Sunday, February 19, 2017

Red heads in Feb. heads: Watson's partnering peak?

The Sherlock Holmes Story Society comes around again this Thursday night in Peoria, and this time up we're discussing "The Red-Headed League." And just starting to re-read this particular story has me very interested in John Watson's particular place in Sherlock Holmes's life at the time of this case.

"The Red-Headed League" is definitely an 1890 affair. Watson is definitely living away from Baker Street, and has definitely chronicled some of Holmes's adventures already. The partnership is in full swing.

"This gentleman," Holmes says as he introduces Watson to Jabez Wilson, "has been my partner and helper in many of my most successful cases, and I have no doubt that he will be of the utmost use to me in yours also."

Now, one might suspect that Holmes is blowing smoke just to get Wilson comfortable with the new arrival, but consider how Sherlock also accuses John of embellishing the cases somewhat in his writings. Sherlock Holmes is not a man to embellish, and the statement he makes above can surely be taken at face value.

Watson is also, in this case, practicing his own skills at observation with no prompting from Holmes. And then something interesting takes place: "Sherlock Holmes's quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances."

Sherlock notices John observing.

John notices Sherlock notice him observing.

John shoots Sherlock a couple questioning glances.

Sherlock Holmes smiles, shakes his head, and seems to admit that he couldn't see much either. Of course "not seeing much" for Sherlock Holmes is: "Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else."

Those facts are so obvious to Sherlock Holmes that at this point, it seems like he could be assuming Watson got all that himself. And why not? As the Latin phrase Holmes quotes a few lines later states, "Everything unknown passses for something splendid," and that applies to Holmes as well as the rest of us. He does not know what Watson made from his observations, only that Watson didn't think he got much, which is the same thought Holmes had about his own efforts.

Did John Watson's absence from Baker Street make Sherlock's intellectual heart grow fonder? When the doctor wasn't present from day to day, did Sherlock Holmes's memory give his friend a slightly enhanced set of detective skills, raising John a little close to himself?

"You could not have come at a better time, my dear Watson" Holmes says after physically yanking Watson into this case. He doesn't need Watson's help with a rough sort, an aid in dealing with a bore, or a friend with an experience of women he lacks. Sherlock wants John on this case because it's exciting him already and he needs his friend to share it with.

And it is one of the most terrific adventures a couple of friends could have.  A little exploration, some lunch, a concert by the popular Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate (Oh man, do you have to love YouTube -- here's a link to hear the same artist Holmes heard that afternoon.), and then a late-night vigil, the capture of a master criminal, and then back to Baker Street for a glass of whiskey in the wee small hours of the morning!

If you want to talk bromance (or even Johnlock), "The Red-Headed League" is a place to begin that discussion -- a truly wonderful time in the partnership.

Can't wait to discuss it Thursday night!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sherlock Holmes in the Something-Somethingth Century.

In 1960, there was a book . . . rather hard to find today . . . called The Science-Fictional Sherlock Holmes, featuring a series of stories that involved Sherlock Holmes and science fiction. Combining Sherlock and sci-fi is hardly as uncommon now as it was back in 1960. We even have that lovely cartoon with the catchy theme song, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. (Just try to get that ear-worm out of your head once you think of the title.) In fact, when I think of those fellows from 1960 who put together that book, and what they would think of current Holmeses . . .

I mean, we actually have Sherlock Holmes in the Twenty-first Century. Many of them. They don't have a theme song that sings "Sherlock Holmes in the twenty-first century!" on endless repeat, like the hundred-years-later version, but they are still, very much, future Sherlocks.

BBC Sherlock Holmes was employing methods involving Star Trek communicator devices from the very first episode. CBS's Elementary made its hound of the Baskervilles a robot. Were we to copy episodes on to projectable film, put it in canisters, and send those back to 1960, they would be seen, quite naturally, as science fiction movies.

Flip the script, and the original ACD Canon could now be looked at as historical fiction, a genre which Doyle actually did write. Sherlock Holmes has dealt with Jack the Ripper, W.W. I spies, W.W. II spies, the Kennedy assassination, and a whole lot more if you count that game where he actually gets H.G. Wells's time machine. The timelessness of a top-notch consulting detective has been proven time and again.

