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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of short stories and novels (56 and 4, respectively, to be precise) which feature the consulting detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes. The great majority of these stories are told by Dr. John Watson, a close friend who assists Holmes with cases and acts as a de facto biographer and storyteller. Sherlock is a brilliant, eccentric, sometimes neurotic, but eminently lovable hero, and Watson winkles his way into the heart of the reader with his courage, his continuously offered friendship, and his steadfast willingness to let Sherlock use (and abuse) him. The tales are often similar, but never twice the same, and you earn a few morsels of detail and personality about the inhabitants of 221B Baker Street and their comings and goings with each new chronicle. The cases are full of adventure, intrigue, and, more often than not, danger, but what pulls the reader back to the next installment is not the complex chase scenes or the oft-required revolvers, but the feeling that you have been granted entry to the intimate coterie of Holmes and Watson and their marvelous world of whimsy.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear readers,
    It has been a long time since I have blobbed. Did you miss me? I was exploring the magnificent world of detection and deduction, and I savoured each and every moment. If you haven't read any Holmes, stop what you're doing (this instant! I mean it! anybody want a peanut?), hit the library or the nearest bookstore, and get yourself a copy of the collection. Your collection probably won't be complete (I'm not being snotty - I have three large tomes and between them I was still missing the last 12 stories and had to read them online - thanks, ebooks!) but that's perfectly fine! They don't really require that you read them in order, and their chronology differs from their publication order, in any case.
    I completely understand the obsession with Holmes now, and the stories were impeccably constructed, thoughtfully organized, and delightfully playful. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the collection.

Gossip Girl

The feedback loop - on Holmes (avec Watson) in his many forms
One of my fears in reading this series was that I would have the modern-day Watsons and Holmeses swimming around omnipresently in my brain, and they would cloud my imagining capacity and preclude me from creating my own images of the beloved pair.
     But never fear, blog enthusiasts - the opposite happened! My knowledge of at least three pairs of H and W did not detract from, but rather enriched my internal sketch of the famous duo. I even watched some recent "Elementary" episodes and started watching "Sherlock", which I had not begun prior to reading, and found that I was not stuck with Benedict Cumberbatch bouncing around as Holmes in my brain when I went back to reading, and I loved the various tidbits from the books that I saw effortlessly and beautifully recreated in the series.

I think this is in part because (a) recent updaters of the Doyle series have been very talented and quite thoughtful and thorough about their scripts, scenery, and casting, and (2) they have been playful in the same spirit of the series when they do choose to take liberties or expand upon Doyle's original intentions. Here are a few comments on each pairing that struck me as I read:

Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes
Jude Law as Watson
"Sherlock Holmes" and "A Game of Shadows"
- Key details about Moriarty on point (Mathematician, professor, 2nd hand man Sebastian Moran)

- Most physically accurate Mycroft (imho)

- Brilliant use of slo-mo to walk viewers through Holmes's thoughts (and epic boxing scenes)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes
Martin Freeman as Watson
- Intro meeting between Holmes and Watson is a delightfully updated version of the exact beginning to Study in Scarlet

- Hilarious details included from book (keeping correspondence stabbed with a dagger on the mantle)

- Beautiful use of text and video editing to display Holmes's deductions (ex: navigating the streets of London at hyperspeed)

Johnny Lee Miller as Holmes
Lucy Liu as Watson
-Thoughtful extrapolation of Holmes's mentioned semi-recreational, semi-addicted use of cocaine; if you haven't seen this version, Lucy Liu (as Watson) is a retired surgeon turned 'sober companion', and she first encounters Holmes and moves in with him because she is facilitating his transition out of rehab for drug use. I thought that the addiction was taking artistic license, but realized after reading the series that it was spot on. Watson is even referenced as 'helping Holmes break his habit' of using cocaine to divert himself in times of lethargy and boredom.

- I like that Watson is a woman, but they keep the relationship strictly platonic. It adds a level of nuance, but otherwise stays quite true to the construct of the pairing.

- Amusing details included here - Holmes as beekeeper, single-stick expert, boxer, and corpse defiler (for detective practice, of course).

