Monday, August 29, 2011

CONTEST: Share Your Thoughts about Sherlock Holmes on Screen, Win the Original Canon on Audiobook

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard the phrase “You never forget your first Sherlock Holmes.”  It seems that no discussion of the various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes on the screen is complete without a mention of that particular viewpoint.  But it’s true; the first actor you see portraying the Master Detective, on stage or screen, tends to shape your perception of him for the rest of your days.  That’s not to say that there will not be other actors that you enjoy in the role; performers who capture the unique brand of indifferent elegance that you like to see in Sherlock Holmes or that portrayed Dr. John H. Watson with the perfect combination of loyalty and military hard-headedness (or whatever characteristics you personally like to see).  But the first Sherlock Holmes inevitably colors how you view all other portrayals, and even how you read the Sherlock Holmes canon and pastiches.
Whatever your preferred pairing, and however you may personally define a successful Sherlock Holmes actor, there is certainly no shortage of options from which to 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 favorite Sherlock Holmes actor.  Here are the details:
A new copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1 (A CSA World Classic), unabridged on audiobook CD: Read by the incomparable Edward Hardwicke, who played Dr. John Watson in the Granada Television series from 1986-1994.  This collection contains audio versions of the following classic stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon: The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” and “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.”
A new copy of Sherlock Holmes: Three Tales of Avarice, unabridged on audiobook CD: Part of a series of “thematic” audiobooks, this volume contains three stories from the canon centering on the subject of “avarice,” Edward Hardwicke expertly and vividly renders the following three tales: “The Adventure of the Priory School,” “The Red-Headed League,” and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”

Tell me about your favorite Holmes and Watson pairing, on stage or screen.  For example, do you prefer Basil Rathbone and Nigel BruceJeremy Brett and either of his Watsons?  Or is it Lieutenant Commander Data and Lieutenant Commander Geordi LaForge from Star Trek: The Next Generation’sElementary, My Dear Data”?  Or would you like to mix up things a bit and pair up Benedict Cumberbatch with Ian HartRupert Everett with Jude Law?  If the actor has taken up the mantle of the world’s first consulting detective and his doctor, then tell me who your favorites are, and a one sentence reason as to why.  Leave the entry providing the pair of actors and explanation in the comments below.  Entries can also be submitted via e-mail at betterholmesandgardens[at]gmail[dot]com, by direct message on Twitter, or by Facebook comment.  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, September 24, 2011.  At that time, a random entry will be chosen from the correct entries using Random.orgThe winner will be announced on Monday, September 26, 2011 via blog post, Twitter, and Facebook. 
Best of luck, and have fun!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Some Thoughts on Character: Miss Mary Morstan, the Doctor's Wife

Miss Morstan entered the room with a firm step and an outward composure of manner.  She was a blonde young lady, small, dainty, well gloved, and dressed in the most perfect taste.  There was, however, a plainness and simplicity about her costume which bore with it a suggestion of limited means.  The dress was a sombre grayish beige, untrimmed and unbraided, and she wore a small turban of the same dull hue, relieved only by a suspicion of white feather in the side.  Her face had neither regularity of feature nor beauty of complexion, but her expression was sweet and amiable, and her large blue eyes were singularly spiritual and sympathetic.  In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature.” (“The Sign of Four,” Chapter Two)
There is no denying it—Dr. John H. Watson was a marrying man.  And in the Sherlock Holmes canon, he was married multiple times, although the exact number of times is up for debate.  Two marriages are mentioned explicitly throughout the course of the stories, but some Sherlockian scholars have debated the existence of three—or even four—Mrs. Watsons.  Indeed, the article “Counting Watson’s Wives,” by Brad Keefauver, posits the existence of six Mrs. Watsons.  But of all those many wives, the first (as far as the reader is made plainly aware—Keefauver believes that she was actually Dr. Watson’s fifth wife) and best known is Miss Mary Morstan, who first appears at 221B Baker Street in The Sign of Four, as a client seeking to solve the mystery of her long-absent father and the strange pearls that have been sent to her in the post. 
She is undeniably striking, an extraordinary woman, and the Doctor is immediately taken with her, as the preceding passage indicates.  Over the years, her character has been portrayed by such actresses as Ann Bell, in the Peter Cushing adaptation of SIGN; Jenny Seagrove, in the Granada Television version; and most recently by Kelly Reilly, in the latest Guy Ritchie picture.  In addition, author Molly Carr has penned two novels featuring Mary Watson in the role of consulting detective (with a supporting cast).  At first Mary’s presence appears to be merely to fill the void that Dr. Watson has suddenly found in his life over the course of SIGN: “…that passing glimpse of a tranquil English home in the midst of the wild, dark business which had absorbed us” (SIGN, Chapter Seven).  For many years—first in his time in Afghanistan and then in his partnership with Sherlock Holmes—Dr. Watson’s life has been fraught with violence, danger, and a host of other anxieties.  It is not too much of a stretch to image that he would like a chance at a peaceful life; and Miss Mary Morstan, with her simple manners and sympathetic expression, seems like the perfect avenue of achieving that goal.
But placing limits upon Mary Morstan’s character would be doing her a disservice.  It is certainly true, as has been discussed elsewhere, that she was more than capable of being a part of that comfortable domestic picture Dr. Watson seemed to so desire.  Indeed, at the beginning of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson famously comments on the state of his relationship with Sherlock Holmes: “My marriage had drifted us away from each other.  My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention…”  The Watsons have clearly built a happy English household, tranquil and untroubled, but Mary was also more than capable of uprooting that domestic harmony. 

