Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Red-Headed League--The Problem of "Again With The Moriarty?"

There is, in much genre movie writing, an obsession with The Big Bad.

Whomever is known as the hero's greatest foe will invariably be trotted out early and often as the villain of the piece, even to the extent of seriously altering the origins of both hero and villain. It's as if there is an ingrained fear that the public will reject the version if , somehow, they're not immediately facing their most famous foe.

But that's still not enough; the creators then feel the need to make the villain not only the hero's greatest foe, but also responsible for every damn adventure the hero has. Which is why, for example, you get the Kingpin as the gangster who killed Daredevil's father. Or Doctor Doom has to receive his powers from the same accident which mutated the Fantastic Four. Or why the Joker turned out to be the one who murdered Bruce Wayne's parents. Or why every villain in the Spider-verse is a result of Norman Osborn's work.

Which brings us to Moriarty.

There is, apparently, some massive, literary gravitational field that irresistibly requires modern creators to use Moriarty in every Sherlock Holmes story they try to tell. Even worse, so great is the compulsion that authors seem to need to go back and retcon every single Holmes story so that, ultimately, Moriarty is the true villain. The Napoleon of Crime, it seems, is responsible for every bit of illegal activity in Victorian England.

Such speculation can be fun, of course. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Moriarty out of whole cloth, as a way to kill of Sherlock Holmes with a bang. The back story he gave the man meant that he had to have been active in crime for many years. So, yes, it can be fun, if albeit ultimately silly, to try and go backwards and figure out which crimes Moriarty was really the true instigator in. In virtually every Holmes story, some theorist can stretch to find a way Moriarty is involved. The never identified "friend" who posed as a woman to recover the ring in A Study In Scarlet? Moriarty, some say (in fairness, some also suggest it must be Irene Adler...). How could Jonathan Small afford to finance his activities before he stole the treasure in The Sign Of The Four? Moriarty fronted him the money!

Well, that's all harmless fun. But when you begin to actually retell the stories so that Moriarty is explicitly involved, you go past whimsical into, perhaps, doing damage to the story.

Which brings us to The Red-Headed League, and more specifically, the Granada adaptation of it.

In the original story as told by Doyle, John Clay is "the fourth smartest man in London," a "murderer, thief, smasher and forger" who is the grandson of a royal duke. He's attended Oxford and Eton, and Holmes describes him as "the head of his profession." He's running a real long game con and robbery, an Ocean's Eleven of the 1880s. It's a clever plan, just fantastical enough to work, without drawing attention from the authorities. Clay buries himself in his role, proving himself an adept actor, as well. Truly, he is a formidable opponent.

And yet the Granada series decided that Moriarty was behind the whole scheme. They wanted a Big Bad for the series, which they planned to end with their adaptation of The Final Problem. And to that end, they portrayed Moriarty as the true mastermind behind several of this and other cases, so they could have the thread of his villainy throughout the season.

However, this does have the effect of robbing John Clay of his agency. He goes from being a great villain to a mere lacky. It wasn't even Clay's plan anymore! The Granada Holmes describes Clay as just "just a pawn," a pretty large comedown from how the character was described earlier. Furthermore, because of some of the plan's flaws, this has the unintentional effect of making Moriarty himself look less intelligent. Some mistakes we could accept from an arrogant con man and thief working on his own; the same mistakes, if they're made by Moriarty, make him look look rather less like the near-invincible mastermind. The tale works much better, and Clay is a better character, if he is a free agent, rather than if he's just doing his master's bidding.

So, by insisting on making Moriarty a part of more stories, we diminish the villain, we diminish the story, and we diminish Moriarty himself. I suppose it doesn't make a huge difference in the end; it's just me being me, obsessing on trifles. Still, I think there should be a lesson here for future creators: every story doesn't have to be about The Big Bad. It's all right to have Holmes stories without Moriarty looming in the background. Superman doesn't have to fight Luthor every time, right?


**It must be said aloud--the Granada DVDs (at least the editions I own) have the worst subtitling in the history of the universe. No, that is not hyperbole.

Clearly, whoever did the actual subtitling did not consult a script, or the original stories. They just wrote down what they (thought they) heard. And perhaps it's the British accents, or they just weren't terribly perceptive, but man, it creates some astonishingly inept results.

For example, when discussing the bequest of mysterious millonaire Ezekiah Hopkins:

We could give them a pass...after all, "Ezekiah" is hardly an everyday name. Although surely someone in charge should have done the tiniest bit of proofreading and questioned, "Hey, does the story really have a Mr. Ethic Guya Hopkins in it?"

But when meeting the client, Jabez Wilson, for the first time:

Seriously. "Jay Beards Wilson." Every. Single. Time. Which is quite a number of times. Even though his name is spelled out on a the outside of his shoppe several times.

Simply amateurish and embarrassing and unforgivable.

**Speaking of the name Jabez...If we are to believe this website, there are 341 men named Jabez in the United States right now. And Vermont has the most Jabezes per capita. And there are apparently 3 men in New York state named Jabez Fu, which is possibly the coolest thing ever. The things you learn in this job...

**Watson defaming an entire class of people: "Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow." Given that many versions of Watson have portrayed him as obese, pompous and slow, that's fairly ironic. Just sayin.'

**So how, exactly, did Clay know about the French Napoleons being stored in the bank vault? Or was it just going to be a standard bank robbery, and the presence of the gold a happy coincidence for the thieves?

