Friday, July 29, 2011

Some Thoughts on Setting: The Bar of Gold, in Upper Swandam Lane

“Upper Swandam Lane is a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge.  Between a slop-shop and a gin-shop, approached by a steep flight of steps leading down to a black gap like the mouth of a cave, I found the den of which I was in search” (TWIS).
The beginning of “The Man with the Twisted Lip” finds Dr. Watson comfortably ensconced in his cozy armchair, in his cheerful sitting-room, with his wife contentedly doing needlework by his side.  It is the very picture of domesticity and marital harmony, and it appears that Watson has finally acquired that “tranquil English home” that he seemed to desire so very much in The Sign of FourBut his pleasant and peaceful existence is soon abruptly disturbed, and for once, it is not even Sherlock Holmes’s fault.  Dr. Watson soon finds himself at the Bar of Gold, an opium den, on Upper Swandam Lane, in search of Isa Whitney, the husband of one of Mrs. Watson’s old school friends.  While there, the Doctor finds both Isa Whitney and Sherlock Holmes, and is plunged into an entirely new mystery.

The Bar of Gold is a vile establishment, in an even viler neighborhood, but it serves its purpose as a setting, in that it creates very clear and clean contrast amongst the story’s various locales.  According to Rosemary Jann, author of “In the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Detecting the Social Order,”  the “…pervasive pattern of Holmes and Watson departing from the snug comforts of their Baker Street rooms to invade the dark and stormy world outside symbolizes the vulnerability of middle-class domesticity that so often lies submerged in these plots.”  Surely no place can be as “dark and stormy” as that which Dr. Watson describes:
“Through the gloom one could dimly catch a glimpse of bodies lying in strange fantastic poses, bowed shoulders, bent knees, heads thrown back, and chins pointing upward, with here and there a dark, lack-lustre eye turned upon the newcomer.  Out of the black shadows there glimmered little red circles of light, now bright, now faint, as the burning poison waxed or waned in the bowls of the metal pipes.  The most lay silent, but some muttered to themselves, and others talked together in a strange, low, monotonous voice, their conversation coming in gushes, and then suddenly tailing off into silence, each mumbling out his own thoughts and paying little heed to the words of his neighbour.”
In The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Leslie Klinger notes that there is actually no “Upper Swandam Lane,” and that a variety of Sherlockian scholars have been unable to decide upon a substitute location (162).  Furthermore, the “Bar of Gold” was likely a disguised name for various similar locations throughout London and remarks that several notable writers included comparable opium dens in their works:  “J. Hall Richardson’s ‘Ratcliff Highway and the Opium Dens of To-Day,’ which appeared in Cassell’s Saturday Journal of January 17, 1891, described a ‘Mahogany Bar’ among other dockside haunts of ‘wilt Lascars.’  In Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), the opium den was named The Wheel of Fortune” (161).
Whether or not the opium den of TWIS is an actual site or no, if something dreadful and immoral were to take place—if someone were to do something dreadful and immoral—then the Bar of Gold is certainly the place for it to occur.  And if something astonishing, or revelatory bordering on miraculous were to transpire—then what better place than a cheerful English sitting-room, or country villa, or even a well-lit prison cell at Bow Street (with some water, soap, and a large bath sponge, for goodness sake)?
After encountering the Detective at the Bar of Gold, Watson puts Isa Whitney in a cab and sets off with Holmes for The Cedars, which is the St. Clair family villa, near Lee, in Kent.  Dr. Watson has already had two surprises this evening—the startling appearance of Kate Whitney at his doorstep and finding Sherlock Holmes crouched in the corner of the Bar of Gold—and he will be subjected to several more before the case is concluded.  As they drive, Sherlock Holmes provides Watson with the details of Neville St. Clair’s disappearance—how the man was last seen in the upper window of the Bar of Gold, and that it appears the respectable gentleman was brutally murdered by a filthy beggar named Hugh Boone, who claims residence at the ghastly opium den. 
The scene at The Cedars—“a large villa which stood within its own grounds”—by contrast is remarkably charming and hospitable.  Mrs. St. Clair shows them into “…a well-lit dining-room, upon the table of which a cold supper had been laid out…,” and it is in this convivial atmosphere that Mrs. St. Clair makes the next astonishing revelation of the evening: she has received, just that day, a letter from her missing husband, and man that Sherlock Holmes has just told her was likely dead.  After retiring to the double-bedded room provided by Mrs. St. Clair, Watson’s paints one of the more lasting pictures of Sherlock Holmes:
“He took off his coat and waistcoat, put on a large blue dressing-gown, and then wandered about the room collecting pillows from his bed and cushions from the sofa and armchairs.  With these he constructed a sort of Eastern divan, upon which he perched himself cross-legged, with an ounce of shag tobacco and a box of matches laid out in front of him.  In the dim light of the lamp I saw him sitting there, an old briar pipe between his lips, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him, silent, motionless, with the light shining upon his strong-set aquiline features.”
Holmes seems quite comfortable, even satisfied, if not exactly relaxed in his surroundings.  Eventually Watson drops off to sleep and is awoken by Holmes’s cry of sudden realization: “[Sherlock Holmes] chuckled to himself as he spoke, his eyes twinkled, and he seemed a different man to the sombre thinker of the previous night.”  After a night of quiet reflection on his homemade settee, Holmes now has the key to the whole mystery, which he has stolen from the St. Clair’s bathroom, in his Gladstone bag.
Upon arriving at Bow Street, Holmes and Watson are taken to Hugh Boone’s cell by Inspector Bradstreet.  There is no direct description of Boone’s cell—and logically it is probably not an extremely cheerful place—but it seems to be well-lit since Bradstreet says: “You can see him very well.”  The situation seems to lighten further when Holmes reveals the cleaning implements he has brought with him.  It is well-known what happens next: the Detective takes the soap and sponge to Hugh Boone’s face and scrubs away the beggar’s façade to reveal the face of Neville St. Clair underneath.  It is the last great, astonishing revelation of the case.  As Bradstreet says, “Well, I have been twenty-seven years in the force, but this really takes the cake.”
On the surface, the differences between the Bar of Gold in Upper Swandam Lane, and the other more hospitable locations in TWIS, are really so obvious as to seemingly defy any lengthy discussion.  However, it is what happens at each of these locations and the frequency with which they occur that is really the crux of the matter.  Indeed, rather than seeming to be foul for the sake of being foul, it is the very nature of the Bar of Gold that promotes that behavior at the other settings: Dr. Watson’s residence, The Cedars, and the Bow Street cells.  It highlights the more astonishing revelations; illuminating and making them appear nearly miraculous in detail: Kate Whitney’s arrival, Sherlock Holmes appearing in the opium den, Mrs. St. Clair’s receipt of a dead man’s letter, and the face of that dead man appearing beneath the face of a vagrant.  And for its part, the Bar of Gold is a reminder of just how dark things can appear, and how desperately a little light and wonder is sometimes needed.
Jann, Rosemary. “In the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Detecting the Social Order.”  New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Klinger, Leslie. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (Volume 1).  W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Wednesday, July 27, 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 Tuesday, I finished up "The Adventure of the Second Stain," and I hope everyone enjoyed yet another case in which the Master Detective manages to thwart a major diplomatic incident.  (That seemed to happen a lot, right?)

