The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: sherlock holmes

Sherlock Hound The Four Signatures: Dogs, Blondes and Lestrade as Saviour

The Italo-Japanese animated series Sherlock Hound produced 26 episodes in 1984-5 (production actually started in 1981 and was held up because of disputes with the Doyle estate). The series looks like a cousin of the better known Spanish-Japanese 80s cartoon series Dogtanian and the Muskehounds and Around the World with Willy Fog. The Great Detective is, in Hound, an anthropomorphic dog, but characterologically broadly similar to standard Holmeses. The series was aimed at children, so there are some differences in character and theme from other avatars. This is clear in the first episode, rendered in English as “The Four Signatures”, obviously based on Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1888). Several of the episodes in the series were directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, but this is not one of them.

The title slide, reproduced here in the Spanish-language version (as this version, and not the English, is readily available online), pays obeisance to the fetishistic nature of Sherlock Holmes. More than an individual, the Holmes of screen adaptations is a clutter of objects that hang together to form the outline of a Great Detective: a deerstalker cap, a magnifying glass, a curved pipe.

The first episode opens with an idyllic rural scene, as Sherlock Hound drives contentedly along a quiet country road amidst rolling greenery and distant hills. Above are blues skies with wisps of cloud. The setting reflects the classical perception of the “green and pleasant land” of England.

Hound himself looks younger than other avatars. In so far as one can age an anthropomorphic cartoon dog, he looks to be in his twenties. This youth is especially evident in scenes where he take off the deerstalker to reveal a spiky hairstyle.

Deerstalker, check; curved pipe, check; Inverness cape, check; dog face, check

Hound meets with a slight adventure on the journey when he tries to pass a carriage which blocks him and within which is a young lady who hurriedly closes the shades when she sees Hound trying to glimpse inside. Here are the initiating mysteries of the episode, elements of the hermeneutic code described by Barthes: Who is driving the carriage? Why are they driving it so fast and erratically? Who is the nervous-seeming young lady? And what lies behind the air of secrecy that surrounds the carriage and its occupants?

The young lady in the carriage

Having finally made the overtaking maneuver, Hound soon finds himself at the port from which he is to embark by ship. At the dock, he sees the young lady from the carriage, and its driver, a bulky older gentleman. He is behaving in a suspicious manner: “That man is hiding something”, Hound announces to himself.

As Hound embarks, we are introduced to Watson, who is also boarding. Watson is an apparently older man/dog, thickset where Hound is slender, and heavily moustached. It is Watson, not Hound, who quickly finds out extensive information on the mysterious young lady and her older man, who is her father and whose name is Lord George. The young lady’s name is Barbara, and she is 20 years old. Watson’s infodump prompts the following exchange:

Hound: When it comes to blondes, your spirit of observation is truly exceptional.

Watson: Don’t you always say that the deductive capacities improve in the presence of beautiful blondes?

Hound: Elementary, my dear Watson.

Thus H&W are given a rather surprising and certainly non-canonical preoccupation with blonde females, a theme in the series which I will return to later on.

[Important note: this exchange is translated from the Spanish-language version of the episode, which I found here. On watching the English version, I found that no such exchange was present, and the scene had been dubbed entirely differently! Neither English nor Spanish was the original language of the series, so I’m not sure which version best reflects the original. For now, then, I’m leaving it as I first found it in the Spanish version.]

Bluff and sturdy Watson

At this point, H&W’s reflections are cut short by a ship containing “Bengal Pirates”. H&W descend to Lord George and Barbara’s cabin, wherein Holmes effectively concludes the mystery element of the episode by explaining that the Bengal Pirates have come to kill Lord George, who was once part of their number, but betrayed them and stole their treasure. This plot line is very similar to The Sign of Four, including the presence of the beautiful daughter. In Doyle’s novel, Watson goes on to marry the daughter, named Mary Morstan.

Now mystery gives way to adventure, as the BPs attempt to board the passenger ship, leading to a chase between the BPs and H&W, who embark in a small boat (rigged up from Holmes’s car) with Lord George’s jewels. They lead the BPs into the treacherous waters around some pillars of rock.

But H&W are eventually cornered and it seems the game is up. Unusually, however, and certainly in marked contrast to the Ronald Howard Holmes I wrote on recently, Lestrade arrives to save the day. A naval battalion arrives, manned by a corpus of blue-suited policeman, their look clearly based on English policemen, fronted by Lestrade. For Lestrade to become the detective’s saviour is a very unusual development in a Holmes story, especially in an introductory episode to a series.

Finally, the episode ends with Watson declaring his intention to court Barbara [In Spanish. The English version includes no reference to any intended courtship. In its place is a line about H&W’s “future sports”.] Both Watson’s earlier admiring comments and comparisons with The Sign of Four made this a predictable outcome. It appears to provide a setup for the rest of the series.

The end of the adventure: Holmes and Watson shake hands, while Barbara and Lord George await them on the ship.

In fact, Barbara doesn’t appear or even get mentioned again, but her centrality here prefigures the most notable character change in this series: Mrs Hudson becomes Marie Hudson, a central figure rather than the peripheral figure she is in most adaptations. She is also much younger than most versions, and an object of romantic longing for most of the characters. Her lovableness forms the basis of one of the Miyazaki episodes, “Mrs Hudson is Taken Hostage” (Ep. 4), in which Moriarty kidnaps and then falls hopelessly in love with her, as do his two henchmen.

Mrs Hudson, angel in the house, and agent of justice in some episodes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): Spicy Latinas, Class Exploitation and Excellent Steepling

Fresh from their success with Dracula, England’s Hammer studios re-engaged the acting talents of Peter Cushing (Holmes) and Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville) in their take on Doyle’s classic tale.