Jenny Seagrove (center) played Miss Mary Morstan in Granada Television's
1987 adaptation of "The Sign of Four, with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes (left)
and Edward Hardwicke as Dr. John Watson (right).  The adaptation omitted
the romantic subplot between Miss Morstan and Dr. Watson
(photo via
In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” when Watson responds to Holmes’s summons with hesitation, it is Mary who says: “Oh, Anstruther would do your work for you. You have been looking a little pale lately. I think that the change would do you good, and you are always so interested in Mr. Sherlock Holmes’s cases.”  To which Watson rightly responds: “I should be ungrateful if I were not, seeing what I gained through one of them.”  It is possible that Mary also, never forgot how much she owed to Sherlock Holmes—not just her husband, but her peace of mind in finally knowing what became of her father.  In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” another story that opens on a scene of blissful domesticity, Mary makes no protest in sending out her husband to chase after Isa Whitney, at the Bar of Gold, in Upper Swandam Lane.  She could not possibly have known that he would meet Sherlock Holmes while there, but she knows her husband and the adventurous circumstances under which they first met.  Perhaps when Mary Watson told her husband he looked “a little pale lately,” what she really meant was that he had been looking “a little bored.”
Unfortunately, Mary was not to be a permanent fixture in Dr. Watson’s life.  When Sherlock Holmes returns from the Great Hiatus, the reader also learns of Mary Watson’s passing.  As Watson says in "The Empty House", “In some manner [Sherlock Holmes] had learned of my own sad bereavement, and his sympathy was shown in his manner rather than in his words.  ‘Work is the best antidote to sorrow, my dear Watson,’ said he.”  The cause of Mary’s death is not revealed, though some have posited that she died of tuberculosis, as the disease caused the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first wife, Louisa.  Others have suggested a death in childbed, as it was not uncommon, and some authors, such as Duane Swierczynski in The Crimes of Dr. Watson, have suggested that Mary’s sudden absence from Watson’s life was a cover for some more sinister behavior.

Kelly Reilly (left) played Miss Mary Morstan, opposite Jude Law's Dr. John Watson
in the 2009 Guy Ritchie film "Sherlock Holmes."  She will reprise her role in
2011's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows."
Whatever the cause, it is to be quite some time before Dr. Watson would remarry.  But he does take another wife and in “The Blanched Solider,” Sherlock Holmes tells the reader:  “The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association.  I was alone.”  But this new Mrs. Watson is different.  The reader never learns her name, or how she and Watson met.  She certainly was not a client, or if she was, her case had been of little import or interest to the record.  She does not comment, in one way or another, on her husband’s relationship with Sherlock Holmes and his involvement in his cases.  And Sherlock Holmes does not arrive on her doorstep, seeking sanctuary.  While prior to her passing, Mary Watson was mentioned in multiple stories (outside of SIGN) this new wife is barely mentioned at all, only in the briefest and snidest of remarks.  This new wife is clearly no Mary Morstan.  Brad Keefauver puts forth a unique and interesting theory regarding the identity of this final Mrs. Watson, which is available for perusal in his article.
Mary Morstan was unique in that she was able to successfully balance all aspects of her life with Dr. John Watson—and by extension, her life with Sherlock Holmes.  The circumstances of their meeting allowed Mary to be uniquely in-tune with not only what Watson wanted out of life, but also what he needed.  She never shoved her husband headlong into danger, but occasionally she was certainly the gentle nudge that sent him out the door.
Check back here on Monday, August 29, for details on the latest blog contest and learn how you can win an assortment of Sherlock Holmes-related prizes.
“Better Holmes & Gardens” now has its own Facebook page.  Join by “Liking” the page here, and receive all the latest updates, news, and Sherlockian tidbits.

