Tuesday, December 4, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book"

Kathleen Kaska; Publisher: LL-Publications (May 2012)

"To a great mind, nothing is little," remarked Holmes, sententiously. (STUD)

When beginning any serious endeavor to collect books about Sherlock Holmes, his world and his creator, one is going to need bookshelves. Many, many bookshelves. Sturdy ones, preferably, made of a solid materials and reinforced with some sort of titanium bracket. And as those shelves start to fill up with books about Sherlock Holmes and his relationship with the holy scriptures, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and British imperialism, and the various incarnations of the Great Detective on stage and screen – there is bound to be some inevitable overlap. And as the collection grows, there is also bound to be some difficulty in locating that precise bit of information that one needs, when one needs it, and one starts to debate the advisability of some sort of card catalog before one descends into utter madness. And while we're at it, why is my cat always sitting on my collection of annotated Sherlock Holmes anthologies when I need them most – it's not as if they could possibly be comfortable?

*cough* Where was I?

Back to my original, and not at all deranged, point of discussion – Kathleen Kaska's new edition of The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book, published earlier this year, is perfectly placed on the shelves of any collector of Sherlockian volumes, newly devoted or earnestly experienced – preferably a shelf that easily accessible, about shoulder-height, perhaps? Because it is the sheer accessibility of the volume that is both its brilliance and its greatest strength. Some collections may profess the same breadth and depth of material, but will boast none of Kathleen Kaska's readability. Originally published in 2000, the quiz book is the same treasure trove of Sherlockian information as many larger volumes, but is infinitely more portable, approachable, and portioned out in easily digestible bits, in the forms of multiple choice, true/false and short answer quizzes (and crossword puzzles, my personal favorite). The trivia spans all manner of Sherlockian subjects from the original 56 short stories and 4 novels, to the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to the world of Sherlock Holmes on screen. 

In the (sometimes seemingly) infinitely expanding world of Sherlockiana, Kaska's book is more than just a collection of trivia. It is a reference work that presents a new dazzling array of information, while offering old and familiar knowledge in a manner that will surprise and delight even the most learned of Sherlockian scholars. The measure of a good reference work is in its ability to teach, but also in its ability to surprise – to keep the reader pursuing, searching, endeavoring to find answers to even the remotest questions. Kathleen Kaska's triviography book takes a little of the legwork out of that search, but none of the joy. It balances both form and function into one indispensable volume.

Ms. Kaska graciously answered a few of my questions about her books, her writing process, and her relationship with Sherlock Holmes. Read her responses below:


You have written three triviography books – on Sherlock Holmes, Alfred Hitchcock, and Agatha Christie. Would you tell us a little bit more about your interest in trivia? Does your career as an educator have any influence? 
In the 1990s when I decided to finally write “that” book, I quickly learned that it was much easier to break into the publishing world with nonfiction rather than fiction. Trivia books were becoming popular and I decided to make use of my complete Agatha Christie collection by writing the Agatha Christie trivia book. I reread each and every story and novel. Dissecting and analyzing Christie’s writing turned out to be a valuable tool when I began writing my own mysteries. I can’t say that being an educator had an influence, but it certainly helped when I begin writing all those quiz questions.

I was constantly amazed by what I learned from reading your Sherlockian trivia. Can you share a little bit about your process of research and writing? For example, how did you determine the framework of the book – how it would be structured and why? Were there any interesting bits that didn’t make it into the book? 
My research involved reading every story and watching every film these three geniuses created. The framework of my Sherlock Holmes and Alfred Hitchcock trivia books were the same, but different from the Agatha Christie trivia, which has more of a cozy style. In the Hitchcock book, I began most quizzes with behind-the-scenes anecdotes describing Hitchcock’s practical jokes, bizarre antics, and innovated filming techniques. I did the same with the Holmes book, giving readers information on where Conan Doyle got his ideas for each story. What I discovered about Conan Doyle was that he was called in to assist in locating Agatha Christie when she disappeared for eleven days. Instead of using Sherlock’s deductive reasoning, Conan Doyle consulted a medium. The medium’s prediction of when Christie would surface turned out to be right.

I believe most Sherlockians are always looking to expand their libraries. Is there a Sherlock Holmes reference book or other resource that you found critical in creating your own trivia book? Are there any other works that you believe belong in every Sherlockian library? 
It seems like new books about Holmes and Conan Doyle hit the shelves every week. The Holmes trivia first edition was published in 2000, and since then I've added several more to my collection. But the two most valuable reference books were Jack Tracy’s The Ultimate Sherlock Holmes Encyclopedia and Matthew E. Bunson’s Encyclopedia Sherlockiana.

What do you think is the most important thing that young, aspiring writers (mystery or otherwise) could learn from the writing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the stories of Sherlock Holmes? 
This answer requires its own separate book; there’s so much a young writer can learned from Conan Doyle: creating voice, setting, characters, relationship between characters, and of course, plotting.

How have Doyle and the Canon influenced your own mystery series, featuring reporter Sydney Lockhart? 
Conan Doyle’s stories hooked me and made me a lover of mysteries, however, when I began writing, my biggest influences were the hardboiled detective writers from the early 1900s. I like to think of Sydney as a female Phillip Marlowe.

I understand you read some Sherlockian pastiche. What elements do you think are critical for a well-executed pastiche? Why are some appropriations of Holmes and Watson successful, where others are not? 
The voice is the most crucial, followed by setting. I enjoyed Nicholas Meyer’s pastiches, The West End Horror and The Canary Trainer. Another excellent example is a story written by Dan Andriacco entitled The Peculiar Persecution of John Vincent Harden. Andriacco has captured Dr. Watson’s voice and Conan Doyle’s writing style perfectly.