It had been 20 years since Basil Rathbone had initiated his Holmes career in Hound of the Baskervilles, so the story was due a revisit. Cushing’s Hound would be of another genre to Rathbone’s. Hammer was a horror studio so an accentuation of the gothic horror elements of Hound was on the cards: more hellhound, more ruined churches, more direct evocations of the horror of being immersed in Grimpen Mire itself.

For openers, though, Hammer went with a longish prologue (about 9 minutes) recounting the legend of Sir Hugo and the Hound. Doyle, as was his custom, opened with a long and not unamusing dialogue between Holmes and Watson in Holmes’s quarters. Most adaptations, however, stay away from Doyle’s talky openings. This film simply lifts the legend recounted by Dr Mortimer in Chapter 2 of Hound and presents it directly at the beginning.

Placement in the narrative aside, the legend is lifted almost intact from Doyle. There are a couple of changes: the young village girl who the “wild, profane and godless” Sir Hugo pursues flees to a ruined abbey on the moor and it is caught and murdered there by Sir Hugo; in Doyle, there is no church, and the girl dies “of fear and of fatigue” on the moor before Hugo can catch her.

Village girl hides out in a ruined abbey while being sought by Sir Hugo

This prologue works thematically as it sets up the ideas of class relations that plays a surprisingly large role in this adaptation. This opening shows Sir Hugo treating the local peasantry as objects for his exploitation and enjoyment, and milder forms of this upper-class arrogance echo through the film.

Hugo himself, of course, quickly gets his comeuppance, when, the legend says, the Hound appears and rips his throat out. And, thereafter, the Baskervilles are prone to sudden and mysterious death, still paying for the sins of their ancestor.

Such is the tale, my sons, of the coming of the hound which is said to have plagued the family so sorely ever since. If I have set it down it is because that which is clearly known hath less terror than that which is but hinted at and guessed. Nor can it be denied that many of the family have been unhappy in their deaths, which have been sudden, bloody, and mysterious. Yet may we shelter ourselves in the infinite goodness of Providence, which would not forever punish the innocent beyond that third or fourth generation which is threatened in Holy Writ. To that Providence, my sons, I hereby commend you, and I counsel you by way of caution to forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted. – The Hound of the Baskervilles, Chapter 2

In the context of Sir Hugo’s actions, our first introduction to Sir Henry Baskerville is notable. In a key early scene of the film, H&W enter Sir Henry’s hotel room and greet him. He is fixing his tie in the mirror and doesn’t bother to look around to acknowledge them. Instead, assuming he is speaking to the hotel manager, he begins to complain in an overbearing and arrogant manner about his (the manager’s) tardy arrival and the disappearance of a boot.

Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) fixes his tie.

The superciliousness of Sir Henry’s behavior is of course accentuated by the choice of actor to play him: Christopher Lee. Lee had just played the archetypal upper-class predator in Hammer’s Dracula, and another recent role was as the villainous Marquis St Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1958). In the latter, indeed, his character rapes a peasant girl in scenes very reminiscent of this film’s opening. Lee’s characteristic lordliness was used to effect in villainous roles, but in this adaptation the same lordliness is an element of a benevolent character.

When he finally realizes that he is not speaking to a member of the serving classes, Henry is appropriately apologetic, and he soon builds a friendly relationship with H&W. This close relationship is only threatened late on when Holmes makes a jeering remark about Henry’s “peasant friends”. Holmes is here being rude with a strategic purpose rather than making a straightforward expression of class prejudice, but the form his remark takes is also important. It annoys Henry greatly, getting at the root of his class consciousness, and that of the film.

Peter Cushing is seen by many as one of the best Holmeses and physically he fits the role very well: tall, slim, grave expression, keen eyes, ghostly pallor, sharp features. Intelligent and alert but slightly otherworldly. He may also have been reading up on Holmes’ physical mannerisms, for he makes copious use of the steepled fingers pose, a favorite of Holmes and one in which he engages in Hound among other of Doyle’s works.

Sydney Paget illustration from Hound showing Sherlock Holmes in finger-steepling mode.

Cushing with steepled fingers, index of intellectual engagement.

If Cushing is a classical Sherlock Holmes, the most radical character change in the film is that of the novel’s Beryl Stapleton, Henry’s love interest in novel and film. Her first name is now Cecile, she is Stapleton’s daughter, and the central emphasis is on her having Spanish blood and being a variation on the spicy Latina/Latina spitfire stereotype. (Doyle mentions at the end of HOTB that she has Costa Rican blood.) As such, she is deeply sexualized but emotionally volatile, and ultimately as dangerous as the murderous Stapleton himself. It is his lust for her that brings Henry into danger, and it is implied by Cecile herself that lust has been the curse of all the Baskervilles, from Sir Hugo onwards.

Sir Hugo died here. His throat was torn out because of a girl. And Sir Charles, your dear uncle. He died here, didn’t he? Died because he wanted me, like you!

Cecile mocks Henry as she waits for the hound to tear his throat out. Her triumph, alas, is short lived.

Cecile is a product of the prurient, even perverse, attitude to sexuality in Hammer films: these films are predicated on the indulgence followed by the harsh punishment of sexual impulses. The viewer can watch with voyeuristic enjoyment, then join the gentlemanly protagonists in condemning with puritanical vigor.

Our first glimpse of Cecile Stapleton, a sullen yet passionate young lady of Spanish extraction.

Somewhat in line with this Puritanism, perhaps, is the portrayal of Bishop Frankland (Mr Frankland in the novel). The Bishop is an eccentric, treated with amused indulgence in the film, which thus answers to Žižek’s definition of cynical ideology, wherein the dominant ideology is reinforced not by strict enforcement of strict obedience, but by toleration of and encouragement of an attitude of cynical but resigned distance to it. In this context, the real political danger is the true believer, the one who takes it all too seriously. (I also discuss this here with regard to Joseph Conrad’s Chance.) Holmes is more straightforwardly ideologically aligned to Frankland when he asks him:

Will it help if I tell you I am fighting evil? Fighting it as surely as you do.

