Sunday, June 21, 2015

“A Man of an Honourable Stock” (SHOS): Sir Christopher Lee

For those of you who have been following this blog for a long time (And have I thanked you for sticking with me? Thank you for sticking with me.), you know that I am not usually given to memorial tributes. This is primarily because I have always found it beyond my meager skills to encapsulate the whole of one person’s life – all its wonders and accomplishments – with just a few words. I have always worried that whatever I wrote would come across as, at best, inadequate, and, at worst, completely disingenuous.

However, on the morning of June 11 when I learned of Sir Christopher Lee’s death (Lee actually passed away earlier on June 7, with the knowledge only becoming public on June 11), I immediately went to share the news with my fellow “geek” colleague – a co-worker with whom I share some mutual interests and with whom I had commiserated over Leonard Nimoy’s death earlier this year. After a few moments of some subdued sadness, my co-worker admitted that, beyond the Lord of the Rings series, she knew little of Lee’s career. “Is that terrible?” she asked.

I didn’t answer at first. Of course, it wasn’t terrible. There’s nothing terrible about not having an investment in a particular actor’s filmography. However, I wanted to tell her about my Christopher Lee.

Christopher Lee with his friends Vincent Price and Peter Cushing

“A Man of Some Substance” (LION)

My Christopher Lee was Dracula. And in his embodiment of the iconic vampire, he was perhaps only second to one other actor. He was as synonymous with the role as Basil Rathbone with Sherlock Holmes, or Nigel Bruce with Dr. Watson. Although his Dracula films would sometimes take ridiculous turns (Dracula A.D. 1972, anyone?), the role would still cast a villainous pall over his career and indeed, my Christopher Lee was also the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and Fu Manchu.

“A Man of Remarkable Appearance” (BLAC)

My Christopher Lee was even Count Dooku (or Darth Tyranus, if you are so inclined), unfortunately, in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith. Typically an anathema to true Star Wars fans, the films are worth remembering, if only as a testament to Lee’s villainous character acting.

“A Man of Iron Nerve” (EMPT)

My Christopher Lee was also Francisco Scaramanga in the 1974 film, The Man with the Golden Gun, opposite Roger Moore’s sometimes ludicrous turn as James Bond. Lee was a relative of Bond creator Ian Fleming, and rather perfectly cast as the erudite assassin. Despite the fact that Fleming had originally wanted Lee for Dr. No, he was nonetheless able to channel all his leanness, elegance and his unique razor-sharp keenness to embody Scaramanga.

“A Grave and Taciturn Gentleman of Iron-gray Aspect” (BLAN)

My Christopher Lee was DEATH, voicing the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s (who also passed away earlier this year) characterization in several dramatizations, including The Color of Magic (2008). Tapping into the famous depth and timbre of his voice, his performance was equal turns unlimited cosmic power and affable approachability, just as Pratchett wrote him.

“A Man of Dreams” (GOLD)

And of course my Christopher Lee was Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, a masterpiece of film. How could he not be? In addition to providing a vehicle for Lee’s unsurpassed ability to portray malevolence and subtle deviousness, it also gave rise to what might be one of my favorite Christopher Lee anecdotes. Peter Jackson was preparing to shoot a scene in which Saruman is stabbed in the back. Jackson provided Lee with a long, detailed explanation of how he wanted the scene to go. To which Lee replied, “Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody’s stabbed in the back? Because I do.”

“A Man of Energy and Character” (MISS)

But perhaps, more than anything, my Christopher Lee was Sir Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer Film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring opposite Lee's dear friend Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. As the terrorized Sir Henry, Lee had to call upon no acting skills at all to show real fear:

Now there is one thing I’m really scared of…spiders. In particular these ghastly bird-eating spiders from South America, with big, huge hairy legs as thick as my fingers. I hate these things, and there was a sequence in the film in which one of spiders comes out of a boot. I refused to let them place it on my neck, but I did have it on one of my shoulders and I was in such a state that I virtually went green, and sweat poured off my face. Everybody said what a brilliant performance I gave. All I can say was that it wasn’t acting at all. I was nearly sick with nausea and fear.

