Saturday, March 25, 2017

Fandom gender-ations.

There's been much talk of  "the elephant in the room" in Sherlock fandom over the last few years. And following the trail of that particular elephant can lead one, especially one who has a certain gender identity beginning with "m," to an even larger elephant.

Contemplating the topic of "Fandom Generations" for the panel of that name at 221B Con this year, that larger elephant gets pretty hard to ignore, and yet, like all such beasts, must be delicately dealt with. Because looking over the decades at what as gone on with Sherlockiana as a whole, we're not just looking at generational changes due to age and influences of a particular decade. We're looking at major shifts due to gender as well.

When the model for Sherlockian societies was built back in 1934, it was a boys club. Yes, female Sherlockians existed, and some good ones at that, but like most of society at the time, soooo male-dominated. And with it taking until 1991 for America's flagship Sherlock group to let women participate as full members, it's safe to say it was male-dominated for a very long time. Waves of enthusiasm came and went, Rathbone, Meyer, Brett, each helping bring surges of new fans, but the culture remained very much based around that 1930s model.

Enter the Cumber-"batch." And a new model of Sherlockiana started to arise. It wasn't new to planet Earth, just new to Sherlockiana . . . this model that has no problem calling itself "fandom." Star Trek fans were there well ahead of us, being a more progressive, and for whatever reason, more predominately female. This new wave of Sherlockiana was just as active, just as savvy, just as enthused as any generation before, but with new technologies and numbers previously unseen in Sherlockian culture. And predominately a girls club.

While the 1900s belonged to the boys, the 2000s are looking to be headed an entirely different direction. When you think of major Sherlockian events, the less ancient ones are run by women. When you think of the most popular new Sherlockian professional fiction, it tends to be written by women. And when you get to fanfic . . . well, they've owned that realm since long before it came to Holmes.

But when you come to gender, the differences can be felt so deep they might as well be in our very bones. Take season four of Sherlock, for example. Made by a couple of male show-runners for a mass-market audience, the boys did some basic boy things: Fast cars. Explosions. Pirates. Icky sister trouble. One can argue whether or not such things belong in a Sherlock Holmes story, but the numerous editions of the very gender-specifically titled Conan Doyle's Stories for Boys from a bygone era make one think they just might, from a certain point of view. When hearing Johnlock fans' utter shock at season four's finale, it's easy to think of the fable of the scorpion and the frog. In the end, the boys creating Sherlock could not help being boys.

The same goes for fan fiction and its dominantly relationship-based themes. A man can disdain the quality of it all he wants, but in reality he's probably not spending much time looking for the really good stuff, because he isn't into the subject matter. It can be hard for an old boy, grown up in that old world dominated by male writers to try to digest fiction created by and for women. Great fiction transcends things like gender, yes, but so many times we write for our own, even without purposefully doing so. Girls will be girls, just as boys will be boys, and sometimes a guy has to just accept that certain things were not written for him.

The trick, of course, is to step back and take the long view. Taking each new wrinkle to an evolving hobby as a personal afront does no one any good, whatever gender you are. Sherlockiana has had its "new Ghostbusters are ruining my childhood" types, but in my experience, they're the outliers. Most of us, male and female, are good folks . . . it's a part of how we came together under this banner of Sherlock Holmes. It's what female Sherlockians held on to when they were still barred from certain male venues. And it's what many a male Sherlockian must remember as they venture into more Sherlockian venues that come from a non-male place.

So . . . this elephant . . . how do we discuss generational changes in Sherlockian that could be related to gender without treading on the toes of our fellow Sherlockians of different ages or genders?

Well, the first thing I'd guess is to let each tell their own tale.

Perhaps follow a particular method of Sherlock Holmes and ask our questions without theorizing in advance of the facts, then listen carefully to the answers. We all spend a lot of time alone, even when we feel like we're with our fellows typing words into the internet, and in the absence of the actual present human being, it's very easy to develop our theories of what people are about before we actually meet them (or sometimes after we've already met them and forgotten parts).

But as Sherlock Holmes said, "It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts."