Holmes and Bishop Frankland have an important conversation.

Organized religion and its representatives, then, can’t always be taken seriously, but must be respected at moments of crisis. (The 1954 War of the Worlds also performs an interesting ideological repositioning of H.G. Wells’ text.) Hammer thus perform a delicate maneuver in tapping into a conservative strain of their audience while also being purveyors of horror and sex. They foreground sex in the story, but make it Spanish. They foreground class tension, too, and hint at a regret for the loss of the old days of aristocratic domination. But even here, perhaps rather than adding their own spin, they are picking up on a thread from Doyle. Recall Watson’s reflections as he gazed upon the visage of Sir Henry:

[A]s I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery, and masterful men. There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes. If on that forbidding moor a difficult and dangerous quest should lie before us, this was at least a comrade for whom one might venture to take a risk with the certainty that he would bravely share it. (HOTB, Ch. 6)

It would take Hammer to take this strain of the original and run with it, turning it into an intriguing addition to the extended Holmesian corpus.

Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes in The Case of the Cunningham Heritage (1955); and the Function of Lestrade’s Stupidity

“The Case of the Cunningham Heritage” is the first episode of the 1954-55 US-produced series starring British actors Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford as Holmes and Watson. It is available from the Internet Archive, and so are all the rest of the episodes in the series. “The Case of the Cunningham Heritage” opens with a classic high shot of a London street replete with cobblestones, gas lamps, and a passing Hansom cab. The fetishization of late-Victorian London in Holmes adaptations was already well underway.

As the credits sequence continues, two men appear walking along the street towards us. One wears a deerstalker cap and smokes a pipe. This is of course Holmes. The other, then, can only be John Watson. As with the depiction of Victorian London, the series here opts for a fetishistic approach to Holmes, announcing him by his most well-known accessories. This is still at a time when Holmes’ manner and appearance are reassuringly familiar, but not yet problematically cliched. There is, as yet, no need for the edgy ambivalence towards, for example, the deerstalker shown in Sherlock.

As the credits cease, Holmes walks with a confident swagger. This, if nothing else, seems to reflect the American roots of the show. It is worth noting that Howard had a particular vision of his own Holmes. As quoted on Wikipedia:

In my interpretation, Holmes is not an infallible, eagle-eyed, out-of-the-ordinary personality, but an exceptionally sincere young man trying to get ahead in his profession. Where Basil Rathbone’s Holmes was nervous and highly-strung, mine has a more ascetic quality, is deliberate, very definitely unbohemian, and is underplayed for reality.

Credits over, and the first shot of the episode proper is another establishing shot of a London street, this time prosperous and suburban, bearing a carriage. Simultaneously, a narrator announces himself. In voiceover we hear a voice we can easily establish as John Watson, and the setup is derived from Doyle’s first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887): Watson is recently returned from Afghanistan; has been injured, etc. The words, however, are different, simplified, with no direct quotes from Scarlet.

The camera moves inside the carriage to show Watson’s face: broad, cheerful, middle-aged, moustached, eminently Watsonian in many respects. Newly returned to the Modern Babylon, he is looking around him with a naive curiosity which we might recognize, too, as eminently Watsonian.

Eminently Watsonian?

It is to be several minutes before we are introduced to Holmes. First Watson meets Stamford, who sends him on his way to Holmes for a possible rent share. Stamford gives Watson that immortal detail of Holmes beating corpses with a stick. In Scarlet, Watson sees this for himself, but here he only hears it, and expresses the expected mixture of surprise and intrigue. This corpse-beating is one of the great touches that immediately and unforgettably inscribe the character of Holmes in the reader’s consciousness, but perhaps in the context of this more conventional, “definitely unbohemian” Holmes, to see it would be too much.

Watson tracks Holmes down to a laboratory, and Holmes’ classic reading of Watson from Scarlet is reproduced: “You’ve just come back from Afghanistan”, and so forth.

“How did you know I was in Afghanistan!?”

It is the familiar tale, a nice introduction that devotes the first third of this first episode to set up the series. It is only thereafter that the detective story per se begins. It is an original one, rather than from Doyle. The episode description on the Internet Archive says it’s very loosely based on Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Reigate Squires“, but I saw no significant resemblance. There is an important plot point towards the end that may come from “Charles Augustus Milverton“, but it is generic enough that it might have been picked up elsewhere.

The plot is unremarkable, unworthy of recap, but we get what we came from. A smart, aloof Holmes; a perennially befuddled Watson; a Victorian setting. And, also, a particularly stupid Lestrade, detectional incompetence and deductive fallacy personified. He exists for one reason alone: to be wrong – stubbornly, arrogantly, incorrigibly wrong – and thus to throw Holmes’ perennial rightness into relief. His chronic and aggressive wrongness, indeed, serves not only to highlight Holmes’ rightness, but also to distract us from the suspect methodology which often lies beyond Holmes’ deductions. That is why so many adaptations have had to ask us to laugh at Lestrade; for, were we not doing so, we would become uncomfortably aware that Holmes is a spoofer, and that the various authors, from Doyle onwards, have colluded with him in presenting his guesswork as logical virtuosity.

Lestrade: a vessel of pure wrongness in all related to criminal detection.

It is nevertheless satisfying, of course, to have Holmes’ genius demonstrated by contrast, and to see Lestrade bested by episode’s end. The individual defeats the bureaucratic might of the police, while remaining on the side of law and order. The individual can tweak the nose of authority, without having to hate it, or feel disempowered by it. The dynamic is a gentle one.