The current story is "The Adventure of the Crooked Man," which begins with Sherlock Holmes appearing on Dr. Watson's doorstep late one night, and ends with might seem like an unlikely reference, but perhaps proves that the Detective's body of knowledge is not so narrow as Dr. Watson once thought. 

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.

Monday, July 25, 2011

SHORT STORY REVIEW: “The note, as I remember, was quite short.” (THOR)

The short story format is how most readers are familiar with the adventures of the world’s first consulting detective.  Although Sherlock Holmes’s first adventure was presented as a novel-length account, fifty-six of the sixty original published stories were short narratives.  So it would seem only natural that authors would return to this form when they take up their own pens and try their hand at the world of the Master Detective.  There are a multitude of anthologies and collections of Sherlock Holmes stories, of various themes and formats, from the more traditional The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, to the more fantastic The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
The short story format also offers writers the opportunity to experiment with characters, settings, or plot devices, which might otherwise be difficult to commit to over the course of a longer story or novel.  The following three short stories, while naturally all revolving around Sherlock Holmes and the variables of his universe, all also make use of a variety of different aspects of narration and perspective.  I have spoken elsewhere about the limitations and benefits of the restricted narrative perspective in the Sherlock Holmes canon, but the authors of the following stories were burdened by no such restraints or constrictions, and the results are another crisply defined angle in the Sherlockian prism.
The Adventure of the Apprentice’s Coin” (Darlene Cypser, May 2011):
After reading Darlene Cypser’s novel, The Crack in the Lens¸ which features a teenaged Sherlock Holmes, I immediately wondered how she would take on a more “traditional” Sherlock Holmes story (“traditional,” that is, at least in terms of the Detective’s age and locale).  Cypser’s “The Adventure of the Apprentice’s Coin” seemed the very answer to my unspoken request.  After a brutal attack and being left for dead in an alleyway, Sherlock Holmes is tenuously recovering from his injuries back at Baker Street under the care of Dr. Watson.  But when the young silversmith’s apprentice who saved Holmes’s life is accused of passing a counterfeit coin, Holmes must solve the mystery without leaving his bed.
When readers purchase “The Adventure of the Apprentice’s Coin,” they are actually getting two stories: a “traditional” first person narrative from Dr. Watson’s limited perspective, and then a third person narrative from an omniscient point-of-view.  Cypser’s third person narrative brilliantly shows how, even if the reader knows the solution to the mystery (as he or she should, after finishing the first person perspective), that sometimes details are left out of the final telling.  Cypser leaves it up to her reader whether or not those details are ultimately important or superfluous.
“The Adventure of the Apprentice’s Coin” is available for both the Kindle and Nook.  More information about The Crack in the Lens is available here.  You can also follow the author on Twitter.
“A Hansom for Mr. Holmes” (Gillian Linscott, September 2002):
Sometimes, I think it is easy for all devotees of Sherlock Holmes to assume that everyone in Holmes’s sphere was similarly committed.  Why wouldn’t the Great Detective be accommodated without complaint: restaurants held open, various services rendered gratis, all manner of personages available for any request by sending a mere telegram?  Furthermore, what cabdriver would not be honored to convey Mr. Sherlock Holmes as he embarks on his exciting escapades?  Well, as the cabdriver in Gillian Linscott’s “A Hansom for Mr. Holmes” tells the reader, there is a very good reason for cabbies to stay away from Baker Street—and many of the experienced ones do! 
“And if trouble’s what you don’t want,” the cabbie says, “you certainly don’t go driving up and down Baker Street waiting for some geezer to shout, ‘A hansom for Mr. Holmes’ (129).”  Unfortunately for the narrating cabdriver, he is distracted on a particular evening and drives down Baker Street anyway, and before long, he hears that dreaded call.  Linscott’s story presents a narrator with a unique perspective on Baker Street’s most famous tenant.  Again, it is easy for readers to assume that once the case is solved, that the story is over, but Linscott’s short story is an extremely humorous reminder that even the Great Detective’s actions had consequences and repercussions—and occasionally a cabdriver was left in his wake of deductive destruction.
I found Gillian Linscott’s “A Hanson for Mr. Holmes” in the short story anthology Murder in Baker Street, which was edited by the incomparable Martin H. Greenberg, Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower.  Copies are available on Amazon, and if you find this tale in another collection, let me know.
The Aristotelian” (Steve Poling, April 2011):
From the outset, Steve Poling’s short story is a bit of a rare gem.  Told from the perspective a young Mycroft Holmes, “The Aristotelian” follows the oldest Holmes brother as he tries to prevent Sherlock from taking reckless measures in the wake of their mother’s untimely death; and when he cannot stop his brother, it is up to Mycroft to control the damage that Sherlock wreaks.  While there is a larger mystery at work—a heavy shadow hanging in the background of the story—Mycroft’s own extraordinary powers are torn between his sometimes wild younger sibling (who spends a large portion of the story awkwardly trying out some of the deductive powers that he will wield so expertly as an adult) and their distracted and indifferent father.
Mycroft’s narration oftentimes seems detached and clinical—and perfectly in character with the man that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presented—but his apparent disinterest is offset by the determination with which he tries to shield his younger brother, and console his isolated father.  Indeed, Mycroft Holmes is a layered character, his relationship with his brother complex, and Poling’s use of Mycroft as a narrator is a perfect presentation of all those elements.
Steve Poling’s “The Aristotelian” is available on Amazon for the Kindle, and Smashwords for the Nook, and other compatible devices.
Sometimes, it is nice to return Sherlock Holmes to the form in which we knew him best.  The short story format does not require a lengthy time commitment from the reader, and therefore, a shorter period of suspended disbelief.  Authors are free to try out new plot techniques, or introduce new characters to see how they are received.  Perhaps there is a reason that Sherlock Holmes spent most of his time in short stories—he certainly seemed the most comfortable there.
Congratulations to James Clelland, who is the winner of the “Ideal Sherlock Holmes Story” contest!  He will receive a prize package of three Sherlock Holmes pastiches, including The Italian Secretary, by Caleb Carr, The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls, by John R. King, and The Sherlockian, by Graham Moore.  Thank you to everyone who played!