And my Christopher Lee was Mycroft Holmes in the 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, starring opposite Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes and Colin Blakely as Dr. John Watson. Lee was perhaps one of the more sinister and uncanonically lean Mycrofts on record. Until Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft in the BBC’s Sherlock, that is. Gatiss has admitted to using Lee’s interpretation of the elder Holmes brother as the template for his own, calling him “cold” and “disdainful.”

And my Christopher Lee was Sherlock Holmes. First in the 1962 German film, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, in which Lee’s performance was inexplicably dubbed over. And then later in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991) and Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls (1992), in which Lee plays a somewhat older, retired Great Detective. Of his performance as Sherlock Holmes, Lee said:

My portrayal of Holmes is, I think, one of the best things I’ve ever done because I tried to play him really as he was written – as a very intolerant, argumentative, difficult man – and I looked extraordinarily like him with the make-up on…Everyone who’s seen it said I was as like Holmes as any actor they’ve ever seen – both in appearance and interpretation.

“A Man of Deep Character, a Man with an Alert Mind, Grim, Ascetic, Self-Contained, Formidable” (MISS)

I wanted to say all these things. I wanted to share my experience of Christopher Lee and who my Christopher Lee was. But he also wasn’t my Christopher Lee, no matter how many times I say it. He wasn’t mine, because he belonged to everyone. He was everyone’s Christopher Lee. And he was also no one’s. For how can a person such as Christopher Lee belong to anyone but himself?

But I didn’t tell say any of those things, of course. Who could? Instead, I simply said, “I know Christopher Lee from a lot of things.”

Thursday, January 8, 2015

“My power to surprise you” (EMPT): On Hiatuses

“I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.” (EMPT)

It is sometimes more difficult to return, than to leave.

On May 4, 1891, Sherlock Holmes allowed the world to believe him dead. He abandoned everything and everyone, only permitting his brother to know the truth. Holmes didn’t leave a single clue that he still lived, not even the flimsiest scrap of hope for those who cared most about him – unless one made a habit of looking for subtext in newspaper articles about Norwegian explorers. (Don’t we all?) The Great Detective was silent for nearly three years.

It was a time during which the criminal population of London grew more confident: “It is best that I should not leave the country. Scotland Yard feels lonely without me, and it causes an unhealthy excitement among the criminal classes.” (LADY)

In which Inspector Lestrade managed somewhat passable achievements in police work: “Three undetected murders in one year won’t do, Lestrade. But you handled the Molesey Mystery with less than your usual – that’s to say, you handled it fairly well.” (EMPT)

In which Mrs. Hudson kept a strangely untouched room at 221 Baker Street: “…Mycroft had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been. So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.” (EMPT)

And in which Dr. Watson returned to his medical practice, his personal bereavements, and a quiet, uneventful life: “As we drove away I stole a glance back, and I still seem to see that little group on the step – the two graceful, clinging figures, the half-opened door, the hall-light shining through stained glass, the barometer, and the bright stair-rods. It was soothing to catch even that passing glimpse of a tranquil English home in the midst of the wild, dark business which had absorbed us.” (SIGN)

It can be argued that Sherlock Holmes left under duress, certainly. He left in pursuit of what remained of Professor Moriarty’s criminal empire, dodging boulders heaved at his person by Colonel Sebastian Moran, and the safety of the public at the forefront of his mind. Neither was it three years of rest and relaxation. He may have found ways to occasionally amuse himself, but Sherlock Holmes was rarely at ease during this time, telling Watson:

The course of events in London did not run so well as I had hoped, for the trial of the Moriarty gang left two of its most dangerous members, my own most vindictive enemies, at liberty. I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum the results of which I have communicated to the Foreign Office. Returning to France, I spent some months in a research into the coal-tar derivatives, which I conducted in a laboratory at Montpellier, in the south of France. Having concluded this to my satisfaction and learning that only one of my enemies was now left in London, I was about to return when my movements were hastened by the news of this very remarkable Park Lane Mystery, which not only appealed to me by its own merits, but which seemed to offer some most peculiar personal opportunities. (EMPT)

So, while it may not have been a consensual parting, the Great Detective left, nonetheless. And without a doubt there is a certain, sharped-edged cruelty to his departure, both for the people he left behind and for Sherlock Holmes himself. Leaving is difficult enough when you want to be found and contacted during your time away, but to disappear completely, without a trace? Well, that’s an extraordinary undertaking.