The 1965 BBC version had Clay, during one of his burglaries, steal from the home safe of bank director, Mr. Merryweather, where he found papers that revealed the gold's presence. (He also left a calling card, a clay pipe with a clown face, at every crime he committed!!) The Granada edition had a corrupt bank guard leave a message for a shady character, who ran the information straight to Moriarty.

**One question to contemplate is this: what if Jabez Wilson weren't a red head? What scheme would Clay had to have come up with then? The Obese Pompous And Slow league? Was there a whole plethora of League options he had come up with that might work? Would they have just had to find another business to infiltrate?

And one serious question--what if Jabez Wilson hadn't advertised for a clerk? Then how would Clay have been able to infiltrate the establishment? Did he (or Moriarty) do something to make sure the previous clerk was out of the way?

**"You must find your own ink, pens, and blotting-paper..." Seriously? You can't go cheap on a long grift like this one. If Wilson had been a tiny bit sharper, he might have questioned why a millionaire can afford to pay 4 pounds a week for busy-work, but can't provide the basic necessities for that job. That's what we detectives call a clue...

**The most damaging, fatal mistake Clay made was closing the Red-Headed League office prematurely. If you don't close it, if you show up just one more time to pay Jabez, he has no reason to go to Sherlock Holmes, and you get away with the gold unscathed.

Why such a clumsy, careless error? Impatience, because they were so close to their goal? Trying to avoid paying an extra week's or month's rent on the office? Underestimating Jabez Wilson, by assuming he was so hopeless that he would never investigate, or seek help?

This is a very good reason to assume that this was NOT Moriarty's plan. Certainly he would not have overlooked such a crucial, all-important detail.

**No past apocryphal cases brought up this time. You're set-up to believe that "the very simple problem presented by Miss Mary Sutherland" is an untold story, but it is actually the next published case. Foreshadowing by Doyle? Or Was A Case Of Identity written first, but published later for unknown reasons, and the reference intedned to refer to a story we had already read?

**Make sure you explain to your children the concept of copying something my hand, and hard-bound multi-volume encyclopedias, or they may not understand this story. "You must cut and paste the entirety of Wikipedia...oh, what, done already?"

**What is the state of Watson's practice? Why, he can take the entire day off, as "I have nothing to do to-day. My practice is never very absorbing." Doesn't sound like you're making a very good living there, John. Thanks, Obamacare. Then again, it was a Saturday...

**One of the businesses around the corner from Wilson's shoppe was "the Vegetarian restaurant." Another reason to love the Canon. Silly me kind of assumed that vegetarian restaurants were a more modern invention. Reading Doyle reminds us of how wrong some of our preconceptions about our own era are, with his looks at his era.

However, I'm fairly sure that we won't see an In-N-Out Burger in Victorian London...

**I hope you all appreciate my maturity at not sniggering at Mr. Merryweather's "Still, I confess that I miss my rubber. It is the first Saturday night for seven-and-twenty years that I have not had my rubber." Nope, no sniggering at all.

**Inspector Peter Jones? Many commentators declare that he must really be Altheny Jones returned. Based on his references to The Sign Of The Four and Holmes' "theorizing," they argue it's the same character and Doyle (or Watson) just erred. There's really not much to go on, and Jones is hardly an uncommon surname. And he seems much more affable and friendly here. But Granada bought the theory, and just renamed him Altheny. He is played by a different actor than the one who played Athelny Jones in their TSOTF production 2 years later...

**Holmes tells the bank director, "I have been at some small expense over this matter, which I shall expect the bank to refund..."

As far as I can tell, Holmes didn't spend a single bloody penny on the entire case, aside from attending a violin performance in his spare time. Was this just a subtle, "polite" way of asking for a reward?

**As written, the entire case has no closure at all for poor Mr. Jabez Wilson. After his initial meeting with Holmes, we never see or hear from him again. We never even know for sure if anyone told him that his shoppe was being used for bank robbery. Or that his wonderful half-wages clerk had completely used him.

The TV adaptations correct this oversight. The 1965 version has Wilson join them Holmes and the police in the wait in vault; Granada has his shoppe wrecked in Artie's struggles to get away, but Holmes sends part of his reward to recompense the man.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Scandal In Bohemia--The Case Of You Call THAT A Scandal?!?

To me, one of the most enjoyable parts of the canon is the look into the social mores of a long-passed era. Even when, sometimes, those mores seemed plenty nuts.

But first, let's note one very important thing about the first of the Sherlock Holmes short stories: it doesn't involve a murder!

A century-plus of crime fiction, detective novels, and television shows have conditioned us to expect there to be at least one murder at the core of any genre story. We've come to expect corpses in our mysteries!!

But it wasn't always thus. Even though the first two Holmes novels involved murders, Holmes was mostly concerned with other matters. Of the 60 canonical stories, only 8 involved Holmes investigating murders! Heck, 15 of them had Holmes using his deductions in cases where there was no crime whatsoever! (Depending upon your interpretation of the relevant laws of the period, of course. Were these episodes of Law & Order, I have little doubt that Jack McCoy could stretch the law enough to find someone to charge with something after an argument in front of a judge with lots of motions and whatnot)

So we have the murder-less A Scandal In Bohemia...which by our lights doesn't seem all that scandalous. Oh, the King of Bohemia is mightily worried, claiming that it is with matter "of an importance which can hardly be exaggerated," and that it could permanently alter European politics.