I suspect that recent episodes of Sherlock were much easier to take for those of a science-fictional Holmes mindset. A Sherlock Holmes who can appear in any time and any place and be just as wonderful, like a Dr. Who who somehow does it all without a time machine, is open to all sorts of other possibilities, like movie-explosion-leaps and super-villain sisters. His relationship to Watson may be skewed this way or that, but Watson's presence is always important . . . whether he's a robot or a daddy. It's extrapolative fiction in either case.

Finding a place for the latest Sherlocks on the shelf with all the Sherlocks who came before is always a process that provides interesting perspectives. At some point in viewing that wide, wide vista, you see so many that no single Sherlock Holmes stands above the rest, even when you look at the original sixty stories . . . and the sixty Sherlocks they presented.

And that multiverse of Sherlock Holmeses is perhaps the most science-fictional part of it all.

And that's what we have here, in our twenty-first century Sherlockian lives of what used to be the future. It's kind of amazing.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Most popular BBC character?

When Sherlock Holmes won a poll to be the most popular BBC character in the world this week, my first thought was "He's a BBC character?"

Other characters mentioned in the poll, like Doctor Who and Basil Fawlty were born on the BBC airwaves and spent the better part of their fictional lives there. But Sherlock Holmes?

From one perspective, it wasn't fair to the other characters, since Sherlock had over a hundred twenty years of field testing and cultural evolution as a character before his most recent BBC debut. From another perspective, Sherlock Holmes isn't really a "BBC character," since he didn't originate there. Either way, it seems like he should have been disqualified from this little competition.

So while one wants to celebrate another victory for the best and wisest television character we have ever known, it's kind of like partying after a 600 pound giant just won a wrestling match with a five-year-old. Did we expect any other outcome?

Of course, it was Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes that won out, so I guess there's some celebration for fans of Cumberbatch's portrayal. Much as I hate to say it, Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes wasn't on the list, nor any of his predecessors. It does reflect the fresh pop culture rise of Sherlock Holmes thanks specifically to BBC Sherlock. Downey's movie success as Holmes was a nice little moment, but it doesn't seem to have gained us any Holmes fans or Funko Pop figures.

So I guess there might be some worthiness to Sherlock's victory over the Doctor, DCI John Luther, Blackadder, and the rest. But it seems like it still needs an asterisk or something in the record books.

Monday, February 13, 2017

That's Nazi-fighting hair!

During my college days of the 1980s, I remember going to Double-Barrelled Tiger Cubs film nights at the university of Illinois, wherein great fun would be had at the expense of Nigel Bruce. His wacky Watsonian exploits could be made even funnier if you ran the film backwards during his scenes, which occasionally happened. And while Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes did not compare as a target for mockery, there was one aspect of his character that did: his war years hairstyle.

Until a recent review of Basil Rathbone's three World War II films of Sherlock Holmes, I never quite realized that the 1942-1943 war Sherlocks were the only ones where Holmes wore those fine side-curls that can look like devil horns, some Roman emperors laurel, or boyish curls, depending upon the angle or moment. Pictured below, you can see them exhibited from Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, and Sherlock Holmes in Washington.


Now, I'll admit, as a young and silly college fellow from a less accepting time, I did join my fellows in mocking this Sherlock's choice of coiffure. It seemed a bit "fancy" for a man, especially a keen logician like Sherlock Holmes. But with the wisdom of the passing years, and the changing of the times, I'm now gaining some new insight into Sherlock Holmes's war hair.

First, of course, is the fact that Sherlock Holmes was not just created as a science-detective, he was also modeled after an artist as well. His whims, his experiments in perception, and, of course, his own references to his "art" of detection. But that would be reason for Sherlock Holmes to wear fancy hair throughout his life, not just in that particular period. So why then?

Because, and I am serious in this, it was Nazi-fighting hair.

When Sherlock Holmes set to out-smarting Nazis in the 1940s, he was, like all Englishmen and Englishwomen, intent on battling them on all fronts. And what was one way of striking at the core of Nazi beliefs?

Exactly what Jesse Owens did in the 1936 Olympics. He showed Adolph Hitler that a black man could best Hitler's so-called "master race" with ease. And what class of people did Hitler hate besides those of other races and religions?

Gay men and women.

Whether or not you're a fan of W.W. II Johnlock shipping (and with Nigel Bruce in the picture, I doubt there are many who are), wearing a more effeminate hairstyle as a man living with another man probably cast Sherlock Holmes as less than a macho figure in German eyes. He wasn't even man enough to join the military after all! So to have this fancy-haired fop dealing major damage to such major German operations as the Voice of Terror would just add insult to injury in Hitler's eyes, just as Jesse Owens did in the Olympics.

