Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The One Pro Wrestling Match in the Sherlock Holmes Stories

"The back door was open, and as he came to the foot of the stairs he saw two men wrestling together outside."
-- Inspector Forrester's description of Mr. Alec Cunningham's account in "The Reigate Squires" 

It is the only true wrestling match of the entire canon of Sherlock Holmes. And, like modern professional wrestling, there are those who say it was entirely "fake," even proposing that Mr. Alec Cunningham watched no wrestling match at all. And there are those who say "performative, choreographed" wrestling, as we know pro wrestling today, did not begin until the 1920s. 

But in April of 1887, we have Cunningham describing see a backyard wrestling match, that stands as a primordial example of the sports entertainment pro wrestling we know now. Note how one can so easily describe the contenders:

In this corner, "a middle-sized man, dressed in some dark stuff," from parts unknown. In the other, William "The Coachman" Kirwan. It's no coincidence that one hundred and twelve years later, the WWE would feature a commentator, executive assistant, and eventual interim general manager named Jonathan William Coachman -- an obvious tribute to Kirwan's legacy.

The actual moves in the match aren't described, but Kirwan dies from a "shot." In modern wrestling, the term is now a "shoot," which is an unscripted, actual attack, which is very dangerous to its target. If it were really a bullet wound, wouldn't there have been some mention of blood in the account? No. This was all about the Cunningham's trying to cover up a tragic backyard wrestling accident. 

Why didn't Sherlock Holmes get that? Well, sports entertainment wrestling was still pretty much unheard of in 1887, and even though we like to think Holmes knew everything about everything, sadly, he didn't.

"Of course, we do not yet know what the relations may have been between Alec Cunningham, William Kirwan, and Annie Morrison," Holmes admits at the end of his investigation, having just found the note which read, "If you will only come tonight at quarter to twelve to the east gate you will learn what will very much surprise you and maybe be of the greatest service to you and also to Annie Morrison. But say nothing to anyone upon the matter."

Doesn't that sound like Cunningham was simply setting up a match for "the Coachman" and his number one fan (or manager?) Annie Morrison? Sherlock Holmes doesn't bother to talk to Annie after being throroughly distracted by the Cunninghams simply trying to show him some of their wrestling moves. He simply came up with an interpretation of the events that would get him back to Baker Street the quickest, after Watson forced that vacation on him.

"The Reigate Squires" has always been a troubled tale, with American publishers changing the name to "The Reigate Puzzle" as they saw the obvious difficulties in Holmes's solution. I would even suggest that the original title was "The Reigate Square," before Watson's agent took out any references to the "squared circle" of the wrestling ring found in Cunningham's backyard.

Do I go too far? Or did Sherlock Holmes not go far enough?

Monday, October 3, 2022

Is John Watson enough?

 When the news came out today of a new TV series featuring Dr. Watson as the lead character, I got pretty excited. I mean, content for a podcast like The Watsonian Weekly doesn't fall off backyard plane trees. And then the details started to emerge.

Written by Craig Sweeney, a name I immediately recognized from CBS's Elementary's writing stable. Being produced in conjunction with CBS Studios. And this full description from Deadline.com

In Watson, a year after the death of his friend and partner Sherlock Holmes at the hands of Moriarty, Dr. John Watson resumes his medical career as the head of a clinic dedicated to treating rare disorders. Watson’s old life isn’t done with him, though — Moriarty and Watson are set to write their own chapter of a story that has fascinated audiences for more than a century. Watson is a medical show with a strong investigative spine, featuring a modern version of one of history’s greatest detectives as he turns his attention from solving crimes to addressing the greatest mystery of all: illness, and the ways it disrupts our lives.

Modern. Moriarty. Medical show. All challenging bits for a pure Watson show.

We've had Elementary, with modern and Moriarty. We've had House, with modern and medical. But here's the biggest issue I'm really wondering about, and I do a podcast on the guy:

Who IS John H. Watson?

Without Sherlock Holmes, who really is he? His "everyman" qualities make him our human doorway to Sherlock Holmes, but that same flavor of character vanilla is not really the thing to carry a TV show. How do you build a stand-alone Watson who can carry his own set of stories without being a faux Sherlock stand-in? That phrase "one of history's greatest detectives" makes one wonder if he is a Watson borne of Ben Kingsley's Watson mold from Without a Clue.

And what is going to make John Watson, the guy best known to us for his brandy prescriptions, capable of "addressing the greatest mystery of all: illness, and the way it disrupts our lives?" That's where we start going . . . ummmm . . . House 2.0?