Death of Democracy and Rebirth of Aristocracy in Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)

In my last post on The Poison Belt (1913), I wrote as follows:

That all death including mass death should be looked on with equanimity is the thrust of the book. Indeed, had it been published a year or two later I would be sorely tempted to see it as a propaganda exercise justifying and glorifying WWI. Each time Doyle writes of the beauty of his armageddon it seems as if he is talking about the near future, about the wholesale slaughter of the trenches that was just around the corner, as if he is trying to convince the reader and himself that it is all for the best.

[…]

Reading Belt, it seems that there was already something in the air, that Europe could see it coming, and was bracing itself for death on a wider scale than had ever been seen. Think of this novel as a straw in the wind, a demonstration of Raymond Williams’ concept of the structure of feeling, which is given expression in literature before becoming an acknowledged part of the general experience.

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That point has since recurred to me in connection with another passage from the book, a particularly revealing one, I think, and one that has stayed with me more than any other from The Poison Belt. In this passage, Challenger, his wife, Roxton, Malone, and Summerisle are sealed into the former’s house, awaiting the death of everyone outside. Most of the people who are to die are at a great distance, but one is close by and in plain sight: Challenger’s chauffeur, Austin. Austin has already appeared in the book; he has been depicted as loyal and wholly devoted to Challenger. The discussion about him that I wish to discuss is as follows:

“By George, that poor devil of a chauffeur of yours down in the yard has made his last journey. No use makin’ a sally and bringin’ him in?”

“It would be absolute madness,” cried Summerlee.

“Well, I suppose it would,” said Lord John. “It couldn’t help him and would scatter our gas all over the house, even if we ever got back alive. My word, look at the little birds under the trees!” (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt, Hesperus, 2008, 46)

And that’s that. They don’t bring him in, and he soon dies – or seems to at least. Why, then, has Challenger made no effort to save the life of his loyal servant of ten years’ standing? It’s not that he is wholly indifferent to the death of humanity. He has tried to warn them in a letter to the Times which was, of course, ignored. If he cannot perform the heroic duty of saving the whole world, then can he not at least fulfil the Carlylean dictum: “Do the duty which lies nearest thee.” The duty that lies nearest is saving the life of Austin, and Challenger has made no effort to do this. It seems not to have even occurred to him until now, when Roxton mentions in somewhat dismissive terms, inviting the rejection of the idea that arrives. Why?

It is obvious from reading the discussion of Austin, and from reading between the lines of the situation, that for Doyle’s characters there are two grades of human, and their lives are of different values. The classifying principle is, well, class. The working class and the gentleman’s class: Challenger, Roxton and Summerisle are all titled persons. Malone is not, but is a writer, and, as such, Doyle attributes him a dignity equating to that of Professors and Lords. We must recall Carlyle, a particular favourite of the young Doyle, here. Of the Man of Letters, Carlyle had written: “he is the light of the world; the world’s Priest;—guiding it, like a sacred Pillar of Fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of Time.” So Doyle’s protagonists – Professors, Lords and Men of Letters – are the true elite, the aristocracy of talent as well as, for the most part, of title, the men worthy of inaugurating that new world that Doyle longs for.

Austin, representative of the untalented herd, must die. Doyle’s apocalypse is thus revealed as a class purge, leaving behind 20th-century democracy for a return to a primitive patriarchy under Challenger. His dominance is emphasized by the fact that only he is allowed a female companion. It is like the Primal Horde of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. It is a rejection of democratic tendencies for a return to history as the vehicle of Great Men.

And to complete our analysis here, we must again remember that the book was a straw in the wind, that it anticipated the slaughter of the WWI trenches, and that Doyle himself was to welcome that conflict, enlisting Sherlock Holmes, no less, as a vehicle for propaganda. In the famous closing lines of the Holmes story “His Last Bow”, the Great Detective, having just captured a German spy, proclaims:

There’s an east wind coming […], such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared

Even before the Great War began, I maintain, Doyle was in The Poison Belt considering with a sort of joy the regeneration of the world, the sacrifice of the herd, and the birth of a new aristocracy from the ashes of democracy. This was the cleaner, better, stronger land into which Challenger and his companions were almost born.

Heroism, Conventionality and Living with Death: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)

My last post was on John Buchan’s gripping WWI propaganda thriller, Greenmantle (1916), and this review deals with that book’s near contemporary The Poison Belt (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle. Another thing that Belt and Greenmantle have in common is the status of sequel – sequel, in both cases, to a much better known novel. While Greenmantle had The 39 Steps for a precursor, Belt, a slim novella in form, follows on from The Lost World (1912), Doyle’s famous tale of explorations in the South American jungle leading to the discovery of a dinosaur-inhabited plateau. It is a sequel in the sense of characterological continuity: Professor Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Edward Malone (the narrator) and Professor Summerlee are once again the protagonists, together again for the first time since their jungle adventures.

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I placed the four protagonists in that particular order because there is an implicit hierarchy in Doyle’s character dynamics. Challenger is obviously the leader of the group, a domineering, blustering man whose intuitions and theories always turn out to be right. It is he who sets the plot in motion by calling his erstwhile companions to his dwelling with variations on the following telegraph:

Malone, 17 Hill Street, Streatham. – Bring oxygen. – Challenger. (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt, Hesperus, 2008, 9)

The peremptory and terse nature of Challenger’s communication recalls Holmes’ famous telegraph to Watson in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” (1923):

Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same. – S.H.

Watson does come, of course, and so does Malone (with a canister of oxygen). So the Challenger-Malone dynamic echoes the Holmes-Watson dynamic, involving boundless admiration and unquestioning obedience on one side, an unreflective assumption of superiority on the other. On their first meeting in Belt, Malone writes:

He gave me the amused handshake and encouraging smile which the headmaster bestows upon the small boy. (17)

In our unheroic days, an adult putting himself in the position of a small boy with regard to another man is odd, but one can’t have a Hero without followers who follow unquestioningly.

