Sunday, July 15, 2018

It hasn't all been done before.

Feeling a little down of late, just because I'm focusing so much attention on twenty-five minutes in August when I'll be presenting at "Holmes in the Heartland." And when concentrating on one topic, all the sparkly other diversions of Holmes and Watson remain outside the window where the other kids are playing.

When one starts feeling the blues a bit, certain themes recur: Why am I doing this? What does it matter? Aren't you just doing the thing you did before all over again?

Well, at this point in life, I've gotten good at answering a few of my down-self questions. I know where the fun comes in, even if it's not present at the moment. And the importance of little things, things that may not seem as consequential, they have their time as well. And as I was running through all those sorts of questions and answers, I came upon that one bullshit line that fake smart people like to puff up and pontificate to make themselves feel important.

"It has all been done before."

All the stories are that one story that Joseph Campbell or Shakespeare or somebody came up with.

It's a bit like saying every painting with a person in it is just a new versions of the Mona Lisa or some cave drawing of a man with a spear. Yes, they have a similarity or two. But if you're actually going to claim that they're the same thing, that nothing new has been added to the field of art since that time, you're just not paying any attention at all.

Of course, our friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes, said it too, didn't he?

"It's all been done before, and will be again."

But context matters. He was explaining to Inspector MacDonald about understanding crime from reading up on the history of crime. And he doesn't start with those words. Holmes starts his explanation by saying, "Everything comes in circles -- even Professor Moriarty. Jonathan Wild was the hidden force of the London criminals, to whom he sold his brains and his organization on a fifteen per cent commission." But would Holmes have seen Moriarty as a challenge, if he was just Jonathan Wild, the sequel?

Everything comes in circles, but the circle spins a little faster, throws out a few more sparks, and maybe even flies off its axle to spin somewhere new.

Seeing connections and similarities are actually one of the ways our brains come up with new things, and not just dismiss possibilities as "more of the same." (Though "more of the same" definitely does exist -- trust me, I saw the movie Skyscraper today, and if that movie had been a boxer, I'd have been ducking every telegraphed or familiar punch.) Sherlock Holmes would have gotten bored with detective work in the first year if crime was really just the same-old, same-old.

It may seem like we charge up the same hill, fight the same battles over and over, because when you come right down to it, we're almost the same human beings that walked the Earth a century or two centuries ago. Maslow's hierarchy of needs hasn't changed so much. But even though we may feel the same love, rage with the same anger, or laugh at the same twists others have done in the past, there are some details that are always different, always there to be appreciated anew.

A generator spins through the same cycles to produce energy that can go to a thousand different purposes, and cycling through the sixty-stories of Sherlock Holmes, with its surprisingly new details that can appear out of nowhere on a later read, are a great example of how something new can even come out of something that is exactly the same.

On we go, never quite sure where we'll wind up. And there's a reason for that, even in something as old as Sherlockiana.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Montague Street Connection

One of those little points of Sherlock Holmes's past that fascinates me whenever I return to it comes in "The Musgrave Ritual."

"Even when you knew me first, at the time of the affair which you have commemorated in 'A Study in Scarlet,' I had already established a considerable, though not a very lucrative, connection," Sherlock Holmes explains to Dr. Watson.

The singular form of that word always evokes the thought of a single source of income. Later, when we encounter Watson using the word himself, it takes on a different cast:

"Shortly after my marriage I had bought a connection in the Paddington district. Old Mr. Farquhar, from whom I purchased it, had at one time an excellent general practice; but his age, and affliction of the nature of St. Vitus's dance from which he suffered, had very much thinned it."

Watson, of course, is talking about a base of regular patients, as any medical practice has. And we know that Sherlock Holmes's career of "consulting detective" is based upon the model of a medical specialist. But does a detective have enough regular customers to maintain a practice like a doctor? Who would such folk be, that had mystery after mystery in their lives?

Well, Scotland Yard comes quickly to mind, and if CBS's Elementary and many another TV procedural is to be believed, major metropolitan police forces just love returning to non-cops for help. Heck, in one Fox-now-Netflix show, the police like hitting up the devil himself for help in solving their cases. But the Sherlockian Canon is a little more sophisticated than those shows, and Holmes's client list is a lot more varied.

Did Holmes have a sign outside his Montague Street rooms, announcing he was open for business to walk-in trade? Did he advertise in the papers, perhaps something small in the personal section?

Was his main income coming from family money, or, as Holmes was as much artist as doctor, did his "connection" come from a single wealthy patreon, who used his services occasionally and liked to have a consulting detective on retainer. We know, also from "The Musgrave Ritual," that some of Sherlock's early cases came from those he met at college, like Reginald Musgrave. Wealthy young men who could afford to hire such services from the day they left college. Might such a patreon have come from that pool? Or maybe an old family friend who took at interest in Holmes's unique attempt at vocation?

