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'Sherlock' - 'The Abominable Bride' (Photo: BBC)

Note: spoilers.

When your favourite fact-checking detective turns out to be entertaining his theories about the possible resurrection of his nemesis Moriarty by taking a mental trip into the past (or the future) using a potentially lethal cocktail of drugs, picking out the various references and idiosyncrasies along the way is a potential minefield. Some things are weird on purpose, you see.

Nevertheless, sleeves are rolled up, there are magnifying glasses in front of each eyeball. Let’s see what’s what, shall we?

The name “The Abominable Bride” comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, albeit from a passing reference by Holmes in The Adventure Of The Musgrave Ritual, in which he is looking through old case files and says: “Here’s the record of the Tarleton murders and the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, and the adventure of the old Russian woman, and the singular affair of the aluminium crutch, as well as a full account of Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife.”

The club foot did not make the translation, however. But Ricoletti is a name with a resonance in modern Sherlock too, as The Reichenbach Fall contains a reference to Peter Ricoletti, a criminal who was on Interpol’s most wanted list from 1982 until 2010, until his whereabouts were discovered by Sherlock Holmes.

'Sherlock' - 'The Abominable Bride' (Photo: BBC)
‘Sherlock’ – ‘The Abominable Bride’ (Photo: BBC)

John Watson is depicted as having been wounded in Afghanistan. This, according to the original Sherlock Holmes stories, was in the Second Anglo–Afghan War, fought between the United Kingdom and the Emirate of Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880. This war was part of an ongoing series of conflicts between the United Kingdom and the Russian Empire, competing for dominance of Asia. This tussle between superpowers became known as the Great Game, which was also the name given to the first episode of the modern Sherlock in which we meet Jim Moriarty.

Victorian Sherlock sets himself the task of understanding “the Obliquity of the ecliptic.”. This is the term used by astronomers for the inclination of Earth’s equator with respect to the ecliptic, which is the path the Sun appears to trace through the stars. Currently the Obliquity of the ecliptic is around 23.4°, slightly less (by about 0.013°) than it will have been 100 years ago, when measured by the American astronomer and mathematician Simon Newcomb. It’s tempting to conclude that this is another deliberately jarring clue that all is not as it seems, given Sherlock’s previous well-documented feelings (in both the TV series and the original text) about astronomy:

In the same exchange, John Watson accuses Holmes of “swotting up,” which is a schoolyard term that derives from sweat. Swots are people who work too hard and always hand their homework in on time, with a full reading list for extra credit (think Hermione Granger in Harry Potter), and they are not popular. Swotting up has fewer negative connotations, as anyone can work as hard as a swot when they really have to. The idea being that Holmes has taken on more work than he’d normally do, by looking into matters that he would normally find superfluous to his interests, because he has someone to impress (ie. Mycroft).

John Watson notes that Lestrade is a man who does not want a drink, he needs one, and Sherlock replies “my Boswell is learning. They do grow up so fast.” This is. of course, a reference to James Boswell, diarist, biographer and companion of the English literary giant Samuel Johnson. He occupied such a unique position in Johnson’s life that his surname has become a noun describing a constant, loyal companion and observer (Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings is an excellent Boswell for Frodo Baggins). It’s a nod to the moment in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia in which Holmes affectionately says of Watson, “I am lost without my Boswell.”

'Sherlock' - 'The Abominable Bride' (Photo: BBC)
‘Sherlock’ – ‘The Abominable Bride’ (Photo: BBC)

Victorian Mycroft’s use of the term “virus in the data” sounds jarring, and is clearly intended to create a note of unease about historical accuracy, setting us up for the reveal that nothing is as it seems (the phrase pops up later as “virus in the hard drive”, which can hardly be coincidental). However, there’s nothing inherently inaccurate about the term itself. The word virus dates back to late Middle English, and was originally used to describe the venom from a snake. Before the discovery of microbiology, the term was used to describe noxious substances produced by a diseased body that could infect people. Data entered popular use in the late 1700s, being a term used in philosophical discussions for things which can be assumed as facts. It may have been unorthodox or poetic to put the two things together in Victorian London, but not inaccurate as such.

The orange pips in the post to Lord Carmichael comes directly from one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s favorite of his short stories, “The Five Orange Pips.” It’s the tale of a repatriated former Colonel in the Confederate Army receiving five pips in the post as a death threat, in an envelope marked ‘K.K.K.’ for the Ku Klux Klan. Those pips also found their way into “The Great Game”, only in an electronic form (as phone beeps are also known as pips), and the KKK uniforms became the ceremonial garb of the women’s group infiltrated by Holmes and Watson in “The Abominable Bride.”

'Sherlock' - 'The Abominable Bride' (Photo: BBC)
‘Sherlock’ – ‘The Abominable Bride’ (Photo: BBC)

The phrase “needs must when the devil drives”, as spoken by Holmes to calm Watson’s worries about attending a morgue in tweed, has a very ripe history. Dating back to Middle English (the uncredited dream poem The Assembly of Gods from 1500 has the phrase as “He must nedys go that the deuell dryues”), it was a common expression for Shakespeare, who used it more than once. All’s Well That Ends Well (1601) has Clown saying “I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives.”

Condensed down first to “needs must when the devil drives” and then just “needs must,” the phrase has fallen from popular use, and was last heard to any significant degree in the British comedy Blackadder II (1985, but set in Elizabethan London), where Edmund Blackadder is heard to exclaim: “Needs must when the devil vomits into your kettle.”

One exceptionally subtle clue that the modern day Baker Street (as seen by Victorian Sherlock) still may not be reality lies in the prominent appearance of a bus that should not be there. The #11 bus does not go anywhere near that part of London (cue spooky Twilight Zone music):

And of course, the final killer clue as to the unreality of all things: Holmes actually says his catchphrase “elementary, my dear Watson,” which, as most Sherlock Holmes fans will very quickly (and hotly) attest, never appears in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writings. The closest he ever came is in The Adventure of the Crooked Man, where Holmes does say all four words, but not in the right order, and with a good many others in between:

“I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson,” said he. “When your round is a short one you walk, and when it is a long one you use a hansom. As I perceive that your boots, although used, are by no means dirty, I cannot doubt that you are at present busy enough to justify the hansom.”

“Excellent!” I cried.

“Elementary,” said he.

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By Fraser McAlpine