the bomb was built four years prior to detonation. The episode is set in 2012, but the logo on the bomb’s battery is from October 2008, as are the newspaper pieces that were stuffed inside. Pieced together, the newspaper shows a Barack Obama who was still only a senator. The man who detonated the bomb did so by mistake: intending to order a sandwich, he called the detonating pager instead of the deli.
Meanwhile, the specter of Sherlock’s addiction reappears. He goes to investigate the company that rented the bombed office four years prior, rifling through the threatening letters they’ve received from ecoterrorists. The company’s head, Heather Vanowen—played by House’s Lisa Edelstein—walks in on Sherlock’s research and says that she recognizes him as a fellow addict. The moment is tense, until she clarifies, “Crosswords.” She used to have her habit under control, but ever since The New York Times put their archives online, she can’t get enough.
This confession is her undoing. Sherlock didn’t just discover the October 2008 date on the newspaper; he also found the imprints of someone writing on a page above—the word NOVOCAINE, which happened to be the answer to the clue “Pain’s enemy” in that day’s crossword. NOVOCAINE serves as a sufficient sample of the perpetrator’s handwriting; all it takes is asking Heather to fill out a few forms, and presto! Her handwriting can be matched to the crossword, clearly identifying her as the bomb’s builder.
The episode comes to an end with Sherlock’s new 12-step sponsor, Alfredo (Ato Essandoh) pulling up to Sherlock and Joan’s brownstone with a shiny new car. A former carjacker and current security consultant, he’s been tasked with trying to break into the car’s security system. Knowing Sherlock’s love of puzzles, he figured he would first let Sherlock take a crack at it.
Earlier in the episode, Alfredo explained the key to being Sherlock’s sponsor: patience. He needs someone to be patient and methodical, the way anyone solving a puzzle must be. As I said, puzzles are the heart of the show, not just in the sense that they’re at its core, but that they permeate the emotional aspects as well. In the world of Elementary, one must be patient and methodical to solve a murder, to solve a crossword, to break into a car’s security system, and to grow and heal.
To think, a prison sentence could have been avoided had Heather simply stuck to solving digital crosswords like Daily POP’s. No ink-stained muss, no legal fuss, no trace of handwriting or physical evidence left lying around in an office vent, waiting to explode.
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