Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Mystery of the Scarecrow Corpse . . . and Derek!

In 1976, Peter Pan Industries was printing comic books the size of record albums . . . because they were record albums. Star Trek, Captain America, Superman, the Hulk, Planet of the Apes, Justice League, Space 1999, even Gemini Man (probably not the same plot as this fall's Will Smith movie). And among those was one featuring a guy who looked like Sherlock Holmes.

The cover of the album has Batman facing off against Sherlock Holmes and a gorilla in a crossing-guard belt, which one might be tempted to theorize is John Watson after some serum of langur, but it actually represents to two stories found on either side of the record, "The Mystery of the Scarecrow Corpse" and "Gorilla City." Both are by comics pros Elliot S. Maggin and Cary Bates, and eight pages long, eleven minutes long on the record, which you can listen to on YouTube.

It was back in the days when Batman ran around in public, lectures at "the Sussex campus of Oxford University," and takes phone calls backstage. Batman goes to Cadbury's local pub dressed as the British version of his "Matches Malone" persona and plays darts against a middle-aged guy named Billy, whom we have to wonder if he once worked at 221B Baker Street. But leaving the bar, he runs into . . . well, almost Sherlock Holmes. Inspector Derek Holmes. No relation, but takes "a lot of ribbing" because he dresses just like Sherlock Holmes and says things like "my dear Batman." (Don't worry, the "elementary" is coming!)

Without Watson or Robin, the pair form their own "dynamic duo" and they head into the swamps of Devon. (The village of Cadbury, it turns out, is about a 35 minute drive from Dartmoor National Park.) There, they find a the villains who Inspector Derek lets capture him, probably just so he can utter the words, "Elementary, my dear abductors."

Once he finds out all he needs to know, he lights his pipe to signal Batman, and since it's the 1970s, it's time for roundhouse kicks! Both Batman and Derek Holmes get roundhouse kicks in worthy of Walker, Texas Ranger.

Batman delivers the bad guys to Scotland Yard single-handedly, only to find out from Inspector Oswald, the man who called him in on the case, that Scotland Yard's guy had a car accident and didn't make it to Devon. Batman was actually working with the real ghost of Sherlock Holmes! Does that mean Sherlock Holmes was dead?

Well, maybe not. That same year, The Brave and the Bold Special for 1978 featured "THE STRANGEST B&B TEAM-UP EVER! WITH A FOURTH FABULOUS CO-STAR TOO!" The first three co-stars were Batman, Deadman, and Sgt. Rock . . . the fourth?

Well, he's not a ghost. He's a spirit . . . "the stuff of which myths are made!" So, given that The Brave and the Bold Special was put out by DC Comics in their main continuity in the same year we see "Derek Holmes" showing up, I'm thinking he's another appearance of that same spirit, whatever you consider that spirit to be. 

I just hope his Watson doesn't turn out to be a gorilla, after all.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Actual facts versus the "truthy" ones we hold dear

Well, there are still a few Sherlockians out there who will bother to try to correct me when I'm wrong these days, though most will just let me prattle on and just ignore my silliness. I got a "well, actually" sort of note tonight from a Sherlockian of note, and it really filled my head full of curious little ponderings. So, to quote our friend Sherlock, "Mrs. Hudson has been knocked up, she retorted upon me, and I on you."

It gets back to a blog I wrote last Saturday about Ronald Knox being "the most important man in Sherlockiana." Is he? Is he really? Well, the historical record can definitely shower one with indicators that such is not really the case. And Jon Lellenberg has actually provided a lengthy article along that line, entitled "The Ronald Knox Myth." He's correct, of course. Knox probably didn't have as much influence upon Christopher Morley and the American founding fathers of Sherlockiana in the 1930s as we tend to imagine he might have.

