Wednesday, April 28, 2021

A John Watson by any other name would . . . be quite different, really!

 Ah, John H. Watson. So many John Watsons out there, and so many Dr. Watsons, as any Google news search will let you know very quickly if you're searching for Watson news. John Watson comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and characters, and even Sherlockians are a lot more accepting of variations in their Watsons than their Sherlock Holmeses.

His name has a sort of "John Smith" common touch that helps make him the everyman who is easy to identify with as he narrates his surprise at the twists and turns of life with Sherlock Holmes. But have you ever stopped to wonder how different Watson would have been had Conan Doyle kept his original vision of the character and named him "Ormond Sacker."

Ormond Sacker is no John Watson.

Ormond Sacker is a weird little guy. He even sounds a bit rat-faced, and maybe more street-wise than John Watson. His Cockney girlfriend probably calls him "Ormy," and you don't grow up a "Sacker" without punching more than your share of folks.

While a name does not define us, names do influence who we become in subtle ways. If we could name one baby Ormond Sacker and on John Watson, and have them raised by identical parents, I'm betting they're going to be very different men once they grow to adulthood. The Victorian era was full of notable Watsons contributing to society, but has there ever been a famous Sacker?

Ormond Sacker might even be the most famous one, which is weird for a fictional character who doesn't appear in a single story. (Well, didn't appear . . . I'm sure Sherlock Holmes fans have fixed that at some point.) Unless "Orville Sacker" is more famous, thanks to The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes's Smarter Brother.

The word "sacker" means one who pillages, loots, and plunders, unless you're talking about American football or an HR firing specialist. "Ormond" hails back to an ancient Irish kingdom, a London children's hospital, or James Ormond an English/Irish/Scottish sea captain who worked for Spain to bring Franciscan settlers to Northern Florida. Ormond castles in both Scotland and Ireland are owned by families other than Ormonds. So "Ormond Sacker," literally sounds like one of the guys that came and took castles and kingdoms away from the original Ormond clan.

This guy isn't sitting around Baker Street, nursing a war wound. He either found a cunning way to avoid service altogether or was killed in Afghanistan for liking the fight a little too much. And if we start getting into what pairing him with a Sherrinford Holmes would look like . . . why hasn't anyone done a book of short stories about those two? What fun working out that alternate universe and how different its encounters with the familiar clients and villains would be!

Just by the names alone. And for the record, I'm not sure a Watson by any other name would smell as sweet. But I'll leave the debate on Watson's bathing habits to the experts. (Oh, you're out there, you little devils. You're not fooling anyone.)

Thursday, April 22, 2021

When Conan Doyle flip-flopped a classic tale to get a crap one

 Our local library discussion group met tonight to discuss the dreaded "Three Gables," and, as always, I came away from that discussion with a few fresh perspectives on an old familiar tale. But this time, one of those thoughts fairly shocked me as the mental tumblers clicked into place.

The thing about "The Adventure of the Three Gables" is that in 2021, you're blinded by the story's outright racism right off the bat. The minstrel show thug Steve Dixie and the other characters' reactions to him are so awful that he eclipses everything else in that story -- like the sexism. A lot of "punching down" is going on in this tale, and even Watson takes a hit. And those aren't the only problems.

Over the years, many a Sherlockian has commented on the tale's plot being similar to "Red-Headed League" or "Three-Garridebs," being basically about a ruse to get someone out of their house to steal something. (Sure, the wealthy antagonist offers to just buy the whole house first, but, hey, close enough.) With those comparisons in mind, and the story's other issues, though, I never stopped to realize the story that "Three Gables" actually resembles.

"There was never a woman to touch her," Sherlock Holmes said of Isadora Klein, which puts one in mind of Holmes's former thoughts on Irene Adler . . . and how Adler's place in his mind may have faded with time, if it was what Watson thought it was even at its peak.

Is Isadora Klein another Irene Adler? Nope!

Isadora Klein is the King of Bohemia.

She has an upcoming marriage to a person of stature. She has an ex-lover who has something she doesn't want her intended's family to see. And she hires some burglars to get that thing back.