What’s even more extraordinary, however, is that Sherlock Holmes came back.

You may wonder, what’s so difficult about returning? Wouldn't that be the easiest part? Sherlock Holmes could just slip back into his old life, his old ways, his old work. Even his flat was kept just as he left it. And his friends and associates, once they got over the initial shock and sting of his deception, wouldn't they be grateful to have the Detective back? Wouldn't returning to his old life in London feel positively relaxing compared to the trials of the past three years?

But three years is a very long time, and things change. Mycroft Holmes may have done his best to keep his brother informed, but there was truly no way for the Detective to be certain of what awaited him in London. Perhaps Mrs. Hudson had grown tired of the perpetual silence in her home and the morbid memorial to a man she believed long dead – no matter what princely payments she was receiving for its upkeep? Perhaps Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson had learned to cooperate, and their combined forces meant the dawn of a new age of criminal investigation in London? Perhaps the criminal masses of London had grown tired of a city without Sherlock Holmes and had moved on to greener, more interesting pastures? Worst of all, perhaps Dr. Watson had grown accustomed to his new quiet life – with regular sleep, predictable meals, and no errant bullet holes piercing the walls of his sitting room?

None of these things, of course, proved to be true, but there was always the risk that his life was not as he left it. That there would be no well-worn rut to slip unobtrusively into. That returning to his life would be just as much of a fight as leaving it had been. Returning was just a risky as leaving, and Sherlock Holmes knew it, as he knew most things. But he also knew it was worth it. He knew – or perhaps only hoped – that there was still a place for him in London, and that the world still needed its only consulting detective.

My own hiatus has a name. Her name is Morrigan Maeve, and when she was born this past April, she weighed 7lbs, 5.5oz and was 20 inches long. She is an absolute joy and is completely worth everything. Unequivocally, everything. Like the Great Detective in Tibet, however, I have observed my Sherlockian life from a distance and hoped that there would still be a place for me when I returned. So now I’m back and “I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety,” and that you all still have faith in “my power to surprise you.”

Now, there is work to do. Let’s get to it.


“Stand with me here upon the terrace…” (LAST)

For Trevor: You played the game for the game’s own sake. May it be 1895 wherever you are, my friend. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

An Open Letter to Mrs. Godfrey Norton (Née Adler)

Dear Mrs. Norton,

I'm the first person to admit that I don't always understand the appeal of some things. I've never been particularly fashionable or cutting-edge, and so I often find myself on the outskirts of what is popular. Parkour, for example, is something I don't particularly understand. Wearing tights as pants is another. Pretty much anything involving John Mayer. And you, Mrs. Norton. I just have never been able to bend my brain around your incomprehensible, interminable appeal. Perhaps I'm uncharitable – there are certainly enough people who have called me such for this opinion – but I tremendously dislike you. In fact, despite the numerous warnings I have received over the course of my life about the strength of this word, I would go so far as to say that I hate you.


I hate you whether you exist in black and white, in the printed word, or as a disembodied voice on the radio. And I certainly hate you when you are live and in full color on my television or cinema screen. I hate you whether you are played by Charlotte Rampling or Rachel McAdams. I even hate you when you are played by Gayle Hunnicutt opposite the incomparable Jeremy Brett (which is really saying something, because even though I consider all of Mr. Brett's performances sacrosanct, your episode remains the least viewed one from my copy of the Granada Television collection). I hate you whether you are an opera singer, an adventuress, a single mother to a young boy who loves music and puzzles, or even just an unapologetic thief. And I especially hate you in one of your most recent incarnations as a dominatrix (your hairstyle, to be frank, was utterly confounding). I hate you whether you are a redhead, a brunette, or a blonde. In fact, one of the things that I liked best about the recent television series, Elementary, is that I was promised that you were dead. Even better, I was promised you had been brutally murdered off-screen, before the series even began. The mere idea of it was delicious. I was thrilled. I was ecstatic. I promise you that I was beside myself with joy. And while it appears that the rumors of your death have been greatly (and cruelly) exaggerated, I assure you that CBS Television still owes me a rotting corpse. Yours, preferably, but I’m not picky. I will wait. 

Natalie Dormer as Irene Adler in CBS Television's Elementary.
They promised me that you were dead.

