Friday, April 29, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “The Crack in the Lens”

Darlene A. Cypser; Publisher: Foolscap & Quill (December 23, 2010)
During the course of the canon stories, Sherlock Holmes comes into contact with “four Violets,” either as clients or in some other capacity in his role at the world’s first consulting detective: Violet Hunter (COPP), Violet de Merville (ILLU), Violet Smith (SOLI), and Violet Westbury (BRUC).  In addition to it being a relatively popular first name for Victorian girls, William Baring-Gould posited that Sherlock Holmes’s mother was named Violet, and other scholars have suggested the existence of a Holmes sister, also possibly named Violet.  It’s fun to theorize how (or “if”) the name could have had some personal significance to Sherlock Holmes, and Darlene Cypser’s novel The Crack in the Lens offers a compelling new theory, and a fresh perspective on the Great Detective’s early years, with careful consideration to what readers already know.   
In 1871, Sherlock Holmes is seventeen-years-old, and just returned to Holmes Hall—his family’s Yorkshire estate—after two years on the Continent.  Life at his family home is changing rapidly.  Sherrinford, the oldest Holmes brother, is preparing to marry, and eventually assume his duties as the head of the estate.  Mycroft is in London, working in his capacity for the British government.  A new tutor has been hired to prepare Sherlock for university.  And Sherlock meets Violet Rushdale, the daughter of a tenant farmer, on the moor that spring.  Cypser’s young Sherlock cuts a striking, romantic figure—vibrant and in the prime of life—riding across his family’s estate.  But there is a keenly felt distance between that young man, and the person who Dr. Watson will meet in 1881, in the laboratories of St. Bart’s.
The thorny issue with writing new back-story for Sherlock Holmes is that, while the canon leaves lots of room for speculation on the Detective’s early years, unless the author intends to rewrite or readapt the known back-story, there are certain plotlines that a reader already knows will not end well.  A romance for a young Sherlock, no matter how passionate or compelling, is probably one of those plotlines.  Before even opening the book, the reader already knows that Sherlock Holmes does not arrive at Baker Street with a wife on his elbow, so heartbreak clearly looms on the horizon from the outset for Sherlock and Violet.  And that type of knowledge can sometimes be very distracting while reading—a reader can get anxious when constantly waiting for the axe to fall.  
But the real strength of the novel lies outside of Sherlock’s youthful romance.  The relationships that connect the Holmes family are rich, complex, and so very telling when considering the evolution of Sherlock’s character.  Within the first few pages, the reader is introduced to Squire Holmes and his wife, and Sherlock neatly sums up their relationship:     
“They were not close.  He and his brothers had been brought up, as was not unusual for a family of their standing, by a succession of governesses and tutors.  He had vivid memories of these, both good and bad, but his mother had always been a distant, fuzzy figure absorbed in the details of the running of the house and the maintenance of the squire’s social circle” (4).
The narrative immediately brings to mind Jeremy Brett’s description of the Detective’s early life (or how the actor envisioned it):  “I mean, I know what his nanny looked like, for example; she was covered in starch.  She probably scrubbed him, but never kissed him.  I don't think he probably saw his mother until he was about eight.  Maybe caught a touch of the fragrance of her scent and the rustle of her dress.”  Mrs. Holmes is an infrequent presence in the novel (perhaps fittingly so), but Squire Holmes is a formidable figure.  He is an uncompromising mountain of a man, commanding unquestioning strength and obedience from everyone around him.  It’s easy to see how his youngest son became a man who could bend fireplace pokers (SPEC), leap onto the backs of criminals to curtail them (SIXN), and narrowly avoid being struck down by a poisonous dart without blinking (SIGN).  
Even more compelling is the relationship between the three Holmes brothers.  Sherrinford, the eldest and nine years Sherlock’s senior, is not blindingly or incisively intelligent in the manner of his two younger siblings, but he is earnest and compassionate in a way that foreshadows the presence of Dr. Watson.  When Sherrinford tells Sherlock, “You will always be welcome [at Holmes Hall] when I am squire” (118), the reader knows he is sincere.  Mycroft, the middle child, appears on the page far less frequently, but always arrives at crucial moments, when Sherlock needs someone to speak to him in their native and shared language of logic and reason.  And when the three brothers are together, there is a sense that the whole world could change—or even just their world—simply because they are all occupying the same space.  Cypser effectively conveys the feeling that whatever the three brothers say to each other, whatever they decide when they are together, will have lasting, far-reaching consequences.         
The author is also adept at setting a scene.  The novel’s locales are as vivid and alive as any of the people.  Holmes Hall is constantly bustling with activity, reminiscent of the beehives that Sherlock Holmes will turn to in his twilight years.  The local village is colorful, filled with a diverse supporting cast of characters.  The moors on which Sherlock and Violet conduct their romance are haunting, and beautiful.  And when Sherlock visits York, with Sherrinford and his pretty new bride, there is a glimpse of the confident man who will one day walk the streets of London, directing his troop of Irregulars, knowing each alley and doorway.  The echoes of who Sherlock Holmes will become walk behind him throughout the novel, just out of reach, but ever-present.   
This novel will probably not be to everyone’s taste.  The image of Sherlock Holmes, young and (sometimes quite literally) foolishly in love, might not sit well with some.  In addition, The Crack in the Lens is not a typical Sherlock Holmes mystery, in the terms that readers have come to expect.  The author herself said, in a March 12, 2011 interview on “The Baker Street Blog”: “You need to understand that my book is not a Sherlock Holmes mystery  where he solves crimes.  In fact the mysteries that arise in The Crack in the Lens are not solved in the book.” 
But to borrow a line from “The Sussex Vampire,” there are “unexplored possibilities” here.  Cypser’s teenage Sherlock is a man perched on the cusp of greatness, and her vision of how the Great Detective was ultimately fashioned is both devastating and captivating.
The Crack in the Lens is available in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  A full list of booksellers is available here.  More information about the novel and its author is available on its website.  Or follow the novel or Darlene Cypser on Twitter.
Show off your knowledge of Sherlock Holmes, his creator, and his world, to win a prize package of reference works!  Entries are being accepted until 11:59p.m. EST on Saturday, May 21, 2011.

