Friday, March 25, 2016

“You evidently don’t know me” (FINA): The Many On-Screen Incarnations of Moriarty

I started thinking about this topic when everyone was a little preoccupied discussing other things. I found that I didn’t want to talk about those things, but I wanted to talk about Moriarty. Again. I’ve written about the character before, but now seems like a good time to revisit the conversation. Let’s talk about Professor Moriarty and Mr. Moriarty, James Moriarty and Jim Moriarty and No-First-Name-Given Moriarty, Moriarty in the 19th century and in the 21st, a Moriarty colluding with Nazis and one who wears a crown. Let’s talk about the author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid and a treatise on the binomial theorem. Let’s talk about the spider and his web, the virus in the hard drive. Let’s talk about the many faces of the Napoleon of Crime.

And there have been so many faces, and so many words written about a character that appears in comparatively little source material. Moriarty is only directly mentioned in two of the original stories: “The Final Problem,” and “The Valley of Fear,” and is mentioned reminiscently in five others: "The Empty House,”  “The Norwood Builder," "The Missing Three-Quarter," "The Illustrious Client," and "His Last Bow." When thinking in terms of words allotted in the Canon, Moriarty is a minor character – but a minor character in the way of Inspector Lestrade, Irene Adler (ick) or Mycroft Holmes. He looms large and casts a long shadow. That is to say, he is not minor at all.

The breadth and variety of on-screen Moriartys speak to the complexities of the character. No truly minor character would invite such panoply of interpretation. While many adaptations have characteristics that overlap – threads that are common throughout the web – each has a unique distinction that sets it apart.

Granada Television’s Sherlock Holmes: Professor Moriarty (Eric Porter)
Eric Porter was a Moriarty straight of the Canon if there ever was one. Such was the case with so many things in the Granada series, of course. In appearance, he was very nearly the epitome of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s description:

He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion. He peered at me with great curiosity in his puckered eyes.

Where Porter deviates from the original, of course, is in terms of screen time. According to Granada’s producer, Michael Cox: “…[Moriarty’s] one good scene and fight to the death gives him only four minutes and funeral.” To expand Porter’s role beyond that “four minutes and funeral,” Moriarty was included in the plot of Granada’s version of “The Red-headed League,” even though the Professor plays no role in the original story. At the end of the episode, it’s revealed that Professor Moriarty was the mastermind behind John Clay’s attempted bank robbery, and the Professor is obviously less than pleased to discover that he has been foiled by Sherlock Holmes. In addition, Granada’s version of “The Final Problem” included a subplot in which Moriarty has stolen the Mona Lisa, and is endeavoring to execute a complicated conspiracy of art forgery and extortion – only to be thwarted by Sherlock Holmes. Again. Footage featuring Porter from “The Final Problem” is also used in “The Empty House” (1986) and “The Devil’s Foot” (1988), which creates the reminiscent sense of the Professor that is present in the Canon.

The Rathbone-Bruce Films: Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill, Henry Daniell, George Zucco)
Over the course of their fourteen Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce would work with three different Moriartys – and the actors would all appear in other roles in the franchise. The first was George Zucco in the 1939 film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. According to Alan Barnes, author of Sherlock Holmes on Screen, “The most measured of crazies, [George] Zucco’s Moriarty makes a significant impression, enjoying another standout scene in which he dares the bullied Dawes to let slip a razor while shaving him: ‘You’re a coward, Dawes. If you weren’t a coward you’d have cut my throat long ago…’” (21). Zucco would return to the franchise in the 1943 film, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, not as Moriarty, but as the less memorable villain, Heinrich Hinkel, a Nazi spy. He left his indelible mark on the character, however, in that many future Moriartys either returned to or borrowed from Zucco’s performance in some way.

