Monday, January 21, 2013

Some Thoughts on Character: Colonel Sebastian Moran

Moran, Sebastian, Colonel. Unemployed. Formerly 1st Bangalore Pioneers. Born London, 1840. Son of Sir Augustus Moran, C. B., once British Minister to Persia. Educated Eton and Oxford. Served in Jowaki Campaign, Afghan Campaign, Charasiab (despatches), Sherpur, and Cabul. Author of Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas (1881); Three Months in the Jungle (1884). Address: Conduit Street. Clubs: The Anglo-Indian, the Tankerville, the Bagatelle Card Club… The second most dangerous man in London. ("The Adventure of the Empty House")

In the 2011 film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Professor James Moriarty signs copies of The Dynamics of an Asteroid in Paris. His signature is an elegant scrawl from a fountain pen as he speaks in effortless French to those who have come to praise him. A man in an inconspicuous tweed suit slides into the empty seat next the Professor, a pair of opera tickets in his hands. There is a long pause as he waits for Moriarty to address him. Finally, the Professor turns, only slightly, to look at the man at his side: “My ticket?” The man nods, gesturing with the object in question.  “Unfortunately,” the Professor says, “you won’t be needing yours.” The man’s expression is largely unreadable as he looks back down at the tickets in his hands, but his sardonic tone is telling: “It’s a shame, Professor. I was looking forward to Don Giovanni.” The identity of the man in the unprepossessing suit isn’t officially revealed as Colonel Sebastian Moran until a bit later in the film, but there are enough clues in even that brief scene for the viewer to make the logical deduction on his or her own. For is that not how we always picture Colonel Moran – the slightly uncouth man on Moriarty’s right hand?

Paul Anderson as Colonel Sebastian Moran and
Jared Harris as Professor James Moriarty 
Colonel Sebastian Moran was first introduced to readers in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” but like many of the minor characters in the Canon, he has taken on a life of his own, appearing in numerous pastiches and television and film adaptations. In A Game of Shadows, mentioned above, he was played by Paul Anderson, and in the Granada television adaptation of EMPT, Patrick Allen. In the 1946 Basil Rathbone film, Terror by Night, Alan Mowbray took on the role of the Colonel (inexplicably masquerading as Major Duncan Bleek). In a recent episode of the new television series, Elementary (simply entitled, “M.”), actor Vinnie Jones takes a turn as Moran – a slightly more bloodthirsty, more unhinged version. And while the Colonel has not yet appeared in the BBC series, “Sherlock” (although who can say who was on the other end of those sinister red laser sights at the end of “The Great Game”?), don’t tell that to the legions of fans who have already imagined Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s 21st century version of Professor Moriarty’s trusted assassin in full. Several pastiche writers have also imagined their own versions of Colonel Moran. Kim Newman’s Moran of The Hound of the D'Urbervilles is every bit as vulgar, crass, ruthless and merciless as so many have imagined (I fully recommend The Well-Read Sherlockian’s excellent review of the novel available here). In John Gardner’s novel, The Return of Moriarty, Moran’s appearance is pitifully, though logically and necessarily, brief – and raises a host of questions.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and Patrick Allen as Colonel Moran
But what do readers really know about Colonel Sebastian Moran? The above description – found in EMPT and taken from Sherlock Holmes’s own “index of biographies” – is concise and informative enough, providing details of birth and ancestry, education and military career, even his current address and preferred recreational spots, but the apparent glut of explicit knowledge ends there. Prior to EMPT (chronologically speaking), Moran is mentioned alongside Professor Moriarty in their brief cameo in The Valley of Fear: “[Moriarty’s] chief of the staff is Colonel Sebastian Moran, as aloof and guarded and inaccessible to the law as himself.” So readers can add those three remarkable descriptors (aloof, guarded, inaccessible) to what they already know about the man. To put Moran on the same level as Moriarty in terms of demeanor and position is quite a lofty compliment indeed. But it is also contrary to the man that readers know from EMPT. The Colonel found there is a man of barely contained rage, snarling, savage and “wonderfully like a tiger himself.” As Watson recounts, “The fury upon [Moran’s] face was terrible to look at.” This is a man impulsive and hotheaded enough to murder a man because he could expose the Colonel’s unethical card practices, but patient and methodical enough to be really clever about how he did it. There is the “man of iron nerve,” that Sherlock Holmes describes, a man ruthless enough to relentlessly pursue a man-eating tiger, but possessing of the necessary quietness of disposition to be successful.