Were this a sequel to Elementary, in which Lucy Liu's Joan Watson returns to medicine, the above description makes sense. But the male pronouns throughout definitely make it seem like an entirely new item. 

At the end of the day, this announcement is like watching an old-fashioned motorcycle daredevil point at the Grand Canyon and go, "For my next ramp-jump . . ."  

It's going to be an interesting couple of years to see if this gets the air it needs to fly. But I sure hope it does. I know one weekly Watson podcast that could using the material to talk about.

Monday, September 26, 2022

The landscape we call "Sherlockiana"

Early in 2018, Rob Nunn started a regular feature in his Interesting Though Elementary blog called "Interesting Interviews." It has evolved a little bit over the years, but the question that has led off every one is this: "How do you define the word 'Sherlockian?'"

It seems like such a simple question, but in an age of both gate-keepers and boundary-challengers, it's can become complex and argued very quickly. Being a matter of identity for the Sherlock Holmes fan, it also becomes personal very quickly as well, from an early place in one's fandom. You enjoy Sherlock Holmes, in one incarnation or another. You find there are other people who do as well, who have studied and created to express their enjoyment, and those people call themselves "Sherlockians." (Or "Holmesians," if you're British.) And then there's a moment . . . perhaps one you don't even notice in passing . . . when you realize you are one of those people.

The thing is, Sherlockiana is a many-headed beast.

For every part of this hobby you look at and see folks like you enjoying Holmes as you do, you'll see a dozen more doing things you cannot do. Whether due to talent, funding, or even just plain comfort level, none of us can do it all. Oh, we may flirt with doing it all in our early years. We may become ambitious in our later years. But, trust me on this: Sherlockiana has become far too big for any single person to be a part of it all.

Of course, one can be a bit of an ego-maniac and try to redefine Sherlockiana so it's small enough for one to be the wonder-Sherlockian of one's dreams, but that never ends well.

Do we all become niche Sherlockians in the end? 

Art. Scholarship. Pastiche. Fic. Media. Even the greatest gadabout among us, who seems to be everywhere, can create a gadabout or socialite niche. But none of us are even limited by those. Identity is a very complex thing. And perhaps "niche" isn't even the right word.

One could come up with a crude scoring system and say "Rank yourself one thru five on each of these categories of Sherlockiana," but even that can't capture the totality of any one of us. This morning I watched an Italian politician passionately trying to score points by claiming that people who thought identity was more complex than three or four binaries were attempting to steal everyone's identity. It was a passionate, engaging speech but also a perfect example of someone actually preaching the very opposite of the words coming out of their mouth, a thing we see a lot these days.

Because none of us are simple. We may follow well-marked roads to ease the decision making process day-to-day. But none of us is a train, bound to a set of tracks built by the Sherlock Holmes Railway Company. We can jump a fence and run rampant through forests or fields of Holmes at any given moment.

For being a Sherlockian isn't a job, like plumber, accountant, or nurse, requiring a specific duty to be performed. Being a Sherlockian is more like being a Midwesterner, a European, or an islander of any sort -- it's a place, a whole land that we have to explore, a big country with all sorts of people in it.

And there's always some fool who wants to say what "a real Sherlockian" is, just as with "a real American." A statement that's more about their own insecurities than actually knowing the landscape, and a sign that person needs to get out a little more and see what a diverse and expansive place their own homeland really is. I suspect that Rob added the question "How do you define the word 'Sherlockian?'" way back when because some fool or the other had been acting up with their personal definition and he wanted to bring other views to the table, to show we, as a culture, are not limited by the boundaries of one insecure individual or another. Rob's a good guy that way.

I originally started this post with the title "Boutique Sherlockiana" because I was trying to ponder my own current place in this world of ours, thinking it a "niche." But at this point, it seems a lot like "the place I'm standing right now, before I mentally wander somewhere else."

 Sherlockiana is truly a country of the mind, and one we all have a lot left to explore.




Thursday, September 22, 2022

The greatest foe of Sherlock Holmes, on a personal level

 While we often think of Professor Moriarty as Sherlock Holmes's arch-nemesis and greatest victory, I was given cause tonight to consider if, to Sherlock Holmes, perhaps that wasn't the foe that was most important to him on a personal level. And oddly, that train of thought began in our local library discussion of "The Yellow Face." You remember "The Yellow Face," the story where Sherlock Holmes doesn't do much? Where the client kind of charges into a house and solves his own case?

