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Sherlock Review: The Lying Detective

The Lying Detective2



Listen to our podcast reaction below or HERE:

Following on last week’s “The Six Thatchers,” I was extremely unsure what to expect. Out of all the options running through my mind, the one initially presented by “The Lying Detective” is one I was hoping to see – an immediate return to the sharp mystery format, with the episode taking on Culverton Smith, as a fairly straightforward (by BBC Sherlock standards) adaptation of Doyle’s “The Dying Detective.”

As with its predecessor, this episode presented excellent performances, but, in my subjective opinion, with a lot more heart in the script. Last week, the principle cast managed, off and on, to pull something compelling out of the episode. This week, the episode itself gave them much more to work with in terms of genuine warmth and expression. I felt like I should care what was happening in “The Six Thatchers” but had trouble getting there. “The Lying Detective,” in contrast, had me in the palm of its hand for more of the narrative. Once again, in a return to past successful formatting, the incisive character revelations went hand-in-hand with Holmes’s steady march toward taking down Culverton Smith through his usual methods of detection.

“The Lying Detective” wasn’t a perfect episode, but it had genuine moments that felt like a partial return to the Sherlock I want to see. Let’s take a look at what worked, what didn’t, and where we’re headed.



Once again, the cast delivered. In particular, Una Stubbs’s Mrs. Hudson brought unexpected humor and expected heart in some of the most joyful moments of the episode. As serial killer Culverton Smith, Toby Jones was deeply charismatic even while he was skin-crawlingly psychopathic. The core cast remained fully committed, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman carried a heavy emotional load in a convincing way. Most unexpectedly, Amanda Abbington gave a touching performance as John’s hallucination of Mary, a conceit that could have come across as ridiculous, but instead acted as an ultimate emotional catalyst for Sherlock and John to reconcile. Abbington didn’t overplay her scenes, and the subtlety was touching. It was also entertaining to see an appearance by Wiggins, who still calls Holmes “Shezza.”

As far as the case itself went, it was a surprising and engaging fusion of Doyle’s “The Dying Detective” and the real-life story of H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer, who used his murder castle to terrorize the Chicago World’s Fair. Like Him, Smith had created a hospital that would allow him to gleefully dispatch his victims. As in the Doyle story, Sherlock feigned becoming a victim of Smith and ultimately exposed him as a result, with John’s help. In the story, John is hidden and hears Smith’s confession; in the episode, he provides the cane with a recording device inside it.

In terms of overall positive themes, “The Lying Detective” contains a through-line focused on the value of life. He believes his client is suicidal, and he encourages her not to take her life. Culverton Smith is a villain beyond all others because he takes life without a second thought for the seriousness of his actions. Later in the episode, after seemingly not caring about his own existence, Sherlock says, about Mary Watson, “In saving my life, she put a value on it. It is a currency I do not know how to spend.” By the end of the episode, both he and Watson have accepted the fact that even if life’s loose ends can’t all be tied up, it must be lived fully, with acceptance of what can’t be changed.

Canon references, as always, are ample, most of them from “The Dying Detective” itself, not just in the major plot points, but also down to things like Holmes having papered the flat with pictures of Smith. (In the story, Watson says Holmes has pictures of criminals all over the walls.) “The Veiled Lodger,” with its suicidal client, was also referenced in Holmes’s initial interactions with Faith. His deduction about the note she brought him was also reminiscent of a deduction in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” about Watson’s bedroom window. The name “Blessington” referenced a character from “The Resident Patient.” Ultimately, it seems that the final cliffhanger is leading into a “Three Garridebs”-type scenario, in which Holmes shows unusual depth of feeling when Watson is injured (or nearly injured).

