Monday, February 28, 2011

CONTEST: Win the “Better Holmes & Gardens” Prize Package

I was asked a lot of questions when I started this blog.  A lot.  Many of them were well-meaning, from friends and family who had always known that this was an area of (intense) interest for me, and were mostly concerned about what a blog would mean in terms of demands on my time and resources. 
But some of the questions were pointed, sharp questions with jagged edges that I could cut myself on, if I wasn’t careful about how I answered: Why?  Why this character, this subject, this time period, this genre?  Why now?  Why you, when others have said so much (and much better)?  And finally—my personal favorite—why would anyone care? 
“Why” is one of my favorite questions, but it is also one of the most dangerous. 
And to those asking why, I would say that the answer to that question is the point of my blog—the point of any blog really.  And I think I’ve gone a little way towards answering that question.  In short, I’ve found that I really enjoy the “why” questions—asking, answering, coming up with new ones—and I’ve learned that there are a lot of other people just like me.  A “why” question is fun because there is usually more than one right answer…there can be endless right answers, in fact. 
And so I’m holding a contest, and to win, all you have to do is provide me with one of your right answers to one of my “why” questions.  Here are the details:    

·         A new, hardcover edition of The Chronicles of Sherlock Holmes, by Paul D. Gilbert.  Gilbert’s new book, Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, will be available in the United States on April 1, 2011 (though it is currently available in the United Kingdom); he is also the author of an additional Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes.  Fans of Sherlock Holmes should easily recognize the face on all of Gilbert’s covers, and Gilbert himself has spoken at length about the debt he owes to Jeremy Brett and the actor’s influence on his writing.  Therefore, I think it only appropriate that I also include:

·         A new copy of the soundtrack to Granada Television’s Sherlock Holmes series, starring Jeremy Brett, David Burke, and Edward Hardwicke (with music by Patrick Gowers).  If you haven’t heard any of Gowers’s compositions, they are a treat.  Each piece is lovely, and the opening theme is iconic.         
Sound good?  Wondering how you win?  Actually, it’s pretty easy, I think:

1. Leave a comment on this blog post, telling me in your own unique, substantive way, why you read Sherlock Holmes.  That’s all.  Couple words, couple sentences, couple paragraphs?  Your call.
2. Tweet about the contest on your page (make sure you’re following me, while you’re at it).  If you don’t have Twitter, post it on your Facebook instead.  I’ve provided some language below, but feel free to use your own:
I’ve entered to win the “Better Holmes & Gardens Prize Package” at Enter for your chance to win!
That’s it.  Feel free to enter as many times as you wish, as long as each comment is unique and substantive, and you tweet and/or Facebook post each time you enter.
The contest is open from now until 11:59p.m. EST on Saturday, March 26, 2011.  At that time, a random entry will be chosen using  The winner will be announced on Monday, March 28, 2011 via blog post, Twitter, and Facebook. 
And while the winner will be chosen at random, I will use some of my favorite responses in future blog posts.  Best of luck, and have fun!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Some Thoughts on Setting: All Roads Lead to Baker Street