Professor_Challenger

Challenger in an illustration from the first publication of The Poison Belt 

Challenger isn’t exactly Holmes, though. He’s much more obnoxious. He’s overbearing and pigheaded, as well as pompous and conceited. But, on the other hand, he’s always right, so he gets away with his bad behaviour. Challenger is a much later creation than Holmes (first appearance 1912 as opposed to 1887), and the change in Doyle’s conception of heroism probably relates to his own personal progression from a young single man, struggling to make ends meet on the margins of two professions (doctor and writer) to wealthy, highly respected country squire and paterfamilias. Where once heroism came couched in the fin-de-siecle bohemianism of the detective, now it is a characteristic of the blustering and autocratic country gentleman. Holmes’ indifference to his relationships with others is replaced by Challenger’s demands for obedience. Unlike Holmes, Challenger is married, and he treats his wife like a child (into which role she slips with great enthusiasm in Doyle’s characterization). There is a certain conventionality about Challenger’s situation (also as a Professor, he’s an establishment figure, which Holmes isn’t) that makes him less attractive and less worthy, one might feel, of Hero-worship.

Once the Professor has all his friends together, he informs them that the earth has entered the eponymous poison belt, which explains the odd behaviour that everybody has been exhibiting. In fact, the “ether” has been poisoned and everybody’s going to die. That’s what’s the oxygen’s for, so Challenger, Roxton, Malone and Summerbee can counteract the effects of the poison, for a while, at least. The plan is to watch everybody else die from Challenger’s hilltop residence and then prepare themselves for a dignified exit.

Insofar as Belt is a novel of ideas, the main idea is that of the beauty of death. Death, as Challenger expostulates, and the others come to agree, is not the end:

“The physical body has rather been a source of pain and fatigue to us. It is the constant index of our limitations. Why then should we worry about its detachment from our psychical selves?” (53)

That all death including mass death should be looked on with equanimity is the thrust of the book. Indeed, had it been published a year or two later I would be sorely tempted to see it as a propaganda exercise justifying and glorifying WWI. Each time Doyle writes of the beauty of his armageddon it seems as if he is talking about the near future, about the wholesale slaughter of the trenches that was just around the corner, as if he is trying to convince the reader and himself that it is all for the best. Towards the end, he writes:

Surely we are agreed that the more sober and restrained pleasures of the present are deeper as well as wiser than the noisy, foolish hustle which passed for enjoyment in the days of old. (88)

Doyle was, it seems, more influenced by his own notoriously credulous spiritualist beliefs than anything else. With the advent of war, however, Belt became timely in a way that its author apparently did not predict. Here was the armageddon Doyle’s characters had longed for. Reading Belt, it seems that their was already something in the air, that Europe could see it coming, and was bracing itself for death on a wider scale than had ever been seen. Think of this novel as a straw in the wind, a demonstration of Raymond Williams’ concept of the structure of feeling, which is given expression in literature before becoming an acknowledged part of the general experience.

Imagining the Detective in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Sherlock (2010- )

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970, dir. Billy Wilder) went relatively unnoticed on its first release, but has gone on to become one of the most admired screen narratives featuring Doyle’s great detective. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, co-writers and -producers of Sherlock, have been vocal in their admiration for the film, and in acknowledging its influence on their series.

Private_Life_of_Sherlock_Holmes_1970

The title of the film announces the specific project it takes on: the depiction of the private life of Doyle’s character. This is a character who, in earlier versions, doesn’t have a private life, who is defined by his lack of private life. He lives only to detect:

I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”)

His dedication to his work is absolute. It is not just in action that he is devoted to his work, but in thought, too. It possesses his mind to the full. Only in the absence of work does he develop a sort of humanity, a human-all-too-human dependence on cocaine.

But Private Life overturns this character, and interrogates the standard depiction of Holmes. It is the Freudian conception of character, as I have discussed before. What is Holmes really like? What urges underlie his desperate compulsion for work? This question of Holmes’ private self is fundamental to Sherlock and Elementary, but it is in this film that it gets its first substantial treatment. Holmes’ drug use is alluded to several times from the beginning of the film, as well as his standard rationale for it:

[HOLMES] My dear friend — as well as my dear doctor — I only resort to narcotics when I am suffering from acute boredom — when there are no interesting cases to engage my mind.

[…]

[WATSON (VOICEOVER)] Naturally, I don’t mean to imply that my friend was always on cocaine — sometimes it was opium, sometimes it was hashish. And once he went one of these dreadful binges, there was no telling how long it would last.

http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/holmes.pdf

As well as introducing Holmes’ drug use, the opening conversation between Holmes and Watson sets up several threads that would later be woven into Sherlock. These include:

  1. Holmes’ complaints about Watson’s “tendency to over-romanticize” his cases when writing them down. This is also found in Doyle, but Private Life takes it further, and also extends it to complaints about the illustrations in the stories, which depict Holmes wearing a “ridiculous costume” which the public now expects Holmes to wear. This latter idea is lifted wholesale into Sherlock episode “The Abominable Bride”.
  2. Mrs. Hudson’s more outspoken character. In Doyle, she meekly accepts Holmes’ eccentricities, but in Private Life, she has a somewhat sharper tongue. For example, in the opening scene, Holmes’ famous paper on 140 types of ash is mentioned, prompting Mrs H. to sarcastically interject, “I’m sure there’s a crying need for that.” Sherlock really runs with that in their Mrs Hudson character. The day of the meekly loyal serving class in narratives of pop culture is gone, alas.
Mrs_Hudson

Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) in Sherlock

There is also an amusing suggestion by Watson that Holmes has only moved in with him to get access to drugs. This is one suggestion that Sherlock has not used. In fact, Sherlock is merely a former cigarette smoker now using nicotine patches in the series.