As a group, The Babes unanimously felt that the strongest moments of the episode tended to be the simplest–Mrs. Hudson’s quips, Sherlock’s physical deductions of his client, Smith’s final discussion with Sherlock, and the scene in the flat when Watson finally confronts his guilt and grief, and he and Sherlock embrace and reconcile. These “small” moments are tightly-written and emotionally resonant, reminiscent of the best moments of the show’s previous episodes and of the qualities that make Steven Moffat a sometimes-transcendent writer. They gave us hope that the show may be heading back to the essence we love–the crimefighting partnership and unbreakable friendship between Holmes and Watson, complete with self-contained mysteries and sharp, understandable chains of deduction.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 03/01/2017 - Programme Name: Sherlock - TX: 08/01/2017 - Episode: Sherlock S4 - Ep2 (No. 2) - Picture Shows: **STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 3RD JAN 2017** Sherlock Holmes (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH) - (C) Hartswood Films - Photographer: Ollie Upton

Now let’s look at some things that, in our view, didn’t quite make the grade.

First of all, Watson Watson Watson. Following on his text affair last week (which was confirmed this week as being what it seemed), this week we had Watson beating Holmes to a pulp while he was at his worst moment, with Holmes accepting the punishment. It’s hard to construe this as either a good message to send or in-character for the John Watson of the Canon. In Sherlock, Watson has always displayed a violent streak, notably beating Sherlock in “The Empty Hearse,” while Sherlock has always had a penchant for the kind of emotional manipulation that he uses in this episode (acting like he’s about to be killed), seen notoriously during the train scene when he made Watson believe they were both about to die. Their relationship is imperfect at best, but at worst, it gets pushed so far that we’re challenged in our ability to continue to like the characters (Watson, in particular, currently).

Adding to the negative components above is the revelation that the meaning of Mary’s video message was to tell Sherlock to put himself in extreme danger in order to manipulate John to rescue him, supposedly the only way to “help” John. This is obviously meant to produce a parallel of John shooting the cabbie to rescue Sherlock in “A Study in Pink,” which bonded the two men, but as a life message, it’s fraught with problems. Sherlock complies, setting off the Culverton Smith investigation. While the investigation itself is well-executed, having this as a motive is questionable and troubling. It’s just a show, you say. True, but it’s a show that expects us to like, even love, its characters. We’re not supposed to end up thinking they’re all villains, and there’s a difference between being a flawed normal human and being pulled so far that you approach antagonism. We want to love the Holmes and Watson partnership, not feel the weight of massive negative baggage when we see these two together. (Arguably, one of the most charming things about the original stories is the lack of baggage in their relationship.)

Finally, we’re still a bit concerned about the insistence on everything being huge and loud. While, as stated above, this episode featured a welcome return to simplicity off and on, it still presented yet another mysterious Holmes, with a mysterious past and seemingly-impossible skillset. Heaven forbid we get a truly self-contained story that might have been allowed to end on the touching emotional reunion of Holmes and Watson; we had to dial it up to eleven, yet again, and end on a huge cliffhanger with an explosion. Once again, it seems the production team doesn’t realize how much of the audience loves the simple, quiet moments and finds them far more poignant than bombastic quality of the overall arcs.

(Honorable mention of what doesn’t quite work goes to the insertion of Adlock [Irene x Sherlock] and Mycroft having a flirtation with Lady Smallwood. While not huge issues, and not exactly problems on their own, these felt extra to the episode, like random shoehorned-in details that didn’t quite belong.)

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Ultimately, we end in a slightly more positive place than last week, appreciative of the golden simple moments this episode brought us and the good, old-fashioned mystery solving. As before, we reserve judgment on the season until it ends, but for now, we hope for a greater appreciation for the less-is-more approach in any future Sherlock episodes, whether this season or in the future. We want to see a detective and doctor, working in tandem and harmony to solve crimes using clever deductions. Please, bring back the Watson we desperately want to see and the partnership that keeps us coming back to the show.