But then I remembered May Lamberton Becker, whose review of that great 1944 Sherlockian trinity of books, I wrote about in a post last month. I'm not sure just what paper the review clipping I have came from, but I'm pretty sure Mrs. Becker was living in England at the time she wrote that review. And in the second paragraph of that review, she starts talking about "Young Ronald Knox" and how "One might say theology set in motion the great Sherlock Holmes myth."

As Jon points out in his essay, Knox's classic "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes" did not appear in any Sherlockian collection until 1958, and before that had just been collected in Knox's own Essays in Satire around 1930. But that fact that May Lamberton Becker was familiar with it enough, and found it key enough, to include in a book review circa 1944?

Things might have been a little different among the Holmesians of England, regarding Knox, than they were with the Sherlockians of America. But I really didn't start this particular essay to build any sort of case using May Lamberton Becker. What I originally intended this piece to be about was that thing Stephen Colbert coined as "truthiness."

Defined as "the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true," Colbert parodied that approach to life hard in his show The Colbert Report. A whole lot of people are leaning hard into truthiness these days. And when it comes to Ronald Knox, even though as I originally was lauding him as the Great Founder of All Sherlockiana, a part of me knew that was pretty much hyperbole, and that the nuts and bolts of the thought didn't necessarily all fall into place. But, even now, I find myself really resisting the idea that Knox and his brilliant little bit of parody wasn't the All-Father of Sherlockiana. As you can see, even now I'm elevating the Great Source of 221Beams to higher and higher status in my mind palace.

And why not? Before Colbert came up with truthiness, Vincent Starrett came up with his poem "221B" and that line "Only those things the heart believes are true." Starrett's poem was like the Sherlockian Pledge of Allegiance when I was coming up, and as he wrote it in 1942, it wasn't inspiring Morley and the boys either. And yet, I can't seem to shake it as part of the package like it sprang into being with A Study in Scarlet in 1887.

There's a reason we've been called "the cult of Sherlock Holmes" on occasion over the years. Like many a religious denomination, we do like to cherry pick our own versions of our Sherlockian belief systems, even though our "cult" has only been around a hundred years of so and we do actually have some historical records on it, if we care to look. There are actual religions in the same youthful state.

Looking at our own beliefs-versus-facts is a good exercise in these days when a certain cult of personality or two seems to be trying to cling to power, just to see what must be going on in the heads of those folks who seem to be believing in charlatans. We all have our weak spots, our easy-access points, and those things we love just too much to let go of, even when faced with a fact or two that indicates otherwise. But, in the end, we all need to be able to tell the difference between a harmless and acceptable fantasy like Santa Claus and a dangerous-to-deny force of nature like gravity or fire.

Sherlockiana, luckily, is still a field harmless enough that a mistaken belief or two might just be okay for a while.

Another day closer to the Left Coast Sherlockian Symposium

Woke up this morning, after a night of fierce midwestern storms, and immediately thought, "I get to work on my Left Coast Sherlockian Symposium talk today!"

Over the last few decades, I've been lucky enough to speak in front of Sherlockian event audiences all over the place, usually once every year or so, which is an easy pace. It allows for a talk on something new each time, and keeps the fear of public speaking in check. This time is a little different, though. This time, I've been podcasting.

My podcast experimentation started with Sherlock Holmes is Real, a scripted bout of conspiracy insanity that seems to be leaning toward horror these days, then headed into The Watsonian Weekly, a sort-of audio magazine that's still figuring itself out. I don't promote either of these ventures nearly as much as I might, because a.) not in it for the money, and b.) like I said, still working things out.

And I may never be done working things out with the podcasts, which is half the fun, and which brings me back to my upcoming symposium talk. One very big part of podcasting is getting used to the sound of your own voice. Some big-time podcasters never do this, having the luxury of not having to edit their own stuff and listen to themselves. But for the little home-based operation, listening to yourself talk, while not ever really a pleasure, eventually becomes a positive thing. You start to become friends with your own voice, that strange thing that you might never have been on cozy terms with, when heard coming from a source other than your own head.