"The Adventure of the Three Gables" is a reverse "A Scandal in Bohemia."

But Douglas Maberley, being a much weaker specimen than Irene Adler, dies of broken heart pneumonia, and leaves his mother to hire Sherlock Holmes. Imagine if Irene had come to Holmes first to help her figure out what the King of Bohemia wanted so badly that he was sending thugs after her -- suddenly you get "The Adventure of Briony Lodge" instead of "A Scandal in Bohemia."

And as much as Holmes thinks the King of Bohemia is a jerk, the detective doesn't ask him for the modern equivalent of half a million dollars just to make Irene and her husband feel better about being burgled. "Three Gables" doesn't just gender-flip "Scandal" without indulging in a bit of its discrimination along the way. And we don't come away from this one liking Sherlock Holmes as much as we do in the light-side version of this plot.

"The Adventure of the Three Gables" is soooo problematic, and casts a shadow over everyone involved. Conan Doyle's later life faculties got questioned a lot this evening. But I sure never expected that it was the evil twin of the tale that lead off the short stories we prize so much. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Trust issues with Sherlock

 Tonight, I realized that I have some real trust issues with Sherlock Holmes.

I decided that I would buy a Sherlock Holmes book of fairly recent vintage, based upon many good reviews and general good word of mouth from Sherlockian friends. Kind of a no-brainer, right?

But when I went to make the purchase, eschewing one-click speed of the online sale for the pace of picking up a book, walking to the counter, and paying for it, I felt something new.

Was I wasting my money? Was this just another book that would sit on a shelf with its Sherlockian kindred, only to be cast out when the next purge came? 

Those feelings did not abate when I got the book home and contemplated opening it up and reading the opening pages.

What if I didn't immediately didn't like it? What if I forced myself to keep reading until I could read no more, and then put it in the pile that knows it's going out with that next purge?

By the time I decided to sit down and blog out this situation, my anxiety was starting build to symptomatic levels. I know the pandemic and other worries of the past couple of years have put us all in a worn-thin state, but to work myself into this much internal drama over a simple Sherlock Holmes book? How much had I been abused by bad pastichery in years past? How many books had I dutifully slogged through once the knock-off honeymoon was over?

And there was a honeymoon in my early adult years, trust me on that. Sherlock Holmes War of the Worlds just might have been the start of my personal pastiche boom and not The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, even though I got to it soon enough after. Movie novelizations, Adrian's Exploits, Solar Pons . . . I plowed through it all. I even toughed it out through the horror of Sherlock Holmes in Dallas without just putting it out of my misery. But now?

The idea of a straight Sherlock Holmes mystery frightens me to death. Warlock Holmes, no problem. Omegaverse fic, no problem. Weird comic book about Irena Adler and Dejah Thoris? Well, that might have had some problems, but no anxiety.

Coming back to an actual Sherlock Holmes mystery that gets rave reviews is almost like heading to the bedroom for sex after a decade long-drought -- you have to wonder if everything still works like it once did, and if you haven't lost the ability to experience things like you once could. It's all enough to make one more than a little nervous.

So maybe I'll retreat to some nice, safe Sherlockian chronology for a while, then mix up a nice Watsonian caipirinha before sitting down to try my luck. 

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The unpleasant colonizer fanboy of the Canon

Watson gave us one obvious fanboy in the Canon: Dr. Barnicot of "Six Napoleons," who had much, much more than six Napoleons at his home and office, his house being especially full of "books, pictures, and relics of the French emperor." We relate to him a bit, perhaps, with our admiration of Sherlock Holmes. But there is another fanboy whom we pass over very quickly en route to treasures and exotic murder in The Sign of Four. And he's the worst sort.

I started thinking of Mr. Thaddeus Sholto after watching a YouTube video on movie director M. Night Shyamalan. Sholto probably would have claimed Shyamalan as his favorite director were Sholto alive today, because M. Night was born in Pondicherry, the very place Thaddeus's dad named his Norwood home after. Thaddeus did not live there himself, but what the younger Sholto did to his own home was the work of a total and complete fanboy.

