Monday, March 30, 2020

Tiger Kings of the Canon

"When the troubles broke out he would be friends both with the lion and the tiger . . ."
-- Abdullah Khan, The Sign of Four

Every now and then, a Netflix documentary series runs wild among its viewers, and this month a little thing called Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness infected the populace staying at home to avoid spreading the infection of worse. And, like every other trend, the Sherlockian mind is going to quickly turn its themes toward the details of the Holmes Canon. And, boy, oh, boy, does this one have some places you can go.

Tiger King quickly gets into the peccadillos of big cat fanciers, how much they love to play with the cubs, and how they use the cats to impress their preferred potential sexual partners. Of course, that's not happening in the Canon, right?

Have you met John Watson?

John Watson, the guy who meets a girl he likes and within forty-eight hours is telling her his old war stories about tiger cubs? If the man had a cell phone, he'd have been whipping out selfies of him and the tiger cubs. One might think Watson's love of tigers stops there, but how many times does he compare the man he loves best to a tiger? "Holmes sprang at his throat like a tiger." "Holmes sprang like a tiger on the marksman's back." "With the bound of a tiger Holmes was on his back." Even when Holmes is jumping Watson, we read, "In and instant, with a tiger-spring, the dying man had intercepted me."

There were, of course, those folk of the Canon who much more closely resembled one of the private zookeepers of the Tiger King series. Grimesby Roylott kept that menagerie on the grounds of his Stoke Moran estate. "He had a passion also for Indian animals, which are sent over to him by a correspondent, and he has at this moment a cheetah and a baboon . . ."

There was the "Tiger of San Pedro." There was "Tiger Comac." And then there was the man whom Sherlock Holmes fears the most in the entirety of the Canon, the man whose presence kept Sherlock Holmes out of London for three years. The tiger hunter, Sebastian Moran. His "bag of tigers" was "unrivalled." So determined and deadly was he that he once "crawled down a drain after a wounded man-eating tiger." Sherlock Holmes reverses Moran's tiger-hunting techniques to capture the predator, but does this weird monologue on Moran's bloodline which includes the line "You will see it often in humans," like Holmes is . . . dare I say it? . . .something apart from homo sapiens. Like a tiger of a man, perhaps? Did Sebastian Moran know exactly what/who he was hunting, before his prey captured him?

Metaphors can take us to fantasy all too swiftly, but the image of the tiger runs throughout the Canon of Sherlock Holmes, and Watson seems to be at the center of it all. Waiting in the dark for a night-time vigil in "Black Peter," Watson's mind goes straight toward the big cat: "What savage creature was it which might steal upon us out of the darkness? Was it a fierce tiger of crime, which could only be taken fighting hard with flashing fang and claw . . ."  There might be a rampaging circus lion, as well as a lion hunter in later stories, but the tiger still dominates the big cat side of the Sherlock Holmes legend.

Which brings me back to that Netflix Tiger King.

If you spent any time with Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness it's pretty easy to go, "Man, those big cat people are freaky!" But there's an aspect of the documentary that also could make you think we might be kind of lucky that video cameras don't follow Sherlockians around a whole lot. When you grow a community of enthusiasts, you're going to have some eccentrics. And some very unusual stories. And maybe a few suspected murders. But books are a whole lot less video-friendly than tigers, so we're probably pretty safe from that for a little while.

But, just to be safe, let's not start murdering people, disappearing, or hiring killers any time soon, Sherlockians. The Cumberbatch generation has been pretty suspected-murderer-free so far, as far as I know, and that is a very glad trend.

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