Listen to our podcast reaction below or HERE:

Amy Thomas is a book reviewer, freelance essayist, and author of The Detective and The Woman mystery novel series featuring Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, published by MX Publishing. She holds a degree in professional communication and is an avid knitter, geek, and grammar nerd. Amy blogs about Sherlock Holmes at and can be reached for professional enquiries at Connect with her on Twitter @Pickwick12. Email her at

16 Responses to “Sherlock Review: The Lying Detective”

  1. […] Posted on January 9, 2017 by girlonbridge This review was originally written for the Baker Street Babes, and it can be viewed on the BSB website here. […]

  2. Nancy says:

    A wonderful review, and I whole heartedly concur. Less is indeed more. When the storyline is consistently loud, fast, and over-the-top it ironically becomes smaller and is flattened. The magic of ASiP was the intimacy and intensity of the quiet moments, and we desperately need more of that. I do feel a sense of optimism after tonight that the show can be saved, along with our boys.

  3. AnitaF says:

    I wasn’t terribly surprised at John hitting Sherlock, actually… but Sherlock is usually more equipped to defend himself.
    The little things, though – loved Sherlock’s trembling when Mrs Hudson opened the trunk of the car.
    I’ll admit it, I didn’t see that Elizabeth/Faux Faith/the Therapist was the same person, or that actual Faith and Faux Faith weren’t the same person.
    I wasn’t surprised by some of the elements (dead Mary, for instance) as they’ve been Sherlock fanfic tropes since the end of Season Two. I’m a believer in TJLC, so Mary telling Sherlock that they both love John, and the look on Sherlock’s face during their last conversation in 221B, both felt natural and expected.

  4. Colin says:

    A really outstanding review of the Lying Detective. I’m in agreement with pretty much all your observations, particularly the question of why it’s necessary to turn everything up to eleven! Mrs Hudson being pursued by the rozzers in an Aston Martin was more ‘2 Fast 2 Furious’ (or should that be ‘221B Furious’?) than Sherlock Holmes. I half expected Vinnie Jones to jump out of the passenger seat and shout ‘Oi Sherlock, you slaaaaggggg!’ As you say, it’s usually the quiet moments that are the most convincing and engaging and last night was no exception.

    And while Toby Jones was as excellent as ever, I found the Culverton Smith character unconvincing overall. There was not even a glimpse of his back-story – where he was from (somewhere generic up north I guess?), how he had made his money, who or how many he had bumped off already etc. There was so much more they could have done with him – for example, Charles Augustus Magnussen was a much more fully realised character. A missed opportunity.

    Anyhow, I have high hopes for next week’s finale as the series is definitely improving. Let’s hope for a farewell ‘Shezza’ from Wiggins as well.

  5. Fai says:

    Another wonderful review! I agree with you about John. I don’t know whether the writers and producers decided to write John like that because of their view about the canon, their dislike towards the common (or perhaps, stereotypical, though i may argue) interpretation of Watson as some sort of a saint, or they simply hate the doctor. I actually found this ep to be quite boring. Some of my remarkable moments involve parts that not relate to the case, mostly the few last minutes of the ep, but that just me. Like you said, i enjoy small moments between HW and what they are doing now definitely not my cup of tea (no pun intended).

  6. […], setidaknya ada 6 hal yang mengacu pada referensi novel aslinya. Pastinya judul “The Lying […]

  7. Megan Bickel says:

    “In the end, we just want them to look at hats together.”

    Agreed, ladies. Loyalty and love – needed more than ever in today’s world. I want Sherlock/Watson to be a refuge and an example, as they are in the canon…so back to the canon I turn.

    I enjoyed the episode, but it’s hard to reconcile it with my Sherlock/Watson. A diversion has occurred in my mind, and I will try to enjoy each for what they are at this point.

  8. Gigi says:

    I’m going to miss Mary but as the actress admitted in her interview she had to go for the sake if Sherlock and Watson’s relationship. I’m not surprised about Watson’s reaction I’ve always believed his character suffers from PTSD. I do miss the Sherlock Watson relationship that they had before and I look forward to it coming back.