And now, may I present to you, the cast of characters from this delightful 40-year literary romp through detective-land:

First and foremost, Holmes (in his many moods and forms):
What I love about Holmes is that he has certain highly predictable traits (his unpredictability, for example, his odd sleeping patterns, his affinity for playing violin tunes of his own creation), but these are paired with more dynamic characteristics (his flair for the dramatic, his propensity for disguise, his surprising and sporadic bursts of humility). This yields a marvelously multidimensional character that is painstakingly developed like a patchwork quilt over the course of the cases.

Holmes, the performer
Holmes is always willing to pass on the public accolades for solving difficult cases, but he does like the occasional audience. ;)
"Lestrade and I [Watson] sat silent for a moment, and then, with a spontaneous impulse, we both broke out clapping as at the well-wrought crisis of a play. A flush of colour sprang to Holmes’s pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. 'Well,' said Lestrade, 'I’ve seen you handle a good many cases, Mr. Holmes, but I don’t know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than that. We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.'

Holmes, the hoarder
Holmes likes to be surrounded by his things, and he does not enjoy being separated from them:
"My friend’s temper had not improved since he had been deprived of the congenial surroundings of Baker Street. Without his scrap-books, his chemicals, and his homely untidiness, he was an uncomfortable man."

Holmes, the addict
This is a fascinating aspect to Holmes, and one that feels familiar to me. Not the addiction, per se, but the instability of the brain at rest. Those who know me well know that I thrive on activity, whether it is work or a productive form of rest (knitting, quilting, reading), and I identified with Holmes's discomfort with idleness. Watson's watchful eye to these dangerous times was deeply endearing.
"Things had indeed been very slow with us, and I had learned to dread such periods of inaction, for I knew by experience that my companion’s brain was so abnormally active that it was dangerous to leave it without material upon which to work. For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping; and I have known that the sleep was a light one and the waking near when in periods of idleness I have seen the drawn look upon Holmes’s ascetic face, and the brooding of his deep-set and inscrutable eyes."

Holmes, the critic
Holmes can be a bit of a meanie to Watson, but it's their thing, so I guess it's OK.
"'I deplore in your narratives. Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader.' 'Why do you not write them yourself?' I said, with some bitterness. 'I will, my dear Watson, I will. At present I am, as you know, fairly busy, but I propose to devote my declining years to the composition of a text-book which shall focus the whole art of detection into one volume.'" Oh, OK, Holmes. Suuure. ;)

Holmes, judge and jury
Occasionally, Holmes reserves the right to withhold the results of his investigations...
"Once or twice in my career I feel that I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by his crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience."

Holmes, the cryptic
Holmes is the worst best at leaving helpful notes for ickle Watsonkins. Here is one of my favorites:
"Am dining at Goldini’s Restaurant, Gloucester Road, Kensington. Please come at once and join me there. Bring with you a jemmy, a dark lantern, a chisel, and a revolver.
ahaaghahgahghaghaghagh OK. no pRoblem, Holmesy.

Holmes, the sneak
One of the dullard policemen, to Holmes:
“How do you know that?”
“I followed you.”
“I saw no one.”
“That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.

Holmes, the softie
Holmes likes to pretend he only takes on cases if they are interesting/challenging enough to tempt him, but in truth, he is a big old softie. Here's a client, begging him to take on his case:
“But he would never cease talking of it—your kindness, sir, and the way in which you brought light into the darkness. I remembered his words when I was in doubt and darkness myself. I know you could if you only would.” That reminded me of this exchange from Dracula:

Van Helsing, to Mina: "There are darknesses in life, and there are lights; you are one of the lights." Holmes brings light into the darkness, just like Mina.

Holmes, the monographer (not a word? I don't care. (said Pierre))

Here is an amusing image I found of some of Holmes's monographs. He seems to always have one up his sleeve. Oh, differentiating things that are the color that rhymes with 'urple'? Have one on that. Learning to tell whether someone is lying based on their smell? Have one on that.

Holmes, the jokester
“It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal.” Enough said.

