Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes

Don’t blame Robert Downey, Jr., if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle forgot one of the ingredients from which he invented Sherlock Holmes. In Chapter 2 of “A Study in Scarlet,” the first Holmes novel and debut appearance by the great detective, Watson makes a list of Holmes’ attributes. Number eleven is this: “Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.” In the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume 3, resident Sherlockian Leslie Klinger notes that there is no instance of Holmes actually displaying his singlestick prowess. Since I haven’t read the entire canon (yet), I had to rely on The Source of All Truth (Wikipedia) to determine that the short story “The Solitary Cyclist” is an example of Holmes the Boxer. Neither Wikipedia nor Klinger’s footnotes indicate an adventure where Holmes uses a sword.

The point is this: The Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Downey reconstitutes a part of the character Doyle originally intended to write about but seldom did. Since Holmes is one of the world’s first superheroes, it stands to reason that he’d get himself into some situations that require more brawn than brain. What the new film illustrates, however, is that Holmes deploys both in the solving of a crime.

I won’t lie: when I first learned that Downey was going to play Holmes, I was skeptical. I appreciate Downey for the great actor that he is but I didn’t think Holmes was the part for him. Up until Christmas Day, Jeremy Brett is, for my money, is the quintessential on-screen Holmes. Brett still is the quintessential Holmes if you take into account the stories Doyle wrote. However, what Downey captured--with the able assistance of director Guy Ritchie and Jude Law’s Watson--is nothing less that the heart and soul of the Sherlock Holmes character.

Any true iconic character withstands the test of time. Batman went from detective in the 1940s to the guy who fought aliens on alien worlds in the 1950s to the guy who delivered punch lines in the 1960s to a return to his darker roots in the 1970s. James Bond has a similar character arc and, many would argue, it wasn’t until 2006’s “Casino Royale” that the true, literary Bond emerged on the silver screen. I won’t go so far as to say Downey’s Holmes is the true Holmes but he is a reflection of what’s on the page taken to a new level.

Besides, we’ve already been here before. Over the weekend, Turner Classic Movies ran a Holmes-movie marathon, showing many (all?) of the great Basil Rathbone films. As Robert Osbourne pointed out after showing the first two films, the Victorian setting of the traditional Holmes stories was just too quaint while Nazi planes dropped bombs on London. The first film studio, 20th Century Fox, dropped the franchise and Universal picked it up. The first thing Universal did was plop Holmes and Watson in 1940s war time. They fought Nazis! At least Downey had the decency to remain in Victorian England.

With these paragraphs as prelude, on to the film. As you can gather, I consider Downey’s portrayal of Holmes to be excellent. Holmes the Man is a genius. As such, he is cursed by his genius. Downey’s take on how a man like Holmes would live his life is spot-on by modern standards. I’ll admit that seeing Holmes as a dirty person, devoid of basic hygiene, shocked me. I’m used to the meticulous detective (a la Brett’s version of Holmes or television’s Monk) who is so neat and ordered as to be obsessive. However, if you take one of Holmes most famous quotes as truth (“I abhor the dull routine of existence.”), then you can easily see how Holmes would consider bathing to be a bother. Downey’s accent does go in and out but what do you expect from an American doing a Brit. At least it was better than Kevin Costner's Robin Hood. Holmes’s arrogance is on full display as well as his deviousness. In one of the best exchanges, Watson offers a meta-question to Holmes. He asks, basically, with all that Holmes does to him (and here he lists many of the little scenes from various stories), why he, Watson, still remains by Holmes’s side. It’s an honest question for a modern audience, one Watson doesn’t answer in the film.