And, yes, the man was Sherlock Holmes. But even that paragon of intellect made some statements about the opposite sex that were pretty bone-headed on occasion. And we forgive him for those, for the most part. There is always a little patience required in dealing with any human being, even ourselves, especially when the elephants come into the room.

As Sherlock also said, "We can but try."

Friday, March 24, 2017

"J.H. is in Europe."

Since I wrote about John H. Watson appearing in only a handful of stories by that name, I remembered another curious detail. In A Study in Scarlet, the first of the few John H. stories, we find a telegram in one murder victim's pocket that reads "J.H. is in Europe."

Stranger still, the first two initials "J.H." figure in three other cases as well.

True, one is the Scowrer bodymaster of Chicago in 1875, J.H. Scott.

And one is the "J.H." monogram on Joseph Harrison's locket. Why does Joseph Harrison seem to carry a locket with his own initials on it? Hmm.

Lastly, of course, is a "drab-coloured notebook" with the initials "J.H.N." and the date "1883" on the very first page. Hmm again.

The year 1883 is of interest as it's the year of the first case Watson undertakes with Holmes outside of A Study in Scarlet, and we don't hear of another case mentioned specifically by year until 1887. A notebook that starts with the year 1883 immediately puts on in mind of Dr. Watson's own notes, which probably started at that time. (A Study in Scarlet's case being such a surprise to the doctor that he couldn't have been prepared to take notes.)

What makes the phrase "J.H. is in Europe" so interesting is that among Watson's literary agent's papers was found a certain account of John Watson and Jefferson Hope in San Francisco. One of them gets the girl and the other one dies, and the villains of the piece are the very ones who meet their end in A Study in Scarlet.

Having said that Watson wasn't taking notes at the time of A Study in Scarlet leads one to conjecture that he might have "improvised" certain facts in the case. And once on that trail, Pandora's Box opens up to a curious Sherlockian mind.

What if the "J.H." who was in Europe was not a live Jefferson Hope, but the spectre of a man who died in San Francisco haunting those who contributed to his demise? A spectre who was embodied by a living man whose very name took on the spirit of vengeance he carried with him? 

A man named "John Hope Watson," perhaps?

Reconciling the manuscript entitled "Angels of Darkness" with the published record A Study in Scarlet has always been a challenge for Watsonian scholars, even if John H. Watson was an innocent participant in all of the events documented. But if he was not so innocent, and his first case with Sherlock Holmes was one where the detective lured his prey to Baker Street, not by calling a cab, but by looking for a room-mate . . . well, things really get interesting.

This is all mad conspiracy theorizing off a few slender threads of coincidence, of course. Nothing to see here, right? We can all move along in our love of . . . that guy BBC Sherlock had murdering someone in the very first episode . . . did Moffat and Gatiss know something we don't and were hinting at a conspiracy much deeper than Johnlock?

Hmmm, again . . .

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Saving Mary Sutherland.

One of the joys of a good Sherlock Holmes discussion group, as met at the North Branch of the Peoria Library tonight, is the perspectives you get from other Sherlockians that can actually improve a story for you. Tonight we were discussing "A Case of Identity," a minor light as mysteries go, but a tale ripe-to-bursting with delicious Doylean detail.

"A Case of Identity," you will recall, is that weird little tale of step-daughter Mary Sutherland who is conned by her step-father . . . and her actual mother, her selfish cougar of a mother . . . into staying single by breaking her heart so they can keep her income coming into the household.

It's a plot we see play out a few times in the cases Holmes takes -- men trying to control the inheritance of young ladies, who were not so far out of Jane Austen times that they had much power over their own destinies without a husband. And the ending to Miss Mary Sutherland's case is especially unsatisfying that way.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson get to feel all manly and good for chasing the step-father out of 221B and watching him flee down Baker Street, but you know when he gets home, James Windibank and his wife, Mary's mother, can just go back to living the lie they built to keep Mary and her income willingly trapped in their greedy little household.