And who knows? Maybe some more detail-oriented Sherlockian could make a case for Rathbone's Sherlock being in the closet. But that hair, that bold choice of hair artistry in a time when most were wearing Army-grade buzz cuts and other more serious styles, that hair makes a statement.

And the statement that it was making was surely flipping the bird (or in this case, the curls) right at ol' Adolph himself.

Because that's Nazi-fighting hair!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Words.

After putting in a little time polishing the opening of my original-Canon shipping fic this morning, I just started musing on how much I like words. Sherlock Holmes is made of words.

Even in BBC's Sherlock, without the words, you've just got a silent movie featuring a couple of guys who don't even get to have accents. And as much as anyone wants to defend how utterly attractive the leads are, let's put them in front of a blank-slate test subject with no words . . . I have a feeling they're liable to start thinking of Greg Lestrade as the real lead of the show.

Words built Sherlock Holmes, words make us love Sherlock all the more, and words . . . .

CAN RUIN HIM AS WELL.

Sorry for the caps there, but as I was gliding through my happy Saturday, relishing all the words, SOMEBODY . . . and I'm not going to name any names here, Howard . . . SOMEBODY laid the crudist of pastiche traps in my path on Twitter. Maybe I wasn't personally the intended target of that wicked, wicked snare for the curious, but it got me.

I had forgotten how low pastichery can go.

And how words can also create puppets of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, with someone's hand so visible behind the thin fabric of superficial detail that you want to staple-gun the pages together to imprison the words forever, like some dire beast of Lovecraftian myth. (Only then you remember that you just pulled in a sample chapter from Kindle and don't really want to destroy your phone.)

Trying to create new Watsonian writings is a steep ascent even for the best of writers. (Looking forward to Lyndsay Faye's The Whole Art of Detection with a mix of anticipation and fear, like she's jumping Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle.) For the rest of us? Best not to even go there. I've come to enjoy Sherlock fan fiction more than 95% of all pastiches, just because writers write in their own style and don't try to cookie-cutter words into Watson's . . . which was what I saw this afternoon.

Unless you're really going to get into the head of Victorian John Watson, and I mean really get into his head, like you actually think you're him and the words coming out of you are his words . . . well, it just comes out cookie-cutter, like you're forcing a shape onto the dough of words that it doesn't really want to take to.

Words are fabulous things. You can practically give a creation life like you're Dr. Frankenstein or the sorcerer's apprentice, or you can put on stale little stage-magic tricks that the audience has seen far too many times before. You can do whatever brings you joy.

Just be kind to those who might unwarily stumble upon your word creations, and don't leave them out in the public thoroughfares if they're smelly and leave stains.

Words can be hard to get out of our fabrics.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Revisiting Frankland, the old crank.

Somehow the subject of old cranks seems appropriate of late. Crankiness, a malady that many of us suffer from as we age, is something longtime Sherlockians know pretty well. We've always had more than a few within our ranks at any given time. Heck, I might even be one now!

Crankiness, that condition wherein a person is more easily irritated than normal, can come from a number of sources: physical discomfort, boredom, or even suffering from some other mental upset that one is in denial about and just lashing out at the nearest potential irritant. Sherlockiana is a great place to see crankiness come out, as there aren't a lot of serious life-or-death issues in our hobby that truly require righteous anger or outrage. Unless we're getting spillover from some actual serious issue from the outside world, crankiness is old school Sherlockiana's great rouser. Oh, those kids and their Benetwitch Cumbercue!

But for a properly Sherlockian exploration of crankiness, we must always turn to the prime crank of the Sherlockian Canon: old Frankland of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Old Frankland the crank, bestowed with that title by John H. Watson himself.

We're not quite sure why old Frankland was such an absolute bastard  to his neighbors, given to the seemingly random use of legal power and wealth to restrict them from going where they want and allowing them to go where others would rather they didn't. Since his own daughter has deserted him for reasons that seem quite plain, it would seem his only means of interacting with people in a way that they acknowledge his existence . . . much like a modern internet troll.