At the end of EMPT, the Great Detective seems more than confident that the Colonel will no longer be a concern, but Moran doesn’t disappear from the Canon entirely. In “The Illustrious Client,” which according to William Baring-Gould’s chronology takes place in 1902, Holmes comments: “If your man is more dangerous than the late Professor Moriarty, or than the living Colonel Sebastian Moran, then he is indeed worth meeting.” And in “His Last Bow,” which according to the same chronology takes place in 1914: “The old sweet song… How often have I heard it in days gone by! It was a favourite ditty of the late lamented Professor Moriarty. Colonel Sebastian Moran has also been known to warble it.” This means that Moran was most definitely alive as of 1902, and most probably alive as of 1914 (Holmes refers to the Colonel in the present tense, but a life of international espionage is a busy one, so it might be worth arguing that Holmes’s information could be outdated). Surviving an incarceration of twenty years or more certainly shows a certain resilience of character, or perhaps just a mulish intractability.

At the end of A Game of Shadows, Moran covertly executes Professor Moriarty’s undercover assassin (discreetly, with a blowgun) and then walks out of the Swiss chateau, into the shadows, and away from Professor Moriarty, who is currently engaged in a cerebral battle out on the balcony with Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson runs towards his friend, while the Colonel just simply walks away, his intended direction unknown. It is a curious divergence, but not entirely unexpected. As Holmes himself points out in EMPT:

"There are some trees, Watson, which grow to a certain height, and then suddenly develop some unsightly eccentricity. You will see it often in humans. I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree. The person becomes, as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family... Whatever the cause, Colonel Moran began to go wrong."

The Great Detective refers to Colonel Moran as a shikari, which is a Persian word in two parts: the main “Shikar,” meaning “of hunting” and the suffix “i” denoting possession. And it would seem that Moran too was a character in two parts. He comprises a certain cold reservation that made him equal to sit beside Professor Moriarty, but also a contrary savagery that made him effective in his role. Like so many remarkable characters, it is the dichotomy that makes Moran interesting, makes him memorable. Sherlockians return to Colonel Sebastian Moran not simply because he sits beside Professor Moriarty, but because he stands on his own, and cuts his own path.


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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 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.

The current story is "The Retired Colourman," in which Sherlock Holmes investigates the disappearance of Mrs. Josiah Amberley, and offers a bleak outlook on human existence: "But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow – misery.”

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, January 13, 2013

“At four yards, I could deceive you.” (DYIN): The Art and Necessity of Deception in the Stories of Sherlock Holmes

“The relations between us in those latter days were peculiar. He was a man of habits, narrow and concentrated habits, and I had become one of them. As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable. When it was a case of active work and a comrade was needed upon whose nerve he could place some reliance, my role was obvious. But apart from this I had uses. I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence. His remarks could hardly be said to be made to me – many of them would have been as appropriately addressed to his bedstead – but none the less, having formed the habit, it had become in some way helpful that I should register and interject. If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his own flame-like intuitions and impressions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance.” (“The Creeping Man”)

Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, wouldn’t have been able to live with Sherlock Holmes for very long. I’m sure there would always be a stalwart few who would soldier on under any circumstance – convinced that the benefits of living with the Great Detective would far outweigh any “minor” annoyances. But I’m not one of them. When I was in college, I had a roommate that inexplicably began leaving the peanut butter in the refrigerator and the resulting animosity nearly ended our now decades-long friendship. (Sorry Claire, but have you ever tried to spread cold peanut butter? Have you?) So, if I’m clearly that sensitive about my sandwiches, can you imagine how I feel about my personal possessions, my living space, my life? The first time I arrived at Baker Street to find the sitting room filled with papers and noxious chemical fumes, 221B would suddenly be minus one tenant.