  9. Gwendolyn says:

    I agree with some points, but not all.
    When Sherlock makes John believe they are about to die in an explosion, and then reveals they are not, John barely gets angry. He just thinks it’s a hilarious prank. So for Sherlock to fake or provoke danger to have John rescue him fits quite well into their relationship pattern, unhealthy as it might be. And who wants to see normal people in a healthy relationship in a fictional story? That would be dead boring.
    The same goes, in my opinion, for the less-is-more approach. I think we’re past the simple crime-solving-duo state of things. I think more is more. Give me emotional drama, hair-raising plot twists and the odd explosion anytime. Nine stories in, the BBC characters, especially Watson, already have a lot more depth, including traits that make them more difficult to like, than Doyle’s had after 56.

  10. tc says:

    The whole “the other one” thing was annoying in the end.
    The last seven to ten minutes of the show were the WORST for me.
    And, excuse ME Moffat and Gatiss, fucked up junkie Sherlock can tell and analyze that the Faith Smith in the morgue was different than the fake Faith Smith he met when high as hell BUT doesn’t notice that John’s analyst, a mere few feet away, resembles a sibling?
    Come on.

  11. Elaine says:

    Great review. You said everything I’ve been thinking. I just didn’t t understand how Moffat and Gatiss thought filming/airing a
    Scene of John kicked my Sherlock over and over and then just walking away was a good idea. No matter what they do in
    The next episode, the audience can’t unsee that & it’s going to color our view of John from now on.

  12. I just found this blog and wholeheartedly agree with this review–except possibly to say that I think the writers’ inclination to make every episode end with a bang comes from the fact that they have so little time on air. Three episodes every few years… I understand their desire to make those three episodes pop. Perhaps Sherlock would do better as a regular show, 12-24 episodes to linger on the emotional storm that is Sherlock, but at the end of the day three episodes is what we get. It is a little annoying to watch them cram whole seasons of plot points and action into approx six hours of show, but if that’s all I get then I’m happy to settle for it. I can see what you mean though! I look forward to reading future posts.

  13. Penny Ogilvy says:

    I feel the opposite when it comes to John. I don’t disagree that kicking Sherlock when he was down was downright ugly, but I feel like grief is missing from your review and podcast. Grief is a messy business and john’s reaction (while exaggerated, after all this is telly) is not out of character for a person in the depths of grief, even a “decent person” like John Watson. Nor is the extent of Sherlock’s feeling of guilt. And by missing out the grief-as-explanation bit we risk minimizing the sheer power that grief can potentially have. In my own life and work, which is nothing like a TV show, I have seen violence and guilt of this magnitude as a result of grief. For me it adds humanity to John, and even strengthens their relationship, the loyalty and love you mention is even stronger because of the shared experience.

  14. […] some of the fan reactions on Tumblr and reading both Aja Romano’s review on Vox and the Baker Street Babes’ review, I realized that my thoughts were very similar to what I had after “The Abominable […]

