Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Monday, December 28, 2009

Close to Holmes by Alistair Duncan - UPDATED

Subtitle: A Look at the Connections Between Historical London, Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

MX Publishing, 2009. ISBN 9781904312505. 206 pages.

UPDATE: I try not to republish posts but it occurred to me that I have a few photographs that supplement this review. Take a look at my Sherlock Holmes set on Flickr.

I didn't have Alistair's book on our visit to London earlier this year but marital harmony it is just as well. My wife doesn't share my interest in all things Holmsian and I have an idea how it would have worked out had I wanted to explore all the locations described by the author.

Duncan's book is not a walking tour but takes the approach of looking at locations in historical London important to both Sherlock Holmes and his creator, Author Conan Doyle (ACD) and why he might have chosen those locations for his stories. The author also provides an historical context for the locations such as construction history and events associated with those locations.

He rightly begins on Baker Street and the conflict over the famous address of 221b. In the 1930s Upper Baker Street and Baker Street were merged and 221 was assigned to Abby House. The Abby Bank at this location capitalized on the famous address and hosted a Sherlock Holmes Exhibition which included a recreation of 221b. The recreation was relocated to the Sherlock Holmes Public House. The Sherlock Holmes Museum is also located on Baker Street. It overcame the unavailability (Abby House refused to give it up) of the famous numbers by registering 221b as a company name allowing it to be displayed above the door without official recognition.

I have visited this museum and it is delightful. The staff is very liberal about photography and provide props for visitors to pose with while having their pictures taken. Scenes and characters from the stories are recreated with mannikins in several rooms. Visitors may be startled at how small the rooms are but this is histgorically more accurate than what we see in the movies, including the latest.

The author does his own detective work in analyzing locations based descriptions in the books. For example, ACD only referred to one actual hotel by name, The Langham Hotel. Doyle attended a dinner there at the end of which he received a commission to write The Sign of Four. The hotel is mentioned in The Sign of Four, A Scandal in Bohemia, and The Disappearance of Lady Francis Carfax. For other hotels, Duncan considers which hotels were on the street at the time, the direction by Holmes might have been walking and makes an informed speculation as to the actual location.

Alistair continues by looking at famous streets (Regent, Pall Mall, The Strand), eating establishments, theatres, railway stations, Covent Garden, hospitals and houses, all important to either or both ACD Sherlock Holmes.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn't have this book with me in London and thus blundered around unaware of the importance of locations. Actually, I have to confess, I was so agog at actually being in London that I didn't have Holmes in mind at all. Heresy, I know! This is embarassing to recount but when we arrived in Paddington Station on the Heathrow Express I didn't stop to think that this is the station mentioned most often in The Canon. Likewise, on the Victoria Embankment looking at the statue of Queen Boudicca (nifty statue by the way, I was ready to attack the Romans myself) while being crushed by Scandanavian and German school groups I didn't know that I was across the street from the building that housed New Scotland Yard until 1967. I'm equally embarassed to mention that I took the tube to Piccadilly Circus on my first night to go to the the Waterstones bookstore not noticing that I passed by the Criterion Theatre, a pivotal location for Holmes stories -- Watson met Stamford in the Criterion Bar which, of course led to meeting Sherlock Holmes. All this and more I discovered reading Alistair's book.

Alistair's book is a nice addition to a Sherlock Holmes reference library, one I will refer to as I read the stories, and one I plan to take with me on my next visit to London.

Bertram Fletcher Robinson: A Footnote to The Hound of the Baskervilles by Brian W. Pugh & Paul R. Spiring

MX Publishing Ltd., 2008. ISBN 9781904312406. 236 pages.

A professor I assist with research recently asked me if I could find more about Bertram Fletcher Robinson's contribution to the writing of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Alistair Duncan kindly directed me to this book. Since it wasn't available locally I decided that I needed a copy and, hurrah!, I received it for Christmas from my mother.

Pugh and Spiring have written an amazingly detailed accounting of BFR's life down to the rosters of sports teams. This book is interesting to me because of the complete picture it gives of the life of an educated Englishman. Some of the sports and education terminology can be a bit confusing to someone who didn't grow up in the same environment but the context made it possible to appreciate events recounted and the life and contributions of this interesting man.

Of course the main reason I made a Christmas request for this book is Robinson's connection with Arthur Conan Doyle (hereafter ACD) and his influence on The Hound of the Baskervilles and it did not disappoint in that area.

