Tag Archives: Sherlock Holmes

Review+Interview+Giveaway–“A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes” by Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney

14 Jan

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My Review

Anyone who has come anywhere near the world of the illustrious Sherlock Holmes knows that, especially for his many admirers, it is a world both deep and wide: deep, because of the riches that may be uncovered by paying close attention, digging beneath the surface of the Canon (the 56 stories and 4 novels penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–with the help of Dr. John Watson); and wide, because of the breadth of Holmes’s active career, which has stretched from his home base in 221B Baker Street to the mountains of Tibet, and has created enormous, unflagging interest, worldwide, from the 1890s to the present. If anything, the fascination with Holmes has grown over the years. The places and situations where his services as consulting detective are needed have multiplied beyond counting in the industry of creative pastiches. To paraphrase Shakespeare (something Holmes himself did on occasion*), “Banish Sherlock Holmes, and banish all the world.”**

I cannot think of two more ardent or astute admirers of Holmes and his world than Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who are known for their impeccable research and attention to craft, not to mention their wit and warmth, at their blogs, The Well-Read Sherlockian (Guinn) and Better Holmes & Gardens (Mahoney). In their remarkable Sherlockian book of days, A Curious Collection of Dates, they have delivered something notable to read about for each day of the year. In fact, their knowledge is itself so deep and so wide that many times they provide two, three, four, or even more events (March 24 has six!) that fall on a particular date. One need go no farther than January 1 to discover: “that fateful meeting” of Holmes and Watson, recorded in “A Study in Scarlet” [STUD]; the founding of the paper that would become the Times of London, so essential to Holmes in his work; and the premiere of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” to open Season 2 of the BBC’s popular series, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the inseparable colleagues in detection. This last entry signals that one need not blow the dust off this very engaging collection–while its display of learning among the Victorians is breathtaking, A Curious Collection of Dates brings the noteworthy Holmesian people, facts, and events right up to the present.

I heartily recommend exploring this fascinating book for yourself, but I cannot resist sharing a selection of some of the types of entries you will find when you do.

As befitting a book of days, there are many birthdays. These include actors who have played key characters in the adaptations of the stories, for stage, film, radio, and television. You can be sure to discover the birthdays of Jeremy Brett (November 3); Basil Rathbone (June 13), who shares a birthday with mystery writer and devoted Sherlockian Dorothy Sayers; and Benedict Cumberbatch (July 19), who shares a birthday with Russian actor Vasily Livanov, whose portrayal of Holmes in Russian productions earned him the Order of the British Empire in 2006 and a statue near the British embassy in Moscow (we learn all this from his entry). The legion of actors taking on the character of Holmes makes for numerous enlightening instances during the year. For example, of Peter Cushing (b. May 26, 1933), we learn:

Peter Cushing once famously proclaimed that “…he would rather sweep Paddington station for a living than go through the experience [of being Sherlock Holmes] again.” More than anyone, Cushing had certainly had enough turns at the characters to know whereof he spoke. Starring as the Great Detective on three separate occasions, Cushing appeared in the 1959 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Hammer Films,  the BBC’s 1968 Sherlock Holmes series, and in 1984, the made-for-television movie Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death.

Cushing was not always so antagonistic towards the Great Detective, and had been, in fact, a fan of Sherlock Holmes since his childhood: “I love all the stories. It’s the atmosphere I love so much, and they’ve all got that. I love the way they start: it is always foggy and there were those equinoctial gales.”

I love the way the entries are seasoned with personal quotes such as these, revealing so much about the personalities involved. One can also enjoy the host of photographs and period illustrations that enhance the text. It is especially helpful to see the photos of the variety of actors who have remade themselves, for a time, into a living image of Holmes.

Of course, acting is only one occupation held by people relevant to the Holmesian canon. Besides such indispensable figures as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and many other writers, one finds the collector Richard Lancelyn Green; the naturalist Charles Darwin; the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus; the scientist, Sir Francis Galton; the American detective, Charles Pinkerton; the inventor of one style of shorthand, Sir Isaac Pitman; the magician, Harry Houdini; the violin virtuoso and composer, Pablo de Sarasate; the engineer and architect, Isambard Kingdom Brunel; the psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud; and many, many more–all with their connection to the world of Sherlock Holmes explained and documented in compelling fashion.

Many of the people profiled would be classed by some as “fictional” (I use this term cautiously). For example, we find birthdays for Mary Russell (January 2, 1900; wife of Holmes in his retirement, as reported by Laurie R. King, her literary agent), Mycroft Holmes (February 12, 1847; elder brother), and of course, Sherlock Holmes himself, whose actual birthday is believed to be January 6, 1854.

Anniversaries, such as the first publication of particular stories and the premieres of adaptations, are another kind of birthday. The book includes helpful appendices for the publication of the stories in The Strand or in Collier’s. Many entries make excellent use of such anniversaries to offer insightful commentary.

Historical events, such as the Queen’s (i.e., Victoria’s) Diamond Jubilee (June 22), the Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800), and the Indian Mutiny (May 10, 1857), merit inclusion because of story references, but probably the most intriguing historical entries are those that date events originating within the story world. Some of these are given in Watson’s own account, as in “The Scandal of Bohemia” where Watson chances to meet the King of Bohemia who is consulting Holmes about a very delicate personal matter; the date given is “the twentieth of March, 1888” but it is pointed out by the authors that this apparently straightforward date poses some chronology conumdrums for careful observers of the canon. In other cases, Watson may give indications of the timing without a precise date, or include very little information to fix a date. Then it is the happy task of intrepid scholars to reason from the evidence to deduce the correct date, usually with much debate ensuing. Entries such as “‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge’ Begins” (March 24) and “‘The Adventure of the Three Gables’ Begins” (May 26) show the results of such scholarly efforts and the chief arguments backing them up. Some events originating in the story world–I’m thinking of Holmes’s plunge over the Reichenbach Falls on May 4, 1891–were so profoundly significant that they spurred an outcry in the world at large, and led to his return to both the story world and the waiting reading public.

I could easily cite a further torrent of examples. In fact, the more I attempted to list and classify the entries in this book, the more I realized that they defy any simple classification–they seem to share Holmes’s “infinite variety.”  A Curious Collection of Dates gathers informative and entertaining accounts, in one place, that touch on formative events and influential people for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for Sherlock Holmes, or for both of them. It also pays tribute to famous Sherlockians such as William Gillette, Christopher Morley, William S. Baring-Gould, and Vincent Starrett. Above all, it records milestones in the life of Sherlock Holmes, a towering figure who continues to draw us from our world into his.***

♦♦♦♦

My Interview with

Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney

I am delighted to welcome Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who have kindly agreed to disclose some of their methods and reflect on a life led with Sherlock Holmes never far from view.

Q1. When did you first encounter Sherlock Holmes? Can you recall the first story you read? When did the urge to become a student of all things Holmes first take hold?

Leah: Because Sherlock Holmes has become so ubiquitous, I’m not sure that I was ever completely unaware of him. But we “met” a few times before things “took.” In 2nd grade, for instance, I bought Eve Titus’ Basil and the Pygmy Cats  at the book fair. I loved it, but basically I was more about the talking mice. Later, in 4th grade (again at a book fair), I bought a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. The very first one was The Sign of Four,  and I was absolutely shocked at the fact that Sherlock Holmes took cocaine! Obviously this was not a book or a hero for me! I put it away and didn’t bother with Holmes again until sometime in college, where I tried The Hound of the Baskervilles. Again, I was disappointed, because there was (I thought) far too much Watson and not enough Holmes—which is why I don’t recommend it for one’s first Holmes story.

Finally…I had just come off a major reading binge—Preston and Child’s Pendergast series, and was absolutely lost. I read online that their hero, Agent Pendergast, was inspired, in part, by Sherlock Holmes, so I thought I’d give him (yet another) try. I first read two pastiches—Edward Hanna’s The Whitechapel Horror, then Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow. I then moved on to the Canon itself and it was all over. I don’t think I read anything non-Holmesian for the entirety of 2011.

