Saturday, April 7, 2012

Some Thoughts on Setting: “The strange setting in which their fate was cast” (VALL)

"But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Watson... Shall they not always live in Baker Street? Are they not there this moment, as one writes? ...Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain, and Moriarty plans his latest devilry. Within, the sea coal flames upon the hearth and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease... So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895.” (Vincent Starrett)

So, it is always 1895, as the Sherlockians say – indicating that time is a rather stagnant thing for those who love Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson well. That time neither moves forward, nor backward – and Holmes and Watson are perpetually seated in their chairs in front of a fire at 221B Baker Street. But in reality, the canon manages to encompass a rather broad scope of time and space. Even by examining just the original novels, the reader finds “The Country of the Saints” (STUD), “The Strange Story of Jonathan Small” (SIGN), and “Lodge 341, Vermissa” (VALL). These backwards-reaching passages allow the reader to visit Utah, India, and Pennsylvania, respectively – with each separate episode set several years, even decades, in the past from the moment of their telling. Even The Hound of the Baskervilles features a brief foray into the past – the year 1742 specifically – with the reading of the Baskerville legend.

Do you think this is going to have future
consequences? Nah, probably not.
Pastiche and especially film and television adaptations seem to make easy work of time and setting in terms of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures. The Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone famously transported the Great Detective and Dr. Watson out of Victorian England, and into a variety of plots centered largely on war propaganda and jingoist sentiment – and based only very tenuously on the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Only two of Rathbone’s Holmes films were set in the nineteenth century: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). Author Barry Grant, on the other hand, defrosts and revives the Great Detective after nearly a century of being frozen in an Alpine glacier in his two novels, The Strange Return of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Letter. And in a similar plot device, Holmes is transported even farther into the future in the animated series, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, where he is paired with a semi-robotic Watson and a female Lestrade.

So how does Holmes survive all these shifts through time and space (sometimes “space,” in a very literal, astronomical sense)? The Rathbone-Universal Pictures films opened with an explanatory title card: “Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day he remains as ever the supreme master of deductive reasoning.” Surely the BBC’s series, “Sherlock,” with its modern Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson equipped with smartphones and Wifi, has more than proven that a fully contemporary adaptation can be done and done well. However, there is a distinct difference between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock using video chat with Martin Freeman’s John Watson – or even Basil Rathbone’s Great Detective and Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson traveling via airplane – and a Sherlock Holmes who has been forcibly transported to another century, set against of the backdrop of a digital Big Ben and trying to interact with a cyborg. Are we speaking merely to the issue of success or failure in concept and execution?

But Holmes’s body of knowledge and unique strengths were based as much on his knowledge of his time and place as it was upon anything else. So, to forcibly transplant him into another era – via frozen glacier or ill-timed temporal vortex – is to severely weaken him. Cumberbatch and Rathbone’s versions of Sherlock Holmes are certainly not creatures of 1895 in the way of Jeremy Brett’s Great Detective, but they are creatures of their time and place. Because if nothing else, Sherlock Holmes must be comfortable in his own world in the same way that he is comfortable in his own skin. He must know it in the same way that he knows varieties of tobacco ash, or bicycle tires, or the typefaces of various newspapers. To put him in a world in which he fights to understand basic concepts, tools and interactions, is to cripple the Great Detective in a very fundamental way – to see Sherlock Holmes struggle with the world around him would compromise the authenticity of his observations and the authority of his conclusions. A nineteenth century London would be quite alien to both the Rathbone and Cumberbatch versions of Sherlock Holmes, but their own worlds and spheres of existence were not.
All right, someone is going to have to bring me
up to speed here. The "CliffsNotes" version is fine.
There may be no one who has spoken more on the topic of setting – time, place and context – in the canon than the Sherlockian Vincent Starrett. He is, of course, the composer of the iconic poem “221B,” and the gorgeous lines that captured the imagery that so embodied the world of the canonical Sherlock Holmes. But canonical setting is more than just romantic gaslight and cobblestone streets, even for Starrett: "How often have I myself, in other years, climbed those seventeen steps that lead upward to the famous rooms and listened for the voices of their most famous occupants. Sometimes I have been almost certain that I heard them. And the old house in Baker Street still stands for all who remember it. It will stand as long as the cold London fog rolls in with the winter and mischief is planned and thwarted and books are written and read." What he speaks of is being able to recognize Holmes and Watson on sight – of the characteristics of time and setting that make them instantly identifiable – of their being when they should no longer be.

In 2009, the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold aired an episode entitled, “The Trials of the Demon,” in which Batman is summoned by Sherlock Holmes into the past to solve a series of inexplicable crimes. Upon first meeting, Holmes is able to accurately deduce Batman’s identity through a series of (humorous) observations. Then with apparently only one observation, Batman is able to likewise deduce Sherlock Holmes’s identity. That observation? “The hat,” Batman says, to which Sherlock Holmes self-consciously adjusts his deerstalker. At the end of the episode, as they say their farewells, Holmes asks Batman to reveal how he really knew his identity. Batman smirks at this question, and finally answers before vanishing:

“Everyone knows who you are. You’re the world’s greatest detective.”
"All right, 'Rock, Paper, Scissors' and then
we'll know who has the silliest outfit."
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  1. Astute selection and treatment of theme, as usual. Truly, your spoil your faithful readers! I will certainly take away the notion that wherever Holmes lands or is planted in time, he will be utterly himself and completely OF that time. Great examples!

  2. "Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century" is a lot of fun (even if the theme song and Holmes' new catchphrase are annoying) and references the original Canon in creative ways.
    I love stories that put Holmes in a strange new world, because it's so much fun seeing his adaptability at work. A great example is the short story "Second Fiddle" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Though the world may change, the principles of logic and deduction are constant.

  3. @Lucy: Thank you so much! I had a lot of fun with this one. Pastiche writers seem to really enjoy playing around with Sherlock Holmes in terms of time and space. I found myself having to edit some examples. I didn't even get to mention my favorite one: "An East Wind Coming," by Arthur Byron Cover.

    @KateM: I actually like "Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century" too. I hope I didn't give the impression that I didn't! I once heard the series described as the only format in which "The Creeping Man" made *more* sense than in the original source material. And thank you for the story recommendation. Is that from "Sherlock Holmes in Orbit"?

  4. You didn't give the impression you didn't like it - I was just agreeing. :) That Creeping Man comparison is brilliant.

    And yes, "Second Fiddle" is from "Sherlock Holmes in Orbit." It's one of the four Holmes-in-the-Present stories.