Monday, February 28, 2022

The Age of Sherlock

I was doing some rough calculations the other day about the ages of actors when they first played Sherlock Holmes.

Jonny Lee Miller age 40.

Benedict Cumberbatch age 34.

Robert Downey Jr 44.

Roger Moore age 48.

Peter Cushing age 46. 

Ronald Howard age 36.

Basil Rathbone age 47.

Eille Norwood age 60.

William Gillette age 46.

Very few get to play Sherlock Holmes when he and Watson first meet, Miller, Cumberbatch, and Howard most prominent in that respect, and, appropriately, among the youngest to play an adult Sherlock. And yet, even they seem a little old for that moment. Miller's Holmes had a full London career before meeting his Watson.

If we got by Holmes's most commonly considered age, based on an 1854 birthdate, he was around twenty-six when he was first introduced to Watson in that lab at Bart's. Cumberbatch's Holmes would have been to the point where Watson had deserted him for a bride, if we line his first appearance up with Holmes, age-wise. Howard's Holmes would have been about to face Reichenbach, and Miller's having a busy 1895. Roger Moore's Holmes should have been about to retire to Sussex. And Eille Norwood should have been portraying Holmes in "His Last Bow."

An age-perfect Sherlock Holmes, casting-wise, has yet to be given the role in an adaptation. Jeremy Brett was fifty when his "Speckled Band" was broadcast. Sherlock Holmes was twenty-nine when "Speckled Band" occurred.

As Sherlock Holmes has gotten played by younger actors, we have yet to see one that is actually young enough . . . except for maybe James D'Arcy (who managed to kill Moriarty before he met Dr. Watson, and was a bit of a mess all around). Yet he seems to be our most Canon-age accurate Holmes on film. 

I await Howard Ostrum correcting me on this with his voluminous knowledge of Sherlocks, foreign and domestic. But the point is still very clear: For the truest adaptation ever, we need to go younger in casting, along with all the other more obvious Canonical details. We've been trained to see Holmes as older and wiser, just because he is so brilliant, but maybe it's time to hit that age nail right on the head one of these days.

It would be an interesting experiment, to be sure.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Revenge of the Hounds

 Sometimes, we just don't get it, do we?

In our enthusiasm for this lovely hobby of ours, we focus on Sherlock Holmes to the point of ignoring what's around us, pulling an "old Frankland the crank" and getting so caught up in our enthusiasms that we ruin some innocent folks' picnic. Maybe you've been at one of those gatherings of the Sherlockian faithful where one fanbull in the fanchina fanshop starts rampaging over the mixing and mingling with an adamant point that kills the party dead in its tracks. And maybe you've noticed that said person oftimes seems completely oblivious to the effect they're having. Or maybe they do know, but have the righteous flame of fandom in their heart, and . . . well, that's never good. Holy warriors are the nastiest of warriors.

Pretty sure I've been there. Trying to avoid it these days.

A certain Peoria friend of mine once started taking perverse pleasure at getting kicked off the Hounds of the Internet listserv group, sneaking back on and pretending to be an innocent Sherlockian who didn't post the things that got him kicked off, until he finally couldn't help himself and would get kicked off again. Said friend is gone now, but I think the karma he built up with the Hounds has made a great years-long orbit and come back around to bite Peoria in the ass this month.

You see, we had this nice little library discussion group here in Peoria. I've mentioned it here a time or two. The pandemic hit and we went to Zoom, as such things do. And the group survived. We used Zoom as a tool to connect our regulars, and things went on much the same as they were. And then, like a rascal Peorian of the early 2000s rolling into the Hounds of the Internet, the Hounds of the Internet decided to roll into us.

One of their members from a distant city found the library website via some googling and came to last month's meeting, then decided to tell the rest of the Hounds that here was a good discussion to get in on.

Well, I don't know about what happens at your library discussion groups or local societies, but here in Peoria, it's a chance for people who don't know Sherlock Holmes so well to meet him, one story at a time, and get to know him. Sometimes they delight in finding a new footnote in the volume they're reading to share with the group, sometimes they just like to talk about what they found in this story they were often reading for the first time. To me, that's always been the point of the group, Sherlock Holmes for the non-Sherlockian. And letting people who aren't old hands or low-key experts on the topic speak, and hearing their often new and refreshing views.