Sherlock isn't going to tell her about the con job that was pulled on her, saying she wouldn't believe him anyway. And he's got ten or twelve other problems at hand, one of which involved identifying bisulphate of baryta, which seemed to be more in the forefront of his mind that Mary Sutherland's case. But if you go back a few pages to a paragraph before Sherlock Holmes solves the case, you find a rather interesting letter "s."

"It is just as well that we should do business with the male relatives," he tells Watson. And yet by the end of Watson's narrative, he has only dealt with "male relative" singular. Who else was Holmes planning to deal with? Mary had no other male relatives, right?

Posing this question to the discussion group, an answer came 'round quickly in Mary's own words: ". . . we went, mother and I, with Mr. Hardy, who used to be our foreman, and it was there I met Mr. Hosmer Angel."

While not a true family member by blood, Mr. Hardy was a part of the Sutherland business family and plainly a loyal friend of Mary's father who was familiar enough to take the widow and daughter of his old boss to the gasfitter's ball. Since Mary's mother had sold the Sutherland plumbing business entirely, she had no power over Mr. Hardy,  and a foreman who managed working men was not the sort of guy who was going to put up with a little weasel like young Windibank's scheming.

As Watson's following of this case was based on social calls, he was probably not around when Sherlock Holmes went to talk to Mr. Hardy, the one man who could be trusted to straighten out Mary Sutherland's bogus fiancee issues and give her the facts. So it makes sense that part might not make it into the published account. But that one line from Holmes, "do business with the male relatives," makes it clear that Windibank wasn't the only man he planned to talk to before he considered this case wrapped up.

Coming to that conclusion made tonight's discussion of "A Case of Identity," which had a lot of great and fascinating points in it, one of the most valuable talks I've participated in on that matter. Despite Mary Sutherland's rather ridiculous plight, I now have a good feeling that someone was looking out for her, and that the case had a much more satisfying end that I got from previous readings.

While we can't consult with Mr. Sherlock Holmes on these cases, sometimes consulting with his followers can do a pretty good job of it as well. Pretty darn good.

The next meeting of Peoria's "Sherlock Holmes Story Society" will be April 27th, and I can't wait to see what we get from "Boscombe Valley."

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sherlock Holmes explains writing mysteries.

There is a very meta conversation in the opening of 1891's "A Case of Identity." On the surface, it seems as though Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are discussing crime. Holmes is arguing that reality, with all "the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations," would "make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable."

Watson does not agree. "We have in our police reports realism pushed to its extreme limits, and yet the result is . . . neither fascinating nor artistic."

"A certain selection and discretion must be used in producing a realistic effect," Holmes replies. "This is wanting in the police report, where more stress is laid perhaps upon the platitudes of the magistrate than the details . . . ."

In other words, isn't of showing you what happened, the magistrate is telling you what happened. And "Show, don't tell!" is an old writing dictum said to go back as far as Anton Chekov.

Holmes is defending his statement that basically, truth is stranger than fiction -- a line Mark Twain would write about six years later: "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." And, interestingly, Sherlock Holmes is saying that the police reports don't produce "a realistic effect" in their writing . . . which is odd, since they are about reality.

What Sherlock actually seems to be doing here is giving the fledgling writer Watson some tips. The discussion occurs a few weeks after the two dealt with "A Scandal in Bohemia," the first short story Watson ever published, so that thought may well have some merit. Watson does not chronicle what conversation was going on between them when Holmes first states that "life is infinitely stranger than anything the mind of man could invent." Was Sherlock trying to talk John out of writing up "Scandal," as it wasn't that interesting?

The opening of "A Case of Identity" is very interesting in that it isn't a discussion about crime, it's a discussion about writing. And one with some great advice contained within.

For those in or near Peoria, the discussion of "A Case of Identity" continues this Thursday night at the North Branch library at 6:30. Join us if you're in the neighborhood!

The silo versus the whole farm.

In contemplating the possibilities for the "Fandom Generations" panel at 221B Con, one starts noticing some very pronounced differences in the way Sherlockian fandom as a whole is discussed.

The first way is that oldest sense of Sherlockiana, one that comes from entering Sherlock Holmes love as a first fandom. Before Trekkies, before comic cons, before most, there was Sherlockiana. And to many a first-fandom Sherlockian, being a fan of Sherlock Holmes seems as unique now as it was then.