Who was your favorite actor to portray Sherlock Holmes on film, television or stage? Similarly, what elements do you think are necessary to make such adaptations successful? 
So many excellent actors have played Holmes: Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore, Peter Cushing, Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, but I have to go with Jeremy Brett. The Granada TV series stuck as close to the original stories as possible and Brett’s portrayal of the Great Detective is flawless.

Tell me a little bit about your ideal Sherlock Holmes adaptation. Would it be a canonical story, a pastiche, or a conglomeration? Modern or Victorian? Who would appear in it, and why? 
Although I love the new BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch, which is set in current time, I prefer the canonical stories set in the Victorian era. Whenever I open Conan Doyle’s collection, which I do often, I hear the clacking of hoofs as the horses trot down the streets of London and I smell the dank air as it drifts across the Thames and I’m instantly transported back in time.

You have written three trivia books about well-known figures in the mystery and thriller genre. Do you have any plans for a fourth? And, even hypothetically, who (or what) would be the subject of a fourth book? 
I am toying with the idea of focusing on another one of my favorite detective authors or writing trivia about several whom all belonged to the same genre. Who he is and who they are is a secret. But, if you want a hint, you can refer back to my answer in question six.

Finally, what is your favorite Sherlockian quote (something from the Canon, or even from a scholar), and why
Authors are always asked to summarize their work in one sentence. This quote, without a doubt, summarizes the entire Canon. It’s my overall favorite: “My name is Sherlock Holmes and it’s my business to know what other people don’t.” 


Kathleen Kaska writes the Classic Triviography Mystery Series, which includes The Agatha Christie Triviography and Quiz Book, The Alfred Hitchcock Triviography and Quiz Book, and The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book. The Alfred Hitchcock and the Sherlock Holmes trivia books are finalists for the EPIC award in nonfiction.

Kathleen also writes the award-winning Sydney Lockhart mysteries set in the 1950s. Her first two books Murder at the Arlington and Murder at the Luther, were selected as bonus-books for the Pulpwood Queen Book Group, the largest book group in the country. The third book in the series, Murder at the Galvez, will be out in December. 

Her nonfiction book, The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story, (University Press of Florida) was released on September 16 and has been nominated for the George Perkins Marsh award for environmental history. 

Kathleen can also be found via her blog, her Facebook page, and her Twitter feed.


“Better Holmes & Gardens” has its own Facebook page.  Join by “Liking” the page here, and receive all the latest updates, news, and Sherlockian tidbits.

Monday, November 19, 2012

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. I recently finished up "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," a seasonal story in which Sherlock Holmes famously states, "This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply."

The current story is "The Beryl Coronet," in which Watson imparts some sage advice about the treatment of madmen, and Holmes shows that even the most damning evidence does not necessarily indicate a concrete conclusion.

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 you can read through the original canon online.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

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

“Another of Colonel Huggins' interests was riding, an enthusiasm also embraced by Jeremy. As a child, Jeremy had a pony named ‘Babs’ whom he trained to climb stairs. Jeremy actually rode Babs into the Grange, which didn't sit well with Nanny Clifford, especially when it came to the inevitable by-products of Jeremy's four-legged, unhousebroken guest. (Nanny wasn't too pleased when Jeremy rode a donkey up into his room, either – the donkey had no trouble going upstairs, but balked on the way down.) Jeremy took riding lessons and competed in gymkhanas (equestrian field days consisting of exhibitions of horsemanship and pageantry). Although Jeremy decided at an early age that he wanted to become an actor, he once said that he wished he could have been a jockey, too. (He probably enjoyed filming the Holmes story ‘Silver Blaze’.)” (Lisa Oldham, The Brettish Empire)

“My ignorance cries aloud to heaven,” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about “Silver Blaze,” a short story appearing in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. “I read an excellent and very damaging criticism of the story in some sporting paper, written clearly by a man who did know, in which he explained the exact penalties which would come upon everyone concerned if they had acted as I described. Half would have been in jail, and the other half warned off the turf forever.” And the 1988 adaptation of “Silver Blaze” by Granada Television certainly included its own share of mistakes. The episode famously exceeded its allotted budget due to its need for an on-location shoot, and the large number of horses and human extras needed for the race scenes. The episode was preceded by Granada’s rendering of “The Devil’s Foot,” another episode that had required an expensive on-location shoot. This confluence of factors meant that by the time Granada was ready to produce their adaptation of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the series’ budget was already seriously compromised, and the fate of the HOUN adaptation with it (Davies 139). There are many arguable reasons as to why Granada’s HOUN failed when it had every expectation of success – not the least of these being that because of the DEVI and SILV adaptations, producer Michael Cox simply could not afford to construct the HOUN film that he had envisioned.

But its role in the failure of the HOUN adaptation does not necessarily mean that the production of SILV was not a success in its own right. The episode’s location, expensive as it must have been, is atmospheric in a way that a sound stage or even a cleverly set-dressed local field could never be.  The vast and unforgiving loneliness of the fields of Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire in the north of England are desolate and forbidding in the way that the moorlands of Dartmoor must certainly be. The stables of King’s Pyland appear as a mere dot on the landscape as Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) and Dr. Watson (Edward Hardwicke) travel in with Colonel Ross (Peter Barkworth). The neighboring stable of Backwater is miles away and likewise the odds of finding the missing Silver Blaze seem remote in the extreme. It is the expansiveness of the landscape that impresses upon the viewer the enormity of the Detective’s task. A horse lost on the sprawling moor – even a racehorse as extraordinary as Silver Blaze – will be as difficult to locate as a black cat in a coal cellar. “I expect a miracle from you, Mr. Holmes,” says Colonel Ross. The atmosphere created in the episode (of which the landscape plays no small part) is a testament to the extent of the miracle that was produced.

