Monday, March 19, 2018

Friend to the friendless

Looking to "The Yellow Face" for this Thursday nights discussion at the library's Sherlock Holmes Story Society, and realizing there's something important we don't usually look at in this case.

Grant Munro has no friends.

When asked if he came for the services of a consulting detective, Munro says, "Not only that. I want your opinion as a judicious man."

He tells Sherlock Holmes a long, long story about his relationship worries. Holmes gives a him the usual, "Get back to me with more info," and Grant Munro heads on his way. When they catch up to him, he's gathered the resolve to solve his little mystery the old-fashioned way: Just charging in and asking for answers.

A friend of mine was telling me recently another story he dislikes because Sherlock Holmes doesn't really do anything. And this is certainly another one. Sure, Holmes puts on a good show for Watson at the start, and theorizes a bit, but as far as Grant Munro is concerned?

Had Munro just gone down to the local pub for a few pints with his mates, drank enough liquid courage to do the same thing he eventually did, then had his drinking buddies take a stroll to the neighboring cottage with him . . . well, basically, you have the same story.

There aren't many cases in Watson's records where a couple of barflies could obtain the same result as Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson. But there are a few.

Grant Munro just needed some friends. And when you think about it, there were quite a few notable folk who came to Sherlock Holmes because they had no one else. The future Mrs. Watson, Mary Morstan, for one. In the absence of male relatives, she came to the detective and the doctor to accompany her on a questionable errand.

When Christopher Morley subtitled his collection of Holmes stories "A Textbook of Friendship," we tend to think he was just talking about Dr. Watson. But given what we see in Grant Munro, perhaps Sherlock Holmes was a friend to many more than just his room-mate. Maybe not the sort of friend most of us picture, but as a sort of last resort friend when no other is at hand.

And who else is available at those times but the guy who isn't out socializing already.

A guy like Sherlock Holmes.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Sherlockian privilege

By now, most of you know that I am pretty much the stereotype of Ye Old Tyme Sherlockian: Straight, white, and male. Toward the end of the Boomer generation. Full of ideas and cultural references that are slightly out-dated but hard to shake. And privileged as f#&*.''

See, I can't even freely write without a little censorship, having done do much of my writing in a time when "You can't write 'frigging' because people know what that means!' was an actual editorial quote.

Anyway: One of those subjects that tends to divide us these days is "privilege," the concept that while many of us were created equal in body and mind, we definitely weren't created equal in opportunity or treatment by society. Privilege is a tough topic, because those who have it the most have to have enough humility to recognize the gifts that were handed to them by social station even while their accomplishments moved them forward. Me, I don't know if I'm that humble or just aware of my own laziness enough to see a few of the spots where my white maleness gave me a boost up.

Privilege in the Sherlockian world comes in a lot of flavors, and not all from where you would think. Besides the cultural ones that affect all people, there are a few stand-outs. There's a geographic privilege -- the ease of connection for Sherlockians in larger cities is pretty plain. Even just the ability to drive to a regular hang-out like Dayton is something. The silent undercurrent of family funding behind some active Sherlockian eccentrics becomes visible if you get around enough. And then there's that new brand of privilege we've seen in recent years: The thought that creators must work for what their loudest fans want.

Now, don't for a minute paint all fans of a certain Sherlock with this brush: I've seen enough privileged pretty young white girls trying to imposed their will on better new-school fans of their same gender to know that this isn't the case at all. Privilege is a sneaky bastard that creeps into all aspects of our lives, but is seen most in the most narcissistic. Find a class of humans that is typically all up into themselves, and there you will also find some of the worst of arrogant Sherlockians. But not all. Never all. Sherlockians in the main do tend to be decent folk, using our shared passions to connect, not dominate. But, oh, those few who want to dominate and herd fandom into the shape they think it should take -- soooo much privilege there.

But, at our core, we're fans of an upper middle class white male from a country that dominated the globe at the time he was created. Sherlock Holmes did not bootstrap his way up from the slums of London overcoming race or gender barriers. Nor did John H. Watson, who without his M.D. and ability to get a wound pension, could have been a street beggar making much less than Hugh Boone. We love what they did in their adventurous lives, but rarely consider what social circumstances allowed them those lives of taking risks beyond the challenges of just holding a life together.

So what do we do?