And that terrifying earthquake of a scandal? When he was 25, the King had a girlfriend.

Yawn. I thought you said there was a scandal in this story.

Really, that's it? I mean, seriously?

As I noted in my James Bond blog, to modern audiences "the idea that it would somehow be being amazingly damaging for a British agent to be found having sex is rather...quaint, let us say." Multiply that umpteen times for the quaintness of a young man who became involved with an exotic and beautiful foreign woman for a brief period (the Granada adaptation changes his age at the time to 20, an age even more appropriate for an excusable bit of youthful indiscretion).

To cause such fear, to threaten such dire consequences, well, that must have been some photograph Irene Adler had of them.

Oh. Yawn.

What, did you expect, sexting?

Of course, many people forget that true problem the picture presented was that it corroborated Adler's story that the "compromising" letters from King Wilhelm were real. Remember, Holmes tries to provide the king with four different ways to dispute the letters' authenticity, until the King reveals the existence of the picture. That was why they needed the photograph--it wasn't salacious in and of itself, but it proved that she did indeed know the king, and lent authenticity to the letters.

So how indiscreet and scandalous could those letters have been, for heaven's sake?

Of course, here in modern times we are jaded. We're used to crown princes and their spouses both having affairs and soldiering on; we've seen that the president of the U.S. can have sordid peccadilloes and leave office with a higher approval rating than before the revelation of the affair; we've lived through a governor sneaking away to another continent for a tryst and yet still manage to get himself elected to federal office in a socially conservative state; and we've also seen how another governor can dally with prostitutes and somehow be considered an acceptable mainstream political pundit.

Scandals, at least personal scandals (as opposed to criminal wrongdoing or abuse of office), are no longer a big deal to us, it seems. Are we more tolerant? Forgiving? Understanding? Far more corrupt ourselves? Better at understanding the personal/political divide? Has technology made the revelation of "indiscretions" so much easier and more commonplace that we're inured to any shock?

Whatever the reason(s), from a modern perspective, it is a bit baffling to see a powerful monarch reduced to quivering jelly by something so seemingly tame as the threat of his betrothed finding out that he once dated (bedded?) a commoner. Princess Clotilde and her Scandinavian family must indeed have been the "very souls of delicacy" to expect her future husband to be a virgin.

Then again, maybe you'd just assume that this guy wasn't experienced with the ladies...

That being said, there are some things about King Wilhelm's story that don't seem to add up. Irene Adler doesn't seem like the type to spitefully jeopardize the King's future marriage--she especially doesn't seem the type to be pining away for a long-past affair with, well, a swaggering buffoon. And when we meet her, she's marrying someone else--hardly the act of a woman obsessed with regaining an old lover.

But remember, we only have the King's version of events here--we never hear anything from Adler herself on the matter, except that the King "cruelly wronged" her. Given the ego and pomposity of Wilhelm, it's certainly possible that his version events is highly distorted, even if he sees it as "the truth." So what is the truth? Did Adler ever actually threaten to send the photograph? Did she just say something like that in heated moment, and the King took it as a serious threat? What was the "cruel wrong" he committed against her--breaking off the relationship, or the repeated attempts to rob and detain her?

Another question is the o'erhasty marriage. Why, exactly, was there a sudden rush for Irene and Godfrey Norton to marry? It wasn't a matter of the law saying there could be no weddings after noon--that edict had been changed years earlier. And even if that were still the law, why not wait until the next day? Why the last-minute rush, when they hadn't even obtained the licence yet? Why take separate carts to the church? Why no honeymoon? Why keep the wedding a secret (as Holmes observed, the wedding likely meant the King would be safe, and would thus remove the reason for his harassment--so why hide it?)?

It remains a puzzlement, although the Granada version invents a few lines of dialogue to smooth over these points (the King and Irene had "spoken of marriage," which apparently made her feel extra spurned; she and Norton married secretly so "they could leave the country swiftly" if need be. No, I still don't get it).

Still, it might be odder if we did understand everything. The social and cultural customs from 125 years ago probably shouldn't immediately make sense to us. Times change, mores change, the center does not hold. And that's one reason the canon is so valuable--it gives us a clear, unjaundiced look at another time, another era. Sherlock Holmes mingled with all classes, from the impoverished to royalty. He was involved with all facets of his culture, even though he didn't necessarily approve or understand all of them. And Doyle's works bring us into contact with everyone from the Victorian era--foreign kings and soldiers and servants and the gentry and street urchins and groomsmen and adventuresses...and yes, criminals. It's an extended, 60-unit study of a time we never lived in, customs and a social code alien to us, but which we can experience vicariously through the works of the detective and the doctor.


**The most pressing issue from this story--can we please come to an agreement on the pronunciation of "Irene"?

She's from America, so the pronunciation most Americans use--"eye-reen"--would seem to be preferable (to me, at least).

More than one adaptation--Granada, to name one--chooses to go with "eh-ray-neh," turning it into a three syllable, more European sounding pronunciation (interestingly, the closed captioning on the Granada version identifies the name as "Irena," despite the credits clearly saying "Irene").

Of course, they both could be right. Adler would not be the first performer to adopt an unusual pronunciation/spelling of a name for notoriety/coolness/pretentiousness.

**Forgotten in all the hubbub and ballyhoo?  There are still compromising letters to Irene from Wilhelm. Remember, the photo was only important to confirm the letters' authenticity. Even if the photo is out of play (in the Granada version, she tosses it overboard while at sea), the letters still exist somewhere, right...?