We never hear of Scotland Yard paying Holmes in the Canon, but we do get a good look whenever he can get a payday off someone with wealth. And Scotland Yard does send people his way, so that may have been the currency they paid him in . . . supplying him with clients rather than cash in exchange for help on high-profile cases they couldn't just pawn off on him. That would have been a great connection for Holmes to make, and it's the one he explains to Watson early on.

"Here in London we have lots of Government detectives and lots of private ones. When these fellows are at fault they come to me, and I manage to put them on the right scent," Holmes explains at first, but when Watson questions him about his non-white-male-police-looking clients, Holmes adds, "They are mostly sent on by private inquiry agencies. They are all people who are in trouble about something, and want a little enlightening. I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket my fee."

Note that there was no mention of that fee when he was speaking about Lestrade and the other detectives just a moment before. One suspects Sherlock Holmes just enjoyed beating them at the game, but getting them to send along their problem cases was surely his best "connection" to them, even if, as he says in "Musgrave Ritual," not "very lucrative."

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The "Lowered Expectations" areas of Sherlockian work

I was pondering my Sherlockian output a while back when, in a weird bit of synchronicity,  this little post turned up from Chris Redmond, entitled "Hardly anyone bought my book."  Now, by any standards I've ever come up with, Chris is a very successful Sherlockian. His recent specialty of gathering Sherlockian writers in groups of sixty on a given theme has been a very admirable bit of work by itself, and it's hardly the highest point of his long Sherlockian career. But Sherlockiana . . . true, in the weeds, Sherlockiana . . . has never been quite as popular the shiney new member of the faith might hope.

Pastiche, though oft much berated by the older, crankier members of our species, would seem to be the one route gaining readership above a certain threshold. A number of talented writers have broken into the mainstream with a Sherlock Holmes novel, then released Sherlock like a booster rocket falling away as they launched into the orbit of professional fictioneers. And a much, much greater number never moves beyond Holmes fiction. But even those novelists tend to see greater numbers of readership than those of us who stick to that curious niche sometimes called "Sherlockian scholarship."

Take the first book at hand, here at Sherlock Peoria home base, Baker Street Chronology: Commentaries on The Sacred Writings of Dr. John H. Watson by Ernest Bloomfield Zeisler. The initial run, even with a Vincent Starrett preface, was only two hundred copies. Thirty years later, it was reprinted in a run of five hundred copies. That's seven hundred copies, perhaps not all of which eventually sold, some of which were undoubtedly lost by non-Sherlockian heirs or acts of God . . . seven hundred potential copies in the entire world.

Let me grab another random piece off the shelves . . . The Herpetological Holmes: A Monograph on Reptiles and Amphibians in the Time of Sherlock Holmes by Donald Girard Jewell, the eighth volume in his "Sherlock Holmes Natural History Series."  One hundred total copies in existence.

Such numbers make Sherlockian works a delightful chase for the collector . . . though the web has made this more of a "what can I afford" versus "what can I find" game. But they're hardly the road to fame and fortune. In fact, after a lifetime of writing in the Twilight Zone of fiction-based non-fiction (or whatever you call playing the games Sherlockian), it's probably why I've settled down to this blogging business rather than building up the words and releasing it in book form. The readership numbers I get here are pretty much the same as in print, but without the overhead of time spent on circulating the stuff.

Yes, yes, the internet is an ephemeral thing. Electrons are here today and gone tomorrow, and one never knows when a website might die a sudden death. But even books have a lifespan, even if we may not live to see the end of it. And if you want to go down that road of succumbing to depression, hey, Earth gets swallowed by the sun eventually, if we survive all else.

So why do we do it? Why do we go to places for Sherlock Holmes that often no one cares that we went? Well, two reasons.

First, we do it for those rare few that are like us in our love of Holmes and will actually read this ultra-niche material. Connecting with someone that special has just a little more zest to it than, "Oh, you like eating pizza and watching TV? Me, too!" We love our fellow Sherlockians, as weird as they can be sometimes, and it always is a kick to produce something in a print run of seventeen copies and see delight in the eyes of those crazy enough to think that odd little publication is something cool. Those are the people I made it for.

And second, the best Sherlockian works are the ones that you do because you just enjoy doing them. Even if nobody ever reads them, there was value in the time you spent working it all out. Readers are often writers, and a born writer is eventually going to start a diary if they can do nothing else. And a diary is, of course, the most limited-circulation work of all.

Most of us may have to lower our expectations a bit as we move through decade after decade of a Sherlockian life. But the joy of it will always be there, if you stick to those basics -- doing it for yourself and your friends. (And if you get a family that shows real interest? You're leading a truly charmed life.) Because Sherlock Holmes hasn't lasted this long by making people rich or making people famous.

