Sunday, February 19, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes”

Loren D. Estleman: Titan Books (October 2010, Originally Published in 1979 by Penguin Books)

“As I write these words, it occurs to me that the story is in fact a timely one, in that it demonstrates the evils which a science left to itself may inflict upon an unsuspecting mankind. A culture which allows zeppelins to rain death and destruction upon the cities of men and heavy guns to pound civilisation back into the dust whence it came is a culture which has yet to learn from its mistakes. It is therefore hoped that the chronicle which follows will serve as a lesson to the world that the laws of nature are inviolate, and that the penalty for any attempt to circumvent them is swift and merciless. Assuming, that is, that there will still be a world when the present cataclysm has run its course” (21-2).

When his friend, Sherlock Holmes, strayed beyond the boundaries of reason and logic, Dr. Watson was known to express a measure of incredulity. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he says to Holmes, “And you, a trained man of science, believe it to be supernatural?” Watson is, of course, referring to Holmes’s view on the origin and true nature of the Baskerville hound, but it is only one of a few moments throughout the canon, in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are confronted by a seemingly supernatural or otherwise inexplicable force, only to find that it ultimately has a rational explanation. It is also no new theme in Sherlock Holmes pastiche to bring the Great Detective face-to-face with the inexplicable. The conclusions of such stories can vary from a traditional, rational ending with Holmes’s deductions verified by evidence and fact – to a fantastic, paranormal conclusion that leaves Holmes shaken and unsure. Likewise, it is nothing new to pair Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson with famous contemporary literary and historical figures, either as allies or as adversaries.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, by Loren D. Estleman is the second of the author’s two Sherlock Holmes pastiches (Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count was originally published in 1978), and is, by the author’s own admission, the more cerebral of the two novels. “Bereft of physical evidence – telltale footprints, broken pen-points – Holmes is forced to track the vanished Jekyll’s movements through the books he studied in his quest for the cause and cure of personal evil… The greatest advantage enjoyed by the writer of fiction intended to be read is also the biggest roadblock to adaptation to the screen” (218). And as in the plot of his first pastiche, Estleman does not deviate from the original source material – in this case, the Robert Louis Stevenson novella, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Instead, he has Sherlock Holmes work his own path, using his own devices – occasionally colliding with the plot of Stevenson’s story – but never altering it. The result is a novel that is equal parts traditional Sherlockian mystery, paranormal variation, and literary and historical convergence.
The crux of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that the story manages to present both a logical (if not rational) explanation for what happened to Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, while at the same time emitting an unnatural quality. At the heart of the mystery that is Dr. Henry Jekyll are science and a chemical formula that involves no demons, no unholy blood rituals, or shortsighted partnerships with the occult. It is science and rational thought that drive the separation of the friendly and sociable Jekyll from his darker, more destructive impulses as represented by Edward Hyde. It is a science that doesn’t hold up under any sort of scrutiny (like many ideas born of fiction), of course, and there is something so deviant about the whole process that it gives off the impression of something supernatural. And the Great Detective’s reaction to seeing the mystery in full reveal, only serves to augment that impression. According to Dr. Watson:
“Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a pale and shaken Sherlock Holmes, and thus received a mirror-view of myself in that moment. Though it was obvious that he had known what was coming, the naked fact of its happening in his presence was quite another thing. His jaw fell open slightly and his eyes were started from their sockets, reactions which in him were the equivalent of a normal man’s fit of hysterics” (196).
Loren Estleman’s pastiche loses none of the conflicting atmosphere of Stevenson’s original  – he features a Great Detective viciously torn between what his deductions have told him must be so, and what his rational mind tells him patently cannot be. After he recovers from the shock of seeing Hyde transform into Jekyll, and the outrageous events that follow, one of Holmes last acts in the drama is to throw Dr. Jekyll’s notes and chemical diagrams onto the fire – ensuring that the truth of what occurred is lost to the world. “And with Jekyll’s notes go the chances of anyone ever repeating his diabolical experiments,” says Holmes (207). Again, the Detective’s logical deductions insist that what has occurred is scientific and could therefore be repeated. But the unnatural horror of what has happened during the evening drives him to ensure that it can never be again.
According to Loren Estleman, he considered Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes to be the better book, in contrast to his earlier Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula. “It’s a more mature work,” he says, “the Sherlockian rhythms are more faithful to the model, and the title is superior. Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula still sounds too much like a film directed by Edward Wood, Jr. I only settled on it because I couldn’t think of a better way to get the names of both hot-button characters up front” (221). Estleman’s pastiche also features a Sherlock Holmes in a disguise that completely deceives Dr. Watson (yet again), a Dr. Watson who is largely left out of his friend’s machinations and yet still worries endlessly for his well-being, and many other more traditional and expected Sherlockian elements, rather than just a moderately unhinged doctor who has managed to physically separate the aspects of his personality. But like any good pastiche, Estleman’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes harkens back to the canon, and in particular “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” in which Sherlock Holmes reminds his reader: “Subtle enough and horrible enough. When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge."
“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, February 12, 2012

