Monday, December 12, 2011

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.  Last week, I finished up "The Blue Carbuncle," and I hope you enjoyed this seasonal tale, which Christopher Morely once described as: "Surely one of the most unusual things in the world: a Christmas Story without slush." 

The current story is "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," and I wonder if you will agree with Sherlock Holmes when he says: "I confess that it is not the situation which I should like to see a sister of mine apply for."

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.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “The Pearl of Death” (1944)

“Gentlemen,” he cried, “let me introduce you to the famous black pearl of the Borgias…it is the most famous pearl now existing in the world, and it has been my good fortune, by a connected chain of inductive reasoning, to trace it from the Prince of Colonna’s bedroom at the Dacre Hotel, where it was lost, to the interior of this, the last of the six busts of Napoleon which were manufactured by Gelder & Co., of Stepney.  You will remember, Lestrade, the sensation caused by the disappearance of this valuable jewel, and the vain efforts of the London police to recover it.  I was myself consulted upon the case, but I was unable to throw any light upon it.” (“The Six Napoleons”)

Outside of his 1939 production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone were only tangentially linked to the stories of the canon, at best.  In many instances, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories could be more accurately viewed as source material, rather than any real type of blueprint.  They provided a framework, not any real form.  But in 1944’s “The Pearl of Death,” when Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes advises Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson against hitting newspaper reporters in the teeth (an affectionate, though misguided, attempt at defending the Detective’s honor), there is more than an echo of Holmes’s original sentiment: “The Press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it."

Image via
The Pearl of Death” also marked the introduction of a new adversary for the Great Detective, provided by Universal Pictures in the form of Giles Conover, the jewel thief.  Perhaps the studio felt that audiences had seen enough of Professor Moriarty, but unfortunately Conover embodies many of the Professor’s most prominent characteristics anyway.  According to Sherlock Holmes, “This man pervades Europe like a plague, yet no one has ever heard of him.  That’s what puts him on the pinnacle in the records of crime.  In his whole diabolical career the police have never been able to pin anything on him.  Yet give me a crime without motive, robbery without a clue, murder without trace, and I’ll show you Giles Conover.”  This description is, of course, taken almost verbatim from the Great Detective’s description of Moriarty in “The Final Problem.”

That is not to say, however, that Conover—played by Miles Mander—is not a suitably diabolical figure.  Indeed, the audience’s first glimpse of Conover is quite ominous; he looms menacingly in the back of a darkened car, cloaked in shadow, waiting for his associate Naomi Drake (played by Evelyn Ankers).  In many ways, this scene echoes how the audience would first view Professor Moriarty in the 2009 Warner Bros. movie.  In that film, as Moriarty sits with Irene Adler (played by Rachel McAdams), he is seen mostly in darkness, only a cuff and coat sleeve visible, and lurking in the back of a carriage.  Both Adler and Drake appear to school their nerves in the presence of their intimidating companions, but there is an unmistakable undercurrent of terror that they cannot quite conceal, and which feeds the audience’s perception of the villains.
Another interesting addition to this film was the character known only as “The Creeper,” (played by Rondo Hatton).  The Creeper is a silent, lurking, violent killer, whose distorted features only serves to heighten his chilling presence.  Hatton suffered from acromegaly, a pituitary disorder, which caused his disfigurement.  But this fearsome hooligan, who serves Conover and is responsible for almost all of the violence to person and property throughout the film, stands in the place of a character from the source material.  As Dr. Watson describes the photograph of Beppo: “It was evidently taken by a snapshot from a small camera.  It represented an alert, sharp-featured simian man, with thick eyebrows and a very peculiar projection of the lower part of the face, like the muzzle of a baboon.”  And when Beppo is captured:  “As we turned him over I saw a hideous, sallow face, with writhing, furious features, glaring up at us, and I knew that it was indeed the man of the photograph whom we had secured.”  The Creeper is no more peaceful than Beppo in resolving his affairs in “The Pearl of Death,” and the character would later appear in two more films, unrelated to Sherlock Holmes.

According to David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, this particular Sherlock Holmes film by Universal was significant in other respects:

“'The Pearl of Death' is noteworthy in that it really saw the transition of Rathbone and Bruce into the characters they were playing.  Universal practically eliminated the names Holmes and Watson from their advertising from this film onwards.  Typical blurbs now ran: ‘Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Crack the Mystery of The Pearl of Death’ or ‘Rathbone & Bruce – The Masterminds Tackle The Master Crimes’.  The names and identities of the actors had become so synonymous with those of the characters they were playing that as far as Universal was concerned—and the public too—using one name was as good as another” (57).

Of course, “The Pearl of Death” also features the ceramic busts of Napoleon, their methodical destruction, and the valuable pearl hidden inside one of them, in addition to new archenemies and their fearsome companions.  The film also deviates in important ways.  But the manner in which the film hearkens back to its source material is suggestive.  When Watson asks Holmes if he is certain that the missing pearl is inside the final bust, Holmes dismissively says: “If it isn’t, I shall retire to Sussex and keep bees.”  Such is typical of the type of tributes an avid Sherlock Holmes fan would find in “The Pearl of Death.”  While some of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films seem to hearken back to the original stories in terms of only one plot point, character, or narrative device, this film seems to recognize the spirit of the original SIXN, and seeks to embody it globally.


