Friday, September 30, 2011

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “The Sherlock Holmes Animated Collection” (1983)

[Pacific Arts; Peter O’Toole, Earle Cross]
“Perhaps these pedestrian cartoon films featuring the dreary voiced Peter O’Toole should be re-titled The Somnambulist Adventures of Sleepy Holmes.” (“Sherlock Holmes—The Detective Magazine”)
A favorite Sherlock Holmes film, like any beloved thing, should feel comfortable, yet familiar.  For many Sherlockians, their favorite on-screen Holmes and Watson is soothing, consoling on even the worst of days.  Moreover, an animated feature, as has been discussed in a previous post, can provide an additional sense of whimsy and childlike nostalgia that can also be cheering.  But the line between “soothing” and “sleepy” is a fine one and quite easy to cross.  Unfortunately, I only discovered this notion after my husband found me dozing, sprawled across our sofa, with the remote hanging limply from my hand.  The film that was scrolling, unseen, on our television screen was a volume from the 1983 “Sherlock Holmes Animated Collection,” and my husband was, frankly, appalled at the sight.
He had never seen me fall asleep during a Sherlock Holmes film before, and he was more unsettled than I thought was honestly necessarily.  “I don’t understand,” he said, staring at me pointedly.  “Explain this to me again.  You told me they were good movies.  You told me you liked them.  That they were ‘fantastically faithful.’”  Still half-asleep and grumpy, I lifted an eyebrow, while wondering why he seemed to be taking my little nap as a personal offense to our marriage.  “They are good movies,” I snapped.  “It’s just that there is something about Peter O’Toole’s voice.  It’s so… lethargic.”  In fact, to call Peter O’Toole’s performance as the Great Detective “sluggish,” would not be inaccurate.  According David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen:
“The most surprising aspect of these tame and somewhat insipid cartoons is the performance of the star: even when the drawn image moves and gestures in a dramatic fashion, O’Toole’s rather somnambulistic tones do not vary their pitch or rhythm.  It has been suggested that the actor recorded the dialogue for all four films in one day; whatever the reason, Peter O’Toole failed to impress as the voice of the Great Detective” (119).   
The Sherlock Holmes Animated Collection” is comprised of four remarkably detailed adaptations of A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles (inexplicably retitled in the collection as “The Baskerville Curse”), and The Valley of Fear.  The animated format lends itself especially well to the long flashback sequences that appear in every novel, with the exception of HOUN.  The audience is taken to Salt Lake City in STUD, to India in SIGN, and to Chicago and Vermissa Valley in VALL.  Although these flashbacks are often remarked upon as unnecessary or even strange plot deviations in the original text, they are a part of the stories as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presented them, and so it is refreshing to see a collection of films in which those aspects are fully represented.  In addition, the mere inclusion of an interpretation of VALL is noteworthy in and of itself, as VALL often appears to be the least adapted of all the Sherlock Holmes novels.  Previously, the last notable adaptation was Arthur Wontner’sThe Triumph of Sherlock Holmes” in 1935.
However, the animated series does include some strange and off-putting omissions.   The adaptation of STUD does not include that ever elusive “introduction scene,” which so many adaptations of the novel seem to avoid, and personally, I had been quite hopeful to find in the collection.  Holmes and Watson begin the film firmly ensconced in their partnership and their Baker Street residence, with Holmes complaining drearily about the dullness of crime and shooting bullet holes in the walls.  This is particularly frustrating as an animated film appears to be an ideal venue to show Holmes’s and Watson’s first meeting, even if only in the form of a flashback.  Animators do not have to worry about the age of their actors, and whether or not they can play both young men and their older counterparts.  Live action Sherlock Holmes films offer some logistical challenges in the way of casting, and accurate representation of age.  But it would have been no difficulty to animate Holmes as a young chemist, shaking Dr. Watson’s hand and saying, “How are you?  You have been in Afghanistan I perceive” (even if it was in Peter O’Toole's sonorous tones).

Sleepy kitty, happy kitty, little ball of fur...someone has been listening
to Peter O'Toole's lethargic purr.

