Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The policeman who stayed at the house.

Sherlock Holmes takes a little heat over the case Watson wrote up under the title of "The Five Orange Pips." His client is murdered before Holmes has even begun to investigate the case. And if you counted all the Sherlockians who've suggested that the detective should have kept John Openshaw overnight at Baker Street, or accompanied him home with Watson and some pistols, well, you'd have the population of a small town.

A town called "Sherlock's Fault, Florida."

(We have to put it in Florida, because that state is not blameless in this matter itself.)

But in turning an accusatory eye toward Sherlock Holmes, we always look away from the worst person on the Openshaw case: the policeman who was to remain in the house with Openshaw.

When John Openshaw decided to take a chance and go see if this Mr. Sherlock Holmes he'd heard of could shed any light on the deaths in his family, he certainly told the policeman what he was going to do. And it was that policeman who interpreted orders to remain in the house with Openshaw as having more to do with the house than the man.

It was a horribly stormy night, of course, so we start to get an impression of that copper as the sort of man who likes the comfort of dry clothes and a warm fire. We can also conclude from the fact he has no curiosity or interest in Mr. Sherlock Holmes that this fellow didn't keep up with the newspapers or even talk at the station-house about criminal investigations. Even if he had heard of Holmes and took him to be a charlatan, any self-respecting crime-stopper would have felt obliged to head along with Openshaw to show the misguided man what a sham Holmes was.

One has to wonder how this irresponsible member of the police force finally heard that Openshaw had died. Or did he? Did he just spend the night at the house, raid the cupboards, doze in some comfy spot, and then stroll back to work in the pleasant morning sun, never to hear anything about the man he had gone home with turning up in the Thames.

Sherlock Holmes hadn't started on his case, which focused more on finding the culprit. The policeman who stayed at the house was supposed to be on the job of protecting the victim.

"Why didn't you come to me?" Holmes railed at Openshaw after hearing about that policeman. "And above all, why did you not come at once?" During daylight hours, Holmes might have been able to get on the scent of who was after Openshaw. And since Openshaw was moving on crowded streets while armed with a gun, Holmes could be forgiven for putting his planning on how to solve the case above playing bodyguard -- the job that the un-named policeman already had.

The great counterpart to that nameless and worthless cop will always be Police-constable Cook of H Division, who not only heard Openshaw's cry as he fell into the river, but actively tried to same the man, getting help from passers-by, and even summoning a police boat. Cook made every effort to save Openshaw's life, but the night was against him.

So many points where that night and this case could have gone differently . . . but the one man most at fault in this business leading to John Openshaw's death?

Not Sherlock Holmes.

Just a guy spending a pleasant evening in a house near Horsham. The bum.

Peoria Public Library's Sherlock Holmes story society meets again this Thursday night in the meeting room at the far end of the North Branch library at 6:30 to discuss "The Five Orange Pips" further. Stop in if you're in town!


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The prettiest Sherlock Holmes of the last century.

With the passing of Sir Roger Moore, the longtime Sherlockian can't help but think back to the year 1976 and sitting in front of the TV watching the Saturday night premiere of the movie Sherlock Holmes in New York. Fresh off his first two James Bond movies, Moore was well into becoming the James Bond to the post-Beatles generation, and seeing the suave and handsome actor on the small screen as Sherlock Holmes, many a Sherlockian had exactly the same thought:

That guy is just too good looking to be Sherlock Holmes.

Basil Rathbone. Peter Cushing. Those were the sort of guys who played Sherlock Holmes. Not that they weren't handsome in their own right, but they had that certain professorial look of intellect that one looked for in a Sherlock Holmes back then.

Roger Moore even seemed a bit young for Sherlock Holmes and he was all of forty-nine years old at the time. Those were such different times.

One could even argue that Roger Moore's Holmes was the most virile Sherlock ever, because how many other Sherlocks had a son appearing in the very mystery they were solving? There was actual evidence that this Sherlock Holmes had engaged in sex! If ever Watson had cause to be astounded in 1976, there was a fact to gawk in amazement at!