Lionel Atwill first appeared in the Rathbone-Bruce films as Dr. James Mortimer in the 1939 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. He would go on to play Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942). According to Atwill in a 1933 interview with Motion Picture magazine, "See, one side of my face is gentle and kind, incapable of anything but love of my fellow man. The other side, the other profile, is cruel and predatory and evil, incapable of anything but the lusts and dark passions. It all depends on which side of my face is turned toward you—or the camera. It all depends on which side faces the moon at the ebb of the tide.” With such personal awareness, perhaps Atwill was the most equipped to capture the dual nature of Moriarty – the academic and the criminal, the genius and the madman.

Finally, Henry Daniell (who had previously appeared in the franchise in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) as Sir Alfred Lloyd, and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) as William Easter), starred as Professor Moriarty in The Woman in Green (1945). Daniell’s take on the infamous Napoleon of Crime was Basil Rathbone’s favorite of the fourteen films. “There were other Moriartys,” Rathbone wrote in his autobiography In and Out of Character, “but none so delectably dangerous.” It is, of course, Daniell’s iconic scene in The Woman in Green, where Moriarty ominously ascends the staircase to meet Sherlock Holmes, which was borrowed for the 2012 episode of BBC’s Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Fall.”

Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows: Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris)
The Moriarty of the Guy Ritchie films began – appropriately enough – in shadow, never actually appearing on screen in the first film, Sherlock Holmes (2009). The Professor kept to dark corners, with only a glove or hat brim visible. Voiced by Ed Tolputt, the shadowy figure wasn’t even explicitly identified as Moriarty until the end of the movie.

However for the 2011 film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Jared Harris was cast as Moriarty (ultimately going on to dub over Tolputt’s dialogue in the first film) and a new adaptation came into full form. Harris’s Moriarty is shades of George Zucco’s interpretation in terms of malevolence and single-minded ruthlessness. And he is, without question, Holmes’s equal in terms of intelligence. “Come now,” he says to Sherlock Holmes. “You really think you're the only one who can play this game?” Contrary to other interpretations, Harris’s Moriarty is set on a global domination that previous incarnations had not been – at least not to the scale seen in the film. World war – that’s his goal – and he’s not all that particular about how it comes to pass. As he says, “You see, hidden within the unconscious, there is an insatiable desire for conflict. So, you're not fighting me, so much as you are the human condition. All I want to do is own the bullets and the bandages.”

In his approach to the character of Professor Moriarty, Harris said: “I didn’t want to do the bad-guy monologue, and I didn’t want to say anything unless there was a really good reason for it...I think that [Moriarty] doesn’t have that morality chip that other people have. He just looks at things and says, ‘If I can do it and it can be done, then why not?’”

BBC’s Sherlock: Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott)
The BBC’s recent Sherlock Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride,” inspired a lot of conversation, but it also inspired this post. I’ve always had an affinity for Andrew Scott’s interpretation of Moriarty, as it is fascinating to watch the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences between an actor playing a James Moriarty and not a Jim Moriarty – which is what Andrew Scott is doing. Scott’s Moriarty is malevolent and villainous, which are features that should be considered fairly standard for the character. He’s also intelligent in the same way that a boiling pot is considered hot. He’s intelligent until something upsets the balance and tips him over into frenetic insanity. After all, he once famously proclaimed that he would turn a contact into shoes if they disappointed him. And therein is the difference between a James Moriarty and a Jim Moriarty, between a Professor Moriarty and a Mr. Moriarty.

Transplanting Andrew Scott’s Moriarty into the 19th century no more transforms him into Professor Moriarty than putting him a waistcoat. Nevertheless, there are still some similarities. After all, Scott’s Moriarty says to Holmes, “Shall we go over together? It has to be together, doesn't it? At the end it's always just you and me!” The bit of dialogue is somewhat reminiscent of George Zucco’s Moriarty, who once commented, “Always Holmes until the end.” It’s a sentiment that is perhaps the thesis statement for the pair’s entire relationship.

Elementary: Jamie Moriarty (Natalie Dormer)
Says Joan Watson, "There is no Irene. There is only Moriarty, and Moriarty is never going to change.” Jamie Moriarty began on CBS’s Elementary as Irene Adler, a former lover of Sherlock Holmes’s thought brutally murdered. She reappears – very much alive – in the first season episode, “Risk Management,” and Holmes believes that she has been Moriarty’s prisoner.