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Friday, November 25, 2011

“…a group of people who seemed to be intensely amused by the situation” (BLAN): The Nature of the Sherlockian Gathering

“We’re more than reality, you and I…you, my friend, have made us immortal.” (Clive Merrison, as Sherlock Holmes)
I have my nose nearly pressed up against a display case at the Lilly Library, trying not to breathe clouds of condensation onto the glass.  “That…that…that is just…” I stutter, struggling for words.  “That is just spectacular,” I finally announce to the room at-large, and the few people around me murmur in agreement.  We are all exhibiting a similar posture—trying to get as close to the case as possible, without smearing the glass with fingerprints.
“I know, isn’t it?”  Ginger sidles up beside me, and peers down appreciatively into the case.  “It’s just magnificent.  I wish I could put my hands on it.”
“Far be it from me to interrupt you two,” Darlene mutters from behind us.  “But you do know that there is a copy of the Gutenberg Bible sitting just to your right?  Just turn your head slightly, and you’ll see it.  Right there.  Gutenberg Bible.”
I glance back at her, and then back down again at the original “Elementary, My Dear Data,” script sitting in the case before me.  “My priorities are where I want them to be, thank you.”
“Well, as long as we’re all in agreement,” Darlene says with a smile.  “Now, shove over.  I want to see too.”

"Gillette to Brett" attendees viewing rare items in the Lilly Library collection.
(Photo via
The weekend of November 11-13 marked the third incarnation of Wessex Press’s seminal “Gillette to Brett” conference, which highlights the various incarnations of the Great Detective on stage and screen.  Distinguished presenters included: actor Curtis Armstrong, editor and scholar Leslie Klinger, BBC radio producer Bert Coules, and authors Tony Earnshaw, Henry Zecher, and Michael Hoey (son of character actor, Dennis Hoey, who appeared as Inspector Lestrade in the Universal Sherlock Holmes films).  The event was capped off with the 35th anniversary screening of “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” with introductory remarks by author and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer.  Presentations were punctuated by film screenings and networking opportunities.  Throughout the conference, at meals and huddled in the Dealer’s Room, conversations centered on the various persons who have had the opportunity to portray Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the various types of media in which they been portrayed. 

However, the conference’s theme seemed to center around one of Curtis Armstrong’s early remarks: “Anyone can play Hamlet…Keanu Reeves played Hamlet…but Sherlock Holmes requires a gift which is not given to many.”  Because more than anything I learned that weekend in Bloomington, Ind., I learned that studying Sherlock Holmes requires a keenness that is not given to many.  For instance, Henry Zecher’s impressive and monumental biography, William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes, which is nearly 750 pages of exhaustive research and was therefore too large to fit into my carry-on bag, demonstrates a depth and an enthusiasm of subject, which was mirrored in his presentation.  Another point of fervent conversation regarded the various adaptations’ attentiveness and adherence to the minute details of the canon: where Peter Cushing was forced to deviate from his original vision for Hammer Films’ version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles;” and conversely, how Bert Coules worked tirelessly to create the first complete rendering of the canon using the same two actors (Clive Merrison as Sherlock Holmes, and Michael Williams as Dr. Watson).  Furthermore, Michael Hoey’s stories of his time on the Universal Sherlock Holmes set with Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, and his father, have lost none of the childlike wonder and appreciation which he must certainly felt as a young boy, surrounded by such giants of the industry.
But that, I think, is part of the nature of being a Sherlockian, too.  We do not, and cannot afford to, lose our childlike wonder at the subject that so gripped our hearts as children, as young people, or even as grown adults.  As I sat in the Lilly Library, viewing a presentation of some the collection’s rarer pieces, the gasps and murmurs of appreciation grew louder and more pronounced with each new treasure—a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’sTamerlane,” a rare printing of Chaucer’sCanterbury Tales,” pages from that Gutenberg Bible that had failed to catch my eye earlier, but which were now given to the audience to touch.  But when the librarian presented one of the Lilly Library’s two copies of the 1887 “Beeton’s Christmas Annual,” the intakes of breath took on such a sharp edge that I began to worry that the audience as a whole was going to gasp itself into suffocation.  I wondered briefly if the librarian knew CPR, but lost the thought when he revealed an original print of the Declaration of Independence.

Author and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (left) with
"Gillette to Brett" co-creator Steven Doyle.
(Photo via

“Education never ends, Watson,” Sherlock Holmes says in “The Red Circle.”  “It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.”  And after meeting some of the presenters and authors in attendance at “Gillette to Brett,” I realized just how many Sherlockians hold this axiom close to heart.  I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Dan Andriacco, and Kieran McMullen, two MX Publishing’s authors.  Andriacco is the author of Baker Street Beat, and No Police Like Holmes; McMullen is the author of Watson’s Afghan Adventure and Sherlock Holmes and the Irish Rebels.  And they are both enthusiastic devotees of Sherlock Holmes, as enamored of their chosen subject today, as they were when they first began.  They are always learning, constantly thinking, and most importantly, they want to be a part of the conversation—not just start it.  Sherlockians want to discuss everything from bourbon, to period weaponry, to the finer points of rare pastiches—as long as it all relates back to the root discussion.  The desire to talk about the thing we love, with others who love it, should not fade, but only grow stronger with time.  This is, after all, why conferences such as “Gillette to Brett” exist, and why they continue to exist.  It is also why Sherlockians continue to seek each other out, and hopefully will always do so.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

“The Meaning of This Extraordinary Performance” (COPP): Granada Television’s “The Musgrave Ritual”

“One morning, as I approached the entrance to the Granada studios, Jeremy arrived in a cab.  As he leant forward on the pavement to pay the driver, the waistband of his well-worn, much-laundered white trousers parted company with the legs which fell in a heap on the kerb.  Giggling, Jeremy pulled them back up and struggled to the safety of the wardrobe, where his laughter could be heard as far away as Liverpool.  His laugh was always infectious.  When I think of Jeremy, I think of his laughing... that will always be my lasting memory of him.  I cannot pay him a greater compliment” (Edward Hardwicke).