Yeah, that one.

In our talks tonight, we came upon the part of the case that didn't occur: Sherlock Holmes's investigation. He went to Norbury to investigate a case. He even had an idea of what he was looking into, and the reason he made the trip: "There's blackmail in it, or I am much mistaken."

Sherlock Holmes was going to try to foil a blackmailer in "The Yellow Face." And what does he tell Watson before they set out? 

"I would not have missed the case for worlds."

Worlds! Not sure if Sherlock Holmes is revealing himself to be from another planet, whose knowledge of other worlds is solid, or if he was really of a sect that believed in multiple planets for whatever reason, but Sherlock Holmes would not trade this case for the sum total of multiple Earths.

Why? 

Well, the blackmail of course. What was Sherlock Holmes's very first crime, the one that set him on the path of criminal detection? Hudson blackmailing Justice of the Peace Trevor in "The Gloria Scott." And who does he hate worse that any of the fifty murderers he's dealt with in his career at the point he goes up against him? A blackmailer -- "the king of all blackmailers" -- Charles Augustus Milverton. And what excuse does Holmes use in The Hound of the Baskervilles to ensure Watson believes that his friend is definitely not leaving London? A blackmail case.

The Scowrers? Blackmailers. The Red Circle? Blackmailers.

Lady Frances Carfax is feared the victim of blackmail. And even a villainess who foiled Holmes in her way, Isadora Klein, is given a warning by Holmes of her vulnerability to blackmail.

Blackmail was a crime that Holmes, along with the rest of Victorian England, hated more than anything. Sherlock goes to extraordinary measures to deal with Charles Augustus Milverton, and even though, as in "The Yellow Face," his full efforts are foiled by the sudden direct action of another person, had Holmes been allowed to deal with the threat on his own, perhaps we would have seen a criminal duel as extensive as that with Moriarty. And who's to say Moriarty's gang wasn't brought down as a part of, or resulting from, Holmes's quashing of Milverton's entire set-up?

Because even though Moriarty gets all the hooplah, when you come right down to it, Charles Augustus Milverton might have been Holmes's greatest foe, on a very personal level, as a criminal whose particular crime Holmes hated from the start.


Saturday, September 17, 2022

And the Empty House is now unoccupied.

 Today marked the end of a forty-five year era in Illinois Sherlockiana, the time of the Occupants of the Empty House.

Most Sherlockian societies don't know that their last meeting is their last meeting as it occurs. There's just a next meeting that never quite happens, and that last meeting was their actual very last meeting.

And nobody wants a good thing to end, but as Bill Cochran explained today it's sometimes better to call it quits while it is still good, and not drawing matters out until things just don't work. Societies are made up of people, and people are limited in their span, as much as we should hope for more.

Saying good-bye to the "queen" of Illinois scion societies in the same week as Queen Elizabeth II seems to match up somehow. We'll let some Chicago scion claim Kingship, and maybe it's my downstate loyalties, but I shall always think of the Occupants of the Empty House as the best of our state's Sherlockian societies.

I was first introduced to the Occupants in meeting and getting to know Newt Williams at a John Bennett Shaw workshop up in the Chicago suburbs in 1983, about five years into the group's existence. He invited the good Carter and myself to come visit their group at some point, which we did soon after. Getting to know Bill Cochran and Gordon Speck, the group's traveling goodwill ambassadors, eventually followed, along with getting to the required two-consecutive-meetings to become a member. The Occupants' meetings were a five hour drive during the era of 55 MPH speed limits, and usually required an overnight stay, but they were always worth it.

Today's final dinner meeting began at 3 PM, and with a four hour drive there (stopping to pick up Rob Nunn a couple of hours in) and a four hour drive home, it made for a day of mostly driving just to attend one dinner meeting, but for the very last meeting of a group whose contributions to my Sherlockian life were pretty darn huge -- not a problem.

There were about fifteen of us in attendance for the last meeting of the Occupants of the Empty House. Members who had been there from the club's early days, St. Louis friends of the club, and all the rest enjoyed some stories of days past, an excellent Alongi's dinner, and a chance to applaud all that came before. And then, as ever, a long drive back . . . but always worth it.

The Empty House of Southern Illinois will now go un-Occupied. But, hey, it was a really good run, and I'm glad they got to see their finish line and recognize it, rather than looking back in regret once it was long past. 

