Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Conan Doyle, king of the pre-movie movie trope

I've always been both charmed and fascinated by what I call "trigger lines," that movie convention of the hero saying something clever just before pulled the trigger, setting off an explosion, or punching someone in the face. And I also loved the fact that Conan Doyle knew how to pull them off long before movies did, as he displayed in "Solitary Cyclist."
"You're too late. She's my wife!""No, she's your widow!"The revolver cracked . . .
But the pithy, pre-shot comment isn't the only trope Doyle liked that would later come back, again and again in movies. Take the cat scare, or as Roger Ebert called it, "the spring loaded cat."

Cats have been jumping out of cabinets, from behind curtains, and from other rooms since sound came to motion pictures in the 1940s. No doubt at least one cat jumps out in a Basil Rathbone movie. But, if indeed that did happen, it wouldn't be the first time Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson got scared by a cat. That happened in 1902.

In "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," Holmes and Watson are creeping though the dark parts of Milverton's house when what should happen?


“Something rushed out at us and my heart sprang into my mouth, but I could have laughed when I realized that it was the cat.”

Yes, there's a cliche cat scare in a classic Sherlock Holmes tale.

Doyle couldn't have been the first author to pull that stunt in a suspenseful narrative. And it certainly goes to show that cats scaring unsuspecting humans is a part of life a lot of folks are familiar with. (I could tell you my own tale of a young cat of mine jumping on the shoulders of an unsuspecting realtor after he'd gotten used to doing the trick with me. Oh, wait . . . I guess that was the whole tale.)

But it might make you forgive the next movie that pulls that age-old trick out of its movie hat. Because even though it's no "dog in the night-time," those jumping cats are just as much a part of the Sherlock Holmes canon as that quiet pooch. And they should be enjoyed as such.

Monday, September 16, 2019

The new kids on the Baker Street block.

Ever listen to a podcast, hear the hosts start struggling with to come up with some bit of knowledge you consider commonplace, and and fight the urge to start loudly telling them what they need to know?

I have a feeling that's going to happen a lot with The Final Podblem, a podcast from Semiautomagic, Inc, now on its seventh episode, where Nick and Casey, the hosts, have made it their mission to work their way through the whole of the sixty Sherlock Holmes stories. And it's also going to start making be feel very, very old. Like "spent most of my life in the 1900s" old. (Sorry if I've already used that one on you -- its my new favorite thing.)

As they neared the end of their "Red-Headed League" episode, Nick and Casey got into a little bit of an exploration of that the word "rubber" could mean as Mr. Merryweather complains, "Still I confess that I miss my rubber. It is the first Saturday night for seven-and-twenty years that I have not had my rubber."

Now, having spent a childhood in the 1960s, when couples playing bridge was still an entertainment standard, my first reaction to their befuddlement was "They don't know what bridge is?" And then I realized, that, no, why should they? Who plays bridge any more?

I mean, sure it was in daily newspaper columns back when we had newspapers. And sitcom parents, like Ward and June Cleaver were always off to play bridge on black-and-white TV shows. But those are the things of ancient times.

Of course, my attributing Merryweather's "rubber" to a game of bridge is also a generational screw-up, as any reader of a Sherlockian annotated will tell you. In Mr. Merryweather's day, you didn't play bridge, you played whist -- the game bridge evolved from. Just like Ronald Adair played "a rubber of whist" the night before his death in "The Adventure of the Empty House."

Nick and Casey haven't come close to that one yet, which is why they started deducing that a "rubber" was "the act of betting itself" due to the context and a later comment by Holmes. It's almost like they're a couple of aliens who stumbled on to a copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, but y'know what? In a hobby where one is used to running into one's fellow know-it-alls most of the time, their Canonical innocence is kind of refreshing . . . if I can get over occasionally wanting to talk back to the iPhone as they ramble on at a fast-and-chatty pace.

They finish the episode trying to figure out what a "coronet" is as they head for "The Beryl Coronet" as, in their words, "dum-dums goofing on it real hard." They're having fun, they're going for it, and that's what podcasting is all about -- which is a lovely change from some of the too-serious sections of the old Sherlockian world. (And, hey, as ridiculous as my own podcast attempts have been, I' should be the last guy to throw stones at an earnest attempt at audio fun!)