The second way is that of a Sherlockian who may have migrated into Holmes world from another fandom, with a strong awareness of the fan universe that Sherlockiana exists within. Sherlock Holmes exists in a personal fan pantheon . . . a "fantheon" of favorites . . . and even though he may be atop it all, the knowledge of those with similar passion for other characters cannot be denied.

It's not a binary system of course. There have been Sherlockian Trekkies, Sherlockian comic book fans, Sherlockian Trekkie comic book fans . . . but a few decades back, side fandoms were not nearly as much in  the foreground as now. The thought of a Sherlock Holmes weekend like 221B Con having an hour devoted to Hannibal or British quiz shows in the programming was unheard of . . . programming time was limited, so the focus had to be entirely on the guy who brought us all to the party.

To say a being a Sherlockian in 2017 is the same as being a Sherlockian in 1977, even for those of us who existed as Sherlockians in both years, is, to steal a term from data management, to silo Sherlockiana. Siloing Sherlockiana away from other fandoms, isolating it in its own private fan sector, was a lot easier for someone coming into the hobby in 1977. In 2017, Sherlockian doings happening at something like Comic-Con in San Diego make one very aware that it exists in a much greater fan world these days.

That's not to say the followers of Holmes don't have their own special spin on things. But the tools we use, the methods to our madness, the resources we use, all can oft be shared with other fandoms, giving us bleed over in both directions. Much like Sherlock Holmes gathering his detective tools from every discipline he came in contact with, the modern fan has a goodly array of potential ways to express their fandom, which makes for more enabled Sherlockians. One might argue that it waters down "pure Sherlockiana" slightly, but everything has a price.

Sherlockiana has been around a very long time now, and has been touched by every era in which it has existed, which is part of its allure. What comes into it from the current generation is something well worth discussing . . . even if it can be hard to wrap one's head around, as this wandering little essay might show.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Let's talk about the Watsons.

It's time we had a little honest talk about the Watsons.

What follows may come as a shock to the membership of the John H. Watson Society, whose numbers might descend upon me with righteous furor after this, but it has to be discussed. A simple fact that affects Watsonians, Elementary haters, monogamous Watson defenders . . . really, the entire Sherlockian world, when you come right down to it. And that fact is this:

John H. Watson, M. D., was only involved in three of the sixty known records of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

The seminal A Study in Scarlet. The potentially spurious "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge." And the classic "The Problem of Thor Bridge." How the John H. Watson Society will be able to go on, knowing their entire enterprise is based upon only those three records, I do not know.

But those are the only three stories where John H. Watson is specifically mentioned.

"Don't be silly!" you might protest. "John Watson is mentioned all over the Canon!"

"Nope," I would reply, standing fast. "'Watson' is mentioned. 'Dr. Watson' is mentioned. But 'John,' in reference to Sherlock Holmes's friend Watson? That's it."

So if you consider the preponderance of evidence, fifty-six stories to four . . . Elementary's Joan Watson is practically as Canonical as that guy in BBC Sherlock who goes by "John."

You might notice I said "four" in that last bit instead of "three," because there is that notorious case where Watson has a completely different first name: "James" in "The Man with the Twisted Lip."

So we have a James Watson. We have a John Watson. We have thirty three cases in which Watson is specifically noted as being a doctor. And then we have a whole lot of records where the guy hanging out with Sherlock Holmes is just a "Watson."

She could have been Joan. He could have been the elder brother whom we only know by his initial, H. They could have had a lot of other first names. They could have included a married Watson visiting Baker Street one month, and an unmarried Watson living there the next. They could have included the Watson wounded in the shoulder, and the Watson wounded in the leg.

One could even drift into that dangerous territory of thinking that Sherlock Holmes just called whoever his latest companion was "Watson," in memory of the original John H. Watson who died early on. In that case, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could have been a Watson . . . not a literary agent after all, just the Watson who wrote up the cases from the notes of Holmes and the other Watsons.