Jaime: The first time I ever encountered Sherlock Holmes was through a pastiche, even though I wasn’t familiar with the term at the time. When I was twelve-years-old, my mother gave me a copy of The Canary Trainer by Nicholas Meyer because I had developed an interest in opera and singing, and I think she was hoping I would develop an interest in something… not so loud. My singing voice has always been a bit… shrill. She had The Canary Trainer on her shelf because she was writing a novel about King Arthur, and her writing group had suggested Meyer as an author who had successfully captured an iconic figure. I certainly think they were right.

As for the first canonical story I read – is it terrible that I don’t remember? Deduction tells me that it was probably either A Study in Scarlet or – ironically, to those who know me best – “A Scandal in Bohemia,” simply because those stories tend to come first in collections and I was a somewhat orderly child. I think I’ve wanted to be a student of all things Holmes since I first read The Canary Trainer (if you aren’t familiar with the Canon, it’s a pretty confusing book and I spent a lot of time in the library looking things up when I was done with it), but it was around 2009 that I first realized that there were other people like me. People who wrote things, and analyzed, and researched, and devoted their time to this very specific topic – it was a tremendous relief!

Q2. If you are willing to reveal your methods, I am very interested in your process. With such a wealth of possible material, how did you select the types of events you wanted to include?

Leah: We decided that we would each play to our strengths. I am a history person. In the end, I want to know “what really happened.”  Jaime is much more literary, and far better at understanding the artistry in film and other media. We put everything we could think of on a spreadsheet, and went from there, trimming as we went—and as time grew short!

Jaime: At first, we weren’t very particular at all. Everything was going to get included (we thought, naively)! Every birthday, death, the original premiere date of every movie and television episode, every historical figure and significant event, every canonical moment. We soon realized that if we did that, the book would be unending. It would never be finished. Eventually we decided to just be consistent: every birthday was included, but only the deaths of significant figures. We included the premiere of every movie, but only the pilot episodes of television shows. Even then, some dates were overwhelmed with material (there is so much going on in May, it borders on ridiculous) and still had empty spots in others.

I can honestly say we clashed over very little, except for Louise Brealey (the actress who plays Molly Hooper in the BBC series). Leah was adamant that she be included, and I was equally adamant that she shouldn’t be. Molly Hooper isn’t canon, I argued! Not because I didn’t like Molly Hooper (I do, very much), but because I saw the door opening on writing a bunch of entries for other non-canonical characters. Suddenly I was metaphorically standing on top of St. Bart’s screaming that the book was never going to get done. I forget how we compromised on this one, but Ms. Brealey is in the book (March 27).

Q3. As you began mapping out events and dates, how did you go about filling gaps? How did you do research for specific dates, since, apart from birthdays, dates are not always that readily available?

Leah: We started out with the [William S.] Baring-Gould chronology. Even though it has some issues, it’s the one most people are familiar with, and it’s also very easy to find online. I would then back that up with Zeisler (whom I often like better), or use Dakin’s A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, in which he plays referee between chronologists. Another good source for that is Brad Keefauver’s online “Sherlock Holmes Timeline,” where you can see what the major players think in one place.

After that, I went through [Leslie S.] Klinger’s Annotated, page by page, to make a list of Canon events, historical events, people, works of art, places, crimes, actors, etc. Some of them had dates already—the Battle of Maiwand, for example. Others took some more digging. My favorite resources were online newspaper archives, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Ancestry.com. You would not believe what you can get out of Ancestry if you think creatively and are willing to do hours of sorting. Towards the very end, we still had some dates without entries, and for those I turned to Chris Redmond, who was able to very quickly find Sherlockian connections for each one. When you do work like this, you should never think that you are all-sufficient. Sometimes you need fresh eyes, and fresh minds, and the Sherlockian community is full of people who are willing and eager to offer both.

Jaime: Hope, prayer and Leah’s exceptional research skills. When we finished our initial calendar, I remember there being only a small handful of dates that had nothing to mark them. In some ways, those dates became very easy to fill, as they were a very specific and narrow target. We were able to think in terms of just that date, instead of mapping out a specific group of material (actors or premiere dates, for example) in its entirety. Sometimes we had to think outside the Sherlockian box for material (events that weren’t necessarily tied directly to Sherlock Holmes, but had interesting links instead).

In the end, I’d say there is still one date in the entire book where the entry is only somewhat tenuously Sherlockian. It was a tough date (but I won’t say which one, in case you haven’t spotted it). [I haven’t!~LPG]

Q4. Can you talk about some of your favorite discoveries? Some a-ha moments that might have sent Holmes leaping over his couch or waking up Watson in the middle of the night?

Leah: My very favorites were dates that took a good deal of detective work. For example, I found Herbert Greenhough Smith’s birthday on Ancestry, in an online record of Cambridge alumni. Another was Daniel Rudge, one of the inventors of the Rudge-Whitworth bicycle which left those famous tire tracks in “The Adventure of the Priory School.” He was very elusive, but I finally managed to track him down, and obtain his vital records via mail.

Jaime: Ah, waking Watson up in the middle of the night – there’s a fine Sherlockian tradition! I’m not sure this revelation is worth waking up someone in the middle of the night (I rarely think things are – like Watson, I treasure my sleep), but I was astounded at how often Sherlockian actors crossover, and how their lives overlap. There are Watsons who have played the character two, three, four times or more – to different actors playing the Great Detective! Or an actor would play Holmes in one series and Watson (or Moriarty) in another.

Most of all, I enjoyed learning how the actors’ personal lives would intersect. Not just that Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke were friends off-screen, but that Jeremy Brett and Robert Stephens knew each other before they had even heard of Sherlock Holmes. Or that Brett’s former brother-in-law, Daniel Massey, appeared in Granada’s adaptation of “The Problem of Thor Bridge.” Or that his former father-in-law, Raymond Massey, also once played Sherlock Holmes.

I think a lot about Jeremy Brett, obviously.

Q5. I know that Leah marks the year’s end with her annual Twelfth Night Giveaway, and I suspect that, like me, Jaime does not let November 3 go by without a grateful nod to the memory of Jeremy Brett. Are there other dates that you personally celebrate, as devoted Sherlockians?

Leah: I love doing this, because it gives me a chance to share Holmes with my kids. We celebrate Holmes’ birthday, “Reichenbach Day,” Conan Doyle’s Birthday, and “Watson’s Birthday,” always with cake, and sometimes with action figures and movies.

Jaime: The Master’s birthday – January 6 – of course! The perfect occasion to raise a glass to Sherlock Holmes, for all he has done and for all those whom he has saved. My non-Sherlockian friends are baffled that I take the time to celebrate Holmes’s birthday. They want to know if I celebrate the birthdays of Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, or Hamlet. I tell them, “Of course not. They weren’t real.”

Of course, in addition to Jeremy Brett’s birthday, we included the day of his death [September 12, 1995] in the book. I adore Jeremy Brett, and this was a particularly difficult entry to write. When it was done, I remember I told Leah, “You’d be proud of me. I only cried a little bit.”

Q6. Given the immortal partnership of Holmes and Watson, it seems wonderful that you chose to write this book as a team. As friends and colleagues, could you each say a few words about what the other brought to the project? Any stories you would like to share?

Leah: Not only did Jaime bring her superior literary and media skills, she also brought a sense of balance and proportion to the whole thing. I don’t know how to stop, pretty much. Without Jaime, the entries would be longer, there would be about one hundred more of them, and the book might not be done!  Plus, Jaime is such a wonderful person and so great to talk to. I think that working on (and occasionally suffering through) this book cemented our friendship.

Jaime: If I had walked into a shop and asked for a co-author custom built to my specifications, I still wouldn’t have received a better co-author than Leah. She is a tireless researcher, a gifted writer, and really just one of my very best friends. I was always astounded when she would look at a topic and see a 3,000 word essay, where I had only seen a 150 word entry. She has a way of cutting right to the heart of things, which I’ll never be able to do in all my days.

About a month after Wessex Press accepted our book for publication, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I was worried about telling Leah. I thought for sure that she would be annoyed, worried about the future of the book, and concerned about working with a pregnant co-author. I shouldn’t have been concerned. Outside of my husband and me, Leah was probably the most excited for Morrigan’s arrival. This story shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows her, but I’ll always remember how grateful I was to her.