She was, of course, no such thing. Irene Adler was merely a cover for Jamie Moriarty – a criminal mastermind. Like other Moriartys before her, she is ruthless, coolly calculating, and possessed of a brilliant intellect. As she tells Sherlock Holmes, “My first instinct was to kill you. Quietly. Discreetly. But then, the more I learned about you, the more curious I became. Here, at last, seemed to be a mind that... that rivaled my own, something too complicated and too beautiful to destroy... at least without further analysis.”

However, as I’ve commented briefly elsewhere, what sets Dormer’s Moriarty apart is not her gender, but her triumphs. Jamie Moriarty succeeded where other Moriartys (and Adlers) had not – in actually, genuinely deceiving Sherlock Holmes. He is so thrown by her deception and the revelation of her true character that Watson is concerned that Holmes may relapse into his old drug habits.

Dormer had hinted at the dual nature of her character in a May 2013 interview: “The cool thing about Irene Adler is you don’t really know who she is or where she comes from… If you look into the novels or the incarnations of her — she’s a bit of a con woman, a bit of a wily one herself, so she has an accent, but you can’t quite place it, so I [thought], if I can do some kind of general American accent that is like, ‘What is that? Where is she from?’”

Moriarty has many faces – young and old, male and female, some a little more intelligent than others, some a little more unhinged than others. Nevertheless, if all roads lead to Baker Street, all incarnations still lead to Moriarty. For Sherlock Holmes, at the end it’s always Moriarty. Always Moriarty, until the end.

  • Barnes, Alan. Sherlock Holmes on Screen: The Complete Film and TV History. London: Titan Books, 2011. Print.
  • Cox, Michael. A Study in Celluloid: A Producer’s Account of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. Indianapolis: Gasogene Books, 2011. Print.
  • Gettell, Oliver. “‘Sherlock Holmes’: Jared Harris pulls Moriarty out of the shadows.” Los Angeles Times. Dec. 2011. n. pag. Web. 24 January 2013.
  • Lash, Jolie. “Natalie Dormer Talks Irene Adler ‘Elementary’ Guest Arc, Play Margaery in ‘Game of Thrones.” Access Hollywood, 16 May 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Toast to the Woman: If You Can Believe It

[As presented as the February 2016 meeting of Watson's Tin Box in Ellicott City, Maryland.]

I’m probably one of the least likely of people to toast to the Woman. My feelings about Ms. Adler are well known, and well-documented, and there is no love lost between us. Frankly, I think she gets far too much credit.

For starters, she didn’t beat Sherlock Holmes. He knew exactly where that photograph was; she just managed to run away before he could confront her. And if that is the metric by which we are now determining winners – well, I was a much better athlete in high school than I originally believed. If we're being honest, she merely committed the literary equivalent of taking her ball and going home.

As it was, I was both pleased and excited when Elementary premiered on CBS in 2012, primarily because I initially heard that Irene Adler would not be appearing on the show. I was ecstatic to learn that supposedly her character had been brutally, horribly murdered off-screen. I was gleeful. I might not be a nice person.

Anyway, imagine my disappointment at the end of the first season when it was revealed that Irene Adler was alive, and that she would be played by Natalie Dormer. But there was a twist. Elementary’s Irene eventually revealed herself as a female Napoleon of Crime, Jamie Moriarty. For obvious reasons, they had my attention. I guess it doesn’t take much.

Elementary’s Jamie Moriarty was coolly calculating. She inspired both respect and fear. She was both shrewd and fiercely intelligent. She did not suffer fools lightly. 

All right. I'm listening. You have my attention.   

But most importantly, she actually, genuinely deceived Sherlock Holmes. For a time. Which is fine, because no one can get past Sherlock Holmes forever. Nor should they.

Here, finally, was the Irene Adler I had been promised. The one everyone else had seen, but I never had.

Please raise a glass with me and toast to the Woman – may we all find the incarnation of Irene Adler we need, if not the one we deserve.