Watson. If the new film does anything lasting, it showcases that Watson is a capable partner of the great detective. The biggest flaw in the Basil Rathbone films is Nigel Bruce. I hate the way Bruce plays Watson as a fat, bumbler not even having the intellect enough to wash Holmes’s clothes. The man’s a doctor. He has to be smart enough to attend school. Up until Jude Law (happy birthday!) donned the tweed, Jeremy Brett’s first Watson, David Burke, was my sole choice for Watson. Jude Law is now the quintessential Watson. He plays Watson as a man of action, a trait straight from all the stories. Where Holmes thinks, Watson wants to *do something.* In many a story, the only thing for the duo to do is wait, something at which Watson always chaffed.

Not so in this film. Jude Law clearly shows that Watson is a torn man. He’s fallen in love with Mary Morstan (a character from The Sign of the Four) and wants to marry her and have a normal life. He’s also in love with the life of adventure Holmes provides. (And I’m not going into the whole homoerotic thing here. All you need to know about two men who care for each other was taken care of with William Shatner and James Spader in “Boston Legal.”) More than once, Law’s facial expressions show the torment and joy Watson experiences, often simultaneously. Law also shows the smile as Watson removes his coat and prepares for a fight. He makes his choice by the end of the film but, as you know from the stories, he keeps knocking on the door to 221b Baker Street.

The story in the film is chocked full of good old pulp and adventure storytelling devices. Lord Blackwood (played by Mark Strong, a man who resembles the original artist’s interpretation of Holmes from the Strand magazine) is revealed to be the leader of some mystical cult and is hanged. No sooner is he dead than rumors of his resurrection spread. His tomb is empty so it must be true. There's a bit of "Da Vinci Code" in here as well. Ironically, it takes half of the film before someone actually hires Holmes to stop Blackwood. Up until then, he’s been working “for” Irene Adler.

Another character to jump from one of my favorite stories (“A Scandal in Bohemia”), Adler is the only (?) person to beat Holmes at his own game. That Doyle chose to make this character appear in the first ever Holmes short story (and why) is clearly an area for further study. Adler, here, is a twice-divorced thief and former lover of Holmes. I didn’t have a problem with indicating Holmes loved a woman. In the story, he falls in love with Adler’s mind. Here, in the movie, he just included her body as well. I’d have liked to see more Adler, to be honest, but I thoroughly loved the mysterious person for whom she worked. Rachel McAdams did a fine job here and I’m looking forward to future appearances.

Now, I’ll admit that the story in the middle part of the film was quite thin. Yes, it all connects at the end but the whys and wherefores were a little lacking. Suffice it to say, Holmes and Watson do their thing and London is saved...or is it?

Two more points to make. The narrative mystery involves the construction of a Victorian, steampunkish, weapon of mass destruction. Said device uses technology that was brand-new in 1891. That Holmes and Watson could be so clearly perplexed by the new device was stellar. It was something they could not have imagined and, thus, made it an excellent harbinger of the second movie.

If you watched “The Sixth Sense,” you might’ve had the same reaction as I did. Once the twist was revealed, you immediately wanted to watch the film again and see if you could spy the clues. You’ll have the same reaction with “Sherlock Holmes.” As in all good mystery films, the detective has his moment in the spotlight. As TV’s Monk used to say, “Here’s what happened.” When Holmes does this, he reveals all the clues (with visual flashbacks) that led him to the culprit. As soon as he did this, I wanted to watch the movie again and see if the visual clues were present. Can’t wait for the DVD and my pause button.

“Sherlock Holmes” is a terrific film, full of modern action-movie splashes with heaping helpings of witty, tête-à-têtes from Holmes/Watson and Holmes/Adler. As with “Star Trek” earlier this year, I laughed out loud more than I expected. The scenery is rich and detailed and you are reminded of how dirty late Victorian London really was. And the scenes that set up the sequel are splendid. The performances by Downey and Law are nuanced and well-done. They capture the spirit of their literary forebears well and I eagerly await their next film together.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Book Review: The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Tell the truth: if you go see the new Sherlock Holmes movie today and Robert Downey, Jr., appears in only half the film, you’d demand your money back. Am I right? I wonder if the readers in 1915 wanted some of their hard-earned cash back as well.