This will be the first talk I've ever done where I've recorded practices runs and listened to how I was saying what I was saying. This will be the first time I've gotten to hear my problem areas and focus on them, pound them into shape like a blacksmith pounding a blade, and see how much smoother I can make them. Not saying I'm going to be as slick as some speakers I've heard over the years. I heard Michael Dirda speak once and almost decided never to speak again. But, for me, the Left Coast Sherlockian Symposium should get a pretty decent me, I hope.

Not too worried about it. As the last speaker on the bill for the weekend,  I know that the audience is going to be a pretty familiar crowd after a couple of days together. A few folks will have to get on the road or to the airport early and miss it, as happens with Sunday schedules. My biggest worry is that either the audience or I might start to get "hangry" by my start time of 12:15. To paraphrase Bill Bixby or Mark Ruffalo in a certain role, "You wouldn't like me when I'm hangry." Probably going to have to see if I can get some donuts in there that morning.

Thirteen days, twenty hours, and sixteen minutes until the symposium starts, the website's countdown clock is telling me. Time to get happily back to work, hammering out some Sherlockiana.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Grandma, Morley, and me

Our house has many a bookshelf in it, some that don't get visited as often as others. In search of a particular non-Sherlockian classic this evening, I was going through a shelf when I found a book that seemed out of place. The name on the spine said "Christopher Morley," and I thought, "Why isn't this with my Sherlockian and Sherlockian-related books?"

And then I opened it, saw the autograph inside and went, "Oh!"

It wasn't Morley's autograph. It was my grandmother's.

Next to her name was "English 8." A school book. That thesis was supported by Morley's own words in his introduction: "I have, to be frank, a secret ambition that a book of this sort may even be used as a small, but useful weapon in the classroom." The book, Modern Essays, contains many a modern example of the essay chosen by Morley just prior to the book's 1921 publication, from both England and America. Marquis, Milne, Beerbohm, Leacock, Belloc, Conrad . . . lots of familiar names, none of them Doyle, unfortunately, but this is essay-land, not short story world.

Stuart P. Sherman's essay on the "Diogenes of the Victorians" might cause a Sherlockian's ears to perk up, but alas, Samuel Butler is the one to whom Sherman assigns that title, and, like Sherlock Holmes, Samuel Butler has his own cult following, called, of course, "Butlerians." (Seriously.) Niagara Falls gets an essay, Boswell and Johnson come up. "Sherlock's style too is very elegant ..." but I fear that mention is about Thomas Sherlock, as the subject at hand is sermons. One sees an essay titled "Some Nonsense About A Dog," and fears a bad review for The Hound of the Baskervilles, but no.

There is so much in this book that comes so close to our Sherlockian Canon but never quite connects. Still, as a point in time, it hits so many topics of the day so marvelously, as well as some that are eternal, like being awake through the night.

My grandmother made some little notes in the book, like an arrow from the word "Cockney" to her tiny notation in the margin "one who lives in London." She also put a little "x" next to essays in the index that I'm guessing were her favorites? Hard to say.

But it was fascinating to find a spot where old Chris Morley had touched my grandmother's life, long before I came into being and ran into his literary tendrils myself.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Three stew-points in "Three Students"

Y'know, there are, for all of us, a few clunkers on the Canon of Holmes.

When we began our monthly discussion with the Sherlock Holmes Story Society this evening, most of us admitted that "The Adventure of the Three Students" was a tale barely any of us remembered. Personally, I found myself going "Man, this is a lot of fuss over nothing! So, somebody might have seen the test! Spill some ink on it, make and excuse and write a new one! Such trauma over nothing!"

How could we must much interesting discussion from such a little slip of a matter about slips of paper? Well, sometimes you get surprised.

Who knew the doors to Hilton Soames rooms could be so complicated for starters?

"You are aware, Mr. Holmes, that our college doors are double -- a green baize one within and a heavy oak one without."