November 3 recently marked what would have been the 78th birthday of Jeremy Brett, who was born Peter Jeremy William Huggins in 1933. He starred as Sherlock Holmes in the Granada Television series, appearing in 41 episodes as the Great Detective.  Brett looms large over the role of Sherlock Holmes, and casts a very long shadow over all the actors who have played the part.  Even Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the new BBC series “Sherlock,” said in an October 2010 interview: “[Brett] casts a towering shadow.  He was a friend of my mom's, and he was around our family a lot.  He and the part collided, and he let it take him over.  He was a manic depressive, but that was a side issue, but he then played one.”

The immense range of performance that Jeremy Brett brought to the role of Sherlock Holmes is thrown in to sharp relief in Granada Television’s adaptation of “The Musgrave Ritual.”  This particular episode manages to contain some marked deviations from the original source material, but also somehow, remain remarkably faithful and familiar.  As has been discussed elsewhere, the primary mystery of “The Musgrave Ritual” originally takes place before Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson first meet.  The actual narrative of story is told by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson, with Watson relaying the telling of that tale to his readers.  MUSG has been dated by both William Baring-Gould and Leslie Klinger as taking place in 1879, which would have made the Great Detective around 25-years-old.  In other words, the Sherlock Holmes of the original MUSG was quite a young man.

Unfortunately, when Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke filmed Granada’s version of MUSG in 1986, neither man could be quite honestly classified as “young.”  At the time of filming, both Brett and Hardwicke were approximately 53-years-old, and so therefore, the production team’s first obstacle was how to compensate for their stars’ somewhat advanced age.  Furthermore, it simply would not do to film an entire episode with Watson appearing only briefly at the beginning, and perhaps at the end.  That is, it would not do to exclude Watson intentionally, as some casting and plot allowances were made in later Granada episodes for Brett’s health troubles, and Hardwicke’s scheduling conflicts.

So Granada’s 1986 episode of MUSG opens with both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson perched on the back of a cart, on their way to a brief holiday at Musgrave Manor.  Holmes is wrapped in several layers of clothing, including a ratty crocheted blanket, and is coughing pitifully (and melodramatically) every time Watson tries to cheer him with the thought of the entertainments that await them.  On the cart with them is a heavy, locked trunk, which Holmes reveals to contain notes on some of his earliest cases:  “…the record of the Tarleton murders, the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, and the adventure of the old Russian woman, a full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife, and the singular affair of the aluminum crutch…that was something a little recherché.”  Unfortunately, the moment Dr. Watson expresses interest in reading these notes, Holmes slams his foot down upon the lid and begins to use it as a footstool.

And so, from the very beginning, Granada’s adaptation of MUSG both deviates from the original story, and at the same time reaches out to its source.  Many plot details remain the same: Reginald Musgrave, whom Sherlock Holmes always associated “…with gray archways and mullioned windows and all the venerable wreckage of a feudal keep”; Musgrave’s brilliant butler, Brunton; his tumultuous relationship with the housemaid, Rachel; and of course, the ancient Musgrave family ritual.  According to Richard Valley:

“When it came time to remake the story for Granada’s THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, dramatist Jeremy Paul found that it was again necessary to make some minor changes, this time because no suitable location could be found containing the trees essential to the untangling of the puzzle.  The solution: a tree-shaped weathervane atop Hurlestone Manor.”

But the most significant divergence comes relatively early on in the episode, after Watson arrives at Holmes’s room to collect him for dinner.  Holmes is nowhere to be found, but the tempting trunk of early case notes is prominently displayed.  But just as Watson is about sneak a quick peek, the Doctor also spies Holmes’s open morocco case, the needle and cocaine solution prepped for dosage.  The scene ends with Watson looking pensive, but ultimately saying nothing.  Holmes spends the following scenes, and the rest of the evening, being easily coaxed into maniacal, uncontrollable laughter.  Sometimes giggling privately under his breath as he warms himself in front of the fireplace, sometimes flinging himself bodily around the room—laughing in a powerful way that seems to make both Musgrave and Brunton uncomfortable, while Watson tries desperately to simultaneously ignore Holmes and distract the other men.

Finally, at the end of the episode, as Holmes and Watson drive away, it is the Doctor who posits the theory that perhaps Rachel Howells may have intentionally sent the stone crashing, and also the alternate hypothesis that she had “only been guilty of silence as to [Brunton’s] fate.”  Holmes seems uncharacteristically indifferent about this loose thread and says, “Very probably she's far away from Hurlstone now and carries her secret with her.”

Surprisingly and unfortunately, Holmes is wrong.  In the final scene, the pale, waterlogged face of Rachel Howells’s corpse rises up from the mere.  Her romantic rival, Janet Tregellis, recoils in horror at the sight, and runs away screaming in terror.  This final scene brings closure to a plot point that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had originally left open—whatever happened to Rachel Howells?  But this addition on Granada’s part in no way seems like a correction, or an admonition directed at Doyle for leaving a question unanswered.  Instead, it seems like one last accommodation, a last tribute to the original story that was flexible enough to meet the needs of an evolving cast and crew, which was able to stretch enough to meet in the middle between canon and canonization.