Other strange omissions from the collection include the absence of the romantic subplot between Dr. Watson and Mary Morstan in SIGN.  The Dr. Watson voiced by Earle Cross is certainly no young man, but neither is he a doddering elderly gentleman, whose designs on a woman half his age could be perceived as inappropriate.  Watson ends the film thinking wistfully upon Mary Morstan's memory, but there are no definitive conclusions as to their future.  The Sherlock Holmes Animated Collection” is an ideal series of films for Sherlockians who look for comprehensive adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes canon, interpretations that pay attention to details that would please only devoted enthusiasts.  However, these are not films for completists, for admirers who seek a version of STUD that features Holmes and Watson’s first meeting, or what The Ritual called the “Sherlockian Holy Grail”—a definitive version of HOUN.  And it is certainly not the place to find a Sherlock Holmes who burns with an inner fire, and “the fierce energy of his own keen nature” (SCAN).

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Congratulations to Katie Magnusson, who is the winner of the "Sherlock Holmes on Screen" contest! She will receive copies of the canon on audiobook, as read by the incomparable Edward Hardwicke. Thank you to everyone who entered!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania”

Gerry O’Hara; Publisher: MX Publishing (Publication Date: November 2, 2011)
[This review is based on a pre-publication copy of the novel.]
“You know, Watson,” he mused, “sometimes though we may reason well, we are too prejudiced.  We do not let our eyes see nor our ears hear that which is outside our daily life…Do you not think that there are things which one cannot understand, and yet are; or that some people see things that others cannot?  But there are things old and new which must not be contemplated by men’s eyes because they know—or think they know—some things which other men have told them” (73).
If pastiche authors are to be believed, then Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula are fairly well-acquainted.  A glance at the “Sherlock Holmes Pastiche Database” finds dozens of references to “Dracula” and “vampire,” amongst the many works that are listed there.  Indeed, they seem well-matched foes—a man with one of the keenest and sharpest analytical minds of all time, the other with hundreds of years of knowledge and experience to back his thoughts and actions.  Oftentimes, the crux of pitting Sherlock Holmes against literature’s most famous vampire is just exactly how Sherlock Holmes receives this supernatural opponent.  Does he entertain the idea with guarded skepticism, or with blatant disbelief?  Is he converted to the notion whole-heartedly and without reservation, or is there a period of tentative research?  In Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania, Gerry O’Hara composes a Sherlock Holmes who is careful and analytical and cautiously open-minded, and who fits seamlessly, even profitably, into a classic, beloved narrative.
In Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania,” Gerry O’Hara has slightly retooled the familiar Dracula story.  The character Mina appears in the novel as Dr. Watson’s niece, married to a young solicitor named Janos Svbado.  The nature of Watson and Mina’s relation is never fully explained and as a result, I found myself spending a disproportionate amount of time wondering if they were blood relations, or if “uncle” was merely more of an honorific.  Lucy Westenra, a character familiar to Bram Stoker’s devotees, also features largely in the story, but it is her father, “Dr. Westenra,” who controls the nearby asylum.  Likewise, Lucy only has one suitor, a young soldier named Sandor, rather than a trio of paramours.  The lunatic Renfield appears largely as himself, while Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson seem to fill in for some of the absent characters, most notably Professor Abraham van Helsing.
In terms of plot, the novel largely mirrors that of Bram Stoker’s story, with some notable changes in terms of characters or setting.  For example, Dracula never makes his way to London, and instead the story’s action is confined largely to Budapest and Transylvania.  Additionally, the absence of certain characters results in various plot points playing out in slightly different ways from the manner in which most readers might be familiar, but with no strikingly dramatic modifications.  And of course, the addition and influence of Holmes and Watson to the story allows the novel to play out in a largely more cerebral, less theatrical, fashion than is found in the source material.  After Watson is assailed in the dead of night by Dracula’s three vampire brides, he tries to pass off the instance as a nightmare or some other delusion, but Holmes’s thoughtful response to what might seem like a flight of fantasy, makes the reader stop and take note.
As for Sherlock Holmes, he fills the role of Abraham van Helsing neatly and adeptly.  The Great Detective is a believer, but he is an educated believer, a learned believer.  Dr. Watson may seem a more difficult convert to the concept of vampirism than his supposedly rational friend, but Holmes seems to spend most of the story in constant study.  He is in libraries and buried in books, and learning all he can from the experts at a nearby monastery.  As the Detective famously once said, "Data! Data! Data! ...I can't make bricks without clay" (COPP).  Holmes does not believe blindly, without merit.  He does not believe without basis, or move without footing.  Watson believes in Sherlock Holmes, and will accept wholesale much of what he is told based on that belief.  Holmes, on the other hand, believes in nothing but data, and must have a how and a why in place before anything else.
O’Hara’s version of Count Dracula, for his part, is a bit more bestial than some readers will remember.  The Detective, for example, describes the Count at one point: “Extraordinary and mad, quite, quite evilly mad” (51).  And then later: “He may be clever, and cunning and resourceful but his brain does not have the full stature of manhood, it is in some ways childlike.  The Count is a criminal and of criminal type” (217).  The Count Dracula of this novel is a bit less elegant, a bit less refined, than some readers may remember or may like to see, but this is not arbitrary behavior.  It is all documented and accounted for in Holmes’s methodical way, but it is ultimately up to the audience to make sure that all the pieces fit.
Gerry O’Hara’s novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania, does not deviate much from the Bram Stoker plot with which most readers are probably familiar, and so consequently, there will not be a lot in the way of surprises.  But the influence of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson changes the tenor of the story dramatically, and O’Hara skillfully uses the Detective and Doctor to both fill in for missing characters, and also contribute to the story in ways that the original characters could not do.  O’Hara’s novel is a beautiful revival, charmingly illustrated, and an elegant contribution to the ranks of Sherlock Holmes versus Count Dracula pastiches.
Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania by Gerry O’Hara is available for order from MX Publishing and Amazon.  You can also follow the author on Facebook.
Only a few days remaining!  Share your thoughts about the Master Detective on screen, and you can win the original canon on audiobook, read by the incomparable Edward Hardwicke.  Contest is open until 11:59p.m., on Saturday, September 24.  Details here.
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Friday, September 16, 2011