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

"’Now, Watson, now!’ cried Holmes with frenzied eagerness. All the demoniacal force of the man masked behind that listless manner burst out in a paroxysm of energy. He tore the drugget from the floor, and in an instant was down on his hands and knees clawing at each of the squares of wood beneath it. One turned sideways as he dug his nails into the edge of it. It hinged back like the lid of a box. A small black cavity opened beneath it. Holmes plunged his eager hand into it and drew it out with a bitter snarl of anger and disappointment. It was empty.”

Readers of Sherlock Holmes want nothing more than to see our favorite scenes come to life – vibrantly, often in full color, and on the biggest television or cinema screen we can find. It's not that our own imaginations are somehow lacking – I imagine most folks of any literary bent are all possessed of extremely vivid and lively imaginations – but there is something intrinsically satisfying in being able to say (usually to yourself, a confused pet, or perhaps some longsuffering family member who is idly perusing pamphlets for mental wellness centers), "Yes. Yes, that is precisely how I imagined it." And the Granada television series starring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes was remarkably adept at capturing that feeling of preciseness, of the satisfaction of exactness. The Baker Street sitting room comes to life with impeccable detail, and the Great Detective’s “certain quiet primness of dress” becomes available for minute examination (MUSG).

But all of these elements are lost without a performance, which the Granada series always delivers in spades. Each episode tried to capture of some each canon story’s particularly unique moments, the ones both implicitly and explicitly stated. For example, the demonstration of Mr. Henry Baker’s cranial capacity via his lost hat from “The Blue Carbuncle,” is charmingly rendered, and scenes from “The Red-Headed League” often seem like a Sidney Paget illustration come to life. Granada’s 1986 adaptation of “The Second Stain” is filled with such instances; ones which readers of Sherlock Holmes stories are drawn to from the original source material, and ones that they might not have even known that they wanted to see rendered.

Dr. Watson informs his readers that Sherlock Holmes was capable of no small amount of physical energy or exertion, when the occasion served his purposes. In those instances, the Doctor describes his friend as “absolutely untiring and indefatigable” (YELL), and it often seemed as if Jeremy Brett was bound and determined to capture that indefatigable energy in every episode, until his own illness and physical limitations prevented him from doing so. This energy is captured best in Granada’s version of SECO as Brett’s Great Detective carelessly tosses Eduardo Lucas’s eponymous stained carpet aside, and throws himself hard upon the ground. He then begins to crawl relentlessly across the floor, clawing viciously at each wooden tile – his determination so visible and obviously single-minded that the viewer almost fears for Dr. Watson’s well-being if he weren’t tucked away by a window keeping watch. But the capstone of the scene comes as Holmes finds the hidden compartment beneath floor, and opens it – only to find it empty. Brett’s “bitter snarl of anger and disappointment” is a total, full-bodied effort, sounding so much like an enraged bull that the viewer half-expects steam to rise from his nostrils. But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original scene (as referenced at the beginning of this post) is captured entirely, down to the last detail.
(Photo via
The episode also features a variety of more subtle efforts, which are no less important to achieving the overall effect of exactness. For example, the understated play of expression on Brett’s face as Inspector Lestrade (Colin Jeavons) relays the mystery of the stained carpet are more telling than any overt display of realization. The audience does not have to be told that the small quirk of his mouth means that Holmes has deduced the presence of a hidden compartment – they simply know. Furthermore, the audience likewise knows that, as Holmes lights his pipe and carelessly tosses his match, the Detective’s monologue about the possible locations of the missing paper will lead to more than just a rather smug statement about the Detective’s own abilities: “Should I bring this to a successful conclusion, it will certainly represent the crowning glory of my career!” It also almost leads to a small fire in the Baker Street sitting room, as Holmes’s narrow focus and disregard to common concerns means that his neglected match has again caught light and a pile of discarded newspapers is aflame.