Friday, July 22, 2011

“The Meaning of This Extraordinary Performance” (COPP): Granada Television’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Having discovered that the mysterious man on the Tor—whom he had glimpsed briefly one dark evening with Sir Henry Baskerville—is none other than his good friend Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson follows the Detective into the rough stone hut that has served as Holmes’s dwelling for the past few days.  Holmes serves Watson some of his “meager refreshment”—a repulsive, lumpy, brown soup—that Holmes pours proudly and sloppily onto a plate, before encouraging Watson to eat.  The Doctor looks revolted, and tries to distract Holmes with a few moments of conversation about the case before them.  Eventually Holmes tries again: “Watson, please, do try my stew.”
Cornered, Watson sighs: “It’s quite disgusting, Holmes.”
“Yes,” Holmes sighs in return.  “Yes, it is.  Well, it’s better when it’s hot.”
That statement can be used to neatly sum-up Granada Television’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  In other words, it’s not so much about what is inside the package, as it is about the presentation.  With HOUN, it’s not about the story itself—there are few people who do not know at least something about the horrible hound, the menacing moors, and the terrible family curse.  As The Stage said, “Like a child who likes to read the same Pooh story time and time again, it’s not so much the narrative that you love as the manner of its telling” (Davies 145).  With the 1988 adaptation of HOUN, what is central is the issue of conveyance, not concept.
Granada’s HOUN actually has quite a bit to recommend itself, beginning with the fact that this version of HOUN actually features a young man (Alastair Duncan) in the role of Dr. James Mortimer, as opposed to the elderly medical man as which he is so often portrayed.  Duncan is certainly more in keeping with the Detective’s famous description of the doctor: “…a young fellow under thirty, amiable, unambitious, absent-minded, and the possessor of a favourite dog, which I should describe roughly as being larger than a terrier and smaller than a mastiff.”  Although Duncan’s Mortimer cannot be described as completely “unambitious,” as perhaps he is “selectively ambitious.”  Dr. Mortimer seems more than willing—even pleased—to accompany Holmes and Watson as they capture Jack Stapleton at the film’s climax.  He even hunts the rabbits that have been destroying his excavation site with lively—if somewhat gruesome—energy.
Kristoffer Tabori fills the role of Sir Henry Baskerville—a character that the late Richard Valley described as somewhat thankless: “Sir Henry’s primary plot functions are to fall in love with the wrong woman and act as bait for a hungry dog…”  It certainly cannot be argued that the baronet does—and more importantly, must do—both of these things; but he is, as I have discussed at-length elsewhere, more than just fodder for the hound.  Tabori’s performance is subtle, almost to the point of being dramatically understated, and nowhere is that more evident than in Sir Henry’s interactions with Beryl Stapleton (Fiona Gillies).  Tabori’s Sir Henry is neither infatuated nor foolishly love-struck; he does not fawn over “Miss” Stapleton.  Instead, he rather seems quietly in awe of her, as if moved to softness and gentility when in her presence.  As Valley describes Sir Henry and Beryl’s final moment on-screen together: “…[Tabori] contributes a fine, ambiguous moment when, surviving the hound’s dinner arrangements, he comes face to face with the one who has simultaneously betrayed and tried to save him.”
Kristoffer Tabori as Sir Henry Baskerville (left),
and Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes (right)
But Granada’s adaptation is not just about the supporting characters, of course.  I don’t typically recommend The Hound of the Baskervilles to friends who have never read a Sherlock Holmes story before; this is mostly because they are always surprised to find how little Sherlock Holmes is actually in this story, for all that it is probably his most famous adventure.  Granada’s version reflects this element of the original text in that Jeremy Brett is only on-screen for a total of about thirty minutes throughout the entire film.  (In fact, some of his scenes are not even new footage, but instead are shots that some viewers may recognize as having been lifted directly from Granada’s version of “The Greek Interpreter.”)  HOUN is really Dr. Watson’s tale. 