Wednesday, August 24, 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 Crooked Man," and I hope everyone enjoyed meeting "Teddy," and learning the true meaning behind Mrs. Barclay's cryptic reproach.

The current story is "The Problem of Thor Bridge," which begins with the list of Dr. Watson's unpublished cases, housed in the mysterious tin dispatch-box at Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, which has intrigued writers of Sherlock Holmes pastiches for many years. 

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

Monday, August 22, 2011

Call for Materials: "Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine"

At "A Scintillation of Scions," a recent Sherlockian event, I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Carla Coupe, the director of publishing services at Wildside Press, a publisher located in Rockville, Md., specializing in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery books and magazines, including the "Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine (SHMM)."  The magazine is a quarterly publication featuring all types of fiction and non-fiction Holmesian writings.  They are currently soliciting materials for their next (and all future) issues, and I am very excited to pass along the details to all of you.  I hope some of you will take a chance on this excellent opportunity!


Details have been received from the publisher as follows:

This is an open call for submissions (no deadline, unless otherwise indicated). 

New submissions should be sent to  (Do note the second “n” in the middle of the address.  There is at least one other Marvin Kaye “out there.")

These guidelines are in no way intended to discourage any type of potential contributor,  but below are a few suggestions for fiction and nonfiction that have been typically featured and are suitable for SHMM:
  • Sherlock Holmes pastiches.  Please save the magazine editors some time and use UK spellings and punctuation without periods (for instance: favour, honour, Mr, Mrs, Dr John H Watson).
  • Sherlock Holmes parodies.
  • Mystery stories: if they are reader-solvable whodunits, so much the better.
  • Crime stories of all sorts: while the editor dislikes gratuitous gore and violence, if the plot requires it, it will be considered.  Stories with strong sexual themes/content may not be appropriate, but do query; "unpleasantries," if tastefully presented, may be acceptable.
  • An occasional ghost story and other kinds of supernatural fiction are sometimes desirable, in the style of the old "London Mystery Magazine."
  • Nonfiction: articles about Holmesian subjects, literature, films, and television are of interest, but always query first since they do have ongoing columnists covering some of these areas.  In addition, articles about Nero Wolfe are always quite welcome, as well as other famous literary detectives and authors.

Essentially, if a story would be acceptable to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, it would probably be suitable for SHMM.

More information about Wildside Press and the "Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine" is available online. 

And if need be, feel free to send questions to me and I'll do my best to get an answer for you!

Friday, August 19, 2011

On the Observation of Nothing: “Silver Blaze,” “The Six Napoleons,” and “The Second Stain”