A plot begins to form in the next sequence of Private Life, when Holmes and Watson go to the Russian Royal Ballet performance of Swan Lake. After the performance, Holmes is invited for an audience with its star, a lady known as The Great Petrova. She has a proposition for him: she wants to have a child, and she has chosen him as a suitable partner because he is a genius. How does Holmes respond to this? How would Holmes respond? This is a question that Private Life tries to answer, and that in different formulations would go on to be central to Sherlock.

But, on the whole, Private Life does not live up to its title. Roger Ebert’s review of the film concludes:

Before the movie is 20 minutes old, Wilder has settled for simply telling a Sherlock Holmes adventure.

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-private-life-of-sherlock-holmes-1971

I think Ebert’s line is basically accurate. Wilder in a sense plays on the word “private”. The early part of the film promises an exploration of a putative hidden side of Holmes’ psyche. The latter part locates the private nature of the story in the standard Doylean device of invoking secrets of great national importance, involves royalty and top government officials, etc. Wilder didn’t quite have the tropes available to tell the story he apparently wanted to tell. In many ways, it is this story, the one Wilder didn’t quite get a handle on, that is told over and over again in Sherlock.

Private Life found itself trapped by the Doylean tropes of the top secret diplomatic affair, and couldn’t keep its focus on Holmes as a private individual; Sherlock is trapped by the notion of individual becoming, the personal journey, the fundamental importance of one’s personal relationship and their contribution to personal growth. According to current dominant tropes visible in Sherlock, the detective can never really be a detective. He can only be a complex human(-all-too-human) who does detective work. That, in the early 21st-century western world, is what people are.

[Y]ou have to find new ways of progressing Sherlock himself. He’s a bit like Pinocchio: he is  creeping towards becoming more human. He’ll never make it, but he has to change, otherwise you just set the whole thing in aspic, and there’s no point doing that. – Steven Moffat, quoted in Steve Tribe, Sherlock Chronicles, p. 248.

The Last Monarchist and Elementary

I still like to check in with Elementary from time to time, as it continues on its relatively unheralded way. It’s just finished screening season 5 (and season 6 is on the way), but I’ve just started watching season 4 on DVD. They certainly know how to churn them out: 120×40(-ish) minute episodes since it first aired in 2012; Sherlock only managed 13×90 minute episodes between its 2010 inception and its 2017 finale. That equates to about 960 minutes of airtime per year for Elementary; 167 minutes for Sherlock. That’s quite a contrast.

So the fever of speculation that surrounded Sherlock hasn’t had time to develop around Elementary, as they churn out episode after episode. There is little chance of a mystique developing around the show. Indeed, just keeping up with watching each episode can come to seem like a Sisyphean chore in itself.

One thing these two adaptations of the Holmes mythos have in common is their interest in Holmes’ family backstory, one which manifests itself in the invention of family members unknown to Doyle’s tales. Doyle’s had a mostly absent brother, Mycroft, but he had no other siblings, nor did he have any parents, in so far as Doyle’s writing gives any clue. Sherlock centralizes Mycroft from the start, creating a complex dynamic between him and Sherlock; later Sherlock brings in the detective’s parents, and later still a certain hitherto unsuspected family member who plays a large part in season 4. Elementary also works Mycroft hard in season 2, and in the season 4 that I am now watching, the detective’s father Morland enters, and some predictably complex interfamilial dynamics are explored.

The 21st-century detective cannot escape complex relationships, and much of his energy and that of the scriptwriters go into the exploring of said relationships, invariably culminating with revelations of the deep love between Sherlock and Mycroft, Sherlock and Watson (whether John [Sherlock] or Joan [Elementary]), Sherlock and Morland, etc. There is an ultimate idealization of all such relationships in the two contemporary series. A truly subversive Holmes would at this stage be one who genuinely subordinated his personal relationships to other factors, whether that be the work of detection or simple self-interest.

Morland

Morland Holmes (John Noble) in “Evidence of things not seen”

But this hypothetical subversive Holmes is not the one we get in Elementary. In episode 2 of season 4, “Evidence of things not seen”, he is preoccupied and troubled by his relationship with his father, even while the standard detection plot progresses. This detection plot takes Sherlock and Joan into some unexpected corners, the most interesting of which to the current blog is the visit they pay to a “neo-reactionary monarchist” (as Sherlock calls him), or a “kook” (as Joan calls him).

Maurice Antonov is a blogger calling for the return of a Tudor-style monarchy. He admits that his political orientation is “not very socially acceptable at the moment”. He quotes Plato to the effect that the king and the philosopher should be one. Sherlock then declares his own orientation: democrat (citing Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all of the other ones). As the conversation progresses and Sherlock and Joan ask Mr Antonov about the crime in question, he reveals that he was giving a seminar at the time. A seminar on Thomas Carlyle. “There are over a dozen witnesses who will vouch for me”, he says. (This number itself a sly joke at the expense of Carlylean monarchism and its popularity or lack thereof.)

What is striking is the lightly mocking tone with which our Carlylean friend is treated. He’s a bookish individual, bespectacled (thick black frames), bearded and bald. We meet him in a wood-furnished, dimly lit library, where he wanders among the shelves picking up hard back books of obviously antique vintage. Though he’s an ex-partner of the murder victim being investigated, once he has appeared, his possible guilt is never discussed. He is not a threat.

Antonov

The first shot of Maurice Antonov (Geoffrey Cantor), clutching his dusty hardback tomes and peering over his thick glasses.

So the Carlylean philosophico-political beliefs of Mr Antonov are a signifier of his redundancy in the detective plot. His ideas are not presented as in any way objectionable, but rather as being humorously erroneous and anachronistic. The indulgent way in which they are treated is a measure of Carlyle’s current reputational standing in our culture: simply an irrelevance rather than a thinker of note.