BFR and ACD were both in South Africa during the Second Boer War, ACD as a 'senior civil surgeon' and BFR as a correspondent for The Times. On 11 July 1900 ACD and BFR both departed South Africa on the steamship Briton. ACD wrote in his autobiography that it was on this trip that he cemented his friendship with BFR.

Two events important to Holmesians occured on this voyage. First, BFR asked Conan Doyle
..if it had occurred to him realized how easy it would be to implicate someone a man in a murder crime if you could obtain a finger-print of his in wax for reproduction in blood on a wall or some other obvious place near the scene of the crime.

Doyle offered Robinson fifty pounds for the idea which he subsequently used in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.

BFR also told ACD of a story set in Dartmoor that he intended to write and ACD was so taken with the idea that he asked if they could write it together. The authors point out that it isn't likely that the story idea had any resemblance to The Hound of the Baskervilles. BFR did go on to write two Dartmoor-based stories of his own.

Back in England, BFR dined with his friend and ex-editor Max Pemberton and the subject of phantom dogs came up. BFR described how people on the outskirts of Dartmoor swore that there was a huge retriever, coal black and with eyes that shone like fire. BFR described the discussion to Doyle and suggested that they write the story together.

ACD later wrote to his mother from Cromer where he was playing golf with BFR that Fletcher Robinson came here with me and we are going to do a small book together 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' -- a real creeper. As originally conceived, the book was not a Sherlock Holmes story but ACD later decided tha the story needed a powerful central figure and he had one at hand, Sherlock Holmes. Incorporating Holmes in the story also allowed ACD to get a higher rate per word than the publisher would be willing to pay without Holmes.

As it turned out, BFR did not actually write the story with ACD. The role he acknowledged was that of assistant plot producer. In a letter to BFR dictated by ACD to his secretary, ACD wrote:
It was your suggestion of a west county legend which first suggested the idea of this little tale to my mind. For this, and for the help which you gave me in its evolution, all thanks.

The authors also examine the controversy surrounding BFR's contribution with several publications (The Bookman in particular) asserting that The Hound of the Baskervilles was written entirely by BFR, that the character of Holmes is so unlike the Holmes of earlier stories that ACD couldn't have written it. It seems unlikely that ACD stole the story from BFR as the two continued to have a cordial relationship.

The Hound of the Baskervilles has gone on to become the most well-known and popular Holmes story and marked the return of Sherlock Holmes, though the story is set before Holmes' supposed death. It would not have come about without BFR's contribution and for this and the fingerprint in wax idea, Holmsians are indebted to Bertram Fletcher Robinson.

I am pleased to have added this book to my modest reference library.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sherlock Holmes -- The Movie

I am by no means a Sherlockian scholar but lately I have been immersing myself in Sherlock Holmes and I did get the three volume New Annotated Sherlock Holmes edited by Leslie Klinger for Christmas. Consequently, nothing would do but that I see the movie which I did on Boxing Day.

One line review: I enjoyed it, it was great fun, I wasn't offended, and I plan to see it again with my wife.

There are negative reviews that decry the deviation from The Canon (and, oddly, the earlier screen images of Holmes) but I'm with Leslie Klinger who says "Get a grip."

Yes, there is considerably more physical action than in the books; Holmes and Irene Adler have a relationship that continued after Scandal in Bohemia (apparently they had a favorite hotel room at the Grand Hotel); Watson is courting Mary Morstan though the Sign of the Four has not happened; Holmes is more a James Bond action hero than we expect.

But anyone who has read the stories will recognize the touches that characterize Holmes:
-- untidy habits
-- plucking at violin strings as he thinks
-- lethargy between cases
-- drug use (toughed upon very lightly)
-- skill at boxing
-- skill at single stick fighting
-- skill at baritsu
-- at least one direct quote Data! Data! Data! I can't make bricks without clay" he says to a Constable. (from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches). At least once Downy uses the famous Holmsian dictum that it is useless to speculate without sufficient data.
-- skill at observing
-- photo of Irene Adler in Holmes' room

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law work very well together as Holmes and Watson. There is humor and the comfortable bickering possible between fast friends. Like the Watson of the stories, movie Watson displays the same loyalty and courage. Eddie Marsan is spot on as Inspector Lestrade; he is much as I imagined him to be from the stories. I have read objections to Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler but I quite liked her and didn't have a problem with female character opposite the hero (as in Bond films).

If you can get past the re-imagining of Holmes and enjoy an action thriller then by all means see this movie. Personally, I will probably purchase it when it comes out on DVD and hope for a sequel next Christmas.

A few articles and reviews
The Screen Has Been Unfaithful to Holmes
My Precious Collection of Holmes Articles Inspired by the Movie
The Case of the Weird Sherlock Holmes Adaptations
The Brawling Supersleuth of 221B Baker Street Socks It to 'Em
The Burden of Holmes

Friday, December 18, 2009

Recent Articles on Sherlock Holmes, annotated

The Guy Richie/Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law Sherlock Holmes movie has has certainly done much to put The Great Detective back in public view and generate much analysis of Holmes past and present. I thought I would collect many of the the links that have appeared recently into one post.

Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes -- Faithful or Flawed? Holmes experts Leslie S. Klinger and Steven Rothman contributed to the article along with Guy Richie. Wired author Hugh Hart compares Downey's Hat, Pipe, Habits, Sanity, and Physique to Doyle's character.

Sherlock with a six-pack: Forget deerstalkers and piles, Guy Richie's Holmes is a ruthless, brawling superhero. Michael of the Mail Online examines Richie's rebooting of Doyle's iconic detective. Richie is quoted I know a lot of people will find our take on Holmes a bit of a travesty, but I am convinced this is the closest possible interpretation of what was in Conan Doyle’s mind.

Can I be complementary, my dear Watson? We celebrate flashy, insensitive Holmes, but it’s his sidekick’s common sense, bravery and friendship that we should admire Ben Macintire of the TimesOnline says that Dr Watson, MD, may be the most unfairly overshadowed character in English literature. Excellent contrast of Holmes and Watson.

Sherlock Holmes: The detective who wouldn't die. The sub-heading of this TimesOnline article by Simon Callow is: Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t bear the fame of his detective, but he couldn’t kill him off either. This is an excellent look at Holmes, the character, his development, what Doyle thought of Holmes, how our images has been shaped by such aspects as the names Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

Guy Ritchie casts off the deerstalker to reveal new Sherlock Holmes. The Times Online has certainly done its part to examine the new Sherlock Holmes movie in relation to the stories. Ben Hoyle looks at the past imagining of Holmes and the Holmes we will see in the movie.

Diagnosis - Hidden Clues. In this NY Times Magazine article, Dr. Lisa Sanders looks for clues to explain Holmes' more extreme characteristics.

The Real Sherlock Holmes Alex Knapp, in Heretical Ideas: A Journal of Unorthodox Ideas, believes that Judging by the photos and trailers, the upcoming Sherlock Holmes appears to be truer to the original stories than virtually any other adaptation. He discusses aspects of the film with examples from the canon stories and also says What is NOT true to Doyles’ Holmes is the popular TV and movie portrayals of him–which turned him into a classy, upper-class gentlemen.

Comparing Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes to Conan Doyle's Stories. Robert Davis writing in Paste Magazine has an excellent analysis of the movie backed up with quotes from the stories.

The London of Sherlock Holmes ... Mapped. This isn't an article but it is a fun contribution to the Sherlock Holmes madness the movie has generated. All the London locations mentioned in the stories are mapped. Interesting to look at the distribution.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition, 1978. ISBN 0-679-76658-8. 190 pages.

One Sentence Summary: Holmes and Watson aid Scotland Yard in the hunt for Jack the Ripper.

A skilled reviewer might be able to review this book without giving anything away but not me so count on the rest of this post containing major spoilers. If you intend to read The Last Sherlock Holmes Story and know nothing about it other that Holmes and Watson hunt The Ripper, stop now and go buy a copy. Amazon and Abe Books have lots of copies available. It is worth reading.

Ready to proceed?


You've been warned.

The first twist Dibdin hits us with is that Arthur Conan Doyle was, in fact, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories as they appeared in print. Watson provided his case notes for ACD to dramatize. However, as we later learn, all the stories that followed The Final Problem were entirely the creation of Conan Doyle.

The major revelation of this story, is that Sherlock Holmes was Jack the Ripper. This is what author Dibdin puts forth in this dark and disturbing contribution to the library of Holmes pastiches.

Holmes states that The Ripper is actually his old nemesis, Prof. Moriatry who, having grown bored masterminding his criminal enterprises, has turned to the high-risk activity of murder. He craves to possibility of capture.

Holmes has been appointed Acting Deputy Investigator in charge of the hunt and is now Lestrade's superior. Watson's world comes crashing one night during the search when he observes Holmes in the process of mutilating Mary Kelly while humming La donna e mobile.

He staggers home in shock. Could Holmes be the Ripper? Holmes leaves for the continent without seeing Watson again and Watson chooses not to report his suspicions.

Upon his return, Holmes seems his old self and apparently no longer addicted to cocaine. He reports that Morarty died during a struggle at the Reichenbach Falls. He and Watson resume their partnership, solving cases. Watson, however keeps close watch on Holmes. A new murder done in the style of Jack gives Watson some anxiety but he finds enough evidence that Holmes is innocent to rest easy.

Later, though, Holmes comes to Watson, completely distraught, saying that Moriatry isn't dead after all but back and after Holmes' life. After Holmes falls asleep in exhaustion, Watson visits one of his safe houses and discovers evidence of Holmes' guilt. He comes to terms with what he always knew, the evil that Holmes' had become, had to be destroyed.

Not wanting to ruin Holmes' reputation and the public's confidence in Holmes, Watson flees to the continent with him and nudging him to the Reichenbach Falls where he plans to kill him. Watson fails to kill Holmes and Holmes, completely deluded, accuses Watson of being Moriatry in disguise. Just before he kills Watson, he has a moment of clarity and kills himself by stepping off the edge of the falls.

Watson supplied Conan Doyle with case notes up to The Final Solution which was pure invention on the part of Watson. In a rather melancholy comment, Watson tells us that, when Conan Doyle began writing his own stories, that: By then Holmes had ceased to be remembered as a real figure, except by a small circle of acquaintances. He had become a fictional character.

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story is very much Watson's story and a sad story it is. Through his eyes we see the horror of the dawning recognition that his friend had gone insane. He puts his medical practice and marriage to Mary Morstan at risk to check on Holmes. In the end, he realizes that he must be the instrument of Holmes' death if the memory of his friend is to be preserved. His pain is compounded by his feelings of guilt: if he hadn't married he would have been available to Holmes in his time of need. He betrayed Holmes in his time of greatest need.

As I said at the beginning, this is a dark and disturbing contribution to the non-canonical stories Holmes stories. But like Nicholas Myer with The Seven Percent Solution, Dibdin is true to his sources. As Watson works through his analysis you see that he is identifying the most troublesome aspects of Holmes' character that could indicate his susceptibility to psychosis.

It was interesting reading Dibdin's book immediately following Myer's The Seven-Percent Solution. Both are excellent examples of how a skilled writer can a well known character and re-imagine that character. They went in different directions but both started with the idea that Holmes walked a thin edge between sanity and instability.

What are some the things we know about Holmes' character? We know that Holmes:
is addicted to cocaine
is arrogant and enjoys a feeling of superiority
he enjoys baffling the police
he demonstrates extreme mood swings
he hates being bored/craves stimulation
he enjoys The Game (the hunt, the investigation) and is interested only in cases that stimulate him

Could his need for stimulation lead him to the dark side?

Sign of the Four -- "What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them?

The Adventure of the Speckled Band -- "he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend toward the unusual, even the fantastic."

The Sign of the Four -- "...I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have had had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law, instead of exerting them in its defense."

Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans -- "It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal."

Here are several articles that discuss Holmes' possible mental disorder:

Diagnosis - Hidden Clues
Sherlock Holmes and Borderline Personality Disorder
Sherlock Holmes as Necessary Madman

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Sherlock Holmes Handbook, Ransom Riggs

The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: The Methods and Mysteries of the World's Greatest Detective. Quirk Productions, Inc. 2009. ISBN 978-1-59474-429-7. 221 pages.

From the Introduction:
Amidst the vast breadth of works written about Sherlock Holmes, the volume which you hold in your hands is unique. It seeks both the instruct the aspiring investigator in the ways of the master and to serve as an entree for the casual reader into the fascinating milieu, brilliant methods, and unorthodox habits of the world's most famous consulting detective.

Riggs' amusing and interesting book is written as if to instruct the reader in the essential knowledge needed to become a Victorian consulting detective. Examples from the Holmes canon illustrate how The Great Detective used these techniques in the course of his investigations.

Along with the forensic techniques such as analyzing footprints and bullet evidence, the author provides us with information not normally found in handbooks of detection. For example, without this book you might not otherwise know "How to Outwit a Criminal Mastermind," "How to Fake Your Own Death," and "How to Survive a Plunge over a Waterfall." And since he is using The Great Detective as his model, we also learn "How to Stage a Dramatic Entrance."

This is a fun book to include in your library of Sherlockian materials. It is as much instructive as it is amusing and might prove to be a nice introduction to Holmes for a reluctant reader.