 **I have one word for you, King Wilhelm: Snapchat.

More seriously, this is one of those stories where the technology has so changed, that there 100 ways you could spin the tale off if you wanted a topical update. Mail the photo? How about posting it on Pinterest or Tumblr? Can Holmes hack the server before the texts goes live and the Scandanavian royal family see it? (OK, I didn't say it would be a better story!)

**So, this is one of the Holmes cases where what he was investigating wasn't even a crime, right?

That depends on your interpretation, I guess. Since we're not privy to exactly what Irene said to the King (if, indeed, she did say anything at all), it's difficult to judge whether any particular threat she made might have reached the level of extortion.

Again, Jack McCoy would have pulled down a law book, and found a creative way to interpret a statute so that threatening to break up a betrothal would fit under definition...

**For the third consecutive time, a dispute that started in a foreign land has come to England to be settled. Great Britain obviously needed greater border control. A standard customs question should be, "Are you coming to our fair nation to settle a quarrel that started elsewhere?"

**Afraid of the NSA's data-gathering? What about Holmes'?

Upon first hearing Irene Adler's name, he has Watson look her up in his "index." It turns out that "(f)or many years he had adopted a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men and things, so that it was difficult to name a subject or a person on which he could not at once furnish information." That's all paragraphs. He's keeping files on everyone in England, whether they've committed a crime or not!?! I mean, he has information on "a Hebrew rabbi and...a staff-commander who had written a monograph upon the deep-sea fishes." And we're still in the A's!!

Sherlock Holmes was maintaining files on everyone. It makes one look at his work in a bit of a darker light, if you dwell upon it...

**We've had mentions of "off-screen" cases before (for example, how he had helped Mrs. Cecil Forrester years before, as mentioned in The Sign Of The Four). But with the advent of the short stories, Doyle started placing specific references into almost every adventure--cases with specific names, that Watson had knowledge of.

I suppose we should start keeping track of them.
--The Case Of The Trepoff Murder (in Odessa)
--The Tragedy Of The Atkinson Brothers (at Trincomalee)
--The Case Of The Darlington Substitution Scandal
--The Arnsworth Castle Business

Of course, many a writer would use these "apocryphal" cases as the basis for their own Holmes stories. How could you resist?

But it is interesting that Sir Arthur essentially invented a technique that genre writers would still be using a century later--putting little Easter eggs into the story, making Holmes' universe seem more "lived in" by intimating that that was plenty of intrigue going on even when we weren't there to see. Holmes and Watson weren't just "there" only when we were watching--and we only got to see some fraction of their careers.

**Watson sure lays on the "Sherlock Holmes is a Vulcan" riff pretty thick here. Cold, precise, perfect reasoning machine, etc. Obviously, Doyle wanted to set this up as an effective contrast for what Holmes' reaction to Adler would be.

But so effective is the attempt to make Sherlock into Spock, every time I read the line "To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman," I can't help but picture this:


And that puts me in mind of this gem. So, yes, I'm weird.

**At the beginning of the story, Watson refers to her as "The late Irene Adler." Wait, what? She's dead?

Probably not. Later Watson writes, "Irene Adler, as I will still call her...," which is obviously a reference to her now being married. This reluctance to use her married name probably explains the "late" reference, as Watson was just clumsily saying her name was changed, but he would still call her Alder. I'm not sure why he had such an aversion to using "née," or calling here Irene Norton--Irene uses those for herself, so why shouldn't the good doctor?

Perhaps it's because Godfrey Norton is such a blank, a non-entity, that Watson has difficulty believing that Irene would marry him. After building up Adler so well, after making her THE woman, it must be said that Doyle does a poor job of presenting her groom as a man worthy of her. I understand Watson's cognitive dissonance.

**Sherlock Holmes is great at disguises...but he sure is terrible at recognizing them. Twice so far in the canon he has been completely taken in people in disguise--both of them cross-dressing, even!

**Granada continues to elide and finesse and ignore Watson's marriage(s). In the story, Watson hasn't seem Holmes for awhile because, well, he has a life now--a wife and a job. But in the television adaptation, there still is no Mrs. Watson. The good doctor has been gone for awhile because "his practice took him to the country for a week." Maybe he's a veterinarian? All Creatures Great And Small starring Watson?!?

**Just to reemphasize--the King of Bohemia was an ass-hat:


Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Sign Of The Four--The Adventure Of The Wandering "The"!

Today we shall be discussing four important things about The Sign Of The Four:

No, not *that* Four...although that does give me an idea for one hell of a story (which is why they don't let me write comics books or Sherlock Holmes stories).

No, I meant this:

Let's begin, shall we?

Sign The First: You know, we don't even know the actual title of this novel, which is damned weird, if you think about it.

As you can see from the above picture, in the novel's first publication, it was clearly entitled The Sign Of The Four. Five words. Two "the's."

But upon subsequent publications, that second "the" would sometimes be there, sometimes not:

The text itself is no help, as while the majority of the novel's references are to the 5-word version, on at least two occasions the 4-word version is used.

Careless writing? Poor proofreading? Typesetting errors? No one can say--I read (somewhere--source long forgotten, I'm afraid) that the original manuscript is in the possession of a private collector who refuses to let anyone see it. So I guess we'll have to live with the mystery, and everyone will have to decide for themselves whether the correct title has 4 or 5 words.

