Monday, June 27, 2011

CONTEST: Share Your Ideal Sherlock Holmes Story and Win a Prize Package of Sherlock Holmes Pastiches

If there is anything that can be considered a fault in the original Sherlock Holmes canon, it would probably be the finiteness of it.  After four novels and fifty-six short stories, the original tales end.  And although readers may turn to them again and again (and again and again and again), the endings never change, the villains are always the same, and the twists are somehow a little less revelatory than before.  Readers can analyze and examine and scrutinize each story for new details and new methods of orientation, and those details can be revealing and brilliantly new in their own right.  But “the song remains the same,” as the saying goes.
And this is why so many Sherlock Holmes devotees turn to pastiches—to fill the gap that the longing for a new, as yet unsolved, mystery leaves.  A list available online numbers the current Sherlockian pastiches at nearly 9,000 separate volumes, and it’s probably not too much of a stretch to imagine that new stories are being added to that number every day.  There are a myriad number of ways to categorize these stories.  Some books try to capture the original and authentic voice of Dr. John Watson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Some try to imagine the Great Detective’s early life, and the back-story that was not revealed in the original canon.  Some pit Holmes and Watson up against forces beyond rational understanding.  And some stories even place Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the position of his most famous creation.
Whatever your preference, and however you may personally define a successful pastiche, there is certainly no shortage of options from which a reader can choose.  So in that spirit, over the next month I’ll be hosting a new blog contest, and all you have to do to win is share a little bit about your ideal Sherlock Holmes pastiche.  Here are the details:
A new, paperback copy of The Italian Secretary, by Caleb Carr.  In a fine example of a traditional-style pastiche, Carr excellently captures Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s voice in a mystery that pits Holmes and Watson, yet again, against a seemingly paranormal force.  When the Detective and Doctor are summoned by the British government (in the personage of Mycroft Holmes) to Edinburgh, Scotland, they set about investigating the strange deaths of two men working on renovating the Royal Palace of Holyrood, but find themselves possibly up against the centuries-old spirits of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her slain music teacher.  Caleb Carr is also the author of The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness, featuring turn-of-the-century psychologist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler.
A new, hardcover edition of The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls, by John R. King.  The young ghosthunter, Thomas Carnacki, and his companion, Anna Schmidt, are picnicking beneath Reichenbach Falls when they witness a conflict between two men, and watch one man fall, apparently, to his death.  But it is only when they pull the now-amnesiac man out of the water, that they realize the man they call “Harold Silence” (the name of the tailor in the man’s shirt label) may be more extraordinary than appearances reveal.  Read my review of the novel here.  The author is also known as fantasy novelist J. Robert King, and more information about his publications is available here.
A new, hardcover edition of The Sherlockian, by Graham Moore.  Written as a dual narrative, Moore’s debut novel features both a nineteenth century and twenty-first century plotline.  In the 21st century, Baker Street Irregular Harold White investigates the suspicious death of fellow Sherlockian Alex Cale and the theft of a rare Arthur Conan Doyle diary.  In the 19th century, Doyle—along with companion Bram Stoker—is living out the events that are featured in that diary, which are also the months leading up to Doyle’s decision to resurrect Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the BaskervillesYou can read my review of the novel here, or learn more on Graham Moore’s website 

If you were to write your own Sherlock Holmes pastiche, what would you call it?  What would it be about?  Provide the title of that hypothetical story and a one sentence description of the plot.  Feel free to be witty and clever (who doesn’t appreciate a good pun?), thoughtful and precise (share a bit of the novel you plan to write one day), or anywhere in between.  Leave the entry providing your title and description in the comments below.  Entries can also be submitted via e-mail at betterholmesandgardens[at]gmail[dot]com, or by direct message on Twitter.  Feel free to enter as many times as you wish, but each entry must be unique.
The contest is open from now until 11:59p.m. EST on Saturday, July 23, 2011.  At that time, a random entry will be chosen from the submissions using Random.orgThe winner will be announced on Monday, July 25, 2011 via blog post, Twitter, and Facebook. 