Now does that mean two doors in the same entry, separated by a small antechamber? Or one door to the outside, and another door on the other side of the room that opens to an inner hall? If they were what we now call "double doors," which are side-by-side, they would not be described as being of two different materials. And does that room design correspond with anything at Oxford or Cambridge, and should we go find out?

Okay, a second point we got into for a good bit: Sherlock's cheapest deduction ever.

Soames says, "The proof was in three long slips. I had left them all together. Now, I found that one of them was lying on the floor, one was on the side-table near the window, and the third was where I left it."

Holmes replies, "The first page on the floor, the second in the window, the third where you left it."

Soames takes this as a minor miracle. "You amaze me. How could you possibly know that?"

BECAUSE YOU JUST TOLD HIM, one of our observant SHSS regulars pointed out. Sherlock Holmes almost repeated what Soames said, word for word. The bit about the third slip is verbatim. So even if Sherlock Holmes purely guessed at the order of the other two, he had a purely fifty percent chance of being right.  In fact, Sherlock Holmes could have just been reiterating what Soames said without having intended to put an order on it, then just accepted Soames's praise and going from there with a "Yeah, that was what I mean all along!"

And then there's the biggest mystery of the mystery: WHY WERE HOLMES AND WATSON THERE TO BEGIN WITH?

"It was in the year '95 that a combination of events, into which I need not enter, caused Mr. Sherlock Holmes and myself to spend some weeks in one of our great University towns ..."

They're not there on a case, as Holmes is working hard researching old English charters, and he obviously doesn't want to be there. Did Mrs. Hudson kick the boys out? I've heard theories of some romantic away-time, but they definitely aren't on a honeymoon. So what could make Sherlock Holmes spend all that time away from Baker Street and his investigations, and still allow him time for all that research. Unless the research was the thing. Early English charters . . . hmm.

Early Anglo-Saxon charters were land grants and records of privilege. Very important to who had what rights to what in England, something someone that might be of importance to the British government, and ... hmm again ... who had a brother who was "the British government" and might need some discreet charter research? Could it be ... MyyyyyCROFT?

A mission for Mycroft Holmes seems a very possible reason for those weeks away during a very busy year of investigations.

One more thing to ponder from a story that I was sure held the potential for a dull discussion night.

I'm always delighted at the secrets these stories reveal when we start sharing our viewpoints at these library gatherings. My single-view of a story turns quickly into a compound view, like seeing it through a fly's eyes.

Even with "Three Students."

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Tin peaches

Tonight, I feel a strong pull toward writing about a very special subject in Sherlock Holmes's life. Enough Johnlock, Adlock, Chubblock. It's time for Peachlock.

Yes, tin peaches. Tin peach meant a good evening for Sherlock Holmes, when he was all alone out on the moors near Baskerville Hall.

Yes, there was also a loaf of bread and a tinned tongue in that stone hut he was bunking in. But those were obviously sandwich fixin's. There were TWO tins of preserved peaches.

And specifically "preserved" peaches. Aren't all tin peaches preserved peaches? Odd that John Watson felt the need to include that descriptor. Maybe these had a little more added sugar, making them a little closer to preserves, although to most of us, tin peach meant the opposite of preserving something, as we want to get to putting the bite on those suckers.

There are so few foods that Sherlock Holmes chose that we can keep so easily in our own cupboards, and really, consider this: Sherlock Holmes could have chosen a lot of foods to get take or get delivered to his Dartmoor den. He chose tin peaches.

And we probably don't celebrate what the tin peach meant to Sherlock Holmes nearly enough.

Some nights, a person just wants to sit back and enjoy that little aspect of the Canon.

It really is the simple things, isn't it?

Monday, September 23, 2019

The secret reason that Adlock is the arch-enemy of Johnlock

Adlockers . . . those prehistoric shippers who grabbed the words "To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman." Their ship started in 1891, and still exists today, thanks to the heteronormative urge to find Sherlock the perfect traditional match.