My deepest thanks to Leah and Jaime for their marvelous responses to my questions. Their joy in the subject of Sherlock Holmes, in all its myriad facets, is only matched by their very evident dedication to careful research and thoughtful writing. They have given us a sublime book of days to stimulate the mind and imagination throughout the year. Such excellence of craft can touch the heart as well, something expressed so movingly in the closing scene of “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” Inspired by the words of Inspector Lestrade, I would like to say thank you to these authors–there is not a Sherlockian among us, from the oldest to the youngest, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you both by the hand.

♦♦♦♦

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Buy the Book

The Well-Read Sherlockian  ♦   Leah on Twitter  ♦  Leah on Facebook

Better Holmes & Gardens  ♦  Jaime on Twitter  ♦  Jaime on Facebook

♦♦♦♦

Giveaway!

I am very pleased to offer 2 paperback copies of A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes which will go to two lucky winners of the giveaway linked below. The winners will be chosen at random from the total entries. Follow the instructions to increase your number of entries.  The giveaway will be open for about one week and will end at 11:59 pm on Sunday, January 22, 2017. Open to residents of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., 18 years of age and older.

Entry-Form

I will notify the winners by email. If you are chosen as a winner, please reply with your physical mailing address within 48 hours. If I can’t reach you by email, the prize will go to another entrant.

Good luck, and thank you for participating!


*Following the lead of author Leah Guinn’s practice at The Well-Read Sherlockian, I shall provide footnotes. In “The Adventure of the Empty House” [EMPT], Holmes paraphrased a line from Antony and Cleopatra (“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety,” Act II, scene 2) when he said, “I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety.” Scott Monty (I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere) chose this quote to title his birthday post in 2008, and Jaime N. Mahoney used it to delightful effect, while musing on EMPT and the difficulty of Holmes’ return, to cap off her own return from hiatus in January 2015 .

**See Henry IV, Part 1, Act II, scene 4: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

***In The Fictional 100, I emphasized how fluidly Sherlock Holmes has migrated beyond the page to engage with us in our everyday world. This book reminds me that it is a two-way street: that he continually calls on us to pay him a visit and immerse ourselves in his world, the way he saw it. Sherlock Holmes ranks 9th on the Fictional 100.

Christmas Spirit Reading, or, “We Need a Little Christmas…”

26 Nov

As I start to write this, the Jerry Herman song “We Need a Little Christmas” from the musical Mame popped into my head.  For this year’s Christmas Spirit Readathon and 2016 Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge, both kindly hosted by Michelle (our favorite True Book Addict), I have song lyrics on my mind, probably because the title of my first Christmas-themed novel is a clever reworking of “Deck the Halls” and its famous chorus. Fa-La-Llama-La by Stephanie Dagg is a clever romantic comedy about a young woman named Noelle, who takes a last-minute pet-sitting job in France, a few days before Christmas, and the pets are twelve llamas!

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The romantic mix-up part comes in when she arrives at her job in a major snowstorm and must share an empty, unheated house with the new (rugged, good-looking) owner of same house, who arrives unexpectedly. His name is Nick and he’s Australian, and she wonders what he is doing buying a house in rural France. She has consternation over the lack of electricity and furniture; he has consternation over being swindled during the house transaction by the previous owner (who made off with all the furniture and left the llamas). He is also fuming that both the llamas and their pet-sitter are apparently staying for the duration of the holiday.  Their shared frustration slowly turns to amusement and shared problem solving, and then….well, you know  what comes next–this is a rom-com!  At least I think so, because I haven’t finished it yet. I will post my full review (with more about the llamas!) in December for Stephanie Dagg’s virtual tour with France Book Tours.

I am also reading A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes by Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who also write beautifully researched, wittily delivered pieces at their blogs, The Well-Read Sherlockian (Guinn) and Better Holmes and Gardens (Mahoney).

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They have found something notable to write about for each day of the year, whether it be the publication of a story from the Conan Doyle canon, the premiere of a memorable adaptation for stage or screen, the birthday of a beloved actor who has portrayed Sherlock Holmes, or some event in the real world or the fictional world that bears on the life and times of the world’s most famous consulting detective. December 27 is devoted to “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” in which a valuable gem turns up unexpectedly in a Christmas goose on the table of one of Mr. Holmes’ many London friends. Finding out how it got there is a holiday mystery indeed. I watched the Granada adaptation of this story every year at Christmas on my VHS player until I no longer watched VHS tapes anymore! I will have more to say about this fantastic book later on, but let me suggest that it is a perfect gift for anyone who relishes the ‘infinite variety’ of Sherlock Holmes.

For young readers and adults too, The Nativity, with gorgeous illustrations by artist Ruth Sanderson is a treat for reading, or re-reading, the Christmas story, drawing from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  I’m planning to leave this book open during the Christmas season and savor Sanderson’s paintings slowly day by day.

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Although the Readathon is nearly over, ending on Sunday night, the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge runs through January 6, so I will probably add some more holiday-themed books and watch even more Hallmark Channel holiday movies by then. What I love about these events hosted by Michelle–who loves Christmas and fosters the spirit so well–is the chance to (a) learn more about varied holiday customs around the world (check out her blog on her beautiful Christmas Spirit website!) and (b) discover more Christmas fiction from other readers. If you have favorite Christmas novels or authors to recommend, please suggest them in the comments!

Finally, let’s hear Angela Lansbury in the 1966 original Broadway cast of Mame, singing that song I mentioned:

Spring Into Horror Read-a-thon 2015: What I’m Reading

15 Apr

Spring into Horror Read-a-thon

Time for daffodils, tulips, and scary reading!  My selections for this year’s Spring Into Horror Read-a-thon are not primarily horror, but they do have their scary or mysterious elements. I am happy that Michelle makes her Seasons of Reading event flexible enough to welcome those who wish to read only around the edges of the horror genre. For this one, I’ve selected some books that may scare the wits out of me yet! We’ll see.

Today is April 15; not only is that tax filing day in the U.S., but it is also the birthday of novelist Henry James (he would be 172).  The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmon’s new literary mystery (just released in March), finds Henry James teaming up with Sherlock Holmes to investigate the death of Clover Adams, the wife of writer Henry Adams. Their pairing is complicated by the existential crisis of Holmes who has deduced that he is a fictional character!

Fifth Heart cover

Another Dan Simmons novel, Drood, has been on my mental list for a while, since it combines biographical fiction about Charles Dickens with speculation about the intended ending of his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, whose horrible aspects are magnified by the lack of resolution.  This week I will continue reading A Tale of Two Cities, our Dickens selection for the TuesBookTalk Read-a-Longs group at Goodreads.  Although it certainly has much sweetness in the relationship between Doctor Manette and his daughter Lucie, the Reign of Terror, which readers know will follow the French Revolution and endanger noble-hearted nobleman Charles Darney, casts an eerie shadow over the whole story.

Finally, I am reading The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Editiion, translated and edited by noted fairy-tale specialist Jack Zipes.  This illustrated collection brings together English translations of all the stories from the Grimms’ 1812 and 1815 first editions.  Zipes emphasizes that these versions are closer to the originals that the brothers recorded from traditional storytellers. They tend to be shorter, more clipped in style, and faithful to the scarier aspects of many of the tales. The illustrations by Andrea Dezsö are interesting: they are black-and-white and give the impression of being simple woodcuts (or paper cutouts), but their content and arrangement of elements looks impressionistic and modern. They are also reminiscent of Arthur Rackham’s silhouette illustration technique, such as he used for Cinderella, or “Aschenputtel” in the Grimms’ tales.

Original Brothers Grimm cover

Sign-ups for the Read-a-thon continue all week, until Friday (see Guidelines), and you don’t have to have a blog. You can join from Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter!  Look for discussion with hashtag #SpringHorrorRAT to find out what everyone is reading and to join the scheduled chat.  Only one scary or mysterious book needs to be on your reading menu for the week; whatever else you are reading is fine too.