Clean. Up. NOW.
But Dr. John Watson was no such person. He seems to find certain behaviors charming when most other people would find them intolerable. He mentions the Detective’s numerous, dangerous chemical experiments off-handedly, merely describing them as “weird” (DYIN) and “malodorous” (SIGN), when others would have expressed more palpable concern. “My flatmate might kill me,” some might have said. Even Holmes’s indoor pistol practice doesn’t seem to bother the Doctor too much: “I have always held, too, that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime” (MUSG), he says flippantly, when for others this would have been serious cause for renegotiating the terms of the lease. “My flatmate is going to kill me,” would have certainly been a logical deduction. But Dr. Watson certainly seems to take most of Holmes’s eccentricities in stride.

But certainly some eccentricities are more serious than others. It is one thing, for example, to cleverly execute a disguise in the semblance of a wizened, old sailor (SIGN) or elderly woman (MAZA). Watson, after all, is always so amused when Holmes sheds a disguise to reveal himself beneath it. Amused, and often charmingly befuddled. As in The Sign of Four, when the cantankerous sailor in the Baker Street sitting room is replaced with the Detective, Watson says, “Holmes! […] You here! But where is the old man?” Is it a tribute to Sherlock Holmes’s skill in the art of disguise, or to Dr. Watson’s guilelessness that he cannot, at first, conceive that his friend might have played a lighthearted trick on him? On the other hand, Watson does get angry with Holmes, earlier in the same story, when he presents Holmes with a pocket watch and asks him to deduce what he can of the watch’s former owner. Holmes is successful, of course, in divining the existence of Watson’s unfortunate older brother. At first Watson is furious – convinced that Holmes already somehow knew about his sibling and is trying to play him for a fool – but once Holmes reveals precisely how he made his deductions, Watson is contrite: “It is as clear as daylight… I regret the injustice which I did you. I should have had more faith in your marvellous faculty.”

Holmes, quit waving that fake beard at me. I need to figure out where that old man went!
But neither of these ruses is quite on the same level as, say, a long and protracted ploy in which Watson is led to believe that Holmes is dying of a rare tropical illness. Even worse, Holmes does not want Watson to help treat him or even assist him beyond bringing Culverton Smith to Baker Street – a man who isn’t even a doctor (DYIN). A clever disguise can hardly be equated with leaving Watson to his own devices in Dartmoor, where he conducts a supposedly solitary investigation into the “ugly, dangerous business” and unknowingly cavorts with the most sinister of villains – all while Holmes watches on, but does not act, only revealing his presence when he finds Watson sitting in his den (HOUN). Oh, and of course, there was the time that Sherlock Holmes let Dr. Watson, and the world, believe he was dead. For three years. And then shows up on Watson’s doorstep – in disguise, yet again – making only a passing reference to the Doctor’s late wife, instead suggesting dinner and a quick skirmish with an assassin (EMPT). It’s enough to make the reader feel angry on Dr. Watson’s behalf, even if it seems he can’t quite manage the emotion on his own.
"I'm not dead! Let's have dinner."
And there’s the rub – Dr. Watson doesn’t really seem to be bothered by any of these things, from the most innocent disguises to the most devious, emotionally-charged deceptions. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson is positively relieved that Holmes has arrived (“…a crushing weight of responsibility seemed in an instant to be lifted from my soul,” he says), rather than put-out that the Detective has apparently had him running through hoops while he watched. In “The Empty House,” Watson’s initial response to Holmes’s apparent resurrection is to faint, and when he comes back to himself, he announces, “My dear chap, I’m overjoyed to see you. Sit down, and tell me how you came alive out of that dreadful chasm” – as if it were no small thing for a previously dead friend to be alive and well and standing before him in his consulting room. Fans of the BBC’s “Sherlock,” can expect a different scene from the modern adaptation’s take on EMPT. According to series’ creator Mark Gatiss, "I always found it a little unlikely that Dr. Watson's only reaction was to faint for instance – as opposed to possibly a stream of terrible swear words." The only exception from the examples above is "The Dying Detective" – where the reader doesn’t get to experience Watson’s reaction to Holmes’s deception at all. The story ends with Holmes explaining his process, and one supposes it’s too much to imagine that Watson slugged the Detective once the story closed.