“No, no: I never guess.  It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty.”  (“The Sign of Four,” Chapter One)
At “A Scintillation of Scions IV” this past Saturday, Vincent Wright, of the Illustrious Clients of Indianapolis, spoke on the subject of the “Initially Seen, But Not Observed.”  Specifically, Wright presented on the subject of Alfred Garth Jones, a man whose name was totally unfamiliar to most people in the audience—but whose work was instantly recognizable.  Jones was the illustrator of the famous cover of the first hardback edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles, in 1902.  It is a book that many Sherlockians own, in some form, or have at least seen many times over.  But of those many times, how many readers had given a single thought to the cover art of HOUN, its origins, or its artist?  But sometimes all it takes is for one person, like Vincent Wright, to really look at something—the commonplace, the unremarkable, and the routine—and to see the unanswered question lying beneath; to make a logical inference based upon the knowledge of some bit of information—no matter how elusive that information may be—without leaping ahead while there are still gaps in information.  Some of Sherlock Holmes’s most striking deductions came by looking at nothing, but observing the absence of something crucial, rather than seeing only a dearth of clues.
The Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze,” contains one of the Great Detective’s most famous and oft-quoted deductions.  Having learned all he can from the stables at King’s Pyland, Holmes and company are preparing to move on to the next location.  When asked if he has observed anything crucial, Holmes merely remarks cryptically that he would like to draw their attention:
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
What Holmes is referring to, of course, is that fact that the guard dog did not bark when the intruder entered the stable to steal the racehorse, Silver Blaze.  The absence of this activity indicated that whoever had come in must have been familiar to the canine, and did not arouse suspicion.  The villain, John Straker, was the lead trainer and someone who was seen every day around the stables, and the dog would have felt no fear of him, and thus no need to bark.  Rather than looking at a silent guard dog and seeing no clue, Sherlock Holmes observed an absent behavior, which in and of itself turned out to be one of the case’s most crucial clues.  In another instance, Holmes would rely upon the absence of a conclusion in one mystery, in order to find the correct solution to another.
One of the more interesting features of “The Six Napoleons” is the fact that Holmes had already worked the case once before.  As he tells Lestrade and Watson, “You will remember, Lestrade, the sensation caused by the disappearance of this valuable jewel, and the vain efforts of the London police to recover it.  I was myself consulted upon the case, but I was unable to throw any light upon it.”  If Sherlock Holmes seems to be positively blasé about this supposedly less than successful investigation, it is not because he has finally brought the case to an end.  It is not to say that he previously worked the case without success, but instead that he worked the case without conclusion.  However, Sherlock Holmes being Sherlock Holmes, the Detective knew that the absence of a solution in one instance did not preclude the existence of one entirely. 
Not pictured: The "I'm not following this" expression
on Lestrade's and Watson's faces.
Holmes refers to his detective work in SIXN as “a connected chain of inductive reasoning,” and Inspector Lestrade calls the case “workmanlike.”  They are both correct, of course, but the item of note is that observing a missing element was a crucial step in the deductive process.  Marking the missing conclusion from his previous case, Sherlock Holmes knew that a satisfactory solution—and by association, the missing pearl of the Borgias—must exist somewhere.  Simply labeling a case without a solution as unsolvable would not do, and regarding an elusive object as lost forever—simply for the crime of being elusive—would not stand either.
In “The Second Stain,” upon opening his despatch-box to find the missing diplomatic letter safely within its depths, Trelawney Hope exclaims, “Thank you!  Thank you!  What a weight from my heart.  But this is inconceivable–impossible.  Mr. Holmes, you are a wizard, a sorcerer!  How did you know it was there?”  To which Sherlock Holmes replies, “Because I knew it was nowhere else.”
This statement, of course, is not precisely true.  Holmes is, in fact, shielding Hope’s wife, who is the one who had initially stolen, and then secreted away the important document.  Holmes did not know the letter was in the despatch-box—in fact, the Detective placed it there himself to complete his ruse—but he did know that Lady Hope was in possession of the letter, simply because there was nowhere else it could be.  Following his train of deductions, Sherlock Holmes finds himself at the home of the murdered spy, Eduardo Lucas.  Sending Inspector Lestrade out the room, Holmes immediately begins to search for what he knows must be present:
“He tore the drugget from the floor, and in an instant was down on his hands and knees clawing at each of the squares of wood beneath it.  One turned sideways as he dug his nails into the edge of it.  It hinged back like the lid of a box.  A small black cavity opened beneath it.  Holmes plunged his eager hand into it and drew it out with a bitter snarl of anger and disappointment.  It was empty.”
Empty.  But what of the Great Detective’s deductions, his logical inferences?  Although he is for a moment stymied, it does not take Holmes long to realize that the absence of the document from the place he imagined it to be—the place he knew it to be—was the key indicator in another solution entirely.
Remarking on the absence of activity or behavior is not the same as a guess.  A guess indicates a lack of knowledge and the need to move ahead without some crucial piece of information.  With a lucky jump, a guess can sometimes get one over the gaps in the deductive bridge, but can just as easily leave you plunging into the abyss of blunder and falsehoods.  In SILV, SIXN, and SECO, what Sherlock Holmes is doing is observing nothing, and discovering the various ways in which the nothing is itself, a clue.  As Holmes says in SILV: “See the value of imagination…It is the one quality which Gregory lacks.  We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified.  Let us proceed.”
A Scintillation of Scions” is an annual Sherlockian event in Columbia, Md., hosted by “Watson’s Tin Box.”  Learn more about the group here.
“Better Holmes & Gardens” now has its own Facebook page.  Join by “Liking” the page here, and receive all the latest updates, news, and Sherlockian tidbits.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “Sherlock Holmes Faces Death” (1943)