"There it was, a sign above a shop that said 221B BAKER STREET. My mouth hung open. I looked around at the ordinary street and the white-painted buildings, looking clean in the morning rain. Where were the fog, the streetlights, the gray atmosphere? The horses pulling carriages, bringing troubled clients to Watson and Holmes? I had to admit I had been impressed with Big Ben and all, but for a kid who had devoured the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, this was really something. I was on Baker Street, driving by the rooms of Holmes and Watson! I sort of wished it were all in black and white and gray, like in the movies." (“Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery,” James R. Benn)
As most of you are probably aware, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” ran two Sherlock Holmes-themed episodes—“Elementary, Dear Data” and “Ship in a Bottle”—which featured the android Lieutenant Commander Data, and Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, as Holmes and Watson, respectively.  Both episodes pit the pair against a computer replication of Professor Moriarty (played by Daniel Davis), while in a “holodeck” simulation of Victorian London and the world of Sherlock Holmes.
I was largely unfamiliar with Star Trek (and all things related) when I first saw Data and Geordi ensconced in the sitting room of 221B Baker Street.  I will readily admit that I had no idea what a holodeck was, though my husband was more than happy to oblige me in explaining (it’s so rare that our interests collide, after all). My imagination was immediately peaked by the concept, and before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “If I could find a computer program that could recreate Baker Street for me, I would never leave.”  My husband looked equal parts embarrassed, concerned, and affectionately amused.
To be perfectly clear, it’s not that I imagine myself sitting in 221B across from Holmes and Watson, engaged in some kind of clever conversation, as if I could manage it.  Heaven forbid.  Those who know me, and are familiar with my tendency to babble when intimidated, would find the notion both amusing and horrifying.  It’s more to the point that there is something satisfying about a place that does not change, no matter how much time passes.  Of course, it's comforting, but it's also beyond that—it’s about knowledge, a sense of time and place, and a sense of purpose.  It’s like having your own private joke, or well-kept secret, knowing how to get someplace that most other people do not. 
Baker Street creates an anchor point for the reader—a beacon in the turbulent harbor of crime and mystery.  In a manner of speaking, people in trouble flock to Baker Street “like birds to a light-house (TWIS).”  Not every story may start there, or end there, but eventually all roads will lead to Baker Street, and when they do, the effect is almost immediately equalizing. 
For instance, in the passage above, when Billy Boyle arrives in London, fresh from the United States and officers’ training school, to assist his “Uncle Ike” in the war effort, he is lost and confused, and a little bit heartsick, even if the Boston detective won’t admit it to himself.  But he sees Baker Street, and he is instantly grounded.  He knows this place.  He knows how it has been and how it should be, and most importantly, what it represents, and that is reassuring.  It’s a crucial moment for Lieutenant Boyle, and you can also hear the sound of Billy practically anchoring himself to 221B.  He knows nothing else about London—the city itself is barely recognizable due to the Blitz—but he knows Baker Street. 
Ask any Sherlockian, and they will be able to tell you where Holmes keeps his unread mail (under the jackknife, attached to the mantelpiece), where he hides his tobacco (in the Persian slipper), which chair is his (the one to the right of the fireplace), along with countless other details about the architecture of Baker Street.  Detailed replicas of this famous address can be found at the Sherlock Holmes Museum and the Sherlock Holmes Pub, in London. 
And it’s those details that fascinate, right?  Basil Rathbone’s wartime-era Baker Street remains Victorian in its interior details, even as the world around him changes violently (as one perceptive reader pointed out a few weeks back).  And Benedict Cumberbatch’s 21st century living room has some distinctly turn-of-the-century touches (the wallpaper and carpets, for instance), while the furniture is most definitely ‘80s (though in this instance I mean more 1980s, than 1880s).  Even Basil, the Great Mouse Detective, had his own personal 221 (and one half) Baker Street (a residence in the cellar of 221B).

Sherlock Holmes was obviously quite attached to Baker Street, and in “The Dying Detective,” Watson tells us: “…his [rent] payments were princely.  I have no doubt that the house might have been purchased at the price which Holmes paid for his rooms during the years that I was with him.”  Holmes resides almost exclusively at Baker Street (barring a three year hiatus) from 1881 until he retires to Sussex Downs in 1903.  At a certain point, he was a man of, if not unlimited, but at least substantial means.  He could have purchased his own home at any point, but didn’t.  He chose to stay, and rent, a moderately-sized flat.  It’s curious.  It makes you wonder.

Baker Street is, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary building on an ordinary street.  But there’s a soul to the place.  221B Baker Street is a character in the stories just like either Holmes or Watson.  We know just as much about it.  From the bullet-scarred walls, to the flight of seventeen steps that lead up to the flat, it has all been as carefully documented and debated as the location of Watson’s war wound.  Potential floor plans have been studied and theorized over in the same way as the possible names of Holmes’s parents (I favor “Siger” and “Violet” for a preference).  If Holmes and Watson are alive, then so is Baker Street.  It lives and breathes as much as anything else in the canon.  Likewise, it can never die.  We need to know that all roads still lead back to Baker Street, even if the scenery changes over the years.
Need a little mood music?  May I make a suggestion?

Friday, February 18, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: "The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls"