Photo Credit: bookishadventures.tumblr.com
And in regards to those costly horses and extras that seem to adorn every scene in SILV? The presence of more horses makes the absence of Silver Blaze even more profound and even more significant. King’s Pyland appears to be positively brimming with horses – why is the missing one so important? It is clear that none of the other horses can match Silver Blaze in strength, speed or skill – and the horse in question is not even present for the comparison! Bayard, the only other horse mentioned as being remotely in the same league as Silver Blaze, is admitted by Colonel Ross as just “intended for a pacemaker.” Indeed, Colonel Ross seems to be going to great lengths to reacquire Silver Blaze – even calling on Sherlock Holmes against his better judgment. The identity of the murderer of John Straker, Silver Blaze’s trainer, feels almost secondary to locating the missing horse. Sherlock Holmes even goes so far as to chide Colonel Ross for his neglect. He asks Colonel Ross, “[The location of Silver Blaze] is a minor point, of course, compared with the question of who killed John Straker?”

As for the extra cast members – what is a dramatic reveal without a crowd of people to witness it? When Holmes theatrically reveals the identity of Straker’s killer (who was Silver Blaze, of course, acting in self-defense), it is in the Winner’s Circle of the Wessex Cup, surrounded by a large crowd of well-wishers. As the realization dawns on Colonel Ross that he has been horribly deceived by a man that he trusted implicitly, the slowly encroaching crowd makes his error in judgment seem palpable. For a moment the man seems surrounded by his mistakes – rather than by onlookers – unable to escape them. But perhaps even more simply: what is a story about a racehorse without other horses to race against, and people to watch the race?

Photo Credit: bookishadventures.tumblr.com

The episode also lends the necessary weight and grandeur to one of the most vaunted and recognizable canonical lines. But before Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes ever speaks a word about the infamous “dog in the nighttime” (the one who did nothing, of course), there is a scene in which he enters the missing racehorse’s stable and is subjected to the snarling and vicious barks of the resident canine. There is a pause, a moment of utter stillness, marked by nothing more than the subtle upward curve of Brett’s mouth. This is not the frenetic silence of a man frozen in terror by the unexpected onslaught of an unruly dog, hoping to avoid injury. This is a moment of intensity and gravitas, as understood by a man for whom the moment of knowing supersedes all other factors and distractions.

There is quite a lot that is tangible about Granada’s adaptation of SILV – moments that are so significant and weighted that the viewer can seemingly reach out and touch them. Holmes reaching out to gently touch the hand of a distraught maid as she recounts finding John Staker’s corpse. Holmes reaching barehanded into the muddy landscape to retrieve a hidden nail. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Inspector Gregory (Malcom Storry) passing around a cataract knife as if it were some precious artifact. The Great Detective hanging his cane on the door of the stable with a significant look and gesture, just before he washes the black paint from a horse, only to reveal the animal beneath as the missing Silver Blaze. Holmes grinning and snickering as he collects his winnings after the Wessex Cup race (one of those moments of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “ignorance” that mentioned earlier). Finally, Holmes reaching out to stop an annoying ringing dinner bell with his hand, as he recounts the solution of the case to Colonel Ross and Dr. Watson.

Photo Credit: bookishadventures.tumblr.com

The viewers of Granada’s Sherlock Holmes series can wistfully speculate what would have become of their adaptation of HOUN had budgetary mistakes not been made in the production of DEVIL and SILV. Even Jeremy Brett was known of having wished that they could go back and re-film that episode (Davies 144). But speculation is a fruitless endeavor, changing nothing. And it distracts from the fact the Granada’s SILV episode is outstanding and artfully constructed in its own right, with unforgettable moments that linger after the episode ends – which leave an indelible impression on the screen.



“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.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

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. I recently finished up "The Bruce-Partington Plans," which features an appearance by Mycroft Holmes and is one of only two stories from the Canon to feature the elder Holmes brother (he is also mentioned indirectly in two others). In this story, Sherlock Holmes somewhat reveals the true nature of his brother's work for and as the British Government.

The current story is "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," a seasonal story in which Sherlock Holmes famously states, "This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply."

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 you can read through the original canon online.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Some Thoughts on Character: The Recurrent American

“Then I trust that you at least will honour me with your company,” said Sherlock Holmes. “It is always a joy to meet an American, Mr. Moulton, for I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a minister in far-gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.” (“The Noble Bachelor”)

Sherlock Holmes found Americans really fascinating. Upon greeting Mr. Francis Moulton in “The Noble Bachelor,” Holmes proceeds to treat the young man like some sort of fantastic oddity – like he has just encountered a white tiger or a new species of honeybee in his sitting room. It’s as if Holmes wants to analyze Moulton, to extract the young American’s secrets through scientific inquiry and research, to study him intensely under a high-powered microscope. Indeed, it is not so difficult to imagine Holmes turning to Watson and saying, “Oh, please let me keep him! I need more information for my index and he’ll make just the perfect addition. I promise to feed him, water him, and walk him every day!” 

Fine, Lord St. Simon. You can leave.
I don't want to share my new American friends anyway.
Francis Moulton, and his wife Hatty, are far from the only Americans to appear in the Canon. The appearances of colonials span from clients, informants, criminals, even some detectives, and everything in between. There seems to be a role for an American in every frame and facet of the original stories. Even The Woman, Irene Adler “of dubious and questionable memory,” was an American – Holmes’s index indicates that she was born in New Jersey, of all places, in 1858. In “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” readers are introduced to Mr. Leverton, of the Pinkerton Agency, who is assisting Inspector Gregson. The American detective is described rather agreeably as “a quiet, businesslike young man, with a clean-shaven, hatchet face, [that] flushed up at the words of commendation.” Sherlock Holmes is quite pleased to meet Leverton, who has made something of a name for himself as a detective in America. For his part, Holmes has heard of the man’s work, and appears to find it exceptional.