“Elementary” premiere on CBS–a very new Holmes and Watson keep the faith

28 Sep

 

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Although I planned to write next about Andrew Motion’s Silver, his excellent sequel to Treasure Island, I can’t resist commenting on the premiere episode of “Elementary” on CBS last night, with its inspired pairing of Jonny Lee Miller, as recovering addict Sherlock Holmes, and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, ex-surgeon, now hired by Holmes’s father as a companion to oversee his son’s first months out of rehab.  It is inspired because their chemistry together is strong from the start, both a clash and an attraction of personalities, and not primarily sexual. This clever justification for Watson’s shadowing Holmes’s every move, accompanying him on a case when they have barely met, gives the series a solid premise to build on;  by the end of the first episode, there are already hints that the relationship is growing beyond duty and grudging acceptance to one of mutual interest, usefulness, and even caring.

In his indispensable essay “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” Michael Chabon observes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Holmes (in the first two novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four) was presented as more resolutely strange and nonconformist. He suggests that Holmes was the product of the same Victorian duality that made a Dorian Gray or Jekyll and Hyde. However, as the author turned to writing his detective short stories, some of these darker traits dropped away and a seemingly more conservative (if never quite conventional) Holmes emerged.

“beginning in 1891 with the first great short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Conan Doyle abandoned most of the louche, Wildean touches with which he had initially encumbered the character of Holmes. The outré personal habits, the vampiric hours, the drug use, the willfully outrageous ignorance of ‘useless facts,’ such as the order of the solar system or contemporary politics, gave way to a more conventional and cozy sort of eccentricity.” (from Chabon’s collected essays, Maps and Legends, p. 33)

Readers may argue how much of this side of Holmes truly dropped away—perhaps it merely receded into the background and emerged when the stresses brought about the necessary conditions (especially true of the drug use).  Most writers and adapters of the characters since Conan Doyle have cherished one or more of these eccentricities in their raw state, and “Elementary” is no exception. Its Holmes has quite literally just emerged from drug rehabilitation and he appears to Watson for the first time in an apparently untamed state—shirtless, unshaven, twitchy, restless, and recalcitrant. While he is dismissing the necessity of Joan Watson’s services as “babysitter,” he is also keen to deductively size her up, almost as a compulsive tic rather than a power play. It is a subtle performance and the generous closeups permit ample appreciation of the restraint  and skill of both actors. Naturally, he talks very, very fast. Both updated Sherlocks—this one in New York and the BBC’s Sherlock in today’s London—operate on the premise that speed of expression and mental powers are perfectly correlated (something I would take issue with, in practice). However, it certainly works as a sign to their Watsons and to their audiences at home that one must snap to, pay attention, and try to keep up!

Owing to his recent treatment, this Holmes is in a somewhat vulnerable state, something he shares with Darlene Cypser’s young Sherlock in her Consulting Detective series. Both are in crisis for medical reasons and both are at odds with a disappointed father.  In “Elementary” it rankles Holmes that upon relocating to New York from London, he must accept living in the “worst” of the several apartments his father owns. Fortunately, solving difficult criminal cases proves highly therapeutic (true for Cypser’s Holmes as well). This is very fortunate for the TV viewer too, because a murder comes in his way very quickly and is admirably resolved within the single episode—I hope this pattern continues, whatever development occurs across episodes for the continuing characters.  Aidan Quinn as Captain Gregson of the NYPD is an outstanding touch, though appearing only briefly, and I hope to see his role grow.

A great deal is accomplished in this first episode. Because their relationship begins on a note of distrust, Holmes and Watson must each win some measure of trust and respect from the other, enough for the relationship to persist until the next episode (and then the next). It is fascinating to see how this Watson wins Holmes’s admiration, and this incident leads to the only uncharacteristic move his character makes—claiming to anticipate an outcome that came as quite a surprise to him. I cannot think of an example in the canon where Holmes deliberately claimed he’d deduced something he hadn’t. (Perhaps others can think of an instance I’ve overlooked.) His admission to Watson about this begins paradoxically to kindle in her a greater faith in him, even if it is only the hope that he is actually human.

Michael Chabon, in the same essay I mentioned earlier, takes Conan Doyle to task for not having enough faith in his own character at the outset, perhaps always underestimating his merit and worth as the greatest project of his life. To me, this matter of faith in Holmes is very central. Conan Doyle’s very ambivalence about Holmes may be one answer to the riddle of why Sherlock Holmes was, is, and has remained so compelling. The drama of Holmes needing to win faith and trust from his clients, from skeptical police, even from the occasional perpetrator, is enacted over and over with each new story and novel in the canon, and again with each new pastiche or fresh realization of the character in film or television. Holmes keeps winning readers’ and viewers’  faith, whether his creator could credit their loyal belief in him or not.  Authors from Conan Doyle onward have Holmes demonstrate his powers with such force and clarity, he makes believers out of skeptics of all description.  A show like “Elementary” really only gets one opening chance to inspire faith that this Holmes can be and do what any “real” Holmes should be and do. Watson is our guide, leading us to wonder and then to believe in him.  In the course of this first episode, Dr. Joan Watson learned enough to stay by her Holmes, and I think viewers will keep returning too.

Reference:

Michael Chabon, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes” in Maps and Legends. Open Road, 2011 [kindle edition]. (Original work published 2008)

Related post:

Coming of Age as a Detective: Sherlock Holmes in “The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I”*

8 Sep

The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I: University by Darlene A. Cypser, Foolscap & Quill, 2012.

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Following her masterful debut novel, The Crack in the Lens (which I reviewed last year), Darlene Cypser is continuing her psychologically rich Sherlockian prequels in a new Consulting Detective Trilogy.  After young Sherlock’s first run-in with Professor Moriarty (in the previous novel), one which left him bereft of his first love, Violet Rushdale, and almost unhinged from his sanity, the first installment of the trilogy finds him still making only a precarious recovery at home but embarking nevertheless on his university studies at Cambridge, where he must cope with further dramatic events that will form his character and fully reveal his life’s purpose.

The budding field of psychiatry as a branch of medicine is beginning to make its appearance in the latter part of the century, and Cypser takes full advantage of the possibilities in the early chapters of the novel.  Sherlock continues to be physically and emotionally at his lowest ebb as the novel begins. He is suffering from flashbacks of Violet’s death and a cycle of obsessive recrimination and anxiety that we would not hesitate to label post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, today. But more than 100 years ago, a sufferer risked commitment in an asylum that had little hope to offer except for palliative physical care, restraint from self-harm, and the rudiments of counseling for the lucky few who encountered a capable doctor.  While Sherlock struggled at home, he began receiving visits from Dr Mackenzie, one such capable doctor summoned from the asylum to consult about Sherlock’s condition. While Moriarty was nemesis to Sherlock in the first book, in this new novel, Dr Mackenzie fills the role of an anti-Moriarty, proving to be not only a trusted physician but a crucial ally and mentor as Sherlock’s attraction to the sciences—and the science of detection—increases.

However, the doctor’s experimental remedy for Sherlock’s “traumatic neurasthenia,” namely, an injected solution of cocaine, will dog him throughout his life, first as blessing, and then as a persistent and secret curse. But here, in the beginning, it served its purpose, suppressing his anxiety and panic attacks, while fueling his intellectual excitement:  “Sherlock’s loquaciousness [on the train with Mycroft for a holiday] varied as the influence of the drug varied, fading out as it did. His true nature lay somewhere between the extremes” (p. 113).

The novel hits its stride as Sherlock barely begins to find his, as a new member of Sidney Sussex College, which is pictured in foreboding darkness on the book’s attractive cover.  And darkness is surely still haunting Sherlock as he begins his studies in mathematics, living out of college in private rooms. His panic attacks can still be triggered by anything that reminds him of Violet’s death (such as an early snowfall) or unduly taxes his nerves. Fortunately, he has a capable and devoted companion in young Jonathan Beckwith, who accompanies his charge to Cambridge as servant, as fencing pupil and partner (when Sherlock is strong enough), but above all as Sherlock’s only friend, besides Dr. Mackenzie, for many months of self-imposed isolation.  (Jonathan is so engaging and colorful a character that Cypser has announced plans for another mystery trilogy from his point of view.)

