When I attended the Mysticon SF con back in 2018, one of the panels I sat on was on Sherlock Holmes, particularly the TV series Sherlock and Elementary. At some point we got to discussing the multiple modern-set versions of Holmes and someone raised a question: given the scope of police forensic science and surveillance videos, what can Sherlock Holmes bring to the table? Does Holmes have any role in the modern world?
This is not a new topic. In the distant past of 1963, Ellery Queen brought up the same issue in The Player on the Other Side. Early in the novel, Ellery tells his father that modern policing has reached the point there’s simply no place for a talented amateur. Over the course of the novel, of course, Ellery realizes he’s wrong. The killer is a lunatic whose non-linear thinking makes it impossible for the cops to pin down where he’ll be next. It takes Ellery Queen’s creative, thinking-outside-the-box approach to crack the case.
Similarly, in the unsuccessful TV pilot 1994 Baker Street (1993), Holmes (Anthony Higgins) thaws out of cryonics in the present, tries resuming his career but goes into shock when he visits the police department. When the cops have an entire department devoted to the forensic science he’d have done in his flat alone, how can he compete? Needless to say, when the cops can’t solve a wave of bizarre murders, Holmes proves he’s still got the magic.
One of the panelists at Mysticon summed it up this way: if modern police work can solve the crime, Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be on the case. You bring him in when police can’t crack the case, when a computer search can’t turn up the connections between the crimes or the evidence is something ordinary people wouldn’t spot or realize is significant.
I think that’s good advice, though not complete. You can also use Holmes in stories where the police simply aren’t interested. It’s unlikely the police would have investigated the The Adventure of the Yellow Face, which appears to be little more than a family scandal. Or consider The Hound of the Baskervilles: if Dr. Mortimer had told the police he was afraid of a demonic hound killing someone, would they have listened?
I think the same applies to Batman to some extent. Not completely because his motives are different from Holmes: he’ll take time to deal with petty crimes Holmes would dismiss as boring. But the center of a Batman story should be a case the cops can’t crack: the criminal’s too cunning or too well connected or it doesn’t appear there’s anything criminal going on (e.g., 1965’s “Puzzle of the Perilous Prizes”).
Unfortunately, coming up with that kind of mystery takes work. Screenwriters apparently find it easier to rely on Bruce having the money to buy super-tech: a Batmobile built like a tank or enough computing power to hack into every camera in Gotham. Even in the comics, “a case the cops can’t crack” is measured less by a clever scheme and more by body count (“The Joker’s gas will kill 50 bazillion people at midnight!”) or Gotham itself facing absolute, total, apocalyptic destruction (in the 21st century that’s another way of saying “It’s Tuesday.”).
With amateur detectives it’s different. Characters like Sarah Winston in my friend Sherry Harris’s Yard Sale series aren’t genius detectives so you don’t need a diabolical puzzle. You do need a reason the police can’t find the answers and a good reason for why an amateur is sticking their nose into police business. But it still has to be a case the hero can crack and the police can’t.
Perhaps it’s a useful insight for stories other than mysteries too. If an ordinary warrior can save the day, you don’t need Conan. If the Special Crimes Unit can take down the supervillain, you don’t need Superman (Superman does stop a lot of ordinary crimes and help out in minor matters, but it isn’t usually the focus of the story). They say a hero should have a worthy adversary; their challenges should be worthy of them too.