Listen. Watch. Be as aware as we can, without judgement. Or, to put it as a certain friend of ours would, "Observe without theorizing in advance of the facts." And then, do as that same friend of our did, be helpful, be understanding, and be kind. None of us has a time machine to re-write the injustices that got us all to this point, but we do have futures that will affect the lives of other Sherlockians. Futures that we can refuse to take past mistakes into, just because it was always done a certain way, or that we're still feeling the pain of old wounds.

Because in the end, all Sherlockians have that same privilege that John Watson so gratefully expressed on multiple occasions. Listen to how he put it:

"I consider it the greatest privilege to have been permitted to study your methods of working."

"My participation in some of his adventures was always a privilege which entailed discretion and reticence upon me."

And that favorite one, answered with "some emotion."

"You know that is is my greatest joy and privilege to help you."

You really have to love that man. And how he inspires Sherlockians as much as the guy whose first name is a part of what we call ourselves. He understood not only what his privilege was, but also the best thing to do with it: Use discretion where necessary, reticence where necessary, and to help.

There's a reason we call this thing our "Canon."

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

And then there's one more thing to prepare for

Less that ten days, people. And I don't think we're prepared.

On Friday, March 23rd . . . Thursday, March 22nd, if you catch the first showing night . . . Sherlock Gnomes hits theaters. The biggest Sherlock Holmes movie experience since 2015's Mr. Holmes. And we're going to have opinions.

Do we re-watch The Great Mouse Detective to prepare? No, that would probably level-set a little too high for a movie with a farting character named "Mankini" who wears a thong/wrestling singlet thing to show off his butt. (And for the love of John H. Watson, don't google "mankini" now! You won't find the worst of the internet, but you sure won't find its best.) Watching Gnomeo and Juliet might serve you better in that respect.

Because if you watch the movie that came before Sherlock Gnomes . . . which was, as the name implies, based on SHAKESPEARE, for pity's sake . . . you might see what to expect of this one, which is based on Conan Doyle's works.


But here's the other part: Before you run to the theater, prepared to tear this thing to shreds in your review, as there will surely be ample evidence to prosecute such a case, one must stop and remember that someone is going to love this film. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But twenty years from now? You're going to run into that adult who developed a fondness for Sherlock Holmes at age five thanks to this movie.

Going troll on Sherlock Gnomes is a lay-up with a stepladder. For this thing to be un-mockable it would have to bring a level of movie game few American animated films have ever achieved. (Yes, yes, Pixar. But, we're talking the sequel to Gnomeo and Juliet here. I actually reviewed it online in the guise of "Sherlock Holmes IV, Consulting Movie Detective" back in 2011 at the same time as Just Go With It and I Am Number Four, and I don't remember any of those three movies.

So what if we all decide now that, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, we . . . oh, for the love of John H. Watson, don't ever listen to Alfred, Lord Tennyson reading that poem on Edison wax cylinder on the Wikipedia page -- it's terrifying! . . . were was I, besides being the most distracted blogger ever? Oh, yes, suggesting doomed campaigns . . . .

What if we ready ourselves to make lemonade out of lemons on this sucker? The preview plainly has Sherlock Gnomes and Watson in a boat chase vaguely reminiscent of The Sign of Four.  And that squirrel disguise Gnomes uses is like that one time Holmes disguised himself (you choose). And Watson is voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was Mordo to Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange, which wasn't quite his Watson (more like his eventual Moriarty, but not just yet).

There's the real challenge! Finding something to redeem all the Mankini jokes filling the preview.

Whatever approach you decide to take, you have just over a week to prepare yourself.

Prepare yourself.

Panel prep begins.

The timing couldn't have been more perfect.

After opening up the spring Sherlockian season with a day at the Dayton symposium, I was just settling in and finishing up my contribution to Chris Redmond's next essay collection when three e-mails came in.

It seems I got on the three 221B Con panels I applied for this year, the familiar "Arthur Continuity Doyle" which I was on last year, "Moriarty's Network," and "Sherlock and John aboard Serenity."

The e-mails are already flying between my fellow panelists, and I'm excited about digging in.

Doyle's continuity has always been a Sherlockian cornerstone, and a panel 221B Con has had for several years, so finding a few fresh continuity issues to add to the traditional problems like Watson's wives and wounds will be fun. An article I recently sent in for the next issue of The Watsonian will definitely come up.

Connecting Moriarty with all of the pre-1891 cases that he isn't specifically mentioned in will be some good Canonical fun as well, a panel that may have been inspired by the Granada series connecting "Red-Headed League" to Moriarty. Who knows how much of Holmes's work led him to sense that network was out there before he had a name to put on it?