He's here because we love him, and, well, even if he doesn't always love us back, hey, he's Sherlock Holmes. Welcome to the Watson-hood!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Shall we ballyhoo? Let's!

Now, you may have seen a tweet or two encouraging you to register for "Holmes in the Heartland," a weekend event in St. Louis on August 10 thru 12. The deadline for registration is July 21st, which is in a two week ticking clock at this point.

If you're considering taking a day or two to run to St. Louis and haven't signed up, let me tell you a thing or two that might encourage your attendance. First? Let me tell you about last night.

Last night, I came home from work and sat down at this very computer to look at some research I'd been doing in preparation for this very event. And what I saw, in that brief half hour before I had to take the good Carter out for Friday night pizza, sparked a mental blaze that had me quickly scribbling a single sentence on a legal pad for fear the idea would get lost. Then, as we travelled the old Peoria streets to get to a classic pizza venue we had not seen in perhaps thirty years, two words came into my head . . . two words that had to be typed into my smartphone the minute we sat down in the pizza place . . . two words that looked very much like the beginning of a new field of Sherlockian science.

And then I looked up and saw this clock. This time-running-backwards clock.

The restaurant became very crowded very quickly, as patrons entered en masse, looking like they'd been coming to the place for their entire lives, perhaps still wearing the togs of their youth. Just as the clock foretold, time seemed a bit out of whack, and the thoughts I had conjured before dinner continued through my hastily handing the waitress the check and a wad of bills on our way out the door. I was soon home and back at the keyboard.

What followed was the typing of a madman, producing page after page as he attempted to capture a mental construct of Lovecraftian proportions, working far into the night. Enough work for an entire presentation at a Sherlockian conference like "Holmes in the Heartland," and yet not enough. This was just the base coat, the primer, the underlayer before a colour of Sherlockiana is applied that human eye has never seen before is painted on top.

You might ask yourself, "What the hell is this lunatic blogging about now?" You might ask yourself, "What does that pizza place have to do with anything, because I bet it doesn't and he just say a weird clock!" And you might even ask yourself, "Do I want to go to St. Louis to this 'Holmes in the Heartland' event and be among the first to learn of ground-breaking new thought on Sherlock Holmes?"

The base price for the core "Holmes in the Heartland" is fifty bucks, which may seem like a lot for just a Saturday, but you get lunch, as well as: Tim Johnson, curator of what is probably the greatest public Sherlock Holmes collection in the world.  Don Hobbs, Texas bon vivant Sherlockian who managed to acquire and catalog more translations of Sherlock Holmes stories than any human before or since. Bill Mason, a Sherlockian gentleman of letters whose charm and wit has bespelled many an audience. Mary Schroeder, a keystone of St. Louis Sherlockiana and founder of the cities Sherlockian research collection. Dr. Tassy Hayden, one of the most active minds of the Sherlockian generation that has started taking up the reins of this old hobby. Bill Cochran, a prolific writer, editor, and scion master whose Sherlockian works cause others to pale by comparison. Baritsu fighters! A traveler through time!

And this one utterly mad old Sherlockian theorist who is about to propose a new paradigm of Sherlockian study. Yes, I said it: New Paradigm. Get ready for some real Alvin Toffler future shock, people-old-enough-to-know-who-Alvin-Toffler-was!

Whether you go with that base package mentioned above, or add Friday and Saturday options for more weekend fun, spending a day or more in St. Louis in August is going to be a hot ticket. You never know how these things are going to go, and if a well-known Sherlockian finally goes off the rails in public, you're have a story to tell the Sherlockian grand-kids about one day.

Here's the sign-up link. Hope you get the chance to come!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A book for your shelves even if you're not the comics sort.

It's good to have your Sherlockian preferences known in certain quarters.

Walking into Acme Comics at lunch today, a copy of A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman, adapted and with art by Rafael Albuquerque, was waiting for me, even though I didn't have the forethought to order it.

It's a pretty little hardcover comic book . . . er, graphic novel, if you need fancier terms. The art has a slight Disney-esque vibe at first, which may lull you into a false sense of being safe and happy in the tale to come. And, if you're not familiar with the Gaiman tale, the path of A Study in Scarlet that it seems to be following, save for one large splash of what horror Watson remembers facing in Afghanistan, might make you comfortable as well.

But as the details of the victim become clear, any suspicions that this is not exactly our Sherlock Holmes and John Watson immediately vanish. An alternate universe then? But how alternate?

It was good to read Neil Gaiman again in the medium where I first became acquainted with his work, and even though I read the tale being adapted when it was first published back in 2003, in a collection titled Shadows Over Baker Street, I had forgotten enough to enjoy it fresh.