Irene Adler was, of course, involved. It was still, like I said, 1976 after all. And oh, how we liked our Irene back then. No Mary Russell. No Johnlock. And I hadn't even started championing Maud Bellamy as the greatest target of Holmes's affections. Irene was the Sherlockian "it" girl of 1976.

Roger Moore probably also had the greatest sideburns of any non-disguise Sherlock Holmes in history.

There's probably no Sherlockian who will include Roger Moore in their top ten portrayals of Sherlock Holmes without a heavy dose of nostalgia or having seen Sherlock Holmes in New York just as their adolescent hormones kicked in hard, but in 1976, seeing Holmes, Watson, Irene Adler, and Professor Moriarty all in a movie where Sherlock Holmes wasn't a wimpy drug addict? (Yes, I'm looking right at you, Seven-Per-Cent Solution. And what's with hyphenating "per-cent," anyway?)

Well, watching Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes was a fine way to spend a Saturday night.

Even if he was way too pretty.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Batman versus Sherlock Holmes.

In a FB comment on a recent post, Robert Perret used a comparison to Batman to make a case for Sherlock Holmes fans being less tolerant to change than those of the Batman. In considering the reasons for such a difference, it seemed like another chance to have Batman go up against another titan of legend, as he recently did with Superman.

As a comic book fan since childhood. I like Batman, but still have to say he is definitely no match for Sherlock Holmes. Why? Let's throw them into the ring and find out!

First round: let's compare first stories. 

Batman: In 1939, Detective Comics #27 featured a crudely drawn tale of a rich guy who cosplays and kills bad guys in his spare time. No parents killed in an alley. No batarang. No Robin. And nobody going back to read that story on a regular basis.

Sherlock Holmes: In 1887, a novel entitled A Study in Scarlet was published in Beeton's Christmas Annual about the world's first consulting detective and his chronicler. Dr. Watson. 221B Baker Street. Inspector Lestrade. And a well of pleasure, inspiration, and details that generations return to again and again.

Now let's look at things six years later.

Batman: By the end of 1945, Batman is its own comic book series. Robin, the Batcave, and and Alfred have all been added to the lore. And Batman has his arch-enemy, the Joker , , , whom he never, ever kills. He also has met the mother of at least one of his children, the Catwoman. (At least on "Earth One" in some universe.) Nobody goes back to read any of those stories without effort in finding them, and not for pure pleasure.

Sherlock Holmes: By the end of 1893, Sherlock Holmes has his own short story series in The Strand Magazine. Mrs. Hudson, Mary Morstan, and Mycroft Holmes have all appeared. Sherlock has found his own  arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty . . . and ended him for all time. And even though Irene Adler is declared the woman to Sherlock Holmes, there will be no children in their Canonical future. (But one son, Nero Wolfe, in some head-canons.) All of those stories from the first six years are generally considered the best Sherlock Holmes stories to this day.

And then let's look twenty-seven years later . . .

Batman: The Adam West era begins and will continue for twenty years, shaping the public image of the Batman as a cornball boy scout of a costumed detective.

Sherlock Holmes: The William Gillette era has been well under way for over a decade, shaping the public image of Sherlock Holmes by identifying him with a particular hat and a particular pipe. And that's all.

And forty-seven years later . . .

Batman: Frank Miller takes Batman dark and macho with an instant classic called The Dark Knight Returns. Is this the most popular Batman story of all time? Possibly. Did it affect the character's evolution more than any tale since his creation? Definitely. Without The Dark Knight, we don't get the gravel-voices "I'm Batman!" stereotype of today. (Michael Keaton's Batman was three years later.)

Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars of New York is founded to celebrate the Holmes Canon, which was published as complete a mere seven years before. Arthur Wontner is playing Sherlock Holmes on the big screen, part of a long line of Holmes's before and after. Non-Doyle Sherlock Holmes fiction, outside of film, is rare indeed.

Still further, seventy-eight years later . . .

Batman: Still owned and published by DC comics, having gone through a few "soft" reboots but still coming out with new original stories in his official continuity by different writers. Film rights are so carefully guarded that a television show named Gotham features almost every character in the Batman mythos except Batman himself. (Bruce Wayne still being a boy in the series, while Penguin, Riddler, Alfred, and others pretty much come into their adult personas.) Alternate universe stories are common in the official continuity itself.