Dr. Watson also has a role in envisioning some of the canon’s iconic moments. As the Doctor comments on Lady Trelawney Hope’s beauty and bearing, Holmes famously responds, “The fair sex is your department, Watson.” But he accompanies this statement with an oddly-pitched, contemplative noise and a dismissive hand gesture that fully enforces how trivial the Detective finds his friend’s “department.” Holmes is not concerned with the outward trifles of Lady Trelawney Hope’s appearance – he is more concerned with what she really wants. Of course, the Detective’s seeming flippancy towards his friend is later offset as the two men stand together companionably, reading the newspaper article about the murder of Eduardo Lucas and bantering about the valet who was out for the evening (“They always are!”) and the elderly housekeeper who heard nothing (“They never do!”). This particular scene is not present in the canon as Granada presents it, but is instead an implicit moment, which the production brought to the surface.

It’s no great revelation to say that the Granada adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories were extraordinary, or even to say that they were extraordinary for their minute and exacting attention to detail. But those details are worth mentioning, because there is something uncommon in seeing a favorite scene come to life exactly as it was imagined, or in the inclusion of a moment previously given only a passing reference, but which breathes new life into that which is already offered. The Granada production and its cast and crew often managed to achieve an authenticity which often seemed unachievable, and their 1986 adaptation of “The Second Stain,” remains a hallmark of those efforts.


“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.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “Murder by Decree” (1979)

"In this script John Hopkins has brought out a lot of unforeseen passion in Holmes. 'Murder by Decree' gives Holmes the opportunity to be human. It's easy to play him as supercilious and rather snobbish but that's not what I intend to do. I'm trying very hard not to be influenced by other actors' performances. I'm trying to be myself. I think I can trust myself to look like him. I had my hair streaked to make him warmer, more human. In the original Sidney Paget drawings in the 'Strand Magazine,' Holmes had slicked down hair, which looked very sinister." (Christopher Plummer)

If you want to pit the Great Detective against Jack the Ripper, then you really don’t have to look very far. For starters, there is a list of pastiches that often seems about a mile long, featuring works of varying degrees of quality and readability. There is even a recent video game that pulls Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (and the player who commands them) into a series of complex and varied puzzles and adventures.  And the 1979 film, Murder by Decree, is one of several attempts to bring the conflict between Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper to the screen, and have the Great Detective endeavor to solve one of history’s most notorious, mysterious, and apparently unsolvable crimes. 
Murder by Decree features Christopher Plummer (notably a cousin of Nigel Bruce) as Sherlock Holmes, and James Mason as Dr. Watson. The film opens with Holmes and Watson at the Royal Opera House, waiting for the performance to begin, which has been delayed as they anticipate the arrival of the Prince of Wales. The Prince finally arrives, only to be met by loud and violent jeers from the crowd. Appalled, Watson urges the crowd to shout, “God save His Royal Highness,” instead – eventually winning the audience over. Holmes, looking proud and pleased with his companion, says, “Well done, old fellow. You have saved the day.” Indeed, Murder by Decree benefits a lot from the warmth and depth of affection with which Plummer and Mason chose to portray their roles. As screenwriter John Hopkins said,
There is that British tradition of male friendship which Billy Wilder made such happy fun of in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes… But I feel that the relationship was much deeper than that. I wanted to go through the traditional reserve of Holmes. It’s only an image; it’s not the real thing… So when I started work on Murder by Decree, the relationship between the two men appealed to me deeply. I wanted to make my interpretation both passionate and caring” (Davies 109).