“The Meaning of This Extraordinary Performance” (COPP): Granada Television’s “The Naval Treaty”

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters.  “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner.  Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.  All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance.  But this rose is an extra.  Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it.  It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
A few months ago, a friend of mine read “The Naval Treaty,” for the first time, in response to one of my earlier blog posts.  When she reached the famous “soliloquy on flowers,” she set the book down and leaned in towards me, conspiratorially.  “Was this,” she asked, “One of those moments when Holmes was… know…” Her question trailed off for a moment, but then her voice dropped to a whisper.  “Was this one of those times when Holmes was…on drugs?”
“Oh, for goodness sake…no,” I replied, quite defensively.  As if the Great Detective’s honor were in question, and for some reason it was my job to defend it.  And I wasn’t even sure if my answer to her question was correct, not in the fullest sense.  How could I be?  Watson certainly did not record every single one of Holmes’s actions, and even then, who can say what the Detective got up to when the Doctor’s back was turned.  So, it was entirely possible that Holmes was on drugs (as my friend had so furtively put it) when he spoke on the goodness of flowers.  But I understood what she was really asking, what she could perceive even from reading this single tale: Sherlock Holmes is acting a little strange here, isn’t he?
Monday of this week, September 12, marked the sixteenth anniversary of the passing of Jeremy Brett, who played Sherlock Holmes in the Granada Television series from 1984-1994. The series was famous for the manner in which it remained faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, and exhaustively captured the minutest details in setting, costume, and performance.  Granada’s interpretation of NAVA manages to be both nuanced and theatrical, and thus successfully captures the scope of the original story.  Brett’s performance manages to mitigate some of the strangeness of Holmes’s dialogue, and as a result, the passage becomes a part of Holmes’s character, rather than a deviation from it.  As Dr. Watson says in NAVA, in regards to Holmes’s speech: “It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.”  Likewise, David Burke’s Dr. Watson seems perplexed, and perhaps a little embarrassed by his friend’s behavior, but his expression is mostly gently accepting.  His face reads more, “Oh, he’s off again,” and less, “What is he on about?”
“Fidelity to Doyle was always at the forefront of [Producer Michael] Cox’s and Brett’s minds.  At the start of the project, both men agreed to use the Sidney Paget drawings as ‘their image’, and in the early shows at least one shot was set up to mirror a Paget illustration.  ‘The Naval Treaty’, which contains the famous rose speech—‘What a lovely thing a rose is’—is a case in point.  The passage and the Paget drawing present Holmes as a dreamer and philosopher, and Brett reproduces the pose very effectively” (124).
This is a moss rose, apparently.  I learned something today.
Unfortunately, canonical fidelity can only go so far in a story where most of the action occurs off-page, and is related secondhand to Dr. Watson and Percy Phelps, on the next morning, by Sherlock Holmes.  Upon spying Holmes’s injured hand, Watson says: “That bandage tells of adventures…Won’t you tell us what has happened?”  The reader has no reason to believe that Holmes tells anything but the complete truth, but it is one thing to hear an account of how Holmes netted the villainous Joseph Harrison, and returned the missing treaty, and quite another to see the story acted out widely, vividly, and in full dramatic fashion.
Granada’s version of NAVA shows the audience firsthand, all that the original text relates indirectly, or perhaps only vaguely implies.  There is Holmes communing kindly with the horses in the stable, and then a shot of the Detective buried in a pile of hay as he waits for Harrison to make his move (it is quite uncomfortable, and there is a light-hearted moment as he tries to surreptitiously scratch his nose).  There is also the very peaceful scene of Holmes resting contentedly under a tree, his light-colored jacket (off-setting Holmes’s normally black, or otherwise dark-colored clothing) over his shoulders.  The sun is setting, and the landscape is bathed in a golden light, and the viewer perhaps gets a brief, rare glimpse of the Detective as he prepares for confrontation.
Photo Credit:
That confrontation is also filmed dramatically, with the actions played out mostly in shadow on the wall of the room.  There is a bright red splash of blood as Harrison attacks Holmes, and the glint of steel as Holmes draws a blade from inside his cane.  The audience does not see the Detective strike at Harrison, or hold the blade against his neck, but the large, expressive shadows show the actions slowly, languorously; the conflict more of a choreographed dance than a ferocious battle.  The slight lilt in his voice as he says to Harrison: "," aptly shows how amusing Sherlock Holmes finds the whole thing to be.  NAVA is an early episode in the Granada series, and shows some evidence that the production team was not always quite sure how they wanted to capture Sherlock Holmes and his adventures.  The slightly theatrical fight scene is one moment.  Additionally, it is unclear at the beginning of the episode as to whether or not Watson is in residence at Baker Street.  This is also the only episode that makes reference to “Billy the Page.”