Sherlock Holmes: Mostly out of copyright and with the character owned by no single entity, the sixty original stories of Sherlock Holmes remain the "Canon" for traditional fans and are still the basic playbook from which most adaptations build. Both professional and fan fiction stories create and re-create Sherlock Holmes and company so often than no one living can read it all, yet the core Canon remains at the center of it all.

In considering why Sherlockians might be more critical of adaptation than Bat-fans, the reason becomes all too clear -- Sherlockians have one unchanging measuring stick to gauge all later Sherlock Holmes stories by. How that measuring stick applies from Sherlockian to Sherlockian varies by personality, but the mere existence of that stick tends to make all latter works come up short.

Bat-fans, on the other hand, are all using different measuring sticks to begin with. Some love Adam West's Batman. Some key in on Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Batman:Year One. Some are movie-only Bat-fans. Some cut their teeth on Scott Snyder's Detective Comics run. They can argue which is best all day long (and some will), but there is no original Canon to hold up as Holy Writ. (Any Bob Kane Canonists out there? Anyone?) The best Batman story may have yet to be written, as they seem to get better all the time.

Will a writer of Sherlock Holmes ever out-do Conan Doyle in the eyes of a new generation of Sherlockians? Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss seemed to be coming as close as anyone ever did, but got a little outpaced by their own fandom, who took their new "Canon" and ran with it before they could complete their work. Sherlock Holmes stories do get better all the time, but there will always be previous generations wielding that Doyle measuring stick that will always have a nostalgic extra inch at the end.

Does this make the evolving Batman a stronger character? In terms of marketing and profitablilty, yes. He is the Pepsi of detectives with a formula ever-changing to suit current tastes. Sherlock Holmes, however, is classic Coca-Cola in this metaphor. Keeping a steady flavor (especially if you avoid the high-fructose by hitting the pure sugar Mexi-Cokes), his fans, while not as numerous, have a passion that, one might argue, takes them deeper into their devotion.

In the end, I don't think you can have a true winner in this competition, but it makes for an interesting study of the two. And speaking of interesting . . .

Odd postscript: Has anyone written any "Batlock" fan fic yet? A young-ish Batman falls for his older British mentor in detection? Anyone? Ah, well, one day.



Sunday, May 21, 2017

Can Sherlock Holmes change?

I was listening to an explanation of standard movie plotting versus television plotting last night and had an odd realization about our friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes: He can never change.

When Conan Doyle first created the detective, he was doing something ground-breaking: Putting together a series of stand-alone short stories that featured ongoing characters. Basically, he was inventing the TV series before television came around. And if you look at the way a typical American TV show is plotted, you can see it applies to his work as well.

In any good stand-alone fiction, be it a movie or a novel, the important characters follow a structure akin to Campbell's "Hero's journey" -- the character leaves their familiar world behind, goes through an adventure, and comes back changed forever. Whether it's as simple as finding a courage they never had or getting a romantic partner, or as complicated as a transformation into a master of some area of skill they had never even heard of before their adventure began, the hero and their world changes.

The closest thing we find to this in the Holmes Canon is Watson's transformation from recovering veteran to detective's companion in A Study in Scarlet. But once that change is done? Suddenly the Canon becomes all television series writing.

Because standard TV writing isn't about change . . . it's about preserving the status quo. Movies are taking a turn that way as studios try to produce endless sequels and become just giant TV series, but the TV story arc is a different one: The hero is presented with something that messes up the status quo of their TV world, they spend an episode fixing it, and the status quo is saved at the end of the show. Come back next week for more Xxxx Xxxxxxxxx!

If there was ever any doubt that BBC Sherlock was television and not movie writing, the last episode of season four pounds that difference home with the near-magical restoration of 221B Baker Street after it is blown to bits. Even Sherlock Holmes's huge life-defining revelation isn't there to change who he is but to cement who he is by giving him an origin that explains him.

Sherlock Holmes cannot change in the mainstream, because he's a serial character. He and Watson cannot find love and live happily ever after. He can't be a drug addict, work through his addiction and recover. He cannot be anything but Sherlock Holmes, because at the end of the day, he has to return to being Sherlock Holmes. And he didn't start as an addict or in love with Watson. Those are left for the black market of fan fiction, where all the character development we normally want from a person gets to play out. (And I would argue that even The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is pure fan fiction, creating a Holmes so based in delusion he could not survive ongoing stories.)