We were never looking to draw big crowds from across the country or overseas. That's been a great thing in Sherlockian Zooms for the hardcore among us. But not for a little local discussion group like ours.

And here's the weird thing . . . with all of the online opportunities out there, why did the Hounds decide to invade our little online spot? I mean, is out there, as are all the groups who made the Legion of Zoom possible. And I would suspect a Legion of Zoom motivation, were not the instigator of our little invasion someone I have not seen anywhere else online.

So, like any people with the ability to migrate into new lands when their old are occupied, it's looking like the regulars of our local Peoria discussion group might be finding a new hangout. Old Frankland has bespoiled our little picnic grounds, and I guess the Hounds have had their revenge.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Sherlock Holmes versus the Peacemaker

 Fans gonna fan. Most of us with a passion for Sherlock Holmes direct that passion elsewhere at times when something else catches our fancy. We've had Sherlock Holmes crossovers with Jack the Ripper, Dracula, Star Trek . . . anything else that attracts fans . . . for a very, very long time. Sometimes the attraction makes sense, like Spock and Sherlock who have certain similarities. And sometimes you just have to dig deeper. For example . . .

I have gone mad over HBO Max's Peacemaker series. 

On the surface, we're looking at a character who seems the opposite of Sherlock Holmes -- a musclebound idiot who thinks he's a hero, even though we first met him in his prison cell in the movie The Suicide Squad for murdering folk. If you didn't think Jack Reacher compared well to Sherlock Holmes, you're definitely not going for this guy. And maybe he is the opposite of Sherlock Holmes.

But there's a cultural angle to discussing Sherlock Holmes and the Peacemaker that I find very fascinating -- the way they show where we were versus where we are today.

Sherlock Holmes is the pinnacle of white male colonial dominance. (If you found any of that sentence offensive, you might want to leave now. It ain't getting better from here on in.) England ruled the world, science was on the rise, and one good, educated man could walk into any situation and mansplain your problems away. That was Sherlock Holmes. It's why a lot of us latched on to him before Benedict and Martin were so cute together, despite Morley's "Textbook of Friendship" angle. The relationship part was nice, but Sherlock Holmes was the star, and he was rarely allowed to be anything close to "young," much less American, female,  or any minority you'd care to name.

Now, let's take a minute to look at why I love the movie "Holmes and Watson." I became a Sherlock Holmes fan as an adolescent. Here was a role model to look up to, the genius crime nerd who could handle anything. He was everything I thought a man should be, and, hey, also a white male like me, but with that British accent that just shows he's cool like James Bond. (Boy, did England ever quietly maintain sovereignty over our American brains!) After forty years, though, I realized that teenage Brad might have been coming at that thought from a lack of life experience. And, forty years later, a movie that takes apart Sherlock Holmes's flaws as deftly as "Holmes and Watson" really hit me perfectly, as I am both still very fond of the man and yet see his flaws for what they are.

Which brings us to Peacemaker and where we are now.

Sherlock Holmes was a creation of Victorian times where, as I said, the aged white male was cultural king, even if the queen was a woman. These days, we're in a more transitional state, a cultural shoving match between that old paternalistic paradigm and a more open, equal society (even though money and power are still gonna be money and power). Folks have a few issues with that smarty-pants know-it-all strutting in the door to tell everybody how the world really is and mansplain the problems away, especially if he is of the old model. 

Christopher Smith, the Peacemaker, is a freaking mess of a man, trying to come back from a past full of paternalism, racism, misogyny that made him who he is, and trying to still be a better man despite moments of knee-jerk defending his messed-up worldview. And, boy, does he make mistakes. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, the Peacemaker's stories are full of attempts at heroism that fail miserably yet somehow stumble toward the right outcome. He is truly the anti-Sherlock-Holmes in so many ways.