It's funny, because we're used to that kind of thing from older sources. What we know as Shakespeare's work was put together from various unauthorized sources, unsupervised by the author. The works of Homer? Translations of transcriptions from oral traditions. When you read the Bible, you're reading a translation of a translation.

But despite the canon being over a century old, somehow we think of Sherlock Holmes as being more modern, as not subject to such historical uncertainty or whims.

This is the very definition of a trifle--it makes absolutely no difference, really, in the story, our enjoyment of it, our understanding of it. I just find it noteworthy that no one truly knows what the actual title of the second Sherlock Holmes novel is...

Sign The Second: This is very much a story of John Watson.

Of course, we already know that. He proposes at the end!!

But many of the adaptations skim over that or ignore it (more on that below). And this same story gives us the first discussion of Holmes' drug use, the first time we see him in one of his disguises, the first time we meet Toby, the first mention of Holmes' boxing, his opinions on's very easy to get oneself swamped by the deluge of Holmes information and forget everything we learn about Watson.

Early on, we hear Holmes dismiss Watson's written version of events in A Study In Scarlet. But we must remember, in ASIS, Holmes criticized the detective works of Poe and Gaboriau in much the same fashion. One can almost imagine that this is Holmes' version of a back-handed compliment, comparing his companion's work to his predecessors.

(And it hardly surprising that Watson "attempted to tinge" his early story with romanticism--in this case, Mrs. Cecil Forrester declares "It is a romance!" Surely Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made this juxtaposition on purpose, to highlight Watson's abilities as an author.)

And although many adaptations wish to portray Watson as a dolt, that certainly not what Doyle intended. True, in many of the short stories, the limited storytelling space often left Watson filling the "gaze in awe as an appreciative audience for Holmes' brilliance" role. But not following Holmes' reasoning immediately (or having the breadth of experience and knowledge as Sherlock) is not the same as being ignorant, or a fool--see, for example, many of the fine police inspectors in the canon for an example of what Doyle considers an example of someone truly foolish.

And in this case, Watson often follows fairly closely with Holmes. When Holmes gives his famous "eliminate the impossible" bon mot, Watson immediately follows his reasoning and sees exactly what Sherlock was thinking. At several other points in the story, Watson keeps up with Holmes' train of thought; at others, he asks exactly the right questions. Doyle hardly presents Watson as a dunce, or a dunsel--he is intelligent, and a vital part of the team. Not having knowledge of Amdaman aborigines is hardly a sign of dolthood.

We also learn much personally about John Watson--his father, the tale of his brother's sad life the not-just-medical concern for his flat mate's drug habit. Perhaps most endearing is the insecurity he shows around a lovely woman. Despite his claim of " an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents," he shows no such expertise with Miss Mary Morstan. His confession to (twice) bumbling a conversation because he finds her presence distracting is terribly charming. Add his finding of every excuse possible not to woo her--(It would be taking advantage of a women in distress!! She'll be too wealthy!!) and we see a shy, self-effacing humility. That may explain why Watson the author tends downplay the Watson in his written work in favor of Holmes.

And of course, he does get the woman in the end!

Sign The Third: Adaptation is a tricky business.

What you leave in, what you take out, what you massage or expand or compress or elide are all judgement calls, especially with a franchise as popular as Sherlock Holmes. If you leave out something, you might upset the Holmes fans, presumably your core audience; but too much unnecessary detail (and, frankly, fan service), and you risk losing the casual viewer.

All of which is a way of saying that the BBC Cushing version of The Sign Of The Four kind of sucks rocks, while the Granada edition pretty much gets it right.

Part of the problem is time, of course. The 1968 edition only had 50 minutes, which would have made it difficult to fit the whole novel even with the best of choices. Granada, by contrast, made a "feature film" of their TSOTF, giving it gave it 103 minutes.

But a lot of the problems came down not just to time, but to disastrous choices. You'll recall that in the 1968 version of ASIS, they dropped the entire "Country of Saints" digression, trying to recap Jefferson Hope's entire story in two sentences. Here, again they try the same tactic, to a particularly awful result.

They do take one wise step to compress--Sholto and Morstan were original members of The Four, not interlopers who came in later. This saves some steps, but still theoretically keeping Jonathan Small's need for revenge intact. However, once Small is captured, that is it. We don't get any deep confession from him; we never learn how he and his comrades came to have the treasure; we never learn why Small was in prison; we never learn how or why Major Sholto came to take the treasure; never learn how Small came to have Tonga as an ally, or how he escaped--the entire backstory is virtually eliminated! As a result, as with ASIS, we again have a criminal with precious little motivation presented, whose actions seem largely random, and the entire story concludes with a thud.

Granada, having the luxury of time (and a better sense of storytelling, methinks), manages to lay out the whole story, largely intact. It manages to make Small an actual character, not just "this week's prop villain," which in turn makes Holmes look all the brighter for having outwitted him.

Each version chooses to ignore the initial "Sherlock shoots up" scene. You don't want to show your hero as a drug addict, I guess...and quite possibly the television censors of the time wouldn't allow it, either.

Both versions also omit Watson's proposal to Mary Morstan! In the context of a TV series, it makes sense; you can't have one of your co-stars up and leave Baker Street in the middle of a season. Plus, the difficulty of keeping Morstan around and finding a way to incorporate her each week (or explain her absence) would have proved to be a pain in the butt for the writers.

