Saturday, January 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: “Watson’s Afghan Adventure”

Kieran McMullen; Publisher: MX Publishing (January 2011)
“’…by the way,’ [Sturt] said looking around, ‘don’t flinch in front of the men.  Bad form, old boy, gets them concerned’” (62).

Continuing on the theme of character history and backstory, reading Kieran McMullen’s Watson’s Afghan Adventure made me realize how important it is to give consideration to Dr. Watson’s early life.  It isn’t that readers don’t care about the Doctor’s early life—his adventures and experiences before he took up residence at Baker Street—it’s more that readers already think that they know so much about him.  Unlike Sherlock Holmes, who only takes up the pen and speaks to the reader directly twice throughout the canon (BLAN, LION), Watson, on the other hand, voices fifty-six stories (with LAST and MAZA being written from an omniscient third-person perspective).  Sometimes, it seems as if we, as readers, are in constant conversation with Dr. Watson, and that he has revealed much more about himself than he truly has.  It might even be fair to say that readers know much more about Sherlock Holmes’s early life than we do about Dr. Watson’s, because the Doctor took the time to ask questions and wheedle information out of his friend.  And if Holmes ever did the same, then it never quite made it into print.
But McMullen’s novel goes a long way towards remedying that deficiency.  Watson’s Afghan Adventure opens with a package being delivered to Baker Street by Watson’s old orderly, Murray, who is on his way to a new life with his family in America.  Inside the package, Watson finds: “…one glass phial containing two bullets, a ruby of approximately 5 carats and a medal with the likeness of St. Peters Basilica on the reverse with the date of 1880 and on the obverse a likeness of Pope Gregory XVI and subscribed ‘John H. Watson’” (8).  These items are remarkable enough, but when Holmes proclaims: “I am of the opinion that these two bullets make my friend out to be a liar,” the reader realizes that Dr. Watson is not just a teller of tales, but perhaps a keeper of secrets as well (8).  That Dr. Watson may have had a rich inner life and a complex history before he ever met his equally enigmatic friend.
Watson provides a brief sketch of his early life, but focuses primarily on his early days as both a doctor and a soldier.  The Doctor acquires some very early companions—Lieutenants Sutter Sturt and Arthur McMullen—and it is these friendships that ultimately frame and map the course he will take during his military career.  When Sturt makes a surprisingly revelation—a map that supposedly leads to a long-lost treasure—Dr. Watson finds himself drawn into a centuries-old treasure hunt.  The journey will take him from London to India to Afghanistan and back again.  It is not long before Dr. Watson experiences the awfulness and injustice of battle, along with the general unfairness of the life and circumstances.  McMullen’s battle scenes are deliciously detailed, filled with military strategy and impeccable historical knowledge.  And while those details serve to provide context and authenticity to the story, they might also prove a bit dense for those unfamiliar or uninterested in such terminology or techniques.
The cast of characters that moves in and out of Watson’s life is varied and rich, and McMullen manages to successfully flush out each and every one, even the most transient ones.  It slowly becomes clear why Watson would happily find companionship in a man like Sherlock Holmes—a man who was not a predictable figure, necessarily, but was at least somewhat constant.  The reader even gets a little taste of the “experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents” that Watson boasts of in The Sign of Four.  Slowly but surely, the Dr. John Watson of the canon comes into view, with each new acquaintance, and each new experience: “…the result of these actions would lead me to a wonderful place in the end.  It would lead me to Baker Street” (145).
Because behind the scenes, McMullen is telling the story of how John Watson became.  It is difficult for some readers to imagine that there was once a Dr. Watson who flinched in the face of gunfire, that there was once a time in his life when danger and fear were abnormalities, instead of de rigueur.  It’s difficult to picture a Dr. Watson who is unsure of himself around weapons, and who hesitates—if only briefly—in the face of a crisis.  A Dr. Watson who had a family—immediate, biological relations instead of just an eccentric flatmate and a put-upon housekeeper.  But McMullen does an admirable job of constructing a Dr. Watson that readers recognize.  He lays the foundation for the man readers know from “The Empty House,” who is able to take on Colonel Sebastian Moran when the Great Detective finds himself incapacitated: “…I struck him on the head with the butt of my revolver, and he dropped again upon the floor.  I fell upon him, and as I held him my comrade blew a shrill call upon a whistle.”