Johnlockers . . . the shippers whose population exploded with BBC Sherlock, and the hopes of where that show might go, but never did. While not in the mainstream of 1900s Sherlockiana, there are those who say they must surely go back to . . . 1887? Who knows. (Yes, Doctor Who knows. Ask him.)

Two groups who seem destined to be forever at odds, with the former holding close the revered documents of their elders, and the latter freely floating amid the clouds of internet fic where the sky is the limit. But what lies at the true core of this discord? What secret might burn at the heart of these two seemingly opposing ideas?

And what idea might make them both absolutely right, and both a wee bit wrong?

Picture the scene you know so well from "A Scandal in Bohemia."

We had reached Baker Street, and had stopped at the door. He was searching his pockets for the key when someone passing said:

     "Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes."
     There were several people on the pavement at the time, but the greeting appeared to come from a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.
    "I've heard that voice before," said Holmes, staring down at the dimly lit street. "Now, I wonder who the deuce that could have been.
    I slept at Baker Street that night . . .

There's a substantial gap in the narrative there. One that might make an elder Johnlocker go "Oo-la-la!" as we did back in the days when you had to be French to be truly romantic. But I think that gap holds much more than even the promise of some "not-sleeping sleeping" at Baker Street.

Do you believe in love at first sight? Do you believe that a momentary encounter with a stranger can inspire a love that lasts a lifetime? And do you believe that sometimes, one member of a long-term couple might think of someone new while being with someone old?

And do you think it's possible, however improbable, that John H. Watson was observant enough to say the words: "Just who were you thinking about just now? I know it wasn't me!"

What if the love of Sherlock Holmes's life was a slim young man in an ulster, whom he saw and heard on the street one night, a young man so teasingly familiar and yet unknown . . . a young man whose mostly-hidden looks could fire his amazing mind to recreate every detail of, envisioning every aspect of, and fall madly in love with . . . before he ever learned that young man did not exist at all.

Oh, yes, even if John H. Watson was Holmes's partner throughout his life, there had to be reasons they weren't always together, and their initials did not have to always be M.M. Sometimes, what kept them apart might have simply been a fantasy that the other wasn't tolerating as competition. And even the writing up of the inciting incident could not avoid airing that grievance: "To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman." One can hear Sherlock Holmes, in an idle moment of disappointment, sighing "the woman," as the very naming of his love-at-first-sight's true gender brought all his crash-and-burned dreams of that night back to him.

Was Johnlock the real relationship and Adlock the pin that pricked that balloon and haunted it ever after?  And why can't you ever let people just be happy, "worst person in our hobby?" Why!?!

Because the truth is out there. And it's never quite so pretty as we'd like it to be.

(Plus, I'm just a stinker. So was Sherlock Holmes.)

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Ronald Knox, the most important man in Sherlockiana? Yeah.

There's no denying that Ronald Knox wrote the cornerstone work for Sherlock Holmes fans in 1912, "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes." Published in July of 1912 in Oxford's The Blue Book,  again in 1920 by Oxford's Blackfriars magazine, and in Knox's own collection of essays in 1928 in both London and New York, the Sherlockian world was quick add that book, Essays in Satire, to their collections.

In 1958, the sage Edgar Smith included it in his collection The Incunabular Sherlock Holmes on this side of the Atlantic, and James Edward Holroyd did the same in 1967 when he published Seventeen Steps to 221B. It got the nod again in 1984's The Baker Street Reader, and is currently available on the internet. And those are just the places I know about.

Knox's 1912 essay breaks all kinds of ground that would later by expanded upon by Sherlockians even after a century later, and I have yet to hear anyone decry its place in our culture.

So when Baker Street Crow highlighted a single sentence in a recent tweet, she was bringing some pretty high authority to her point.

"If there is anything pleasant in criticism, it is finding out what we aren't meant to find out. It is the method by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out essential what the author regarded as incidental."