The Valley of Fear (1915) is the fourth of four Sherlock Holmes novels written by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Valley of Fear was published thirteen years after the third novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and only a year after the completion of the fourth set of short stories, His Last Bow. Instead of setting The Valley of Fear (Valley) in the then present, Doyle told yet another story of the early days of Holmes and Watson.

Like many of the tales, Valley opens with Holmes and Watson mulling over some intellectual problem. Holmes has received a cipher from an informant in Professor Moriarty’s organization. Unfortunately, the informant, Porlock, fears his discovery and has called off the solution to the cipher. Undeterred, Holmes and Watson deduce the book from which the coded message emerges. Once translated, the message is a warning that one Mr. Douglas of Birlstone Manor is in danger of being killed. No sooner does the dynamic duo read the message than MacDonald, from Scotland Yard, arrives at 221B Baker Street. He’d like Holmes’s help with a peculiar problem: a man named Douglas from Birlstone Manor has been killed by a shotgun blast to the face.

Well, how’s that for coincidence? Holmes and Watson accompany MacDonald to Birlstone Manor and then stumble into a traditional British mystery of manners. How else to describe the chapters that follow? Holmes is all but reduced to mere spectator as various members of the household are questioned and cross-examined. Holmes asks a question here and there but, frankly, I forgot he was in certain scenes. Sure, at the end, he blurts out a seemingly esoteric question and you remember why he’s so good but it comes at the end of the sequence.

Needless to say, the truth emerges and all because of Holmes. Like the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, Holmes reveals the killer halfway through the novel. Again, like the first book, Valley then throws the reader across to America of the 1870s and we basically get a novella that has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes or the first half of the story. Well, it does have everything to do with the killing of Douglas but it isn’t until the Epilogue--when Holmes returns to center stage of his own book--that we are told how everything fits together. It was rather unsatisfying.

That’s not all I found dissatisfying about Valley. For this fourth novel, Doyle all but ret-conned his Holmes chronology with the inclusion of Professor Moriarty. When it came time for Doyle to kill off Holmes in “The Final Problem,” he invented a nemesis worthy of Holmes. It was in this story, set around 1891, that Watson first learns of the dreaded Napoleon of Crime. If you take “The Final Problem” as gospel, then The Valley of Fear belongs in the apocrypha. The reason is that Valley takes place before “The Final Problem” and Watson is fully aware of Moriarty. It’s almost as if The Valley of Fear takes place in some alternate universe.

Okay, so Moriarty is in the Valley of Fear. Except that he’s not. He makes no appearance at all in the novel. His existence is hinted at by Holmes, explaining that nearly all nefarious activities in London all have their genesis with Moriarty. We even get a fun little story of how Holmes infiltrated the professor’s inner sanctum. Clever, fun, but, in the end, not too important in this novel. Even at the conclusion of the novel, when one of the characters is murdered off-screen, Holmes attributes it to Moriarty’s influence. It’s seems a stretch.

Now, as to the second half of the novel, if you take it alone without the framework of the larger novel, it’s dang good. It tells the story of John McMurdo and how he came to work in the Vermissa Valley in Pennsylvania. It’s a coal-mining town and it’s controlled by the Ancient Order of Freemen. These guys are bad ass. They extort, assault, and murder. They’ve got the town in their grip and no one has the stones to stand up to them. McMurdo has an interesting backstory and he assimilates himself into the gang with ease.

Doyle’s tale-within-a-novel is dark and grim. Valley has been called the first hard-boiled novel (take a look at what Hard Case Crime did with this novel) and with good reason. In one scene, the men who have just killed another victim gather in a bar to celebrate their success. They take turns with the bottle and also take turns mimicking the cries of their victims or widows. I was shopping for Christmas when I heard that passage and my blood got chilled. It’s the utter disregard of human life that was surprising and unsettling. I'd almost go so far as to say there are some serious noir elements in here, too.

