As a great many other mystery bloggers have already pointed out today, this is the 154th anniversary of the birth of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. The Holmes stories - just 4 novels and 56 short stories - are truly "elementary" in the sense of being "elemental": they are the building blocks on which much of today's mystery fiction rests.
Perhaps you're a relative newcomer to mysteries. Perhaps you know Holmes best from the movies and/or television series. That's fine - but I hope that what you see will convince you to try the original stories. They remain extremely readable.
I came to mysteries through reading all the Holmes stories when I was 10 years old, and I still reread them periodically - in fact, I'm about due for another go-around. In any case, I hope you'll pause, raise your favorite beverage in a toast to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to Sherlock Holmes, and to mystery.
I never have trouble remembering Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday, for it coincides with the anniversary of my founding The Rap Sheet (a subject about which I shall have more to say anon). Had that physician turned author not died in July 1930, he’d be celebrating his 154th birthday today, having been born in 1859.
On this occasion, let me direct you to a fairly good biography of Conan Doyle here, a video
of the author talking about his life and career (which I’ve posted before
on this page, but which many readers probably have not seen), and David Abrams’ review of the 2007 bookArthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley. Oh, and if you didn’t see it before, here
is James McCreet’s Rap Sheet piece looking back at some of the more preposterous deductions made in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.
Dead Man’s Land, by Robert Ryan (Simon & Schuster UK):
This novel was published in Great Britain at the beginning of the month; but as I live way out here in Seattle, and there’s no U.S. edition of Dead Man’s Land (in fact, author Robert Ryan doesn’t seem to have been published much in the States at all), I only recently received a copy of the book and found the chance to read it.
I am very glad I did.
As Ryan explains in a short essay for Crime Time, Dead Man’s Land was not originally his idea. His publisher was shopping around for “a work of fiction featuring a ‘detective in the trenches of World War I,’” and Ryan came up with a splendid solution: Why not send Dr. John H. Watson, of Sherlock Holmes fame, to the front lines in France, where he’d find himself involved in a homicide investigation? Of course, Watson would’ve been fairly old in 1918, when the action here takes place (in his mid-60s, by most reckonings). That, however, proved to be a surmountable problem. In Dead Man’s Land, we find Watson--who, after all, was a battlefield surgeon before becoming the chronicler of a crime-solver’s
escapades--in Flanders Fields as a major with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and “an expert in the new techniques of blood transfusion.”
He becomes grudgingly accustomed to the quotidian deaths of thousands of soldiers, the persistent bomb barrages, the pressures that weigh heavily upon physicians and nurses under such circumstances, and the appalling atmosphere of the trenches (“black tar from lamp wicks, the constant cigarettes, not to mention
the tang of rat piss and the sour smell of unwashed clothes”). Yet, when a
sergeant suddenly perishes of an elusive ailment that turns his skin blue and his hands into claws, the horrific routines of war are upset. Blame is cast initially upon Watson’s blood transfusions; but when other, similar deaths are discovered, the old man’s sublimated sleuthing sensitivities are aroused, and his pursuit of a
murderer with old grudges to exercise draws him into a deadly confrontation that must finally be settled in the worst possible place: the bleak no-man’s-land between
the opposing armies.
Ryan’s portrayal of battlefield conditions is thorough and captivating, his cast of suspects sufficiently well drawn to have fooled me, and his capturing of Holmes’ associate faithful enough to have won the backing of Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate. The author has left himself room to write a sequel. I hope he will do just that.
This season holds particular significance for followers of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. It was 125 years ago, in 1887, that Holmes and his chronicler, Doctor John Watson, made their first appearances in A Study in Scarlet,
a novel published in the paperback magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual. That yarn had previously been called A Tangled Skein and featured sleuth Sherrinford Holmes, who shared rooms at 221B Upper Baker Street in London with a character called Ormond
Sacker. However, author Arthur Conan Doyle, at the time a physician with
a not terribly successful practice in Portsmouth, England, changed all of those
names prior to publication. Thank goodness.