Best of luck, and have fun!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Some Thoughts on Character: Sir Henry Baskerville

“…the clock had just struck ten when Dr. Mortimer was shown up, followed by the young baronet.  The latter was a small, alert, dark-eyed man about thirty years of age, very sturdily built, with thick black eyebrows and a strong, pugnacious face.  He wore a ruddy-tinted tweed suit and had the weather-beaten appearance of one who has spent most of his time in the open air, and yet there was something in his steady eye and the quiet assurance of his bearing which indicated the gentleman” (HOUN).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes with The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is reason enough to make it a favorite canon story with many people.  Even if a person has read no other Sherlock Holmes story, he or she most likely read HOUN (or a selection from it) in a high school English class, during a book club, or at the behest of a particularly insistent relative.  Doyle himself termed the story “a real Creeper,” and as Christopher Redmond points out in the Sherlock Holmes Handbook (Second Edition), “…the dominant colors in this story are the black and white of night, the grey of uncertainty, and the green of the moor’s vegetation.  Somehow this grim environment has appealed to Sherlockians…” (24).  The spectral hound and his gruesome errand hold a universal appeal, which keeps readers returning to Dartmoor over and over, on the page and screen.
The plot of HOUN revolves around the young Sir Henry Baskerville, who has inherited his family’s estate and immense fortune, after the suspicious death of his uncle, Sir Charles.  Sir Henry returns to England from Canada, where he has been farming, and immediately finds himself embroiled in a complex and dangerous plot against his family legacy, and his own life.  The baronet has been played by a wide range of actors over the years, including Richard Greene, Christopher Lee, Nikita Mikhalkov, Kristoffer Tabori, and Jason London.  The production team behind “Sherlock” has announced a modern reinterpretation of HOUN in the second season of the show, and fans are eager to see how the role of Sir Henry will be filled in a 21st century capacity.  The character of Sir Henry Baskerville embodies all the characteristics necessary to propel the plot of the novel forward, and therefore stands on equal footing with Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Watson.  Sir Henry is not solving mysteries, but he is the foundation of one.  He moves the story even more so than the legendary hound that stalks him from across the moor.
To begin with, Sir Henry appears to be almost utterly fearless.  When he is finally completely informed of the situation that awaits him at Baskerville Hall, and the dangers that have been dogging him since he set foot in London, Sir Henry’s response is only to say: “There is no devil in hell, Mr. Holmes, and there is no man upon earth who can prevent me from going to the home of my own people, and you may take that to be my final answer.”  If Sir Henry had chosen that moment to refuse to return to Baskerville Hall—a not unreasonable notion in light of everything he has learned—then there simply would have been no mystery, and no story.  He could have liquidated the Baskerville real estate and claimed the financial assets while in London, or from other safer country.  Indeed, if Jack Stapleton had succeeded in his plot, the villain could have attempted to lay claim to the Baskerville fortune from the safety of Costa Rica—which begs the question of why Sir Henry could not have done the same, and why he returned to England at all.
Early on, the reader learns from Dr. Mortimer that Sir Henry had been farming in Canada, prior to his uncle’s death.  And while farming is not necessarily an occupation conducted in total isolation, it is rather strenuous and difficult; furthermore, he is separated from what little remains of his family, and from familiar country, by a vast ocean.  According to Redmond, “In Holmes’s time Canada was still, in British eyes at least, a colony; young Henry Baskerville went there to farm, but had no hesitation about returning to the motherland when his time came” (173).  Basil Rathbone’s 1939 version of HOUN starring Richard Greene as Sir Henry, makes a point of showing a newspaper clipping bearing news of the baronet’s return to England from Canada (the latter country’s name emphasized in a large, bold typeface) as if Sir Henry were a foreigner, returning from some exotic distant locale.  But in truth, he is merely a loyal soldier, returning to his home port for a new assignment.      
In a similar vein, the young Baskerville is also a herald of progress and change.  Upon surveying his new home, and lonely isolation of Dartmoor, he proclaims: "It's no wonder my uncle felt as if trouble were coming on him in such a place as this…It's enough to scare any man.  I'll have a row of electric lamps up here inside of six months, and you won't know it again, with a thousand-candlepower Swan and Edison right here in front of the hall door.”  Such an addition would offset the gloom of Dartmoor in both a literal and a more metaphorical sense.  Watson describes the moors and the country of Baskerville Hall as gloomy and barren, an isolated country:
We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us.  We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands.  The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders.  Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline.  Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm. Two high, narrow towers rose over the trees. The driver pointed with his whip.