I pondered what had happened to the author who brought us fun tales tinged with a dark edge of the 1890s. I remembered that Doyle’s son died in World War I but the novel was published before that. In addition, I thought the war’s atrocities might indicate where this darkness came from but that’s not it either since the publication of the first installment of Valley coincided with the outbreak of hostilities (and, thus, Doyle wrote it before the war started). It makes me want to read a biography of Doyle to find out if there was some personal tragedy that led to the darker material. It also makes me want to read the Holmes tales that were written and published after The Valley of Fear and see if the grim outlook continued.

Now, my stated goal is complete. I have read (or re-read) all four Sherlock Holmes novels in advance of today’s premiere of the new Sherlock Holmes movie. For those who may have missed the earlier reviews, here’s the list and the links. I’ll have my say on the film later next week. And I’ll also recap my thoughts on all four novels in a later post as well.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas!

4 December - A Study in Scarlet
11 December - The Sign of (the) Four
18 December - The Hound of the Baskervilles
25 December - The Valley of Fear

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My favorite Christmas television specials

For anyone out there actually online tonight*, my contribution to BSCReview's "Favorite Holiday Specials" is now up at BSCReview.

*Let's not discuss the fact that I'm *posting* at 6pm on Christmas Eve...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Six-Word Story

Via my Google Alert (yeah, I search for my name*), I just discovered that the six-word story I sent to S. J. Rozan was posted on 9 December. Here's the link. Have to laugh at the title she gave the story.

BTW, this is the year I first read an S. J. Rozan book, The Shanghai Moon. Here's my review. It's a fantastic book, easily one of my three favorites of the year.

*When I leave the "D" out of the search, I get to follow the exploits of "Scott Parker," a soccer player in the UK. Pretty fun to see how good a soccer player "I" am.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(This review is Part III of my examination of the four Sherlock Holmes novels in advance of the new movie debuting on Christmas Day. For other books that are actually forgotten, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third novel in the Sherlock Holmes canon by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After his first two Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of (the) Four (1890), Doyle set about writing a series of short stories during the 1890s. As is well known, Doyle became disenchanted with his fictional hero and killed Holmes in 1894. The public clamor for more Holmes stories could not be sated and, in 1902, Doyle wrote his best novel and, arguably, one of the greatest novel in the history of detective fiction.

Although published in the 20th Century, The Hound of the Baskervilles (Hound) actually takes place before Holmes's apparent death in 1893. The novel opens with Holmes and Watson examining the walking cane of a visitor. The man is Dr. Mortimer, a country doctor from Dartmoor. He relates the strange circumstances surrounding the death of Sir Charles Baskerville a few months prior and how it may involve a curse on the family of Baskervilles. Holmes listens patiently until he comes upon the obvious question: how can he, Holmes, a man of cold reason, assist Dr. Mortimer on a case with apparent superstitious qualities? It is not Sir Charles that Mortimer is worried about. It’s Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir. He’s to arrive in London that very day and Mortimer wonders what to tell the young man.

Naturally, Holmes takes the case and, more than once, seems to relish the mental exercise of the problem. Like a master plotter and storyteller, Doyle plants seemingly random pieces of evidence (Sir Henry’s missing boot, the man with the black beard who follows Sir Henry in London, a letter composed of words cut out of a newspaper warning Sir Henry of impending danger) and leaves it up to the reader to sort it all out. Holmes, of course, is ten steps ahead but keeps his thoughts to himself.

Holmes also decides to take a breather during the middle part of his own book. He sends Watson to Baskerville Manor to look after Sir Henry while staying behind in London. But, like Count Dracula in the book that bears his name, Holmes is ever present, even when not on center stage. What Holmes’s absence does for Watson, however, is give the good doctor a chance to be the star of the show. He takes his charge to protect Sir Henry to heart, rarely leaving the young baronet’s side. Reading the story in his own voice, Watson is modest but you can tell he takes great pride in doing his duty.