But mostly I hate you because you simply will not go away. Must you stick your perfectly powdered nose into every plot that calls for a XX chromosome? The mere mention of your name is often enough to make me put down whatever pastiche I may be reading – no matter how much I paid for it or how difficult it was to obtain – and use the pages of the book as a liner for my cat’s litter-pan. And my goodness, you do turn up so very often, don't you? A popular website, which catalogues historical and fictional characters appearing in Sherlockian pastiches, lists dozens, if not hundreds, of references to your person in non-canonical fiction. It’s really too many. Having only appeared in one original story, you are just as prolific – but not nearly as interesting as – the late, lamented Professor Moriarty. Does the plot call for a uniquely feminine touch? There you are. Has a member of royalty found himself in some sort of moral morass? Up pops your name. Has Sherlock Holmes, heaven forbid, found himself in some sort of romantic imbroglio? You’re involved, Mrs. Norton. And, even more offensive, does the Great Detective need to be brought down a peg? Of course you show up. 

And your hat is stupid.

But to be honest, you get more credit than you really deserve, don’t you think? While Sherlock Holmes once claimed, “I have been beaten four times – three times by men, and once by a woman,” (FIVE) I think he was being a little generous. Let’s assume, first of all, that Holmes is referring to you in that passage, even though he doesn’t mention you by name, does he? A well-timed escape is not the same as beating someone. That would be like saying that the Worthingdon bank gang (RESI) beat Sherlock Holmes because they managed to drown before their capture. Or the murderers of John Openshaw (FIVE) beat Sherlock Holmes for the same reason, ironically. It would be like saying that Sherlock Holmes was bested in “The Lion’s Mane,” because the murderer turned out to be a jellyfish and not a human being as originally assumed. Could you imagine the Great Detective saying, “I have been beaten five times – three times by men, and once by a woman… and once by an invertebrate creature”? 

Yup, I don't know what to say either, madam.

Sherlock Holmes caught you out, madam. He devised a trap, and you fell into it precisely as he imagined: 
"The smoke and shouting were enough to shake nerves of steel. She responded beautifully. The photograph is in a recess behind a sliding panel just above the right bell-pull. She was there in an instant, and I caught a glimpse of it as she half-drew it out. When I cried out that it was a false alarm, she replaced it, glanced at the rocket, rushed from the room, and I have not seen her since." (SCAN)
You did exactly what he thought you were going to do. Far from being clever, you were predictable, madam. When Sherlock Holmes tells the iniquitous King of Bohemia, “From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” I feel it was intended more as a slight at the king, than any compliment of you. And while I’m at it, donning a disguise for an evening stroll and a verbal jab doesn’t confirm any supposed cleverness either. If anything, it makes you appear childish, unable to admit you had been run to ground. “Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes,” indeed. It was almost like a rude gesture, don’t you think? And I should mention that even then you didn’t even have the man completely baffled. “I’ve heard that voice before,” Holmes said.  

Don't look so smug. You haven't earned it.

I have also heard your voice before, Mrs. Norton, and it seems I am condemned to hear it over and over again. I find myself lamenting, as Dr. Watson did in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” that Sherlock Holmes expressed no interest in Miss Violet Hunter and her luxuriant, chestnut hair once she ceased to be the focus of a case. Not because I feel that the Great Detective is in any particular need of a female companion, but because it means I would be rid of you. I find myself constantly on the alert for your presence, looking for mentions of your name, just as one would scan a dark alleyway for danger. I fear you will always be there, on the outskirts, claiming a cleverness that isn’t deserved and isn’t yours, but believe me, madam, you don’t have me fooled. I’m on to you.

Yours very truly (and honestly),
Jaime Mahoney


The above tongue-in-cheek piece first appeared  ironically  the 11th (2013) edition of Irene's Cabinet, a Sherlockian publication by Watson's Tin Box.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less. I recently finished up "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," in which Sherlock Holmes advises: "Your life is not your own...Keep your hands off it...The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world."

The current story is "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," in which Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson: "It makes a considerable difference to me, having someone with me on whom I can thoroughly rely."

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, although I am usually inspired to post more than once a day. And don't forget you can read through the original canon online.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less. I recently finished up "Charles Augustus Milverton," in which the reader is introduced to "the worst man in London" and learns that "...there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge."