We can see how desperately lonely he is when he is standing by his garden gate, ready to invite Dr. Watson in for a glass of wine, after plainly having seen Watson moving along the road with his telescope. Frankland has plainly heard of Watson, and if he has read Watson's work, he knows John H. Watson is most famous for relating how he impressed he is was a genius to the reading public.

So it's not surprising when Frankland spends his whole time with Watson bragging about his victories and his cleverness at tracking the escaped criminal . . . the old crank is such a narcissist that he probably thinks Watson will write his success up in The Strand Magazine, where the world will see that he's easily the equal of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Watson practically has to peel Frankland off him like Elvis getting rid of a bobby-soxer (Signs someone might be a crank? Extremely dated pop culture references.) just to get on his way alone.

The truly troubling thing about Frankland, however, isn't is attempt to monopolize Watson, though. That's just where we learn what might be ailing him. The serious problem with Frankland is his complete abuse of wealth and power, treating people as mere tools for inflating his ego, deciding what is or isn't right for situations that have nothing to do with him. Indeed, he is the perfect example of why we should never conquer old age and death -- some people will eventually take a lifetime of learning and earning and use it as immaturely as a teenage vandal just trying to make any kind of mark on a world they think is ignoring them.

And maybe it is. If old Frankland was being ignored, it was most certainly because he earned it. We know very little of what he did when he was young and vital . . . surely he served a purpose then, had a wife who gave him a daughter, and might have been a decent fellow. It's hard to say with cranks. Some of them were rather awful young men as well, we only think they're symptoms were brought on by age since that is when we met them.

"It was a relief to me, after that unnatural restraint, when we at last passed Frankland's house . . . ." Watson wrote as his last mention of Frankland, just before The Hound of the Baskerville's climax. We never hear of the old crank again. Eventually his money probably quit winning him court cases, and left to the mercies of the public, may have suffered the original fate of Scrooge that the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come revealed to that more famous old crank.

One hopes that some ghosts other than the Hound visited old Frankland some Christmas and got him to have a goose delivered to his daughter, or some other act of reconciliation. For we'd rather see an old crank come around before they do too much damage and pass on unloved and even hated by most. Its easy enough to isolate yourself, even when surrounding yourself with frightened lackeys if you're wealthy and powerful enough, and fully give in to being an old crank.

But as we saw if old Frankland's case, eventually the main characters will just drive by your place and get on with their business. As we so oft hear thus far in 2017, "Sad."

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Unshippables.

They are . . . the Unshippables.

Characters from the original Canon so far apart in time, space, and destiny that their love seems an impossibility. Characters who have never been played by the young and beautiful. Characters that can't even seem to make the "rare pair" list.

Is there hope for such dire, lonely souls, peering through the frost-rimmed window panes of the happy fanfic holiday ball?

After Monday's blog on the possibilities of shipping in the original ACD Canon, I naturally wanted to test the limits of such an open field. So I thought of the most unshippable character I could.

a.) He died pretty soon after he got into the Canon.

b.) He was an immigrant whose command of English might have been questionable.

c.) He was both child-like in size and the object of some pretty intense cultural prejudices.

Yes, Tonga, the pygmy assassin of the Andaman Islands.

But Jonathan Small, you might interject, Tonga's partner who complimented the little man, saying, "No man ever had a more faithful mate." Yes, yes . . . no! Too easy. Too much of a layup, and we pretty much know their story. All you'd be adding were smoochy scenes.

So who's both a natural fit for Tonga and a bit of a challenge themself in the shipping category?

Did I hear someone say "Eugenia Ronder?"

Oh, yes. Eugenia Ronder. There's Tonga's love connection.

How do two such tortured souls come together across the boundaries of race, religion, culture, superficial qualities, and even death itself?

Well, there's a story there. And actually, it's a bit of a love triangle with a third party from a completely different story than either of them. Once I started trying to work out the hurdles those two had to get over, their tale practically plotted itself. Now just to find the time to write the thing . . . that starts tomorrow night, and the weekend is coming.

The lesson I learned from this little thought experiment, however, is this:

Are there truly any "Unshippables" in the Sherlockian Canon? While it would make a great title for a short story collection -- The Unshippables of Sherlock Holmes -- I don't think there truly are such creatures. "What one man can invent another can discover," Sherlock Holmes once said, and I think we can alter that slightly to "What characters one person can invent, another can ship."

Or better still, to quote Ivy Douglas from The Valley of Fear:

"There was romance. There is always romance."