Although not specifically named “Part II,” the Dartmoor section of the book is distinct from the scenes set in London and contains it’s own set of oddities. Why is the butler, Barrymore, sneaking around the house at night? What is the fate of the escaped convict now sleeping somewhere in the moor? Who are the neighbors of Sir Henry and how might they play a part in the greater story? Most of all, however, is the mystery of the baying hound, its ululations flowing over the moors like the fog, chilling the bones of all who hear it?

For those who have not read the book, I shall go no further. Doyle’s storytelling muscles are at their peak with this novel. Chapter after chapter, he builds mystery upon mystery, laying them until they become somewhat complicated. He lets the reader have a few moments of satisfaction when he reveals certain mysteries along the way. Even so, the larger questions still remain unanswered and it is up to Holmes himself to reveal the entire truth.

Perhaps the years of writing short stories helped Doyle with pacing. Where his first two novels bogged down with slow story lines, Hound all but hurries through the prose. Like a good page turner, Doyle packs a good deal of information into each chapter and leaves the reader with cliffhanger chapter endings that force you to keep reading and find out what happens next.

An underrated trait of Doyle’s writing is his excellent descriptions. At one instance, where Watson meets a certain character for the first time, he spends an entire paragraph describing the person before ever a word is uttered. Much of the action takes place outside the rooms in Baker Street or in the Baskerville Manor. This allows Doyle’s descriptive writing to shine as he illustrates the countryside with words. One of my favorites is Watson describing part of the moor upon first seeing it.
“It is a wonderful place, the moor,” said he [Stapleton], looking round over the undulating downs, long green rollers, with crests of jagged granite foaming up into fantastic surges.
I first read this novel back in ninth grade and loved it. Hound was my introduction to Holmes and I quickly read the first two novels and short story collections. It’s been upwards of two decades since I last read this book. I was curious to see how it held up, particularly in light of my burgeoning writing career and all that I have learned along the way. Splendidly, in fact. Even though I knew the plot points going in (or remembered them as the story progressed), I still had a blast re-reading this novel. It’s still my favorite Holmes novel and one of my favorite mystery novels of all time.

4 December - A Study in Scarlet
11 December - The Sign of Four
18 December - The Hound of the Baskervilles
25 December - The Valley of Fear

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic Interview Each Other

Head on over to CastleTV.net for short AOL-sponsored video of the two leads from ABC's "Castle" interviewing each other. And you thought that on-screen chemistry was mere acting. Cute and fun.

CSI: Miami - "Delko for the Defense" - Review

My review of last night's CSI: Miami episode is up now at BSCReview.com. Eric returns. Is that why Horatio and Jesse look sad in this picture? Find out in my recap.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Houston Texans vs. Seattle Seahawks - Haiku

We beat losing teams.
Winning teams show what we lack.
When will Texans learn?

Seattle Seahawks - 7
Houston Texans - 34

Friday, December 11, 2009

Book Review: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(Today, Patti Abbott is conducting a Forgotten Children’s book week. My contribution is The Little House, a book I reviewed earlier this year. This review is Part II of my examination of the four Sherlock Holmes novels in advance of the new movie debuting on Christmas Day.)

In our modern age, the maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies to many of the things we consume as entertainment. How else can you explain all the slasher flicks festered upon us or the innumerable “Law and Order” episodes on television. Back in 1889, when Arthur Conan Doyle set about to write his second Sherlock Holmes novel, suffice it to say he had that maxim in the forefront of his mind.

To a large extent, The Sign of (the*) Four is a lot like A Study in Scarlet (Scarlet) both in structure and overall storytelling. There is a contemporary crime and mystery set in London in the 1880s and a flashback sequence that ties up all the loose ends at the conclusion. But, like any good writer, Doyle learned from the things that didn’t make Scarlet all that it could have been, and he produced a novel quite superior to the first.