The tale adapts well to an illustrated form, and this new graphic novel presentation of "A Study in Emerald" from Dark Horse Comics is well worth picking up. It's not a traditional Sherlock Holmes tale, but therein lies part of the delight of the story, which I'll leave you to find for yourself if you haven't had the pleasure before.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The America of the Canon

"It is always a joy to meet an American."

Is it possible that we've been misunderstanding what Sherlock Holmes was saying with that line all these years. I mean, think about it . . . .

a.) Sherlock Holmes had a wicked and sly sense of humor.

b.) Sherlock Holmes loved investigating crime.

c.) Who were the Americans that Sherlock Holmes usually met? Criminals.

In an era when American politicians are trying to push a mindset that Americans should fear anyone coming from another country, it's worthwhile to consider the subtle theme of those stories that we love so much: Trouble coming from outside one's country.

But in the case of England of the Victorian era, those "awful foreigners" that were ruining everything included Americans. And it included Americans a lot.

Watson's first recorded case: American on American crime. No Brits involved.

Watson's third recorded case: American blackmailer messing with European royalty.

Watson's fourth recorded case: British criminal using American basis for his con.

Watson's seventh recorded case: Evil American gang committing murder on British turf.

So out of the first seven cases that Watson and his literary agent thought would be best put in public view, the larger share involve American troubles for Great Britain.

Now, as a proper Conan Doyle supporter would point out, these cases were all fiction, which would put them exactly in the same realm as so many of the "Fear foreigners!" lines of thought we're hearing today from those trying desperately to justify the actions of a certain incompetent American.

So, as we get to celebrating America's Independence Day today, just think how much joy Sherlock Holmes would have if he were able to come live in America today!

Because there's a whole lot of us he'd find it a joy to meet, and a whole lot of us that we'd enjoy having him meet as well.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A twenty year journey to return to St. Louis

If you step back and take at look at the big picture, sometimes you get a surprise.

I stumbled into that look this week, as I worked on my presentation for this year's "Holmes in the Heartland" weekend, coming August 10 thru 12.  It's 2018 now, but when I got a long look at what I was going to speak on, I realized that this presentation really started in 1998 . . . in the same city that I'm speaking this time.

On Saturday, October 31, 1998, "The Game's Afloat III" was being held at the Westport Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. Four area Sherlockian groups came together to put it on and a really great time was had by all. My own presentation called, "Here Come the Brides," was a review of all the ladies in the Canon who could have possibly been married to Dr. Watson. In the most foolish thing I've ever done for such a talk, I handed out police whistles to many audience members to signal their disapproval for any candidate, and I remember one particular St. Louis native who took to disapproving of women before a case could even be made. 

A couple of years later, in September of 2000, I took on the role of discussion leader for the Hounds of the Internet, and as we moved through the Canon at a rate of one story a week, it seemed like a good opportunity to work out my own chronology of the cases. The results of that chronological study, "A Timeline of Terra 221B" has served me well over the years, but one of its very first uses came on March 9, 2002.

The Dayton Symposium, one of Sherlockian's longest-running non-January weekends, was held on that particular Saturday, and I used my newly finished timeline to put together a more exact schedule of Watson's multiple marriages, based on his own Canonical references all lined up in an objective fashion, abandoning all attempts to keep him monogamous.

That paper, entitled "Counting Watson's Wives,"  took my original "Here Come the Brides" a step further, laying out who were the probable women in Watson's life, given his periods of bachelorhood versus wedded bliss. But those explorations were not nearly going to be done with that 2002 paper.

Ten years of website building (the original and late lamented Sherlock Peoria), journal publishing (the also late lamented The Holmes and Watson Report), and a few other Sherlockian sideroads occurred after that. The Sherlockian life can be a very busy one, if you choose it to be, and I chose . . . for a while.

But the next evolution/exploration of the Watson marriage problem then came with a paper that was never presented. I was scheduled to speak at the seventh "Scintillation of Scions" on June 7, 2014. And a new thesis about John H. Watson was developed and the research behind it began. But 2014 had non-Sherlockian issues to be dealt with, and neither the paper nor I made it to Maryland for that symposium. But the idea behind it wouldn't leave my end, and kept evolving. 

Just this spring I presented a part of the idea to one of our best current Sherlockian symposium stars and he was quite intrigued. But it was all just in theory form then, and needed a bit more research and a bit more proof, which brings us to the current moment in time: Research is being done and proof is being found. Just what all that is about will be revealed in about six weeks with a return to the city where this whole train of thought began:

Hopefully, twenty years of work will make for an entertaining 25 minutes of that weekend. Come and have a listen, if you have the chance.