BBC 1968 takes a silly way out of the dilemma. In something straight from a bad romantic comedy, Watson observes what he thinks is Thaddeus Sholto proposing to Morstan, so like a true gentleman, he just forgets all about his attraction to her:

 Really, they cut Small's back story for this?

Granada doesn't even try to provide an explanation. While there was some obvious attraction twixt Watson and Morrison, they don't do anything with it, and and the end the good doctor just gazes out the window as she leaves, muttering to himself what a lovely woman she was. Oh, John...

Perhaps I am too harsh on the BBC version. But then again, perhaps they should have thought better than to bite off such a large story to adapt into a single 50 minute episode.

Sign The Fourth. The Tonga Problem.

Look, I'll admit that I'm ill-positioned to be critical of the portrayal of aboriginal pygmy cannibals as vicious murdering maniacs. And, as with ASIS and the Mormons, what was an acceptable portrayal in 1890 might not be acceptable by current social standards. But unlike the Country Of Saints digression, you would lose too much of the story/mystery if you eliminated Tonga from the storyline.

The question, then, becomes how to deal with Tonga in modern times?

Well, in 1968, the solution was to get a child actress and put her in blackface:

Or, as Granada did, you can hire the Guinness record holder of "world's shortest stuntman" and, well, Klingon him up a bit:

And there are many other attempts, some more successful than others, each potentially problematic:

Sorry about that last one, but it's out there.

I don't pretend to have any answer, let alone the right one, for how to deal with The Tonga Issue. But any future producers of adaptations of The Sign Of The Four should think long and hard about it before they proceed.


**I know this is crazy fanboy genre-mixing, but in this bok we have a killer who uses a poison that leaves a "ghastly, inscrutable smile upon [the victims' face] face." Further, he  "leave[s] some such record upon the body as a sign that it was not a common murder...bizarre conceits of this kind are common enough in the annals of crime, and usually afford valuable indications as to the criminal."

A terribly smile in death? A calling card left with the body?? C'mon, that's the Joker, right? It's the Joker!!

You have to wonder if Jerry Robinson and/or Bill Finger and/or Bob Kane had this story in mind when the created the Clown Prince Of Crime...

**More nerd-cred: I can't hear the name Jonathon Small without mentally yelling out "John Smallberries!" Yes, I am a pathetic loser.

**As in ASIS, once again England is personal Thunderdome for grievances started in a far-away land It shan't be the last time, though...

**As I predicted in my ASIS post, Doyle obviously learned from that story and became much better at structuring his stories. There's still a considerable amount of off-stage flashback in this story. but this time it's much better integrated into the contemporary story, with revelations coming at a regular pace. Well before the end, we know the killer's identity, and are least partially-clued in as to his motives. So when we get to the capture/confession of Small, we still have a flashback digression, but it is a much more manageable 20ish pages; and as we've already gotten some detail on Small, it doesn't seem as much as a non-sequitur. They mystery itself may not be as good, but it's put together much more seamlessly than the first book.

**Given the early information about Holmes' drug use, perhaps we should have been wooried when they encountered "a great pile of coke upon the jetty."

**How old is Holmes? In ASIS Watson mistakes him for a student when they meet. Here, Inspector Athelney Jones refers to Holmes as a "young man."

Too often the movie and television adaptations opt for an older actor to portray Holmes, but I'm not sure why, as most indications (albeit inconsistent ones) suggest that, at least early in the partnership, Holmes and Watson were much younger than the stodgy middle-aged men hired to portray them...

**Athelney Jones...heh heh...too bad we never saw more of him. A pompous jackass, but entertaining.

**As per usual, Sherlock Holmes was far ahead of his time, prefiguring psychohistorian Hari Seldon: "...while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician."

Obviously Isaac Asimov read the canon. So again, conscious influence on the Foundation novels, or just a coincidence?

**Holmes is very certain of his marksmanship: "He took out his revolver as he spoke, and, having loaded two of the chambers, he put it back into the right-hand pocket of his jacket." Only tewo rounds, Sherlock?!?

As for Tonga's marksmanship, the novel has his last dart went between Holmes and Watson, hitting one of the launch's hatches. In the BBC version, it hit Watson's bowler. In Granda it hit Holmes in the throat--but the heavy scarf he was wearing kept it from doing him damage. Adaptations, man, adaptations...


Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Study In Scarlet--The Problem Of The 50 Page Flashback!

This is 100% true:

My first experience with written Sherlock Holmes came when I was in 4th or 5th grade, and found a book in the elementary school library titled something like "Sherlock Holmes for Young Readers." (Cut my hazy memory a little slack here---this was 40+ years ago, after all)

Appropriately enough, the book lead off with A Study In Scarlet. But after the end of Part I, where Part II (The Country Of The Saints) should have followed, there was instead an editor's note explaining that this next portion of the book was thought to be "too tedious for children." So they presented a 1-page synopsis of The Country Of Saints, and then leaped forward to Chapter VI of that section, back to the present day and the confession of the murderer, Jefferson Hope.

Now, precocious 9 year old that I was, I figured the only reason that they would have to hide that section from children was because of salacious or naughty material. So I just assumed that tedious meant "dirty." No, I never bothered to look the word up in the dictionary--I was too certain that I already knew what it meant. So imagine my surprise when I finally read an unexpurgated version of the novel, and found out that it wasn't dirty at all! (Also, imagine my embarrassment to discover that I had been using tedious incorrectly for several years...)