’Baskerville Hall,’ said he.”
The arrival of Sir Henry and his electric lights demonstrates a rush towards modernity.  Baskerville Hall will no longer exist in a darkness and gloom; Dartmoor will abandon its technological isolation.  And Sir Henry will no longer feel as if he has “walked right into the thick of a dime novel.”
Finally, the mystery of HOUN hinges upon Sir Henry’s utter wholesomeness, and sense of traditional propriety.  As Redmond states, “In The Hound of the Baskervilles, much of the dramatic complexity comes from the relations between the sexes: the apparently wholesome attraction between Sir Henry Baskerville and Beryl Stapleton, the sadomasochistic relationship between Beryl and Jack Stapleton…” (64).  Sir Henry’s pursuit of Beryl Stapleton is remarkably proper and respectable, especially given the sinister motivations that dwell just below of the surface of their courtship. 
Surely if the baronet had known that Miss Stapleton was, in fact, Mrs. Stapleton, and that Jack Stapleton was not the young woman’s brother, but her husband, he would have been a bit less affectionate in his description of her: “I tell you, Watson, I’ve only known her these few weeks, but from the first I just felt that she was made for me, and she, too–she was happy when she was with me, and that I’ll swear.  There’s a light in a woman’s eyes that speaks louder than words.”  Indeed, if Sir Henry had been a bit less proper, had pressed his hand or taken advantage of his position a bit more forcefully, Beryl Stapleton may had felt inclined to reveal all (or at least crucial elements) of the machinations of her brother/husband that much sooner.  Sir Henry’s respectability and traditional values are ultimately what keeps the plot of HOUN moving.
I’ve spoken elsewhere about whether or not Sherlock Holmes exists in a vacuum, and whether or not his character creates enough momentum to propel a narrative forward on his own.  Sometimes the Great Detective creates enough force to drive other characters—Dr. Watson, Inspector Lestrade, the Irregulars—into action, which may or may not create the desired consequences.  Sir Henry Baskerville is different, however.  He is already a force in his own right when he enters the narrative of HOUN; he is already acting and being acted upon.  In many ways, Sherlock Holmes is caught up in the momentum of the youngest Baskerville, moved along by the violent current.
The new blog contest launches on Monday, June 27, so make sure to check back here for details on prizes, and how to win!
• Redmond, Christopher.  Sherlock Holmes Handbook (Second Edition), Dundurn Press, September 2009.

Monday, June 20, 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 Wednesday, I finished-up "The Adventure of Black Peter" and I hope everyone enjoyed the story, which takes place during 1895, one of the best years of Sherlock Holmes's career, according to Doctor Watson.

The current story is "The Adventure of the Second Stain," which includes the Great Detective's famous assessment of womankind: "How can you build on such a quicksand? [A woman's] most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or curling tongs." 

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.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “A Study in Scarlet” (1968)

[BBC Drama; Peter Cushing, Nigel Stock]
“As a character, Holmes is very precisely defined; an actor approaching the role plays it successfully only if he plays it by Conan Doyle’s rules.  Peter Cushing, in most respects, is all wrong for the part (though it’s his likeness that currently graces the sign for the Sherlock Holmes pub in London), captured the fantastical elements perfectly, bounding up in the middle of conversations to chase after his own bolting thoughts” (Lloyd Rose, “100 Years of Sherlock Holmes”).
“Peter Cushing is the best Sherlock Holmes of all time.”
I’ve got one eye on my telephone, and one eyebrow raised in what I hope is a look of elegant bemusement, rather than one of gawky confusion.  My mother-in-law is on the other end of the line, and that’s how she greeted me when I picked up her call.  She never says hello, or asks how I am, but she’s treated me like a member of the family since I first walked into her life, holding her eldest son’s hand and looking petrified of his gigantic Irish clan, so I know I’m fairly lucky as far as mothers-in-law go.
“I’m sorry, Mom.  Could you say that again?”
“I said,” she repeats exasperatedly.  “That Peter Cushing is the best Sherlock Holmes of all time, in my opinion."
I didn’t even know she had an opinion, and when I ask her to elaborate, she giggles and goes on about Peter Cushing’s more…tangible…characteristics, in a way that I’m fairly certain is going to traumatize me for life if I allow it to go on much longer.  She closes the conversation by asking if I’ve ever really appreciated the nuances of Cushing’s performance in the original Star Wars film, and when I finally hang up the telephone, I immediately begin digging through my liquor cabinet for something that will help me erase the last five minutes of my life.