Edward Hardwicke plays a Watson that the viewer can easily commit to following around Dartmoor, but more importantly, a Watson that we want to follow as he investigates.  According to Valley:
“Hardwicke embodies the two most important qualities of Watson in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’: he’s a man with whom we’re willing to linger while the more dynamic Holmes is not on and; second, he’s of sufficient grit and intelligence not to make us think Holmes has lost his mind by sending Watson to Dartmoor in his stead.”
Hardwicke’s Watson seems a bit flabbergasted, but not truly put-out, when Holmes volunteers the Doctor’s services to Sir Henry at Baskerville Hall.  It’s as if he knows his friend well enough that he was expecting something like this.  And when the two men are reunited outside out the stone hut, and Watson learns that Holmes has been following him all the while, the Doctor’s reprimand is gently chiding, not irate: “I deserve better at your hands, Holmes.  You use me and do not trust me.”  It’s easy to imagine Sherlock Holmes as genuinely remorseful in the face of such a gentle reproof.  Their interactions do not degenerate into childish, angry bickering.  And Hardwicke’s Watson certainly does not bumble around foolishly and make silly proclamations to old beggars who are clearly the Detective in disguise (“I am Sherlock Holmes!”).  Holmes and Watson’s relationship is not at question in this version of HOUN; their friendship is solid and stable.  Hardwicke’s Watson trusts Brett’s Holmes implicitly, and Brett’s Holmes is justifiably reliant on Hardwicke’s Watson.
Basil Rathbone (left) and Nigel Bruce (right) in
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939):
Oh, do shut your mouth, Watson. 
You're letting in the flies.
In an interview the year of his death, Jeremy Brett was asked if he wanted to redo any of the Sherlock Holmes stories that he had already had a chance to film.  Without hesitation, Brett stated that he would love to have another shot at The Hound of the Baskervilles.  The script drifted, he felt, and Holmes was away for much too long (Davies 144).  While not an unfair assessment, it also undermines Brett’s own contributions to the production.  Brett plays the Sherlock Holmes of this film a bit ambiguously, as if the Detective is himself unsure of the hound’s true nature.  At one point, Watson asks Holmes, “Then you yourself are inclined towards a supernatural explanation?”  Holmes does not answer the question, and instead sighs heavily and suggests that they send word to Dr. Mortimer.  As Brett himself said: “Now as a man of logic, that’s an enormous jump, but he is so disturbed by how disturbed Mortimer is—a doctor and a man of science—that he considers there may be something…” (144).
According to The Ritual, a theatrical magazine, “The definitive version of The Hound is sort of a Sherlockian Holy Grail.  Granada’s production is one of the best—but it is far from definitive.”  There’s quite a bit in this adaptation that the viewer does not typically see in other versions of HOUN:  a young Dr. Mortimer, a Sir Henry with substance, a compelling Watson, and a superstitious Holmes.  But as the star himself admitted, the film is often laborious and slow, and much of the dramatic tension seems to escape with every overly-long shot of landscape.  The Ritual is probably correct in that Granada’s adaptation is not the “Holy Grail” of The Hound of the Baskervilles films.  But it has many of the essential elements, which other versions usually lack, and perhaps it can still be used as a beacon, to prevent other versions of HOUN from being lost on the moors.
Only one day left to enter the blog contest!  Share your ideal Sherlock Holmes story, and win a prize package of pastiches.  The contest is open until 11:59p.m. EDT on July 23. 
• Stuart Davies, David. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (January 2006). 