Monday, April 25, 2011

CONTEST: Enter the “Better Holmes & Gardens” Trivia Contest and Win a Sherlock Holmes Reference Prize Package

[Update, May 3: New Contest Rules, see below for a new way to win!]

Sometimes I wonder if being a Sherlockian doesn’t ultimately go hand-in-hand with an innate love of trivia.  How many of us have uttered the line, “I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles” (LION), as if it were a personal maxim, engraved on our family crest?  But there’s some truth to it.  Sherlock Holmes devotees effortlessly remember dates, ramble off long lists of authors and scholars, and can be depended on to spot the smallest mistake in accuracy or continuity.  On the whole, the Sherlock Holmes community tends to be well-read, devoted academics, tireless researchers, with minds like industrial magnets when it comes to information that interests them.
In that spirit, I’m launching a new blog contest, and all you have to do to win is brush off your own personal bank of Sherlockian trivia, and correctly answer any of three questions in the following categories: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes on the Page, and the London of Sherlock Holmes.  Here are the details:

·    A new, hardcover edition of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley.  The collection of previously unpublished correspondence creates a unique, well-rounded portrait of the multifaceted man who created Sherlock Holmes.  The letters in the volume reveal Doyle’s thoughts on nearly every aspect of his life, from the death of his wife, his fascinating friendships with many well-known contemporary figures, and even his apparent ambivalence towards his most famous creation.  A must-read for fans of the Great Detective, though they may not necessarily enjoy what they learn about his maker.
·    A new, paperback copy of the Sherlock Holmes Handbook (Second Edition), by Christopher Redmond.  Author of In Bed with Sherlock Holmes: Sexual Elements in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Stories of the Great Detective and Welcome to America, Mr. Holmes: Victorian America Meets Arthur Conan Doyle, Redmond has created an infinitely readable reference work on the Great Detective, covering all aspects of the works, the scholarship, and the community.  Redmond is also the proprietor of
Correctly answer any of the following three trivia questions:
1.   Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a fan of what type of fountain pen, and even used it to write some of the final Sherlock Holmes stories? (You only need to provide make and model—all other details are superfluous, but not unwelcome.)
2.  Sherlock Holmes on the Page:
In the famous pastiche, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., edited by Nicholas Meyer, Watson states that four stories from the canon are “forgeries by other hands than mine.”  Name them.  (I do not mean the two canon stories that Watson claims to have made up himself, in order to protect Sherlock Holmes.)
3.   The London of Sherlock Holmes:
What actual London residence has been claimed by several scholars as the mostly likely model for Pondicherry Lodge, the home of the Sholto family in The Sign of Four?

Submit your answers via e-mail at betterholmesandgardens[at]gmail[dot]com.  Please do not leave answers in the comments.  Submissions with one correct answer will count for one entry; submissions with two correct answers will count for two entriesAny submission with all three correct answers will count for six contest entries.

You may enter multiple times if you believe you answered incorrectly, but your entry will only count once for each question.  Please use the subject line: “Sherlock Holmes Trivia Contest Entry,” so I don’t accidentally delete your entry as spam.
The contest is open from now until 11:59p.m. EST on Saturday, May 21, 2011.  At that time, a random entry will be chosen from the correct entries using Random.orgThe winner will be announced on Monday, May 23, 2011 via blog post, Twitter, and Facebook. 
Best of luck, and have fun!

Friday, April 22, 2011

“I never can resist a touch of the dramatic” (NAVA): Sherlock Holmes and the Art of Disguise