When Holmes unexpectedly parts company Dr. Watson and Percy Phelps, as the trio was supposed to be leaving Woking for London, Phelps says of Holmes: “He really is the most inscrutable fellow, Watson.”  And NAVA certainly demonstrates some of Sherlock Holmes’s more inscrutable moments.  But the Granada adaptation of this tale goes a long way towards translating some of that inscrutability for the reader, and like Watson, allowing them to see “a new phase of his character.”

Less than one week remaining!  Share your thoughts about the Master Detective on screen, and you can win the original canon on audiobook, read by the incomparable Edward Hardwicke.  Contest is open until 11:59p.m., on Saturday, September 24.  Details here.
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Monday, September 12, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “A Case of Witchcraft: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes”

Joe Revill; Publisher: MX Publishing (September 2011)
“…he makes a great heap of facts, then shows how they all fit together, and finds a pattern in them.  It’s a bit like solving a puzzle—or what you do in your line of work, sir.”
“Yes, the analogy had occurred to me, Joe.  That sounds just the sort of thing I need.  Do you have it?” (15)
Hesketh Pearson once said, “‎We feel we know everything about [Sherlock Holmes], yet we want to know much more about him.  We badly want to meet him.”  Pastiche writers work very hard at knowing Sherlock Holmes, at imagining the man the Detective might be if the writer was ever to meet him.  The result is a series of very different Great Detectives, and depending on the author, the reader may encounter a Sherlock Holmes who is tormented, complicated, demonstrative (but guarded), open-minded, close-minded, logical and rational (but with a keen aesthetic sense), or maybe just a victim of Dr. Watson’s (sometimes intentionally sloppy) narration.  Sherlock Holmes can be any and all of these things, and it is always a wonder to see how a writer will interpret him, how he or she will produce him on the page.  In his novel, A Case of Witchcraft, Joe Revill creates a Sherlock Holmes who is every inch the logical, rational, deductive mind that readers want and expect, but is also all too human, with frailties and failings that seem to relentlessly pursue him.
In late October of 1899, Sherlock Holmes is visited at Baker Street by Miss Emily Tollemache, who wants Holmes to travel to the northern island of Trowley, in search of her missing father, the Reverend Tollemache.  Miss Tollemache believes that her father is being held captive by the island’s “Witch-Cult,” and that they plan to sacrifice her father on Halloween, in just a few days time.  Holmes agrees to take the case, but initially travels alone, as Watson is recovering from having a Jezail bullet removed from his leg.  While on the train, Holmes meets a young Aleister Crowley, who is drawn to the case by a shared sense of adventure and pertinent knowledge, and eagerly requests to accompany the Detective.  The case the two men discover on Trowley is, in reality, neither paranormal nor mystical, but all the more terrifying for its real world implications.
The cast of characters in A Case of Witchcraft are at turns compelling, menacing, comical, and flamboyant.  Crowley proves a worthy companion to Sherlock Holmes, as his youth and eccentricities allow him to be capable at moments when the Great Detective finds himself crippled.  He is precisely as he describes himself: intelligent and willing to obey orders without question (42), but he occasionally makes a humorous mistake.  Trowley’s Provost, Mr. Grimson, and his entourage of likeminded fellows, are more sinister than the darkness which he would warn Holmes against.  And of course, the beautiful schoolmistress Louisa Reid complicates Holmes’s life tremendously, but if the reader imagines he knows how or why she does so, then he is probably mistaken.  Every character in the novel appears to have a unique role to play, and they do so intensely, no matter how briefly they are on the page.
Revill has done his research in writing this book, and his knowledge comes across in the details—the manner in which he describes food (I have never read a Sherlock Holmes novel with such a lovely, though lengthy, description of cheese), clothing, local and period customs, and settings, particularly architecture.  His depiction of Trowley is atmospheric, vivid, and fully-formed.  Likewise, Revill’s Sherlock Holmes is a meticulously educated man, with an extremely sensible view of his vocation.  As he tells Crowley, “I wonder whether Dr. Watson’s stories may not have given you a romantic view of my work.  In reality, it can be more difficult, more tedious, and often more dangerous than one might expect from reading of my adventures in the Strand” (41).  Nevertheless, the climax of the novel will probably leave the reader breathless, unsettled, and like Sherlock Holmes, recalling with nostalgia the less gruesome world of only a few moments previous.
However, this novel also deals largely with Holmes’s views on religion and sexuality (his own and in more general terms), and such discussions might not be to everyone’s taste.  Likewise, Holmes’s personal drug use is more varied and elaborate, and the Detective is frank and candid about his life in a way that is sometimes surprising and unnerving.  For all his conflicted beliefs about the nature of God and religion, Revill’s Sherlock Holmes sometimes reads like a man desperately seeking confession.  Hesketh Pearson maintained that readers want to know more about Sherlock Holmes, but Revill makes the reader wonder how much the reader really wants to know, if it is not better to have a divider between the Sherlock Holmes of Dr. Watson’s stories, and the Sherlock Holmes of a harsher reality.
Revill’s Sherlock Holmes is equal parts the Great Detective that readers already know, and the man that they so desperately want to know, for all its implications.  Despite what the novel’s title may lead a reader to believe, there is nothing supernatural in this story, nothing paranormal or otherworldly.  Just very human people, acting in very human ways, with very human consequences.  And that applies to Sherlock Holmes, as well.  Throughout the novel, Holmes appears to walk the fine line between man and machine, standing desperately on the outskirts of true human experiences.  But in A Case of Witchcraft, Sherlock Holmes is still, first and foremost, the detective that readers know and love, even if Revill keeps his more human characteristics partially shrouded in mist.
A Case of Witchcraft: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes, by Joe Revill is available in paperback from MX Publishing, and Amazon.  It is also available for the Kindle.  You can also follow the author on Facebook.
Less than two weeks remaining!  Share your thoughts about the Master Detective on screen, and you can win the original canon on audiobook, read by the incomparable Edward Hardwicke.  Contest is open until 11:59p.m., on Saturday, September 24.  Details 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, September 9, 2011

“I had neither kith nor kin in England” (STUD): The Family Relationship in the Sherlock Holmes Canon (Part One)

