Friday, March 4, 2011

Some Thoughts on Character: “The Best of the Professionals” (HOUN)

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).”
Sidney Paget
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.
Colin Jeavons
Eddie Marsan
Rupert Graves

Colin Jeavons plays a slightly bumbling (though in no way stupid) and awkward Lestrade to Jeremy Brett’s elegant and masterful Sherlock Holmes…who becomes patient and affectionately amused as he watches Lestrade peek inside his case files when he thinks no one is looking.  Eddie Marsan plays a biting and irritated Lestrade to Robert Downey Jr.’s frenetic and feverish Great Detective…whose genius appears even more inspired and enlightened when the police inspector agrees to go along with his insane plan.  And Rupert Graves, who started this entry, plays a Lestrade who seems equal parts weary and put-upon, like the proud parent of a difficult prodigy...and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes suddenly seems younger and more inexperienced, but with a new well of vast, untapped potential.  
Over the past couple of weeks, I've realized a few things as I've been writing; one of which is that it is easy to believe that Sherlock Holmes stands on his own two feet as a character—based on his own merits and abilities—but he really does not.  Sherlock Holmes is influenced and formed by those who surround him in the stories, as much as he influences them.  His character is determined by those in his circle, and that makes him extremely variable.  In "The Secret of Sherlock Holmes," by Jeremy Paul, Holmes says:
“If it wasn’t for Watson, I would have been dead within two years.  A man needs a companion, he cannot sit alone… With his silent reproaches, his hurt looks, Watson controlled my [cocaine] addition.  And our walks, our conversations… the sheer breadth and enthusiasm of his mind on any manner of subjects kept me sane when the black fits were upon me.  There was never a better friend.  And I treated him abominably.”
Dr. Watson makes Holmes accessible, capable of friendship and empathy when we had previously thought him incapable of either.  His brother makes him simultaneously human and god-like.  And, perhaps, if Sherlock Holmes is ever considered a "good" man, and not just a "great" one, it will be because of Inspector Lestrade.  Because he rounds off the edges of Holmes when necessary, he fills in his gaps, and introduces the Great Detective to himself.
I’m giving stuff away!  So make sure you take a minute to enter my contest.  It’s open to all and entries are accepted until 11:59p.m. EST on March 26.


  1. I've always thought that Holmes needed Watson, but I'd never really considered the importance of Lestrade's effect on the character. Very insightful post, and I think entirely true.

    By the way, I just found your blog and have been perusing it all morning - I'll definitely be coming back for more!

  2. @KateM: Thank you very much for your kind comment! I hope you're enjoying the blog. And I absolutely agree with you that Holmes needed Watson. Perhaps I'll tackle the topic would have to be a multi-part essay! I think readers are often too quick to take Holmes's self-assessment at face value...he may have thought he was an island unto himself, but that does make it true.

  3. If there was anyone who ever completely deceived the Great Detective, it may have been himself. Either that, or he intentionally hid how much he needed those around him, resulting in his somewhat caustic manner. As I think about it, the second possibility seems more likely. He is certainly moved by Lestrade's praise at the end of SIXN, though he hides it quickly. An interesting topic to write on, certainly!