In Watson’s Afghan Adventure, Kieran McMullen reminds readers that we may not know Dr. Watson as well as we think we do, and also why it would behoove us to get to know him better.  McMullen’s John Watson is not just a teller of tales, and a keeper of secrets, but a man with a complex and layered inner life—before he ever set foot in Baker Street.
Kieran McMullen’s second novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Irish Rebels, is now available from MX Publishing.  Order the book here.
Watson’s Afghan Adventure, by Kieran McMullen is available in paperback from MX Publishing, and Amazon.  It is also available for the Kindle.  You can also follow the author on Twitter and on Facebook.  His blog is available here.
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Monday, January 16, 2012

Some Thoughts on Character: Victor Trevor

“You never heard me talk of Victor Trevor?  He was the only friend I made during the two years I was at college.  I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year.  Bar fencing and boxing I had few athletic tastes, and then my line of study was quite distinct from that of the other fellows, so that we had no points of contact at all.  Trevor was the only man I knew, and that only through the accident of his bull terrier freezing on to my ankle one morning as I went down to chapel.  It was a prosaic way of forming a friendship, but it was effective.” (“The ‘Gloria Scott’”)

In “The Five Orange Pips,” Dr. Watson inquires as to who could be calling at Baker Street on such an inclement evening.  He suggests that their late-night visitor might be a friend of the Great Detective, who dismisses the possibility immediately: “Except yourself I have none… I do not encourage visitors.”  It is not until Sherlock Holmes shares the story of “The ‘Gloria Scott’,” that the reader learns that this declaration is not precisely true.  In GLOR, found in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes reveals the existence of Victor Trevor, one of only three people in the canon that the Detective explicitly refers to as his friend (Klinger, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 501).  The two others are Dr. Watson, naturally, and perhaps more surprisingly – Inspector Lestrade, whom Holmes amiably refers to periodically throughout the canon as “friend Lestrade” (NOBL, CARD, EMPT, NORW, 3GAR).
The existence of Victor Trevor lends weight to Sherlock Holmes’s existence, gives shape to the person that Holmes was before he ever arrived at Baker Street.  It sometimes seems that Dr. Watson’s stories tell the reader so little about the Great Detective’s early life that it is easy to imagine that the man simply sprang into existence, fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, and was waiting for Watson to appear in that laboratory in St. Bart’s.  But the presence of a character like Victor Trevor reminds the reader that there was a Sherlock Holmes before there ever was a Dr. Watson, that he had an early life and a history that remain tantalizingly just out of our grasp.  Furthermore, the existence of Victor Trevor demonstrates that there was once a time when the Great Detective was not as the reader knows him, that there was a time when he barely existed at all.
As Sherlock Holmes points out, his first meeting with Victor Trevor was rather inauspicious, and in fact, Holmes’s encounter with Trevor’s dog left him incapacitated for ten days, which indicates a somewhat serious injury.  It’s a wonder that Holmes – a man who loathed extended periods of inactivity – would even tolerate Trevor’s presence afterwards.  However, there is something about Victor Trevor to which Holmes responds: “He was a hearty, full-blooded fellow, full of spirits and energy, the very opposite to me in most respects, but we had some subjects in common, and it was a bond of union when I found that he was as friendless as I.”
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that there is a bit of Victor Trevor in Dr. Watson.  Upon returning from Afghanistan, Dr. Watson was still ill, and could not honestly be classified as either “hearty” or “full-blooded,” but Holmes immediately identifies him as a soldier and so has the potential to be both those things again.  Furthermore, as a medical man, Watson would have likely shared at least some of Holmes’s love of chemistry (even before the two ever shared a love of adventure), which the Doctor demonstrates in the way he avidly observes his friend’s chemical experiments: “His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to observe when I watched him manipulating his fragile philosophical instruments” (STUD).  Finally, Dr. Watson, like Victor Trevor before him, was entirely alone: “I had neither kith nor kin in England, and was therefore as free as air – or as free as an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day will permit a man to be” (STUD).
In fact, to take the analysis a step farther, the same characteristics could even be said to be true of Inspector Lestrade – Holmes’s other canonical friend.  As a policeman, Lestrade would most likely have been “hearty” and “full-blooded,” and he certainly demonstrates these features as he chases after Holmes on many an occasion.  The Detective and Lestrade certainly do not share many common interests, but they most certainly share a love of interesting crime, a desire to see mysteries solved, and justice brought to the guilty parties.  As for being isolated and friendless, not much is known about Inspector Lestrade’s personal life (the reader cannot even be sure of his first name), and due to the competitive natures of his colleagues at Scotland Yard, it might be fair to say that Lestrade found few allies amongst his professional associates.
Amongst his other contributions, Victor Trevor is most famously responsible for setting Sherlock Holmes on the path to becoming the Great Detective.  Trevor invites Holmes to spend a month’s holiday with himself and his father at their home in Donnithorpe, where the young Trevor explains to his father about his new friend’s powers of observation.  The elder Trevor asks Holmes for a demonstration, and is totally unsettled by the result: “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.”
In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes informs Watson that he is the world’s only unofficial consulting detective, and that he has created his own profession.  But the idea for that profession must have stemmed from somewhere, someone must have planted the seed, and it appears that the readers can thank Victor Trevor for that.  It is not to say that Sherlock Holmes would not have found his way to his chosen vocation without Victor Trevor, but some gratitude must be extended to Victor Trevor and his father, for who knows how long we would have had to wait had it not been for their suggestion.  As Holmes tells Watson, “And that recommendation, with the exaggerated estimate of my ability with which he prefaced it, was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby.
Victor Trevor never really recovers from the tragedy that befell his father, and at the end of GLOR, the reader learns that Trevor is working a tea plantation in India.  Holmes says that he thinks that he is doing well, but it appears that he has lost track of his old friend.  Trevor occasionally makes appearances in various pastiches, recently turning up in the graphic novel, Sherlock Holmes: Year One, where the young Holmes is on a desperate errand to prevent his friend from self-destructing – amongst other plot points.  While the canonical Victor Trevor only appears in the one story, he provides a blueprint for Dr. Watson, and perhaps, in a way, for Inspector Lestrade.  By showing Sherlock Holmes the type of man that the Detective could relate to, he prevented Holmes from being entirely alone.  It might be going too far to say that without Victor Trevor there would have been no Dr. Watson, but he certainly laid the path, and provided precedent and context, for a solitary man to have need of a companion, after all.
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Sunday, January 8, 2012