And then there's the panel that attracted the most panelists of the three: "Sherlock and John aboard Serenity." This one spins directly out of a Twitter conversation where some of us were trying to decide which characters on the show Firefly would Sherlock and John be if they were in that world. Since one of my favorite mental games has always been deciding which of my co-workers were which character on Gilligan's Island or other shows, I'm well prepared for this "human metaphors" sort of thought experiment.

And having just finished the essay I mentioned earlier for Chris Redmond's upcoming "Sherlock Holmes is like . . ." collection, it seems like comparing Holmes to similar characters might be a genre of Sherlockiana that's growing with the massive amount of new characters we've seen coming into fiction's land in the past few decades. ("Sherlock is like Spock" is the first one I remember. Anyone remember any earlier ones?)

The road to 221B Con starts a long time before one gets into a car to head for the interstate or airport to go to Atlanta, and for me, it's definitely begun.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A day in Dayton.

It's been quite a few years since I poked my head in any of the more traditional Sherlockian venues. The all-day Saturday program of speakers with a Sherlockian weekend built around it is the sort of function I've enjoyed since John Bennett Shaw was putting them on, and the good Carter and I travelled to Illinois Benedictine College for just such an event in 1983.

Few have had runs as long as the one that gets called "the Dayton symposium," existing under different names with different program-runners, going back . . . decades. I didn't make the trip for the first incarnations, had the fun of finding my speaking comfort zone there during some of the middle years, then missed some transitional years as it found its way to "Holmes, Doyle, & Friends." This is the fifth year under that title, and I am happy to report that it's doing quite well.

While there might have been a sad moment of remembering those faces who weren't there, having moved out of state or from this mortal plane entirely, I was shocked at all of the familiar faces that were still there, almost like no time had passed. Adding to that timelessness was looking around the room and seeing over fifty people without phones in their hands. Not that I have an issue with the habits of our modern tech culture -- my own phone finds its way to my hand more than my partner would like sometimes -- but the day was so relaxed and engaging enough that I almost forgot that this was 2017 and the era of staying connected.

In fact, I forgot about my phone so much that I only took one picture, the coincidentally numbered "IMG-0221."

Don Curtis was the first speaker to use PowerPoint and I suddenly realized I had picked a horrible seat, even though it put me next to two very pleasant Sherlockians, Mel Hoffman and Pat Ward. (With Bob Cairo on the other side, lest you only think I'm going to mention Indianapolis area Sherlockians.)

As with any multi-topic Sherlockian program, subjects ranged from general Victorian/Anglophile areas of interest like  clubs or afternoon tea to the Canon-specific like Mary Morstan to those that mixed real world areas of study with Holmes himself. Here are some specific random notes:

• Excellent case for giving Mary Morstan-Watson her true prominence in the Canonical hierarchy by Ray Betzner, when most of us didn't realize how badly she was getting snubbed. (And why.)

• Two-thirds of the Sherlockians present seemed to have gone to London. Most were very interested in clubs.

• Having Jacquelynn Bost Morris talk about High Tea immediately before lunch is probably the best time to talk about High Tea. And "scone" is pronounced "skawn."

• More fans of Jeremy Brett at Dayton than Benedict Cumberbatch. But that autographed staring face picture of David Burke just wouldn't sell. And yet that stare.

• Cindy Brown came from Dallas and Fran Martin came from Vancouver. Definitely not just Indiana folks wandering across the state line.

• Mark Friedman, creator of the stage musical Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Crown Jewel, was the perfect after-lunch choice to keep us from napping.

• Comforted to know that neither my house-mate nor myself qualify as hoarders, despite occasional worries of same. Thanks, Monica!

• Sherlock Holmes's actual involvement in the Ripper murders was clearing his cousin. Thanks, Steve!

• Brent Morris knows how to explain a familiar Sherlock Holmes skillset like cryptography in a way that will make you think Holmes is even smarter than you already thought he was.

• There were a lot of parts of Victorian justice that Sherlock Holmes didn't have anything to do with, which Liese Sherwood-Fabre walked us through.

And now, an important correction to something that came up, and I totally told Steve Doyle a wrong thing on: It was not Sterling Holloway, the voice of Winnie the Pooh, who was possessed by Jack the Ripper on Star Trek. It was John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet. So close!

In any case, thanks to the Agra Treasurers for a great day, and I wish I could have stayed for the evening banquet, or been at the welcome reception the night before. I was really squeezing this one in this year after a long absence, but it was well worth the drive, and I'm definitely going to try to get back next year. (And have more money budgeted for the many great dealers!)