“Ah, you rogue!” cried Jones, highly delighted. “You would have made an actor and a rare one. You had the proper workhouse cough, and those weak legs of yours are worth ten pound a week.  I thought I knew the glint of your eye, though. You didn’t get away from us so easily, you see” (The Sign of Four).
I have a confession to make.  You see, I was once completely taken in by one of Sherlock Holmes’s disguises.  There, I said it.  I don’t feel any less embarrassed for having admitted it, but still, it’s the truth.  It was my first viewing of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), starring Basil Rathbone, and oh, how I laughed when that silly vaudeville singer came out, in his ridiculous striped jacket.  And oh, how I chuckled to myself, thinking how Sherlock Holmes would never do anything as undignified as sing, “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside,” while dancing merrily.  And oh, how stupid I felt when that music hall performer revealed himself as the Great Detective.  I had read the stories after all, how did I not I see this coming?  It felt a bit like being caught off-guard at Holmes making a complex deduction or lighting his pipe; at times, the disguises seem as much a part of his character as anything else.
Sherlock Holmes uses the art of disguise throughout the canon, quite often and typically to great success.  On average, he appears as some form of laborer (CHAS) or as a sailor (SIGN), and even once appearing as an opium addict (TWIS); on film or television, his costumes tend to be a bit more elaborate [Note: Rupert Everett’s impressive “French ambassador” disguise in Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking].   But there are three particular disguises from the canon that stand out as being unique: the old priest whom Holmes becomes to gain access to Briony Lodge and Irene Adler; the old bookseller he is dressed as when he presents himself to Watson after the Great Hiatus; and Holmes’s spy persona, the Irish-American “Altamont.”  These three instances highlight both the faults, and the intricacies of purpose, when considering this particular method in Holmes’s art of detection.
·         The Old Priest from “A Scandal in Bohemia
A unique disguise for Holmes if only in that it failed.  He appears in costume twice in SCAN, first as “a drunken-looking groom,” before becoming the “simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman.”  Granted it was the entire package of circumstances (the rowdy crowd, the fire scare, the smoke bomb, and the old priest) that allowed Irene Adler to realize that she had been duped.  But Holmes’s disguise didn’t serve to protect him.  He is wearing it at that famous canonical moment, when bent over to unlock the door to Baker Street, Adler saunters past (in her much more effective costume) and says, “Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.”  Holmes is caught off-guard and very unsettled.  The Great Detective has been defeated, and he doesn’t even fully realize it until the next day, when he returns to Briony Lodge with Watson and the King of Bohemia to attempt to retrieve the prize.
Holmes has a laundry list of skills at his disposal, without even considering his ability to camouflage himself: analytical and deductive reasoning, physical dexterity, safe cracking and lock picking, the ability to identify 140 different types of tobacco ash (BOSC) and 42 different bicycle tire treads (PRIO).  But Holmes’s ability to disguise himself is a bit like putting on armor; it’s a skill, to be sure, but it also acts as an extra layer of protection.  Holmes appears as other people when it would be unwise to appear as himself, or when he would learn more masquerading as someone else.  The costumes shelter him from physical threat, and protect him from the possibility of failure.   
Irene Adler saw through his disguise, and she knew who he was.  She knew that she had become “an object of interest to the celebrated Mr. Sherlock Holmes.”  Sherlock Holmes wasn’t just wrong in the case of “A Scandal in Bohemia”; and he wasn’t just proven wrong by a woman.  He was proven vulnerable.
·         The Old Bookseller from “The Empty House
A unique costume for the reasons that Holmes employed it.  Ransom Riggs says, in The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: The Mysteries and Methods of the World’s Greatest Detective, “Few things are more shocking than watching one person become another” (143).  Nowhere in the canon is this more accurate than in “The Empty House.”  One moment, Watson is talking to an old bookseller who is eagerly trying to sell him copies of British Birds, Catullus, and The Holy War; he turns to examine his bookcase and when he looks back, Sherlock Holmes is smiling at him—a man who by all accounts has been dead for three years.  It’s hard to blame the Doctor for careening into a flat faint. 
Holmes gets quite a bit of grief for being needlessly cruel to his old friend in this instance, and even he terms his use of the disguise as “unnecessarily dramatic,” but there are few factors to consider before passing judgment.  While the rest of the world thinks Sherlock Holmes is dead—and that meant he could have walked down a Kensington street and not attracted any notice from random passersby—there certainly were people that were looking for the face of a dead man in the crowd.  Holmes knew that one of Professor Moriarty’s confederates, Colonel Moran, had escaped capture; and most importantly, Holmes knew that he was being watched.  In short, he is in danger, but most especially, he is a danger to others.  If he had simply strolled casually into Watson’s practice dressed as no one but himself, the apple-seller across the street may have thought little of it, but more likely, one of Moran’s associates would have attempted to cut down Holmes before he ever crossed the threshold.  And if not, Watson would have been in danger just by being in Holmes’s presence. 
So in this instance, Holmes disguises himself, not just to glean information, not just for his own protection, but for the protection of others.
·         “Altamont,” Irish-American Spy, from “His Last Bow
A unique masquerade if only in terms of sheer longevity.  In this story, which is chronologically the last of their adventures (taking place in 1914), Holmes tells Watson how he came to be a spy, under the behest of the prime minister himself: “It has cost me two years, Watson, but they have not been devoid of excitement. When I say that I started my pilgrimage at Chicago, graduated in an Irish secret society at Buffalo, gave serious trouble to the constabulary at Skibbareen…”  Michael Walsh’s short story, “The Song at Twilight,” available in the collection, Sherlock Holmes in America, provides an interesting timeline of specifics regarding Holmes’s American excursion, including the details of his induction into the Irish secret society he spoke of, how “James McKenna” became “Altamont,” and how the ghost of a past adventure influenced that change.
Altamont is also peculiar in that he is not one of Holmes’s more complicated disguises in terms of make-up and costuming.  He grows a goatee, and adopts an Irish-American accent and appropriate slang.  Both of which he apparently despises and plans to do away with as soon as possible, but a disguise for Sherlock Holmes was more than just grease-paint and fake hair.  As Watson tells us, “It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume.  His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed” (SCAN).  Considering this, assuming a persona for two entire years, becomes a very interesting thing indeed for Sherlock Holmes. 
In “The Song at Twilight,” Holmes outlines the assumption of his new personality: “Still, no role I had played, neither stable boy, nor wizen bookseller, nor even Sigerson—when the world, including Watson, thought me dead after Professor Moriarty’s unfortunate accident at the Reichenbach Falls—could rival my new persona…With every passing day, he was becoming more and more real to me, and there were days when I hardly thought of Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street” (336).  “Altamont” is interesting, therefore, in that he could perhaps be termed a person and not a persona; and serves to further accentuate the very dangerous games Holmes sometimes played with others, but also with himself.  
Like Inspector Jones tells him in The Sign of Four, Holmes “would have made an actor and a rare one,” and the Detective’s ability to masquerade as almost anyone provides some of the canon’s more lighthearted moments.  But as with almost everything he does, there are layers of purpose here.  He uses disguise for a myriad number of reasons—to get information, to protect himself, to protect others, and perhaps even for reasons that are beyond his own understanding.  Whatever the case, Holmes was a master at it, and even Watson never seemed to develop the ability to see through his friend’s subterfuges, no matter how many years they knew each other.  Perhaps then I’ll stop being embarrassed about my oversight in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  Probably not.
A new blog contest launches this Monday, April 25!  Brush up on your Sherlock Holmes trivia, and check back here for details on how to enter and win.