  15. Steeltrue Bladestraight says:

    Hi, thanks for the review. I also find some of the bombastic story telling in this series a bit tiresome. It would be lovely to have some straightforward mystery stories well told. Never mind.
    I think one thing that was interesting about this story as a British viewer is the identity of Culverton Smith. I had never heard of H H Holmes before, but watching this episode I knew exactly who Culverton Smith was supposed to be. He is quite clearly supposed to be Jimmy Savile. You may not be familiar with this guy, but he was DJ, TV presenter and kind of weird national treasure for several decades in the UK. He had unnaturally blonde hair, a kind of creepy manner but was a hugely popular eccentric figure. He was an avid marathon runner and raised huge amounts of money for charities and in particular for children’s hospitals. He also helped out in hospitals doing portering duties and boasted that he could come and go when he liked, had his own keys and his own room! He died in 2011 and shortly afterwards it became clear that he had been a predatory sex offender, using his influence, popularity and power to prey on children and young people. The full extent of the horror took some time to come out, but it became clear that a number of institutions including the BBC and NHS had turned a blind eye to his predatory behaviour, basically because he had done so much ‘good work’. Unfortunately he died before any of this could come to light and so none of his victims saw him punished for his crimes. It’s hard to describe the impact this had on the national psyche as he was so well regarded. We all thought he was a hero, but actually he was a monster.
    So as I was watching the episode, I could see that the writers were really doing ”Sherlock takes down Jimmy Savile”. The comparisons were so clear and almost a little too obvious for me. The main difference was that Culverton Smith was a serial killer rather than a sex offender. Other than that he is pretty much a carbon copy of him. It’s a wish fulfilment fantasy: if only we really had people like Sherlock and John then monsters like Savile would be caught. But unfortunately there are no real heroes like them, just ordinary folks.
    I think ‘heroes turning out not to be heroes’ is kind of a theme here. I think maybe that is what the writers are trying to say in this episode. Many fans seem to be unhappy with John’s behaviour as he seems to not be living up to the high moral standard we expect of him. But I particularly like John’s lines at the end, where he says that he isn’t the man that Mary thought he was, but he has to try to be that man. He chooses to be that man. I think that’s what the writers are getting at. Heroes are there for inspiration. There are no real heroes like Sherlock and John, but we have to choose to be decent and good like them.

  16. Herringford says:

    Not a word about this episode’s inventiveness and skill? Some of the show’s best blends of comedy and drama are here. It’s a brilliant episode, with bravura acting, directing, and writing.

    Just some of the easiest to make points: the first half of TLD — consisting of just the setup for the action — contains a virtuoso 40 minute splicing job of a construction, where basic plot events are expanded and reinterpreted by interlacing them with flashbacks. Nothing new about flashbacks — except that the entire 40 minutes consists of such small ‘past’ and ‘present’ bits, all of which then coalesce into a unified story arc that’s given a compelling, almost musical rhythm by the low-key but surprising comical transitions of the splicing. And the lines are not duds.

    For instance, one important plot event, which could easily have been told straight, emerges as a deliriously enjoyable sequence combining bad driving in the present with splices of Henry V snippets in the past and hilarious repartee near an unsteady teacup. (And it has the most entertaining use of Mozart’s Figaro overture and K. 467 I’ve seen anywhere.) Thank you also for the perfect, if brief, comical reappearances of Wiggins!

    So I don’t think the best moments here are at all the “simplest” ones, as the review claims — nothing about the panache of this execution is simple. Generally, this is script perfection on a level that actually happens rarely in ‘Sherlock’, where most episodes have at least some bald spots. Here there’s very little emptiness. (The splicing in the second half of the episode is a little more straightforward, for carrying the action forward.)

    The Eurus epilogue is sufficiently separate to allow the rest of the (unreinterpreted) episode to be appreciated on its own. Of course, the episode reinterpreted in light of the epilogue is more of a mess, with open questions that never get answered anywhere, but I think the idea of there being one unique thing that’s ‘really happening’ in ‘Sherlock’ is no longer all that fruitful. Better ask which interpretation of what’s going on is artistically satisfying.

    I also don’t get the Watson complaints about this episode. Watson’s anger is temporary, at least half-understandable and it’s plausibly woven into the episode. (Points off though for the repetition of the “it is what it is” banality.)

    In TLD ‘Sherlock’ pulls off a great half-valedictory episode after a simplistic, unsubtle action movie that’s derivative down to its ‘ammo/amo’ idea. (T6T is quite watchable, sure, but its poor narrative structure and comparatively bad dialogue don’t make it terribly rewatchable…) And then there’s the dispiriting farewell episode. So give Moffat his due here, especially when the other episodes of this season, whether Moffatless or Moffated, are not nearly as inventive.

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