I wish them well, and hope they enjoy Sherlock enough to keep going when, in a little over a year, they make it through the full sixty stories. There's a lot more movies, books, stories, radio plays, etc. out there if they really lock into our friends Holmes and Watson. That weekly pace though . . . whew! Which makes me think I'd better finish up a certain podcast myself.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A moment of disbelief in Sherlock Holmes

"When a woman has been seriously wronged by a man she no longer oscillates, and the usual symptom is a broken bell wire."
-- Sherlock Holmes, Victorian expert on women

Stumbling upon the line above this week after unintentionally binge-watching Netflix's Unbelievable really shines a light on just what a male-dominated place Sherlock Holmes comes from. Unbelievable is a drama based on an investigation into police handling of rape cases, and, that, my dear Sherlock Holmes, is definitely "seriously wronged by a man."

When I say "unintentionally binge-watching," that's exactly what I mean. Like many a weekend, I saw show was offering up another new show, and I watched the first episode just to see what was up. True crime isn't usually my thing, but Unbelievable drew me in. Instead of the usuual suspense generated by the "Are they going to get killed?" sort of story, Unbelievable bases its suspense on "Will the truth ever come out?" as we watch a life slowly being destroyed.

And finding the ultimate truth behind a situation is where Sherlock Holmes is iconic, right?

But in Victorian times, even in a fiction by a progressive author, the dominant male point of view can show up even in as simple a thing as watching a woman cross the street. "I have seen those symptoms before," Sherlock Holmes tells Watson, diagnosing female behavior like a doctor identifying an illness. In earlier tales he's said he doesn't trust women, he's said how secretive they are, and yet here, he's boldly proclaiming that he has this woman's story figured out.

The character of Marie in Unbelievable is exactly the sort of person who would throw Sherlock Holmes a sharp curve. She's a former foster kid who's been in the system so long and used to bad authority figures that she isn't going to just come out with clear, perfect information, especially in a situation where she's been badly hurt. Put her on the pavement across from 221B Baker Street, and she's going to oscillate, if not stop and not cross the street altogether. And in that moment, Sherlock Holmes would have her story entirely wrong.

Yet I'm not going to throw Holmes completely on to the Underground tracks this morning. He did get better as the Canon went on, something I laid out in my completely-outdated book Sherlock and the Ladies once upon a time. Holmes did show a concern and kindness for those whom he tried to help, and we have witnesses to that: Mrs. Cecil Forrester, for example, was so impressed by his kindness in handling a domestic incident that she sent another woman to see him.

Now that Elementary and Sherlock are off the air, though, I think we need another modern Sherlock Holmes to carry the legend forward, and let us see more of what our hero can do when completely freed of Victorian shackles. He's been very good already, and I know that "he," or whatever pronoun Sherlock next comes back with, could be better still.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Captain Jack Pumpkins, the pumpkin of Watson's eye

With all of the developments in flavor technology, it's really sort of amazing that we have, at this point, only adopted one flavor season. You know it. Some love it. It's PUMPKIN SPICE time!

Vaguely emulating that pie of autumn, the pumpkin pie (and one of the only things most people really do with pumpkins) the pumpkin spice flavor starts to invade any food or drink product that can hold it. Pumpkins, however, were celebrated every September around central Illinois long before pumpkin spice was a thing, as the pumpkins come in from local fields and the Libby's plant in Morton started canning those pumpkins for November pie-makers. And the Pumpkin Festival occurs, as it did this week.

So, with that long intro, it's time to get to the Sherlockian Canon's one known pumpkin lover, Captain Jack Croker of the good ship Bass Rock! (Anyone know any good rock music played with a bass? Insert it here!)

Captain Croker, to Watson's eye, was "as fine a specimen of manhood as ever passed through it." ("It" being the door to the 221B Baker Street sitting room.) "He was a very tall young man, golden-moustached, blue eyed, with a skin which had been burned by tropical suns, and a springy step which showed that huge frame was active as it was strong." Captain Jack felt "overmastering emotion," he lived life so hard. Could we ask for a better spokesman for pumpkins?