There’s a range of trickery and deception present in the Canon, but for the most part, Dr. Watson’s reactions to those instances don’t seem to vary. Rather than turning to a discussion about the reliability of Watson as a narrator (perhaps he did slug Holmes at the conclusion of DYIN, but if he left it out of the manuscript, how would the reader ever know?), is it equally as likely that Watson merely understood Holmes’s process even more than he would ever let himself realize? The deductive steps may have always been a mystery to him in varying degrees (such as his reaction to Holmes’s pocket watch analysis), but that didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate the result. Watson could have wasted valuable time and energy getting upset when Holmes let him run about Dartmoor to seemingly little end, or he could just skip right to being relieved that Holmes had arrived. What is the benefit in arguing whether or not Watson should have been angry about Holmes’s three-year deception, when the fact remains that he was, in fact, overjoyed to see his friend? Whenever Holmes managed to mislead Watson, whether it was a small trick of disguise or a large-scale deception, the Doctor was always able to move right to the necessity of it. And he was invaluable to the Detective’s process by always appreciating the art of it.


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Monday, January 7, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes”

Maria Konnikova; Publisher: Viking (U.S.)/Canongate Books Ltd. (U.K.) (January 2013)

“I am inclined to think –” said I.

“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently. (VALL)

Not long after I began reading Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova, I found myself having to attend an all-staff meeting at my office. This wasn’t unusual, occurring at least once a week, and often lasting anywhere from one hour to as many as three hours in duration. Typically, I will take a cup of coffee or a bottle of water with me, but as this meeting promised to be much shorter than a usual one, I decided to hold off. As I was seated in the conference room, waiting for the meeting to begin, my supervisor sat down next to me. She looked over at me with a strange expression. “Why do you have a coaster in front you?” she asked. I looked down only to discover that she was right – I had arrived for the meeting and mindlessly grabbed a coaster for the cup of coffee I did not have – but usually did. I had been on auto-pilot, moving thoughtlessly through my actions without giving the slightest thought to what I was doing.

Cover artwork of U.S. edition
Konnikova would say that I was using my Watson system of thinking, and with good reason. I wasn’t far along in her book before I realized how many things I did mindlessly, distractedly, how little thought I sometimes put into my daily life. I actually became very concerned as I progressed through the book – forget trying to think like Sherlock Holmes, I just wanted to correct what I began to think were terrible deficiencies with my brain. In one instance, Konnikova off-handedly mentions learning to drive, which, for me, set off a train of thought – beginning with a memory of a friend learning how to drive a manual transmission in the middle of a particularly brutal winter – and spiraling down a rabbit hole of related remembrances until I ended up in a rather dark corner of my memory, deeply depressed and resentful of Konnikova’s book for reasons I couldn’t fully comprehend. But that was my Watson thought system in action again. “Think of the Watson system as our naïve selves,” Konnikova says, “operating by the lazy thought habits – the ones that come most naturally, the so-called path of least resistance – that we’ve spent our whole lives acquiring” (18).

It would be an easy thing to say that the Holmes system of thinking is just the opposite of the Watson one – that it is unnatural and difficult, and that anyone who wishes to acquire it will have to spend the rest of his or her life doing so. But it’s not that simple, nor is the outlook that grim for someone who wishes to think like Sherlock Holmes. There is hope for people like myself, who have been running on autopilot for years and who sometimes experience terrifying and inexplicable thought processes. Thinking like the Great Detective is not just about thinking harder – spending hours with your eyes narrowed in endless concentration until you develop a monstrous headache – nor is it just about learning expansively. Even Sherlock Holmes didn’t know everything, Konnikova points out. Did he not have to look up information about the villainous jellyfish in “The Lion’s Mane”? For once, he did not have the material at his fingertips – but he knew where to find it. To think like Sherlock Holmes is to think with awareness.