Peter Cushing starred as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s 1968 television series, which included, amongst other things, adaptations of “The Greek Interpreter,” “The Naval Treaty,” and a two-part episode of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Cushing had also starred in the Hammer Films version of the same story in 1959, opposite Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville).  He replaced Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in the pilot episode and the series episodes running throughout 1965.  The actor also returned as the Great Detective in 1984’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death,” and starred as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “The Great Houdini” (1976).  Early in its run, the 1968 series presented a televised version of A Study in Scarlet, which is worth examining.
A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes story, published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.  The novel is the world’s introduction to its first consulting detective, and is arranged in a two-part plot, including a lengthy flashback to the American West and a community of Mormons (“The Country of Saints”).  Of all the canon stories, STUD seems to be one of the least frequently adapted for the screen.  However, perhaps is more accurate to say that it is one of the least frequently adapted well or completely.  The plot never seems to make it onto the screen in its entirety, and something is usually left on the cutting room floor—whether it’s Holmes and Watson’s introduction ("You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.") or the American narrative.  In fact, the 1933 film adaptation, starring Reginald Owen, only shares its name with the novel, and the plot bears no resemblance at all to the original story (producers were only able to purchase the rights to the title).  Conversely, the 2010 modern adaptation, “A Study in Pink,” includes many of the stories major elements, including the introduction at St. Bart’s, the scribbled word “RACHE,” and the cab driver and his two pills, but the American subplot is entirely omitted.
Cushing’s version of STUD, which starred Nigel Stock (who had played opposite Douglas Wilmer) as Dr. Watson, is not a perfect, line-for-line adaptation either (for example, Holmes and Watson are already comfortably ensconced as flatmates at the beginning), but there are details that are thoughtfully and carefully rendered, which show respect for a legacy in its entirety—a consideration for package, rather than just pieces.  According to David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, “…Cushing’s portrayal of Holmes was praised, and indeed his devotion to the character and attention to detail were invaluable…” (91). For example, upon arriving at Lauriston Gardens, Cushing’s Holmes examines a corpse without thought for propriety or squeamishness, manipulating the body, and bending close to the dead man’s mouth for the tell-tale smell of poison.  It is an accurate rendition of the passage from STUD:
“…his nimble fingers were flying here, there, and everywhere, feeling, pressing, unbuttoning, examining, while his eyes wore the same far-away expression which I have already remarked upon. So swiftly was the examination made, that one would hardly have guessed the minuteness with which it was conducted.”
At the conclusion of the same scene, Holmes pauses to write notes on his cuffs, in a wonderful homage to period and place that the audience might miss if they blink.  The attention to detail in regards to costuming was also Cushing’s doing.  According to Davies:
“Cushing requested that the costumes for the series replicated those shown in the Paget illustrations.  The BBC agreed, and in doing so exploded the myth of Holmes’s Inverness cape…The color of Holmes’s dressing gowns as stated in the stories was also copied: the purple, the grey and the famous ‘mouse-colored’ one” (91).
Also of note here are George A. Cooper and William Lucas in their portrayals of Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade, respectively.  The men practically trample over each other to share each bit of information and discovery, their words running together as they stare accusingly at each other.  These inspectors are every inch Holmes’s description: “They have their knives into one another, too. They are as jealous as a pair of professional beauties.”  Even the Irregulars are present in this adaptation, in a scene that is faithfully rendered, including Holmes’s militaristic command of the gang of street urchins, and Holmes’s request that: “In future you shall send up Wiggins alone to report, and the rest of you must wait in the street.”
As Lloyd Rose states, Peter Cushing should be all wrong for the role of Sherlock Holmes.  He was fair-haired, and nearly 60-years-old at the time of filming STUD, when in the original text, Sherlock Holmes would have been in his late twenties.  And although he was nearly six-feet-tall, Cushing sometimes managed to appear far shorter in scenes (perhaps due to his much vaunted costuming, and poorly-chosen camera angles).  But Cushing’s performance was energetic and driven, much like Holmes himself, with respect to a body of work and the arch of a story, and he treated the series as a whole, rather than individual episodes.  Though Cushing once famously said, “…he would rather sweep Paddington Station for a living than go through the experience [of being Sherlock Holmes] again,” he left a distinct and defined fingerprint on the character, traces of which are evident in later interpretations.