John R. King; Publisher: Forge Books (August 5, 2008)
I pulled my left hand away and began walking, a tingle of dread moving up my spine.  “I know who I am.  Who are you, Silence?  Read your own palm.”
Silence matched me stride for stride.  “I have been.  Of course I have.  There are many scars there for so thin a hand.  The palm has tobacco burns, the sort that would come from embers falling from a pipe, and acid burns from mixing caustic chemicals.  The back of the hand has black powder scars from firing a gun, and here—do you see these?”  He rolled back his sleeve and showed me the purple depression of veins leading from his inner elbow. 
“More likely, cocaine.  These are recent scars” (75-6).
Like most people, I think, I tend to judge a book based upon two criteria: the impression the book leaves on me initially, and the impression it makes on me over the long term.  More often than not, these two impressions are the same, but it’s when they differ that things get really interesting.  Such was the case with John R. King’s (more popularly known to fantasy-enthusiasts as J. Robert King) The Shadow of Reichenbach FallsI put the book down thinking, amongst other things, “What a very...strange story,” but found that details of the book were hard to shake off over time.  I found myself coming back to it, rereading passages, until the book spent more time off my shelf, than on.
Set against the events of “The Final Problem,” the novel offers an alternative plotline to the proceedings that took place leading up to, and during, the Great Hiatus.  During 1891, the young Thomas Carnacki [Note: If you are unfamiliar with author William Hope Hodgson’s Victorian ghost-finder Thomas Carnacki, you can find an excellent primer on him here.] is in the midst of a lovely picnic with a beautiful, though strange, young lady named Anna, whom he meets in Switzerland.  As they sit at the base of the Falls, the couple witnesses a fight on a cliff above them, and watches, horrified, as one man tosses the other into the river below.
Thomas Carnacki
They track down the hapless victim, who is alive, though just barely, but terribly injured and suffering from total memory loss.  They decide to call him “Harold Silence” (the name of the tailor on the man’s shirt label) for lack of any better ideas, and the odd moniker that begins their adventure together, proves to be far from the strangest thing that will happen to the trio over the course of the novel.
While the amnesiac man is obviously Sherlock Holmes, and the man who tossed him over the Falls is obviously Professor Moriarty, that is where everything that is “obvious” about the story ends.  The reader can ask any number of questions at this juncture—What will Thomas do?  What is lovely Anna's story?  How on Earth did the elderly, feeble Professor Moriarty throw the much younger, stronger Sherlock Holmes over the cliff?  And, what is Sherlock Holmes without his great mind?  Is he even Sherlock Holmes at all?    
King’s amnesiac-Holmes is in many ways very much like himself, as the passage above indicates.  But he is also in some ways very childlike, unable to ascertain how he accomplishes certain things.  At times he seems equally confused and terrified by his abilities, and at others, amused by them.  He seems disproportionately trusting, more dependent on others, and more aware of his physical needs than he would be with his memory intact (in fact, when Silence/Holmes expresses hunger or a desire for sleep, it is almost shocking, in a way; as if he had expressed a preference for frilly hair ribbons or to join a corps of dancing girls).  Not knowing any better, however, Thomas and Anna take everything in stride as they set about getting Silence’s mind back.
And Sherlock Holmes’s mind is ultimately what is at stake here.  It is what the entire plot hinges on and revolves around—not just Holmes’s memory, but his mind.  As Moriarty says:
“Yes.  That is the problem.  This brain of yours.  Empty.  It’s not what I paid for.  It’s the attic without the treasure… It’s as if the library of Alexandria had burned!  […]  It did burn, my friend.  That library, with all the wisdom of the ancient world—that goddamned library is gone.  Gone!  And your goddamned mind is gone, too.  All that you knew, all that you were—gone, except this pathetic, festering hunk of meat… (117)."    
If Moriarty seems a tad more vicious than you’ve come to expect, I assure you there is a very interesting, if implausible reason for it; and the book is worth reading, even if all you want to do is discover what the reason is.  More interesting for myself, however, was who Sherlock Holmes became (“Harold Silence”) when he was no longer aware of himself.  As Holmes’s mind comes back to him, in bits and pieces over the course of the story, it is as if the framework of his character is reassembling itself, and the reader can suddenly see the foundation of Sherlock Holmes.  It’s almost as if the most important characteristics that made him uniquely Sherlock Holmes are what fall into place first—his deductive abilities, his imperious nature, and, of course, even his friendship with Dr. Watson:
“And there is a listener beside me.  He is a stocky man with an intelligent face and sensitive eyes…I look upon this slumping figure, who takes in my violin playing as a drunkard takes in gin, and I see greatness in him.  Greatness and friendship (90).”    
This is all King’s interpretation, of course, but The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls is an excellent read for anyone who has ever chased the answer to the ever elusive question of Holmes’s essential nature, the structure that supports the Great Detective.  Stripped of nearly everything that distinctly characterizes him, Harold Silence/Sherlock Holmes makes for an interesting personality study, but barring that and underneath it all, John R. King proves that Sherlock Holmes is still a great man.  Even if he has to be reminded of it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Unstoppable Force and the Immovable Object: Sherlock & Mycroft Holmes