Had Thaddeus Sholto ever actually been to India, as his father did?  Said father was apparently looting and pillaging the place in the almost stereotypically bad colonizer form. "He had prospered in India, and brought back with him a considerable sum of money, a large collection of valuable curiosities, and a staff of native servants." Old Major John Sholto was a real bastard, trying to make for his lifetime of evil by making a deathbed confession and telling his sons to give some of his stolen wealth to one young woman, speaking of his "cursed greed" like it was a demon who should take the blame for his selfishness.

Thaddeus Sholto is the worst sort of fanboy, which shouldn't be a big surprise, given his crap lineage.

Sholto's "third-rate" house is set up like an amusement park version of an Indian palace. He has a costumed servant to show people into his sitting room overstocked with tiger skins, paintings, and pottery from Asia. He is sure to smoke his hookah while he entertains his guests, and is sure to describe "the mild balsamic odor of the Eastern tobacco" before he does. 

Thirty years old, Thaddeus Sholto is very nervous and keeps repeating "Your servant, Miss Morstan," over and over. Women are apparently outside of his experience, to put it politely. Had his father not looted India so thoroughly, Thaddeus sure seems like he would be living in his dad's basement at Pondicherry Lodge. His descriptions of himself all demonstrate a self-involvement that is all about portraying above normal humans.

"You will excuse these precautions, but I am a man of somewhat retiring, and I might even say, refined, tastes, and there is nothing more unaesthetic than a policeman. I have a natural shrinking from all rough forms of materialism. I seldom come into contact with the rough crowd." If I were to assign that line to any modern character, it would have to be the comic book geek from The Simpsons, who could exactly say those words without breaking character in the least.

Thaddeus Sholto basically gets an entire chapter dedicated to him by Dr. Watson, who somehow found him a strange and fascinating character despite the fact that the doctor himself was so enamored of Mary Morstan in the moment that he was babbling insanely about ridiculous medical practices, much as he did earlier about a "double-barrelled tiger cub." 

Thaddeus Sholto might not be the murderer of The Sign of the Four, but he definitely is not the hero. In fact, I might actually like Jonathan Small as a person better than ol' Thaddeus. And Tonga? That little dancer/murderer basically moved to another planet, so he was either the bravest of the brave or just so in love with a wooden-legged man that he dared all. Either way, a better man than Thaddeus Sholto.

At the story's end we are so focused on Mary Morstan losing the treasure that we don't consider how Sholto just lost his family fortune as well, and will probably spend the rest of his days selling off his collectables to keep his servants and hold on to his "aesthetic" lifestyle as best he can. Without his smarter brother and the treasure behind him, his descent in life was probably assured.

And I don't feel too badly about that.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Stories that speak to us

 The thing that gets miss a lot in new Sherlock Holmes stories is that a story isn't just moving familiar characters around a familiar stage. It's about connecting with other people on a level that speaks to them in a way that they can relate to. A good story teller can tell you a story about something they don't even know about, simply because shared human experiences can be the same at their core, even if the paint job is different.

Case in point: I found this week's episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to be about the Sherlockian experience. Yes, Marvel Comics superheroes, going through their trials and tribulations and super-battles, actually spoke to me of in a familiar sort of story of being a Sherlockian.

If you're not familiar with the Falcon or the Winter Soldier, having not watched the first two Captain America movies or what came after, here's the simple explanation: Both characters, one younger, one older, are guys who worked with a living legend who set the standard for all folk of their set that would come after. The new story being told in the series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is about when that living legend is gone and those who come after him are left to carry on his legacy.

Oh, the powers-that-be try to conjure up their own version of that legacy, to define it and use it to their own ends, but that ultimately fails. And it's left to the show's two leads to figure out what the legacy they were handed means, and how they will move forward with it.

Sherlock Holmes fandom is definitely a fandom with a legacy. The Sherlockians of the first half of the last century were much like our hobby's Captain America. They inspired, they set traditions, they made people want to be like them. The thing about people who get looked up to as heroes, though, is that nobody can ever be the same people those were. We never got a "new Christopher Morley" or a "new Vincent Starrett," though we did see attempts. We saw the ACD estate designate a new "official" writer of Sherlock Holmes to carry on Doyle's original work, just as ACD's son had attempted with The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes. We've also see attempts to build preserve Sherlockian legacies in amber, with archives and histories.