Friday, July 15, 2011

“You like this weather?” (CHAS): Using the Weather as an Indicator in the Stories of Sherlock Holmes

“It was a wild, tempestuous night, towards the close of November…Outside the wind howled down Baker Street, while the rain beat fiercely against the windows.  It was strange there, in the very depths of the town, with ten miles of man’s handiwork on every side of us, to feel the iron grip of Nature, and to be conscious that to the huge elemental forces all London was no more than the molehills that dot the fields.  I walked to the window, and looked out on the deserted street.  The occasional lamps gleamed on the expanse of muddy road and shining pavement.  A single cab was splashing its way from the Oxford Street end” (GOLD).
When it comes to setting a scene in a Sherlock Holmes story, needless to say, there are a lot of elements at work.  First, there is the tenor of the case itself: is it murder, blackmail, or robbery? Or is Sherlock Holmes tirelessly tracking down the origins of a mysterious Christmas goose with a valuable gemstone in its crop?  Also, consideration must be given to the physical location of the story: are Holmes and the Doctor at Baker Street?  Or Cornwall?  Or is it the middle of the night on the moors?  And what about the Great Detective’s mood: is he ill, and on holiday?  Lounging about his sitting room like a giant cat?  Or is he already in disguise and crouched in the corner of an opium den
When beginning a story from the Sherlock Holmes canon, there are many ways to tell just what kind of story the reader is going to get, but by simply by looking out of Baker Street’s bow window, or stepping out onto the street, another clear indicator can be gauged.  Will the story be violent and gruesome?  Focus on the cold and dark places of the human heart?  Or will it be about political conspiracy, with complexities so intricate that they are often confused and muddled?  Oftentimes, the weather sets the scene as much as the locale or Holmes’s disposition, and it provides clear clues to the reader, allowing them to prepare for Sherlock Holmes’s next client, perhaps before he or she even arrives at his door.
“It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence.  All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand-made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life, and to recognize the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilization, like untamed beasts in a cage.  As evening drew in, the storm grew higher and louder, and the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney.”
Along with Hilton Cubitt from the “The Dancing Men,” John Openshaw, the client from “The Five Orange Pips,” holds the unfortunate distinction of being one of only two clients to be murdered after consulting Sherlock Holmes about his problem.  Openshaw’s arrival in the midst of such a violent storm certainly seems to foreshadow his brutal and futile end.  Openshaw’s family history is also fairly wicked, with its origins in the American Civil War and the Klu Klux Klan.  Openshaw’s uncle, Elias, and father, Joseph, likewise meet violent ends.  Joseph, for example, had been found at the bottom of a chalk pit with his skull shattered, while his son was tossed into the water to drown near Waterloo Bridge.  Perhaps most unjustly, Joseph and John Openshaw’s deaths were entirely dependent upon the actions of Elias—actions that they were neither aware of, or in a position to prevent.
When Openshaw first arrives at Baker Street, he says, “I fear that I have brought some traces of the storm and rain into your snug chamber,” and it is appears that he was correct, if only posthumously.  Openshaw’s death rattles Sherlock Holmes more than Dr. Watson has ever seen.  He takes the young man’s murder personally—a blow to his not inconsiderable pride—and the Detective’s quest for vengeance is as relentless as any “equinoctial gale.”
“It was on a bitterly cold night and frosty morning, towards the end of the winter of ’97, that I was awakened by a tugging at my shoulder…Ten minutes later we were both in a cab, and rattling through the silent streets on our way to Charing Cross Station.  The first faint winter’s dawn was beginning to appear…Holmes nestled in silence into his heavy coat, and I was glad to do the same, for the air was most bitter…”
The frosty morning that begins Holmes and Watson’s adventure to the Abbey Grange complements vividly the icy relationship that they encounter there.  To say that the marriage between Sir Eustace Brackenstall and his wife, Lady Mary Brackenstall, was unhappy would be a dramatic understatement.  Lady Brackenstall spares nothing in describing her late husband: “…Sir Eustace was a confirmed drunkard.  To be with such a man for an hour is unpleasant.  Can you imagine what it means for a sensitive and high-spirited woman to be tied to him for day and night?  It is a sacrilege, a crime, a villainy to hold that such a marriage is binding.”  It is immediately clear that Lady Brackenstall feels no warm sentiment for her late husband; indeed, her opinion of him is as cold as his corpse.
What’s more, the bitterly cold atmosphere of ABBE provides excellent contrast to the fiery and passionate relationship between Mary and Captain Jack Crocker.  There is nothing that Crocker will not do for Mary, even face trial himself as long as she is allowed to go free. “When I think of getting her into trouble,” says Crocker, “I who would give my life just to bring one smile to her dear face, it’s that that turns my soul into water.”  Perhaps Mary Brackenstall’s hot Australian blood and the Captain’s ardent temperament are better suited outside of England’s terribly cold environment.
“In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London.  From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses…after pushing back our chairs from breakfast we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the window-panes…”
In My Dear Holmes: Studies in Sherlock, Gavin Brend inevitably brings his discussion of BRUC around to the greasy, yellow fog that encroaches on 221B’s windows: “…the survivor is the greasy, brown, swirling fog of The Bruce-Partington Plans.  This is partly due to Watson’s masterful description, but even more it is due to the fact that we, the English, love and cherish our fogs beyond all things on earth” (136).  And what a fog this is, in BRUC.  This is no wispy fog, no tenuous thing of ethereal gray.  This is a serious fog, and Mycroft Holmes has brought his brother a serious problem—one of national import, with international consequences.
But at first, the Great Detective seems mystified: “But if this is true, then the case is at an end.  On the one hand, the traitor is dead.  On the other, the plans of the Bruce-Partington submarine are presumably already on the Continent.  What is there for us to do?”  Of course Sherlock Holmes is never content to rest upon his laurels, and in reality he is eager to set off on the hunt—but neither is his pathway clear.  When the most likely suspect, Cadogan West, is ruled out, Holmes must set off in fresh pursuit of a criminal that he cannot quite see through the miasma of circumstances, evidence, and deductions.
There are a variety of ways in which stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon are marked, indicators that allow the reader to know what sort of story to expect before the case even properly begins.  The reader can look for Sherlock Holmes crouched over a tin box of his former cases, or gregariously offering to introduce Watson to his brother, or even stabbing at a dead pig with a harpoon.  But if the client arrives at Baker Street with snow dusting his coat, or the wind chasing him up the seventeen steps—he may not have to speak a single word, for the reader to anticipate what mysteries might come next.