And as far as Conan Doyle was concerned, the entire Sherlock Holmes Canon was pretty much not meant to be significant nor essential. And yet, here we are.

Crow was using that line to give a little slap to those who get worked up over LGBT readings of the Canon. Holmes and Watson being considered as lovers makes no less sense than Sherlock and Irene being considered lovers, or even Sherlock Holmes being considered as a golfer. We all bring to our readings whatever is in our own heads coming to the table, and Sherlock Holmes being gay, bi, or asexual is just as open to personal views as him being Church of England, Jewish, or Buddhist.

Where it can be taken too far, and Knox actually makes this point in the lines that follow, is taking an author's words and using them to make judgments on the author themselves. "Thus, if one brings out a book on turnips, the modern scholar tries to discover from it whether the author was on good terms with his wife." Knox's entire essay parodies the practice by looking at Watson as the author of the Canon -- he's not targeting Conan Doyle at all. Sherlockians, likewise, may have their fun in playing with the Watsonian authorship that way, but when it comes to putting thoughts in Conan Doyle's head based on some phrase or angle in the Sherlock Holmes stories . . . that's where Knox would be among the first to say we've gone wrong.

It's very tempting to occasionally play with Doyle as we play with Watson, and there can be fun in it, as with "Doyle's Rotary Coffin" and the idea that he would spin in his grave with outrage at some of what has been done with Sherlock Holmes since he last wrote. But at this point, so far removed from his actual lifetime, we're left taking him at his words. And he left us a lot of very specific words on a whole lot of subjects. We don't need to extrapolate about Doyle himself from the Sherlock Holmes stories.

But extrapolating about John H. Watson, as the one true author of our dearly loved Canon? Ronald Knox built us a lovely pool to dive into. And you can leap from as high a diving board as you choose, as the Canon is just that deep.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


"There's a scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it."
-- Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Okay, calm down, ya sillies. I'm not going to write about Sherlock Holmes exposing every inch of it. This post is about tangled skeins.

Sherlock Holmes loved his tangled skein metaphors. He uses it in at least three cases, and even gets Watson following his lead to use it in another. A skein bundling up a bunch of yarn or thread, with a particular colored strand to follow through it, pulling out piece by piece, untangling it where necessary . . . it's a great metaphor for an investigation.

It's also a great metaphor for how one has to approach Sherlockiana as a whole.

So much has been written about Sherlock Holmes at this point that one could pinball from book to book, article to article, website to website, etc., all the live-long day. One could rocket from Doylean biographical detail to omegaverse fic to Sherlock showing you how to play bridge to limericks to statistical analysis of Sherlockians, and onwards. No two topics alike, going from new writer to new writer and never looking back, one can follow the tangled skein that is Sherlockiana all over the place without rhyme or reason.

And yet we all pick our threads to follow.

You might try to read all the old standards of Sherlockian scholarship. You might work through a curated stack of Holmes/Watson romance novels. You might seek out the untold cases that Watson mentioned in the original Canon and never wrote.  Or you might pick any one, five or ten of all the fine writers in this hobby and start to pick up all of their work.

So many ways to find your way through this skein, but inevitably, we all find our favorite threads. We have to. There are so many facets to Sherlock Holmes, none of which is a simple one-and-done that even the most exploration-based among us find ourselves diving deep into the skein to see where a thread of interest will take us.

Just like Sherlock Holmes liked to do. Sherlockiana follows the lead of its hero so often that this hobby of ours just makes perfect sense sometimes, doesn't it?

Ruin their damned childhoods!

There's been another wave of "don't remake my childhood classic" on social media again this week, and there's a very big point those folks usually miss. So many of the movies we cherish most are movies of the moment, movies that hit us at the perfect time, sometimes early adolescence, when we overlook flaws, over-hype positives, and generally bond with a film. Which brings me back to Sherlock Holmes.

What if we let those people have their way every time?