But all this is merely conjecture at this point, left to the researchers who diligently follow the path of the great scholar Backnecke from the early 1900s when he theorized about a proto-Watson and a deutero-Watson. How many Watsons might one find in that one thick volume called The Complete Sherlock Holmes? Only those willing to dig deep will be able to tell us.

As a mere blogger, resigned to scraping the surface of things Sherlockian, I doubt I will be one of those brave Jacques Cousteaus in the ocean of Sherlockian scholarship. But I wish them well, and hope they are greeted as the heroes they truly are when their work is done.

Because this "Watson" thing . . . when you realize facts like that he was called "James" out loud more often than he was "John," well, who knows what other accepted truths about Sherlock's best pal might also be in doubt?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Kitty and Porky together again?

"Hell, London, gets me every time. Same address for Porky Shinwell. We're old mates, Porky, you and I."
-- Kitty Winter, "The Illustrious Client"

It's been a while since CBS's Elementary crossed my television threshold, but this March, with word on the streets that Kitty Winter was returning, it seemed a good time to catch up with that old debatable. It had plainly been a while, as Mr. Elementary himself had taken on a new look, with a suit and his hair clippered down to the stubble, making him look more like a Jason Statham character than his typical . . . well, his typical Mr. Elementary look.

"She's a detective now, Watson, so she's one of us," Mr. Elementary tells Joan Watson, regarding Kitty, and Kitty Winter is detecting all over the place as she joins her old crew from a couple seasons ago to solve a string of murders that may place herself and Mr. E. as upcoming victims.

Joan and Mr. Elementary's new friend, Shinwell Johnson, whose name comes from the same original Sherlock Holmes story as Kitty Winter, didn't seem to be in the first part of this story, March 5's "Wrong Side of the Road," even though he was very much present in the previous episode. Kitty's the one bringing a baby to Elementary, rather than John and Mary. Little Archie has a good Canonical name just like his mother, though unless his father is Watson's old pal Stamford, it's probably in first name alone.

The episode ends with that old cliche, the guy who can't tell you all the answers over the phone only to meet his end before the appointed rendezvous for revelations. But this is just part one of Kitty's return, so there's still one more chance to see Kitty Winter and Shinwell Johnson on screen together, just for some small tribute to the story that birthed them both.

The final moments of the show is shot in front of the awning of an Owens Funeral Home, so a little Google Earth detective work can show you the neighborhood where the "221B" of Elementary is located.

The March 12th Elementary episode, "Fidelity," starts with Mr. Elementary under arrest by some clandestine U.S. Defense intelligence agency, looking a bit old, tired, and haggard. Morland Holmes gets a mention, but as the show's budget seems to only afford one guest star at a time, Morland will have to continue to hang out off-stage like Shinwell Johnson seems to be. But Mt. Elementary is quickly freed and running to pee (Really.) so there's no time to dwell on that. Well, sort of . . .

Kitty Winter's return with baby Archie seems a lot like one episode's usual plot has been stretched to fill two weeks' episodes, and Kitty's presence seems to be just spending two hours getting around to telling Mr. Elementary about her baby and that Archie will be the cause of her retiring from detective work. That subplot even climaxes with a scene between Mr. Elementary and Kitty that is pure cheese, complete with the sort of soppy piano soundtrack that usually denotes cancer or another terminal diagnosis. The fact that Mr E. is giving Kitty grief for being another guest star who doesn't stay in touch is rather ironic, given the show's treatment of cast outside of the main four.

But, all in all, the show's very relaxing, and probably makes an effective sedative if one is having a stressful life. But for a Sherlockian hoping for something other than in-name-only references, Elementary continues to be an arid desert of New York scenery and chatting. (Yes, I know, Kitty Winter kicks a guy in the nuts to make him double over and not get shot by a machine gun, yet somehow Elementary even takes that in its sleepy stride.) Hopes of seeing Kitty Winter and Shinwell Johnson on screen together, even passing in a doorway, as a nod to the stories CBS supposedly based this series on fade quickly.

One does have to give the show credit for one thing, as the ratings dwindle in the latter half of its fifth season: Consistency.

Consistency, if not as the episode title says, "Fidelity."