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Fatal Solution: Outsmarting the World's Greatest Detective


In the parlor at 221B Baker Street, the home of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, Holmes and Watson are celebrating another case solved by Holmes’s ingenious logic — when a mysterious letter arrives. The letter claims to be written by the son of Sherlock’s greatest nemesis Moriarty, and contains a mysterious riddle:

“If you would know the hornet’s sting
Seek the insect in his nest.
But do not dare to cut his wing
Or never shall your heart know rest.”

From the obscure poem, Sherlock immediately senses that an attempt is going to be made on his life, so he and Watson embark on a wild journey to catch the killer before the killer catches up with them in the Huntington’s new staging of Charles Marowitz’s Sherlock’s Last Case. Part send-up, part thriller, the play marks a return to the Huntington stage for Maria Aitken, director of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, Private Lives, and Betrayal, among others.

For Aitken, the appeal of the play is in how it brings a new twist to one of the world’s best-known characters. “I didn’t know much about Sherlock before directing this play, except for the ordinary things you know about Sherlock when you are young,” Aitken says.“I had read the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, and slightly forgotten some. Doing my homework for this play was a great pleasure; I read everything by Conan Doyle.” In addition, Aitken looked to other authors that had put an original spin on the legendary character.“Reading authors like Michael Dibdin — who wrote a very good pastiche novel that distilled Sherlock — was very handy because you saw the things that had caught other people’s imaginations. It’s extraordinary how much about Sherlock had gone into my mind subconsciously because it is so iconic.”

Between 1887 and 1927, Arthur Conan Doyle published 56 Holmes stories and four novels that have become the basis for countless adaptations, movies, and plays. Part of the enduring appeal lies in how Conan Doyle revolutionized the detective genre. Mirroring the scientific discoveries of the era, the Holmes stories popularized the convention of introducing forensic science — like blood tests and fingerprinting — into detective stories. Conan Doyle’s skill at mixing practical knowledge and literary flair came from his background as a practicing doctor. The deductive method of a doctor diagnosing a disease inspired Conan Doyle’s method for Sherlock sleuthing out the truth behind a crime.

Sherlock’s Last Case also puts a new spin on the bond between Holmes and his partner John Watson. In your classic Holmes story, critic John Sutherland says, Watson represents “the so-called‘idiot friend’, who must have everything explained to him — thus informing, as well, the idiot reader.” In the hands of playwright Charles Marowitz, this friendship is examined to have deeper and unexpected dimensions.

Sherlock has captured readers’ imaginations for over a century because of his knack for discovering the truth behind even the most devious schemes. As actor Simon Callow writes, Holmes’s charm is that “he restores logic to an unruly, disturbingly incomprehensible world. Initial chaos — the crime — appears to be without meaning. The great detective, inhumanly brilliant, makes sense of things again.” In Sherlock’s Last Case, Holmes’s certainty ultimately falters, leading audiences to wonder whether the detective has finally met his match. “It’s kind of irresistible because it turns some of the legend on its head, and then it treats some of it quite slavishly,”Aitken says. “As a result, Sherlock’s Last Case takes you by surprise, and I believe it’s quite clever.” For Aitken’s recent staging of the play at England’s Watermill Theatre, the critics agreed with The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, calling the play “ingenious, strange,and satisfying.”

– CHARLES HAUGLAND


Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre: 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston MA 02115
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA: 527 Tremont Street, Boston MA 02116
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