But the legacy of a happening, an event, a movement, is a complicated thing, which is where I come back to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Sam Wilson, the Falcon, is a black man. A man whom a whole lot of people see as unable to carry on the legacy of Captain America due to his color. But despite being a disenfranchised American, he still knows that the basic ideals that Captain America stood for need to be carried forward as best he can. And as the story progresses, he decides to try, despite what society, history, and a whole lot of white folks, don't want to see him do.

But it is a different age. Legacies have to be carried on in different ways.

So instead of "black Captain America," let me use the words "female Christopher Morley."

Just like Sam Wilson decided to pick up Captain America's shield and do the needed job, despite what the government and those entrenched in the past would have wanted, I think there is more than one woman out there who has picked up Christopher Morley's legacy and brought Sherlockians together for light-hearted fun without any backing from our institutions, so worried about the past and not really thinking about what the original Sherlockians were actually doing.

After watching this week's The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I really felt like I was seeing a familiar story play out, on many levels. Just one of those levels was Sherlockian, of course, but that's what a good story does -- makes us think, makes us see ourselves and our friends in a slightly different light, and maybe inspires us to do some good.

It was a good story. And as messed up as things seem right now, we need good stories to help us along, and I as glad to see a tale that echoed good things I've seen in our own hobby. And made me glad for those who have picked up the shield, so to speak.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The guy Sherlock Holmes caused to retire?

 I was finishing out an article on Dr. Watson's Paddington days tonight, when a find that's definitely worthy of another article popped up as I read through the 1937 An Encyclopaedia of London, edited by William Kent.

When you're writing on Watson, and the book that's nominally not about Sherlock Holmes mentions Sherlock Holmes, alarm bells go off. And when you find that there was a private detective who lived less than a mile from 221B Baker Street who retired to Brighton in 1884 at the tender age of 56, well, those alarm bells turn into bellowing foghorns.

"Paddington" Pollaky, known as "Ritter Von Pollaky, Kriminalsrath" on the Continent, was apparently a very popular private detective, even celebrated in song by Gilbert and Sullivan because he was just that well known. "His name was frequently in the Personal column of the first page of The Times." The guy was apparently doing quite well for himself. The 1937 article on Paddington where I first encountered him said he retired in 1884, but Wikipedia says he closed his Paddington office in 1882 and gave up private investigation forever.

Sure, he was only 56, but that is definitely an age where one feels one's self slowing down, especially if there is some bright young thing nearby operating at a much higher speed. (Am I speaking from experience here? Yes, I am.) And given the year was 1882, we all know who started doing business less than a mile away from Pollaky's office at number 13 Paddington Green just the year before: a very bright young thing named Sherlock Holmes.

Never had a man a better reason to take his life's savings and retire to the beach, I think. It would be fascinating to explore Pollaky's doings circa 1880 to see if he might have encountered, or even been approached by an aspiring student of detective. Or was Pollaky just the bar that Sherlock Holmes set to raise himself above?

But I've got too many other things cooking to follow that trail at the moment. If you decide to take it up, let me know what you find . . . or if some earlier enterprising Sherlockian has followed it already. Because it certainly seems a trail too good not to follow.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The year 221B Con was in my basement, 2021

 There should be no doubt that 221B Con is one of my great Sherlockian event-loves, especially if you've ever read this blog in pre-pandemic springtime. From the never-before-seen throngs at the very first one to the . . . well, every little thing at our last time in Atlanta. After losing last year's incarnation to 2020, the monster year that took Godzilla sized bites out of every part of our lives, with 2021 not quite reliable in April . . . well, there was really only one route to go for this year's con.

It's been a year of Sherlockian Zoom meetings and symposiums. Nothing new there. And they were. . . . okay. Some nice side benefits of extending our reach, meeting new people, but as this weekend approached and my attention turned to a Zoom version of 221B Con? Well, I'll be honest, I started getting worried and a little depressed. I really didn't want this to be just another Zoom.