Cover artwork of U.K. edition.
Konnikova provides a perfectly plotted map to the brain of Sherlock Holmes – that previously undiscovered country so often remarked upon. Each road and pathway charted in wholly accessible detail, making it possible for her readers to retrace and recreate, to redesign their own minds in the model of the Great Detective. If Holmes’s mind was akin to an attic, as has so often and so famously been stated, then like any attic it must have a framework, and the framework can be replicated, in theory. Within the pages of Mastermind are the instructions on how to create, stock, explore, navigate, and maintain a Brain Attic of one’s own. And it’s all just so marvelously comprehensible. Pulling evidence not just from the Canon, but also from 21st century psychological studies and neuroscience, a book this entrenched in scientific theory could have easily been a difficult, tiresome slog. Instead, Mastermind proves fresh and vital, pertinent to readers of all ages, because as Konnikova points out – it’s never too late to learn something new (really, science has proven it).

There is no limit to the instances that Konnikova could have referenced from the Canon – from Holmes’s first impression of Dr. Watson (“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”) to the Doctor’s mostly incorrect deductions based on a walking stick left behind at Baker Street in The Hound of the Baskervilles (and Holmes’s much more correct ones) to the changes in the Detective’s deductive system as seen in “The Yellow Face” and then later in “The Red Circle” (demonstrating the growth and flexibility of his process). Konnikova doesn’t waste a single one. She even adroitly uses examples from the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, such as his role in the case of George Edalji (a perfect demonstration of how the creator influenced his creation) and in the instance of the Cottingley Fairies (showing how even Doyle had human failings, capable of the same mental weaknesses as the rest of us). Mastermind shows that the intellect of Sherlock Holmes was indeed as limitless as Sherlockians always thought it would be, but as Konnikova demonstrates, the limitlessness of the Great Detective’s mind is not predictive of the untapped resources of our own.

“See the value of imagination,” said Sherlock Holmes in “Silver Blaze”. “It is the one quality which [Inspector] Gregory lacks. We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified. Let us proceed.” Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes is not a lecture, nor a series of cleverly reiterated Canonical tales – it is a book built to grow on, for forward movement, for proceeding. But even that is not necessarily enough if one truly wants to think like the Great Detective. “Education is all well and good, but it needs to be taken from the level of theory to that of practice, over and over and over – lest it begin to gather dust and let out that stale, rank smell of an attic whose door has remained unopened for years” (221). There was once a time when a coaster unaccountably at my seat would have thrown me entirely off track, and I would have found myself trapped in an endless cycle of wandering into rooms and forgetting what I wanted, opening up a blank document and no longer remembering what I wanted to write, and dialing a phone number without a clear sense of what I wanted to say. But awareness of the thought process is the first step, and awareness of my own mindlessness helped break me from the cycle. In short, to think like Sherlock Holmes, one must first know that they are thinking.

“How absurdly simple!” I cried. (DANC)

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Friday, January 4, 2013

“It needs careful playing, all the same” (SHOS): “The Testament of Sherlock Holmes”

"I play the game for the game's own sake… But the problem certainly presents some points of interest, and I shall be very pleased to look into it. (BRUC)

“…for you have never failed to play the game. I am sure you will play it to the end.” (MAZA)

“Look how close they play the game.” (3GAB)