But maybe that's who we need to be right now, maybe more than that old Victorian ideal that we still love. We need to recognize that our past has a few issues and that our basic make-up will cause us to make some pretty bad mistakes, but we have to own those mistakes and think of the people around us in trying to do better. Sherlock Holmes started as the rising star of detection, but eventually had to start doing those very things as well. Wait a minute . . . misogynist, racist, a product of a paternalistic culture . . . hmmm. Things are laid out just a little more plainly and purposefully in Peacemaker.

"Education never ends," as the old role model used to say.

But we can't have a "Sherlock Holmes and Popular Second Character" essay without talking about how the two are alike, can we? So here's that: A key part of both who Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Smith are is their love of music. They both play an instrument in their meditative downtime as well as appreciate the great artists of their time, taking full advantage of music's power to inspire, relax, and bring us joy, even when still working on a case.

And, boy, I could do a whole second essay about Peacemaker's Watson, the Vigilante. But that's for another day. If you aren't easily offended by anything, don't have children anywhere near the TV, and have HBO Max streaming, you might want to give that show a try. It's not Sherlock Holmes, but is anything, really?

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Yet another Sherlockian niche

 This January I started a new feature on The Watsonian Weekly called "Where'd Watson Hide It?' and as the weeks have gone by, the topic seems worth a post.

Sherlockians write every sort of thing in celebration of Sherlock Holmes, and our scholarship often wanders into fictional realms, as fond as we are of the premise that Holmes and Watson were historical figures. But nothing struts proudly across that line as plainly as the forward, preface, or introduction to a classic pastiche, where the "editor" explains to us just how this particular novel was discovered.

It can be the original tin dispatch box pulled out of the vaults of Charing Cross (as depicted so perfectly in cinema by Billy Wilder or as a start to the horrors perpetrated by Michael Dibdin). It can be found in the attic of an old house in America. Someone can track down one of Watson's old addresses, find a descendent of a Canonical character, or hit up an estate sale. But no matter how they find it, the real life of the author is somehow supposed to have crossed the line into the world of fiction and brought back the treasure we all dream of.

And some authors somehow find multiple manuscripts in multiple places.

One of the most popular non-Sherlockian uses of this technique is the thirty-two page introduction to The Princess Bride by William Goldman. (If you've only seen the movie, stripped down and over-populated with celebs of the time, you're missing a real treat.) Goldman creates his own Canon, his own beloved book from childhood, and his own "Watson problems" to write about in a beautiful work that does not seem all that far from the best Sherlockiana. In fact, I think there are Sherlockian lessons to be learned from The Princess Bride for those who take joy in an active imagination.

There have been no collections of "How I Found Watson's Papers" stories, and it would be quite an undertaking to gather up all the rights involved, but it would actually be a beautiful thing to see. So many creators actually reaching out to touch the mythic Watson artifacts in so many ways, in that half-seen land between dreams and waking. 

As our little Watson podcast trundles along, I'm looking forward to exploring more of the myriad places where Watson's manuscripts supposedly wound up, as that weird little hybrid of essay and short short story is quite a thing unto itself, a part of a book that isn't really the novel you came to see, but a fun transition to get you our of our world and into Holmeses. It's definitely a longtime part of "playing the game" that we don't focus on by itself, and I think that's worth a look.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

When did Sherlockian fandom truly start?

 In the last few months, we've been seeing a lot of early writings on Sherlock Holmes, with internet archives yielding some things far beyond where we normal think Sherlockiana began. Ronald Knox's cornerstone 1911 essay has been preceded by Helen Wilson's 1898 mini-biography of Holmes, and now this week's episode of the podcast The Watsonian Weekly features a reading by Paul Thomas Miller of an 1893 work from the St. James Gazette.

The issue's full date is December 29, 1893, and it's headline reads, "THE LATE SHERLOCK HOLMES." Subheads announce "SENSATIONAL ARREST" and "WATSON ACCUSED OF THE CRIME." What follows is a new item reporting the events told in "The Final Problem." In the column next to it are comments on the London County Council's doings and a piece on how "thin-skinned" American ladies are, so the writer(s) were covering a diverse range of current matters.