Only a little more than a week left to enter the new blog contest!  Share the details of your ideal Sherlock Holmes story, and you can win a prize package of pastiches.  Contest is open until July 23.

Friday, July 8, 2011

“It needs careful playing, all the same” (SHOS): “Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper”

Frogwares; Publisher: Focus Home Interactive (May 24, 2009)
I recently attended my first meeting of “Watson’s Tin Box,” in Ellicott City, Md.  I was seated next to a woman who had, in front of her, a copy of The Asylum’s direct-to-DVD film, “Sherlock Holmes,” which she had brought along to share with another Tin Box member.  I must have looked surprised or otherwise unimpressed at her choice of film, because she merely laughed good-naturedly and smiled: “You can’t take this all so seriously, dear.  It’s just detective fiction, after all.”  I smiled back.  “Of course,” I said.  “That movie has dinosaurs in it.  If you can’t laugh at that, there’s not much room for anything else then, is there?  No board games, interactive books, or great mouse detectives?”  We were chatting amiably when the other Tin Box member came by to claim the movie.  She was examining the DVD case and chuckled as she said, “Is that… is that a pterodactyl, I see there?” 
“No,” I replied.  “That’s a dragon.  See?  It’s spitting fire and trying to burn down Big Ben.  Isn’t it gorgeous?”
I’ve discussed elsewhere about the importance of not taking oneself too seriously when it comes to all things Sherlockian.  Too much seriousness is a quick and slippery slope towards a straight-jacket and a quiet corner, where one can rock back and forth, and mutter on about chronology, floor plans, and bull pups.  If you find yourself red-faced and furious over a Baring-Gould versus Klinger discussion, or the ever-popular Rathbone versus Brett argument, then perhaps it’s time to step back and reexamine your motives.  Careful, I often think to myself.  That way means madness… that way means madness and an early retirement to Sussex Downs and a couple of feral beehives.  It’s all very well and good to lose oneself in the details and specifics of the canon (this blog being very definite evidence of how often I myself do it), but it’s also important to keep things around that remind us of the fun of Sherlock Holmes, of why we do it, and how wonderfully varied the Sherlockian universe is.
Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper is the most recent outing in the “Adventure Games of Sherlock Holmes” series from the independent game development studio, Frogwares.  Previous adventures include: Sherlock Holmes: Mystery of the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, and Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin (also known as Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis).  A sixth game in the series, currently titled The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, is slated for a Fall 2011 release.  Frogwares also released a title for the NintendoDS in 2010, Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Osborne House, which—while featuring Holmes and Watson—does not appear to be a part of the studio’s “Adventures” series, as it is more of a casual puzzle game than a fully-plotted and complex exploit.
It goes without saying that this is not the first time that Sherlock Holmes has been pitted against the notorious serial killer known as “Jack the Ripper.”  Many authors have attempted to solve one of the world’s most compelling and gruesome mysteries, using the world’s first consulting detective as their conduit, for example: Michael Dibdin in 1978 with The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, Lyndsay Faye in 2009 with Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, and most recently, Bernard Schaffer in Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes.  Likewise, Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper is its own fully formed story, with a complete narrative and investigation.  The differences between the modernity of Baker Street, and the squalid conditions of the Whitechapel district (where the player will spend most of his or her time) are neatly executed.  The cast of characters within the game is vast, and the tasks needed to complete the game often seem limitless.
Game play alternates between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and between a first and third person perspective.  Watson appears to have no compunctions about appearing as himself whether he is in Whitechapel or Baker Street, while Holmes alternates between appearing as himself and in disguise.  Other notable characters include the Baker Street Irregulars, who assist Holmes in one the game’s more amusing puzzles; and Inspector Frederick Abberline, who is a familiar figure in the Jack the Ripper legend and has been played by both Michael Caine and Johnny Depp in various screen adaptations of the Ripper story.  Gameplay requires minute investigation of mutilated corpses, reassembling a damaged gas pipeline, replicating a certain perfume, and other puzzle-based activities, before applying acquired clues to a “deduction board” that allows the player to follow various inferences.
But getting back to the original point, while the story in Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper is thorough and well-written, and game itself is engaging, it is also at times extremely amusing.  An early puzzle requires Holmes to straddle the prone form of Dr. Watson, as they try to replicate a prostitute’s grisly murder, and the player has to wonder if the programmers are winking and giggling off-screen.  Later, Watson’s solo investigations lead him to an appropriately seamy Whitechapel brothel, where he is endearingly flustered by the brothel’s activities and the attentions of its madam.  Holmes encounters a prostitute of his own, a large woman who goes by the street name “The Big Whirly,” and when she asks the Detective if “he’d like a ride,” Holmes response is a brief, deadpan: “No.”  Holmes’s further interactions with “The Big Whirly” involve the Irregulars, a catnip-based perfume, and hopefully a lot of laughter, when the player hears Holmes utter the unlikely sentence: “We’re going to need cats, lots of cats.  To the petshop!”
You can certainly play Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper very, very seriously, going over every puzzle in excruciating detail, and laboring over each clue.  You can frown and cluck disapprovingly when Sherlock Holmes makes an off-handed joke about his iconic deerstalker, and wrinkle your forehead in displeasure at a subtly sexual remark between the Detective and a clinic doctor over a photograph of a syphilis-riddled face.  And there is certainly no denying that the game is very, very dark, with cut-scenes that are gruesome and a climax that is terrifying.  But it’s also fun.  It’s fast-paced, and gripping, and thrilling.  And a perfect reminder of the many shades and flavors in which Sherlockian things are available, especially when they aren’t so serious.
Visit Frogwares’s site dedicated to its line of Sherlock Holmes games, including Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper, here.
Still lots of time to enter the new blog contest!  Share the details of your ideal Sherlock Holmes story, and you can win a prize package of pastiches.  Contest is open until July 23.