And also I like having something to discuss with my mother-in-law; though we disagree and lock horns, it’s all in fun, and everyone has a good time.  Except for my husband, who turns a just marvelous shade of pistachio green whenever I mention his mother’s fervent crush.  I suppose it just leaves him a little unsettled, though I can’t imagine why. 
On June 27, a new blog contest will be starting up, so make sure you check back here for details on how to win! 
Rose, Lloyd. “100 Years of Sherlock Holmes.” Murder in Baker Street (September 2002), 248.
Stuart Davies, David. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (January 2006), 91.

Friday, June 10, 2011

“It was an admirable hiding-place”: The Adventure of the Six Napoleons

I gave serious thought to subtitling this post: “The Six Lives of Sherlock Holmes,” but it sounded a bit too much like a bad cable television drama for my liking, even if Sherlock Holmes himself had a well-documented appreciation of sensational literature.  Throughout the canon, Sherlock Holmes serves in many capacities, and is many things to many people.  Sometimes the list of descriptors is not so flattering, as in “The Speckled Band,” when the villainous Dr. Grimesby Roylott says to Holmes: “You are Holmes, the meddler…Holmes, the busybody…Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!”  On the other hand, some are flattering to the point of sounding obsequious, such as when Inspector Stanley Hopkins, in “Black Peter,” tells Holmes: “…I should never have forgotten that I am the pupil and you are the master.”
There are a multitude of planes and facets to Sherlock Holmes and his personality.  Some traits are quite clear and distinct, while some are as subtle and elusive as “trying to catch an arrow in mid-flight.”  And more often than not, many of Holmes’s characteristics are difficult to reconcile with each other, such as how a “perfect reasoning and observing machine” (SCAN) can also play his violin with the sensitivity and grace to lull his friend to sleep (SIGN).  Sherlock Holmes describes the case detailed in “The Six Napoleons” as “absolutely original in the history of crime,” but even more interesting is the variety of personality traits he presents to the reader within the tale.  Each trait is distinct and unique, but ultimately, dependent upon each other to create the complete picture of Sherlock Holmes that Dr. Watson presents in this instance.
1. The Homebody:  SIXN opens on what is actually a very charming, domestic scene: Holmes, Watson, and Inspector Lestrade seated around the fire at 221B Baker Street, smoking cigars and discussing the news and weather.  Moreover, Watson informs the reader that this is not the first such visit that the inspector has made and “It was no very unusual thing for Mr. Lestrade, of Scotland Yard, to look in upon us of an evening, and his visits were welcome to Sherlock Holmes…”  Later, before the trio ventures out on a late-night visit to Chiswick, Holmes invites Lestrade to rest on the sofa until the proper time, and it is all very friendly and comfortable, with Holmes giving off the impression of a king governing from his favorite armchair, secure in his domain.
Furthermore, Inspector Lestrade’s visits serve another purpose, in that Lestrade keeps Holmes up-to-date on the latest news from Scotland Yard and specifically, any details of the cases on which the inspector is currently engaged.  The Detective, in turn, “…was able occasionally, without any active interference, to give some hint or suggestion drawn from his own vast knowledge and experience.”  While it goes without saying that Sherlock Holmes was an incredibly active man, who would occasionally go to any extreme to solve a case, SIXN also shows the side of Holmes that was sometimes content to solve crimes from his armchair, in front of his fire.
2. The Relentless Pursuer:  One of the victims of SIXN is Mr. Horace Harker, who works for the Central Press Syndicate.  After Harker’s Napoleon bust is stolen, and a man is murdered on his front step, Holmes has Inspector Lestrade tell Harker that clearly “…a dangerous homicidal lunatic, with Napoleonic delusions, was in his house last night.”  Holmes conveys this opinion even though he personally believes no such thing.  More importantly, Holmes knows that Harker intends to write-up the story for the evening press, and now this piece of fraudulent and ill-thought-out information will likely appear in print.  When the item does indeed appear in the newspaper, Holmes famously says, “The Press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it.”  According to Leslie Klinger’s New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, this is “…perhaps the first recorded instance of deliberate manipulation of the news…” (1033).