“But no heroes, returning from a forlorn hope…” (VALL): The Nature of Heroism in the Sherlock Holmes Canon

“It is simple enough as you explain it,” I said, smiling. “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin.  I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories” (A Study in Scarlet, Chapter Two).

Sherlock Holmes: “Don't make people into heroes, John.  Heroes don't exist and if they did I wouldn't be one of them.” (SHERLOCK, “The Great Game,” 2010)

In his recent graphic novel, Moriarty: The Dark Chamber, writer Daniel Corey re-envisions the world of Sherlock Holmes – a world in which, for all outward appearances, Professor Moriarty had defeated the Great Detective at Reichenbach Falls.  The world of The Dark Chamber is one in which Sherlock Holmes has been dead for over two decades, and Moriarty is living in relative seclusion, seemingly unable to match the excitement of the days when he clashed with his greatest adversary.  However, this Moriarty is no gloating victor – looming malevolently from the center of his criminal spider’s web, and mocking those who remain of Holmes’s confederates.  And so, I was rather surprised to find there were some who took issue with the graphic novel, and with the idea of Professor Moriarty as a “heroic figure.”  You see, I didn’t find Corey’s Moriarty heroic at all, instead I found him rather sad and tired, even if the artwork rendered him less reptilian than I had come to expect from the Napoleon of Crime.

But it got me thinking about the heroes of the Sherlock Holmes canon, and who they really are.  Beginning at the beginning, there’s the Great Detective himself, of course, and as the original definition of “hero” typically only applied to the demigods of Greek myth, than this use of the term might be more appropriate than it even initially appears to be.  After all, Steven Moffat, creator of the television show, SHERLOCK, said: “…Sherlock Holmes is a man who aspires to be a god.”  Certainly, throughout the course of the stories, Sherlock Holmes sometimes acts in ways that could be classified as less-than-heroic, if not flat-out illegal.  He disguised himself as a member of the clergy, participated in numerous instances of breaking and entering, and even contrived an engagement to a housemaid in order to obtain information – just to name a few.  Taken out of context, any one of those acts would be enough to make a lesser fictional character seem less than honorable, less than likeable.  But readers continue to stand behind Sherlock Holmes because he always obeys the spirit of the law, if not the letter of it.  As the Detective says in “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” “I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go.”