“I was wondering what kind of person bought this game,” the clerk behind the counter said as he placed my preordered copy of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes in a plastic bag. “I couldn’t figure out the target audience.” I was running on fumes after a long day, desperate for my next dose of caffeine and a meal made from actual food – not a “food-like product” from the microwave, and something about his tone hit a raw nerve. I was beyond the ability to comport myself with grace, but I made an effort and tried not to look offended as I tightly clutched my purchase. Instead, I found myself asking, “And now that you’ve met the intended demographic?” The clerk shook his head, “I still don’t understand it. Or why someone would want to play it. But I hope you enjoy it. Have a nice day!” The last bit was tacked on, I’m fairly certain, because I was suddenly looking less and less like I wasn’t offended, and more and more like I was about to “accidentally” knock my purse into a nearby display of discounted “Pokémon” merchandise. Later on, as I listened to the voice of Sherlock Holmes tell me – with no little amount of venom – as I failed solve a puzzle for the fifth time in as many minutes: “No! That’s not correct! Start again!” – I, too, began to question my judgment. But I did not question the appeal.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, released in September 2012, is the most recent outing in the “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” series from the independent game development studio, Frogwares.  Previous adventures include: Sherlock Holmes: Mystery of the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin (also known as Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis), and Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper. All games in the “Adventures” line are available for Windows, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper – which is available for Windows and the Xbox 360 – and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes – which is available for Windows, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Frogwares also released a title for the NintendoDS in 2010, Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Osborne House, which—while featuring Holmes and Watson—does not appear to be a part of the studio’s “Adventures” series, as it is more of a casual puzzle game than a fully-plotted and complex exploit.

Now time for a startling confession: I’m not coordinated. Clutch your pearls, I know. I exhibit remarkable deficiencies in both depth perception and peripheral vision. Any command that requires more than, say, two buttons to be pushed at the same time is something that I simply will not be able to execute. Once Nintendo advanced beyond its initial “sidescroller” format, I was utterly lost. My husband once convinced me to try my hand at a game of “Halo” with him, only to get frustrated because I couldn’t find my way out of whatever room I was dropped into, or kept falling off whatever vehicle I climbed aboard. The games in the Frogwares “Adventures” line, however, are simply made for someone like me. Someone without any physical dexterity to speak of, but who is instead very, very patient and who enjoys a good story just as much as a good game.

Another day, another grave to unearth.
Wait, what?
(Photo Credit:

And the Frogwares games are brilliant in no small way because of their remarkable storytelling. The plotlines are intense, the scenes viscerally compelling, and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is no exception. After opening with a brief scene in which three small children find a manuscript hidden in the attic of an old cottage, the game begins with Sherlock Holmes retrieving a lost necklace (and thereby introducing the player to the basics of gameplay). It is soon revealed, however, that the necklace returned by Holmes is nothing but a brilliant forgery, and the Detective is the prime suspect in the deception. Over the course of the game, the crimes become more and more sinister and violent, and Sherlock Holmes’s behavior becomes more and more unpredictable and suspect. As gameplay switches between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (and for a brief period, every Sherlockian’s favorite canine, Toby), the player watches as Watson’s faith in his remarkable friend is slowly diminished by the Detective’s increasing madness, dubious behavior, and uncharacteristically volatile temperament. For those who have played other games in the series, the plot of Testament builds somewhat on the plot of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, but it is not at all necessary to have completed the previous installment in order to understand the latest one.

Thank goodness this wasn't Baker Street.
Mrs. Hudson would have been so mad.
(Photo Credit:

Both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are rendered wonderfully in the game, with superb voice acting (despite Holmes’s remonstrations for every incorrect puzzle, which often made me doubt my abilities to perform even the simplest tasks) and careful artistic detail. The Holmes character appears to be inspired by Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone – although apparently slightly more weathered versions of the actors. And there is more than a little bit of David Burke in the Frogwares rendition of Dr. Watson (with all of Edward Hardwicke’s put-upon longsuffering intact). In addition, the game-board is immense. The city of London is expansive, with its varying locales and points of interest available for exploration. The Baker Street setting is filled with lovingly crafted minutiae. The game feels like a journey, rather than a trudge through a series of continuously repeating scenes, only slightly differing from one to the next. But, to be warned, the game is also violent, while the player does not actually perform any of the violence. The game is largely puzzle-based, but the investigations are gory. There is quite a bit of close examination of mutilated body parts, grotesquely disfigured corpses, filthy sewers and unsettling abandoned funfairs. It is atmospheric in the way any of the original stories might be.

A would-be King of England, previously speaking to a theater full of
mannequins dressed as "subjects," now threatens Watson with a gun.
One of the game's saner moments. I'm not kidding.
(Photo Credit:

Without a doubt, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes engenders compulsive and obsessive play. Not because there is a need to collect points or coins, to defeat another player, or unlock hidden achievements (although the latter is certainly a possibility on the Xbox platform), but because there is an uncontrollable need for the story to simply continue. The player is desperate for a conclusion to the plot, even as they are desperate for a solution to the diabolical puzzle with which they are currently presented (there is a particularly nasty one involving a word problem, a slew of zoo animals, and series of complex control options that still gives me night terrors). Without divulging any plot points, the conclusion of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes seems to indicate that this may be the final installment in the Frogwares series of Sherlock Holmes games, at least chronologically – although I certainly don’t know that definitively. It’s always a joy to see Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson come to life, and this particular format is a unique way to experience their lives in an interactively. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes tests the parameters of the Sherlockian universe – in a literal, if somewhat limited way – and finds that the universe is more than a little bit pliable, with the potential for a little more immersion.

You have been warned.


Vist Frogwares’s site dedicated to its line of Sherlock Holmes games, including The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, here.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “The Crucifer of Blood” (1991)

“It would seem that [Paul] Giovanni had fun with the characters’ names, dragging them in from other Doyle stories. Major Ross borrows his name from the Colonel in ‘Silver Blaze’; Birdy Edwards, the butler at Pondicherry Lodge, appears in The Valley of Fear, Neville St Clair is really ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’; and his daughter is named Irene which, especially because of her apparently amorous nature, has resonances with Irene Adler – ‘The Woman’.” (David Stuart Davies)

The Crucifer of Blood originated as a stage play by Paul Giovanni – opening on Broadway in 1978 and running for 236 performances. The original cast included Paxton Whitehead as Sherlock Holmes, Timothy Landfield as Dr. John Watson, and Glenn Close as Irene St. Claire. The play would also appear in London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in in 1979, where it ran for 397 performances, with Keith Michell as Sherlock Holmes and Denis Lill as Dr. John Watson. Perhaps most famously, however, was the Los Angeles production, which premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1980. The cast included Charlton Heston as Sherlock Holmes, and Jeremy Brett as Dr. John Watson. Though Brett would famously go on to play Sherlock Holmes for the Granada Television series (and become one of only a handful of actors who could boast having played both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson), he said of playing Dr. Watson:

“In some ways Watson is stronger than Holmes. That comes through his kindness, I suppose. He sees Holmes' weaknesses and tries to protect him from them. Look how Watson rants at him about cocaine. Watson is always on the lookout in order to save his friend from pain, indignity or destruction… Watson is much more my kind of person. Watson is a warm, loving, sunny person who's very enthusiastic – and hurt and slightly upset when his friend is rude to people or him. This is much more like me.”

In 1991, The Crucifer of Blood was brought to the small screen with Charlton Heston again in the leading role as Sherlock Holmes, but this time featuring Richard Johnson as Dr. John Watson. Notably, the film also features Heston’s son, Fraser, in his first directing role. The film was first broadcast on the cable network TNT on November 4, 1991. With a plotline based largely upon The Sign of Four, the film opens with an extended sequence taking place during the Siege of Agra in 1857. The production’s stage origins are almost immediately apparent in the close, confined sets and painted backdrops. The sequence echoes the story that Jonathan Small tells in chapter twelve of SIGN (“The Strange Story of Jonathan Small”), even if it is not an exact parallel. Most notably, the characters of Major Sholto and Captain Morstan have been replaced instead by Major Alistair Ross and Captain Neville St. Claire (perhaps, as was mentioned earlier, in homage to some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s other Sherlock Holmes stories). The scene is often laborious and frontloads the film, taking the viewer away from the very brief glimpse of Baker Street that they have had thus far – in which Dr. Watson narrates briefly in a black and white cutaway of Heston’s Sherlock Holmes playing the violin.

Thirty years later, Captain St. Clair’s daughter Irene (pronounced “Eye – reen – ee,” in this instance for those who are interested) arrives at 221B Baker Street, seeking the help of Holmes and Watson. Miss St. Clair is played by Susannah Harker, who would later appear in Granada Television’s 1994 adaptation of “The Dying Detective,” as Adelaide Savage, the wife of the unfortunate Victor Savage. Irene arrives just after Holmes has famously deduced the identity and characteristics of Dr. Watson’s unfortunate older brother by using the late man’s pocket watch, another scene famously lifted from SIGN, with Watson’s angry indignation intact. She has also missed Watson offering Holmes the newly arrived post, and Holmes telling him that, “[Watson] know[s] where it goes” – as if waiting for an audience response of “on the mantle, under the jackknife.” It is only one of many canonical allusions that come across as forced or stilted throughout the production. (The movie ends with a similarly wooden reference to the “Giant Rat of Sumatra” – and a sea captain collapsing theatrically on the hearthrug.)

Charlton Heston is not entirely unsuccessful in his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Undeniably tall, with an elegant bearing, he interacts well with Johnson’s Watson. He is aggressive and uncompromising when appropriate and apparently very motivated. He enjoys the hunt and relishes the thrill of the chase, with all its nuances and clever contrivances. But he isn’t well-spoken, often seeming to mumble, sounding as if he is perpetually speaking around the stem of a pipe, even when he’s not. As Sherlock Holmes Heston is often forgettable, a non-entity, allowing many scenes to be commandeered by co-stars, fading into the background, pipe between his lips and deerstalker on his head. According to David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, “The star’s best moment, oddly enough, comes not when he’s playing Holmes as Holmes, but when he plays Holmes in the guise of an ancient Chinese proprietor of a Soho opium den. Stereotypical though it is, it’s one of the best Holmes-in-disguise sequences ever committed to film” (156).

At the time of filming, Richard Johnson was 64-years-old (comparatively, Jeremy Brett, when he portrayed Dr. Watson in the 1980 stage play, was only 47-years-old). The somewhat advancing age of Johnson’s Watson rather changes some of the dynamics in the film. Nowhere else is this more obvious than when a drugged Irene both confuses Dr. Watson for her aging father, and then confesses to her “father” that she is falling in love with the Doctor. And then they kiss, passionately. It turns the stomach a little. Like the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of Murder by Decree – where the distinct age difference between Christopher Plummer’s Holmes and James Mason’s Watson generated a more paternal relationship between the two men than a fraternal one – the advancing ages of Heston’s Sherlock Holmes and Johnson’s Dr. Watson change many of the interactions in this film version of The Crucifer of Blood, not always for the better (or even indifferently). The romantic subplot of the story, so obviously meant to correspond with the courtship of Dr. Watson and Mary Morstan from SIGN, actually comes across as a bit unsettling, even creepy.

The Crucifer of Blood ends on a strange note – perhaps in keeping the tone of the film – with Irene transforming from mistreated ingénue to aggressive siren (complete with low-cut, red dress), Watson fainting dead away (presumably from the absurdity of it all), and Sherlock Holmes disgracefully begging for Watson to remain at Baker Street (once the Doctor regains consciousness and his indignation). A film adaptation allows a story to become available to a wider audience when it was once only accessible to a small one. However, there is something lost in adapting this particular play for the small screen. A presentation that was perhaps elegant and theatrical on stage becomes claustrophobic and outlandish on television. Without access to the original stage production, a Sherlock Holmes completionist could do worse than to add this particular film to their collection, with the awareness that the spirit of the production was willing, even if the flesh of it was weak.



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