Not all Americans in the Canon are depicted in such glowing terms, of course. While “The Dancing Men” features the young American woman Elsie Cubitt (née Patrick) whose devotion to her husband causes her to attempt to take her own life after his murder, it also features the villainous Abe Slane – “the most dangerous crook in Chicago.” It is Slane who murders Hilton Cubitt, but only after he torments poor Elsie with a series of haunting coded messages, culminating in the rather nightmarish missive: “ELSIE - RE – ARE TO MEET THY GO-.” And while Slane contends that “…there was never a man in this world loved a woman more than I loved [Elsie],” needless to say, Slane’s monstrous behavior more than eclipses any love that he can profess to feel.

I told you I wanted to know more about Chicago.
I wasn't kidding.
Likewise the Americans featured in A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear do not all come off as shining beacons of virtue. In “The Country of Saints,” the second part of STUD, the reader is introduced to a less-than-righteous clan of Mormons, who exhibit a murderous intent on the acquisition of persons and property at all costs. VALL features a secret order, the Ancient Order of Freemen, filled with seemingly every type of unsavory individual, whose criminal deeds appear to run the gamut of almost every type of illegal activity. The actions of the Order influence how the entire town functions. Of course, the villainous Americans of these stories find their more honorable counterparts. In STUD, the American Jefferson Hope has been on a decades-long quest to avenge the death of his beloved Lucy Ferrier, dying only just after succeeding in his pursuit. In VALL, the Freeman John McMurdo is revealed to be Birdy Edwards, another Pinkerton detective, and the secret society is swiftly brought to justice for their crimes. More interestingly, these particular passages actually take the reader to America, rather than bringing the American to England and Baker Street. If Americans are some sort of exotic curiosity in the Canon, then the curiosities in these stories are being presented in their natural habit, interacting with others of their own species.

Chronologically speaking, Sherlock Holmes’s American experiences culminate with “His Last Bow.” The story finds Holmes having just spent two years undercover as an Irish-American named “Altamont.” However, if the Sidney Paget’s illustration is to be believed, the extent of his disguise involved growing an unsightly goatee and adopting an American accent. Anyway, Holmes’s American journey took him on a rather circuitous route, as he says he has been from Chicago to Buffalo, and those are just the places he mentions. But the reader is left behind on this journey, and does not get to experience America with Sherlock Holmes. And, it would seem, his excursion has left him weary of America, if not Americans. As he says to Watson, "Tomorrow [the goatee] will be but a dreadful memory. With my hair cut and a few other superficial changes I shall no doubt reappear at Claridge's tomorrow as I was before this American stunt - I beg your pardon, Watson; my well of English seems to be permanently defiled - before this American job came my way” (LAST).

Well, that is some very American facial hair indeed.
I can see why Von Bork was fooled. I think.
William Gillette, the man who brought Sherlock Holmes so famously to life on the stage, was an American, born in Connecticut in 1853. When Conan Doyle and Gillette first met, the actor surprised Conan Doyle by emerging onto the train platform, kitted out in a full Sherlock Holmes ensemble, complete with magnifying glass. After recovering from his shock, Conan Doyle laughed, completely charmed, and Gillette and Conan Doyle became lifelong friends. What an oddity Conan Doyle must have thought Gillette was upon that first meeting, how strange and otherworldly. But that didn’t stop him from entrusting the man with the care of his most famous – if not beloved – creation. Similarly, Sherlock Holmes may have found Mr. Francis Moulton a neat little marvel upon their first meeting – something on par with a new type of tobacco ash or particularly fascinating chemical equation – but that peculiar fascination didn’t stop Holmes from entrusting himself to the national identity of Francis Moulton, Birdy Edwards, and even Abe Slane. The recurring presence of Americans and American themes in the Canon is striking in its frequency, but their peculiarities have purpose, even if it is occasionally disagreeable.


“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 15, 2012

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. I recently finished up "The Engineer's Thumb," which is one of only two cases that Dr. Watson's was able to bring to Sherlock Holmes's attention (the other being the unpublished case of Colonel Warburton's madness).

The current story is "The Bruce-Partington Plans," which features an appearance by Mycroft Holmes and is one of only two stories from the Canon to feature the elder Holmes brother (he is also mentioned indirectly in two others). In this story, Sherlock Holmes somewhat reveals the true nature of his brother's work for and as the British Government.

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 you can read through the original canon online.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: “The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I: University”

Darlene A. Cypser; Publisher: Foolscap & Quill (May 2012)

[Note: This novel is a direct sequel to Darlene Cypser’s The Crack in the Lens, which was published in December 2010. You can read my review of it here. Spoilers for The Crack in the Lens potentially lay ahead, although I always endeavor to avoid them.]

“Perhaps it would help if they understood what drove him to it,” Sherlock suggested.

“Do you believe that anyone can truly comprehend what goes through a person’s mind at such times?” Dr Mackenzie asked.

“Not if they haven’t been there. But perhaps they can understand the stresses that drove him over the edge of reason.”

It sometimes seems that Sherlock Holmes’s greatest asset is time. His character is at once both timeless and demonstrative of the values and mores of a particular age. It is “always 1895” as the Sherlockians say, but a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, who texts and uses the internet, has found himself at the center of a breathtaking upwelling in popularity – and a likewise resurgence of interest in the original Great Detective from whom he was built. Sherlock Holmes always knew how to make use of time. The Canon is full of instances in which the Detective demonstrates an almost transcendental patience in puzzling out a case (TWIS) or waiting for a quarry, but he also knew how important even one second could be in capturing a suspect, or how disastrous one ill-timed movement could be in the course of a chemical experiment (NAVA).