But this is not the first example of Holmes in relentless pursuit of his own ends.  Periodically throughout the canon, Holmes has been known to impersonate a member of the clergy (SCAN), break into homes (CHAS, BRUC), and even allow a criminal to go free, if he felt the crime did not warrant whatever consequences loomed (BLUE).  He even once required Watson to serve as a makeshift jury, while he served as judge in a mock trial (ABBE).  Sherlock Holmes typically operates with his own goals and ends in mind.  Sometimes those ends work fortuitously with the goals of others, but that is merely an added bonus, rather than an intended purpose.
3. The Attack Dog: When he finally has the notorious Beppo cornered, Sherlock Holmes is not satisfied with any subtle or modest method of capture.  Watson claims that Beppo was perfectly intent upon and consumed with smashing his stolen statue and combing through the debris, so it is possible that the criminal could have been cornered and captured quietly, as he was outnumbered and outmaneuvered.  But instead, “With the bound of a tiger Holmes was on his back, and an instant later Lestrade and I had him by either wrist, and the handcuffs had been fastened.”  Illustrations of the scene sometimes show Holmes pinning Beppo firmly to the ground, his body sprawled entirely over him, giving no quarter.  It is no wonder that Watson describes the man as having, “...a hideous, sallow face, with writhing, furious features, glaring up at us…”  If in that position, most people would probably look similarly furious—criminal or no.
The canon is full of examples of Sherlock Holmes’s physical prowess.  He is an accomplished boxer, singlestick fighter, and fencer.  Perhaps most famous is his knowledge of the Japanese art of baritsu [sic], a skill he uses to fend off Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls.  But these skills are all just part and parcel of Holmes’s personality: if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well, but also worth doing spectacularly.  Holmes could have easily taken out Moriarty with a pistol or a knife on that mountain in Switzerland, but why would he do that when he could physically clash with his archenemy, twisting him under his own hands, before throwing him, screaming, over the falls?  Holmes isn’t just a physical man—as his capture of Beppo shows—he is a dramatic one, a characteristic that is also demonstrated elsewhere in the story.
4. The Dramatist: The Great Detective has a sense of humor that could occasionally be described as “ill-timed,” or even cruel.  For example, rather than simply producing the sensitive government treaty that he had been hired to retrieve (the loss of which had driven one man to illness), Holmes requests that Mrs. Hudson hide it under a breakfast dish for their client to find (NAVA).  And while it’s been discussed elsewhere that Holmes’s “old bookseller” costume from EMPT was necessary for a number of safety and logistical reasons, the dramatic method in which he revealed himself to Watson probably was not.  Such is the case in SIXN after Holmes acquires the final Napoleon bust from Mr. Sandeford:
“When our visitor had disappeared, Sherlock Holmes’s movements were such as to rivet our attention.  He began by taking a clean white cloth from a drawer and laying it over the table.  Then he placed his newly acquired bust in the centre of the cloth.  Finally, he picked up his hunting-crop and struck Napoleon a sharp blow on the top of the head.  The figure broke into fragments, and Holmes bent eagerly over the shattered remains.  Next instant, with a loud shout of triumph he held up one splinter, in which a round, dark object was fixed like a plum in a pudding.”
I suppose a simple, “Don’t mind me, but I think a rare, stolen pearl is embedded in this plaster bust so I’m going to smash it apart with a hunting crop,” would have been out of the question here?  As Holmes once said, “I begin to think, Watson…that I make a mistake in explaining.  'Omne ignotum pro magnifico,' you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid” (REDH).  Holmes made that statement in 1890, and by 1900 when SIXN takes place, his reputation as a dramatist is firmly established.  This goes a long way towards explaining why Watson and Lestrade are pleasantly surprised, but not shocked, by Holmes’s dramatic revelation.
5. The Peer:  And on the subject of surprises, Inspector Lestrade has one up his own sleeve before the case is over.  After enthusiastically applauding Holmes’s grand reveal and intricate explanation, Lestrade says:
“I’ve seen you handle a good many cases, Mr. Holmes, but I don’t know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than that.   We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard.  No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow, there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.”