Of course, it’s fitting that Elementary should be the show to register this. This is because Doyle’s very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, references Carlyle:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

The point Doyle/Watson is making here is that Carlyle is so famous, so relevant, that for an intelligent person not to have heard of him is preposterous. Of course, adaptations invariably retain the Copernican reference and dump the Carlyle one, because Copernican remains a touchstone of our intellectual progress and Carlyle, well, less so. Elementary goes a step further and reintroduces Carlyle, but now as a signifier of irrelevance.

That Holmes himself is a character whose popularity now is the same as it was in a substantially different ideologico-cultural climate, one wherein Carlylean monarchism was a serious political position, is a noteworthy fact in itself, even if he has had to trade in his steadfast individualism for a more symbiotic relationship with his family and associates in recent adaptations.

 

Review: The Seven Per Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer (1974)

Having discussed my preconceptions and early impressions of The Seven Per Cent Solution in my last post, it seems relevant to provide a review upon finishing the novel. This intriguing novel centres on a meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in Vienna, where they get together to solve a case involving a disorientated and apparently mistreated woman. The case, of course, turns out to be of international importance.

Image

1975 Coronet Edition of The Seven Per Cent Solution

Ultimately, The Seven Per Cent Solution did not meet my expectations. Perhaps these were too high. But to get at the sort of thing I was expecting, here’s a reviewer’s quote from the back cover of the book:

What happens as one mastermind pitches wits against the other and as Freud proceeds to psychoanalyse Holmes and get to the heart of his secrets makes a marvellously entertaining treat for the most jaded palate. –Publishers Weekly

In a work featuring Holmes and Freud, one would indeed expect a large element of psychoanalysis. One would expect, as Publishers Weekly mentioned, a psychoanalysis of Holmes. As I neared the end of the book, I became increasingly surprised to find that no such content was in the book. I was wrong. In the final chapter, Freud does hypnotize and briefly psychoanalyze Holmes, and finds a secret from his past that explain his apparent disinterest in social, sexual and romantic relationships. I won’t give the details away, but it’s not original. It is taken from a well-known Holmes scholar of the time called Trevor H. Hall, which Meyers acknowledges in a footnote:

*This amazing event was actually deduced by Trevor Hall in his essay “The Early Years of Sherlock Holmes”, included in his masterly collection Sherlock Holmes: Ten Literary Studies, St. Martin’s Press, 1969. N.M.

Of course, Hall didn’t use Freudian techniques to arrive at his conclusions; rather he relied on detail from the stories, but the conclusions are the same. Which does prompt the following question: what use is psychoanalysis if it can only bring to light information that can as easily be brought to light by other channels? For this book to have successfully married Freudian thought to the Holmesian universe, it would at least have had to call forth some specifically Freudian knowledge, unavailable to the unassisted intelligence, and certainly not second hand.

And note also the timing of the psychoanalytic episode: the final chapter, when the central mystery had been solved. The word afterthought certainly springs to mind here. Again, the Freudian element should have been more integrated into the central narrative, not tacked on. But Meyer is less interested in the Freudian element than one might have expected.

Of course, there are other more Freudian characterizations of Holmes, if one wishes to find them. Sherlock most of all, as some reviewers have noted. The Seven Per Cent Solution, though, is not such a reading. Indeed, it is curiously reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), another narrative that appears to set itself up as an exploration of the Holmesian psyche, but that ends up following the tropes of the detective story, and leaving psychology and character behind. Stories in popular culture just had not become Freudian enough to support such an ambition at the time. Now, though, cultural tropes have changed, and Sherlock and other modern retellings are more suffused with Freudian theory than Meyer or Wilder could make their stories.

 

Variations on this theme:

Elementary (S1 E1) and the Freudianization of Sherlock Holmes

Freud, Leonardo, Sherlock Holmes, Asexuality

Freud meets Holmes: The Seven-per-cent Solution (1974)

The prevalence of Freudian readings of Sherlock Holmes, and the tensions they engender in the adapted narratives that make them, is a subject I have touched on before (also here). It was about time, then, that I read Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-per-cent Solution (1974), a shortish novel (221 pages in the Coronet 1975 edition which I will be referencing in this post) bringing the fictional detective and the real psychoanalyst together in an entirely fictional way.

sevenpercent.jpg

Yoinked from here

In a sense, the novel is an adaptation of Doyle’s famous story “The Final Problem” (TFP), in which he (temporarily) killed off the detective at the Reichenbach Falls in a conflict with Moriarty. It didn’t quite happen like that, is Meyer’s contention. In fact, Moriarty was a harmless Professor of Mathematics whom had become the focus of Holmes’ paranoid fantasies, and Watson and Mycroft (Holmes’ brother) had tricked Holmes into travelling to Vienna to have him checked out by the eminent Dr. Freud. Still less than half-way through the novel, I am not yet sure how they get Holmes to Reichenbach Falls (or if he does end up there in Meyer’s version, as opposed to it being a product of his paranoid imagination. But Vienna is close-ish, the same part of the world, so I anticipate he probably does end up there.)

So the conceit of the novel is fantastic. There is a real philosophical and history-of-ideas interest in the juxtaposing of these two characters: the embodiment of late Victorian Heroism, unemotional and sexless, and the radical Austrian psychologist, upending with lasting effect all previous conceptions of humanity to place sex squarely at the centre of it all. It’s because of Freud that Holmes seems so alien to us (while remaining such an attractive figure.)

Meyer opens with the age-old “found manuscript” gambit. A late dictated text from Dr. Watson, found in an old house that had gone up for sale. This appeal to authenticity allies the book with “the game“, in which Sherlockian scholars treat Holmes and Watson as real people, and Doyle as their literary agent, and all the stories as real happenings, which just have to be put into a correct order to resolve the contradictions Watson left in them (these contradictions being explained by Watson’s need to protect the real identities of his subjects, his forgetfulness, in a couple of cases the stories are deemed to be forgeries not really by Watson, and so on). Dorothy Sayers famously wrote that:

The game of applying the methods of the “Higher Criticism” to the Sherlock Holmes canon was begun, many years ago, by Monsignor Ronald Knox, with the aim of showing that, by those methods, one could disintegrate a modern classic as speciously as a certain school of critics have endeavoured to disintegrate the Bible. Since then, the thing has become a hobby among a select set of jesters here and in America.