Which merely goes to show that I encountered the same difficulty as many readers/adapters over the years--what the hell to make of The Country Of The Saints? What the hell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

A Study In Scarlet  (ASIS from here on...I'm lazy), aside from presenting the first meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John H. Watson, establishes the template for most future stories. Holmes impresses Watson with some feat of deduction, a baffling case comes their way, Holmes claims to have solved it from the very beginning, and after some running around and some exasperation from the mere mortals in his sphere, they arrest the culprit. ASIS introduces us to both Lestrade and Gregson, and the Baker Street Irregulars (not yet named that).

Yet immediately after that arrest, in one of the biggest non-sequiturs in literary history, the book suddenly and without any warning or transition, changes narrators and continents, while jumping back 3 decades, in a 50+ page flashback! And we don't even meet the murderer of his victims until nearly halfway through this portion of the tale!

It's fairly disconcerting, especially if you're not prepared for it. Every word in ASIS had been from Watson's view up until that point. We were eager to find out who Jefferson Hope is, and and how Holmes seemingly magically produced him out of thin air to arrest him. To then be plunged into what initially seems to be something from an entirely different novel is rather disorienting, to say the least.

But is it "too tedious for children"? I hardly think so. The Country Of The Saints is well written and engaging, once you get past the confusion of ASIS's shifting gears so unexpectedly. The tale of John and Lucy Ferrier is well told and engaging, and becomes gripping and suspenseful once the forces of evil begin to move against them. Tedious? No, I wouldn't say that.

But perhaps there might be another reason to be concerned about the youngsters reading it, because, well...let's be blunt: the book comes pretty close to religious hate speech at times. To suggest that The Country Of The Saints is harshly anti-Mormon is an understatement. The Mormons--and Brigham Young, specifically--refused to rescue dying travelers unless they converted? They kidnapped woman from outside communities to fill their polygamous harems? They had (essentially) a ninja death army to fulfill their leaders' whims and kill any dissenters??

At the time ASIS was published, anti-Mormon feeling ran pretty high, and there was plenty of misinformation out there, probably doubly so in far-away countries like England. And yes, some of what is depicted in The Country Of The Saints may have been based in some small way on true incidents. But extrapolating that to an entire religion makes for uncomfortable reading at times.

Yes, it is a product of its time, and should be read as such. "New" religions are often demonized by existing culture (I would imagine if Doyle were writing today, Part II of ASIS would be about people fleeing the evil of Scientology...). But maybe this section does render ASIS less suitable for young readers--indeed, some U.S. schools have removed the book from the curriculum for 6th graders, while leaving the book available for older students who are better equipped to understand the issues involved.

Perhaps these difficulties presented by The Country Of The Saints explains why there is such a surprising dearth of adaptations of A Study In Scarlet. How, exactly, do you present this story on film? As is? Substantially restructure it somehow? Tone down or ignore the anti-Mormonism?

So for the introductory Sherlock Holmes story, there's not a lot of video to watch. There were two silent films, both of which have sadly been lost to the ravages of time. The 1933 film is not an adaptation at all--the producers merely bought the right to the title, not the actual story, so the movie has zero to actually do with ASIS. There has been a Russian TV adaptation. Even Granada passed on the story.

Which leaves us the 1968 BBC TV series, starring Peter Cushing, and a 1983 Australian animated version, with Peter O'Toole voicing Holmes. Both version, it turns out, completely eliminate any reference to Mormonism whatsoever. Enoch Drebber was just a rich jerk who kidnapped Lucy Ferrier and forced her to marry him, and she promptly died of a broken heart. The animated version does give us the flashback, but broken into segments interspersed with contemporary scenes. Interestingly enough, they change the location from Utah to Colorado...just to be doubly sure of not offending anyone, it seems. The BBC version has no flashbacks, and reduces the entire back story to two lines of dialogue after Jefferson Hope is arrested. Neither is terribly satisfying, with the BBC solution in particular leaving the audience emotionally uninvested in the story and completely unsympathetic to Hope's quest.

The quandary comes down, I think, to Doyle's inexperience as a mystery writer. The genre was still new, and we can't really expect him to abide by "play fair" standards that hadn't been developed yet. Add to that the difficulty of having your hero be far more intelligent than everyone else, yet his exploits narrated by someone who doesn't know half of what Holmes knows. The net effect is rather like watching an episode of Murder, She Wrote where at the very end, Jessica Fletcher pulls onto the screen a character the audience has never seen and no one has even named aloud, and declared "He's the murderer." Dramatically unsatisfying, at the very least.

Holmes earlier declared, "You know a conjuror gets no credit when once he has explained his trick, and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all." But because Holmes holds all of the information to himself, it does come off as magic, not detection and deduction. I remain confident that, had he taken up this story later in his career, a more experienced Doyle would have been far better at structuring it so that Watson (and the audience) shared in at least some of the information he was collecting, so the resolution would seem less from left field

Ditto for the flashbacks--I'm sure Sir Arthur would have found a way to integrate the information more organically into the story, instead of stopping the novel for a 6-chapter info dump.

As for the calumny against the Mormons? Recognize it for what it is, hold your nose, and explain to young readers that Mormons aren't an organized crime outfit with ninja death cults at their beck and call (probably).


**Watson refers to London as "that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained." Kind of harsh, but it seem seem to be shared by some of the newspapers of the day. After the case concludes, the Echo opines, "If the case has had no other effect, it, at least, brings out in the most striking manner the efficiency of our detective police force, and will serve as a lesson to all foreigners that they will do wisely to settle their feuds at home, and not to carry them on to British soil."