Small banquet, good. Small bookstore, well . . .

Due to some timing issues, this particular Sherlockian weekend, I had plan to miss the formal Saturday night banquet part of the agenda, with its usual toasts and dinner conversation with a program to follow. Instead I had to content myself with less-planned Friday night banquet with one other participant.

Being forced to "settle" for a less populated affair the night before might be something one could imagine as a hardship, but now, as I reflect upon this evening and so many others like it, it seems like the best dinners I've had with other Sherlockians haven't been at the typical round tables-for-eight, but at smaller, squarer tables.

At a big banquet, you often get to focus on one speaker with prepared words. At a small banquet, you sometimes get to focus on one speaker with unprepared words. Which one would I prefer?

Well, it might tell you something in that I'm writing in generalities rather than relaying the specifics of an evening at the brewpub featuring a meeting of the minds between fellow bloggers and chronologists Sherlock Peoria and Historical Sherlock. There was a lot of talk of what we've both got in the "things I want to do" queue, as well as comparing approaches to the fine art of Sherlockian chronology. Ideas for where things might go in the future, who else might even be interested in the field and what its place is amidst the Sherlockian whole. It was a very inspiring evening, and one whose parts and pieces you'll be seeing in the future, which is why I'm not going to spill either sets of beans here.

Our pre-dinner warm-up activity had been to do a little booking, and the first stop on that outing was a real test of one's will to shop. A local bookstore was having its going-out-of-business sale, and the small shop was mostly filled with a line of people waiting to check-out. After ten minutes of snaking over and around people, the air seemed to be holding less and less oxygen, and I started wondering just what I could find that I wanted bad enough to stand in that purgatory of a line. Vincent gave the signal for "Let's get out of here!" and I readily followed. Since the next bookstore was, unfortunately, closed, we started our chronology banquet early, and that was just fine.

Today we head to Dayton to hear a day-long series of speakers, the first time in a while I've gotten back to that format of Sherlocking, so another report will follow.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The calendar man

"You seem to be a walking calendar of crime."
-- Stamford, A Study in Scarlet

"Ah, it is not a part of your profession to carry about a portable Newgate Calendar in your memory."
-- Sherlock Holmes, "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs"

One quote from early in Holmes's career, one from near the end of his career. And yet, in between those book-end quote, how often does Sherlock Holmes use his expertise in criminal history?

"The Noble Bachelor" is perhaps the single example where we can be certain, as Holmes lays it out for Watson.

"But I have heard all that you have heard," Watson protests as his friend explains he's solved the case.

"Without, however, the knowledge of preexisting cases which serves me so well," Holmes replies, citing similar events in Aberdeen and Munich. In 1887, Holmes still prided himself in his expertise in the history of crime, as he did when advising Inspector MacDonald to spend months just reading criminal history in the early days of the Moriarty investigation.

For those of us trying to apply a calendar to the crimes that Sherlock Holmes himself was involved in, it's interesting that Sherlock Holmes wasn't just a crime historian, but the fact that crime kept on a calendar figured in so prominently in the way Stamford described him and the way Holmes described how he himself kept that knowledge.

The Newgate Calendar, of course, was not an actual calendar, but a best-selling five-volume set of books that could be found in many a home. And while Sherlock Holmes probably disagreed with the style of that set of books, being embellished, with details not always taken from solid sources, it was still the most common collection of criminal history to be found. Hopefully he wasn't referring to the Newgate Calendar as it was originally created -- as a monthly bulletin of executions.

A calendar of executions kept in the mind palace of Sherlock Holmes might make us wonder what really did happen to Captain Calhoun of "The Five Orange Pips" or Wilson Kemp of "The Greek Interpreter," villains thought to have escaped only for Watson to later hear they probably died of unnatural causes. How did Watson hear of those karmic death sentences? Was it news passed along from Holmes, framed as a "Oh, I heard that . . ." when it may have been a more certain bit of personal experience from his own "Newgate calendar?"

Depending upon your own virtues or vices, that thought could make tales like "Pips" and "Interpreter" much more satisfying, even if they do cast a darker light on Sherlock Holmes himself, as a man leading a La Femme Nikita double life. (Or is that a "Mary Morstan" double life since Sherlock?) Calendars never looked so grim as an assassin's hit list etched in the mental stone of a man who was known to do the work of judge and jury on occasion.

But, Sherlock Holmes was probably just an academic or hobbyist sort of criminal historian, right?


Well, of course . . .