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Sunday, November 13, 2011

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.  Last week, I finished up "The Devil's Foot," and I wonder if you agree with the Great Detective's own personal assessment of the case: "...strangest case I have handled."

The current story is "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." I hope you will join in on this seasonal tale, which Christopher Morely once described as: "Surely one of the most unusual things in the world: a Christmas Story without slush." 

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, October 29, 2011

“Give me problems, give me work” (SIGN): The Nature of Work in the Sherlock Holmes Canon

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.  And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.” (Steve Jobs)

Sherlock Holmes’s universe—the mental spaces that he occupied—was famously narrow.  If a piece of information wasn't in some way relevant to whatever case or mystery he was pursuing at the moment, then it wasn’t relevant at all.  In A Study in Scarlet, when Dr. Watson takes the Detective to task for not knowing that the Earth revolves around the sun, the Detective snaps: “What the deuce is it to me?  …you say that we go round the sun.  If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”  The 2010 BBC series, “Sherlock,” featured a variation on the line, with the title character saying: “Oh hell, what does [the solar system] matter?  So we go round the sun.  If we went round the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear it wouldn't make any difference.  All that matters to me is the work.  Without it my brain rots.”

Sherlock Holmes had clearly defined, carefully cultivated priorities.  In “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” he says: “I play the game for the game’s own sake.”  He worked neither for money nor for public acclaim, and was openly antagonistic towards Watson’s literary efforts on his behalf, even though the Doctor’s stories must have certainly brought a tremendous number of clients to the door of 221B Baker Street.  Holmes also does not care if the police or other parties receive the credit for solving the case, as the long as the case is solved.  In “The Naval Treaty,” Holmes says to an unreasonably vexed police inspector: “On the contrary…out of my last fifty-three cases my name has only appeared in four, and the police have had all the credit in forty-nine.  I don’t blame you for not knowing this, for you are young and inexperienced, but if you wish to get on in your new duties you will work with me and not against me.”  Sherlock Holmes understood his priorities, and likewise, he knew how to cultivate them in others.

On the other hand, John Watson is a medical man, a surgeon, by trade.  Though that character detail is often easy to forget given the amount of time that he spends running beside, and chasing after, Sherlock Holmes.  He abandons his medical practice frequently—sometimes with his wife’s encouragement—and with little notice, foisting his patients onto an unsuspecting colleague—whom must certainly have benefited from the constant influx of business.  Truly, it appears that Watson spent most of his time as the Great Detective’s biographer and partner, but he must have found some spare moments to be the doctor that he trained to be.  In “The Creeping Man,” the reader finds that Watson cannot get away and follow Holmes as easily as he used to do: “Monday morning found us on our way to the famous university town–an easy effort on the part of Holmes, who had no roots to pull up, but one which involved frantic planning and hurrying on my part, as my practice was by this time not inconsiderable."

Dr. John Watson seen here in "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb,"
offering some practical advice to a patient
whose thumb is missing...brandy, naturally. 

How and when Watson found the time to build up a medical practice is beside the point, because he did find it.  Additionally, no matter how difficult it eventually became for Watson to get away and follow Holmes, he does manage to get away.  Even after the Great Hiatus, during which time Watson would have had three years to cultivate his own practice, and again establish himself as the doctor he was trained to be, he is quick to sell his business, move back to Baker Street, and throw his lot back in with Sherlock Holmes once again:

“At the time of which I speak, Holmes had been back for some months, and I at his request had sold my practice and returned to share the old quarters in Baker Street.  A young doctor, named Verner, had purchased my small Kensington practice, and given with astonishingly little demur the highest price that I ventured to ask–an incident which only explained itself some years later, when I found that Verner was a distant relation of Holmes, and that it was my friend who had really found the money” (NORW).

So, for all that Dr. Watson judged his friend for not knowing that the Earth revolved around the sun (“But the Solar System!” [STUD]) simply because it was irrelevant to his work, Sherlock Holmes does not judge his friend for abandoning his prosperous practice to pursue a man who has inexplicably begun imitating a monkey.  Possibly because he was encouraging the behavior, as he does by having a relative purchase Watson’s practice, but also he knows that Watson’s priorities are the same as his own, and he has no issues with making sure that they remain so.

At the recent annual formal dinner hosted by Watson’s Tin Box, author Lyndsay Faye quoted John le Carré and said: “No one writes of Sherlock Holmes without love.”  I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of work lately, Sherlockian work in particular—the why and how of why Sherlockians do what they do.  And I wonder if the Great Detective and Doctor Watson provided their readers with an example of how to pattern and organize their priorities, to remind the reader of why they read.
Sherlock Holmes “[worked] as he did rather for the love of his art than for the acquirement of wealth, he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend towards the unusual, and even the fantastic” (SPEC).  And Dr. Watson had a vocation that he occasionally fell back upon, but had no issues with abandoning it when it was no longer what he wanted.  When Sherlock Holmes reappeared in Dr. Watson’s life—whole and alive—the Doctor knew without question where he wanted to be.  The canon is filled with examples of working for the love of the work, of people who loved what they did.  And I think they would be disappointed if their devotees behaved any differently, if we found ourselves writing of Sherlock Holmes without joy, enthusiasm, or love.