The Sign of Four presents Sherlock Holmes and John Watson with a most singular mystery (to use a word Watson writes often). Ten years prior to the start of the story, Miss Mary Morstan’s father, on leave from the army, returned to London to meet her. He disappeared without a trace. Four years later, Morstan began receiving rare pearls, one a year, for these last six years. Only now has her mysterious benefactor asked to meet her. She comes to Holmes for consultation and, after learning that she can bring two friends with her, wishes him and Watson to accompany her to the rendezvous. In addition, Morstan tells the duo of her father’s sole friend in London, one Major Sholto, and how he never knew Morstan’s father was in London. Holmes discovers that Major Sholto died a mere week before Miss Morstan began receiving the pearls.

At the secret rendezvous, Holmes, Watson, and Morstan meet Thaddeus Sholto, one of twin sons of the late Major Sholto. Thaddeus tells them of his father’s discovery of a treasure and how Major Sholto was fearful of anyone discovering him, including a man with a wooden leg (shades of Treasure Island...). When the quartet arrive at the Sholto manor, they discover that the twin brother, Bartholomew, is dead of a poison dart.

To go any further would ruin some great plot points. The Sign of Four is chock full of fantastic adventure tropes: mysterious maps, legends, conspiracies, double-crossings, a hunt through London for a boat by the irregulars, and a pretty darn exciting boat chase on the Thames. It also has a woman, Mary Morstan, for whom Watson falls in love. And in a day, no less. We get our first true glimpse at Holmes' attitude towards women. We also get--in the opening paragraph of the book, for all to see--Holmes cocaine use.

Doyle has matured as a writer and creator of a story in this book. He gives the reader some esoteric details (man with wooden leg; man without shoes; the words “the sign of the four” on various documents; locked room murder) and leaves the reader and Watson to wonder about them. Holmes, in this second novel, is more disdainful of Watson, dismissive at some parts. Watson (and us) take umbrage at the slights, a sign that he can have his fill of Mr. Sherlock Holmes while, simultaneously, admiring the great detective.

One thing Doyle repeats is the giant wrap-up. This time, however, instead of breaking the flow with a POV shift, he lets the character in the story tell the tale, complete with breaks when Holmes asks a question. When you hear motivation directly from the character’s mouth, it’s a much more personal way of tying up the loose ends. Granted, it’s still basically a short story within a novel but you get the sense that you are in the room with the perpetrator as he explains all the details of how he came to be a “guest” at 221B Baker Street.

The Sign of Four is much more enjoyable than A Study in Scarlet. In many respects, it’s a modern, 21st Century mystery complete with the typical rules for a mystery story firmly in place. However, Doyle’s crowning achievement in the novel format arrives next week: The Hound of the Baskervilles.

*The "the" in the title was not part of Doyle's original title but added when the story was first published as a book in 1890.

4 December - A Study in Scarlet
11 December - The Sign of Four
18 December - The Hound of the Baskervilles
25 December - The Valley of Fear

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

CSI: Miami - "Count Me Out" - Review

My review of last night's CSI: Miami episode is now available at BSCReview.com. I found that explosions and the aftermath holds good potential for one character. Let me know if you agree.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor - Front Page, 1941

The New York Times runs a On This Day feature every day with its e-mail newsletter. Each event is coupled with the front page of the Times of the event in question. December 7 will always look back to 1941.

Here's the link to the New York Times lead story from December 8, 1941. Notice all the rumors and things we knew and didn't know. Fascinating.

Book Review: The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

New Mystery Reader has posted my review of Matthew Pearl's The Last Dickens. This marks the second novel of the year in which The Mystery of Edwin Drood has been featured, the other being Dan Simmons' Drood (my review). Here's the funny thing: I haven't read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Yet. I plan to rectify that deficiency early next year.

In the meantime, have a read at my review and let me know if you agree or not. Thanks.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Forgotten Books: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

(This is my latest contribution to Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books project. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.)

I think it’s safe to say that Sherlock Holmes will never be forgotten. New editions of his stories are published every year, with Hard Case Crime being the latest. This month, we have a new movie based on him, one that could start a film franchise, with another on the way. Holmes has also made his way into comics this year with Dynamite Comics’ “The Trial of Sherlock Holmes.”