"There is no Irene. There is only Moriarty, and Moriarty is never going to change." (Joan Watson)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: Mr. Holmes (2015)

The Distinguished Speaker Lecture during the most recent Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) Weekend in New York City featured Jeffrey Hatcher, the screenwriter for the 2015 film “Mr. Holmes.” Hatcher was erudite and funny, witty and insightful. On the other hand, I committed an egregious error – I forgot to bring my notebook. For those who know me well, this is akin to my walking into the Midtown Executive Club without trousers. The lapse in my memory caused by the flurry of new activity and unfamiliar surroundings, perhaps? Nevertheless, the lecture was one of the most enriching experiences of the weekend, and I managed to survive without notebook and pen. Somehow. I occasionally feel a little twitchy about it.

“Mr. Holmes,” which starred Sir Ian McKellen in the title role was based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin. Featuring an elderly Sherlock Holmes beekeeping in Sussex Downs, the Detective struggles with the increasingly undeniable deterioration of his mental faculties. In a recent interview with “I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere,” Cullin said:

The novel was my way of dealing with my father's health issues as his sharp mind started to unravel. It's a literary novel, really, and a highly metaphorical yet personal one at that, touching on my own grappling with the definitive ending of my childhood.

It's also a book about lost father figures, and a tribute to the late John Bennett Shaw who had been another great benign father figure to me as a boy. I was saying goodbye to a lot of things and a lot of people with that book, and that was the function it served for me.

The 2015 film adaptation deals with many of the same themes. In the same way that Cullin’s novel was not a Sherlock Holmes novel, “Mr. Holmes” is not a Sherlock Holmes movie. It is a movie about Sherlock Holmes. Audiences looking for the explosive antics of the 2009 and 2011 Robert Downey, Jr. movies, or any of the modern adaptations, will be disappointed. There are no over-the-top murders disguised as satanic rituals. There are no complex criminal machinations or tightly wound villains. There is just an old man and his bees. His housekeeper and her young son. His memories, which fade in and out. And time, which keeps passing.  

In his lecture, Hatcher revealed that while Sir Ian had always been a top contender for the title role, he had not been the only candidate. Hatcher also gave the script to Ralph Fiennes, who declined the part upon reading it. He felt that the character would require “too much makeup,” which Hatcher had found ironic considering that Fiennes had no nose in his role has Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. On the other hand, the film’s makeup team had conceded that it would a simple job to transform Sir Ian (in his mid-seventies at the time) into the 93-year-old Great Detective, but they would not be able to turn him into the 50-year-old Holmes featured in the flashback portions of Cullin’s original novel. The best the team could do was a 60-year-old man, and so Hatcher agreed to accommodate the change.

Sir Ian does dapper pretty darn well.

Indeed, much as changed for the Great Detective at the opening of “Mr. Holmes.” There is no more 221B Baker Street, and there is no Mrs. Hudson. Holmes now lives in a country cottage and is tended to by a middle-aged war widow named Mrs. Munro (played by Laura Linney) and enjoys an increasingly amicable relationship with her young son, Roger (played by Milo Parker). Mrs. Munro is both very much like Mrs. Hudson, and also nothing like her at all. Much like Mrs. Hudson, Mrs. Munro finds Holmes frustrating and uncooperative, but much of his behavior could be explained as a product of the man’s age. It would more surprising to find a 93-year-old without any eccentricities (unlike Mrs. Hudson who was hard-pressed to find reasonable explanations for her reasonably-aged tenant’s outrageous behavior). And unlike Mrs. Hudson, Mrs. Munro has less to gain from her relationship with Holmes, and as the audience soon learns – much, much more to lose.

More importantly, there is also no Watson. The best the audience gets is a glance at a distance from a window, and a shot of the Doctor’s back as he cares for Holmes when the Detective reflects on his memories. Watson’s loss is felt early in the film, when Holmes is in need of medical care and a village practitioner arrives to attend to him. Holmes is clearly familiar with the man, and even acquiesces to the man’s suggestions as to how to assess the Detective’s increasingly faulty memory. Familiarity is not closeness, however, and this loss is only enhanced when Holmes reveals later that Watson is long dead and worse yet – that the two had been estranged at the time of Watson’s death. They never said goodbye. Holmes has also suffered the losses of Mrs. Hudson and his brother, Mycroft. Their absences are painful and undeniable, and Holmes does his best to avoid them.