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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “Shadowfall: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes”

Tracy Revels; Publisher:  MX Publishing (March 2011)
He reached inside his coat and removed his cigarette case.  He spoke a word in an unknown language as he waved his hand over the silver box.  The container suddenly shone like a beacon, brighter than any lantern, and I turned aside, eyes burning.  There was a click as he opened it, and a tiny point of golden light shot from the container.  I heard a sound like a great buzzing.
“Holmes, is that an insect?”
“It is the humble apis mellifera, or western honeybee.  He is noted for his industry and strength and unfailing ability to find that for which he seeks.”  Holmes held out his palm, and the creature descended onto his flesh, wings drawn back against its striped body, still glowing with an unnatural light (70).
Of the recent book reviews on this blog, they all seem to present a common theme: Dr. Watson as an absent character, or at the very least, as an absent narrator.  We’ve looked at books that feature characters acting in Watson’s place, narrating the story from their own perspective, or that have been written from an omniscient point-of-view that precludes having the direct access to Watson’s thoughts that so many readers enjoy.  Of the fifty-six short stories and four novels in the canon, only four of them are not written from the Doctor’s perspective.  “The Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow” are written from a third person perspective.  In “The Gloria Scott,” and “The Musgrave Ritual,” Sherlock Holmes relates the primary mystery to Watson from his own memories, but the Doctor still frames and narrates the initial story.  And “The Blanched Solider” and “The Lion’s Mane,” from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, are written from Holmes’s perspective.  In LAST, Sherlock Holmes famously names Watson as “the one fixed point in changing age,” and the Doctor’s narration is often a guiding influence, piloting the reader through a murky sea of mystery.  Furthermore, as has been discussed elsewhere, the reader must often completely trust Dr. Watson, in order for the plot device to work.
And so, Tracy Revels’s Shadowfall is a perfect example of trusting Dr. Watson as a narrator—trusting that the story he ultimately delivers is complete and entire, that he is telling the truth, and that he writes with the understanding that reader will believe him.  From the start, Revels’s novel finds Watson’s skepticism stretched to its absolute limits, as he finds himself plunged into a world filled with fairies and shadows.  It is a world in which his own immortal soul is stolen by Titania, the fairy high queen, in a desperate bid for Sherlock Holmes’s assistance.  A world in which the sacred and mystical objects of London are disappearing, prophesying doom and destruction.  A world in which the Great Detective is not what he appears to be:
What are you, Holmes?”
“There is no true word for it, but the closest term would be a Merlin, a wizard.  I inherited the powers of magic from my mother’s immortal house, even as I gained my height and my hair from my mortal father’s” (45).
Now, it goes without saying that placing Sherlock Holmes in a supernatural setting—not to mention making him a supernatural being—is not going to be to everyone’s taste.  After all, Holmes himself said, “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain.  The world is big enough for us.  No ghosts need apply” (SUSS).  But Revels approaches the subject intelligently, and the methods of her version of the Great Detective are still recognizable.  His deductive abilities are paired equally with his magical talents, and Holmes does not begin suddenly casting spells with impunity once he has revealed his true nature to Dr. Watson.  For example, after extracting some needed information from a group of laborers, using nothing but a bit of clever repartee, Holmes turns to Watson with a smile: “No magic was necessary, as you witnessed” (80).
Likewise, Revels’s Dr. Watson approaches his friend’s revelation with a sensible amount of incredulity.  When Holmes produces a flame from the tip of his finger, and lights the Doctor’s cigarette, Watson says: “Any Covent Garden conjurer could do the same” (46).  Watson as the narrator of this story is incisive and perceptive—both the companion that Holmes does not deserve, but also the one that he needs.  It is Watson who knows Holmes better than he knows himself, and who knows why the Great Detective could never subsist entirely on a deductive diet of magical abilities (even if he occupies a world where such things exist): “At that moment, I began to understand why he had returned to the world of the Sun.  Magic and enchantments were less satisfying to him than the superb command of his own intelligence.  There was a greater thrill in being a reasoning machine than in wielding supernatural forces” (80).
Tracy Revels has a clever and delicious way with words, and the world of Shadowfall is fully formed and beautifully imagined—from the dazzling and terrifying Queen Titania who steals Watson’s soul, to Holmes’s tiny and ethereal honeybee familiar.  Revels’s story is carefully and artfully constructed.  It would be easy for an author to merely transpose the Detective’s deductive methods for supernatural ones, thereby explaining away Holmes’s sometimes inhuman ability to know “by a man’s finger-nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs—by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed” (STUD).  But by incorporating and combining both the canonical aspects of Sherlock Holmes’s character, and her fresh perspective, Tracy Revels has written a cerebral pastiche, one that speaks to both focus and fantasy.
Tracy Revels’s sequel, Shadowblood, will be available from MX Publishing in November 2011.  Order the book here.
Shadowfall: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes, by Tracy Revels is available in paperback from MX Publishing, and Amazon.  It is also available for the Kindle.  You can also follow the author on Twitter and on Facebook.
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Friday, October 7, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “A Taste for Honey”