The original stories feature arc where character's lives changed forever, but those were always the clients. Even the most dramatic moments in Holmes's life -- Reichenbach, retirement, becoming a spy -- didn't change him. They were just attempts by his creator to have a final episode and be done. The short stories are always more of a tale about the clients with Watson narrating and Holmes being their wise guide through the dramatic change in their life.

We've seen an alternate version of Holmes support a series: CBS's Elementary or the cartoon Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, but those both start with a very different Sherlock Holmes who remains in a very different status quo throughout his series. Someday, I'm sure, we will get a series where Holmes and Watson are in love from the start and solve cases while working through their relationship.

Likewise, we'll always get stand-alone movies where Holmes changes for just one story -- like Without A Clue, Young Sherlock Holmes, or Mr. Holmes -- but again those are alternate Holmeses created for the telling of that one tale. In order to be Sherlock Holmes, in order to solve mysteries and bring rational explanations to a world of strange events, our favorite detective must not only champion scientific and rational thought, but a certain basic status quo of reality itself.

Can Sherlock Holmes change? I really have to wonder.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Items of magical importance.

Totems, fetishes, charms, talismans, idols . . . all words we tend to associate with "primitive" belief systems less "civilized" than our own. That leathery shrunken figure with the bands of white shells in "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge," which Sherlock Holmes identifies as a voodoo relic, would be a good example of the things typically cast in that category. Step back a few feet from Sherlockiana, however, and it's easy to see that we're as identifiable by our totems as that voodoo-loving cook involved with Wisteria Lodge.

Why else would anyone own a toy Garfield in a deerstalker at this point?

But the gee-gaws, knick-knacks, and tchotchkes aren't the true fetishes of Sherlockian life. 221B sitting room recreations aren't the true holy alters of Holmes-worship. Oh, no.

We're much stealthier in the true faith of Holmes, and build our sanctuaries in the way of a larger belief system, like Mormons being a specialized segment of Abrahamic religion. And that overarching religious style?

Bibliomania.

Books on shelves become like altars. Those who write books become like . . . priests? Nay, wizards! Of course the most successful of wizards need to summon the elementals of publication to aid their tasks, charming those powers with their incantations of query and manuscript. (This is all metaphor, of course, though I could name a few writers we all know who have some magical cast to their look, and make you wonder about faerie blood in their ancestry.)

And one never knows what might be pulled from the shelf and tossed to a friend without a second thought, that eventually will bless or curse them with inspiration or obsession. And nothing is as much fun as blowing the dust off that long-saved volume that finally comes of vital use after all this time . . . and yet . . . .

There are  times when we must rise up and take mastery over these bits of ink-stained wood pulp and realize that their only power over us is that which we give them. Not every book deserves a place on our shelves, and putting a book in its proper place is a biblio-adept's greatest skill, even if that proper place is in a fire. (Oh, yes. I definitely maintain that one has to burn at least one book to show those little bastards who's boss. It's quite freeing.)

Given all of the above, one might wonder why I continue to blog and don't spend more time writing actual books as I did in the eighties and nineties. The internet blog is the ghost of this metaphor, occasionally visible to some, not maintaining a solid presence, sometimes just popping in to elicit a frightful response. As any spirit would surely tell you, the ghostly life holds no responsibilities and offers more freedom to the lazy and undisciplined who can't hold it together enough to participate in the land of the living. And it's more fun than being a zombie, let me tell you.

Working on knocking my Sherlock room into habitable space is really leaving me philosophical and a bit tiredly dreamy, I think. Time to call it a night and see what magical items I need to deal with tomorrow. It's going to be a lonnnggg weekend.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Moriarty's Web -- Still out there, still awesome!

Remember hearing about a game start-up on Kickstarter called "Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web" quite a while back? Well, in the "better late than never" category, I finally managed to get both the game and Sherlockian company at the Sherlock Peoria home office this week and give it a try.

