Friday, February 23, 2018

The puzzle that is "The Cardboard Box"

Last night's discussion of "The Cardboard Box" at the Peoria library was a lovely mini-vacation after a very tough workday for me, showing once again the value of Sherlock Holmes in one's life.

Any time I look at that particular tale, however, the greatest mystery isn't within the story, but outside it, as "The Cardboard Box" is a tale suppressed by its own author for decades. The reason Conan Doyle suppressed his own work has been given that the tale has an extra-marital affair. But since the collections we know as The Adventures and The Memoirs contain all sorts of other human behaviors, like pre-marital dalliances, previous spouses, and really abusive step-fathers, one has to wonder why wandering spouses where sex wasn't even involved was such a radioactive topic to Doyle.

Especially in a story that involves bashing people's heads in and cutting their ears off.

Reading "The Cardboard Box" this time, it really sunk in just how much Sherlock Holmes distances himself from this case just within his own investigation. In later tales, he'd make a point of luring murderous sailors to Baker Street itself, but here? He just hands Lestrade a card with all the answers and basically says, "Go get 'em, boy!" like the Scotland Yarder is a golden retriever.

Holmes and Watson don't even go down to the jail to hear the murderer's story, as they did on occasion, they just get a nice transcription delivered to Baker Street. For a gruesome murderous case, their main adventure is talking to one nice lady and knocking on the door of another, then not seeing her when they hear she's sick. When it's over, you really had to wonder who told the nice lady that the severed ear she was keeping out back was her own sister's ear.

Even at this remove, Holmes is still a bit devastated by the case: "What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?" (He leaves out the circle of loneliness, alcoholism, and manipulation which really drive the drama.) And that makes one wonder about Holmes's early intent of just sitting in Baker Street and consulting from afar . . . was he distancing himself for his own emotional health?

"The Cardboard Box" never gets the full attention it deserves as one of the original twenty-four stories, because Doyle moved it so far back in the Canon and many a reader sees it as a case near the end of Holmes's career, both in detection and as a literary character. Readers also aren't quite as fresh by the time they get to the stories of His Last Bow. Doyle actually altered the way we see the story by his desire to hold it back for decades.

Why was the temptation of a married man, who only just reaches out a hand in his moment of trouble, such a problem for Doyle? Or was it the wife lured away for boat rides with a sailor? The mystery of Conan Doyle's treatment of this one story grows with each year we get further from the Victorian era and his mindset of the time.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

From the estate of G. Lestrade

Part of the fine tuning of a Sherlockian mind is to sometimes look at the Canon of Sherlock Holmes from a historical perspective, rather than just as literature. Given, however, that so many of us fall into the collecting habit, there is another frame of reference that occasionally creeps in: that of the collector.

I realized this this morning as I was reading "The Cardboard Box" for tonight's gathering of the Peoria North Branch Library's Sherlock Holmes Story Society. (This particular reading was from the Memoirs edition of Les Klinger's Sherlock Holmes Reference Library, the more portable of his two annotated sets, and the more fan-centric of the two.)  The following line caught my eye:

"Holmes scribbled a few words upon the back of one of his visiting cards and threw it over to Lestrade."

While I have a few reproductions of Holmes's visiting cards that were given to me over the years, I am pretty sure I don't own an original. And I am doubly sure that I don't own that original.

Can you imagine, if at some point early in the last century, some fan of Watson's works had been of the good fortune and presence of mind to attend Inspector Lestrade's estate sale? Yes, yes, in such a world we would also have legacy items of Holmes and Watson themselves, but we would hope that Lestrade preserved a few souvenirs of his work with the famous Sherlock Holmes as well.

And that visiting card, that one particular visiting card, would be a wonderful thing.

How many other physical objects contain Sherlock Holmes's solution to a case, laid out before even Watson knew what the answer was? In Holmes's own handwriting?

That minute bit of manuscript makes this particular visiting card from "The Cardboard Box" the visiting card, the most sought-after of all its brethren for the collector. Should such a thing exist, its owner would be a proud Sherlockian indeed.

And that is something else I love about such imagined collectibles from Watson's records: No one has them. When it comes to those, the greatest of Sherlockian items, we are all on equal footing, regardless of our wealth or proximity to London. Perhaps I betray a jealous side in making that statement, but if you have been bit by the collector's bug at all and possess no envy upon occasion, either you are a true innocent or an absolute liar. A touch of avarice comes tied with collecting gene.

And it's that touch of avarice that makes one's figurative collecting mouth water sometimes when reading of an item like that calling card in "The Cardboard Box." Such a perfect, yet untouchable collectible is the sort of dream of which we can't help but dream of acquiring.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Sherlock Holmes test

"Now we have the Sherlock Holmes test,and there will no longer be any difficulty."
-- Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

When considering adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlockians will always have their personal preferences. Those little warm spots in our hearts for our first Sherlock do, if we're lucky, stay with us a lifetime, regardless of what the opinions of other Sherlockians may be. And yet . . . we do love to rank our Sherlocks. We hold our worst Sherlocks as dear as our best Sherlocks, and it is as hard to let go of a truly laughable attempt at Holmes as a perfect rendition.

Given all that, should we have an criteria for an adequate Sherlock? A Sherlock Holmes test, if you will? Many is the Sherlockian of old who tried to formulate a "don't do this" list for future authors (who never read or cared about such lists). Story elements that have high market value (Mycroft, Moriarty, non-Canonical celebs) were pooh-poohed as it was suggested that writers attempt the impossible feat of emulating Conan Doyle, which is both dated and impractical a century later.

On the other side of things, slapping the name of "Sherlock Holmes" on the main character in a remake of the movie Die Hard will give you a Sherlock Holmes movie, but should we consider the resulting character a valid Sherlock Holmes among ourselves in the Sherlockian community?

Herein lies the core of what I believe is the one true test of a Sherlock Holmes, for Sherlockians.

If a Sherlockian who read only Conan Doyle and a Sherlockian who watched only BBC Sherlock meet, they still have a common base of knowledge for discussion. Mycroft, Irene Adler, Moriarty . . . even "Charles Augustus Magnussen? Oh, like Milverton!" are all in their common language, meaning basically the same thing. 221B Baker Street is still a cherished address. Sherlock may or may not have a drug problem in either. The Conan Doyle Sherlockian and the Gatiss/Moffat Sherlockian can have a lovely dinner conversation, as, in the end, they are speaking the same language.

It's a bit like speaking across Britsh/American language lines. You don't stop the conversation and go "COOKIE!! It's a COOKIE!! I do not accept that your biscuits are cookies, and beyond that I insist that Nestle's Toll House cookies made according to the exact recipe on the back of the package of chocolate chips are the only real cookie worthy of the name!" No, you let them say biscuit while you say cookie and you go on to debate what the best beverage to accompany said food is.

And like language, new variations on Sherlock will come to be accepted by the Sherlockian community over time, and the generations pass. The bigger the change, the more time we have to get it, to work its way down from the cool hipster Sherlockians to the steadfast conservatives, who may only give ground through attrition. But the basic shared concepts and characters will remain, no matter what Lestrade's first name is or Irene Adler's current gender identification.

And that is where the true Sherlock Holmes test will always lie, I suppose . . . not only in being close enough to the Sherlock in another's mind to share thoughts and feelings on the detective, but also being a Sherlock impactful enough that we want to communicate about him/her, good, bad, or . . . YIKES!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Watson between the sheets

It's not often that Dr. Watson describes a situation in which he finds himself that every one of us can relate to in an instant, feeling a rough approximation of what Watson felt, and knowing that seem little twinge of emotion that comes with it . . . exactly. Perhaps the best of these comes from The Man with the Twisted Lip and reads as follows:

"A large and comfortable double-bedded room had been placed at our disposal, and I was quickly between the sheets, for I was weary after my night of adventure."

Now, let us avoid those spinning-off-into-porn urges here and look at exactly what he's saying. Watson is weary from the stresses of walking into an opium den where murders happen and a long buggy ride out to the suburbs, all of which happened past his normal bed-time. It's late and he just wants to experience that simple joy of finding one's self between the bed-sheets with nothing else to do but let sleep take hold.

Is there any better moment?

For all we can go on about a perfectly-prepared meal, a lover's touch, a thrilling jump into unknown territory, none of that . . . NONE of that . . . compares to that blissful feeling of being in the sheets knowing that slumber is near. We tend to take it for granted until we are deprived of it. Few joys come so often as this one when all is well.

Imagining that moment, however, feeling it's familiar sensations on the skin in our memories, the immediate question becomes: "Hey! What was Watson wearing? He didn't pack his jammies to go to the opium den!"

While Mrs. St. Clair apologizes for being "wanting in arrangements," the room she provides for her two guests seems very nice. Would some nightshirts have been rustled up? As Watson agreeably gives her a "don't worry, I'm an old campaigner" line to let her off the hostess hook, she may not have gone to any such trouble, but then we are left with some choices.

a.) Watson gets between the sheets fully clothed, but takes off his shoes.

b.) Watson takes off shoes and trousers, tie and collar and any other paraphernalia, and gets between the sheet in shirt-tails and undies.

c.) Watson strips down to his Victorian skivvies to slide between the sheets.

d.) Watson . . . well, I shall politely hide my blog eyes for this one.

Other variations are possible of course, but what is the most probable? Personally, I feel the trousers had to come off. But, hey, it's the Victorian era and maybe he would have been concerned about having to get out of bed without them in a crisis.

Sherlock Holmes spends the night sitting on pillows wrapped in a dressing gown over his shirt and pants, and as he knew he would be spending the night, he may have packed a night-shirt along with that dressing gown and loaned that to Watson.

So many options! We should have Sherlockian micro-debates and have panels present quick points and counter-points over such issues! (And, yes, cutting through the whole thing and getting to sexy-time might be a crowd-pleaser, but restrain yourself.)

For now, however, I feel the call of the sheets myself, and am trying to determine the best way to pay tribute to Watson in that moment. Those details, of course, shall remain between me and my doctor (Watson).

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Olympic Sherlockians

There is something pure about the Olympics. Not because sport is a better area of endeavor than some others -- lord knows they have their scandals and issues and BULL-CRAP JUDGES!!! on occasion, like any workplace or organized human activity. But it has a certain purity that has been found in Sherlockiana as well.

You know a figure skater's name and country, and you watch them perform. That's all.

Sure, TV commentators try to shape a narrative, play up an underdog angle, play down some bad behavior, but for most folks watching the Olympics, all they will ever know of this person is a few minutes of what they do best.

There are a whole lot of Sherlockians I know in this same way, both living and dead.

Vincent Starrett, for instance, is a prime example. He wrote a great poem. He also wrote a book that I am a little less enamored with, but still good work. Those are his three minutes on the ice at the Winter Olympics, and for most, all they will ever know. Now, you can go "Oh, we should learn so much more about him!" but do we want to learn too much? I'm old enough to remember people who knew Starrett in his later years, and there were a few tales of the embarrassing behaviors that some elderly wind up having in their decline. History tends to clean those up, but they're still there to know.

For those Sherlockians who don't have the comfortable distance of history, we sometimes enjoy their work as pure Sherlockians, their three minutes on the ice, but have a hard time dealing with their snarky voices on Facebook or some other social media. My good friend Bob Burr was a fine and accomplished Sherlockian, and seen as that by most, until he got a little too in love with occasionally trolling the Hounds of the Internet, at which point he started seeming more annoyance than good Sherlockian to some.

It's far too easy too know too much these days, and not just Sherlockian endeavors have their accomplishment in a particular form ruined by the knowledge of their creator's true humanity. Love a movie and then find out the director was a woman-abusing creep. Have a favorite book and find out the writer was a bit of a Nazi. We know far more than we ever did about everyone and everything, and it's taking its toll.

But, that said, we are Sherlockians. We follow a man named Sherlock Holmes.

And above all else, Sherlock Holmes knew that looking at the facts over the personal qualities, screening the data for what was truly important and not just his emotional reactions, was a key to getting to the bottom of anything. He still recognized a villain when he saw one, and did feel actual horror at the crimes of men like Charles Augustus Milverton. But in minor, everyday dealings, he overlooked the little personalia of someone's politics, their religious views, their opinions on astronomy . . . and he looked at their performance. What tobacco ash they dropped, what footprints they left, all the pure imprints they left upon the world.

Emulating Sherlock Holmes, even now, can be a helpful point of reference in navigating the Sherlockian world. Because we certainly have our Olympians out there, getting in their three minutes on the ice every single day.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The heaviest Holmes-related bookset in the house



Wait long enough, and everything becomes unusual.

I realized this tonight, looking at the heaviest set of books in the house, a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1938. Why do I own a non-Victorian set of encyclopaedias?

Well, many's the Sherlockian  who knows that it's a later edition of the books that Jabez Wilson was asked to copy from in "The Red-Headed League." That edition -- possibly the ninth edition, if the schemers didn't just go cheap like I did and get some cast-off earlier edition -- is a true Canonical artifact.

But given that one of the proper vintage would be a little hard to find, when I found the 1938 at a bargain price at the local museum book sale, it seemed old enough. And what did I do, just as soon as I got it?

Started hand-copying the text, of course! And timing myself, to extrapolate just how long Jabez Wilson took to make it as far as he did. A simple, yet fun experiment in re-creating Canonical events, which many a Sherlockian has done. It never seemed like that odd a thing to have.

Until now, of course, when bound encyclopaedias have been replaced by electronic versions, and one thinks, "Oh, this is now rare and unusual!" But NO!

A simple search reveals that Britannica still sells a hardbound copy of their work . . . and it's a reproduction of the 1768 edition. Which makes you wonder: Will there ever be enough of a market for a Jabez Wilson reproduction edition?  At least the volume with the letter "A" in it, since we know Wilson made it no further than that. Probably not, it's sad to think.

So until then, I'll just have to content myself with old 1938. It's good for flattening something every now and then . . . and still, the occasional dated info look-up.

And the momentary thought of old Jabez Wilson.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Our first impression of Mr. Sherlock Holmes

An evergreen staple of Sherlockian essay is the "my first encounter with Sherlock Holmes" story.

Those stories often began with receiving a book as a gift from a beloved family member. Did the book have pictures? It doesn't get mentioned too often, but I would guess the larger share of the Canon in print are not illustrated. So that means that, once upon a time, how Sherlock Holmes looked the first time a person encountered him was a mix of Conan Doyle's description and the reader's imagination.

The first chapter of A Study in Scarlet gives us little in the way of physical description: One excited "student" in the lab at Bart's, whose eyes seem to glitter. His has a strong grip. He's a bit theatrical, bowing to an invisible crowd at his accomplishment. In chapter two, Watson gets down to business: "In height he was rather over six feet tall, and so excessively lean  that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing . . . his thin, hawk-like nose . . . His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination."

At this late point in the game, those words conjure almost a cartoon Holmes in my mind, as that thin, tall, all-nose-and-chin look has been favored by Holmes cartoonists for a very long time. And was there ever an actor who perfectly embodied them? Not Robert Downey Jr., to be sure. Rathbone had the face, but needed a Jeff Goldblum lankiness. And Benedict Cumberbath, while slim and tall enough, is not encumbered with that stereotypical Holmes nose. (Could he still have been a heart-throb with the big hawk nose? Hmm.)

The point of this digression is that Doyle's words are no longer the starting point for most people's first impression of Sherlock Holmes. And when I say "impression," I mean "the first Sherlock to make a dent." The first Sherlock Holmes who stands apart from the background noise that media deluges us in. Many people's first actual encounter with Sherlock Holmes might have been a car commercial or an add for gummy candy, but no one is going to remember that fleeting glimpse. Your first true encounter with Sherlock Holmes worth mentioning is alway going to be the one that sticks with you.

That Holmes we see in Doyle's original first chapters -- tall, young, energetic, and square-jawed -- could have been either a real looker or a real geek. There was a lot missing from those words that left certain details up to us. Coming to them after a solid diet of Downey, Cumberbatch, or Miller might conjure an entirely different fellow in that lab at St. Bart's than an Ichabod Crane sort, which they might also describe.

How are new media Holmes going to change our first impressions of the great detective? How have they already? One can't exist for centuries without some sort of personal evolution, and now that he's well into century two, first impressions of Sherlock Holmes will definitely be evolving as well.