And of course, we can’t forget Dr. Watson, who more than aptly fulfills the later “heroic” definitions of self-sacrifice, martial courage, and moral excellence.  Watson is a soldier, injured in the service of his country, and so it’s more than fair to say that his sense of self-sacrifice is beyond reproach.  Moreover, throughout the canon, Watson repeatedly demonstrates a uniquely honed sense of morality and honor.  Occasionally, he requires a little convincing, and even prodding to get onboard with some of the Detective’s schemes.  In “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” Watson meets Holmes at Goldini’s Restaurant, having brought along the parcel of housebreaking tools that Holmes requested.  After being informed of the plan, and a few moments of trying to convince Holmes to use somewhat more legal channels, Watson still expresses his misgivings: “I don’t like it, Holmes.”

Holmes almost seems taken aback by his friend’s reticence and he lobbies hard for Watson’s presence: “My dear fellow, you shall keep watch in the street.  I’ll do the criminal part.  It’s not a time to stick at trifles.  Think of Mycroft’s note, of the Admiralty, the Cabinet, the exalted person who waits for news.  We are bound to go.”  Of course, the Doctor would never willingly leave his friend to walk into danger alone, and it is this courage that prevents Watson’s heroic characteristics from crossing the line into boring and two-dimensional.  He is a man that is familiar with danger and ambiguous legalities, even wielding a chair as a weapon in “Charles Augustus Milverton.”  But his heroism is rooted in his ability to see where the boundaries are, and decide for himself when he can and should cross them. 

“I knew you would not shrink at the last,” said he, and for a moment I saw something
in his eyes which was nearer to tenderness than I had ever seen.
And finally, what of Professor Moriarty?  Could it really be said that there is even anything, remotely heroic about the Napoleon of Crime?  I certainly would not go so far as to say that Sherlock Holmes should have looked to Moriarty in a pinch, but the argument could made that there is something rather protective about the man, which is certainly part and parcel with being a heroic figure.  In “The Norwood Builder,” the Detective says, “From the point of view of the criminal expert, London has become a singularly uninteresting city since the death of the late lamented Professor Moriarty.”  The Professor’s mere existence certainly protected Sherlock Holmes from his own sense of boredom, and his relentless and sometimes dangerous pursuit of more and more interesting work.  Furthermore, Moriarty had a very clear sense of his own boundaries, of what was his, and how to protect it.  As the Professor tells Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem”:

“You crossed my path on the fourth of January.  On the twenty-third you incommoded me; by the middle of February I was seriously inconvenienced by you; at the end of March I was absolutely hampered in my plans; and now, at the close of April, I find myself placed in such a position through your continual persecution that I am in positive danger of losing my liberty.  The situation is becoming an impossible one.”

Like Dr. Watson, Professor Moriarty has a clearly defined set of boundaries and limitations that he works very hard to protect.  They might not be respectable boundaries, or even legal ones, but they are set nonetheless and all his efforts are directed towards them.  Such a single-minded focus could possibly be viewed as heroic.  Most readers view Sherlock Holmes’s single-mindedness in much that fashion.

In the short story, “Be Good or Begone,” by Stan Trybulski, Sherlock Holmes has an innocent man savagely beaten by a corrupt police inspector simply because, “…I didn’t like his face.”  Now, Trybulski’s Sherlock Holmes contains more than a few elements of a golden age detective, and often seems less like the Victorian gentleman with which most readers are familiar.  Indeed, in the story, Holmes engages in a litany of strange behavior, from heroin use to vegetarianism, but none of it strikes a discordant note quite like the unprovoked beating of the innocent man.  If perfectly spotless behavior and a constant respect for the confines of the law are what truly define a hero, then Sherlock Holmes wasn’t one.  But instead, readers know what they can expect from Sherlock Holmes – and Dr. Watson and Professor Moriarty, for that matter.  We know what lines they will and will not cross.  We know where they stand, and that’s why we feel that we can stand beside them.


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Sunday, January 1, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: “An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes”