If you're a cutting-edge Sherlockian who kindly funded their Kickstarter or a 221B Con attendee this year who recognized a great deal when you saw it, you're going to be way ahead of me on this, but for the rest of you, here's the review: It's a great game. Maybe even the best Sherlock Holmes inspired game.

Up until this point "221B Baker Street" was my number-one-ranked Sherlock game, but eventually the little mystery stories ran dry, and some of them weren't quite as good as the earlier ones. That game really depended upon the stories created for each game. "Moriarty's Web," on the other hand, actually could inspire you to create your own stories as you play the game, if you're given to improv or story-telling. Or, you could just play the game, no talent necessary.

It's simple to learn and start playing, like my other favorite collaborative game, "Forbidden Island." You and the other players are your favorite Holmes characters, each with special talents, teaming up to gather clues, witnesses, and more to tie Moriarty to a series of crimes . . . while Moriarty himself is working to foil you.

Each character has a very special personality as you play -- Mycroft with the ability to foresee Moriarty's moves, John Watson the stalwart protector of other players and vital evidence, Irene Adler sneaking into things, and Sherlock Holmes moving swiftly about to solve crimes and save players kidnapped by Moriarty. (We only had four players for our maiden voyage into the game, so Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson were on the bench.) Those personalities give the game a real "Sherlock Holmes feel" if you let it take you, and the premise of desperately running about trying to tie Moriarty to crimes is . . . perhaps . . . better than the tale Doyle himself told in "The Final Problem." (The game could be seen as a prequel to "The Final Problem," if not for the same Watsonian continuity issue that The Valley of Fear suffers from.)

And here's the clincher for me on this game: Moriarty beat the crap out of us when we played it tonight. He was just too wily and kept committing crimes while we were solving previous ones. But we still had a really good time playing it, even on our first time out, not having taken the box out of shrink wrap until fifteen minutes before.

If you're a game fan and a Sherlockian, save up your pennies and get this game. "Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web" is still out there and still a real treat to play with gaming pals or fellow Sherlockians.

A Baedeker than even Sherlock could turn to.

There's a certain joy in being in a hobby about forty years and having an area of that hobby that you still can use a guide to.

As Hans Gruber once quoted, "When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept because there were no more worlds left to conquer," and even though I would substitute "explore" for "conquer," the sentiment is relatable.  Replaying your personal "greatest hits" of Sherlockian discovery gets tiresome after a while, and ten years ago it seemed like an older Sherlockian was down to that. So it was with some delight that I saw Caroline's "Online Primer for Sherlockians" published on AO3 this week.

Caroline, if you haven't run into her, is one of the hard-working souls behind the Three Patch Podcast and is constantly out on the web digging up new things, so her perspective on the online Sherlockian world is not the work of a dabbler. And when I say "online Sherlockian world" here, I'm talking the new world of Sherlockiana, not the list of website links such a guide might have been before social media became a part of our lives. (If you are and old school Sherlockian and want just that, good old Sherlockian.net might suffice.)

Caroline's explanations of the platforms make a good starting place, and her words on Tumblr alone were worth a lot to me -- that beast has been confusing me for years now. The significant portion of a chapter she devotes to avoiding conflicts is something that those who really need it most may never read, but serves as an excellent bit of coaching for those of us who actually struggle with that on a daily basis. (I grew up with fiesty brothers, and as a result, sometimes enjoy a verbal tussle a little more than I should.)

Fanspeak is an area that can always use more explanation, as I'm still googling terms I hear at 221B Con after five years, and there's a good starter bit on that here. (Like any language, it's an every-evolving one, so we'll probably always need Google to translate the new bits.) Strategies for finding fan fiction you'll enjoy are a definite must, that ocean being so large, and Caroline gives some worthwhile tips on that.

I've paged through the "Online Primer for Sherlockians" a couple of times now, and it will definitely be a good resource to head back to when the need arises. As with any travel guide, it can offer a taste of places you may never want to go, especially if you're an old school Sherlockian who is satisfied with the well-settled lands of original Canon study. But for those who like trips into the newer realms, or even have spent most of their Sherlockian lives there, you never know what corner you might have missed, and a look at a primer can still have merit.

And Caroline's "Online Primer for Sherlockians" is definitely worth a look.