H.F. Heard; Publisher: Blue Dolphin Publishing (September 2009, Originally Published in 1941 by The Vanguard Press, Inc.)
“I turned to see beside me a serene face, a sort of political Dante, if I may so put it and not seem high-brow.  It was cold, perhaps; or maybe it would be juster to say it was super-cooled, cooled by thought until the moods and passions which in most of us are liquid or even gaseous had become set and solid—a face which might care little for public opinion but much for its opinion of itself” (14-5).
Nowadays, it seems as if new Sherlock Holmes pastiches are coming out consistently, if not constantly.  The advent of e-books, and self-publishing, has certainly increased the amount of reading material on the market in general, not just in the mystery and Sherlock Holmes genres.  With that said, however, it is sometimes easy to forget just how very far back the tradition reaches.  According to Richard Lancelyn Green, in The Sherlock Holmes Letters, “The earliest pastiche is thought to be ‘My Evening with Sherlock Holmes,’ which appeared in the Speaker on 28 November 1891 and described a visit to Baker Street” (7).  Issues with copyright and the appropriation of the character of Sherlock Holmes have further complicated matters over the years, forcing some authors into new and innovative methods of representing the Great Detective.  H.F. Heard’s novel is a prime example of both an early Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and an inventive method of skirting around the character of Sherlock Holmes, without ever really addressing him directly.
H.F. Heard’s novel, A Taste for Honey, is the first in a trilogy of novels featuring a retired detective turned beekeeper, who goes by the name, “Mr. Mycroft.”  Other novels in the trilogy include: Reply Paid, and The Notched Hairpin.  In 1955, A Taste for Honey was adapted into a made-for-television movie called, “The Sting of Death,” which featured the iconic Boris Karloff in the role Mr. Mycroft.  Heard’s novel runs in the same vein as Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, in that the story never explicitly states or outright names the main detective character as Sherlock Holmes.  In Chabon’s novel, he is referred to only as “the old man,” and in Heard’s book, he is “Mr. Mycroft” (a name, which he eventually reveals to the narrator, is only one of his many “family names”).  But there are certainly enough clues in both stories for the reader to draw the intended conclusion, to find them at turns clever, touching, or even humorous.
A Taste for Honey is narrated by the exceedingly neurotic and mostly unlikeable Sydney Silchester, resident of the quiet village of Ashton Clearwater.  He is remarkably particular in his ways, ill-tempered, and anti-social in a way that makes Sherlock Holmes look positively chummy in his interactions in the canon.  As Silchester himself puts it, the whole mystery of the novel began: “…through my breaking my rule—the rule, as it happens, of all village life of the better-off, of ‘keeping myself to myself’” (6).  But the narrator is also an incurable honey-addict, and his quest for his preferred sweet leads him directly into the path of the villainous Heregroves, then to Mr. Mycroft, and then, finally, into a swarm of feral honeybees.  Silchester has no desire to ally himself with Mr. Mycroft (or with anyone, for that matter), but his survival depends upon finding a solution to the mystery of the murderous swarm, and the eccentric beekeeper is clearly his best chance at finding that answer.  It is not possible, even for the briefest of moments, to confuse Sydney Silchester with Dr. Watson.  The Doctor was constantly in awe of his friend; Silchester is, at best, confused and at worst, horrified by Mr. Mycroft.  Mr. Mycroft, in turn, seems to spend a copious (and occasionally tedious) amount of time simply assuring his new companion of his competency.
On that front, the beekeeper’s efforts seem to be mostly in vain.  At the end of the novel, when Mr. Mycroft reveals his “real” name (to which the reader is never privy) to Silchester, the man’s reaction is frankly underwhelming.  He says:
“’You see,’ I said, ‘now that I do know your real name, I have to own I have never heard of you before.’
“Then, I must own, he looked amazed—perhaps the only time I had seen him profoundly surprised, and he turned away without a word” (141).
Mr. Mycroft is, naturally, the great mystery of Heard’s novel.  While he is clearly intended to stand in the stead of Sherlock Holmes, and the similarities are obvious and numerous, the characters are not perfect parallels.  Occasionally, there are aberrations in Mr. Mycroft’s character that seem possibly jarring and discordant to those who know the Great Detective well.  For example, Mr. Mycroft demonstrates an appreciation for fine cuisine that seems better suited as a characteristic of another Holmes relation (comparisons further strengthened by the conspicuousness of the character name).  According to Silchester, “The [food] was as good to my eye as to my ear and even better on the tongue.  My host knew about food and wine.  He talked both, well and fully, as if he wouldn’t touch on shop at mealtimes” (25).  But Mr. Mycroft has endless wells of energy, a brain that turns endlessly, and a manner of interacting with people that seems equal turns calculating and charming.  And—as the reader learns—Mr. Mycroft has absolutely no problem with being both judge and jury when the situation sees fit, and the novel's climax rings familiar in a way that will probably bring to mind the concluding scene of "The Abbey Grange."
In his essay, “Who Is Mr. Mycroft?” John Roger Barrie discusses the various theories and possible identities of Mr. Mycroft, their pertinence to Heard’s novel, and applicability to Sherlock Holmes pastiches, in general:
“…by utilizing powers of deductive reasoning that would put Sherlock Holmes to shame, we are now able conclusively to state with absolute and unequivocal certainty the answer to our question, who is Mr. Mycroft.  Add 1 ¾ cups Sherlock, a dash of Mycroft Holmes, 5 ounces of Heard, ½ cup archetypal investigator, 3 tablespoons quintessential justice seeker, and voila.  The true identity of Mr. Mycroft is, and will forever remain…Mr. Mycroft.”
And that’s the crux of it, I think—can the reader find Sherlock Holmes in the weeds?  Is he identifiable in the morass of original characters?  Can he be found among features that seem incongruous or incompatible?  H.F. Heard’s “Mr. Mycroft” is not a perfect parallel to the Sherlock Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material, but he is recognizable in A Taste for Honey nonetheless; Sherlock Holmes is indeed detectable in his original shape.  And when Mr. Mycroft speaks, the reader knows his voice, even if his profile no longer stands in sharp relief.
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Monday, October 3, 2011

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.  Last week,  I finished up "The Problem of Thor Bridge," and I hope everyone enjoyed taking a closer look inside the "tin dispatch-box," which Dr. Watson keeps at Cox & Co., at Charing Cross.

