Detective Inspector Lestrade stands in the doorway of 221B Baker Street, shrugging on his jacket as John Watson watches. Doctor Watson asks the DI for any insight into the behavior of his new, eccentric flatmate, Sherlock Holmes. He’s hoping that Lestrade will advise him on how to handle the man’s many apparent foibles; perhaps he’s hoping that Lestrade will tell him that, despite all appearances to the contrary, John Watson has not decided to share a flat with a man who runs after serial killers, like a child runs after an ice cream truck.
Unfortunately, Lestrade does not give the Doctor any hope, but he does pause, on his way out the door, to explain why he puts up with Holmes’s manic behavior: “Because I’m desperate, that’s why. Because Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and I think one day—if we're very, very lucky—he might even be a good one.” The scene is from the 2010 BBC adaptation, “Sherlock,” but it’s not so difficult to imagine any of the incarnations of Inspector G. Lestrade muttering this sentiment.
With little time and little effort, any reader could summarize Lestrade’s characteristics, as should probably be the case with any supporting character in an extended series. According to H. Paul Jeffers in his book, Bloody Business: An Anecdotal History of Scotland Yard:
“He is the most famous detective ever to walk the corridors of Scotland Yard, yet he existed only in the fertile imagination of a writer. He was Inspector Lestrade. We do not know his first name, only his initial: G. Although he appears thirteen times in the immortal adventures of Sherlock Holmes, nothing is known of the life outside the Yard of the detective whom Dr. Watson described unflatteringly as sallow, rat-faced, and dark-eyed and whom Holmes saw as quick and energetic but wholly conventional, lacking in imagination, and normally out of his depth—the best of a bad lot who had reached the top in the CID by bulldog tenacity (95).”
Lestrade has the honor of appearing in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, along with Inspector Tobias Gregson, but beyond that it’s easy to think of his character as merely a method of conveyance—someone has to get the details of the case into Holmes’s hands, why not a member of the police force? In fact, Lestrade—as with any member of Scotland Yard that appear in the canon—seems almost painfully one-dimensional. We don’t even know his first name (Gregory? Geoffrey? George? Gerald? Gabriel?), and sometimes it seems that most of the debate over Lestrade centers on the pronunciation of his last name (Long ‘A” sound? Short ‘A’ sound?).
In Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis, Patrice Pavis says that the role of a character is to give off “the illusion of being a human person.” This is particularly applicable in the case of Inspector Lestrade, because he gives off the illusion of being Sherlock Holmes, and therefore makes the Great Detective himself seem even more real. Just as Mycroft Holmes makes his younger sibling seem more god-like, Inspector Lestrade makes Sherlock Holmes seem a little more human, his skills and abilities a little more attainable. Lestrade makes clear the cracks in Holmes’s deductive armor, the places where he is most vulnerable.
Sherlock Holmes describes Lestrade in “The Cardboard Box” as being, “…absolutely devoid of reason, he is as tenacious as a bulldog when he once understands what he has to do.” Holmes says this as if it were a characteristic unique to Lestrade, as if it were something charming about the man that made him a little more palatable than the rest of Scotland Yard. Well, to be totally frank, Mr. Holmes? You can be “as tenacious as a bulldog” yourself, when you want to be. When Holmes gets his claws into a case, he has been known to, amongst other things: masquerade as a priest (SCAN), pretend he was dying (DYIN), camp out on a moor for several days without anyone's knowledge (HOUN), and poison himself (DEVI). Lestrade’s tenacity is, in fact, rather subdued when compared to Holmes’s exploits; making everything the Detective does seem more extreme and wonderful in contrast.
In addition, using a secondary character in this manner makes the on-screen portrayals all the more important, and all the more valid as interpretations. By using him so sparingly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left holes in Lestrade’s character. Actors can fill in the gaps and smooth out the edges, and the manner in which they interpret the Inspector is ultimately reflected back on Holmes in some way.
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