What a dramatic change from some of Holmes’s earlier interactions with Scotland Yard—considering that the Detective was even once accused of stealing all the credit for solved cases from the official police (NAVA).  Furthermore, Lestrade is saying quite a bit about the Yard’s relationship with the world’s only consulting detective.  He shows that he appreciates the considerable effort that goes into Holmes’s methods—unorthodox as they may be—and he’s saying that everyone else at the Yard sees it too.  He’s recognizing the many years that he and Holmes have worked together, and that while they will never work together in an official way, that he considers Holmes an equal, if not a colleague, and that the feeling is shared by the collective force.  SIXN marks Inspector Lestrade’s last appearance in the canon (after this story, he is only mentioned in passing), making his remarks a fitting closure to his relationship with Sherlock Holmes.
6. The Heart: In her book, The Fictional 100: Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend, Lucy 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” (51).  Throughout the canon, the reader gets brief glimpses of that heart: when he is apologetic for nearly sentencing Watson and himself to a life of nightmarish madness (DEVI), and perhaps most famously when he thinks Watson’s life is compromised (3GAR).  But Holmes’s reaction to Lestrade’s compliment is equally memorable: “’Thank you!’ said Holmes. ‘Thank you!’ and as he turned away, it seemed to me that he was more nearly moved by the softer human emotions than I had ever seen him.”  The scene is made even more haunting by Jeremy Brett’s 1986 interpretation.
Sherlock Holmes may have worked more for “the love of his art than for the acquirement of wealth” (SPEC), but that does not mean he was above praise, or was not susceptible to a well-put or genuine compliment.  Lestrade’s proclamation moves him, even if it just for a moment.  Suddenly the Great Detective becomes accessible, and human.  It is extremely improbable (though I suppose, not impossible) that Holmes would ever have crossed the threshold of Scotland Yard, seeking those handshakes that Lestrade guaranteed.  But for just a moment, he seems to consider it.  For just an instant, he seems almost open to the possibility—like a regular man, who might enjoy something like that.
In SIXN, the reader experiences the many facets of Sherlock Holmes’s personality, presented on a broad continuum.  But not one of the characteristics encompasses him entirely.  It would be doing the Detective a disservice in pretending that he could be defined completely by one aspect of his character, no matter how important that characteristic may seem.  Dr. Watson presents a wide array of ways to approach Sherlock Holmes and his methods, and while that might never make him ordinary, it goes a long way towards making him accessible.
June 27 marks the beginning of the next blog contest, and this one will call on your creativity and ingenuity to win.  The prizes have arrived and I can’t wait to get started!  Watch this space for details.
If you have the means to do so, please consider purchasing a DVD copy of The Lady Shallot.  Proceeds over the next five weeks will help support a lovely family through a difficult time.  Details here

Friday, June 3, 2011

Some Thoughts on Setting: The Diogenes Club

“There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows.  Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals.  It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town.  No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one.  Save in the Stranger’s Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, allowed, and three offences, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion” (“The Greek Interpreter”).
Of all the characters in the Sherlock Holmes canon, I’m probably the most partial to Mycroft Holmes.   I think it has something to do with being an older sibling myself; often corralling a younger sister who seems to loathe all civilized society with her “whole bohemian soul,” and occasionally seems intent upon upsetting our mother whenever possible.  Whatever the reason, I find myself drawn to the stories prominently featuring Sherlock Holmes’s older brother, and to the bizarre gentlemen’s club with which he is so inexorably connected.  The club’s strangeness, in both rule and atmosphere, only serves to augment Mycroft Holmes’s own personal eccentricities, and therefore the oddities of his famous brother (if only by association), by keeping all elements contained within a hermetic atmosphere.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate Mycroft Holmes from the Diogenes Club, which he co-founded.  It is a club for men who enjoy peace and quiet, and who eschew social interactions.  It is a society for men who find the company of other men superfluous, and would rather live their lives without distraction and with little human contact.  Members can even be expelled from the club for speaking, which sounds quite marvelous to those of us eternally in search of silence, never seeming to find it.  Even the local library always seems to have one occupant who believes that his earphones are enough to block out the noise of his iPod, when they most certainly are not. 
But according to Leslie Klinger’s The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, the Diogenes Club and its litany of peculiar demands was not, in reality, all that strange, given time and place:
“As bizarre as the Diogenes’s practices might seem, such an attitude was de rigueur at most London clubs, where bachelors and married men alike could both relax and cultivate an air of exclusivity and high social rank…That the Diogenes had a designated Stranger’s Room seems similar to the Athenaeum’s policy of relegating its members’ friends to a small room near the club entrance” (641-2).