“The date of the watch is nearly fifty years back, and the initials are as old as the watch: so it was made for the last generation.  Jewellery usually descends to the eldest son, and he is most likely to have the same name as the father.  Your father has, if I remember right, been dead many years.  It has, therefore, been in the hands of your eldest brother…He was a man of untidy habits–very untidy and careless.  He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died.  That is all I can gather.” (“The Sign of Four,” Chapter One)
The Sherlock Holmes stories are filled with lonely, unmoored people.  People without family, or with only distant relations.  People who seem to neither need any close relationships, or are unable to maintain them.  Dr. Watson, after all, introduces himself to the reader in A Study in Scarlet as man without any family or close relations, and that is why upon returning from the Afghan War he “was therefore as free as air.”  But for a man who claimed to be “free,” and all the lighthearted imaginings that may invoke, he is quick to throw in his lot with a complete stranger, a man who admits from the outset that he is not the best of companions: “Let me see–what are my other shortcomings?  I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end.  You must not think I am sulky when I do that.  Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right.  What have you to confess now?  It’s just as well for two fellows to know the worst of one another before they begin to live together” (STUD).
Sherlock Holmes analyzes Dr. Watson's elder brother's watch in The Sign of Four.
The reader learns in the above passage from The Sign of Four that Watson’s father and older brother have both died, and there is no mention of any other relations.  While it is true that Watson tells his reader in STUD that he “had neither kith nor kin in England [emphasis mine],” and therefore opens the door to speculation that he had relations in other nations, he never mentions them, and they never visit.  And whether the reader believes that the good Doctor was married once, twice, or six times as Brad Keefauver maintains (see the recent posting about Miss Mary Morstan), the sad fact is that none of the many Mrs. Watsons was a permanent, or even a long-term fixture in the Doctor’s life.  There is also no mention of any “little Watsons,” and as Dr. Watson was quick to return to his rooms at Baker Street in between his marriages, there is some evidence that Watson remained childless.  Baker Street, and his life with Sherlock Holmes, remained one of the few constant fixtures in his life; however often he found himself untethered from its moorings.

Sherlock looks like he's afraid Mycroft is about to tell an embarrassing family story. 
Mycroft looks like he's wondering where his dinner is. (
Sherlock Holmes’s isolation is legendary, of course.  Even bringing up the subject seems to confirm Christopher Morley’s admonishment to Sherlockian writers: “Never has so much been written by so many for so few."  Holmes is reticent, and close-fisted with his personal details.  And nowhere in the canon is this better exemplified than in “The Greek Interpreter.”  As Watson says:
“During my long and intimate acquaintance with Mr. Sherlock Holmes I had never heard him refer to his relations, and hardly ever to his own early life.  This reticence upon his part had increased the somewhat inhuman effect which he produced upon me, until sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was preeminent in intelligence.  His aversion to women and his disinclination to form new friendships were both typical of his unemotional character, but not more so than his complete suppression of every reference to his own people.  I had come to believe that he was an orphan with no relatives living; but one day, to my very great surprise, he began to talk to me about his brother.”