Thanks for everything, Occupants.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Out in the margins of Sherlockian things where the fungus grows

 Some weeks you're totally immersed in the hobby, and other weeks . . .

Well, Sherlock Holmes and company will find their way to pop by and wave at you, in spite of all the distractions. Characters in deerstalkers, of course, as appeared in Star Trek: Lower Decks and Batman Vs. Robin at the comic shop this week. (Well the latter was just the blood-stained deerstalker of a character who normally wears it.) And then there's the really odd bits, as Mary O'Reilly tipped me off you this week.

I'm not going to promote the actual product -- as we have too many things out there that probably, in truth, have "placebo" as their active ingredient. But this particular product was claiming it would help your memory, raise your attention level, and make everything just so perfectly clear. They didn't say "make your brain work like Sherlock Holmes" specifically, but all the qualities this product claimed it would bring to you were very much Holmes's own.

And what was this magic ingredient?

Lion's mane mushrooms. Hericium erinaceus

Mostly found on dead trees, it is said that its flavor, when prepared correctly, is like lobster. Seems like it should be more in the jellyfish taste spectrum, but not that many of us know what that taste would be. Not as easy a metaphor.

So what else is out there? "Blanched soldier. mushrooms?" "Golden Pince-nez toadstools?" "Devil's foot roots?" Oh, wait, we had that.

Perhaps there are culinary experts and fungi-philes out there to whom a "lion's mane mushroom" doesn't evoke the greatest detective, just as there are marine biologists who see the lion's mane for strictly its jellyfish qualities, but we are not those.

Just as 2:21 comes up on the digital clocks for us once per day and once per night, such other tidbits always pop up for the Sherlockian obsessive. And that is a happy thing.

Monday, September 5, 2022

The three American regions of Sherlockiana?

 This week's "Interesting Though Elementary" interview with Jonathan Tiemann had a little tidbit that I found worth pondering a bit. There was question asked that I don't remember Rob asking before, due to Jonathan Tiemann's experience living in different places: "How do you feel that West Coast Sherlockiana is different from those in the Midwest or East Coast?"

While we all dislike being pushed into categories (unless we go there voluntarily, with a personality test or a horoscope reading), the regional breakdown that Tiemann's answer laid out rang pretty true.

West Coast: "More likely to regard screen adaptations, especially of Canonical stories, as legitimate Sherlockiana."

East Coast: "A somewhat more academic approach to Holmes scholarship."

Midwest: "More likely to focus a bit more closely on the original text."

Now, we can call out individuals who defy those patterns every day, but they kind of feel correct. California is going to be more movie-biased. Boston/NewYork/Washington/etc. have traditionally had more access to source materials. Peoria? Well, we've got The Complete Sherlock Holmes sitting right there on our shelf.

But I think we're going to see all of that change, if it hasn't changed already, thanks to the internet. Where you live doesn't matter quite so much any more. Economic levels are more likely to be a deciding factor, as what you can buy and where you can travel will enter into things a bit. Which brings up England and Canada -- where do those folks fit into the picture?

Sherlockiana is, of course, a world-wide phenomenon. And of all places, England has always had the greatest advantage, as it's citizens got all the first editions first, can spend a weekend looking for Canonical sites, and, basically, they own Conan Doyle historically. You could see where screen adaptations aren't going to be their go-to with all that at hand. Canada, if I were to guess, would be seen as having the Midwest America problem with resources, but they have had some great scholarship and Doylean studies in North America owe much to Canada, as that country dominated them a few decades ago.

I'm curious as to how the Sherlockian scene would be described in countries that don't have English as their primary language, like Japan or Sweden. Our view tends to be skewed by the writers who produce English materials, so it's a little harder to see.

Like I said, though, the internet has thrown it all up in the air. You can be whatever kind of Sherlockian you want from wherever you want. And are internet Sherlockians a whole other category of Sherlockian? So many pastiche writers out there, you have to wonder if that's not the internet's special domain, whether their stuff comes out in book form or on A03. Pastiche writers seem to be the oysters of the internet, to use Sherlock Holmes's "Dying Detective" style rant: "Indeed, I cannot think why the whole shelf-space of every library and bookstore is not one solid mass of pastiche, so prolific their creators seem."

"Ah, I am wondering!" to get back to the real quotes. "Strange how the brain controls the brain! What was I saying, Watson?"

Thanks to Rob and Jonathan for that little diverting thought this morning. Check out the full interview if you haven't already.