There is Roger, of course – Mrs. Munro’s young son. Roger’s father died in the Second World War and he has little memory of him. He can’t distinguish between the stories his mother told him and his actual memories – which is only one of many ways in which he relates to Holmes. He is fascinated by Holmes, and assists him whenever he can and whenever he is allowed. There is a childish charm in the way that he tries to emulate Holmes, and an understanding in the way that he can’t quite achieve it. For example, Roger mixes some of Holmes’s prickly ash extract into his porridge, proudly eating it in front of his mother – only to spit it out the moment he is out the door. Reminiscent, perhaps, of:  “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” (HOUN)

“Mr. Holmes” is the self-indulgent character study that Sherlockians have always wanted, but never thought they would get. It is a truly intimate picture. An introspective look into the foibles and failings of the Great Detective is not something one expects to see on the big screen, much less with a major distribution. While not a Sherlock Holmes film in the traditional sense, “Mr. Holmes” was a gift to Sherlockians nonetheless. The film makes us think about the Master Detective, to spend time contemplating his most human characteristics. What makes him ordinary, and not extraordinary.


A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes, written by myself and Leah Guinn of The Well-Read Sherlockian is now available for purchase through Wessex Press

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Favorite Sherlock Holmes Story: "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" (SIXN)

[As presented at "A Saturday with Sherlock Holmes," in Baltimore, Md., on November 14, 2015.]

When Beth first honored me with the invitation to be here today, and I heard the theme for today’s presentations, I knew immediately and without hesitation that my favorite story in the Canon is “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” What I did not know immediately and without hesitation was why. And as I pondered the topic for many weeks (and months, if I’m being truly honest), I began to worry that maybe there wasn’t a why, that like the infamous motiveless crime I simply loved SIXN because. Because of its own merits. Because it was simply a great story. Because I said so. Because, end of sentence. Because, because, because. And then, to my own mind, I started to sound like a petulant child, unable or unwilling to complete the assignment given to her.

And this, for some reason, made me think of my mother. Who knows why?

Those who know me a little better know that my mother is the great reader of my life. She’s the reason that I love books and writing and words. And if there is anything my mother loves more than books and writing and words, it is Law & Order. Not the process, mind you – the television show. The original flavor too, not the Special Victims Unit persuasion or even the Criminal Intent version with its pseudo-Holmesian detective played by Vincent D’Onofrio (but that’s a topic for another day and another presentation). No, she loves the classic with Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy and its ever-cycling cast of district attorneys.

So, what does this have to do with Sherlock Holmes and his six busts of Napoleon, you may be asking (or not)? Because it occurred to me – as I contemplated SIXN and Jeremy Brett’s facial expressions and Basil Rathbone’s creature-features and everything else peripherally related to this tale – that the reason I loved this story is because it is exactly like an episode of Law & Order.

Told you I was going somewhere with this.

Now if you think about it (and I’m going to make you) – an episode of Law & Order typically opens with banal, unassuming scene meant to distract: some kids playing basketball in a park, two friends shopping for expensive clothing in a high-end boutique, a young couple spending the night in a fancy hotel. Eventually, all these people stumble upon something nefarious and gruesome (and usually dead). And SIXN has a similarly inauspicious beginning: the reader learns that Inspector Lestrade has taken to dropping in at Baker Street. To chat. And this particular evening is no different. They are talking about newspapers and the weather. Maybe even their macramé. There’s probably a fire going and brandy in snifters. It’s as charmingly a domestic scene if there ever was one. But not for long, because crime is about to drop from the sky, like a body falling right into the middle of the Baker Street sitting room (a plot device which may or may not have happened in an episode of Law & Order, I can’t be sure). Lestrade has a case. An interesting case – “This is certainly very novel,” says Sherlock Holmes.

