Half-way through Sherlock Holmes comes the question: why is everybody picking on Freemasons these days? First there’s National Treasure—in which merely the presence of Nicholas Cage before a camera lens is worth an apology to the mysterious Order. Then there’s Dan Brown and that gruesome Angels and Demons business. And now even Guy Ritchie, who surely has better fish to fry, has worked the poor Freemasons into his new vision of Conan Doyle’s detective. To paraphrase the Pet Shop Boys, what have they done to deserve this?
I confess ignorance regarding what crimes the Freemasons may have committed against either Ron Howard or John Turtletaub. But for why they turn up in Sherlock Holmes, I may have an answer.
You don’t have to have read “A Study in Scarlet” or “The Sign of Four” to know that Holmes can identify a man’s profession, his physical condition, and what he had for dinner simply by looking at his hands or the hem of his trousers. (Reading Conan Doyle provides a clear and unapologetic window on Victorian culture. Prejudices and stereotypes are vividly drawn in Conan Doyle’s character descriptions.) That’s one of the many fascinations of a Conan Doyle story. The world may be full of mysteries—one per story—but it is eminently solvable. The answers are all there in code, and Holmes has the key.
But for better or for worse, our world offers no such certainties. A man with a thick neck could be a brick-layer or a professor who works out a lot. So if you’re recasting Victorian Holmes for the twenty-first century, you need to find something the audience can recognize as both familiar and mysterious. Voila the Freemasons! They come with pentagrams and triangles and eyeballs and crosses, and we can watch as Holmes draws patterns on a dusty floor and points out how the pieces all fit. Freemasons! An ancient order here to solve your modern-day movie woes!
And if following along with the Masonic symbols doesn’t work, you can always trace the semiotics of Robert Downey Jr.’s hair. Tousled, smooth, beneath a fedora. What does it all mean?