The current story is "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot."  I hope you will join in, and see if you agree with the Great Detective's own personal assessment of the case: "...strangest case I have handled."

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 stories online.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “The Sherlock Holmes Animated Collection” (1983)

[Pacific Arts; Peter O’Toole, Earle Cross]
“Perhaps these pedestrian cartoon films featuring the dreary voiced Peter O’Toole should be re-titled The Somnambulist Adventures of Sleepy Holmes.” (“Sherlock Holmes—The Detective Magazine”)
A favorite Sherlock Holmes film, like any beloved thing, should feel comfortable, yet familiar.  For many Sherlockians, their favorite on-screen Holmes and Watson is soothing, consoling on even the worst of days.  Moreover, an animated feature, as has been discussed in a previous post, can provide an additional sense of whimsy and childlike nostalgia that can also be cheering.  But the line between “soothing” and “sleepy” is a fine one and quite easy to cross.  Unfortunately, I only discovered this notion after my husband found me dozing, sprawled across our sofa, with the remote hanging limply from my hand.  The film that was scrolling, unseen, on our television screen was a volume from the 1983 “Sherlock Holmes Animated Collection,” and my husband was, frankly, appalled at the sight.
He had never seen me fall asleep during a Sherlock Holmes film before, and he was more unsettled than I thought was honestly necessarily.  “I don’t understand,” he said, staring at me pointedly.  “Explain this to me again.  You told me they were good movies.  You told me you liked them.  That they were ‘fantastically faithful.’”  Still half-asleep and grumpy, I lifted an eyebrow, while wondering why he seemed to be taking my little nap as a personal offense to our marriage.  “They are good movies,” I snapped.  “It’s just that there is something about Peter O’Toole’s voice.  It’s so… lethargic.”  In fact, to call Peter O’Toole’s performance as the Great Detective “sluggish,” would not be inaccurate.  According David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen:
“The most surprising aspect of these tame and somewhat insipid cartoons is the performance of the star: even when the drawn image moves and gestures in a dramatic fashion, O’Toole’s rather somnambulistic tones do not vary their pitch or rhythm.  It has been suggested that the actor recorded the dialogue for all four films in one day; whatever the reason, Peter O’Toole failed to impress as the voice of the Great Detective” (119).   
The Sherlock Holmes Animated Collection” is comprised of four remarkably detailed adaptations of A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles (inexplicably retitled in the collection as “The Baskerville Curse”), and The Valley of Fear.  The animated format lends itself especially well to the long flashback sequences that appear in every novel, with the exception of HOUN.  The audience is taken to Salt Lake City in STUD, to India in SIGN, and to Chicago and Vermissa Valley in VALL.  Although these flashbacks are often remarked upon as unnecessary or even strange plot deviations in the original text, they are a part of the stories as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presented them, and so it is refreshing to see a collection of films in which those aspects are fully represented.  In addition, the mere inclusion of an interpretation of VALL is noteworthy in and of itself, as VALL often appears to be the least adapted of all the Sherlock Holmes novels.  Previously, the last notable adaptation was Arthur Wontner’sThe Triumph of Sherlock Holmes” in 1935.
However, the animated series does include some strange and off-putting omissions.   The adaptation of STUD does not include that ever elusive “introduction scene,” which so many adaptations of the novel seem to avoid, and personally, I had been quite hopeful to find in the collection.  Holmes and Watson begin the film firmly ensconced in their partnership and their Baker Street residence, with Holmes complaining drearily about the dullness of crime and shooting bullet holes in the walls.  This is particularly frustrating as an animated film appears to be an ideal venue to show Holmes’s and Watson’s first meeting, even if only in the form of a flashback.  Animators do not have to worry about the age of their actors, and whether or not they can play both young men and their older counterparts.  Live action Sherlock Holmes films offer some logistical challenges in the way of casting, and accurate representation of age.  But it would have been no difficulty to animate Holmes as a young chemist, shaking Dr. Watson’s hand and saying, “How are you?  You have been in Afghanistan I perceive” (even if it was in Peter O’Toole's sonorous tones).

Sleepy kitty, happy kitty, little ball of fur...someone has been listening
to Peter O'Toole's lethargic purr.

Other strange omissions from the collection include the absence of the romantic subplot between Dr. Watson and Mary Morstan in SIGN.  The Dr. Watson voiced by Earle Cross is certainly no young man, but neither is he a doddering elderly gentleman, whose designs on a woman half his age could be perceived as inappropriate.  Watson ends the film thinking wistfully upon Mary Morstan's memory, but there are no definitive conclusions as to their future.  The Sherlock Holmes Animated Collection” is an ideal series of films for Sherlockians who look for comprehensive adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes canon, interpretations that pay attention to details that would please only devoted enthusiasts.  However, these are not films for completists, for admirers who seek a version of STUD that features Holmes and Watson’s first meeting, or what The Ritual called the “Sherlockian Holy Grail”—a definitive version of HOUN.  And it is certainly not the place to find a Sherlock Holmes who burns with an inner fire, and “the fierce energy of his own keen nature” (SCAN).