Indeed, in taking on the role of Dr. Watson, James Mason had a very clear idea of how he wanted to approach it:
“I see Watson as someone, who in the army, would have passed for an intelligent man. In civilian life, he would be accepted as a good sort as well as an indomitable friend. He was not a buffoon. Holmes on the other hand was rather weird. Watson needed sterling qualities to be with him. Holmes’s daily behavioral pattern was that of a rather strange individual…” (108).

Mason’s version of Dr. Watson succeeds at conveying the Doctor’s more sterling qualities that he mentions, but he also comes across as a likewise rather strange individual, with odd notions about personal and public property, which will be mentioned later. However, James Mason’s portrayal of Dr. Watson suffers slightly from the mere fact of his being James Mason. His distinctive voice somewhat prevents the audience from becoming fully immersed in his take on Watson – each word spoken reminding the viewer of the iconic personage in the role. In addition, Mason is nearly two decades older than Plummer, and so occasionally his expressions come across as more paternal than companionable, but they are always affectionate. For example, Holmes demonstrates to Watson the concealed weapon that he has devised – lead weights in the ends of his scarf – by tossing it about the room and breaking nearly every fragile thing in sight. Watson merely sighs, reveals that he is familiar with the device, and says nothing as Holmes leaves the room, dragging his scarf behind him, broken glass and porcelain continuing to tinkle humorously. The film is filled with similarly charming scenes – the movie even ending with Holmes assuring Watson that the Doctor is what reminds him that there is decency left in the world that has so sorely tried him over the last 120 minutes.
Likewise, Plummer’s version of the Great Detective can do nothing but laugh boisterously as he retrieves Dr. Watson from a jail cell after a misunderstanding with the police, and makes a rather cheeky comment to the Doctor about the possibility of upset husbands paying a visit to Baker Street of an evening. He even helps Watson corner the last pea on his dinner plate by squishing it with his fork – much to Watson’s consternation: “Yes, but squashing a fellow’s pea!” According to David Stuart Davies in Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, “This amusing, inconsequential exchange underlines with brilliant economy both the comfortable friendship and the different natures of the two men” (109).
But Plummer’s version of Sherlock Holmes is also much more sensitive, much more emotive than which most fans are familiar. His emotions are much closer to the surface. Plummer’s Holmes is gentle with women, concerned foremost with Dr. Watson’s well-being, and feels deeps and unrelenting guilt over what he perceives to be his own failings. Perhaps most surprising, the Detective sheds passionate, angry tears over the unjust treatment of a young woman in one scene, and in another, cringes at the sight of Buckingham Palace as he considers the depth of corruption that he has experienced over the course of the case. This Sherlock Holmes is no subtly tortured spirit, resolutely confining his own demons in a shadowed corner of his “brain attic.” By contrast, Plummer’s version of the Great Detective is practically ablaze with emotion, out of control, and unable to contain himself.

In terms of plot, those familiar with Alan Moore’s From Hell (or its theatrical adaptation), or really any of the more popular Jack the Ripper theories will find no surprises here. Those looking for a fresh Ripper theory will probably walk away disappointed. But as with most things concerning the Great Detective, this film succeeds largely in part due to the depiction of Holmes’s methods as he rushes towards solution, how he interacts with Dr. Watson, and of course, how all these elements add up to Sherlock Holmes’s own sort of brilliant madness.
“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, February 1, 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 Copper Beeches," and I wonder if you agreed with Sherlock Holmes when he said: "I confess that it is not the situation which I should like to see a sister of mine apply for."

The current story is "The Reigate Puzzle" (or "The Reigate Squires," as you may be accustomed to calling it). The story opens with Dr. Watson arriving at Sherlock Holmes's side " a time when Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams I found him a prey to the blackest depression." It also contains a rather memorable scene involving a dish of oranges, a carafe of water, and Watson's understanding disposition.

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.