But the exponents of the game are many, and are by no means all jesters. Many take it very seriously indeed. Meyer is clearly very familiar with the game, and he takes part in it in Seven-per-cent. For example, Watson as narrator in this novel identifies Doyle’s stories “The Lion’s Mane”, “The Mazarin Stone”, “The Creeping Man” and “The Three Gables” as “forgeries”, and also as “drivel” (17).

The novel proper opens with Holmes arriving at Watson’s practice wanting to speak to him urgently. Holmes’ dialogue during the meeting is filled with nods to Doyle’s stories: references to Reade and Richter, complaints about the lack of high quality crime, and, most centrally, the following direct lift from TFP:

For years past, Watson, I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which for ever stands in the way of the law, and throws it shield over the wrong-doer. Again and again in cases of the most varying sorts — forgery cases, robberies, murders — I have felt the presence of this force, and I have deduced its action in many of those undiscovered crimes in which I have not been personally consulted. For years I have endeavored to break through the veil which shrouded it, and at last the time came when I seized my thread and followed it, until it led me, after a thousand cunning windings, to ex-Professor Moriarty of mathematical celebrity.

On one hand, this is a pretty dramatic and forceful speech; on the other, I have always felt it to be something of a jumping-the-shark moment in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. While the early Holmes were all about the presence of seemingly inconsequential details in often very everyday stories, and the finding of unexpected interesting elements in mundane setups (in the early Doyle short stories, there are very few murders, and in several cases no crime to speak of.) I’m thinking here of a story like “The Red-headed League”: a curious tale whose mundanity is broken only be the comical but hardly sinister detail of the bequest for the man with the best red head! “Copper Beeches” is another classic in this regard. A mundane setting with a few curious details, hiding a very particular set of circumstances that the general reader can hardly begin to guess at.

But now in TFP Doyle gives up the great sense of specificity and eccentricity that attended these early stories by positing an antagonist, an embodiment of criminal evil for Holmes. This is standard narrative stuff obviously, but to me it’s a much less interesting approach than the earlier: from the notion all situations are uniquely interesting; we move to the notion that all crimes are one, with Moriarty at the centre. It’s almost like a move from empiricism to religious thinking; from attention to detail to reliance on symbolism.

So given my take on this, I enjoy how Meyer subverts it here. The preposterousness of Holmes’ idea here is made manifest; in seeing Moriarty everywhere, he’s not noticing a true unified pattern in crime, he’s exposing his own cocaine-fuelled paranoia. This becomes increasingly clear in the second chapter, wherein we meet the real Moriary. He gets in touch with Doyle to complain querulously about Holmes’ following him around for no apparent reason. All of this is much better than Doyle’s own conceit!

It is also clear from the start that Meyer feels the need to rehabilitate his narrator, i.e. Watson: “Students of my work have seen fit to remark that the man who wrote them was ‘slow’, a dullard, hopelessly gullible, totally without imagination, and worse. To these charges I plead not guilty […]. [B]eing in his company often made one feel dull whether or not one possessed a normal intelligence, which, by the by, I believe I do.” (55) Here, again, Meyer is probably showing his familiarity with Sherlockian scholarship, which has long taken exception to alleged popular misconceptions about Watson’s character. This is solidified in the famous Rathbone Holmes films of the late 1930s and the 1940s, wherein Nigel Bruce played an entertainingly imbecilic, comic-relief Watson. One can imagine the nods of satisfaction from Sherlockians on reading in Meyer an author ready to give Watson his due.

Watson.jpg

As I write, I haven’t yet read to the meetings between Holmes and Freud. This will be the meat of the book, and will decide whether it really lives up to the promise it has shown. There is room for a truly profound work in the Holmes-Freud nexus. Seven-per-cent has started well, promising to be a better solution to the problem of Holmes than Doyle himself found in TFP, a book that couldn’t have been written without Doyle, but that Doyle certainly couldn’t have written.

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?”: A Reflection on Meaninglessness, Despondency and Freedom

One of the great moments in the Sherlock Holmes canon comes at the very end of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box“, and features the great detective in an unusually pensive and apparently depressed mood. It is at the end of a particularly trying and tragic case:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

Sidney Paget. Sherlock Holmes illustration

Illustration by Sidney Paget from the original publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories

In this case, even the chance to exercise his deductive powers in the interests of justice doesn’t serve to shield Holmes from the bleaker truths of human existence and human relations.

Such bleakness, while not charactersitic of Doyle, is somewhat of a feature of the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. A classic example that has remained with me from first reading the book in my youth comes from W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915):

the sage gave [the king]the history of man in a single line; it was this: he was born, he suffered, and he died. There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence.

Also worth noting is the protagonist’s response to this “history of man”:

Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty.

This is an interesting philosophico-psychological twist: meaninglessness can bring, not just despair as it did (albeit not on a permanent basis) to Holmes, rather it gives one a sense of freedom and power.

Holmes tortured

Jeremy Brett playing Holmes in despondent mood at the end of the film The Master Blackmailer (1992)

Perhaps the reader disturbed by Holmes’ despondent reaction in “The Cardboard Box” should imagine him reading Of Human Bondage, and thereby coming to terms with the meaninglessness of his endeavours. By 1915, Holmes had already retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs. He could have done worse things with his free time than reading Maugham’s long, semi-autobiographical novel, and so could the contemporary reader, who perhaps does not pay enough attention to the rather unfashionable Maugham, a writer who has for a long time now been “eclipsed” in the public attention.

 

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