While the rest of the film’s cast of characters are solving the infinitely complex and centuries-old family riddle on the great black and white stone floor of Musgrave Manor’s main hall, Inspector Lestrade (played by Dennis Hoey) has managed to get himself lost in the intricate secret passages that are hidden within the sprawling estate.  Hammering desperately on the walls, Lestrade finally attracts the attentions of the crowd, including Sherlock Holmes.  “Get me out,” he shouts.  “I’m lost!  I’m all turned around!”  For his part, Holmes seems entirely indifferent to the police inspector’s plight, responding: “You have been for years!”  And then, turning to the Musgrave’s maid: “Get him out of there, will you, Mrs. Howells?  And give him a saucer of milk.”
As David Stuart Davies points out in Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, there is no logical reason for Inspector Lestrade to be on hand for the crimes committed at Musgrave Manor, seeing as the location is rather isolated and in Northumberland.  Surely there is a local police inspector who would have better served in this investigative role?  However, he provides (along with Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson) some comic relief in what is a really rather gruesome picture.  However, Lestrade’s presence serves another purpose, and his appearance in the 1943 film, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, marks another way in which the picture returns to the elements with which Sherlockians are most comfortable, the settings in which they most love to see the Great Detective.  Inspector Lestrade may be bumbling and incompetent to the point of hyperbole, but at least he is present, just like Sherlock Holmes’s indoor target practice and Mrs. Hudson’s frustration over the state of her plaster.
“…Sherlock Holmes Faces Death brings Holmes back to the world of creepy old houses, wild windy nights and mysterious unsolved murders.  The mood is Victorian Gothic but the presence of the Second World War is still in evidence…” (50).  Although the plot of the film is only very tenuously linked to the original canon story, “The Musgrave Ritual,” the sprawling Musgrave estate remains, as well as the ancient ceremony that is linked to the layout of the property.  In this film, the puzzle is linked to the layout of the house specifically, rather than the landscape as in the original story; but the ancient crypt remains, with the addition of the black and white stone floor acting as a chessboard and ultimately providing the key to the puzzle’s solution.  As Sherlock Holmes tells Watson, “You were right, Watson, about Musgrave Manor.  Houses, like people, have definite personalities.  And this place is positively ghoulish!”
Interestingly, Musgrave Manor is the film’s link to the present, as well as the past—the shadow of war hangs heavily in the atmosphere, but is not a primary plot point as in some of Basil Rathbone’s previous Sherlock Holmes pictures.  The manor has been converted into a home for convalescent officers, where Watson had been working at the beginning of the picture.  Of particular note, Musgrave Manor has become home to a trio of soldiers that even Sherlock Holmes terms “extraordinary.”  First, there is Captain MacIntosh, who was wounded in a German trench, and now knits compulsively.  There is also Major Langford, a veteran of the Pacific theatre with an escape complex, who now manifests a curious, repetitive speech pattern.  Finally, Lieutenant Clavering is youthful, unexplainably apologetic, and skittish around unidentifiable packages due to his work with explosives.  The three officers act as a type of Greek chorus throughout the film, watching ominously over some of the picture’s more gruesome moments—such as the discovery of Philip Musgrave’s corpse in the trunk of a car.  They also remark surreptitiously on the action—comments that seem to go largely unnoticed by the rest of the ensemble, but nonetheless provide a sense of place and time whenever necessary, sometimes echoing the sentiments of the audience as Sherlock Holmes works through his methods.
And the Great Detective is back in what seems to be his natural element.  There are no spies, NAZIs, nor matters of international intrigue in this picture.  While Holmes’s wardrobe and styling are unmistakably modern, his attitude and his mannerisms are clearly—well, if not Victorian, as such—very uniquely Sherlock Holmes.  From the moment he leaps into action at Watson’s arrival at Baker Street with the case, to the manner in which he keeps everyone in the dark as to his methods at the film’s climax—Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes stares down his challengers in a way that conveys his intellectual superiority without a word, and he uses that power to its fullest advantage in this movie.  In addition, Holmes is sniping (sometimes nastily, sometimes affectionately) at Nigel Bruce’s famously bumbling Dr. Watson; he brushes off Mrs. Hudson’s concerns over property damage by couching it in terms of the solution to his case; and when Sally Musgrave (played by Hillary Brooke) throws herself into Holmes’s arms while in a state of distress, the Detective’s first reaction is to turn to Dr. Watson for a sedative, all the while looking profoundly uncomfortable.
As Davies says, “[Director Roy William Neill] returned Holmes and Watson to the kind of complex problem and rich atmosphere that make Doyle’s tales so satisfying” (50).  The manner in which Holmes tackles the problem is comfortably familiar—Holmes’s habitual brilliance shining ever so brightly as he solves the riddle that had baffled generations of Musgraves.  The Musgrave Ritual is perhaps one of the most famous treasure hunt puzzles in all of literature (parts of it were appropriated by T.S. Eliot in “Murder in the Cathedral”), and even though the puzzle is changed for the purposes of the film, the spirit of it remains.  And Sherlock Holmes is able to solve it with little more than his own wit, his pipe, and a chessboard (both small and large) on which to act out his deductions.