Monday, April 18, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Works of Alistair Duncan

It’s nice to feel like someone is paying attention.  And when I opened the carefully wrapped package on Christmas Day in 2009, I felt as if my in-laws had finally been doing just that.  Inside the package was a copy of Alistair Duncan’s Eliminate the Impossible: An Examination of the World of Sherlock Holmes on Page and Screen, and, having read one of his books, I had to get my hands on the other two.  And, of course, I’m also eagerly awaiting publication of Duncan’s fourth book later this year.
Below are variations on the original reviews I wrote when I first read Duncan’s books, and although I have revisited some of the finer points in the year since, my opinions remain much the same as they first did.  More information on Alistair Duncan and his books is available at the end of the post.

Multifaceted and Thoroughly Researched
Like many Sherlock Holmes devotees, my bookcases are overwhelmed, with bowed and cracked shelves.  My husband lives in fear of the seemingly inevitable crash.  The amount of material dedicated to analyzing, chronicling, debating, and researching every (sometimes seemingly insignificant) detail of the world's favorite detective is endless.  But Alistair Duncan's first book, Eliminate the Impossible, is not just another member of an already very large wolf pack.  Approaching his discussion of the world of Sherlock Holmes both on the page (through the original canon) and on screen (both film and television), Duncan immediately sets his work apart from the myriad others that would overshadow it through his concise language, keen insight, and immense body of scholarship.

The first portion of the book, devoted to the original stories, offers a neatly organized chronology of Doyle's work, with crisp summaries, and intriguing observations.  Duncan distills the theories of well-known Sherlockian scholars (Dakin, Baring-Gould, and Klinger) and presents the information in a way that sheds new light on some of the stories more perplexing problems, while still making the information accessible and readable to new Sherlockian researchers.  Having the opinions of many noted scholars on one page is also endlessly useful.
Unfortunately, there is something missing from this section of Duncan's book, and that is, ironically, Duncan himself.  He devotes large portions of his book to the theories and opinions of others, but his own theories are, for the most part, markedly absent.  On a few occasions does he make note that the theory of a particular scholar is not his own or that he disagrees with a particular opinion, and only rarely does he enlighten the reader as to what his theory may be.

But it’s the second portion of his book that really showcases Duncan’s strengths.  His analysis of the various portrayals of Sherlock Holmes on screen is both delightful and surprising, as I referenced in a recent post on Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett’s portrayals of Sherlock Holmes.  While Duncan spends well-deserved time on many of the better known actors that have portrayed the Great Detective (Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett), he also sheds much-needed light on some forgotten gems (Douglas Wilmer), and also on some film portrayals that are perhaps best left forgotten (Matt Frewer, I'm looking at you). 

Surprisingly missing is a review of the Russian Sherlock Holmes, Vasily Livanov and his Watson, Vitaly Solomin.  Additionally, when I finished my first reading of this book over a year ago, I closed it and hoped one day for a second edition, which would include, amongst other things, a look at Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law's 2009 outing as Holmes and the Doctor.  Today, I still hope for a second edition, one that might include Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s 21st century take, amongst other items.  Duncan has discussed the possibility of a second edition on his blog, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

In short, when many Sherlock Holmes scholars are picky about what to put on their already overloaded shelves, Alistair Duncan's book has more than earned a place on them.  His multi-faceted approach and thorough research make his first work invaluable, and one that will certainly be well-thumbed for many years to come.

An Indispensible Traveling Companion
I’m not so very old, but it’s been a depressingly long time since I’ve been to London.  And when I read Alistair Duncan's second Sherlockian outing Close to Holmes, nothing impressed me more than the feeling that I really could have used this book while there.  I finished the book with the sense that I had missed much the last time I had walked through London unguided, and that if Duncan’s book had been in my bag, it would have been equivalent to a personal guided tour.
Duncan methodically and efficiently highlights both locations that are obvious stops for any Sherlock Holmes enthusiast (Baker Street being the first of these), and those that would be a great surprise (the real-life model for Pondicherry Lodge), in addition to the locations frequented and occupied by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself.
But Duncan does more than describe these streets and buildings—something any well-researched history text could do.  He gives them context, a sense of time and place, that is utterly invaluable. The reader walks away from the book with a knowledge of these locations within history, but also within the Sherlock Holmes canon.  As you read, restaurants come to life with the buzz of humanity, streets with the movement of traffic, and buildings and homes with the mysteries within their walls.  It is one thing to describe the sights and sounds of Victorian London to the reader, but Alistair Duncan manages to bring them back to life, and that is quite another thing entirely.
So, if I ever do have the opportunity to walk the streets of London again, it will most definitely be with Alistair Duncan's book in hand, and I cannot think of a stronger recommendation than that.
·       The Norwood Author: Arthur Conan Doyle and the Norwood Years (1891-1894)
(Publisher: MX Publishing; March 1, 2010)

A Uniquely Driven and Keenly Focused Literary Biography
I’m usually a hard sell on a biography; they can be very tricky things.  It's difficult to write a compelling one—one where the reader doesn't walk away feeling like they heard the information before; that what they just read wasn't repackaged and repurposed from some other source.  And when your subject is one of the most intriguing literary figures that has ever lived, who created one of the world’s most enduring fictional characters, a writer’s task only multiplies in difficulty.
So I can think of no higher compliment that I can pay to Alistair Duncan's Sir Arthur Conan Doyle biography, The Norwood Author, than to say that I learned something.  Duncan presents his reader with new and fresh information, and draws parallels to what is already widely known about the man who created the Great Detective.  By focusing on a specific period of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's life (1891-1894), Duncan is able to focus on information that might be glazed over, or even completely neglected, in a more extensive biography.  Duncan shows an appreciation for all the minutiae that another biographer might see as mere trifle, and he understands that a picture of a Doyle is only formed by knowing all the parts, and that neglecting even one piece is an unnecessary oversight.  And, as a result, the picture of Conan Doyle's life grows a little clearer, a little crisper around the edges, a little more complete.
Fans of Sherlock Holmes know, more than anything, that the devil is in the details, and Alistair Duncan's Doyle biography is full of gems.  Details that shaped Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's life, writing, and the famous character that so many people love, are available in abundance, for those willing to seek them out.  
All three of Duncan’s books are available in both Kindle and paperback formats, on and his blog for more information about his upcoming book on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his time at Undershaw: An Entirely New Country –Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes¸ scheduled to be released this December.  You can also follow him on Twitter.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sherlock Holmes Miscellany: Some Frequently Asked Questions