And at the onset of The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I: University, by Darlene A. Cypser, it would seem that all Sherlock Holmes has going for him is time. The events of The Crack in the Lens have devastated him. Physically, he is weak, unable (or unwilling) to leave his room for extended periods of time, consuming food is necessary but a struggle, and even doing something as simple as climbing stairs is a trial. Emotionally, he is far worse off. Even the smallest triggers seem to send him into stress-induced trances. He cannot bear to set eyes on and compulsively avoids most female members of the household staff. The eldest Holmes brother, Sherrinford, is expecting his first child and the timing of the child’s birth (or perhaps the child’s mere existence) fills Sherlock with anger and guilt. He cannot even look at the snow, and keeps his curtains constantly drawn.

But he is determined to move on, move away. Sherlock’s first experience with time in the novel is how little of it he is willing to waste in getting into university and away from Mycroft Manor. He finds himself enrolled at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge with what almost seems like lightening-speed, perhaps a testament to Sherlock’s determination to prove that he is well. Unfortunately, he has drastically underestimated how much time his recovery would take, and the first snowfall of the season finds Sherlock hugely unprepared, with devastating consequences. Later, he will make another gross miscalculation as the plot of the novel convergences with that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The ‘Gloria Scott’”. The encounter is unquestionably illuminating. As the elder Trevor states:

“I don’t know how you manage this, Mr. Holmes, but it seems to me that all the detectives of fact and of fancy would be children in your hands. That’s your line of life, sir, and you may take the word of a man who has seen something of the world.”

But Holmes’s offhand remarks have devastating consequences for Victor Trevor and his father, and certainly there are lasting results for Holmes himself. He learns a lot from his encounter with the Trevors, but more than anything, he learns what he still does not know, and how much time it will take to learn it. Cypser has artfully constructed a Sherlock Holmes who is utterly wrought, his foundation undermined, and all his components stripped away. The Great Detective is a man under construction in this novel; his entire framework has been brought to earth and he is trying to build again from scratch – with all the dangers that entails. The journey is long, and arduous, but Cypser’s young Holmes is certainly a man with the mettle for it.

Sherlock Holmes finds himself flanked on his journey by two companions: the young Jonathan Beckwith, who readers may remember from The Crack in the Lens, has joined Sherlock at university as a personal servant; and Dr. George Mackenzie, who is introduced into Sherlock Holmes’s life when it seems to be at its absolute worst. In The Crack in the Lens, Cypser introduced her readers to Sherrinford Holmes, the eldest of the three Holmes brothers, who seemed a forerunner for Dr. John Watson – earnest and compassionate, a companion for Sherlock Holmes when no one else seemed willing or able to fill the role. Now, Sherrinford is married, with young children, and Sherlock is living away from the manor. It would be unfair and inaccurate to somehow classify every single one of Sherlock Holmes’s pre-Watson companions as a precursor for the Good Doctor, but Jonathan’s and Dr. Mackenzie’s presence prove crucial to Sherlock’s development, nonetheless. From Mackenzie, Sherlock Holmes first learns the necessity of time and patience in the application of knowledge and diligent study (both within and without). From Jonathan, he learns the importance of a companion who remains devoted over any length of time, and through any circumstance.

The transformation of Cypser’s young Sherlock of The Crack in the Lens into the maturing Sherlock Holmes of The Consulting Detective is both subtle and brilliant. By the end of Cypser’s second novel, the reader stands in full knowledge and awareness of the man before them, and you wonder how you missed it, so understated was his development. Where previously there was only the merest hint of the man that would become the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes now stands tall, assembled, if not yet fully-formed. There are miles and years of distance between the “Sherlock” of Mycroft Manor and “Sherlock Holmes” of Baker Street, and while he is not quite yet the man of Doyle’s stories, the readers recognize him. Moreover they know him, and they are glad to see him again. Cypser’s novel is only the first in a trilogy that will take the Great Detective to Baker Street, but right now his path is clear, even if the road is not. And for now, Sherlock Holmes’s greatest asset is still time.


The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I: University is available in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  A full list of booksellers is available here.  More information about the novel and its author is available on its website, follow the novel on Facebook, or Darlene Cypser on Twitter.

 “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.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “The House of Fear” (1945)

“Viewed today however, one is inescapably reminded of a ‘reality TV’ format: seven diverse housemates are nominated one-by-one for permanent eviction until just one is left to scoop a prize of exactly £100,000. So if The House of Fear fails as both a Sherlock Holmes film and a properly satisfying murder-mystery, its premise is at least enduring.” (Alan Barnes, 92)

Occasionally, I think that Nigel Bruce gets a bad rap. Once in a great while, his performance as Dr. John Watson touches a soft place in my heart. I find myself susceptible to moments like his rendition of “Loch Lomond” in Pursuit to Algiers (and from the same film, his recounting of a recent adventure with Sherlock Holmes using a celery stalk as the Detective and a hunk of cheese as himself); or his utterly crestfallen expression in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when the Detective snappishly refers to his companion as “an incorrigible bungler” (though he is soothed by a gentle pat on the shoulder). For all his foolishness and sometimes blatant stupidity, there is warmth and openness in Bruce’s interpretation, with a certain guilelessness that goes a long way towards explaining how he has managed Holmes’s peculiarities for so long – perhaps it is simply because he sees no malice in the Detective’s actions, no animosity, and cannot bring himself to harbor any resentment or bitterness towards his friend.