And Captain Jack knew pumpkins.

"I went through him as if he had been a rotten pumpkin," Captain Jack says of Sir Eustace Brackenstall of "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange." Captain Jack plainly had a great hatred for a rotten, wasted pumpkin as when he imagines Sir Eustace as that thing, he goes violently through the wife-abusing bastard with some of that "overmastering emotion." Seeing a pumpkin go to rot is plainly a very emotional thing for Captain Jack.

And why not? Pumpkins are a native North American squash that has become the icon of the one American holiday that brings families together with no religious inducement, no birthday cake, no mythological gift or egg bearing sprites. Pumpkins rule, especially for Canadians or Americans.

Captain Jack Croker was surely of one of those nationalities, as why else bring up that rotten, wasted pumpkin with such emotion behind it? And Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, surely agreed, else why would they so easily go, "Sure you killed a guy, you handsome devil, but just get outa here, ya pumpkin-loving bastard!"*  (*Not their actual words, just the thoughts you can easily hear behind "Vox populi, vox Dei!" because who the hell knows what that means anyway! Don't tell me what you read in a footnote, like you believe footnotes. We're talking about pumpkins here. This is serious.)

Sorry, that last parenthetical got away from me.

Anyway, Captain Jack Croker! The great pumpkin spokesman of the Sherlockian Canon! Grab the pumpkin spice drink of your choosing and toast him as much as the season will let you!




Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Scotland Yard man who was trusted before Watson

There is a moment in "The Dying Detective" where you wonder if we've suddenly met the one evil Scotland Yard inspector in the Sherlockian Canon.

John Watson is waiting for a cab outside of 221B Baker Street, when he hears a voice out of the fog.

"How is Mr. Holmes, sir?" Watson is asked, and the doctor recognizes the speaker as "an old acquaintance," Inspector Morton of Scotland Yard, wearing "unofficial tweeds."

"He is very ill," Watson tells Morton. And then we get the moment:

"He looked at me in a most singular fashion. Had it not been too fiendish, I could have imagined that the gleam of the fanlight showed exultation in his face."

Watson, ever wanting to think the best of a tried-and-true Scotland Yard detective, finds an excuse for what he sees in Morton's face: Inspector Morton is thrilled that Sherlock Holmes is very sick.

It's hard to remember one's first read of this favorite story, if it's decades in the past as it is for me. Did I think Morton some secret villain at that first read? Did I just zip over Watson's words there in my anxiousness to see what happened next?

At this point, it's a line I dearly love, as it foreshadows what we know lies ahead. And Inspector Morton does too -- he's not thrilled that Holmes is sick, he's thrilled that Watson is convinced Sherlock Holmes is sick. Inspector Morton is in on Holmes's plan, and possibly the one who called him in to begin with. Dr. Watson, however, is with Mrs. Hudson, left being defrauded by their friend and house-mate.

It's a rare thing for Holmes to confide in a Scotland Yard inspector over Watson, but in "Dying Detective," we see it play out . . . and, actually, Morton almost blowing it with his inability to keep a straight face. But this one time, it did happen. Too bad we never got to learn more of this particular Morton before the Canon's end.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

All those Matilda Briggs

"Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson. It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared."
-- Sherlock Holmes, around 1901, "The Sussex Vampire"


This week, my friend John Holliday seems to have found evidence that Sherlock Holmes made a statement that was not entirely correct. "Matilda Briggs" was the name of at least one young woman.


Matilda, one might sadly deduce from her tombstone in a local cemetery, was a very young woman who seems to have died as she was born on November 26, 1853. And even though it would be the longest and strangest turn for such a child from rural Illinois to have any connection to a case published in 1924, the devoted Sherlockian has to start looking things up. So first I turned to Donald A. Redmond's Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Sources, a 1982 work that goes after more Canonical names than you'd believe.

Redmond's main conclusion is that no ship named "Matilda Briggs" actually existed, and that Conan Doyle based the Matilda Briggs on the Marie Celeste, a famed lost ship. (One might also note that Don Redmond was a Doylean authorship guy. Apologies to my Watsonian-authorship-favoring readers out there.) Conan Doyle was definitely into the mystery of the Marie Celeste, as he wrote a fictional account of it that was published in 1884, titled "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statment."