Ironically, Sherlock’s first close friendship at university, with classmate Victor Trevor, begins quite unpromisingly with a dangerous bite from Trevor’s dog. (We also glimpse the aloof Reginald Musgrave and his coolness to Holmes.)  But the friendship with Victor develops rapidly during Sherlock’s convalescence; he visits daily and introduces Sherlock to pipe-smoking, which incidentally provides a stimulant and practical alternative to cocaine. At this point, Cypser deftly interpolates her own retelling of “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” from the Conan Doyle canon; as it is told retrospectively by Holmes, this account intersects with the chronology of Cypser’s story of Holmes’s university days. While he spends a holiday with Victor Trevor and Trevor’s father, events precipitate his first solution of a mystery, one calling forth the unique observational and deductive skills he has already demonstrated casually to the amazement of his classmates. But the stakes soon rise to life and death, and Holmes begins to see—as he later affirms—“perhaps I’m not your average man.” He is destined to pursue no average calling but to create his own profession, as the world’s first consulting detective.

It is the business of this novel to unfold for us Sherlock’s early exercise of talent in a new mystery at the university (which I won’t reveal), as well as his change of academic  direction, suiting all his studies to those sciences which will inform and develop his detection skills and build his arsenal of knowledge.  Though not aiming to become a police detective, he is fascinated by police detectives’ work and gets into some nasty scrapes trying to observe it first hand, much too closely for their comfort.  With his prodigious memory, he begins to be a serious student of crime and collects accounts of it. Mycroft sends him clippings from the London papers, and with satisfaction, the reader watches the genesis of his alphabetic file of crime reports, which will come in handy so often, tantalize the reader with names and cases Watson hasn’t yet narrated, and fill Mrs. Hudson with consternation when the mass of riffled clippings is strewn everywhere at 221b…

But all that lies in the future. For now, Sherlock is a young man not quite 20 who must deal with authority figures still wielding much power over his life, whether they are university officials or his own implacable father. It is also the business of this novel to show how he will assert his own choice and begin to follow his “line in life”—which will also be his lifeline, drawing him back from his darkest moods.

In a recent New York Times essay,The Art of the Sequel,” author Andrew Motion considered the proliferation of literary sequels and prequels,  even including an  “I, Sherlock Holmes”  on his facetious list of typical sequel titles. Based on his analysis of some of the most effective sequels, such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (a sequel to Hamlet) or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jane Eyre), he offered some pointers to would-be fashioners of such works.  Although it is a tremendous advantage that the characters are already familiar, and possibly beloved, a successful sequel or prequel “allows us to think afresh about characters whose fame can otherwise make them feel inaccessible to new interpretations.”  In other words, it should attempt to add something more to what we already know about them, perhaps surprise us by its revelations, even when we believe we already know a character—say, a complex hero such as Holmes—very well indeed.  Moreover, sequel-writing presupposes a certain playfulness, artfully inserting familiar references, while deploying ingenuity to put the character to a new test. No matter how much we revere a character, Motion argues, “something more than imitation is far more honoring.”

Both of Darlene Cypser’s Sherlockian prequels to date fulfill these criteria.  Her pastiches are not imitation but exploration, and she shows the confidence and command of the canon which enable her to inquire more deeply into Holmes’s formative psychology.  Her latest novel has the hallmarks of a true bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel—about a sensitive protagonist, often a youngest son, who suffers loss and undergoes a series of difficult trials that lead to mastery of self and ultimately to maturity.  It can encompass education or other training disciplines, artistic development, and apprenticeships (Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship being the classic example). At the end, the hero understands himself better, knows how he might move beyond self to contribute to the world, and is both ready and equipped to do it.

Through psychological insight, swift movement of the plot via effective dialogue, and consistent characterization, Cypser has fashioned a bildungsroman for young Sherlock with great skill.  As goddessinsepia writes, with her usual grace and clear perception,

“By the end of Cypser’s second novel, the reader stands in full knowledge and awareness of the man before them, and you wonder how you missed it, so understated was his development. Where previously there was only the merest hint of the man that would become the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes now stands tall, assembled, if not yet fully-formed.”  [See the rest of her insightful review at her blog Better Holmes and Gardens]

My interest and absorption in this story never flagged, a tribute to Cypser’s high level of craft.  I also enjoyed her humor, for example, when a fellow student observed Sherlock’s easy victory over an opponent who had challenged him to a match with unfamiliar fencing sticks, the bemused spectator remarked, “I don’t think the weapon matters. Holmes could probably thrash any of us with a teaspoon.”  This first installment of The Consulting Detective Trilogy works as mystery fiction, but more than that, it emerges as a fully rounded novel of Sherlock Holmes.

*Note: FTC disclosure. I received a complimentary review copy of this novel. The opinions I’ve expressed are, of course, my own.

  • In my next post, I will review Andrew Motion’s own sequel, Silver: Return to Treasure Island.

Related post:

Further links:

“The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd: A Review, with remarks on Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”*

2 May

It might be said that, for great literature, pastiche is the sincerest form of flattery. The works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, have been particular favorites in the art of pastiche, because of the wealth of opportunity they offer for variation and creative amalgamation. Not to be confused with parody, pastiche is “(a) a literary, artistic, or musical composition made up of bits from various sources; potpourri; (b) such a composition intended to imitate or ridicule another’s style” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1982). The element of parody can be present, but pastiche can equally well be a work of respectful imitation and delightful re-invention.

Such are the mystery novels of literary specialist Lynn Shepherd, whose first work, Murder at Mansfield Park (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), turned the tables on Austen’s heroine Fanny Price and found new possibilities for Mary Crawford and the other young people gathered at the venerable country house. In particular, she plucked Charles Maddox from his relatively minor role as a prospective player in the “Lovers’ Vows” private theatrical and repurposed him as a very excellent detective.

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For her second mystery, Shepherd has pushed the clock ahead a few decades to the 1850s and she has found her inspiration chiefly (but not exclusively) in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. In The Solitary House (Delacorte Press, 2012; titled Tom-All-Alone’s, in the UK), Shepherd brings her careful attention and knowledge to produce a new detective story that worthily comments on its original, varies it meaningfully, and finally stands on its own.

 

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G. K. Chesterton, still one of Dickens’s most perceptive and appreciative critics, wrote: “Bleak House is not certainly Dickens’s best book; but perhaps it is his best novel.” John Forster, Dickens’s friend and early biographer, agreed in his estimation of Bleak House: “The novel is nevertheless, in the very important particular of construction, perhaps the best thing done by Dickens.” Shepherd avows that Bleak House is Dickens’s masterpiece; her affection and appreciation for the novel is everywhere evident. In The Solitary House, she makes full use of what Bleak House offers, even adapting a selection of Dickens’s chapter titles, rearranging them, and giving them a new significance in the context of her own detective mystery. Here we meet again the inscrutable lawyer and repository of his clients’ secrets, Tulkinghorn, and the jovial, but keen-eyed and relentless Inspector Bucket.  (Dickens’s illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, “Phiz,” chose to illustrate the jovial side in the “Friendly Behaviour of Mr. Bucket”; image scan by George P. Landow.)

 

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Thankfully, the Maddox family has jumped from the fictive world of Austen to take a decisive role in this tangled Dickensian world. Young Charles Maddox, the great-nephew of the detective in Murder at Mansfield Park, has followed the elder Maddox into his profession, and both have important connections to Bucket: Bucket, it turns out, was the elder detective’s protégé, whereas young Charles Maddox has just lost his official place in the detective police force because of “insubordination” in a clash with his boss, Inspector Bucket. Young Charles is a rough-and-ready fellow–rough around the edges from all the buffeting he has received, but still ready to pursue the truth despite all costs. At one point, after he has taken a beating, he says to his great-uncle, “As far as I’m concerned, this case is only half over. I have Tulkinghorn’s money, and I intend to spend it finding out exactly what it is he doesn’t want me to know” (p.136).