Without the reserved time of vacation days and a trip to Atlanta, my Friday workday wound up running later than the opening panel, and at the evening was mostly breakout rooms. And my past experience with breakout rooms, combined with all that comes from being a natural introvert (even after years of practicing pretending I'm not), I eventually wrote Friday night off. Taking vacation days, being present in the hotel where it's happening, well, you can't help but venture out, perhaps see the right person in the hotel bar, and get the social-brain going. Being at home, with all the normal routines? Not helpful.

Side note: Also just happened to be the week of the hundredth episode of the Watsonian Weekly podcast, which added another layer of duty and distraction. I should be editing that right now.

But Saturday came, all obstacles cleared, and I clicked on the Zoom link.

And there were Taylor and Crystal. Some other folks, too, just hanging out in the lobby, but those were the first two, quick to say "Hi!" and start talking about who had said what the night before and that my favorite movie came up, and . . . well, suddenly my weekend changed. Crystal explained navigating between the rooms of the Zoom, which somehow became easier than any other major Zoom event I had been to. And I went over to the "Imposter Syndrome" panel, one of the con staples. And things started to actually feel a little like 221B Con and not like a Zoom, just a little, but it was getting there.

I am a huge fan of 221B Con's five-track system, a veritable buffet of programming with something tasty every hour, usually so enticing that you sometimes can't take an hour off for actual food. And in a first attempt at a Zoom con, the 221Bee-keepers provided plenty of rooms but kept a single content thread, almost a sampler version of the con with less non-Sherlock-Holmes side dishes. A wise choice, I think, and hopefully we'll be back to a five-track live situation next year, but if we're not, I wouldn't mind seeing more tracks in not just this event's Zooms. If the rooms are available, why not use them?

But I do understand, not everyone is as wandering-brained as I. 

The panels, the return of past guests David Nellist and Ben Syder, the flash-fic writing, the watchalong of "Sherlock Holmes and Dinosaurs" . . . I could go on about the content, but when all was said and done, the content wasn't the most important part of 221B Con.

It was the Bees.

Folks have talked about the Sherlockian community and its wonderful welcoming nature for decades. Outside of a few assholes and bad policy choices, it's a warm and wonderful place. But something about the community-for-a-weekend that a single-hotel con builds in hard to match. And when one considers that same community-for-a-weekend has been built over and over for nearly a decade? Like living in any small town, you may not know all the names, but you know the faces, you know the personalities.  I don't know when we started calling the population of 221B Con "Bees," but the name has stuck.

The Bees were wonderful Zoomers. Yeah, somebody always slips up on muting their microphone, but for the most part, everybody was lovely. We weren't sitting in rooms at a hotel, but once someone mentioned that you could move the Zoom boxes to line up the panel people on top, well, that worked pretty much the same. And with a whole weekend, we didn't have to spend that mandatory first fifteen minutes of every gathering talking about vaccines, or whatever else the current state of Covid world was.

I really should have taken a couple days off on either side and just cleared everything out. Set aside a 221B Con room in the house and just immersed myself in it completely, and learned Discord and Gather. Because even though it wasn't the actual big wonderful live-and-in-person event? The spirit was there. I would never have believed that the magic would be quite the same. The Sherlock Holmes Birthday Weekend, back in January, while better than nothing, hadn't had quite the same feel as a trip to NYC. But 221B Con? It may not have been the full dose, but it sure as hell was a booster shot of the real deal.

When I say that 221B Con is one of my event true loves, a place and a people that have been an important part of my life, it's not just a pose. It's deeply heartfelt, as in, yes, something I actually feel in my chest, and has been since that first year blew my mind by going beyond any Sherlockian event that I had ever known. And next year is the tenth anniversary. 

However it winds up being held, it's going to be a helluva of a time. Because if 221B Con could work its magic over Zoom? Oh, hells yeah, getting back to Atlanta is gonna be a time.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Make-do Sherlocks: The January Man

 The year was 1989. Sherlock Holmes was history's greatest detective. History's.