According to the New York Times, “…what is admirable about the film is the wonderful sense of atmosphere, of mystery, of sepulchral gloom that oozes like fog throughout the melodrama.  No government spy work for Sherlock this time; despite his being contemporized by the studio right up to the minute, this adventure was, paradoxically, a return to all the shadowy Victorian trappings of the richly old-fashioned mystery” (51).  And perhaps that is what is so lovely and appealing about Sherlock Holmes Faces Death—it appears to have found just the right balance between Rathbone’s earlier “period” Sherlock Holmes films (The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) and the later war films (Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon).  There is a space in which audiences (and readers) know Sherlock Holmes, where they recognize him most easily, where they prefer to find him.  And this film goes a long way towards recreating that place.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “The Six Messiahs”

Mark Frost; Publisher: Avon (July 2005)
[Warning: The following review most likely contains spoilers for The List of Seven despite my best efforts to the contrary.  My review of The List of Seven can be found here.]
“Do you know what you find, down here”—[Jack Sparks] stabbed a fist sharply into his gut—“when every article of civility, every habit, cherished memory, every manufactured shred of this puppet we assume ourselves to be is stripped off us like the skin of an animal?”
Doyle swallowed hard.  “Tell me.”
“Nothing…A void.  No sight, no sound, no thought; not a ripple of the faintest echo.  That’s the secret at the base of the stairs that no one is supposed to find.  They warn you when we’re young: Don’t look down there, children; stay here by the fire and we’ll tell you the lies our parents beat into us about the greater glory of man.  Because they know coming face-to-face with that emptiness would obliterate every trace of who you thought you were like a beetle crushed under a jackboot” (236).
If you have read, or are even tangentially familiar with the plot of The List of Seven by Mark Frost, then you were probably able to follow that story to its logical conclusion, and imagine where the novel’s climax would find Jack Sparks.  You now know what happened to Frost’s dynamic and debonair secret agent for the British crown—and his malevolent archenemy and brother, Alexander Sparks.  That said, if you have been able to follow me thus far, then you can probably also imagine where Mark Frost’s sequel, The Six Messiahs, finds Jack Sparks.  But if you think that Sparks is the same character that you left behind in The List of Seven, then you would be wrong, because Jack Sparks is very much changed.  He is not the same man.
Set in 1894, The Six Messiahs takes place ten years after the conclusion of the first novel’s narrative.  Jack Sparks has been lost, along with his wicked brother Alexander, in their clash at the Reichenbach Falls.  And Arthur Conan Doyle is now a successful man, having made his name as a writer of stories, which feature a character modeled largely on his late friend.  However, as the novel opens, Doyle has just dispatched Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem,” in a manner eerily similar to that of Sparks’s fate.  In addition, Doyle is about to embark on a lengthy book tour of the United States, with his brother Innes along as his secretary.  But when a rare book dealer on board their ship is murdered, and an elderly priest reveals himself to be Jack Sparks in disguise, Doyle momentarily believes: “This is, indeed, like the old days” (EMPT).  But he is very wrong, as is almost immediately revealed.
Because as was said before, Jack Sparks is not the same flamboyant, energetic, “James Bond-esque” figure that graced the pages of The List of Seven.  Sparks is a greatly changed man.  He is angry, distant, and withdrawn; prone to dark moods before his plunge over the waterfall—his temper is now positively black.  And he is snappish, even with his old friend.  When Doyle suggests to Sparks that he would have been happy, all those long years, just to know that Jack was still alive, Sparks assures Doyle that he is not alive: “Not in the way you suppose when you say it.  Not in the way you assume” (122).  And if Mark Frost’s Doyle does indeed model Sherlock Holmes after Jack Sparks, then this angry, even violent, “post-hiatus” Sparks is perfectly in keeping with the Sherlock Holmes with which most readers are familiar, even if they do not realize it.