Alistair Duncan; Publisher: MX Publishing (December 2011)
“A snapshot is a very revealing thing… For in the day-to-day, the minutiae, much is revealed: the domestic arrangements of [Arthur Conan] Doyle’s butler which may have influenced the creation of the Barrymores from ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’; the bizarre Sculptograph machine (and its unhappy sequel) invented by a man named Bontempi and from which ‘The Six Napoleons’ may have sprung…” (Mark Gatiss)
“Sherlock Holmes began life as a character in fiction. He then became a national institution. He may become a solar myth.” (The Daily Express, March 25, 1902)
In an article entitled, “An Intimate Study of Sherlock Holmes,” which appeared in Detective Story Magazine on January 15, 1918, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remarked on the variable nature of his most famous creation: “I never realized what an actual living personality Mr. Holmes was to many people until I heard the very pleasing story of the char-à-banc of French schoolboys on a tour to London, who, when asked what they wanted to see first, replied unanimously that they wanted to see Mr. Holmes’ lodgings in Baker Street.”  Likewise, it is easy to feel that Doyle himself has grown to mythic proportions—a legendary man who created an equally legendary character, but who also existed in a very narrow scope and did not live in any real way.  Thankfully, Alistair Duncan’s grand and ambitious book—An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes—makes Doyle accessible again.  Duncan paints the picture of a man who was both brilliant and revolutionary, as well as entirely too human and fallible.
Alistair Duncan is the author of three previous works on the world of Sherlock Holmes and his creator.  His most recent work, The Norwood Author: Arthur Conan Doyle and the Norwood Years (1891-1894), also a biographical work, depicts the years of Doyle’s life leading up to the construction of Undershaw and the establishment of the household there.  An Entirely New Country opens with the Doyle family’s nomadic years after leaving South Norwood, continuing on to the opening of Undershaw in 1897, and concludes with Arthur Conan Doyle starting a new life and leaving Undershaw in the hands of tenants in 1907.  Duncan’s portrait of these years is comprehensive, uncompromising, and extremely readable.
Doyle experienced some of the most significant moments of his life during his time at Undershaw.  His wife, Louise Conan Doyle, passed away from a long illness—having survived far past her original grim prognosis largely due to her husband’s attentiveness to her health.  Subsequently, after her death, Doyle was finally able to propose to and marry Jean Leckie, with whom Doyle had been conducting what he certainly thought was a clandestine—while ostensibly platonic—affair of many years.  Although Duncan correctly points out that Doyle was operating under serious delusions if he thought that his family and friends—his wife included among them—were entirely blind as to the true nature of his feelings for Jean Leckie (180).
Furthermore, it was while at Undershaw that Doyle received a knighthood for his services to the British Empire during and after the Boer War.  At issue was Doyle’s extreme uneasiness with accepting the honor, and only acquiesced due to a desire to refrain from insulting King Edward, rather than any real desire for recognition.  According to Duncan, Doyle was finally able to vent his frustration over the situation with the publication of “The Three Garridebs,” where Dr. Watson mentions that Sherlock Holmes himself had declined a knighthood in June 1902. “The date was a clear reference to Conan Doyle’s own knighthood and, given his volatile relationship with his most famous character, it is possible that he rather enjoyed depriving Holmes of such an honor” (174).
And in regards to Doyle’s most famous creation, his time at Undershaw saw significant moments in the chronicles of Sherlock Holmes.  William Gillette’s play, featuring Doyle’s creation, premiered both in the United States and in London, with much success.  In 1901, readers saw the Great Detective resurrected with The Hound of the Baskervilles.  But it was a tenuous resurrection, as most Sherlockians know, as HOUN is set chronologically prior to the events of “The Final Problem,” and Holmes’s death at Reichenbach.  More significantly however, in 1903, Doyle accepted a commission from the American magazine, “Collier’s Weekly,” to write eight new Sherlock Holmes stories, for which he received $35,000 (American rights only).  Sherlock Holmes began to live again while at Undershaw, although it would seem that Doyle looked to every new story as if it would be the Detective’s last adventure, or so he hoped (187).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle often seems to be as much of an enduring icon as the character he created—timeless, mythic, even larger-than-life.  Alistair Duncan strips all of that away, and reveals someone who was very real, and lived in a very human way.  He had very real failings, and very human desires and insecurities.  And if Doyle’s reasons for resurrecting Sherlock Holmes were purely fiscal, rather than fanciful, then Duncan helps his reader to accept those reasons.  For it doesn’t matter why Doyle chose to resurrect Sherlock Holmes, it only matters that he did.  By focusing solely on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s years at Undershaw, Alistair Duncan provides the necessary framework and context to some of Doyle’s most significant moments and decisions.  The specificity of his project was ambitious, but Duncan fulfilled those demands and expectations in spades.
Reviews of Alistair Duncan’s previous works are available here.  You can also follow the author on his blog, or on Twitter. Alistair Duncan's books are available for purchase from MX Publishing.
Learn more about the campaign to preserve Undershaw.  You can also support their efforts by following them on Facebook and Twitter.
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