William Gillette plays Sherlock Holmes throughout the first quarter of the 1900s. A lot of folks bond with him -- he is their Sherlock Holmes. Somebody becomes a huge fan at the age of thirteen attending his last performance in 1923. And, all of humanity decides to do that one guy a favor and let him live his dream of no new Sherlocks because it would spoil his childhood crush on Gillette. That man lives to the rip old age of 95.

This means William Gillette is the only Sherlock Holmes outside of the books humanity knows until the year 2005. Robert Downey Jr. becomes the next Sherlock Holmes after we skip all those actors, films, plays, TV shows, etc., that came before. And once Downey is locked in, well, forget Cumberbatch and Miller.

Sherlock Holmes provides us with the clearest example of why a good story needs to be told and retold in cinema. Each generation has its talents to bring to that story, and each generation (or even segments of that generation) has their own way to appreciate that story. And you know what? Sometimes one person's "classic" was a poor adaptation in the eyes of someone who was a little more discerning at that time. Thirteen-year-olds bond hard and don't always realize the problems with what they're bonding with -- there's a reason we don't let thirteen-year-olds marry.

We see that in more realms than just movies. Some changes are always held back by those waiting for one old man to die, some in more serious areas than movies, and our old men are living a lot longer these days. (Yes, I'm being sexist here. Old women have gummed up the works as well on occasion, but in Sherlockiana, I think it's primarily been old men at this point.)

A good time in the past was a good time in the past. Something to be cherished, but never at the cost of the future and new generations finding their own links to classic tales.

And I'm not saying anything about . . . mmmph ffrmmm mm mmmb fmbm mf!

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!

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Mary Lamberton Becker, Sherlockian (Part Two)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote of a Sherlockian named Mary Lamberton Becker, whose review of three classic Sherlockian works of 1944 fell out of the pages of one of those same books when I was looking up something else. Following up on her in Ron DeWaal's classic Sherlock Holmes bibliography, I found MLB also wrote the introduction to a 1950 collection of Doyle's Holmes works called The Book of Sherlock Holmes, and I had to get a copy.

It was cheap, only six bucks postpaid, and had the best part of the dustjacket, but I really wanted to read Mary Lamberton Becker's introduction "HOW THIS BOOK CAME TO BE WRITTEN," to see where else her mind went with Sherlock Holmes.

Her history of Sherlock Holmes's creation is a little bit sure of Doyle's process: "His last name should be that of the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. What was that chap's name he had played cricket with when he was a boy and scored so many runs? Sherlock, that was it. He should have a devoted friend to tell his story; such a man wouldn't talk about himself. His pen began to race. Dr. Watson began to look for rooms. So did Sherlock Holmes."

In the course of three pages, Becker rolls through Beeton's, Lippincott's, the Strand, Reichenbach, "Protests stormed in," Sussex retirement, Ronald Knox's essay,  and "A society of eminent persons was formed in London that wrote on matters such as the exact location of Dr. Watson's wound, or just how much Sherlock Holmes really did know about music." She writes of Frederic Dorr Steele and William Gillette, and even gets a personal story in:

"A famous school for boys once invited me to an entertainment in which students represented characters in fiction; each walked once across the stage, carrying one thing and speaking one sentence and the audience was to guess. Two boys entered, one wearing a deer-stalker cap, the other carrying a small table. They sat down facing each other, one said 'Elementary!' and the whole school roared out their names. I left for England soon after, taking with me a photograph of the scene, and sent it with a description of what had happened to Conan Doyle. He was not even dictating that many letters then, but with his own hand he wrote me how that shout had moved him. It was one of the last times he used the pen. That month, July 1930, he died at his home in Sussex."

Mary Lamberton Becker finishes out her essay by introducing the artist for the book, Charlotte Ross, who had quite a resume.