Despite the case’s novelty, however, Holmes and Watson don’t pursue it right away. In fact after getting the initial details from Lestrade, Watson posits a theory which ultimately bears no fruit, and Holmes decides to wait to investigate the case until there are “fresh developments.” This brings us to our second element of a Law & Order episode: the redirection in the form of a second crime. In any given episode, upon being given their task, the detectives will set out on their investigation (this is, of course, the “law” portion of the title). However, invariably they find that this initial thread of investigation is nothing but a red herring, leading to a dead end. Or even worse (and better television), while they have been giving their energies to the first investigation, a second and related crime has been committed. There is another victim. And it’s this crime that will ultimately set the detectives on the right path towards solving the case.

In the case of SIXN, the second crime is the body found on the doorstep of Mr. Horace Harker of the Central Press Syndicate. Aside from the dead body (a minor difference), the crime at the Harker residence seems much like the others before it – shattered busts of Napoleon and all. But now there’s a photograph in the dead man’s pocket and a broken streetlamp, both of which are indicative if not outright conclusive. From there, Holmes and Watson go to Harding Brothers, and then to Mr. Morse Hudson, of the Kennington Road. It’s Morse Hudson who provides a major breakthrough (interspersed with talk of Nihilists and anarchists and red republicans). He knows the man in the photograph: it’s Beppo, “a kind of Italian piece-work man,” he says. From there Holmes and Watson “make for Gelder & Co., of Stepney, the source and origin of the busts.” And then finally, based on the information they receive there, to Chiswick and the home of Mr. Josiah Brown. This is where Beppo is apprehended with the fifth bust of Napoleon and the active investigation draws to a close.

And...commercial break!

Now, a typical episode of Law & Order is usually split equally, with "law" bowing out of the way for "order" at about the 30 minute mark. We'll find that the structure of SIXN is definitely frontloaded with more law at the beginning and a briefer order experience at the end. If SIXN were truly an episode of Law & Order, then the “order” portion of the plot would probably only take up about 10-15 minutes of the episode. However, the reader finds that the impact of Sherlock Holmes's order more than makes up for its brevity. With Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade acting as something tantamount to a jury, Holmes’s revelatory theatrics are equal to any courtroom drama. With the reveal of the missing pearl in the sixth bust, one can easily imagine Waterston’s Jack McCoy unleashing the last damning piece of evidence against the accused, and all of the pieces of the case falling neatly into place. I mean, Watson and Lestrade even break out into applause for Sherlock Holmes, like they would for any actor on the stage. Holmes then proceeds to outline the details of the case, which go back over a year, and when he is done, it is obvious to the “jury” that Beppo is guilty. Holmes has proclaimed it so, with every leap and twirl and dramatic gesture. But more than that, Holmes has proven it so. And after all, what is order if not that?

Finally, every episode of Law & Order has a summary scene. More often than not, it’s very brief. Sam Waterston shares heated words with the prosecuting attorney on the steps of the courthouse. Or there’s a poignant conversation amongst all the attorneys over Chinese food in a darkened office. It’s a way to draw the episode to close quickly, and with wit and pathos. And this, let’s be honest, the concluding scene of SIXN has in spades.  
“Well,” said Lestrade, “I’ve seen you handle a good many cases, Mr. Holmes, but I don’t know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than that. We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow, there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.”
End of scene. Fade to black. Dun dun. And the Great Detective goes so far as to say, “Thank you! Thank you!,” as if he were at a curtain call, as if he were taking a bow.

As if you didn't know what I meant by "dun, dun".

Of course, it’s more accurate to say that the structure of SIXN paved the way for the episodic organization of Law & Order than the other way around. And I wish I could say with certainty, as Sherlock Holmes does in “The Empty House,” that “The parallel is exact.” Because it’s not exact, of course, but it is very near. It is very near enough to say that SIXN is my favorite Sherlock Holmes story because it reminds me of another dearly beloved thing. Of another dearly beloved person. Or perhaps just because. Because, because, because. 

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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