Sherlock: “…I mean, what is there for me to do?”
Mycroft: “To act, Sherlock.  To act.  All my instincts are against this explanation, and your’s too, I think.  We are not brothers for nothing.  Use your powers, go to the scene, question the people concerned, leave no stone unturned.  In all your career, you’ll never have a greater chance of serving your country.”
(“The Bruce-Partington Plans,” 1988)
Quite a bit of Sherlockian scholarship is devoted to the question of whether or not Sherlock Holmes could have existed in a vacuum.  Could he have deduced as easily from Montague Street as from Baker Street?  Would he have been able to solve crime as a chemist working in the laboratories of St. Bart’s?  And, perhaps most pressing, does Sherlock Holmes even exist without Dr. Watson by his side?
For my part, I’ve always been more than a little bit fascinated by the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his older brother, Mycroft.  My perception of their relationship has been colored by some of the remarkable on-screen portrayals over the years.  Not the least of which is that of Charles Gray’s Mycroft to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock; but more recently we’ve seen Mark Gatiss as older brother to Benedict Cumberbatch; and much buzz is already brewing about Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the older Holmes sibling, opposite Robert Downey, Jr., in Guy Ritchie’s sequel to his 2009 blockbuster, which is due out later this year.
Mycroft Holmes, for all that he is apparently Sherlock’s only living relative, appears in just two of the original stories: “The Greek Interpreter,” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans.”  He is also briefly mentioned in “The Final Problem,” and “The Empty House.”  He is one of the founding members of the Diogenes Club (a club for misanthropic men), superior to his brother in both intelligence and deductive skill, and, as Dr. Watson puts it, rather…rotund:
“Heavily built and massive, there was a suggestion of uncouth physical inertia in the figure, but above this unwieldy frame there was perched a head so masterful in its brow, so alert in its steel-gray, deep-set eyes, so firm in its lips, and so subtle in its play of expression, that after the first glance one forgot the gross body and remembered only the dominant mind (BRUC).”
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are flatmates for more than seven years before Sherlock reveals his brother’s existence and introduces him to Dr. Watson in “The Greek Interpreter.”  And frankly, you have to wonder why Mycroft needed to enter the picture at all.  Everyone seemed to be getting on just fine without him.  Sherlock was deducing, making daring leaps of intellect, and even battling poisonous snakes, while the world thought, as Watson did, that “…he was an orphan with no relatives living” (GREE).
There was seemingly nothing wrong with thinking that the world only had space for one terrifyingly intelligent man, who could know the shape of you by the pattern of your footfalls.  What are the readers supposed to do with two men of startling genius, even if one of them is (gently put) less inclined to physical efforts?  Why wasn’t one Holmes enough?
Therefore, I think you have to consider the Holmes brothers as a set in order to go about answering that question.  In her 2010 novel, The God of the Hive, Laurie R. King makes an interesting observation:
“The Holmes brothers were a bit god-like: generous and well meaning towards lesser mankind, but capricious and sometimes frightening in their omniscience (47).”
The reader should consider Sherlock and Mycroft as an entity, consider them as a pair, consider what is accomplished when the two of them work together (or do not, as the case may be).  Sherlock is the unstoppable force to Mycroft’s immovable object.  Sherlock makes mistakes, and he also been outwitted.  But Mycroft often needs help because of his own physical limitations.  Together, they are a veritable fortress of intellect.  Who wouldn’t be a little frightened?  They are unemotional, unmovable… and really very uninteresting.
And so it’s easy to see why Mycroft wasn’t around at the beginning, why Sherlock didn’t make a point of introducing his new flatmate to his only family in A Study in Scarlet, and why Mycroft only made sporadic appearances throughout the canon.  Because when the Holmes brothers are together—the conclusion is nearly forgone.  How can the mystery not be solved?  It would get a bit boring after awhile, I think. 
But when they are together, the reader can’t help but remember that we are “lesser mankind,” as King puts it.  When Sherlock is solving crime with Dr. Watson as his partner, the reader can look to the good doctor as a reminder of all that is normal, and attainable, and accessible, and the Great Detective suddenly doesn’t seem so out of reach.  We feel as if it might even be possible to imagine ourselves in the doctor’s position, using our own normal brains to assist, as Watson does on occasion.
But paired up with, and standing alongside his equally astonishing brother, the reader can’t help but be reminded of why Sherlock Holmes is so truly extraordinary, and beyond our ability to fully comprehend.  Mycroft accentuates and reinforces all that so otherworldly about his brother, and throws it all into stark relief.  We can’t help but see it all, because we are seeing it in double.   
We remember that Sherlock is unique, that he is exceptional, and he is, most certainly, not like the rest of us.  Mycroft Holmes serves as a reminder of the company that Sherlock should be keeping, of what he could potentially achieve, if he weren’t so caught up in our lesser problems.  The reader feels more grateful, after seeing Sherlock with Mycroft.  They are, indeed, “a bit god-like,” when they are together, and the reader feels grateful that Sherlock Holmes would choose lesser mankind at all. 
They are not brothers for nothing, it would seem, after all.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