 So, if the Diogenes Club is not that far removed from the norm as far as Victorian gentlemen’s clubs are concerned, than what is it about the place that is so compelling?  The Diogenes Club is only mentioned directly in two Sherlock Holmes stories—“The Greek Interpreter” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans”—but as with so many Sherlockian things (like Irene Adler, the iconic Deerstalker and pipe, and the Giant Rat from last week’s post), it has taken on a life on its own, beyond the confines of the text.  The answers seem to lie within, not only the boundaries of the club itself, but within what the Holmes brothers make of it.
In “The Greek Interpreter,” Mycroft convinces his brother to sit with him in the bow-window of the Stranger’s Room, within moments of Sherlock and Dr. Watson’s arrival at the club.  “To anyone who wishes to study mankind this is the spot,” [says] Mycroft. “Look at the magnificent types!  Look at these two men who are coming towards us, for example.”  What follows is a brilliant example of Holmesian deduction, as Sherlock and Mycroft bat back and forth a series of logical inferences, regarding a non-commissioned officer who had just happened to wander into their viewing.
Their combined inferences are undoubtedly correct, and Mycroft famously notices a few details that his younger brother does not (“Children, my dear boy, children…The fact that he has a picture-book under his arm shows that there is another child to be thought of.”).  However, throughout their observations, the Holmes brothers are kept separate from the rest of the world by the walls and glass of the Diogenes Club.  The Granada Television adaptation of GREE even goes so far as to perch Mycroft and Sherlock on tall stools as they look out of the window, down upon the man who is unaware of their peculiar scrutiny.  There is a distinction and a physical separation between the Holmes brothers and the rest of the world—almost as if the Diogenes Club were preserving them, keeping them under glass.
But even when Mycroft Holmes is on his own, the Diogenes Club still works to create a sense of separateness and otherness.  In “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” Sherlock marvels at the telegram announcing his brother’s imminent arrival at 221B Baker Street.  He explains to Watson: “It is as if you met a tram-car coming down a country lane.  Mycroft has his rails and he runs on them.  His Pall Mall lodgings, the Diogenes Club, Whitehall—that is his cycle.  Once, and only once, he has been here.  What upheaval can possibly have derailed him?”  And he says later, “A planet might as well leave its orbit.”
In short, Mycroft Holmes does not go places, as other people do.  He does not run errands, or take walks in the park, or even jump into a hansom cab to visit his only (for the purposes of the canon, Mr. Baring-Gould) brother.  He is not like Sherlock; he is not known anywhere and everywhere.  Therefore, the places that Mycroft chooses to honor with his presence are significant.  When a man divides his time equally amongst work, lodgings, and club—and nowhere else if he can manage it—the mere act of having a club at all says a great deal about the space.  Mycroft gives the Diogenes Club a sense of exclusivity merely by occupying it.  And if Mycroft also chooses to keep himself separate from the rest of humanity, then the Diogenes Club is the place to do so—a place where no one will question Mycroft Holmes, his actions, or his work because they are not allowed, or even maybe because they simply do not care.  At the Diogenes Club, he is free to be Mycroft Holmes, with all the weight of what that statement implies, more than in any other location in London.
I’ve spoken elsewhere on the relationship between Mycroft Holmes and his younger brother, about their inherent god-like qualities and how Mycroft serves to highlight Sherlock’s service to the rest of us lesser mortals, how Mycroft makes the reader grateful that Sherlock chose our human problems and everything that might entail.  The Diogenes Club merely serves to highlight Mycroft in a similar fashion, emphasizing his own particular abilities and attitudes.  The idea of the Diogenes Club will probably always appeal to the socially awkward and misanthropic among us, those who would rather observe the world behind a glass partition than interact with it.  And also to those who are just looking for five minutes of quiet to finish a blog post, away from the sounds of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II.  But I wouldn’t know anything about that.
Now you can join the Diogenes Club!  Join a body of fans from across the globe in providing live commentary on the immense catalog of Sherlock Holmes films and television series.  The club is available online and on Twitter.  Join the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag: #221B.  
And just a reminder that a new blog contest will begin on June 27, so check back here for more details!