I don't know if Mrs. Becker wrote more on Sherlock Holmes that one review of three books and an introduction, but what I have read of hers captures a time when this hobby of our was so very new, in a world much different from our own. It's good to get a glimpse from a different angle than our usual view, and wonder what else might have been in that view at the time.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

A Sherlockian ironman triathlon

After a goodly life of Sherlockiana, there will always be a few accomplishments that impress me, having seen what it takes to get there. In athletics, there are endurance tests, like marathons, where those in a field push their limits and see how far they can go. Achievements that not everyone is willing or able to pull off, goals that, once attained, are on your "permanent record" and give you the ability to say, "I did that," and feel satisfied in the thought.

Coming up with your personal chronology of the Sherlock Holmes Canon will always be a marathon in my mind. A long, long path of collecting details, making choices, testing your limits of just how far you'll go to make the damn thing work and complete all sixty. Not many Sherlockians have both the drive and willingness to push through to such a really, truly pointless goal. Most folks will pick an existing timeline of Holmes close to hand, be it in Baring-Gould or on the internet, and use those dates for reference, not excitedly skim Amazon to see if a new take on that old science is about to be published so they can pre-order. The Sherlockian chronologist, like a long-distance runner, must be content in the experience itself, and the feeling of just having done it.

But today I was reminded of another Sherlockian achievement that always impresses me: Reading Winwood Reade's The Martydom of Man, cover to cover. It's not a hard book to find, reprinted many times. But it has the rare distinction of being the one book that Sherlock Holmes whole-heartedly recommends you read.

"One of the most remarkable ever penned," Holmes tells Watson in The Sign of the Four. Watson sits down to read it, but he's thinking of a cute girl and just can't get into it. And there's the challenge of it. The Martydom of Man has its moments, but over the long haul, it's not an easy read. Going through all of human history, not once, but twice, heading back to work through creation itself . . . there's a lot of ground to cover there without wandering off and thinking about dating or Clark Russell's sea stories or any of those other Watsonian or non-Watsonian interests will conjure

While not the marathon of a Sherlockian chronology, I'd definitely place Martyrdom as the first leg of a Sherlockian iron man literary triathlon.  What would the other two parts be?

Well, the writing segment would have to be there. Write a book? Too general. What kind of book? A Nanowrimo novel in November? Some other sort of month-long endeavor on Holmes?

Speaking of month-long endeavors, the John H. Watson Society Treasure hunt just ended at midnight last night. Whilst I hate to suggest any sort of quiz or test as a part of a Sherlockian triathlon, as fraught with creator subjectivity and other perils as they can be, the JHWS Treasure Hunt has proven to be a pretty solid long-haul search through the Canon itself.  Would that be the third leg of a Sherlockian triathlon. Maybe if there were some way to create one without having another human author it. (It always bothers me that the person writing a quiz never has to suffer through taking it. Hardly seems fair, does it?)

Gaining any achievement that requires a gatekeeper doesn't really fit into the free-wheeling world of Sherlockiana, so even choosing three events like this is a bit problematic. Who am I to say what three achievements make for a grand Sherlockian? Of course I'm going to pick things I've already accomplished for myself, because we alway favor those things we love enough to do ourselves. A Sherlockian traveler might pick "visit 221 Baker Street," "visit Reichenbach Falls," and visit Conan Doyle's grave for the three-part achievement, and by those standards, I'm a total noob.

I suspect the best Sherlockian triathlon will never be the arduous task, like getting through The Martyrdom of Man, but the fun ones, like doing whatever it is that make for a great time.

Eat at Simpson's, eat at Speedy's, eat at any Sherlock Holmes based pub.

Attend a concert where they play Chopin's E Major Etude,  a concert with Hoffman's Barcarole, and see Les Huguenots from a box seat.

Find three books mentioned in the Canon in bookstores without using the internet to see where the book is in stock.

So many options out there, and why make it "ironman" hard anyway. (Iron Man literally burnt himself out in that last movie. Don't burn yourself out.)

Congratulations on doing whatever you've done! Maybe we should just all create our own using whatever we've accomplished and call it done . . . or set some new goals?  Hmm.