It is often commented that the Great Detective is very different when he reappears in the stories Doyle wrote after his long time away from his most famous character.  For instance, the Sherlock Holmes of “Charles Augustus Milverton” is not the same Sherlock Holmes as in “A Case of Identity.”  Sherlock Holmes is much changed when he reappears after his three years of being presumed dead.  As Graham Moore points out in The Sherlockian, “After the Great Hiatus, when Holmes returned in those later stories, he was just different.  Meaner.  Colder.  He starts manipulating witnesses for information.  Lying to people.  Committing crimes himself if he thinks it will serve his cause…He becomes a real bastard” (163-4).  And Jack Sparks is most certainly quite a bastard after he reappears in Doyle’s life.  Whatever happened to him during his long time away has left him scarred, both physically and emotionally, and sometimes the reader—and Arthur Conan Doyle—worries that the old Sparks has, indeed, been lost entirely.
And again, as in The List of Seven, Frost’s Doyle is a fully-formed character, standing on his own merits and abilities, and does not play a bumbling “Watson-esque” foil to Sparks’s Sherlock Holmes.  In The List of Seven, Doyle behaves really more as a detective than a doctor, and that has not changed in this novel.  Doyle is more than capable of deducing the smallest details of those around him—and he often does—and receives the same astonished reactions that could be taken directly from one of his own stories.  When he evaluates a fellow passenger—accurately inferring all of the man’s major characteristics, from his religion to his country of origin to his recent travels—even Doyle’s own brother seems pleasantly baffled (53).  Frost has rendered an Arthur Conan Doyle that the reader wants to follow around for 450 pages, a Doyle who is a man of action and decision, and who does not sit idly by and wait for Jack Sparks to tell him what to do.
Several characters from The List of Seven make appearances in this sequel, if only briefly.  Featured largely is the beautiful and enigmatic Eileen Temple, Doyle’s former love interest.  She is now part of a traveling theater group with the slightly ominous name the “Penultimate Players,” which is run by the moronic Bendigo Rymer.  Her path will cross again with Doyle and Sparks in a rather cataclysmic fashion, though their stories run parallel for most of the novel.  There is also a brief appearance by Larry, whose rough edges and uncouth manners seem to have softened and mellowed with the passing years.  Larry is the remaining member of the set of twins who worked for Jack Sparks in The List of Seven, and seemed to foreshadow Sherlock Holmes’s own Irregulars.
And speaking of the Irregulars—the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), that is—an apparent very early incarnation of that famous Sherlockian society tries to introduce itself to Arthur Conan Doyle once the author arrives in New York City.  For his part, Doyle has very little patience for the group’s fanaticism—and his impatience is only due in part to the ongoing criminal investigation.  “…Doyle had never heard of [the Baker Street Irregulars], which according to [Doyle’s tour manager] had sprouted out of Sherlock mania like a wild toadstool” (117).  Unfortunately, Doyle’s first encounter with the adoration of Sherlock Holmes’s fans is awkwardly and poorly (if humorously) received.  Although Doyle is polite, the early BSI members are left to themselves in the hotel lobby.
With The Six Messiahs, Mark Frost presents his readers with another remarkable and unique Doyle-as-Sherlock-Holmes pastiche.  His novel features characters that are brightly original in their own right, and yet faintly familiar echoes of the ones we already know and love.  The reader knows that Doyle will ultimately return to writing stories featuring the character-who-was-Jack-Sparks, but Frost’s novel keeps the reader turning the pages—guessing and hoping all the while—and waiting to discover how and in what form Jack Sparks will eventually return (in every sense of the word)—not just the why and where of it.
More information about The Six Messiahs, and other works by Mark Frost is available on the author’s website.  You can also follow him on Twitter.