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania”

Gerry O’Hara; Publisher: MX Publishing (Publication Date: November 2, 2011)
[This review is based on a pre-publication copy of the novel.]
“You know, Watson,” he mused, “sometimes though we may reason well, we are too prejudiced.  We do not let our eyes see nor our ears hear that which is outside our daily life…Do you not think that there are things which one cannot understand, and yet are; or that some people see things that others cannot?  But there are things old and new which must not be contemplated by men’s eyes because they know—or think they know—some things which other men have told them” (73).
If pastiche authors are to be believed, then Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula are fairly well-acquainted.  A glance at the “Sherlock Holmes Pastiche Database” finds dozens of references to “Dracula” and “vampire,” amongst the many works that are listed there.  Indeed, they seem well-matched foes—a man with one of the keenest and sharpest analytical minds of all time, the other with hundreds of years of knowledge and experience to back his thoughts and actions.  Oftentimes, the crux of pitting Sherlock Holmes against literature’s most famous vampire is just exactly how Sherlock Holmes receives this supernatural opponent.  Does he entertain the idea with guarded skepticism, or with blatant disbelief?  Is he converted to the notion whole-heartedly and without reservation, or is there a period of tentative research?  In Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania, Gerry O’Hara composes a Sherlock Holmes who is careful and analytical and cautiously open-minded, and who fits seamlessly, even profitably, into a classic, beloved narrative.
In Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania,” Gerry O’Hara has slightly retooled the familiar Dracula story.  The character Mina appears in the novel as Dr. Watson’s niece, married to a young solicitor named Janos Svbado.  The nature of Watson and Mina’s relation is never fully explained and as a result, I found myself spending a disproportionate amount of time wondering if they were blood relations, or if “uncle” was merely more of an honorific.  Lucy Westenra, a character familiar to Bram Stoker’s devotees, also features largely in the story, but it is her father, “Dr. Westenra,” who controls the nearby asylum.  Likewise, Lucy only has one suitor, a young soldier named Sandor, rather than a trio of paramours.  The lunatic Renfield appears largely as himself, while Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson seem to fill in for some of the absent characters, most notably Professor Abraham van Helsing.
In terms of plot, the novel largely mirrors that of Bram Stoker’s story, with some notable changes in terms of characters or setting.  For example, Dracula never makes his way to London, and instead the story’s action is confined largely to Budapest and Transylvania.  Additionally, the absence of certain characters results in various plot points playing out in slightly different ways from the manner in which most readers might be familiar, but with no strikingly dramatic modifications.  And of course, the addition and influence of Holmes and Watson to the story allows the novel to play out in a largely more cerebral, less theatrical, fashion than is found in the source material.  After Watson is assailed in the dead of night by Dracula’s three vampire brides, he tries to pass off the instance as a nightmare or some other delusion, but Holmes’s thoughtful response to what might seem like a flight of fantasy, makes the reader stop and take note.
As for Sherlock Holmes, he fills the role of Abraham van Helsing neatly and adeptly.  The Great Detective is a believer, but he is an educated believer, a learned believer.  Dr. Watson may seem a more difficult convert to the concept of vampirism than his supposedly rational friend, but Holmes seems to spend most of the story in constant study.  He is in libraries and buried in books, and learning all he can from the experts at a nearby monastery.  As the Detective famously once said, "Data! Data! Data! ...I can't make bricks without clay" (COPP).  Holmes does not believe blindly, without merit.  He does not believe without basis, or move without footing.  Watson believes in Sherlock Holmes, and will accept wholesale much of what he is told based on that belief.  Holmes, on the other hand, believes in nothing but data, and must have a how and a why in place before anything else.
O’Hara’s version of Count Dracula, for his part, is a bit more bestial than some readers will remember.  The Detective, for example, describes the Count at one point: “Extraordinary and mad, quite, quite evilly mad” (51).  And then later: “He may be clever, and cunning and resourceful but his brain does not have the full stature of manhood, it is in some ways childlike.  The Count is a criminal and of criminal type” (217).  The Count Dracula of this novel is a bit less elegant, a bit less refined, than some readers may remember or may like to see, but this is not arbitrary behavior.  It is all documented and accounted for in Holmes’s methodical way, but it is ultimately up to the audience to make sure that all the pieces fit.
Gerry O’Hara’s novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania, does not deviate much from the Bram Stoker plot with which most readers are probably familiar, and so consequently, there will not be a lot in the way of surprises.  But the influence of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson changes the tenor of the story dramatically, and O’Hara skillfully uses the Detective and Doctor to both fill in for missing characters, and also contribute to the story in ways that the original characters could not do.  O’Hara’s novel is a beautiful revival, charmingly illustrated, and an elegant contribution to the ranks of Sherlock Holmes versus Count Dracula pastiches.
Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania by Gerry O’Hara is available for order from MX Publishing and Amazon.  You can also follow the author on Facebook.
Only a few days remaining!  Share your thoughts about the Master Detective on screen, and you can win the original canon on audiobook, read by the incomparable Edward Hardwicke.  Contest is open until 11:59p.m., on Saturday, September 24.  Details here.
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