Friday, July 1, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D.”

Nicholas Meyer; Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company (September 1993, Originally 1974)
“Allowed to choose his own repertoire, he reverted to the melancholy, dreamy airs of his own invention.  They were haunting and desperately sad, but they had the eventual effect of lulling me gently to sleep.  I drifted off, vaguely wondering if, now that we had struck a spark in my friend’s chilly soul, that spark was destined to kindle itself into flame or die out again with the coming day.  The episode with the violin proved that his soul was not gutted and charred beyond igniting, but whether music was sufficient in itself for the purpose, this I instinctively doubted” (131).
To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure you could “review” a book that has been available for over 30 years, but I’ve decided to give it a go.  Maybe “discussion” is the better word here.  Anyway, I’m fairly sentimental about Nicholas Meyer’s three Sherlock Holmes pastiches.  The reason being is that Meyer’s third novel, The Canary Trainer, was the first Sherlock Holmes story I ever read, before I even picked up the original canon.  One summer in my early teens, I developed a complete and uncompromising obsession with musical theater.  And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying musical theater, my interest was accompanied by an (extremely, please trust me) inaccurate belief that I could sing.  Soprano, specifically.  My poor mother.  Anyway, that summer as our house filled with off-key, tuneless screeches that I no doubt thought were beautiful arias, my mother desperately searched for something, anything, to distract me, and provide her with a little peace and quiet. 
At the end of her search, she found a copy of The Canary Trainer, languishing unread on her own bookshelf, and passed it along to me, thinking it was the perfect combination of a musical with which I had become obsessed, and a diversion that she hoped would prevent her from having to spend the rest of the summer popping migraine medication.  She was correct, but as anyone who has read The Canary Trainer knows, if you only know the essential facts about Sherlock Holmes and his world, the novel is confusing and raises more questions than it answers.  To my young mind, it was filled with unfamiliar names and places like “Adler,” "Reichenbach,” and “Sussex.”  I had no idea why Holmes was keeping bees, or why he had solved the novel’s primary mystery without Dr. Watson at his side.  My mother ended up spending the majority of that summer with me at our local library—she read a Sharon Kay Penman novel in a quiet corner—while I searched for my own answers in the stacks.  To this day, we both like to think of that time as a successful compromise.
Nicholas Meyer is the author of three successful Sherlock Holmes pastiches: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), The West End Horror (1976), and The Canary Trainer (1993).  The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was adapted for the screen in 1976, starring Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes, Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson, and Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud.  Charles Gray also makes a brief appearance as Mycroft Holmes, foreshadowing his role as the eldest Holmes brother in the Granada Television series.  Dr. Watson prefaces the manuscript of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by stating that there are several supposedly “genuine” Sherlock Holmes stories that are commonly included in the canon, but that are, nonetheless, “forgeries by hands other than mine,” including: "The Lion's Mane", "The Mazarin Stone", "The Creeping Man" and "The Three Gables."  But he goes on to say, “Yet these same astute scholars…have never with a certainty branded as spurious the two cases which I spun almost entirely of whole cloth and separated them from the others” (17).
The Doctor refers, of course, to the adventures of “The Final Problem,” and “The Empty House”—stories famous for featuring the Great Detective’s death at Reichenbach Falls and his subsequent resurrection.  Watson fabricated those stories, he contends, to mask a much more tragic journey that he took with Sherlock Holmes during that timeframe.  The Seven-Per-Cent Solution tells the story of Watson’s last, desperate attempt to save his friend from an evil more insidious and hypnotic than any criminal mastermind.  According to the Doctor, “Was it possible that between the absence of intriguing misdeeds and my own departure from Baker Street, Holmes had fallen prey once more—and this time beyond redemption—to the evils of cocaine” (27)?  When Holmes visits Watson in the spring of 1891, muttering about air guns and criminal professors, the Doctor is immediately concerned for his friend’s sanity.  And when a visit to Mycroft Holmes seems to confirm this assessment, Watson hatches (with the help of his wife, Mary, and Mycroft Holmes) a complicated plan to lure the great detective to Vienna, Austria. There, he will hopefully receive treatment for his cocaine addiction, from the renowned specialist, Dr. Sigmund Freud.