Moriarty, Holmes's evil twin:
I have to admit I was a little disappointed that Moriarty didn't have more of a starring role in the stories. I think the updated versions do an excellent job of weaving Moriarty more consistently into the storyline, as Doyle leaves this a bit dangly in the stories/novels. He uses the non-chronological nature of the stories to dive in and out of the Moriarty plotline here and there, but I wanted a more fleshed out mind-battle between Sherlock and Moriarty. Holmes is a tad obsessed with him, in a mildly disturbing way:
"But in calling Moriarty a criminal you are uttering libel in the eyes of the law—and there lie the glory and the wonder of it! The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations—that's the man!" OK, Holmes, let's cool your jets. He's a bad, bad man, remember?

Mycroft, a.k.a. the only other Holmes we know:
Mycroft, for those of you unfamiliar with the stories, is Holmes's brother. He is described as matching (if not surpassing) Holmes in deductive brilliance, but without any interest in the activity required to solve cases. Apparently Mycroft has only been to Baker Street twice, and Watson assumes Holmes has no family at all until one day he mentions Mycroft out of the blue. Here are a few tidbits:

"All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience."

"Possibly, Sherlock. But it is a question of getting details. Give me your details, and from an armchair I will return you an excellent expert opinion. But to run here and run there, to cross-question railway guards, and lie on my face with a lens to my eye—it is not my metier. No, you are the one man who can clear the matter up." Hahgahghag, no that would require effort. I'm good, thanks.

Watson, the stubborn
Despite Holmes's various (and often disturbing) requests, there are times when even Holmes doesn't want to endanger Watson by involving him in his harebrained schemes. Watson, to his credit, never says die:

“Well, I don’t like it; but I suppose it must be,” said I [Watson].
"When do we start?”
“You are not coming.”
“Then you are not going,” said I.
“I give you my word of honour —and I never broke it in my life—that I will take a cab straight to the police-station and give you away unless you let me share this adventure with you.”
“You can’t help me.”
“How do you know that? You can’t tell what may happen. Anyway, my resolution is taken. Other people beside you have self-respect and even reputations.” hagh!
Holmes had looked annoyed, but his brow cleared, and he clapped me on the shoulder.
“Well, well, my dear fellow, be it so. We have shared the same room for some years, and it would be amusing if we ended by sharing the same cell. You know, Watson, I don’t mind confessing to you that I have always had an idea that I would have made a highly efficient criminal. This is the chance of my lifetime in that direction." adorbsable. bffs in crime.

Watson, the insensible
"It is not for me, my dear Watson, to stand in the way of the official police force. I leave them all the evidence which I found. The poison still remained upon the talc had they the wit to find it. Now, Watson, we will light our lamp; we will, however, take the precaution to open our window to avoid the premature decease of two deserving members of society, and you will seat yourself near that open window in an armchair unless, like a sensible man, you determine to have nothing to do with the affair. Oh, you will see it out, will you? I thought I knew my Watson." Oh, are we doing an experiment that might end in toxic death? Oh no Problem. Let's do this.

Watson, the jokester
"You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?"
"The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as—"
"My blushes, Watson!" Holmes murmured in a deprecating voice.
"I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public."
"A touch! A distinct touch!" cried Holmes. "You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself." aghahgahgahghagahghaghaghaghaghahgahghaghaghaghahga. best. line. ever.

Watson, the whetstone
Sometimes it's hard to assess how Watson fits with Holmes, and he can seem like a mere foil to Holmes's brilliance. I loved this description that Watson provided of their pairing: "[Holmes] was a man of habits, narrow and concentrated habits, and I had become one of them. As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable. When it was a case of active work and a comrade was needed upon whose nerve he could place some reliance, my role was obvious. But apart from this I had uses. I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence."

Mrs. Hudson, soon-to-be-sainted
"Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, was a long-suffering woman. Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience. His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London." haghaghaghaghag. I think Sherlock might have had a tough time finding a roommate on Craigslist. ;)

Watson & Sherlock - Best. Friends. Forever.
This nugget, from the one time in the books that Watson gets grazed in the leg by a bullet:

Sherlock: "If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive."

I hope you have enjoyed this meandering journey through London sleuthery. I'll leave you with this fantastic note from H to W:

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

Happy holidays, and happy reading! I'm off to embark on Glee Bungalow.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific! Much more pleasant to read in this format! You also need to see one of the really old Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone as the great detective - probably form the 1940"s . He was the definitive Sherlock!