Conan Doyle was paid a remarkably modest £25 for his work, which appeared again a year later in book form, complete with illustrations by the author’s father. Favorably reviewed by the prominent newspapers in Scotland, A Study in Scarlet would be followed by three more Holmes novels and 56 short stories, and help make Conan Doyle one of the world’s best-selling crime novelists.
If you’ve never read A Study in Scarlet ... first of all, shame on you! But if you would like to at least hear it being read, an audio recording of the book is available on YouTube. Click here for Chapter One.
Masterpiece Mystery!’s teaser for Sherlock, Season 2.
“Do you think you could survive for just a few minutes without showing off?” That line, delivered by a bewigged and bothered judge in the final episode of the sophomore season of Sherlock--the BBC-TV drama making its return to American TV sets tomorrow night, courtesy of PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! series--nicely emphasizes one of the storytelling strengths of this popular program.
Rather than striving simply to update Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of London-based consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have employed the shift from the late 19th century to the early 21st to crank up the volume on this sleuth as an anachronism. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Holmes is a creature of the intellect, mostly misanthropic, thoroughly blind to the niceties of modern civilization, and so unfamiliar with the customs of contemporary celebrity that he thinks he can go about his business of freelance ratiocination--showing off!--without hindrance from the law or the media. Yet, his coldly cerebral pursuit of audacious malefactors continues to endear him to today’s TV audiences. This is credited largely to the fact that we see Holmes in the BBC series the same way we did in Conan Doyle’s tales--through the compassionate eyes of his far-less-perfect chronicler and companion, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman), who must frequently remind the detective to keep his too-honest opinions to himself and demonstrate at least some of the manners expected in human interaction. Holmes comes off in Sherlock as at once disturbingly superior and deserving of our sympathies. We laugh at his eccentricities and moments of eye-rolling arrogance, but want to save him from his own manifest weaknesses.
Although I still see Jeremy Brett as the ideal performer to portray Conan Doyle’s original Holmes--which he did so well in Granada Television’s 1984-1994 adaptations of the Holmes yarns--I’ve developed substantial appreciation for Cumberbatch’s re-interpretation of the character. And Freeman’s Watson is a particularly brilliant foil, his friendship with the Great Detective growing despite the latter’s oft-uttered indifference to such relationships.
The first set of three, 90-minute Sherlock movies inspired by Conan Doyle’s fiction--and broadcast during the fall of 2010 here in the States--demonstrated Gatiss and Moffat’s willingness to diverge greatly from the Holmes canon, yet remain faithful to its spirit. We might best call their efforts “creative interpretations.” People unfamiliar with the source material could find value in the rapid pace, plot complexities, and visual elegance of those episodes, while the rest of us--better acquainted with the world of 221B Baker Street--recognized the writers’ in-jokes.
Those opening episodes, though, were a mere warm-up to Season 2. Over the next three Sundays, Masterpiece Mystery! will broadcast new Sherlock installments, including two of the best yet made.
Tomorrow night’s show (beginning at 9 p.m. ET/PT) is one of those. Titled “A Scandal in Belgravia,” it’s based (more or less) on the 1891 short story “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The original tale found Holmes and Watson working for the betrothed King of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), who needs their assistance to recover a potentially scandalous photograph, evidence of his onetime affair with a smart and resourceful American opera singer named Irene Adler. In Gatiss and Moffat’s version, a female member of Britain’s royal family hopes to retrieve compromising photos taken of her in company with the smart and resourceful dominatrix, Irene Adler (Lara Pulver). “A worthy match for the aloof detective, Adler masterfully maneuvers her many assets in a game that Sherlock is ill-prepared to fight: love,” as the PBS Web site explains. Yes, Holmes fulfills his promises to get the photographs back, but he succeeds only with the lovely Ms. Adler’s acquiescence. In return, she later asks for his aid in fleeing killers who want a secret code she’s filched from the Ministry of Defense--the key to information relating to a terrorist plot involving airplane sabotage. But what none of this tells you, is that “A Scandal in Belgravia” is one of Sherlock’s sexiest episodes; at one point, a gorgeously made-up but starkly nude Irene confronts the sleuth, and her absolute absence of attire leaves him unable to deduce anything about her. Subsequently, she adds her number to his cell phone, along with a ringtone--sounding remarkably like a woman’s erotic sigh--that goes off whenever she sends him a text message. As you might expect, that ringtone is used to great comic effect as the story unfolds.