"I should very much like to ask you one or two plain questions to which I beg that you will give a plain answer” (TWIS).
Most people have a hobby, I think, and that usually provokes a certain amount of curiosity from those closest to them.  My husband, for instance, has been studying military history all of his life, and so there is always a little discussion regarding accuracy and continuity whenever The Guns of Navarone is on Turner Classic Movies.  My little sister is very interested in all genres of heavy metal music (I didn’t even know there was more than one genre until she told me), about which I try to ask thoughtful questions, while simultaneously covering my ears, as very angry men scream at me from her stereo.  I have friends who run, friends who bike, friends who knit, friends who collect tiny spoons from around the world, friends who love Oz, and friends who spend most of their time in Wonderland.  I always try to ask thoughtful questions of varying specificity, if only to show that I care about these things simply because they do.  And they do the same for me.
My sister's music
sometimes feels like this.
So, what types of questions do you get asked if your hobby is a literary nineteenth century detective, his doctor companion, and all things related to their world?  I’ve found that the questions range from the mostly general (Which story should I read first?) to the oddly specific (Did Sherlock Holmes ever investigate a case in my hometown?) to more loaded than they were probably imagining (Was Sherlock Holmes real?).  Occasionally, the questions can irritate, like the proverbial pea under the mattress (What’s the deal with that stupid hat and silly pipe?), but I’ve found that the really good questions, the truly thoughtful ones, tend to inspire.  They get me thinking, they start me on new research, and most importantly, they’re questions I want to share.  I’ve listed a (very) few of my favorites below, and I hope you’ll supply your own for discussion in future installments.       
·         Who lives in 221A Baker Street?
Oh, poor Mrs. Hudson.  After all she does for the tenants of Baker Street—cooking, cleaning, laundry, making tea, delivering telegrams and other correspondence, ushering and comforting clients (mindless of the time of day or night)— people seem to forget that she needed somewhere to sleep as much as her residents.  She was certainly more than a landlady (noting that the term “housekeeper” seems to sit ill with Mrs. Hudson’s 21st century counterpart, though she appears to conduct many of the same tasks as her 19th century forebear).  In fact, according to Christopher Redmond, author of the Sherlock Holmes Handbook (2nd Edition), Mrs. Hudson’s unusual devotion to her tenants—particularly Holmes—is worth noting.  “Certainly the kind of devotion seen in ‘The Empty House,’ in which she repeatedly crawls to Holmes’s wax bust ‘on my knees’ and in danger of her life to adjust its position, suggests something more than the usual relationship between tenant and landlady” (54). 
Rosalie Williams played Mrs. Hudson,
Holmes and Watson's landlady and housekeeper
in the Granada Television series.
In all likelihood, as the owner of the residence, Mrs. Hudson would have retained the usage of the ground floor as her personal apartments, while Holmes and Watson would have taken up residence on the top two levels (Day 8).  Thus, Mrs. Hudson is the most likely resident of “221A” Baker Street, though her apartments probably never bore that official designation.  Also of note, in her book Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James posits the existence of a “221C” Baker Street, though I think this unlikely (37).  Primarily because a neighbor in such close proximity to Holmes and Watson would have been mentioned eventually in the canon, and also because I’ve had some monstrously bad neighbors in my life, but one who shot through our adjoining walls would be beyond most human endurance.
·    Why isn’t Sherlock Holmes a police officer, or otherwise working full-time for Scotland Yard?
“I am not retained by the police force to supply their deficiencies,” Sherlock Holmes says in “The Blue Carbuncle”—a statement which goes quite a ways toward explaining his feelings about the “official” police force.  But it is more than just a matter of ego or a condescending disregard for the abilities of the Yarders that surround him.  If it were simply a matter of feeling above the rest of the detective force, surely Sherlock Holmes could have risen to the top of the company, with little effort, and made an easy career for himself.  At the very least, he would not have been the first man to be a “big fish in a small pond,” as it were.  But a position within Scotland Yard wasn’t the only potential job at issue.  With a brother like Mycroft, who is described in “The Bruce-Partington Plans” as occasionally being the whole of the British government, it would probably be a matter of small consequence for Sherlock Holmes to find himself in government service, in intelligence or similar activity.  Indeed, he does spend a brief period prior to the First World War masquerading as the spy “Altamont,” whom we meet in “His Last Bow.”  But he never takes an official, permanent position, and Watson tells us that Holmes even turned down knighthood (3GAR).  Holmes didn’t seem to want to be tied to any master, only himself.
Sherlock Holmes as
the spy "Altamont"
Holmes tells Watson in The Sign of Four, “The work itself, the pleasure of finding a field for my particular powers, is my highest reward.”  Being a consulting detective was Holmes’s career, but it was not his job.  There are many people who I am sure can appreciate the difference.  Holmes made money by using his “particular powers,” but he never sought to become rich through his work.  He even told Neil Gibson, a wealthy American client, “My professional charges are upon a fixed scale…I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether” (THOR).  (Whether or not he was eventually a wealthy man, despite his indifference, is another matter.)  A task loses a certain amount of enjoyment when it becomes something you have to do, and not something you want to do, no matter how talented or successful you may be in your position.  Joining the police force or taking a government position would have made detection a job, and Holmes was clearly loathe to lose his ability to do what made him unique, and to find pleasure in the task, no matter how difficult.
·     Why on earth would any parent named his child, “Sherlock”?
Well, with an older brother named “Mycroft” and, if William Baring-Gould is to be believed, another older brother named “Sherrinford,” I’m occasionally of the opinion that the Holmes parents were probably possessed of an appalling sense of humor.  The name “Sherlock” means “with cropped hair,” or more popularly, “fair haired,” which is a particularly ironic descriptor as the Great Detective is typically depicted as having dark, usually black, hair.  Renowned Sherlock Holmes scholar William Baring-Gould, in his biography, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, actually gave the Great Detective the full name of “William Sherlock Scott Holmes,” in addition to a number of other intriguing biographical items regarding Holmes’s early life.  The addition of an extended full name for Holmes is curious.  Going as “Sherlock” despite having a first name of “William,” indicates a preference, on some level, for the name “Sherlock.”  But throughout the canon, the only person who calls Holmes by that name is his brother.  Even his closest friend of nearly fifty years never refers to him as anything except “Holmes,” which seems to indicate that he somehow finds the name “Sherlock” repellant.  Pulling on either thread, it seems, creates a whole new row of loose ends.
Even the cringe-inducing 2010 “mockbuster” entitled simply, “Sherlock Holmes,” makes light of this subject.  At the end of the film, Watson (played by Gareth David-Lloyd) asks Holmes (played by Ben Syder) why the villain kept referring to Holmes as “Robert.”  Holmes reveals that his full name is “Robert Sherlock Holmes,” and that he goes by Sherlock because, “Whoever heard of a detective named Robert?”
As I said earlier, I’ve listened to a lot of questions about Sherlock Holmes, and these are only a very few of my favorites.  Some make me smile, most make me think, and there are many I couldn’t even begin to answer.  “Only a fool knows everything.  A wise man knows how little he knows,” as the saying goes.  Feel free to share the questions you have been asked or may have asked yourself, either in the comments or via e-mail at betterholmesandgardens[at]gmail[dot]com, for discussion in future installments.
Less than two weeks until the new blog contest!  Brush up on your Sherlock Holmes trivia, and check back here on April 25 for details on how to enter and win.
Other sources used in the post include: Sherlock Holmes: In His Own Words and in the Words of Those Who Knew Him, by Barry Day (Taylor Trade Publishing, July 2003).