If the traditional chronology is to be believed, then the events of GREE took place in 1888, and Holmes and Watson had been sharing their rooms at Baker Street for over seven years.  Seven years without a word about a close relation, a brother, living in the same city!  It beggars belief.  Indeed, Gavin Brend of My Dear Holmes: Studies in Sherlock, posits the theory that the events of GREE took place within the first few years of Holmes and Watson’s acquaintance (58-62), which seems more likely if still a curious oversight.  Furthermore, if William Baring-Gould is to be believed, Holmes was quiet on the subject of more than just one older brother!  The famous Sherlockian scholar put forth the theories that there was a third, older Holmes brother, Sherrinford; that his parents were named Siger (the inspiration for Holmes’s alias during the “Great Hiatus”) and Violet; and that Sherlock Holmes was the father Rex Stout's detective character Nero Wolfe (the result of an affair with Irene Adler in Montenegro).  Despite the fact that Holmes’s family relationships are apparently more prodigious than Watson’s, they are no more substantial.  More is made of Mycroft’s character—and the Holmes brothers’ relationship—in pastiches or on screen, than ever was truly made of it in the canon; in fact, Mycroft only appears in just two of the original stories: “The Greek Interpreter,” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” and is just briefly mentioned in “The Final Problem,” and “The Empty House.” 
And finally, what of Mrs. Hudson, the famous matriarchal figure of Baker Street?  She is a “Mrs.,” but no “Mr.” Hudson ever appears (although fans of BBC’s “Sherlock” know what might have happened to her missing spouse).  Neither do there appear to be any Hudson children.  Her tenants are often troublesome, and she seems to go through agonies to care for them: cooking, cleaning, sending telegrams, shepherding clients (at all hours of the day and night), tending to bullet holes in her walls.  Oh, and not to forget: the task of preserving the flat while one of her residents was presumably dead for three years.  Watson does say that Holmes’s “… [rent] payments were princely.  I have no doubt that the house might have been purchased at the price which Holmes paid for his rooms during the years that I was with him” (DYIN), but it still seems quite a lot for one landlady to tolerate, “princely” rent payments or no.
In fact, according to Christopher Redmond, author of the Sherlock Holmes Handbook (2nd Edition), Mrs. Hudson’s unusual devotion to her tenants—particularly Holmes—is worth noting.  “Certainly the kind of devotion seen in ‘The Empty House,’ in which she repeatedly crawls to Holmes’s wax bust ‘on my knees’ and in danger of her life to adjust its position, suggests something more than the usual relationship between tenant and landlady” (54).  In the pastiche, The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds, Manly Wade Wellman and Wade Wellman theorize that Mrs. Hudson’s devotion to Sherlock Holmes stems from another source entirely, as well as find a neat solution for the “three Hudsons” that appear in the canon: Blackmailer Hudson of “The Gloria Scott,” Morse Hudson of “The Six Napoleons,” and Mrs. Hudson of Baker Street, of course.
Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes in 2010.  Not pictured, their longsuffering mother.
So, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Mrs. Hudson form a neat little family unit at Baker Street, for all that it is flexible and changeable, for all its strangeness and peculiarity.  Dr. Watson needed somewhere to return to—after the war, after his marriages.  Sherlock Holmes needed to be allowed to remain in the middle distance—to create his legendary separation and isolation.  And Mrs. Hudson needed a place to tend to—and perhaps even residents that needed tending.  They work rather neatly together as a unit, perhaps better than most.
There’s a new blog contest open!  Share your thoughts about the Master Detective on screen, and you can win the original canon on audiobook, read by the incomparable Edward Hardwicke.  Contest is open until 11:59p.m., on Saturday, September 24.  Details 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, September 2, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “The Angel of the Opera: Sherlock Holmes Meets the Phantom of the Opera”