Appearing in St. James Gazette the very same month that "The Final Problem" appeared in The Strand Magazine, the piece -- whether pastiche or article -- demonstrates the impact Holmes's death made on the British public of the day. No writer is credited, but the hand holding that pen was definitely a fan with much imagination. And it's actually very good.

With the discovery of Helen Wilson's 1898 work, we were quick to wonder if she was the first known Sherlockian. Other writers soon discovered after were not necessarily fans, complaining how Doyle didn't measure up to Poe. But this piece from 1893 plays the grand Sherlockian game as devoutly as any Sherlockian work that came later.

The mystery of "the dark horse," the new addition to Holmes's indoor target practice (this time involving a portrait of Watson in bullet pocks), and the weird rumor that Sherlock Holmes is still alive and at 221B at the article's end are all as fun and intriguing as anything Knox or Morley put down. And the fact that it came so soon after "The Final Problem" . . . well, one has to wonder:

Was the publication of "The Final Problem," and the surge of attachment to Sherlock Holmes after the announcement of his death, the true start of Sherlockiana as we know it?

The article that Paul Thomas Miller reads on this week's Watsonian Weekly podcast surely seems to indicate that. (As it's still Sunday morning of February 13th as I write this, we're still about ten hours or so from that podcast appearing, so you'll still have to wait a bit.) And I promise a bit more analysis of said piece as well on that very same podcast. 

Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

A little time travel from crumbling newsprint

 The newsprint will all be gone one day. I think that's what makes it all the more delightful to discover a hunk of it in an old book -- well, if the acid hasn't stained the pages, I guess, if you're a collector. One of the little, everyday hallmarks of Sherlock Holmes's popularity is forever demonstrated in that people enjoyed him so much that they'd clip newspaper articles about him out of the paper and put them in their copy of the stories. One such fellow was Ronald Holloway of Lincoln, Illinois.

Mr Holloway bought, or was given, the attractive eight volume set of  the Coller complete, authorized Canon printed in 1936, and signed his name to each volume.

I was lucky enough to pick this set up in an antique mall on my way to St. Louis one weekend, on a Sherlockian outing to visit friends there. But since I have a few copies of the Canon, to say the least, I don't know if I ever opened them up . . . until this evening. And out fell an Associated Press article from 1937, which Mr. Holloway had tucked away in the first volume.

I'll let you read the whole thing, if you enlarge the pictures. It's a nice article to celebrate fifty years since Sherlock Holmes first appeared in 1887, and I love the opening:

    "The fiftieth birthday anniversary of one of the best known men of modern times will be celebrated this year. 
    "Curiously, there have been no memorials to him in existence; he has never been honored by a learned society; there is some doubt as to whether he is alive today. Nevertheless, his name is a household word throughout the world. His features are as familiar as the Statue of Liberty.
    "That man is Sherlock Holmes.
    "Actually, his is more than 50. If, as some contend, he still is tending his bees in Sussex or pondering some exotic problem in his lodgings at 221-B Baker street, London, he must be in his middle eighties at least."

On April 25, 1837, a writer in New York got an article on the national wire service that did not mention Sherlock Holmes being a fictional character until the fifth paragraph. Conan Doyle is quickly mentioned, but so is Frederick Dorr Steele, Gray Chandler Briggs of St. Louis, and Vincent Starrett. The Beeton's Christmas Annual with Holmes is already seen as "one of the rarest books of modern times" -- in 1937. Frederick Dorr Steele even admits he never liked any detectives except for Sherlock.

And if you flip the article over, you get the center of a large advertisement on the healthy benefits of smoking Old Golds cigarettes -- which is amusing when Watson was advising Holmes as to the dangers of smoking many decades before.

I folded the crumbling article carefully around an acid-free cardboard and slid it into a comic book back to slow its aging. But it will be dust one day, as such things turn to. And as newspapers slowly disappear with the procession of e-generations, we will likely not see such clippings tucked in books again. But for the moment, they are a lovely gift from the past, giving us a glimpse of a time and an attitude toward Sherlock Holmes that was a little different from our own.

So I'll tip my deerstalker to Ronald Holloway of Lincoln, Illinois, who was a Sherlockian for at least long enough to clip out an article about our mutual hero and slip it into that book. Thank you, sir.