But in the 1945 film, The House of Fear, such moments of softness and affectation are notably absent. Despite one rather astute and crucial observation, and one poignant moment between the two friends at the conclusion of the film (Holmes does seem rather touchingly grateful for his friend’s survival), Bruce’s Watson is at his vaudevillian worst. It’s hard to find any redemptive qualities in a scene in which Watson – unearthing a grave while Holmes stands about smoking a pipe – finds himself embroiled in an Abbott and Costello-style argument with an owl. Holmes’s comment of “Having a nice little chat, Watson?” is the only one of his many needle-like barbs throughout the film that is utterly deserved. According to Alan Barnes:

“Despite furnishing Holmes with the one last vital piece of evidence, Nigel Bruce’s Watson does not fare well, being a source of irritation to the detective (Holmes loudly informs the entire household that Watson snores ‘like a pig’) and the butt of a semi-jokey five minute sequence in which, guarding downstairs on his own, he flaps hither and thither while attempting to track down the source of a number of strange noises. (He shoots a suit of armour and a cat before asserting, ‘They’ve got me completely surrounded!’)” (94).
To be fair, Rathbone’s Holmes does not come across at his very best in this film either. As Barnes points out, the Detective makes a rather pointed, public and personal joke at the Doctor’s expense: “You snored like a pig!” Later, Watson is attacked in the sitting room while Holmes investigates upstairs. Watson screams rather ardently for his friend, to which Holmes responds by descending the stairs at a pace that could best be described as a “saunter,” or perhaps a leisurely stroll. There is no urgency in his manner, while Watson, for all appearances, has just escaped a brutal death. Holmes’s most animated moment comes only when his own life is in danger – as well as the Doctor’s – at the hands of a falling boulder.

However, Basil Rathbone might have been as much to blame as the film’s screenwriters for the Detective’s apathetic characterization in this film. According to David Stuart Davies: “It was becoming noticeable that Rathbone was beginning to tire of the role of Sherlock Holmes. After nine features and numerous radio broadcasts, the character was so familiar to him that he felt there was nothing fresh he could bring to the part. The reviewer in the New York Times called his performance in this movie ‘as pedestrian as a cop on patrol’” (59). There is a tiredness to Rathbone’s performance in this picture, as if he is trying to summon energy and enthusiasm for the role that he simply does not have. In response, Bruce’s Watson and Dennis Hoey’s Inspector Lestrade (inexplicably present in Scotland in his role as a police inspector, despite being rather clearly out of his jurisdiction) appear to move ever further into the role of caricature, seemingly becoming mere parodies of their roles. Lestrade, for example, loudly and brazenly takes credit for the capture of Professor Moriarty.
To its credit, The House of Fear has much going for it in the way of atmosphere – an eerie, gothic manor seated on top of a high cliff in Scotland, a morose and sinister housekeeper who acts as the harbinger of ill-tidings and death, and a strange men’s club shrouded in secrecy and strange ritual. Even the manners in which the “Good Comrades” are murdered demonstrate a distinct variety and creativity. They are gruesome and evocative, summoning an array of horrifying images with the simple phrase: “No man goes whole to his grave.” The House of Fear’s link to the Canon story “The Five Orange Pips” is tenuous at best – the only reference to the source material being the orange pips each Good Comrade receives prior to his death. But the film does manage to invoke the violence of the original story, the grim and sometimes coldhearted nature of humanity.

There are elements of The House of Fear that are reminiscent of the earlier Rathbone/Bruce picture, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943). As Davies says, “…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). Unfortunately, The House of Fear demonstrates little to none of the strength of its earlier counterpart. Perhaps, this is demonstrative of how much of a Sherlock Holmes film’s success is derived from the strength and vitality of the actor in the title role, and how much the film suffers if he finds himself indifferent.

“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.

Barnes, Alan. Sherlock Holmes on Screen. (September 2011).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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

Jeremy [Brett] was always in danger of playing some kind of grotesque if he wasn’t directly properly. I remember [Jeremy] Paul saying to him one day, “Jeremy, isn’t there going to be anything of you in this portrayal?” Brett responded well, replying, “What a good thought. You’ve pulled me up short and made me realize that I could be going too much into the area of a bizarre character.” Paul agreed, noting, “Don’t, because there is a place in this for things of your own, Jeremy – your magnetism, your ability to charm people, to deal with people – use those in playing Holmes. Don’t put them aside. Don’t think this man is a wierdo [sic] because he’s not” (David Stuart Davies).

Perched anxiously on the edge of the sofa in the sitting room of 221B Baker Street, Hilton Cubitt (Tenniel Evans) bristles at a pointed question directed at him by Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett): “You have a way of putting things, Mr. Holmes,” he says. Dr. Watson (David Burke) has already apologized once for his friend’s gruff behavior, and now he can do nothing except shake his head and look back down at his notes, hoping that Holmes will not irreparably offend their client. Brett often commented on the nature of the relationship of his Holmes to his Watsons: “And so I've had wonderful Watsons – I’ve had two who kind of go [groans], ‘Holmes is doing it again.’ And, I mean, I've even had people in the studio, when I had suddenly crawled across the floor, say, ‘Not another of those’ [laughs]. And that's the lighter side.”
Holmes, will you please stop playing "Keep Away" with the cipher?
And there are a lot of both elements in Granada’s adaptation of “The Dancing Men.” Viewers successfully seek and find the physicality and vitality that Jeremy Brett so famously brought to the role, as well as a Watson that seems equal turns flabbergasted and charmed by his eccentric friend. Brett’s Holmes is at his charming, vivacious best, and Burke’s Watson is at his most endearing and earnest. The episode opens with one of Granada’s most enduring scenes: Holmes successfully outlines how he was able to deduce that Watson has declined a new investment opportunity, to which Watson responds that the deduction was an “absurdly simple” one – despite the promise Holmes had secured just moments earlier that he would not say precisely that. Holmes looks petulant, but not surprised, and Watson looks briefly contrite – until a moment later when he correctly deduces that Holmes has found himself a new case.