The question that surrounds The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is not one of whether or not the novel has any value as a Holmes pastiche, or even if the book is any good.  As I pointed out earlier, this particular novel has stuck around for more than thirty years, and as much as I hate to jump to conclusions, I would venture that it’s safe to assume that people enjoy this book.  So the question is not one of merit, but rather why it has merit.  Examining the story presented in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the plot appears to hinge on two key elements: the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the fact that the story contains an actual mystery for Holmes to solve, as opposed to being a novel entirely about his addiction and recovery.
Arriving in Vienna, Holmes’s addiction is at its very worst, and no one is spared the outrages of his temper.  Realizing he has been tricked, he speaks vilely to Watson: “Well, Iscariot…you have delivered me into the hands of my enemies.  I trust they will recompense you for the trouble you took on their behalf” (93).  And later, as Holmes is suffering the agonies of withdrawal:
“…his interminable abuse struck much more deeply into me.  I had not thought him capable of such rhetoric or such vituperation…he heaped on me such execrations as it pains me, even to this day, to recall.  He told me how stupid I was, cursed himself for ever having tolerated the companionship of a brainless cripple, and worse…” (113-4).
Not long after, Watson knocks Holmes out cold, when the Detective attempts to escape.  He confesses that the force of his blow was fueled by resentment and anger, and is then characteristically remorseful for his actions.  Similarly, when Holmes finally emerges on the other side of withdrawal, he too seems contrite and subdued, saying: “…I do seem to recall screaming at you [Watson], hurling all sorts of epithets in your direction…I want you to know that I did not mean it.  Do you hear me?   I did not mean it.  I remember distinctly that I called you Iscariot.  Will you forgive me for that monstrous calumny?  Will you” (119)?  Finally, the conclusion of the novel offers a glimpse of Sherlock Holmes as he is rarely written—with all his armor stripped away and his closely-guarded memories laid bare.  But even then Watson does not leave Holmes, remaining resolutely by his friend’s side.  The deeply personal and intimate slant to this particular portion of the novel highlights the loyalties that Holmes and Watson owe to one another.  While they seem always at one another’s side in their more traditional cases, the private nature of this struggle throws their relationship into stark relief.  Watson is not just a part of Holmes’s life when it interests him; he is a part of the Detective’s life no matter what.  And while it might sometimes seem that Holmes take Watson for granted, and could get along without him, the author demonstrates how deeply lost Holmes would be, without his “Boswell” (SCAN).
But beyond the secrets of the Detective’s addiction, and the details and process of his recovery, Meyer has written a mystery into the novel reminiscent of the traditional canon stories of which Dr. Watson maintains it is a part.  When one of Dr. Freud’s patients is kidnapped, Holmes and Watson (along with Dr. Freud) find themselves embroiled in a case that could have international complications, and find themselves face-to-face with a villain who will not be satisfied with anything less than total, global conflict.  Holmes must use all his powers to solve the case, and suddenly, the Great Detective—as the reader knows and recognizes him—finally appears, not the fragile shadow of the man, who haunted the previous pages.  The Great Detective needs to be recognizable as just that—a detective.  While Meyer provides layers and dimension and depth, the foundation remains the same, familiar and identifiable.
When looking for a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, readers are often drawn to stories that offer new, compelling mysteries, suggestive of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s style—detective fiction in the most traditional sense.  Stories that speak in the same voice as the canon.  But there is also a need to fill the gaps that Doyle left—the mysteries of Holmes’s early life, the development of his personality, the meaning behind his sometimes inscrutable actions.  Nicholas Meyer’s first—and perhaps most famous—Sherlock Holmes pastiche offers the reader both options.  The Detective and Doctor’s single-minded, and sometimes hazardous, loyalties to each other offset the traditional mystery of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.  And Nicholas Meyer was able to reconcile both aspects into a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that remains wonderfully readable, even thirty years later.
Take a moment to enter the new blog contest!  Share the details of your ideal Sherlock Holmes story, and you can win a prize package of pastiches.  Contest is open until July 23.