“Only Those Things the Heart Believes Are True”: Subjective Reality and Belief in Sherlock Holmes

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.” (His Last Bow/ "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror")
My husband prefers Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.  I’m never quite sure what to make of it when someone who has no opinion anything else related to Sherlock Holmes, will have a very specific opinion about who portrays the Great Detective on screen.  Maybe someday I’ll tell the story of my mother-in-law’s…um…ardent admiration for Peter Cushing’s portrayal, which I think stems in no small way from a school-girl crush.
Anyway, my husband prefers Basil Rathbone, and that’s as far as his interest in Sherlockian matters goes, but he is also quite firm on this point.  He thinks Robert Downey, Jr., is “scruffy,” describes Benedict Cumberbatch as “cold,” and mutters a word under his breath that I am positive is “histrionic” when I take my Jeremy Brett box-set off the shelf.  But when I reach for my Rathbone collection, he actually joins me on the sofa, and does not attempt to hide the remote under the cushions.  And that’s enough for me.
And that’s also the reason I’ve never pressed the issue of why, as it is enough that he does, in fact, enjoy them...genuinely, and not just for my benefit.  However, as this week marks the 116th birthday of Nigel Bruce, I decided to question him a little more on the issue.  He didn’t really see the point of it all at first, but he gave it some thought, before finally telling me: “I like that some of them are during the War.  I like the idea of Holmes fighting for his country.  I like the idea of Sherlock Holmes as a war hero.”

Ah, I thought.  There we are.  It should have been obvious.  My husband is one of those people who can recognize a plane, ship, gun, or tank from the shape of its shadow, and has been able to do so since he was a toddler.  Of course the war would be the selling point for him.
I’ve actually been thinking a lot about Sherlock Holmes and the Second World War since I started reading Michael Chabon’s “P.S. The Final Solution: A Story of Detection,” in which Holmes (technically, the main character is an unnamed “old man” who was once a famous detective and now lives in the South Downs… but you can do the math yourself) is 89 years old.  This is more in line with what is thought to be the traditional timeline of Holmes’s life, and contrary to the Rathbone-Holmes movies, in which the world of Sherlock Holmes (characters, plots, and settings) is transplanted entirely into the 1940s. 
Rathbone made his first two Sherlock Holmes films with Twentieth Century Fox, but it was only after the franchise was moved to Universal Studios that they began to be used for anti-war propaganda.  In addition, the first three films with Universal Studios—“Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, and Sherlock Holmes in Washington”—had very explicit anti-Nazi-themes.  And at the end of each film, a card encouraging the audience to buy war bonds was shown.
Most interesting, I think, is the title card from those films, which read:  
Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day he remains as ever the supreme master of deductive reasoning.
And I think that’s the core of the issue.  That Sherlock Holmes, at the very heart of it, remains of the same.  I know I’m not saying anything new here, but I think it bears repeating.  In fact, there are hundreds of examples of this point, but these are some good ones—Basil Rathbone and Michael Chabon.  The outside of the man might change—he might be unnamed and so old that his joints make alarming noises when he bends, transplanted to the 1940s to fight Nazis, or, most recently, even equipped with a smartphone in the 21st century—but the soul of the thing should remain the same.  The case should be solved, the day should be saved, and the world gets to spin on once more because of a man who, as Graham Moore puts it in The Sherlockian, “…can tell you the story of your life by the cut of your shirtsleeves.”
And perhaps that’s why Sherlock Holmes was so easily appropriated as propaganda …because the audiences wanted to believe (and still want to believe) that what the man said was, absolutely and without question, true.  We want his solutions to be unerringly accurate, his motives and morals (if not his methods) to be unimpeachably right.  Lucy Pollard-Gott, in her book, The Fictional 100, states that, “More than any other modern character, Sherlock Holmes has been accorded the distinction of becoming real (44).”  When it comes to real people, we want to believe certain things of them—good or bad—but we want to believe in them unfailingly.  That’s the heart of the matter—that certain things are incontrovertible. 
My husband wants to believe that Holmes is a war hero.  Michael Chabon wants to believe that Holmes can solve crimes when he’s practically a century old.  And I want to believe in all of it.  I don’t think there is anything terrible about that.  It’s even a little appallingly romantic.
And as Pollard-Gott says, “Sherlock Holmes continues to attract us, assuredly for the quality of his mind, but also for the quality of his enigmatic heart.  Holmes lives because we still need him (51).”


More information about Lucy Pollard-Gott and her book can be found on her website: