Saturday, March 30, 2013

“I should very much like to have a word with Mr. Holmes.” (3GAR): Some Thoughts on the Dichotomy of Sherlock Holmes

"It was 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.' I opened the book with no realization that I stood, or rather sat, on the brink of my fate. I had no inkling, no premonition, that in another minute my life's work, such as it is, would be born... I finished 'The Adventures' that night... As I closed the book, I knew that I had read one of the greatest books ever written. And today I realize with amazement how true and tempered was my twelve-year-old critical sense. For in the mature smugness of my present literary judgment, I still feel unalterably that 'The Adventures' is one of the world's masterworks." (Frederic Dannay)

"The best literary work is that which leaves the reader better for having read it. Now nobody can possibly be the better – in the high sense in which I mean it – for reading Sherlock Holmes, although he may have passed a pleasant hour in doing so. It was not to my mind high work, and no detective work ever can be, apart from the fact that all work dealing with criminal matters is a cheap way of rousing the interest of the reader." (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Sherlock Holmes ruined my life. But he also saved it. Because of Sherlock Holmes, I now know more about the world, the people in it, and myself. Previously a curious and avid student, Sherlock Holmes has made me compulsive about learning to an obsessive degree. I think differently, and more often, but to be fair, I’m usually thinking about a particular subject. And the things I know aren’t always something everyone would find particularly interesting, useful or necessary to everyday life. Some people would call it superfluous knowledge. These aren’t always scholarly or erudite facts, either. But some of them are. Nor has it always been a lofty or cerebral education. But some of it has been. And now as I stand at the precipice of 100 blog posts (well… sit, really, as Frederic Dannay was sitting… I’m sitting at my computer), I’m prepared to admit to the dichotomy. I’m here with hat in hand (not a deerstalker, rather more like a homburg, as we all know) and confess that the Great Detective is both the best and worst thing that ever happened to me.

I’m sure that some of Sherlock Holmes’s canonical clients would say much the same thing. While Holmes might have been able to solve whatever mystery they first approached him with, the explanation may have ultimately exposed something that they would rather the world have not known, something that they would never have willingly revealed to others, or simply something that they would rather have not realized about themselves. In “The ‘Gloria Scott’”, one of Holmes’s very first cases, Victor Trevor undoubtedly felt relief that Holmes was able to explain what happened to his father – the real identity of Hudson and the reason for the shadow he cast over the elder Trevor’s life – and the reason for his father’s fatal reaction to a seemingly innocuous letter. But ultimately Holmes’s explanation revealed uncomfortable facts about his father’s past – things that would be even more unsettling and disturbing now that Victor’s father was no longer alive to discuss them. There may been a solution for Victor Trevor, but there would never be any closure. Likewise Violet de Merville of “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” probably felt no joy that her fiancĂ©, the villainous Baron Gruner, was unquestionably revealed as an utter blackguard by Sherlock Holmes – but eventually there must have been relief at the disastrous future that she so narrowly avoided.  

And no one was more versed in the disparity of life and human nature than Sherlock Holmes. As he said to Dr. Watson: “I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money, and the most repellent man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor” (SIGN). But being aware of that disparity doesn’t mean he was always able to correctly assess it. In “The Yellow Face,” the Detective is quite convinced of his own theory: that Mrs. Munro’s first husband is the occupant of the mysterious cottage and he is an unscrupulous blackmailer. The climax of the story reveals both Sherlock Holmes’s failings, and that the occupant of the cottage is Mrs. Munro’s daughter from her first marriage. The Detective had assumed the worst, and Mr. Munro neatly assesses the situation in saying: “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.”

The Detective himself is a study in contradictions. Who among Sherlockians doesn’t know that “…although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind, and although also he affected a certain quiet primness of dress, he was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction” (MUSG)? The actors who have portrayed Sherlock Holmes over the years have usually been rather adept at capturing both sides of the Detective’s personality. Most recently in his turn as the Great Detective, Benedict Cumberbatch sports immaculately tailored suits and coats (and, for some reason, shirts that that appear expensive, if a size too small) – but keeps severed heads and other assorted body parts in the refrigerator. And who can forget the incomparable Jeremy Brett crawling through an ever-growing sea of papers in the Baker Street sitting room – his hair sleeked back into a sharp widow’s peak, his cuffs and collars spotlessly white, his suit somehow inexplicably remaining wrinkle-free despite his exertions?

In addition, Holmes was ever inconsistent when it came to personal relationships. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson says, “Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.” And in “The Five Orange Pips,” Holmes pronounces that he has no friends, except for Dr. Watson. All of this proves to be profoundly untrue. During 56 short stories and 4 novels, the reader learns of the Detective’s other friends, such as Victor Trevor (GLOR), a companion from Holmes’s university days. Even more significantly, over the course of the Canon, the Detective’s relationship with Inspector Lestrade evolves and eventually he comes to refer to the Scotland Yard inspector as “Friend Lestrade” (NOBL, CARD, EMPT, NORW, 3GAR). And of course, all readers remember how in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” Watson sees all his “years of humble but single-minded service culminated” in a grand moment of revelation.

As such, I’ve found many Sherlockians to be the same – not inconsistent, but definitely contradictory. I include myself in that lot, of course. We pursue endlessly obscure topics, isolate ourselves during our researches, and hold fast to our theories when we believe ourselves to be right. We wait for our grand moment of revelation, a sign that all of our efforts have not been in vain. But in the end, we seek each other out. And such relationships are unique unto Sherlockiana, and often profound, because as C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

I say that Sherlock Holmes is both the best and worst thing that ever happened to me, because he’s revealed the best and worst things about me. Surely my husband, who no longer remembers the color of our carpet, so covered in books it has become, would tell you that the Great Detective has revealed my slightly more compulsive and obsessive tendencies (and for the record, the carpet is grey… no, beige… taupe?). But I have also learned the most spectacular things, met some of the best and wisest people, and my life has been profoundly changed. I’m not the person I was before I met Sherlock Holmes, but I am the person I was meant to be. Such as I am.


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Sunday, March 10, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Martin Powell, Jamie Chase, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Publisher: Dark Horse (February 2013)

"Watson won't allow that I know anything of art, but that is mere jealousy, because our views upon the subject differ. Now, these are a really very fine series of portraits." (HOUN)

I come by my uniquely passionate personality honestly – at least, that’s what I like to tell myself. When I was growing up, my mother was (and still is, actually) an ardent devotee of all things Arthurian. My childhood home was resplendent with reproductions of medieval tapestries and framed prints of dragons. The shelves of my mother’s not insignificant library overflowed with a wide and unique array of literature in her chosen field, including a rather beautifully illustrated children’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which she had to keep on her own shelves because the vivid sketches of the beheaded green knight (complete with bloody stump – trust me, I remember) made my sister and I scream in unholy terror. I myself am now the owner of two of her favorite Arthurian swords, which she had to give up when she moved into a smaller living space (her immense library was also one of the casualties of the move). And while she would never admit it outright, I imagine she must have felt a speck of disappointment that neither of children ever shared her interest.

But what she must have recognized in her children was elements of her own personality – and all of its obsessive, ardent nuances – and she was good at planting seeds. I remember vividly being a teenager – my discovery of Sherlock Holmes and his world still fresh and new – and being excited to learn that the 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (starring Peter Cushing) was going to be on television that afternoon. “No,” my mother said, taking the remote from my hand. “You can’t watch that one. It’s too scary. It gave me nightmares as a child.” Well, saying something like that to a teenager is essentially like waving red at a bull, and my mother must have known it. She only put up the most cursory of arguments when I protested. I didn’t find the movie even remotely frightening – heaven knows that I had seen infinitely more gruesome things by the time I was a teenager – but watching that film with my mother has always been a very sweet memory.

As such, it was a thrill to open Martin Powell’s and Jamie Chase’s new graphic novel adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles and be instantly reminded of that time. There’s more than a little bit of Hammer Horror’s Hugo Baskerville about Chases’s rendition. The iconic blood-red riding jacket and distinctive eighteenth century hairstyle of the famous villain are immediate visual cues. Suddenly, I’m watching David Oxley chase an unfortunate young woman across the moor, with the moon highlighting his silhouette as he lays eyes on the Hound for the very first time. And a few pages on, with the slope of his brow and the curve of his hawk-like nose, it is Peter Cushing ensconced in the Baker Street sitting room, draped in the famous purple dressing gown and wielding his eyebrow like a weapon. However, it’s not just the Hammer Horror version of HOUN that leaps from the pages of this novel. There is also a Dr. Mortimer whose thin mustache and distinctive, round spectacles are more reminiscent of the Mortimer seen in the 1939 film version of HOUN starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce and Lionel Atwill (as the late Sir Charles’s closet friend). In the strikingly handsome features of Chase’s Sir Henry, there is more than a little of Richard Greene’s face and all his classic, movie star qualities. And in the single panel in which Sherlock Holmes answers Dr. Watson’s question about the existence of the Hound, (saying simply, “It does.”) it is difficult for the reader not to hear Jeremy Brett’s delivery of that iconic line, complete with his sonorous timbre.

Chase’s illustrations are atmospheric and impressive, but not just for the way in which they harken back to some of the most famous cinematic adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous novel. The color palette is striking and mesmerizing. Dominated by a dark, sometimes harsh, selection of hues, the occasional pinpoints of color have just that much more impact: the rosy blush of sunlight coming through a window, the golden glow of a single candle, or – as mentioned previously – the ominously, maliciously red jacket on Sir Hugo. In his illustrations, Chase uses color with a stunningly magnificent expertise, and to the fullest, most profound impact.

For his part, Martin Powell has managed to craft a gorgeous adaptation of Doyle’s original novel. As an adaptation, not a duplication, there are elements of the story that are missing. For instance, readers who tend to skip over Dr. Watson’s lengthy, sometimes tedious, descriptions of landscape and setting will be pleased; there is none of that present – the drawings certainly give voice to those elements on their own. As another reviewer has pointed out, the famous phrenological exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Mortimer is also missing. The story is streamlined, with much of the exposition and introspection omitted. What remains, however, practically vibrates with intensity. Many of Watson’s reports to Holmes (whom he believes is back at Baker Street) are written across the background of a panel, while the action plays out in the foreground. It’s a powerful and evocative way of showing the complexity of Watson’s role, and the depth and intricacy of the story that Doyle wove together.

Powell wields his chosen dialogue for maximum emotional effect. When Watson speaks to a shadowy figure off-panel, saying simply: “You! I thought you were still in London!” There is a frisson of fear, even if readers already know that they will turn the page to find the Great Detective as the man being addressed. When Holmes tells his friend: “Your reports did it justice, Watson. The house does, indeed, have a menacing personality all its own” – that personality is practically tangible, as the reader sees Sherlock Holmes as a small, isolated figure standing in the grand hall of the Baskerville estate. Martin Powell’s story and Jamie Chase’s artwork are symbiotic, and they likewise do more than justice to a story that is more than a classic – Doyle’s HOUN is as immortal as the Hound itself.

Occasionally I’m asked by someone new to the Canon about where they should start – what short story or novel is a great introduction the Great Detective? Invariably, they wonder if it shouldn’t be The Hound of the Baskervilles – it is the most recognizable, after all, and the one that most people seem to have on their bookshelves, even if they have never read it. I usually shy away from that suggestion – explaining that Sherlock Holmes is actually absent for the majority of the story and that the lengthy and frequent descriptive passages are often tiresome. Powell and Chase’s adaptation of HOUN alleviates both of those issues. With Powell moving Dr. Watson’s activities and the related action into the foreground, Holmes’s absence really seems secondary. And Chase’s artful illustrations mitigate the need for prolonged descriptions and soliloquies on landscape. The resulting work is the version of HOUN that readers visualize when they pick-up the original novel, that they take away with them with they watch one of the many film or television adaptations. It is, in many ways, the best possible version of HOUN and does justice to the story's enduring nature.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted by Martin Powell and Jamie Chase, can be found on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Martin Powell can be found online at:
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