Wednesday, April 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.  On Monday, I finished-up "The Adventure of the Dying Detective," and I hope everyone enjoyed the story of Culverton Smith and his diabolical little box.

The current story is "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" and when the tale is done, maybe you'll let me know if you agree with Watson that "it was worth a wound," as his famous statement goes.

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


In less than two weeks, I'll be launching a new blog contest, complete with new, excellent prizes.  So brush up on your Sherlock Holmes trivia, and check back here on April 25 for details.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (2002), and "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking" (2004)

In recent months, if anyone mentions “Sherlock Holmes” and “BBC” in the same sentence, thoughts immediately turn to Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, pink suitcases, and blind bankers.  But in 2002, the BBC launched the first of two new Sherlock Holmes made-for-television films, beginning with an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and two years later, an original mystery called Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking.  Both scripts were written by Allan Cubitt.   
Ian Hart, who is perhaps most recognizable from his roles as Professor Quirrell from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and, appropriately, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from Finding Neverland, appears in both films as Dr. John Watson.  The role of Sherlock Holmes is filled by Richard Roxburgh in 2002, and Rupert Everett, in 2004.
These two films successfully conjure up the images of the young men that Holmes and Watson undoubtedly were at the onset of their partnership, unlike the old men as whom they are so often portrayed.  Hart’s Watson is much more the iron-willed, former solider that most Sherlockians prefer to see, and both films make excellent use of setting and atmosphere.  Therefore, the problems with both films hinge on the erratic and unpredictable interactions between Hart’s Watson and his accompanying Holmes; and also on Holmes’s likewise unpredictable and erratic drug use.
·         The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002); Starring Richard Roxburgh and Ian Hart
Perhaps more than any other canon story, the dramatic tension in HOUN is dependent on setting and the 2002 adaptation excels immediately in this respect as it was filmed on the Isle of Man, in order to replicate the moody and atmospheric setting of Dartmoor.  According to Jack Tranter, who was BBC Controller of Drama in 2002, “…[in 1901, when the film is set] London is welcoming in a new age of electric light and internal combustion engines while the moorland of Dartmoor is like the wild west—bleak, inhospitable, and lawless” (Davies 188).    
Yet despite the film’s relatively close adherence to the plot of Doyle’s original novel, the film lacks something that is not directly related to the narrative.  In effect, Roxburgh and Hart lack chemistry, and as a result, the film lacks the warm friendship between Holmes and Watson that is so often crucial to the success of Sherlock Holmes stories.  According to David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, “This [lack of chemistry] is due perhaps to the way their relationship is presented in the script.  It is laced with cynicism, mistrust, and constant bickering.  Watson’s last words to Holmes in the movie are, ‘No, I don’t trust you’” (189).  In portraying Dr. Watson, Hart is humorless and ill-tempered, and there is little about his attitude that explains why he would have put up with Sherlock Holmes and his antics for so many years.  Hart’s Watson may have been long-suffering at one point, but at the time of this version of HOUN, he is a kettle about to boil over.
Richard Roxburgh’s Great Detective is similarly unpleasant, described in The Observer as “insipid and unlikeable.”  His performance is often cold and confusing, an impression not helped by Holmes’s random drug use throughout the film.  For example, he slams a door in Watson’s face before dosing himself (just after Dr. Mortimer’s initial visit), and later, injects himself with cocaine in the train station bathroom, just before the film’s climax. As Davies correctly points out, “This is in direct contradiction of Doyle’s use of the detective’s drug habit, which manifested itself only when he was bored and there was no mystery on hand to occupy his mind.  While on a case, he needed no further stimulation” (188-9). 