A behind-the-scenes trailer for “A Scandal in Belgavia” is embedded on the left. Meanwhile, the Holmes-obsessed Web site, I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere, recently did an interview with actress Pulver--covering, in part, this opening episode of Sherlock, Season 2--that can be enjoyed here.
Next up in the series will be “The Hounds of Baskerville,” set to show on May 13. Taking its cues from the 1902 novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles--one of my favorite Conan Doyle works--“Hounds” finds Holmes and Watson probing the area around Baskerville, a top-secret military compound in the hinterlands. Not far from there resides Henry Knight, whose father was supposedly killed decades ago by a giant, demonic hound--an animal Knight claims he’s spotted again, and that he very much fears. The plot provides some novel twists on the original, with plenty of night frights and military secrecy adding to its suspense; but the resolution is somewhat less satisfying than that of Conan Doyle’s justly acclaimed novel.
Finally, on Sunday, May 20, tune in for “The Reichenbach Fall,” an unusual installment, if only because its title bears no resemblance to the short story from which it takes inspiration: 1893’s “The Final Problem,” in which Holmes allegedly perishes in a tumble off Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, locked in battle with his arch nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. He would later be resurrected in 1903’s “The Adventure of the Empty House.”*
“The Reichenbach Fall” alludes to that spectacular encounter in the form of a supposedly priceless painting of the tall Swiss cascade, which Holmes recovers near the beginning of this episode. However, the action in “Reichenbach” is firmly set in London, where the detective is called to testify against the insane criminal mastermind, Jim Moriarty (played by Andrew Scott), who has recently broken into the Tower of London and threatened the safety of the crown jewels on display. After Moriarty is declared--against all reason--to be “not guilty” of this headline-making transgression, he enters into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with Holmes, determined to destroy the sleuth’s reputation and, in the process, prove that he, Moriarty, is the greater genius. The plot turns here tumble upon one another, making Holmes and Watson fugitives from the law and concluding with ... well, I won’t tell you how this outstanding episode ends, except to say that it will leave you scratching your head--in a good way--and looking forward to the third season of Sherlock.
That third season is already set to begin filming in early 2013, and Gatiss confirms that the first new episode will be loosely based on “The Adventure of the Empty House.” How loosely? “There’s certain things about ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ which feel set in stone because that’s how Sherlock comes back,” he told the Associated Press not long ago. “But at the same time we feel free to invent and to introduce new stuff to it. I always found it a little unlikely that Dr. Watson’s only reaction was to faint, for instance--as opposed to possibly a stream of terrible swear words.”
I can hear Martin Freeman delivering those curses already ...
Below: BBC One’s teaser for “The Reichenbach Fall.”
* Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t planned to write more about Holmes and Watson, by the way. He’d grown quite tired of his series protagonist, and wanted to be rid of him. But his decision to do away with Holmes “incurred the terrible wrath of his readers,” recalls Steve Thompson, who wrote “The Reichenbach Fall” and also provides the introduction to BBC Books’ recent edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the volume containing “The Final Problem.” “Sacks of abusive mail arrived on Doyle’s doorstep in London. He was pilloried in the newspapers. A press cartoon depicted Doyle weeping over the coffin. He even reported being hit in the street by a woman with an umbrella. He was, after all, the man who had murdered their beloved Sherlock Holmes.” Conan Doyle finally agreed to bring Holmes back, and then continued publishing his adventures into the late 1920s.