After reading about 80 pages of Shepherd’s book, I went in search of a copy of Bleak House for a re-read and refresher. I wanted to appreciate in detail what she was doing, and although I can’t claim to have caught all her skillfully placed references, I found much pleasure in comparing the two books. For example, she begins her novel, as Dickens does, with “London. Michaelmas term lately begun, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.” But then she takes up the symbolic topics of the mud and fog and riffs on them with her own associations and from her own research into Victorian London.  This Prologue also introduces the reader to her Narrator. Like Dickens, Shepherd tells her story by means of a double narrative, from an anonymous third-person narrator and from a first-person account (Esther’s, in Bleak House; Hester’s, in The Solitary House).  Dickens’s third-person narrator is knowing, but not omniscient. Critic Jeremy Hawthorne comments on this important structural innovation: “It is important to stress that not only is Esther ignorant of the anonymous narrator and his narrative, but the anonymous narrator is–although of course aware of Esther as a character–ignorant of Esther’s narrative” (p. 61). In The Solitary House, the third-person narrator appears to be contemporary with readers today, often referring to “we…now,” and inserting references that post-date the time period of the narrated story, for example, mentions of “Flanders fields” (World War I), the “Baroness of Holland Park” (detective author P.D. James), “the very model of a modern teenage geek” (colloquialism of today, with a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan), and “we would call it post-traumatic stress” (from modern psychology). Also deftly managed is Hester’s first-person narration, which is helpfully set off in a different typeface; it draws upon the notorious quirks of Dickens’s Esther Summerson (e.g., her combination of modesty and self-congratulation, her lack of self-awareness), but Hester manages in the end to tell a story quite her own (which I won’t reveal). Mr. Jarndyce has morphed into a “Mr. Jarvis” and, as with Hester, his character is both recognizable and different.  Only in the combination of these two narrative threads do we discover the purport of a mystery which turns out to have some very grisly features–not for the squeamish.  It has some themes in common with Anthony Horowitz’s recent authorized Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The House of Silk–a likeness which tells as much about the moral concerns of the 21st-century as it does about their Victorian inspirations.  Yet The Solitary House is firmly grounded in its Victorian sense of place, whether the setting is a lonely country house, Tom-all-Alone’s, Seven Dials, or “Cook’s” rag-and-bone shop.

Pastiche stands alongside the critical essay as an alternative means not only to explore structural devices, but also to underscore character. The way Shepherd has introduced and developed Inspector Bucket pays tribute to Dickens and to the crucial role the so-called “New Police” force was playing in Dickens’s life and thought at the time he wrote Bleak House.  It is often noted that one Inspector Charles Field was the prototype for Bucket, even down to the habit of emphasizing his points with a very mobile “forefinger.” Dickens wrote, in his magazine Household Words, about an evening spent “On Duty with Inspector Field” and along with other similar pieces, these show Dickens’s high regard for the profession of detective which had only become an official part of the police force in 1842, ten years before he wrote Bleak House.  In his excellent book, Dickens and Crime, Philip Collins remarks on the “laudatory, indeed awestruck” tone of the Household Words articles on the police, and cites “the contrast between his [Dickens’s] admiration for the police and his contempt for, or indifference toward, other public functionaries–politicians, magistrates, officers in the armed services, civil servants and local government officials” (196). Collins surmises that Dickens felt comfortable with detectives, who usually came from lower class origins, although they moved in all circles of society. Further, he admired their intelligence and energy and their habit of bringing matters to swift completion, if possible, rather than dithering–again, qualities the indefatigable author possessed.

In The Solitary House, Inspector Bucket becomes involved with a new mystery (although the problem of “my Lady Dedlock” is apparently going on in parallel, off-stage). But is he the same man? It is one of the delightful puzzles of this novel to discover the true character of Bucket in Shepherd’s re-imagining of this singular figure in the annals of early detective fiction.

I hope that reading The Solitary House will put many readers on the trail of Bleak House as well, but as I’ve said, this new mystery works confidently on its own, and can be read with pleasure even if one hasn’t read Bleak House.  Shepherd shows a sure hand in the management of incident and suspense. As witness to this, I’ll mention that after coming to the end of one of her chapters, “Bell Yard,” I looked up and had the delicious sensation, precious to inveterate readers, of realizing that I had been completely involved and had forgotten that I was reading. This was just one such occasion in a literary mystery worthy of its illustrious forebears.

References

  1. Chesterton, G. K. Chesterton on Dickens (Intro. by Michael Slater). London: J. M. Dent, 1992.
  2. Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  3. Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (Ed. by G. Ford and S. Monod). New York: Modern Library, 1985. (Original work published serially from 1852-53)
  4. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 1, Household Words, Vol I, No. 18, 409 (July 27, 1850).
  5. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 2, Household Words, Vol I, No. 20, 457 (Aug 10, 1850).
  6. Dickens, Charles. “On Duty with Inspector Field,” Household Words, Vol III, No. 64, 265 (June 14, 1851).
  7. Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated edtion (abridged by Holly Furneaux). New York: Sterling, 2011. (Original work published in 3 vols. in 1872-74; full text online at http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/CD-Forster.html)
  8. Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012. Insight Editions, 2011. [Chap. 25, “Dickens and Detectives” has a nice little section on Inspector Field]
  9. Hawthorne, Jeremy. Bleak House (Critics Debate series). Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987.
  10. “We Mean Nothing But a Little Amusement,” http://austensmansfield.wordpress.com/category/charles-maddox/ [A nice blog article on Charles Maddox and the “private theatricals” in Mansfield Park]

*Note: FTC Disclosure. I received a free advance copy of The Solitary House from the publisher, as a prize randomly drawn from entries in a contest on the author’s website.

Related posts

The House of Silk (Review): Dr. Watson’s “one last portrait of Mr. Sherlock Holmes…”

14 Nov

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz. New York: Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2011.


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The House of Silk is one of those books whose publication becomes an event, one that creates a great deal of anticipation. It is the first Sherlock Holmes novel authorized by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, entrusted with the canon of original Sherlock Holmes stories and novels and, therefore, the caretaker of a legend. Whatever the skills and prior credits of the new novel’s author, Anthony Horowitz–and he does possess those credits as a novelist and screenwriter–the task must have been a formidable burden and opportunity.

I opened this book with some excitement. I consider myself, in some small way, as another champion and caretaker of the Sherlock Holmes legend. His character means a great deal to me and I continue to follow and chronicle his career in the world. New books and films describing further adventures of Holmes keep this greatest of private consulting detectives before the public eye. So many such books appear each year that it is helpful to have a guide to the best of them, so I read with interest when new pastiches are recommended by Better Holmes & Gardens or John H Watson MD (himself!), among others. Yet before it was even written, Horowitz’s novel commanded attention by its special status. Let me say right now: that attention is not wasted. Readers will find a mystery that is carefully constructed and boldly conceived, and, most important, it offers a Sherlock Holmes and a Dr. Watson whom we can recognize as our own beloved figures.

As I go on, rest easy that this review will be very light on *Spoilers*, alluding to just a few of those “strange and interesting features” [FIVE] of the case that might lead an astute reader to deduce plot elements in Holmesian fashion.

The book begins with deceptive calm. At the end of it, I can say that it almost felt like two books: first, a leisurely reintroduction to the world of 221B Baker Street and 1890s London, establishing the reader’s confidence in the author’s command of his characters–their history, their mannerisms–through a careful web of references to the canon; but second, an avowedly “shocking” mystery that suddenly took off at breakneck speed. Perhaps that’s how it would have seemed to Holmes and Watson as well, living inside the novel.

From his entrance, Holmes behaves much as we would expect him to, employing his usual phrases (e.g., “Pray continue.”) in just the right places (when a client or witness is sharing his or her story). He gives several of those casual, but extraordinary performances of his deductive skills which have astonished his clients and Dr. Watson’s readers from the start. Expect to look for Holmes in disguise. Expect him to be in some peril, as he seeks to prevent others from falling prey to great evil. Expect Holmes to ask and Dr. Watson to bring his revolver. Yet there is both newness and nuance in the presentation of familiar tropes. For one thing, Sherlock Holmes shows a new awareness of the implications of using the Baker Street Irregulars, feeling acutely his responsibility for putting them in the path of greater criminality than they might otherwise have encountered even on the backstreets of London.

The case itself may make the novel controversial, because of the picture it paints of those involved and the scope of the crime. All will hinge on discovering the truth behind “The House of Silk.” Yet Horowitz is on solid ground in relying on the fact that what was shocking to Watson–too deplorable to appear among his published chronicles–would still be shocking now. Crime is disturbing and Holmes never flinched when he could combat it. I can only say that the conduct of the case pits him against some truly formidable opponents and reveals some surprising allies.