Indeed, if the writers were going to incorporate Holmes’s canonical drug use into the film, they couldn’t have chosen two more unlikely moments.  In Eliminate the Impossible: An Examination of the World of Sherlock Holmes on Page and Screen, Alistair Duncan posits that these scenes were an attempt to keep Sherlock Holmes more in line with 21st century perceptions (that Holmes's drug use was casual, and not calculated), rather than the way the Detective actually was (15).  The battle between modern perception and canonical reality would carry-over into the BBC’s next Sherlock Holmes film, in 2004.
·         Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004); Starring Rupert Everett and Ian Hart
The London of this 2004 Sherlock Holmes film seems to be permanently enshrouded in fog.  Whenever any character steps outside, they are enveloped in a thick peasouper that distorts all faces and scenery.  However, rather than summoning the spirit of the Sherlock Holmes’s London, which appears to be the intended purpose, it comes across as a mere parody—the London that uninformed viewers expect, rather than what is true.  The same goes for Dr. Watson’s American fiancĂ© “Mrs. Vandeleur,” played by Helen McCrory (recently seen as Narcissa Malfoy in the latest Harry Potter films).  She speaks with a non-regional American accent, and has a rather obnoxious habit of referring to the Great Detective as “Sherlock”; she freely discusses sexual deviancies over tea (under the auspices of her career as a psychoanalyst), and has committed the ultimate crime of convincing Watson to dress down for dinner.  Perhaps the fog is a metaphor for the mystery in which Holmes is embroiled (Davies 192); and perhaps Mrs. Vandeleur is a stab at “English stuffiness or American informality” (Duncan 231).  But the overall impression is more heavy-handed: London is drab and grey; Americans are boorish and unrefined.   
Hart’s portrayal of Dr. Watson remains disagreeable and angry, and Everett, as the new Sherlock Holmes, often seems morally dubious—even slipping into a young woman’s bedroom as she sleeps when he needs her assistance.  To his credit, “Physically, [Everett] has a look and manner of [Jeremy] Brett about him: he is tall, dark, handsome, with saturnine features and a prominent nose, but producer Elinor Day was of the opinion that he was more like [Basil] Rathbone” (Davies 192).  Holmes and Watson seem to spend very little time on screen together, and when they do, a significant portion of their time is spent arguing, sniping, or largely ignoring each other.
Also at issue here, as in Roxburgh’s 2002 performance, is Sherlock Holmes’s drug use.  The film opens with Holmes smoking in an opium den, a lascar at his elbow.  We later learn that he had been absent from Baker Street nearly three days.  Opium is not at all Holmes’s drug of choice, and in the canon only uses it one time as a part of a disguise: “I suppose, Watson…that you imagine that I have added opium-smoking to cocaine injections, and all the other little weaknesses on which you have favoured me with your medical views” (TWIS).  Again, in this film we also see Holmes’s injecting himself with cocaine in the middle of a case, presumably when he would have the least need of it.
Making an appearance as George Pentney is Jonathan Hyde, who previously starred in the 1994 version of “The Dying Detective,” as Culverton Smith.  In addition, Eleanor David, who plays Mary Pentney, was featured in the 1986 version of “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” as Mrs. St. Clair.
Ultimately, it takes more than a canonically accurate mystery, or even a compellingly original one, to make a successful Sherlock Holmes film.  Dr. Watson isn’t likeable if all he does is bitterly follow Holmes around; he must, at least, do it with enthusiasm, not resentment.  And the ability to be successful as Sherlock Holmes means more than being possessed of height, dark hair, and aquiline features (though it certainly doesn’t hurt, in my opinion).  It’s about elements that sit outside the boundaries of plot structure.
It's certainly improbable, though not impossible, that a Sherlock Holmes film will ever be made that adheres to every single canonical detail that Sherlockians would love to see.  But there is a measure of foundation that is required to keep such a film upright, if you will.  The manner in which Holmes’s mind works (and the way he uses drugs to augment it) is part of that foundation.  And the relationship between Holmes and Watson is undoubtedly the other part.   
For more on this subject, see Alistair Duncan’s article on “Screen Chemistry & Canonical Fidelity.”