Sam Siciliano; Publisher: Titan Books (March 2011)
Watson was accurate in his physical description of Holmes, but Sydney Paget’s [sic] drawings were highly idealized.  My cousin was not so handsome, nor did he resemble the actor Basil Rathbone!  His hawkish nose threw his face off balance; his hair began to recede in his late thirties; his lips were thin; and he had a weak chin.  All in all, he had a certain grotesque quality, his skeletal frame, his blazing eyes, pale complexion, and large nose all contributing to the impression.  My frankness here may seem unkind, but his heart and his mind were what made Sherlock Holmes great” (8).
What happens to a character that becomes larger than life?  Is there a next chapter in the story, or does the simple fact that the character tends to dominate everything mean that he has come to the end of his literary journey?  When considering Sherlock Holmes, it appears that, more and more often, authors want to stretch the limits of his oft-vaunted deductive abilities, place him in situations that are beyond belief or description, or fill in the gaps in the Detective’s personality or private history.  Moreover, many authors have brought Holmes face-to-face with other larger than life fictional characters or historical figures—either having them work in tandem, or pitting them against each other.  Over the years, Sherlock Holmes has met or worked with—in various capacities—Count Dracula (and Bram Stoker), Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde), Sigmund Freud, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Theodore Roosevelt, Lillie Langtry, and H.G. Wells.  And that’s an abbreviated list.
I have explained elsewhere about my personal affinity for a Sherlock Holmes meets the Phantom of the Opera story.  For purely sentimental reasons, I am quite drawn to them.  And The Angel of the Opera: Sherlock Holmes Meets the Phantom of the Opera, by Sam Siciliano, promised to a very different tale from the outset.  To begin with, the novel is not narrated by Dr. Watson, but is instead told by Holmes’s cousin, Dr. Henry Vernier.  The events take place in the summer of 1891, during the time that most know as the “Great Hiatus,” but as Vernier explains, Holmes was not pretending to be dead, nor had there ever been a “Professor Moriarty.”  Instead, Holmes and Watson had fallen out, and were estranged for several years.  The events of “The Final Problem,” and “The Empty House,” were contrived by Watson, Vernier maintains, to disguise their alienation.  Dr. Vernier does not care much at all for Watson, and he makes no secret of that fact.  He is, however, the young doctor who purchases Watson’s practice in “The Norwood Builder,” allowing Watson to return to Baker Street.
While a Sherlock Holmes seen through the eyes of his cousin is not dramatically different from the one that Dr. Watson shares with the reader, he is subtly more emotive.  The theatrical backdrop of Siciliano’s novel brings Holmes’s musical spirit out to the forefront; he is somehow both more sensitive and more isolated.  Holmes cares deeply for his cousin and his well-being (physical and emotional), and despite their supposed disagreement (which is never elaborated upon), there are instances where Holmes indicates that he misses Watson and still values his friendship.  From the early paragraph quoted above, it is clear that Vernier recognized many similarities, on many levels, between his cousin and the famous opera ghost, and he wants his reader to do the same.  And if Vernier believed that Sidney Paget’s illustrations of Sherlock Holmes were highly idealized, one must wonder what he thought of Frederic Dorr Steele’s drawings!