Yet for me, the most important contribution of this novel is its sensitive portrait of Dr. John Watson. Watson is on his own during much of the story, as he was in The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is true on two levels. First, he is separated from Holmes for much of the investigation. He admits (along with Inspector Lestrade) that Holmes’s virtuosity was at times intimidating and dampened his own powers to reason and act effectively. In this case, Watson has room to do his best, and then some. But more than that, we learn the poignant fact that Watson is writing this story after Holmes’s death, and while he himself is being attended by nurses in his later years. Watson’s superb Preface establishes immediately an extremely intimate voice. He looks back at “the great turning point in my life” when he met a young Sherlock Holmes and reviews their time together. He decides to “take up his pen one final time” not only to present a startling case that has been kept secret, but to show another side of his friend and, vicariously, through the medium of authorship, to prolong the moments he can spend in his extraordinary company. He is doubly sad when the story must conclude, and with it, his renewed companionship on the page.

I too welcome Horowitz’s engaging novel, especially for the gift of time spent in the company of Holmes and Watson, and I highly recommend it.

Further reading:

Let me also recommend to your attention a few other reviews of the novel. These reviews point out  a variety of canonical Holmesian references in their analyses of Horowitz’s story, so one may wish to read the novel first to discover them on one’s own.

 

 

On Sherlock Holmes and Superman: Catching Them at the Crossroads

5 Jul

Sherlock Holmes and Superman are both unusual men, to say the least. Hence, they have each aroused a sustained curiosity in their readers to understand how they got that way. For Sherlock Holmes, readers must rely on hints, dropped artfully within the canon stories and novels, of his early family life, his education, his  formative exploits in the science of detection, whereas for Superman, his formative years already loom prominently in his story, and are essential to creating his myth.

New treatments of these characters’ early years, therefore, face different, complementary challenges. Sherlock’s youth must be rather thoroughly imagined by would-be authors, whereas Superman’s youth must be re-imagined. As examples, I will consider two recent books that make fine contributions to their respective literatures: The Crack in the Lens (Foolscap & Quill, 2010) by Darlene Cypser and Superman: Earth One (DC Comics, 2010) by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrator Shane Davis.

 

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In The Crack in the Lens, the dramatic irony of all we know about the Great Detective could hang heavy, but Cypser blends old and new plot elements with a light, enjoyable touch. At seventeen, Sherlock is not yet the dominant figure that he will become. He is subject to the implacable will of Squire Holmes, who does not understand or indulge his youngest son. Sherlock’s older brothers are more benevolent presences. Mycroft has the most insight into Sherlock and is the most help to him in the end. Sherrinford, who displays a natural warmth and good will, is the solid, eldest brother who will one day be Squire. Though “not incisively intelligent in the manner of his two younger siblings,” he is, as goddessinsepia observes so perceptively, “earnest and compassionate in a way that foreshadows the presence of Dr. Watson.” As a reader, I was heartily glad to meet him here.

One more figure dominates Sherlock’s young life, his new 25-year-old tutor, a certain Professor James Moriarty. He has been hired to further Sherlock’s chance of getting a place at university to study engineering, thereby fulfilling his father’s determined wish for his future career. Squire Holmes recites the man’s qualifications: “He comes highly recommended and is reported to possess a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” earning him a university chair which he had lately resigned to seek “more prestigious employment” (p. 48). Sherlock is already astute enough to wonder to himself “why a man would agree to tutor the youngest son of a country squire if such glory awaited him elsewhere.” The battle of wits began early for these two and the novel develops this angle with ingenious care and faithfulness to Sherlock’s relatively powerless position as a young student. One very effective engine of suspense is the question of whether (and how) Sherlock may overcome this distinct disadvantage.

Another catalyst will be the fate of Violet Rushdale, daughter of one of the tenants on the Holmes’ land. Sherlock’s romance with Violet is the most original element of the novel, and given its seeming improbability to most students of Sherlock Holmes’ character, Cypser offers it up rather seamlessly and convincingly, creating both a watershed moment and a dark secret that explains much of what drives the adult detective. When the Constable says, “There’s no detective on earth who could find her now,” I could almost see young Sherlock mentally picking up that gauntlet! This moment beautifully foreshadows both his impatience with the police and his attraction to the seemingly insoluble case.

 

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In Superman: Earth One, we find Clark Kent struggling with grief over Pa Kent’s death, worry over his mother, and indecision about his own future. Clad in leather jacket, dark red hoody, and jeans, he is pacing the streets of Metropolis, with his shoulders hunched and his mouth set in sullen reflection. Clark is morose and on the brink of making a cynical career choice, albeit for the lofty motive of supporting Ma Kent financially.

Newly graduated from Smallville Junior College, he has headed for the big city, Metropolis. As a professional athlete or even as an engineering research scientist, he could take advantage of his superior physical and mental gifts to become a star, and reap a big payday. In the end, he will choose a job where he is not so obviously a standout, in fact one where he can fade to the background. If he joins the Daily Planet as a reporter, he will need to learn some things from his associates, Lois and Jimmy, and from his boss, Perry White. But interestingly, he doesn’t make this choice right away, but only after events force his hand.

He is forced to make a decision about himself when interplanetary enemies come to destroy the last son of Krypton. Shall he face them as the man he truly is? Superman: Earth One is particularly deft at reimagining this critical decision in a new way, while keeping some continuity with his Smallville upbringing and his origins as fans of the character know them (see the io9 ComicReview for a detailed comparison with Superman’s standard history). I won’t give more details of how the confrontation plays out, but be sure to read the coverage of it in the Daily Planet (thoughtfully reprinted at the back of the book). I enjoyed seeing Clark use at least one ace-in-the-hole when it came to reporting on Superman.

Both these books attempt to catch their remarkable protagonist at the crossroads, at the moment when events elicit a defining decision. As goddessinsepia says in her excellent review of The Crack in the Lens, the book ends as young Sherlock is “on the cusp of greatness.” In Earth One, Superman’s greatness is first revealed, to the world, to some cosmic villains, and especially to himself, as events shape his decision and draw forth his commitment.

Sherlock Holmes and Superman are both beloved and highly influential characters, each earning a solid place on The Fictional 100.

Noteworthy reviews for further reading:

 

 

The Literary Work as a Place of Pilgrimage

10 Jun

Pilgrimage is always an inward journey…” ~Huston Smith, from his Foreword to The Art of Pilgrimage


When we think of making a literary pilgrimage, two main categories spring to mind. First, we may set out to visit a place connected with a favorite author, that author’s home or the place where she or he created the novels, poems, or plays that now draw us into that writer’s mental and emotional orbit. Going to Shakespeare’s Stratford, Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri, Margaret Mitchell’s home in Atlanta, or the Brontës’ Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, England, would be examples of this type of pilgrimage.

Second, literary works can inspire readers to visit a place associated with events within the fictional world. Sherlockians wishing to pay a call at 221b Baker Street, London, can visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum, now bearing that address. Visitors to Verona who are fans of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet can be directed to Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House) on the Via Capello and even plan a wedding there featuring a kiss on Juliet’s balcony. (The film Letters to Juliet envisioned just such a pilgrimage.) Jane Austen’s devoted readers who might wish to visit Bath, London, or other English locations with a view to discovering more about the settings in her novels will find a ready tour guide in Julie Wakefield, whose austenonly website provides abundant detail on locations in the novels and in their film and television adaptations (as well as key places in the author’s life)–enough for a lifetime of Austenian pilgrimage.

When the settings of the fictional world are themselves fictional, making a pilgrimage becomes a little more difficult, but surely not impossible. Walt Disney made it easy to visit Cinderella’s castle, and trips to Baum’s Oz or Tolkien’s Middle-earth are available online for virtual visitors. After reading Goddessinsepia’s essay on the Diogenes Club, I feel a little closer to having visited this favorite fictional haunt of Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Mycroft. The grave of Jean Valjean presents an interesting case: I can visit the famous cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, but I must merely imagine the unmarked burial plot of Victor Hugo’s most affecting character.

I would like to suggest a third category in which the literary work itself is the place of pilgrimage, both the destination and the road to get there, and the act of reading is the pilgrim’s journey. Certainly, within this category I would have to include the physical literary object itself–often a manuscript or first edition–which can generate much interest on its own and draw visitors who simply want to view it. Recently, the last four chapters of the manuscript for Gone With the Wind came to light in a library in Connecticut, discovered by Ellen F. Brown (watch her CBS interview), author of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood. The manuscript has “come home” to Atlanta, where visitors to the Atlanta History Center can view Mitchell’s handwritten changes to the typescript. Both everyday readers and specialists may get a deeper understanding of the novel from such an artefact.

Yet it is the inward journey to the literary work that I want to focus on now. Whenever we pick up a book or story or poem (or watch a play unfold), we may find, often unexpectedly, that it has taken hold of us at a deep level. It seems to be asking us a question, perhaps one of sacred importance, and inviting us to follow through to find the answer. That is when reading (or, in some case, viewing) becomes a sort of pilgrimage. How does this play out, and how can we get the most from our pilgrim quest to a literary work?

For this, I want to consult a wonderful guidebook, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau.

Art_of_pilgrimage

 

Cousineau organizes his reflections on the soul-nourishing art of pilgrimage according to seven stages of the hero’s journey, made famous in the writings of Joseph Campbell (e.g., The Hero with a Thousand Faces). Let me highlight Cousineau’s stages of pilgrimage as if we are visiting (reading!) a novel. I will take as my example a case in which reading became a pilgrimage for me.

I. The Longing–I do not recall when I first heard of the book Les Misérables, but I do recall learning, probably from my mother, of its opening premise: that a poor man, Jean Valjean, who stole bread for his family, suffered long imprisonment. The simple injustice set up a longing and a curiosity to learn more. Many years followed before…

II. The Call–On a long car trip west, I had packed an audio cassette of the Mercury Theatre radio play of Les Misérables, with the sonorous voice of Orson Welles bringing Jean Valjean to life as I drove across the endless plains of Nebraska. After experiencing this play, I knew I had to read the book. (For many people, the Call for this book might have come differently, perhaps through seeing the Boublil-Schönberg musical  of “Les Mis” on stage or in a PBS broadcast concert.)

III. Departure–While preparing to write The Fictional 100, I began a thorough reading of Hugo’s hefty masterpiece in earnest. I chose the Signet Classic paperback.

IV. The Pilgrim’s WayLes Misérables affords the reader setting off on this long journey some almost magically moving scenes, starting with an account of Jean Valjean’s imprisonment, four escapes, and reimprisonments, showing what kind of changed and hardened man emerged from 19 years chained in the galleys; knowing this about him makes his life-changing encounter with the saintly Bishop Myriel all the more amazing. My first tears came. Moving toward the deep heart of this long novel, some guiding words from Phil Cousineau about the Pilgrim’s Way seem very appropriate:

“Remember, those who don’t ask essential questions don’t find what’s most authentic. The soul of your pilgrimage, the heart of your destination, disappears, will be invisible, like the Grail Castle if you are too afraid or too proud to appear as you really are at the moment–someone far, far from home, without all the answers, without the soul map to the city. Those who refuse to ask vital questions along the way pay the consequence, either by getting lost or by settling for the superficial…” (p.120)

V. The Labyrinth–In The Inferno, Dante starts his pilgrimage in the labyrinthine “dark wood” in the middle of life, but for most books, most readers will be surprised to discover themselves in the labyrinth, looking around, trying to find their way forward, or the way back. Les Misérables was indeed a place far, far from home and I didn’t have the whole map. The political and social upheaval in which the novel is set was as complex as the network of Paris sewers, and while Hugo proved to be an excellent guide, providing fascinating historical background, it was also wise to consult other sources and opinions on these and other matters concerning the novel. At the psychological level, one essential question became understanding my contradictory feelings about Javert. Javert is so well-drawn, and we are given so much access to his thoughts, I found myself sympathizing with him at many points, especially as he careened toward tragedy.  But I also knew that his rule-bound outlook and reliance on moral absolutes caused much suffering. Was my sympathy for him by the author’s design or a product of my own inclination to “play by the rules”? I had to pay attention to questions such as this, if I wished to deepen my journey.

VI. Arrival–Emerging from the Labyrinth and arriving at the end of this book meant arriving at the end of Valjean’s life, and attending at his bedside. The exhilaration of Arrival was tempered by the sense of loss. 

VII. Bringing Back the Boon–I wouldn’t call finishing Les Misérables heroic, but I did finish, so what did I learn? What boon did I bring back? Phil Cousineau writes: “The story that we bring back from our journeys is the boon.” I brought back my lived experience with this novel–I remember when I cried, when I forgot I was reading rather than living the story, when I was confused and had to go back a few chapters. I brought back my long acquaintance with Jean Valjean. I brought back a spiritually uplifting story of redemption and forgiveness.  Was this biography of a soul too ideal? Mario Vargas Llosa speaks in its favor, explaining that the book offers The Temptation of the Impossible. I returned from this pilgrimage wanting to turn such impossibility into a living truth.

The occasion for making a pilgrimage to a literary work can be a first reading or a rereading. LifetimeReader has set herself a very ambitious plan of first readings of classics that she has never read or didn’t have time before to engage with fully. She experienced the Call to undertake “A Personal Odyssey” and on January 1, 2011, she launched her Departure with a review of Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, in which she writes:

“A classic, as Calvino says, can come “to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans” and “you cannot remain indifferent.”  Books such as the ones I have put on my list have the potential to be life altering–and at the same time, foster connection between me and the generations on both sides.” ~LifetimeReader

It is wonderful to read what she is discovering along her Pilgrim’s Way, with its many points of Arrival and its Boons of storytelling brought back.

Anniversaries mark opportunities to make a pilgrimage as a return trip to a favorite literary work. June 2011 is the 75th Anniversary of the publication of Gone With the Wind, and fans are observing it with all the types of literary pilgrimage we have described. In the Preface to the 75th Anniversary Edition, novelist Pat Conroy reports that his mother reread the novel straight through every year; clearly, she didn’t need any special anniversary to revisit her favorite book.

Jane Austen’s fans also have a special gift for pilgrimage, and The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge 2011, announced by Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose, is a fine example. I haven’t taken up the challenge myself, but I loved Jane Greensmith’s account of her Umpteenth Reading of Sense and Sensibility. She hones in on a little-noticed passage with very much to say about how readers judge (and misjudge) characters and, likewise, how people judge (and misjudge) people in real life. A boon indeed.

Related posts:

Some of my best friends are fictional …

13 Jan

In the year since The Fictional 100 was published, I have had the pleasure of chronicling the busy lives of these 100 fictional persons, drawn from world literature and legend, who seem to be making news wherever I turn. As I went to press, Sherlock Holmes appeared in a new movie, enlisting the talents of Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, and Guy Ritchie to dramatize his further adventures and boxing prowess in a steampunk universe.  In March 2010, Alice went back to Wonderland and tried on all different sizes of clothes, before putting on armor, defeating the Jabberwocky, and breaking the heart of the Mad Hatter. In January 2010, Holden Caulfield mourned the death of his creator, J. D. Salinger. A year later, Mark Twain may well be whirring in his grave as a controversial new edition of his greatest book changed the controversial speech his Huckleberry Finn had always uttered (though experience taught Huck to think about things differently). You don’t have to be “real” to make news, as my Google Alerts told me every day, filling my Inbox with the latest performances of Hamlet (the play) or Hamlet (the opera) by Ambroise Thomas, the latest reworking of Superman’s formative years, the latest Sherlock Holmes graphic novel, video game, or app, the latest variation on a character’s fictional possibilities.

I’ve been keeping up with my characters as well as I can, often with the help of knowledgeable folks I’ve met on other social media. I’ve admired their blogs, reacted to them, learned from them. While microblogging on Twitter has been a natural fit–probably the greatest discovery and delight of this year–the pull to have a convenient venue for my own macroblogging has become greater, at least in my own mind! Where else can I tell you in excruciating detail my reactions to the upcoming Gnomeo and Juliet film next month? Watch for this post, or take it as a warning, as you choose.

But my first post about a Fictional 100 character will be my upcoming entry about Oedipus, as part of the Classics Circuit’s Ancient Greeks tour later in January. See you then.

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