In 2021, the idea of a modern day Sherlock Holmes is no surprise. Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, we know what how a Sherlock Holmes existing in the modern day world. 

Back in 1989? Very few people believed Sherlock Holmes would work in the modern day. "Soldiers don't carry handkerchieves in their sleeves any more," they would say. "You don't get mud spatters from riding in hansom cabs." Sherlock Holmes was too tied to the Victorian era. And why not? Jeremy Brett was riding high on Canonical adaptations back then.

Despite Rathbone's W.W.II modern Sherlock, then long past, was so black-and-white old movie Sherlock that he might as well have been Victorian. So what were we getting instead of a modern Sherlock Holmes?

Nick Starkey in a movie called The January Man.

Not a regular cop? Check.

Brother in the government? Check.

A Watson whose main thing is a creative skill? Check.

In 1989, Kevin Kline's detective felt as much like a modern reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes as we were going to get. Only this time, he seemed to have a certain emotional intelligence as well as logical intelligence. Alan Rickman has been proposed as a capable Sherlock Holmes many times, but in The January Man, his Watson is a very unique, yet perfect match for his Bohemian Sherlock.

"We don't need Sherlock Holmes after all," his brother states at a turning point in the movie, identifying that Nick Starkey is their Sherlock Holmes in this tale. The official force thinks they've solved it, as they always do. The villain is almost working a crime spree with a pattern that 1966 Batman would have loved. And this is far from a perfect movie.

A serial movie with a comedic climax? A modern day Sherlock who fistfights a blackface serial killer down every staircase in an apartment building. Critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the worst movies of all time." But, y'know, it has its charm. The cast is full of fabulous people. And it's best watched on Hulu or somewhere else that doesn't edit out the adult parts.

But in 1989, The January Man was as close as we got to a modern day Sherlock Holmes.

Because it was going to be nine more years until Zero Effect came out. And that's another story.

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Irregulars -- Where can it go from here?

 Has it only been a week since Netflix's The Irregulars came out?

Ah, but the time does fly of late. For those of us that made it through already, the question is now, "Where could it go from here?" I was discussing this last Sunday with a savvy Holmesian who pointed to the British television model where a series told a story and often just left it at that, where in America we are very used to our shows flogging a concept until it's an unwatchable pulp of the original.

The Irregulars had a very definite story to tell, and there's going to be spoilers in the next part, so step out of the blog post if you need to.

Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .

Okay, so with Sherlock Holmes out of the picture now, with the rift between the living and the dead sealed, and all the monsters caused by it gone, what is left to know, what story left to tell?

Well, for starters, the Bea and Watson detective partnership has just truly begun. What do they investigate?

Remember how the Linen Man mentioned he had a son? Yeah, killing his father might not set well with that ipsissimus. And you know how much trouble an ipsissimus can be.

And, yes, it seems like Leo has given up Bea to go marry another royal, but guess what? We still don't know who Bea's father is. Maybe we're going to learn that she qualifies as "another royal" in some way that might keep Leo in the picture . . . as well as add plot elements to whatever supernatural thing that royal family is into.

That said, there's more to each of these characters to lend itself to a new story, but finding that story, well, finding the story in anything is what separates the truly talented from the rest of us. There have been successful sequels. Do the storytellers behind The Irregulars have that talent? I hope so.

And a second season of The Irregulars is, curiously, the only place I'd rather not see Sherlock Holmes. If he pokes his head back out of a rift, there had better be one excellent reason.

In any case, it was good to see The Irregulars in the "Top 10 in the U.S." Today on Netflix. It didn't hit that last week, because it probably wasn't promoted enough. Hitting that rank this weekend, however, shows that the word of mouth on the show is good enough to have an effect, however much certain folks in certain Sherlockian circles have complained. (And a few of them sure are out racists.)

Sequels are always risky, but I'd like to see a little more of Spike and Jessie, Bea and Watson, and even Leo and Billy. (Those aren't all ships, but you can make your own call.) Just not Sherlock Holmes, this time. Unless it's yet another new Netflix show. In that case, go for it!