The current story is "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," in which Sherlock Holmes advises: "Your life is not your own...Keep your hands off it...The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world."

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, although I am usually inspired to post more than once a day. And don't forget you can read through the original canon online.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

GUEST BLOG: Takeaways from “Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space”

By Chris Redmond
I brought a lot of things home with me from the recent “Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space” conference in Minneapolis — some of them tangible, such as the anthology (“festschrift”) published in honour of Randy Cox and launched during the big weekend, but most of them intangible. You know the sorts of things I mean: friendships created or renewed, memories (mostly involving moments with those friends), ideas (picked up in conversation or from the speakers), web links, must-read lists, phone numbers.
From left to right: Lindsay Colwell, Chris Redmond, Monica Schmidt
In my case, the Sherlockian gains included a clearer appreciation for the BBC’s “Sherlock” series than I have previously had, thanks to the presentation by Roger Johnson and Jean Upton of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London about their visit to the set of “The Reichenbach Fall”. Interestingly, and in contrast with much of the fangirl fandango of the past two years, they emphasized series creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, not Benedict Cumberbatch or any of his co-stars. Through the courtesy of Johnson and Upton, I am now displaying on the home page of Sherlockian.Net a photo of the two of them in close proximity to Martin Freeman’s coat at the doorway of 221B; the picture was taken by Gatiss himself.
Among the “Sherlock” clips shown during that presentation was the already classic scene in which the detective analyzes his new companion’s cellphone, much the way the original Holmes analyzes Watson’s brother’s watch in The Sign of the Four. The scene was received so vocally by the Minneapolis audience that I almost thought some of them had never seen it before. More likely, they had never seen it so clearly, on such a big screen.
Most of the 150-plus Sherlockians present seemed fully up to speed on television adaptations (British, American and now Russian) as well as cinematic history and even marginally relevant TV. I had not fully realized until last weekend how very Sherlockian “Doctor Who” is. Maybe I was hanging out with too fast a crowd, but I saw Whovian T-shirts, and heard Whovian banter, and sometimes felt lost because, to tell the truth, the Doctor is not part of my cultural armament. Neither are most of the movies people were referring to. (I would like to add artistic verisimilitude at this point by mentioning two or three titles, but the truth is, I know so little about cinema past and present that the titles didn’t even stick in my mind.)
I came away from Minneapolis wondering whether this media awareness is now the mainstream of the Sherlockian world, and if so, what’s to become of the likes of me. To my generation the Jeremy Brett TV episodes of the 1980s are still new-fangled, really, and the true Sherlock Holmes resides in books and archives. But most people seem to have adapted to the 21st century better than I have. I felt lucky, sometimes, that they were putting up with my clueless expressions.
In the talk that I had been invited to give, “Why the Carbuncle Was Blue”, I made sure to include a few nods to the video culture and the “feels” that it induces in true believers. Why, I went so far as to say that Arthur Conan Doyle might have approved of the creation of Molly Hooper. However, I suspect that doesn’t explain the generous way my talk was received. What seems to have struck my listeners was the range of Canonical and extra-Canonical detail, and particularly the research findings about colour naming that I included, half remembered from my academic days a couple of decades ago. I also tossed in some bits of literary theory, Gilbert and Sullivan, art history and the book of Revelation. Fields like these may be, though I had not realized it until recently, as exotic to the new breed of Sherlockian as Louise Brealey and Peter Capaldi are to me.
Perhaps best of all, I was able to include a little Sherlockian history in my talk, crediting the earliest research about the blue carbuncle to Doyle W. Beckemeyer, who published his work in 1953 through the Illustrious Clients of Indianapolis. I would like to think that the audience appreciated that, feeling linked by it to enthusiasts of sixty years ago who probably had just as much fun with Sherlock Holmes in their way as we do now in our way. Or ways. What Beckemeyer’s taste in movies was, we do not know, but it may well have involved some fellow called Rathbone.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less. I recently finished up "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane," in which a retired Sherlock Holmes informs us, "I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles."

The current story is "Charles Augustus Milverton," in which the reader is introduced to "the worst man in London" and learns that "...there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge."

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, although I am usually inspired to post more than once a day. And don't forget you can read through the original canon online.