In advance of the new movie, I decided to read the four Holmes novels: A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and The Valley of Fear (1915). I’ve read the first three before but it has been many years.

A Study in Scarlet (Scarlet) is Holmes first adventure. Upon re-reading it, I realized I had forgotten lots of the nuances of the book. I also realized that, had it been published today, for modern readers, it might not have caught on. Well, let me back up: it may not have gotten passed the editors.

Dr. John Watson, as everyone knows, is the chronicler of his adventures with Sherlock Holmes. As Scarlet opens, Watson recounts his deployment and wounding in Afghanistan and his subsequent recovery. Running out of money he received from the army, he’s looking for a roommate. A fellow army buddy, Stamford, comments that he knows of another man also seeking a roommate. Upon seeing Watson’s eagerness, Stamford makes the following reply:
Young Stamford looked rather strangely at me over his wine-glass. “You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,” he said; “perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.
It’s a wonderful way to set up Holmes’ introduction later in the chapter. For those of us now, more than a century removed from Holmes’ arrival on the world stage, the line of dialogue comes across with a wink and a sly grin. For Doyle’s contemporaries, it was something altogether different.

The two men agree to take rooms at 221B Baker Street. The second chapter is a dissertation on Holmes’ methods. Like any student in geometry class, one Holmes explains his methods, they seem easy even though Watson scoffs at them more than once in this novel.

The heart of the book is the mystery brought to Holmes by the Scotland Yard detectives Gregson and Lestrade. In a house in Brixton there is a corpse of a man. On the wall, above the body, written in blood, is the word ”Rache.“ Holmes invites Watson to accompany him. With Watson, we see Holmes’ methods up close, his minute inspection of seemingly random objects as well as the contempt Holmes has for the London police.

The bulk of this section is pretty standard (although, at the time of the writing, there was barely a standard created). Holmes’ reveal of the killer is showy, sudden, and out of thin air. This happens at the end of part one.

My biggest beef with Scarlet is the second part of the book. In an attempt to give background to the killer, Doyle breaks with the established train of the story, shifts to third person POV, and throws the reader across the Atlantic and into the wilderness of the American Rocky Mountains. What the hell? For five chapters, we get the background of who the killer is and his relationship with the the victim. Only in the last two chapters of the book do Holmes and Watson reappear.

This kind of storytelling would never fly in the modern world. Part way through Part II, I kept thinking ”I know this has a point but I can’t figure out what it is.“ Gradually, the names that you’ve read in Part I show up and you figure out what Doyle is doing. Late in Part II, when the focus shifts back to our heroes, the killer speaks and confirms the data in the five preceding chapters.

Doyle was twenty-seven when he wrote this and it was his first novel. However, the book would have been so much more powerful if the killer had told the story, adding the backstory along the way. The big shift totally throws the reader out of the moment and it’s the biggest flaw in the story.

Unlike so many other adventures (A Scandal in Bohemia, Blue Carbuncle, Silver Blaze, Red-Headed League, The Final Solution, The Hound of the Baskervilles), A Study in Scarlet is not one of the stories to which you’re likely to return over and over. Nonetheless, this is how the Holmes phenomena started. For that alone, it’s an important book. It’s definitely worth reading for anyone who enjoys Holmes, Watson, and their adventures.

P.S., this review is part 1 of 4.
Part 2, The Sign of Four, will be published 11 December.
Part 3, The Hound of the Baskervilles, will be published 18 December.
Part 4, The Valley of Fear, will be published Christmas Day.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Doyle vs. Dickens: Who is more real?

Over at David Cranmer's The Education of a Pulp Writer on Tuesday, he posted a few quotes from Rex Stout. One of Stout's comments was his take on the differences between the works of Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes. I responded to the thread. David liked my comment and, today, has posted it up on his blog to generate some additional discussion.