Granada’s 1984 adaptation of “The Dancing Men” was the second episode in their Sherlock Holmes series, airing just after their adaptation of “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It is notable that the studio chose to adapt this story very early in the production, when the original tale was, in fact, the third story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and according to William Baring-Gould’s chronology, took place in 1898. Despite this chronological deviation, the episode reaches out to the Canon in interesting ways. For example, there is Holmes’s mention of his monograph on secret ciphers, which Watson uncomfortably confesses he found “rather heavy going.” But the episode is at its most riveting when Brett is at his most dynamic. Audiences remember this episode’s Sherlock Holmes with a telegram between his teeth, leaping about in a vigorous demonstration of the various “Dancing Men” figures, in a desperate bid to convey their meaning to Dr. Watson. Less memorable, but no less powerful, is the scene in which Holmes and Watson receive the final telegram from Hilton Cubitt (unaware of the man’s death), revealing the partially decoded message: “ELSIE - RE – ARE TO MEET THY GO-.” Watson is still in his shirtsleeves and Holmes in his dressing gown, but in a brilliantly acted moment, the pair need only exchange a meaningful glance before rushing off in aid of their client.

Photo Credit: www.jeremybrett.info
But the death of Hilton Cubitt takes the wind out of the Detective’s over-inflated sails in a very obvious way. When asked how he could have possibly known about the crime and come down to Ridling Thorpe Manor from London so quickly, Holmes replies: “Mr. Hilton Cubitt… was my client” [emphasis mine]. There is so much effort in that pause – in admitting to his client’s death, and therefore his own perceived failure in the matter – and it weighs visibly on his face. Even the police inspector’s kind words about the pleasure of working with Holmes and his hope that he should have the Detective at his side again one day, seemingly fail to register with Holmes in any meaningful way. He gives only the merest nod to this compliment. The words do not register, and Brett’s performance manages to manifest physically for the viewer, everything that Holmes has already managed to internalize.

Photo Credit: bookishadventures.tumblr.com
Likewise, the death of his client seems to soften Sherlock Holmes, making him more susceptible to Dr. Watson’s improving influence. While Holmes is interviewing the household staff about the night of the murder, Watson whispers a mostly unheard suggestion to the Detective that he invite the elderly housekeeper to sit down. If Holmes seems slightly annoyed by the suggestion, it should be noted that he does comply. Furthermore, in a later scene, Holmes goes out of his way to inform the same housekeeper that her mistress – Mrs. Cubitt – is quite innocent, a kindness which appears to go a long way towards easing the woman’s troubles.

The episode ends with Watson attempting to decode the “Dancing Men” cipher sent by Sherlock Holmes, which had brought Abe Slane to Ridling Thorpe Manor and neatly ensnared him in Holmes’s trap. Watson stumbles for a moment before reading: “COME HERE AT ONCE.” Holmes smiles at the Doctor’s successful attempt at decoding and says, “How absurdly simple.” His words echo back to the episode’s opening scene, but this time there is no bite or petulance in the words. Only the easy understanding of a comfortable companionship, colored by the spent energy of a case concluded – if not in an entirely satisfactory way for all parties. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson ran the gamut of human interaction in Granada’s adaptation of DANC – from magnetism to charm to shear physical undertaking – but every element has a place, every point perfectly plotted.

“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.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

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. I recently finished up "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange," which finds Sherlock Holmes acting as judge, and Dr. Watson in the role of jury (but the executioner is conspicuously absent).

The current story is "The Engineer's Thumb," which is one of only two cases that Dr. Watson's was able to bring to Sherlock Holmes's attention (the other being the unpublished case of Colonel Warburton's madness).

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 you can read through the original canon online.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

“Mere random sketches of children” (DANC): Young Adults and Disseminating Knowledge in the Stories of Sherlock Holmes

[As presented at "A Scintillation of Scions V," in Laurel, Md., on June 9, 2012.]

Of all the verbal cleverness in the Canon, of all the subtle linguistic quips and well-placed witticisms, I am especially fond of one particular use of the word strategically. “’Dear little chap!’ said Holmes strategically.” This application is from The Sign of Four in which the reader finds Sherlock Holmes seeking information about the steam launch Aurora and he presents the “dear little chap” with two shillings for seemingly nothing more than being “a rosy-cheeked young rascal.” The Detective uses young people – quite often small children – regularly in the course of his canonical investigations. Information gleaned from young people was frequently instrumental in providing the solution to more than one case, but Holmes was also known to use children as actual clues. In “The Copper Beeches,” for example, Holmes explains how he was able to infer the behavior of Mr. and Mrs. Rucastle by considering the behavior of the family’s youngest member: “I have frequently gained my first real insight into the character of parents by studying their children.” And as Edward Quayle said in his 1948 essay “Suffer the Little Children,” there are even canonical stories where children act as both clue and contributor: “In The Sussex Vampire a boy was the miscreant and a baby boy was exhibit A,” he says. And so the use of the word strategically found in The Sign of Four is just another example of Holmes’s often purposeful view of young people. 

But Sherlock Holmes uses the young people he encounters in the Canon not only to collect information from them, but to convey it to them. It is no great secret that Sherlock Holmes often seemed to casually pass along life lessons in the same way that he would pass along a box of matches or a pencil stub – that is to say frequently and easily. But it is to the young adults of the Canon – those characters who are nearly grown or merely believe themselves to be so; as opposed to the incorrigible and childish Irregulars who immediately leap to mind when one thinks of young people in the Canon – that Holmes imparts to, and therefore preserves with, his most valuable information: the lessons that were really the nucleus of some of his most remarkable cases. And in this narrow, specific distribution of information, the reader suddenly sees a Sherlock Holmes who has an eye towards his own future; a Detective who was, in fact, very concerned with ensuring his own posterity. Furthermore, the Canon is dotted with linguistic clues that highlight these passages. Each instance (or example) includes a single key word that indicates a descending relationship or succession, or implies a patriarchal or familial relationship (if only metaphorically, of course).