The captain of the Marie Celeste was one Benjamin Spooner Briggs, who had a two year old daughter named Sophia Matilda Briggs. Sophia Matilda, at that tender age of two, was presumed lost along with the crew of the ship when it turned up, sailing along with no one aboard, in 1872. Sophia Matilda is memorialized in a Marion, Massachusetts cemetery, the town that particular Briggs family called home.

In the 1850 census, America birthed 145 Matildas between 1841 and 1850. In the following census of 1880, 1851 to 1860 produced 355 Matildas. And the decade of Sophia Matilda's birth, 1861 to 1870, that number was up to 529. How many of that roughly thousand Matildas had the last name of Briggs? And how many more were born outside of America?

While Sherlock Holmes was definitely speaking of a ship of his own experience, his statement "Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman," taken out of context, is definitely not true. Which is a good thing, really, because as sad as the fates of the two Matilda Briggs we know about were, neither involved a giant rat from Sumatra. The world is definitely not prepared for that thing to start turning up around baby girls.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Why Sherlock Holmes makes sense out of Conan Doyle.

One of the many non-Sherlockian podcasts I enjoy is Penn Jillette's twice-weekly rambles on Penn's Sunday School. Penn is one of those fellows whom, even if you don't always agree with him, you have to give credit for at least trying to think a thing through. He is a very intelligent fool, which is what the world needs more of, and some things he said lately upon the subject of science really nailed Sherlock Holmes for me.

Sherlock Holmes, we will all certainly agree, is a man of science. He draws his detective skills from all those branches of knowledge that prove useful to him. Those who dislike Holmes usually say things much like Lestrade or that goose salesman, who called Holmes "Mr. Cocksure." They consider Sherlock Holmes a bit arrogant in the fact that he provides answers to things that are a mystery to them. And yet what does Sherlock Holmes love?

Things that are a mystery to him.

Sherlock Holmes loves not knowing a thing, which is the true secret of all great scientists: They know that they don't know things, and they really want to find out the answers to those mysteries. Anyone claiming to actually know everything and also be a man of science is lying about one of those things: science is about using the scientific method to solve those nagging mysteries of life. If there is no mystery, there is no need for the scientific method, nor scientists.

This was the point Penn made that rang so true about Holmes as I listened to it today. But as I ran that thought through my mind, something else he said came back to me, and it solved something that has been puzzling many a Sherlockian like myself from the first time they learn Conan Doyle was a fairy-believing spiritualist. How could a man with such "woo-woo" beliefs create a Sherlock Holmes?

Well, if you're as old as I, you might remember all of the scientists studying ESP and the like, back in the 1970s. A guy named Uri Gellar was bending spoons with his mind as scientists watched in amazement and tried to study him. Men and women of science, like Conan Doyle. People who saw a mystery, like little girls photographing fairies and set out to find proof. Just like Sherlock Holmes and the demon hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle could not stay away from such a thing.

But here's the thing about many a pure soul attempting to study ESP, or fairies, or spirits in a scientific manner, that Penn pointed out: You can be as scientific as you want, but if you trust another human being not to lie to you about what's going on from the outset, you've lost the battle. Many an ESP researcher trusted that Uri Gellar wasn't doing a simple magic trick. Conan Doyle trusted two little girls that they wouldn't lie to his face about how they took photos. The impulse to investigate the mystery was there, just like Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes, however, had a "No ghosts need apply" philosophy that allowed him to look harder for the lie, while Conan Doyle's hope that magical creatures might exist made him much less cynical. And wrong. But, hey, if the only way not to lose is not to play. Conan Doyle, like Holmes, loved to play the Game.

While Conan Doyle often said that he was not Sherlock Holmes, to be sure, but the spirit of Holmes came out of Doyle, and you can see evidence of that, even when Doyle seemed most foolish. Because you have to be a little bit of a fool to admit you don't know something and seek out the answers to that thing. T'were Sherlock Holmes the true know-it-all that some know-it-alls often seem to see him as, he never would have left the house to investigate a case.

So we should all be willing fools at some point . . . for science!