Head on over to his site and let him know what you think.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book Review Club: Holmes for the Holidays

(The latest contribution to Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the link at the end of this review.)

With less than thirty days until the unveiling of the new iteration of the famous detective, there is one overriding reason why Sherlock Holmes is so popular over 120 years after his first adventure: we love the atmosphere of Victorian England. The sounds of the clip-clop of horseshoes on cobblestones, the sights of men and women dressed in late-Victorian finery, the smell of a crackling fire in a tavern, they all go together and form something special and unique. It’s a nostalgia for a time we’ve never known but, through the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, we can know and come to love.

With all the emotion surrounding Sherlock Holmes and his redoubtable friend, Dr. John Watson, it is no surprise that, of all the stories, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is constantly mentioned as a perennial favorite. I consider it among my favorite Holmes stories and I can find little to dislike about the story. One aspect of the story, however, always saddens me: it’s the only Christmas Sherlock Holmes story.

The editors of Holmes for the Holidays must have experienced the same sadness. Martin Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh, with the blessing of Dame Jean Conan Doyle, commissioned fourteen authors to try their hand at a Holmes and Watson story set during the last week of December. The results are all quite good.

And how could they not be? Just look at some of the names: Anne Perry, Loren Estleman, Jon L. Breen, Bill Crider, Carole Nelson Douglas, and the late Edward D. Hoch. As you read these stories, take special note of the historical details about Christmas itself. Remember, these are stories written by authors in the 1990s about the late 1800s. Moreover, the 1880s are forty years after the publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the book credited with changing Christmas to what we know it today. Different authors focus on different aspects of the Christmas season, all with two men who are proper English gentlemen. It’s a telling trait, yet a fun one.

Speaking of Dickens, two of the better stories both concern themselves with Scrooge, Marley, Tim Cratchit, and a certain set of three ghosts. Loren Estleman’s “The Adventure of the Three Ghosts” concerns itself with Lord Chislehurst, a Member of Parliament, and in need of Holmes’ assistance. You see, three ghosts have visited the Lord, just like his father’s old boss. Know where this is going, don't you, and the true identity of the Lord? Yeah, he’s the grown-up Tiny Tim who now owns Scrooge old counting firm. In this story, Dickens is real and is the man who “chronicled” the story of Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim. Watson’s read the book but Holmes knows nothing about it. In fact, Lord Chislehurst/Tim Cratchit doesn’t like the book. Holmes and Watson take the case and, in their usual élan, solve the case…although the ending is not entirely predictable.

Bill Crider tackles the same material but puts a different spin on the story. In “The Adventure of the Christmas Ghosts,” three ghosts are besetting the grandnephew of Ebenezer Scrooge, Franklin, as well. Holmes suspects foul play—natch—and lands his suspicion on Timothy Cratchit who still works in the counting house. Crider highlights Holmes’ often eccentric qualities, including his acting ability, in this fun little story also with an ending that’s not entirely expected.

With any anthology, you don’t often have to read the stories in order. I’d recommend reading these two Scrooge stories back-to-back. You’ll get a sense of how the two authors both treat the same subject, how they see the original Dickens tale, and how the perpetrators in each story use similar methods. Estleman’s story references other Holmes stories that’ll be sure to garner a smile as you read it. Crider’s piece is funnier in that, with a wink and a nod, he inserts famous lines that’ll pull a chuckle from somewhere inside you.
“Let us not get our stories out of order,” said Holmes. “Marley first. He died. Is that not correct?”
“Yes [Franklin said]. Marley was dead. There can be no doubt about that.”
Just as I have my Christmas music CDs that I store for eleven months out of the year, I have some favorite anthologies of Christmas stories that share space in the same box. Of all them, Holmes for the Holidays is my favorite. It evokes certain images, particular Christmastime feelings, that I, as Texan don’t always get to experience. Why not find a copy and make a new tradition of reading these stories in December. You won’t be disappointed.

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@Barrie Summy