Friday, April 1, 2011

Some Thoughts on Setting: St. Bartholomew’s Hospital

“St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College, known popularly as ‘Barts’ or ‘Bart’s,’ was founded in 1123 by—legend has it—Rahere, a jester at Henry I’s court.  Having taken ill in Rome, Rahere prayed on the banks of Tiber, on the island of St. Bartholomew, that he might recover in time to die on his native soil.  St. Bartholomew appeared to him a vision, commanding him to return to London and build a church and a hospital in his name.  By 1896, the hospital had grown to 678 beds, treating some 6,500 in-patients and 16,000 out-patients annually.”
—From “A Study in Scarlet,” page 16, in “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” edited by Leslie Klinger
All great heroes have an origin story.  They cannot exist in a vacuum; their journeys must have a starting point.  And Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are no exception.  Most readers know the story of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting, which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presents to us in A Study in Scarlet.  And more recently, some talented writers have been revisiting and rewriting that source material, in the form of the comic book: “Sherlock Holmes: Year One,” which re-imagines Watson as a twenty-something police surgeon (sans mustache, but still an ex-soldier), who meets a likewise youthful Sherlock Holmes for the first time at (naturally) a crime scene.  This adaptation includes some new, intriguing back-story for the Great Detective, and Holmes and Watson’s youthfulness lends new color and spirit to their adventures.
But Holmes and Watson didn’t meet at a crime scene.  They met at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College on January 1, 1881.  The story is as a familiar as an old coat: Dr. Watson, newly returned from Afghanistan, injured and ill, finds himself living beyond his means in a London hotel; he meets “young Stamford,” an old acquaintance, at the Criterion Bar, where the Doctor tells him about his need for affordable lodgings; Stamford, surprisingly, has met another fellow that very day in need of a roommate, and he takes Dr. Watson to the chemical laboratories at St. Bart’s to meet him.  And the rest, as they say, is history.
But St. Bart’s is an important location, perhaps one of the most important in the canon—outside of 221B Baker Street.  By having the two men meet at the hospital, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says quite a bit, intentionally or not.  He certainly could have shoehorned them into a meeting at a restaurant, a park, or even one of their current lodgings; but instead, we have “young Stamford,” who leads Watson to Holmes, like Virgil leading Dante to Beatrice.  By having Holmes and Watson meet for the first time at St. Bart’s, we not only get a glimpse of the men that they will become, but also the men that they might have been, and, most importantly, the men they already are.
Stamford has no idea what Sherlock Holmes does in the chemical labs, or even what his course of study might be, but he takes Dr. Watson to see this odd fellow anyway.  According to the Doctor:
“This was a lofty chamber, lined and littered with countless bottles. Broad, low tables were scattered about, which bristled with retorts, test-tubes, and little Bunsen lamps, with their blue flickering flames. There was only one student in the room, who was bending over a distant table absorbed in his work” (STUD).
Alone, and bent over his work—these are our first impressions of Sherlock Holmes, and the ones that will color our interpretations of him eternally.  Impressions that are further enforced by his first spoken words: “I’ve found it! I’ve found it!”  In this instance, he is speaking of his hemoglobin test, but we see many variations on this moment throughout the canon—the moment of realization and discovery unique unto Sherlock Holmes—which he marks in various ways, ranging from unsettling laughter to dramatic disclosures.  From his first appearance, before his first word, the reader knows Sherlock Holmes to be a man driven by the pursuit of knowledge, and consumed by his work.  Although Watson seems to believe that Holmes is addressing Stamford as he describes his new discovery, there is the underlying implication that, at the moment, Holmes would have told anyone and anything about his breakthrough—a Bunsen burner, the cleaning lady, a particularly nice chair.  The solitary chemist of St. Bart’s is clearly in search of an audience.
Seeing Sherlock Holmes in the setting of St. Bart’s is also a reminder of the man he might have been.  Stamford describes him as “a first-class chemist,” and Holmes’s hemoglobin discovery seems to verify this assertion.  [Note: Of course, a Sherlock Holmes story is nothing without debate and disagreement.  See, for instance, Remsen Ten Eyck Schenk’s article “Baker Street Fables,” in which he argues that Holmes’s discovery must have been invalid, or it would still have been used today.]  It is not so difficult to imagine Sherlock Holmes as a chemist—the profession would have certainly provided him with enough pretty little problems and complex scientific puzzles to keep his brain occupied for the rest of his days.  But it would have been sedentary, solitary work.  What need does a chemist have of an audience, or of a chase?  So Sherlock Holmes is no mere chemist then, which he already knows when Stamford and his companion walk through the door.
Additionally, by meeting at St. Bart’s, the reader is reminded that Watson is, first and foremost, a doctor.  St. Bart’s is his alma mater.  Watson remained a doctor all of his life, although his practice was frequently neglected for long intervals while he ran after London’s only consulting detective.  A meeting at St. Bart’s reminds us of the ordinary life he could have chosen, with normal hours and a peaceful, quiet house—no strange violin concertos in the middle of the night, no unannounced visits from sinister guests.  As he says in The Sign of Four, “…a tranquil English home in the midst of the wild, dark business which had absorbed us;” a peaceful home would be a natural, reasonable desire for a man who had been ill, a man who be so long away from familiar country.  But then Sherlock Holmes says to him, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” and suddenly St. Bart’s fades away into the background, to the place it should be relegated, in the past. 
Because St. Bart’s is Dr. Watson’s past, not his present or his future.  He hasn’t been a student in a very long time, and he’ll always be a doctor, but more recently he has been a soldier.  War is what he currently knows, and perhaps that is why London is so alien to him, why he is so antagonistic in his description of the city: “…London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained” (STUD).
The Doctor is so intensely angry at London; it’s as if it has disappointed him in some way or offended him personally.  “Most people blunder around this city and all they see are streets and shops and cars.  But when you walk with Sherlock Holmes, you see the battlefield,” a recent incarnation of Mycroft Holmes says about his younger brother.  Before Watson met Sherlock Holmes, he had lost the battlefield.  But he gets it back.  Dr. Watson actually makes a very neat little journey in those few paragraphs: he is lead by an old acquaintance to a place from his past, to meet a man who reminds him of who is presently, but is also offering him an extraordinary future.
In 2010, the BBC adaptation “Sherlock” re-imagined the first meeting between Holmes and Watson in a 21st century setting.  Holmes and Watson still meet at St. Bart’s, in the labs; Watson still weary from the battlefield, and Holmes bent over a beaker with a pipette in his hand.  Stamford is still the corner—a smirking, knowing guide—perhaps wondering if he’s done the Doctor a terrible disservice.  There is far more electronic buzzing and digital beeping than there would have been in 1881.  Holmes asks for the use of a mobile phone, and then says to the Doctor, “Afghanistan or Iraq?”  But he’s still able to read Watson from the way he carries himself, the color of his skin, and the state of his possessions (a smartphone, rather than a pocket watch).  Holmes is still mind-bogglingly observant and Watson is still unerringly loyal and long-suffering (now there are body parts in the refrigerator and not cigars in the coal-scuttle).  They are still Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.  And their story still began in the shadow of St. Bart’s.
Thank you to everyone who entered the recent blog contest, and for sharing your reasons why you read Sherlock Holmes.  Congratulations to Jenny Teo, who was the winner of the “Better Holmes & Gardens Prize Package,” which included a copy of The Chronicles of Sherlock Holmes, by Paul D. Gilbert, and a copy of the soundtrack to Granada Television’s “Sherlock Holmes” series, starring Jeremy Brett, David Burke, and Edward Hardwicke, with music by Patrick Gowers.
Check back here on April 25 for a new contest and prizes.