After the updated, fast-paced, wittily-scripted explosion onto the screen that was A Study In Pink, The Blind Banker feels like an oddity. It’s probably only fair to admit before we go any further that everything of writer Stephen Thompson’s feels like an oddity to me, as though given a brief to create the best invigorating modern television he can, he’s terrified to go anywhere beyond the most meagre of ‘that’ll do’ scripts – but as I say, let me declare this potential bias before we go on, and point out that when I first watched The Blind Banker, I neither knew nor cared it was by Stephen Thompson, and it still felt like an oddity. In fact, it felt odder then than it does now on a rewatch and armed with knowledge of Thompson’s further work.
I think, on reflection, it feels like an oddity because it’s actually truer to the original Sherlock Holmes stories, which, brilliant and exciting as they were, did rather establish the idea that every little thing had to be explained in some detail.
The Blind Banker is a convoluted tail that refuses to cut a single corner – break-ins at a big bank where nothing was taken but some graffiti was written, more graffiti at a library, absurdly hidden behind a book, and a couple of apparently impossible suicides that turn out on investigation to have been a couple of equally impossible murders. Sherlock is called in by an old university acquaintance to solve the mystery of the graffiti in the bank, which, given the regularity of CCTV observation, the height of the building and the security systems that all in all, banks are rather keen on employing, seems utterly impossible.
It’s only when he’s offered a large and juicy payment for his work that Watson – having had an argument with an automated supermarket checkout – cottons on to the fact that Sherlock’s remarkable brain could be a lucrative way of making a living, and a pathway to their future collaboration and living together is mapped out – John will go back to work as a locum, Sherlock will do his big brain thing, and the money will start to flow again. For Sherlock’s part, there’s an almost autistic disregard for things outside his focus. ‘I don’t need payment,’ he snaps, quickly followed by Watson’s assurance that ‘He’s joking, obviously…’
Working out the point, if not the meaning, of the graffiti through a delightfully comic sequence where Benedict Cumberbatch pops up and down like a crack-addled meerkat to discover which desk the graffiti is visible from, leads them to the home of a banker, Eddie Van Coon. He’s dead, despite there being no obvious way in and again being up high enough to make intrusion through a window massively unlikely.
But not impossible. And one thing we all know about Sherlock Holmes is that he eliminates the impossible, so that whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth – thought of one way, the Holmes method of deduction is merely an equation, and his skill is in finding the variables to feed into that equation to give a truthful answer.
That’s where The Blind Banker feels most honestly like a Victorian Sherlock Holmes story, and where it appeared at the time to exhaust many readers. Connecting the data of a banker, a journalist named Lukis – he who apparently received the graffiti message in the library, and was subsequently also found dead in a locked room many floors up – Soo Lin the curator of ancient Chinese teapots at the National Antiquities Museum ([played by Gemma Chan), a shop that sells lucky cats, and a Chinese circus that’s briefly in town takes what feels like much, much longer than A Study In Pink did to find a talkative serial killer, because the strands seem so entirely disparate, and more particularly because Thompson strives, as no doubt Conan Doyle would have striven (especially given the episodic publication of Holmes stories in the Strand magazine) for a complete victory.
The idea that beneath the day-to-day there’s a battlefield is perfectly shown in Thompson’s story, and the strength of his interpretation of Sherlock’s ability to see the salient details in a mass of information is convincing. Where The Blind Banker goes astray is after the actual crime has been solved – once the connection between all the elements has been revealed as the Black Lotus Tong smuggling ancient artefacts into the UK for sale at fabulous prices, and Van Coon and Lukis revealed as couriers, we get the sense of the mystery drawing to a close. When it turns out they’ve both been killed because the Tong don’t know which of them absconded with a highly valuable hairpin, it makes a degree of sense. And even when Sherlock is able to deduce which of the two was the actually inadvertent thief, and recover the hairpin itself, the whole thing makes sense and has a pleasing sense of justice when Van Coon’s secretary, to whom the hairpin was given as a mere trinket, Van Coon not knowing its value. Case closed, we think, mystery solved. Yes, the Tong will change their smuggling cipher and carry on with business as usual, but the mystery of the Blind Banker – a reference to the positioning of the first graffiti in the bank – is solved. Congratulations.
That’s not enough either for Thompson or for Sherlock – both of them have to go after the Tong themselves while they’re in London, in the guise of the Chinese circus. And it’s here that the wheels rather fall off our interest in the thing, with an additional sequence of staged, arch-villain peril leading to a degree of impatience and the question of how long the episode is going to go on. This extended conclusion is what makes The Blind Banker actually the hardest watch of the first series of Sherlock, and could have done with a slightly more judicious edit to maintain the sense of digestible bites that A Study In Pink established. The difference between the two is palpable, despite them being the same length. Where A Study In Pink has much to do to establish the world of Sherlock Holmes, all that work is already done ahead of The Blind Banker, and so the story feels like it should end twenty minutes early. To mitigate that sensation, we get the tacked-on convoluted peril and a complete victory over the Tong for Sherlock, while establishing, by virtue of introducing Sarah (a woman John is interested in, and who seems to reciprocate the feeling) to their world of madness and peril, that as far as Sherlock is concerned she will always be less important to Watson than he and the work are. Again, it’s very true to the original stories, it just feels like an unwarranted epilogue to a story that ended twenty minutes too early. Say what you like though, the very ending of the episode is delicious – with Shan, the Tong Leader, having been ‘sponsored’ by Moriarty, and executed for her failure to deliver the hairpin money. It’s barely a scene, but it builds magnificently on the shadowy reputation of this arch-villain.
The Blind Banker was received with significantly more muted appreciation at the time of broadcast than A Study In Pink. Watched again with hindsight, it’s a better episode than you may remember – it just needed a trimming of its prologue to let it stand proud in the series.
A Study In Pink
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk