Saturday, December 9, 2017

The criminal mastermind who stayed on Baker Street.

As I've written here before, I don't like to review books in my blog as I have been at this far too long. Forty years as an active Sherlockian will make you a little jaded in some areas. Personally I have long felt, similarly, that movie reviewers lose their skills at some point, because they can never appreciate a given movie like someone who doesn't see a hundred movies a year and wind up reviewing it for other reviewers. You can make good points, but there's a freshness one can't recapture completely.

So it was with much trepidation that I started reading The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street by Rob Nunn. Rob being a friend, I wanted to read the whole work, but if I read an entire book on Sherlock Holmes, it seemed like it really would need to be mentioned here. And, man, I'm old and cranky of late.

Luckily, The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street is a very comfortable read, so comfortable that I forgot what the back cover said it was: "The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street explores Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original sixty stories through the lens of Sherlock Holmes the criminal instead of Sherlock Holmes the detective."

I kept finding myself going, "Okay, he's still involved with Henry Baker's goose, when is he going to go off the rails and do more crime?" It was a little like reading that similar volume Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street by William S. Baring-Gould and going "Hey, I know how Sherlock Holmes solved all these cases already! Get some new ones!" I enjoyed Baring-Gould's book as a younger Sherlockian, but now I think it would drive me crazy. Fortunately, The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street has the untold tales to lean into for Holmes's criminal exploits and they work well as such. There is much crime here. And it does do some twisty things with the stories we know.

As Rob writes in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street started with the thesis for a Sherlockian article, "What if Sherlock Holmes had really been a master criminal?" and expands it from there, taking in the whole Canon. How would Holmes's interactions with all those familiar stories been different had he been a criminal? And how would they have been almost the same? What would such a thought-experiment show us?

It has always been said that Sherlock Holmes was different after the hiatus, and I think that Rob's work demonstrates that -- Sherlock Holmes seems to be a lot more criminal after he faces Moriarty. John Watson, I think, suffers a bit when Sherlock is doing bad, as he can't entirely be that great soul we see in the original Canon as he becomes a lot more active as a partner in crime than he was as a partner in detection. If Robert Mueller was going after Sherlock Holmes in the late 1890s, Watson would be going down first. (Fortunately, Lestrade was no Mueller, and Holmes was no . . . well, you get it.)

So, The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street: better for newbies than oldies, perhaps, but a book that'll definitely give you something to think about. It's available on Amazon and priced right for Christmas giving. And as with so many Sherlockian works by new writers of late, twenty years from now, you'll want to have added it to your collection when said writer's later works come out.

And that is the great part about having been a Sherlockian for forty years. You don't have to hunt for these things, because you bought them forty years ago.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The potential of a Ryan Reynolds Sherlock Holmes.

Sometimes a puzzle piece just slides right into place for you.

We've seen lots of cartoon critters don a deerstalker cap over the years, but Great Detective Pikachu -- a video game soon to be a movie -- is now offering us something I hadn't considered before.

Ryan Reynolds as Sherlock Holmes.

Sure, ol' double R being cast as the voice-actor for a deerstalker-wearing Pokemon is a couple of removes from actually playing the great detective, but . . . man!

Ryan Reynolds as Sherlock Holmes? Can he do an English accent? Who cares! Pull a reverse-Elementary and make Watson the British one while Sherlock is American! OH! Idris Elba as Watson! No way Idris Elba is playing a stupid Watson, and boy, can he do ex-military surgeon who's good in a tough spot.

I picture the Ryan Reynolds version of Sherlock Holmes being more like Robert Stephens in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a more human Sherlock, but still brilliant when it comes down to it.

Now that we've had Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock, Will Farrell and Sherlock Gnomes on tap, it seems like almost anything is possible. Not probable, of course, but possible. And the mere thought of a Ryan Reynolds/Idris Elba Sherlock Holmes movie just makes me smile.

As does the fact that Sherlockians have such an open horizon of possibilities out there now. I think that was the best part of being inspired to think of Ryan Reynolds as Sherlock Holmes after that Detective Pikachu casting news . . . just the way it seemed like something that could just . . . happen.

With every dark twist we see in the world of late the idea that happy possibilities, whatever that means to you, could have potential as well . . . .

All I have to say to that is, "Pika-pika, my dear Watson!"

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Advent(ures) Calendar

December came a little too fast this year. We're already into day five.

But even this far in, it's not too late to start such seasonal treats as an advent calender, that one-surprise-a-day ceremony of marking the days leading up to Christmas. What does this have to do with Sherlock Holmes? Well, it's like everything else in the world -- if there's not a direct link, Sherlockians will make one. And with that in mind, I propose . . . if someone hasn't come up with this already . . . the "Advent(ures) Calendar."

When the first series of short stories appeared in The Strand Magazine, there were no "Memoirs." Just twenty-four "Adventures," the tragic episode of "The Final Problem" being the last. Their numbering in The Strand conveniently lines up with the twenty-four days of December that falls before Christmas day.

A typical advent calendar has you opening little boxes or doors for all the days leading to Christmas. And while we might consider ourselves familiar with all twenty-four of the stories in what we traditionally see as the first two volumes of Sherlock Holmes short stories (along with the held-back "Cardboard Box"), I am perpetually finding a new surprise in those tales every time I open one of them up.

Now, one might go, "So many tragedies within those stories! Who wants to go through that roller coaster on their way to Christmas?" Well, like I said, this Advent(ures) Calendar can be full of surprises. Take today for example: December 5, the appropriate day for "Five Orange Pips," if ever there was one.

John Openshaw fell in the river and drowned, right? Look at the story again.

A body is pulled from the river with an envelope with his name, "John Openshaw," on it.

Because, of course, the letters in everyone's pocket only ever their own name on them, right?

And . . . gee . . . there might not have been another man in London with an envelope with the name "John Openshaw" on it, would there? Oh, yes, Openshaw or a minion, ready to drop one last message, perhaps?  And whether or not young John Openshaw helped that fellow in the river, discovering in the paper that he is supposed dead might be a chance Openshaw could take advantage of.

So, day five of the Advent(ures) Calendar, you open the door and find . . . a living John Openshaw!

But there is still "The Final Problem" on Christmas Eve. Well, let me allay your fears! What happens after Reichenbach? 1892, 1893, 1894 . . . three years until John Watson sees his friend Sherlock Holmes again. And what comes after Christmas Eve before John sees Sherlock again? Three days. (Well, they might not be three whole days if you want to get picky, but close enough for Christmas!)

So, what do you think? Time to start opening up the Advent(ures) Calendar, even if it is a few days later than it should have started?

Monday, December 4, 2017

Blue Carbuncle Season

"And on the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me . . . THE BLUE CARB-UNCLLLLLE! The Blue Carbuncle, the Blue Carbuncle, the-uh Blue Carbuncle, and the Blu-ue Car-buncle!"

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, "The Five Days of Christmas" done entirely with Blue Carbuncles!

Because that's what Sherlockian Christmas is all about, isn't it? "The Blue Carbuncle."

You can pretty much insert "The Blue Carbuncle" into the lyrics of any Christmas song. Sometimes as all the lyrics. And now, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," BC-style . . .

"Blue Carbuncle, Blue Carbuncle, Blue Carbuncle, Blue Carb!"

Or something a little lighter, like "Jingle Bells."

"Car-buncle, Car-buncle, the Blue Car-buncle! Car-buncle, Car-Buncle, the Blue, Blue Carbuncle!"

I'm dreaming of a Blue Carbuncle? Or did this just become a Blue Carbuncle nightmare?

The point is, as a Sherlockian writer, when do you start to pour on the Carbuncle? When is too early, when is just right, and how much Blue Carbuncle focus is appropriate for the Yuletide season? We don't want it to be seen as a part of the "War on Christmas" and get Fox News coming after Sherlockiana by using it too much, but we do want to keep our little Christmas tradition going.

How many other Sherlock Holmes Christmas time things can one do? A bit from "Speckled Band," a scene from BBC Sherlock, and then back to Blue Carbuncling (Christmas caroling, using only "The Blue Carbuncle" for lyrics.)

'Tis the season. Let's see how it goes  . . . .

Thursday, November 30, 2017

John Watson makes his move.

With sexual harassment cases involving prominent figures dominating the news, I suppose it was inevitable that someone brought up the name of Sherlock Holmes . . . even if just to declare his innocence. That occurred on Twitter yesterday, and the feed has been so fast and furious of late that I can't even find the tweet to give that person credit. I have to agree with them, though.

Sherlock Holmes has a pretty clean record when it comes to his dealings with the fair sex. Even in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, when he's confronted with a beautiful and confused naked woman in his sitting room late at night, he's a good guy. Watson, however, instantly assumes Holmes did something . . . but then, Watson is the problem when we start looking at the duo's ways with women.

I know, I know, Watson is our buddy, our pal, and probably just in love with Sherlock, according to the greater portion of today's fans. But when you get back to his primary courting episode, recorded by his own hand, problems do arise.

While we tend to think of Watson as noble, in the original novel The Sign of Four, he is needy and out-of-work and takes advantage of a terrified woman in a stressful situation to jump-start his social life. He portrays himself as a nervous innocent, but when you look at what actually happened there, questions can be raised.

One of the sure signs of predatory behavior in the workplace is that man who takes advantage of a power imbalance to satisfy his needs. In The Sign of Four, a frightened client coming to the one professional who can help her is definitely a situation with a power imbalance. If Mary Morstan had shown up at a new psychiatrist's office and that psychiatrist had asked to keep his buddy in the room for their sessions, and the buddy asked her to marry him in the next forty-eight hours, we'd definitely be going "WHAT THE . . . ?" But the consulting detective business, being new at the time with no defined professional standards, it doesn't come up.

Of course, dating wasn't easy in the 1880s. We didn't even have the word "girlfriend" in usage in a male-female sort of way until the 1920s, and if families didn't help you out early on, asking a woman to coffee probably wasn't a handy option. But the "it was a different time" line comes up a lot of late, so we might not want to trot that one out right away.

Watson's sudden courtship of Mary Morstan has room for a much larger study than this early morning blog post has room to do. One could even see its flaws as reasons that the Watson-Morstan marriage actually didn't happen as expected, and the timeline troubles we've always seen with the doctor's unnamed wife are party the fault of his sudden proposals to clients. (Even if he was just desperately trying to beard his true feelings for his room-mate.)

But at least Sherlock Holmes is clear, as far as I can see. But since we just have Watson's testimony about his own relations with the women of three continents, you do have to wonder.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

No yeti need apply.

"The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply."
-- Sherlock Holmes, "Sussex Vampire"

We live in a world that seems to be increasingly filled with deniers and believers. Or maybe they're just getting more press than they used to. They believe what they choose, twisting facts to fit theories, and deny what doesn't fit their purposes. The sort of folk Sherlock Holmes would find completely abhorrent, though he would surely deal with them in a charming and subtly snarky manner.

Because it's easy to want to think that things are different than they are. The world can seem so much more fascinating if one adds imagination to the limits of one's knowledge and surroundings when no new data is coming in. Like that area of interest called cryptozoology. The pseudoscience of creatures we have no proof of.

The Loch Ness monster. Vampires. Bigfoot. Space aliens.

Sherlock Holmes dealt with two of those in Canon and movies, proving that what was thought to be something out of myth was something made of more practical stuff. The journey he takes Watson, Baskerville, and company on in The Hound of the Baskervilles is a similar trip, and one man has been going on for as long as man has been man.

My own personal journey to Sherlock started with cryptobeasties, as I've told many a time before. My pre-adolescent fascination with UFOs, yetis, and the like where laser-focused on a movie preview where Holmes and Watson faced the Loch Ness monster in a rowboat. And eventually I got to see Sherlock expose it for the secret government submarine that it was in that movie.

I've even accidentally wound up on the wrong side of a bigfoot a few years ago, some old YouTube footage of which turned up over the holiday. A practical joke on my brother's new trail-camera, meant to spot deer, didn't fool my brother, but wound up circulating among those who track bigfoot sightings. (The bigfoot in question is my mother in a gorilla suit that I've had for years.) But even being on the knowing side of an accidental bigfoot hoax, I still remembered the stories from my youth, the evidence found, and held out some small spark of wonder that an abominable snowman could be out there somewhere.

Until today.

News stories began popping up of scientists doing DNA tests on those classic bits of yeti evidence I remembered hearing about since I was a kid. And the DNA they found was, in the end, Himalayan bear DNA. Never visiting or learning about the Himalayas, young me never considered that there might be bears there that could be mistaken for a big, furry man-beast. Bears!

Like Sherlock Holmes exposing the demon hound of Grimpen Mire as a regular dog, the like-minded folk of our world just exposed Himalayan yetis as regular old bears.

And really, if we have bears, what do we need yetis for? We have gorillas, and orangutans, and all sorts of other critters that can walk around like we do for a moment or two and look people-ish. The world, as Sherlock Holmes said, should be big enough for us. And yet, even by allowing Mr. Sherlock Holmes into it as a person of a fictitious sort, we still seem to always be wanting to expand it a bit.

So today, I happily gave up yetis for bears as a personal Sherlock Holmes story came to an end for me. But you know how it is with Sherlock Holmes stories . . . there's always another one out there waiting for us. He's good that way.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Other people's stories.

After finishing a holiday binge-watch of another larger-than-life character like our pal Sherlock today, I couldn't help but notice a very big similarity to the original stories of Sherlock Holmes. And that is this . . .

They aren't really about Sherlock Holmes.

I suspect that's why Sherlock Holmes fans often seem to have a harder time writing about Sherlock Holmes than those who can see him from a professional distance. A good Sherlock Holmes story, traditionally, hasn't been about Sherlock Holmes.

It's a good story about something that happened to his client, and he just comes in to help them get resolution. It's a good story about something that happened long before, whose after-effects are now showing up in someone's life. It's a good story about a retired army surgeon who meets a colorful character . . . but you only get to tell that one once . . . and maybe allude to it a bunch of times.

A good story tells us something either about ourselves or about other people in a way that helps us see through their eyes.

"Speckled Band" is interesting when you consider it that way, because it's Helen Stoner's tale of gothic horror, but then Sherlock Holmes actually inserts himself into Helen's place by removing her from her own bedroom and staying there himself. Sure, he doesn't put a wig and a dress on, but it's a little like he walked into a horror story and announced he was going to stunt double for the heroine. And then it becomes his story.

I suspect one of the reasons that fans like writing about Moriary so much is that Moriarty makes the story about Sherlock Holmes from the start. Moriarty is Sherlock Holmes's own mystery tale, in which Sherlock is pretty much his own client. None of those pesky additional characters to have to figure out and give life or story to . . . you say "Sherlock" and "Moriarty" and people just know they have to fight. It's actually a pretty lazy route to go, except for the fact that you have to be pretty genius to effectively write a true battle between two super-geniuses. (Which we get damned few of, sad to say.)

I think that's why I enjoyed Theodora Goss's The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter more than many other new Sherlock Holmes stories I've read recently, because it had Sherlock all the way through, but wasn't about him. He didn't have to have character development, or come to some great life-changing revelation.  Other characters carried the weight of the story.

It should come as no surprise to people that the great Sherlock Holmes story of this century is always Sherlock coming to terms with his true feelings for John Watson. It's as good a story as any other we have to tell about Sherlock Holmes himself. One could tell a story about him overcoming drug addiction, or dealing with Moriarty, but it's as hard to tell an addiction story as it is to write super-genius battles. Telling a story of two people discovering their love for each other is the most relatable tale for most writers or readers to connect with other people on.

But in the end, we need more good stories about other people that we can relate to before Sherlock Holmes walks in the door to their lives. It's what he does for them that makes him a miracle of a character. And what he does for us, as he does for them.