The cast of characters occupying Siciliano’s own version of the Opera Garnier seems to find a comfortable median between the portrayals in Gaston Leroux’s original novel, and those in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular musicalChristine DaaĆ© is flighty and uncertain, really more of a girl than a woman, but shows moments of strength and determination.  Holmes knows from the start that Christine will choose the dashing Raoul over the disfigured Phantom, but: “She will make the Viscount sweat, I can tell you that” (156).  As for the Viscount, he is whiny and petulant—a spoiled brat trying to occupy the role of a dashing romantic hero.  He is unlikeable in almost every way, and Holmes has little patience for his behavior.
And as for Erik, the phantom, again Siciliano has found a neat balance.  His Erik is equal parts the psychotic killer of Leroux’s invention, and the misunderstood romantic soul of Webber’s musical.  That Holmes sympathizes and identifies with Erik is abundantly clear; as Holmes and Vernier stand outside the door to Erik’s lair, Holmes says:
“You would not care to reconsider and let us in for a chat?  We have much to discuss, and I would give anything to hear you play the violin again.”  Gradually his smile faded away.  “The managers are buffoons, and the Viscount is a young puppy with less breeding than any of his dogs.  I doubt you will believe me, but I would like to help you.  I would not willingly bring harm to you.  Perhaps a part of you is deformed, twisted, corrupted, and I do not refer only to your face.  Still, there should be a place in the world for a man such as you.  Your genius is wasted down here, wasted.  Can the rats appreciate your music?  Can even Christine DaaĆ©?  Please open the door” (182).
The comparisons between Sherlock Holmes and the Phantom of Opera grow a bit obvious and tiresome after awhile.  At points, the story starts to seem like one long metaphor for Holmes’s own isolation, misanthropy, and the burden of his own genius.  But Henry Vernier makes for a refreshing and candid narrator, despite his own personal opinions about Dr. Watson.  He sees Sherlock Holmes in a different way, and likewise Holmes shares a different side of himself to his cousin.  Vernier’s view of Holmes is more flawed, more susceptible to weakness; and nowhere is this clearer than when Holmes stands gasping for breath at the top of the opera house, struggling to speak after having run the stairs to roof: “Henry, perhaps I should give up tobacco” (156).  Also of note: Toby, the famous bloodhound from The Sign of Four, makes a light-hearted and well-timed appearance (amusingly the reader learns that Watson had misidentified Toby’s gender and she is actually un chien de belle fille).
Gaston Leroux may have been most famous for penning The Phantom of the Opera, but he also wrote a series of detective stories featuring an investigator named Joseph Rouletabille.  Leroux obviously had an appreciation for the form of detective fiction, and the reader might wonder how he would have received seeing one his creations face-to-face with the world’s first consulting detective.  For those familiar with the plot of The Phantom of the Opera (in any of its many forms), there will not be a lot of surprises in the way of plot, or action.  There is plenty of the expected singing, a crashing chandelier, and oodles of passionate, romantic sacrifice.  But it is ultimately Sherlock Holmes—as is so often his wont—who is the most surprising element in this story.  His actions are often unpredictable, his alliances and sympathies are sometimes murky, and his motivations are complex—but he’s always identifiable, always recognizable, and always very much himself.
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