In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Holmes advises: “…it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.” And the three students we find featured in the story of the same name (“The Three Students”) are no longer children, but they are still quite young in the way of most university or college students – convinced of their own experience and maturity, which only serves to emphasize how inexperienced and immature they really are. Indeed, Giles Gilchrist has managed to surreptitiously obtain an advance look at the exam, and in doing so has committed a youthful blunder, a rather common one, in fact – Gilchrist is not, for example, robbing a bank by tunneling beneath it while his employer copies an encyclopedia by hand. And his actions ultimately harm no one but himself. His decision is ill-advised and he is suitably remorseful. For his part Holmes reacts with a proportionate level of concern: “…it is human to err, and at least no one can accuse you of being a callous criminal…For once you have fallen low. Let us see, in the future, how high you can rise.” The word future speaks to what is fundamentally at stake in the story – both for Gilchrist and in terms of the lesson that Holmes imparts. The story concludes with Gilchrist revealing his decision to join the Rhodesian police and with that pronouncement, there is a glimpse of a future where he might apply the lesson he learned firsthand from Sherlock Holmes – a lesson about leniency and second chances. This is, of course, nearly the exact same lesson that Holmes imparts to James Ryder in “The Blue Carbuncle” – a man whose desperate concern for what his parents are going to say when they hear about this, harkens back to an uncomfortable moment in almost everyone’s formative years. Furthermore, Holmes’s ability to intuit Ryder’s eventual fate – should he have ended up in prison – demonstrates the same empathetic streak he showed to Gilchrist.

The manner in which Holmes speaks to Gilchrist could be described as “fatherly,” perhaps, although that specific description is never given explicitly in the text of “The Three Students.” In fact, the story, “The Noble Bachelor,” is the only one to feature this particularly telling descriptor – one suggestive of a patriarchal relationship. In relating to Dr. Watson how he found the secretly married Mr. and Mrs. Moulton, he says, “I ventured to give them some paternal advice and to point out to them that it would be better in every way that they should make their position a little clearer both to the general public and to Lord St. Simon in particular.” Hatty Doran is no longer quite a child either – in the strictest sense – but she is, by Lord St. Simon’s own description: “wild and free, unfettered by any sort of traditions”; he also uses the words, “impetuous” and “volcanic.” And so she is a young woman, childish if no longer a child, and like Gilchrist (and Ryder), she has made an impulsive decision that she would rather her father never learn of – as unlikely as that might be. And it is the word paternal that speaks to Holmes’s view of this young bridewho is also likely to soon be a young mother. Holmes has a view to a future full of little Moultons, with whom their mother can share the valuable lesson of a how a truth, no matter how painful, is better than a lifetime of uncertainties. And the fatherly advice that Holmes bestowed to her and her husband is not unlike that he which imparts in “The Yellow Face”: “Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.”

Finally, in “The Illustrious Client,” the reader finds Violet de Merville. Although no specifics about her age are given, she is referred to as “young” no less than five times throughout the course of the story. Violet has also found herself at a rather childish impasse – much like Gilchrist’s academic dishonesty or Mrs. Moulton’s clandestine union – but Violet is stubborn in the way of so many young women and men who find themselves newly in love and unreceptive to the words of parents, who know that their child’s new paramour is just no good – whether it is because he rides a motorcycle, was caught smoking under the bleachers, or has a documented history of murdering his wives. In any event, Holmes confesses to Watson, somewhat shockingly: “I thought of her for the moment as I would have thought of a daughter of my own.” The word daughter places emphasis on a family relationship and clearly indicates and stresses Violet’s gender. Holmes has given advice to young women before – and furthermore, he is used to having young women disregard that advice (having already dealt with another Violet – Miss Hunter – in 1890). He already knows that his next steps with Miss de Merville will have to be resolute, dramatic, and probably somewhat unpleasant. And so when Holmes says, “All my hot words could not bring one tinge of colour to those ivory cheeks or one gleam of emotion to those abstracted eyes” – it brings to mind his advice from “A Case of Identity”: “If I tell her she will not believe me. You may remember the old Persian saying, ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.’ There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.”

As we know, Holmes was never pleased with Watson’s efforts to preserve his methods for posterity – often stating that his Boswell’s stories were too romantic or florid for his taste. So, Sherlock Holmes never saw his deductive methods put to paper in a way that was precisely to his liking – his oft-mentioned monographs only partially served this purpose and cannot be considered a complete compendium of Holmesian investigation. And for the purposes of the Canon, Holmes died unmarried and childless (my apologies to Mr. Baring-Gould), and he speaks of his own family in an absent, off-hand manner as if it were a footnote in one of those monographs. Perhaps Holmes chose young adults, rather than small children (of whom he was also famously fond) because young adults had the most potential for an immediate payout on his lessons. The canonical characters mentioned just now were all just on the cusp of a significant age-related milestone – a career, a marriage, children. These characters were all just old enough to really appreciate the enormity of Holmes’s lesson (if not the finer details of his methods), but also young enough for the lesson to still have a real impact. There was still time for the lesson to sink into their skin and linger there, rather than be brushed off as just one more lecture in a collection of a lifetime of experiences.

But ultimately what was at stake was the lesson, and as has hopefully been demonstrated, that lesson was shared, and Sherlock Holmes once again succeeded. Young people are mere random sketches of both children and adults – close to both roles without fully encompassing either. They are able to pick and choose details, disregarding irrelevancies, until their self-portrait is finally complete. Just as the lessons Holmes conveyed to them were mere random sketches of lessons he had outlined in previous stories – rough mirror images, cleverly concealing their significance, as well as their potential for so much more.


“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.