Of course it served as no such lesson. London and Britain would continue to be a magnet for foreign intrigues, as countless foreign groups (The Ku Klux Klan! The Reavers! The Mafia! etc!) would use England as the field to settle their grudges.

**Lots of book covers like to play up the "Scarlet" in A Study In Scarlet:

Quite lurid, of course. But those covers never seem to mention that all of that blood is just from a nosebleed. Not quite as grand guignol, eh?  And as Stangerson's death occurred offstage, as it were, this was about as clean a double homicide as you can have.

**Who was the person who posed as the old woman coming to reclaim the lost wedding ring? That's one heck of a loose end. Doyle deliberately left it so, having Hope refuse to give up his confidante. The 1968 BBC episode actually spends some time on this, and Holmes tracks down the actor whom Hope hired:

About as convincing as a Monty Python character...which does make Holmes seem rather the dunderhead for falling for it.

Others have speculated that the accomplice was any famous name you can think of--Irene Adler, Moriarty, you name it. Too cute by half, of course. Let's just leave it as mystery cross-dresser: unknown.

**I should mention that I thought Peter Cushing was quite a good Holmes.

Peter O'Toole's voice work in the cartoon, however, felt very lackluster, almost phoned it.

**"I keep a bull pup," Watson tells Holmes, when they discuss lodging together. The pup is never seen, and never mentioned again in the canon

**Soon after moving in together, Watson says of Holmes: "On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion."

Poor naive Watson clearly had some learning to do here. When next we meet the Baker Street duo, Holmes is openly injecting drugs, and Watson chiding him for it.

**For someone who was too broke to afford his own lodgings, Holmes is fairly profligate with his money. He gives Constable Rance a half sovereign for his version of events, pays the Baker Street Irregulars more than once, sends transcontinental telegrams (obviously long ones, from the amount of information it had to contain), attends well-to-do recitals, takes out advertisements in all the newspapers, pays several cab fares...

**Speaking of the newspapers, it is interesting to see both their stature and the role they play in society in 1880s England. All of the newspapers have multiple editions; one can place classified ads and not only know that they will be seen, but responded to within the day. When you lose an item of importance, your first instinct is the check the lost and found columns, confident that someone would take out an ad there. Readership is already at such a level of sophistication that papers have staked out political editorial positions to attract audiences. We'll see much more of this in future stories...

**Holmes tells Watson, "There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it." That's a pretty good mission statement.

Sherlock Holmes Will Return In...The Sign Of The Four!!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Little Things Are Infinitely The Most Important

So why Sherlock Holmes?

True story: in 7th grade, I wrote a screenplay entilted "A Study Hall In Scarlet."

Yes, it was terrible. No, you will never see a single word of it. Yes, I did write it entirely in study hall.

Which just shows that, at a relatively young age, I was smitten with the guy.

And who amongst us wasn't? Who hasn't at one point picked up a pen and tried to write a story where Lestrade comes too 221B looking for help on a case, but Holmes is away on some secretive mission, and the Inspector convinces Watson to come help because surely Watson knows Holmes' method by now, and Watson goes and makes a complete muck of things, yet picks the right culprit for completely the wrong reasons, and it turns out that Holmes was there in disguise as one of the suspects all along and had been nudging Watson in the right direction, and...shut up. We shall never speak of that again.

Sherlock Holmes, of course, is one of the most famous fictional characters in history. Regularly, you see worldwide polls naming Sherlock as one of the most recognizable characters on the planet, along with the likes of Tarzan and Superman. Yet somehow, Sherlock seems to be the most popular of all (and not just because of public domain issues). What TV show or cartoon, stuck for a cliche, hasn't resorted to one of their characters playing Sherlock Holmes, in "reality" or a dream sequence or on a holodeck? Why have we seen so many iterations of the character, whether "Young Sherlock" or "Sherlock in modern day" or "Sherlock in the future" or "a robot version of Sherlock" or...? Who can't watch one of the infinite CSI or NCIS or even Law & Order clones and see the groundwork laid by Sherlock?

The enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes says something, I believe, about our admiration for for deep-seated admiration for the powers of the mind. Yes, plenty of us out there want to mock the nerds and brainiacs, even the shows that purport to champion them (yes, I'm looking at you, Big Bang Theory). We love Spock, we love Gorem on L&O:CI, we can support two separate but equally enchanting modern spins on Holmes at the same a society we may not admit it, but we love to watch clever people, people who are smarter than us (but not so much smarter that we can't convince ourselves that we could accomplish the same intellectual feats these guys do, if only we had more free time and a good wifi connection available).

Yet, sometimes, I think, amidst all the pastiches and tributes and updatings and modern versions and fan-fiction and apocrypha, we lose track of the originals, the canon, the 56 short stories and 4 novels about Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Even those who play "The Grand Game," the lovely fantasy where we pretend the canon is actually true historical fact, can end up obscuring the literary merit of Doyle's output. Don't get me wrong--I love to play The Game as much as any, I own both versions of the Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and I'll argue and quibble over minutiae with anyone.

But sometimes we need to throw off the games and homages, and go back to the source, so we can fully appreciate what Doyle gave us, and fully grok the genius of the original works that inspired the games and pastiches.

So as I recently felt the recurring tug to work my way through the canon again, I decided to share that all with you.

This isn't going to be a deep literary analysis, by any means. No, this will be a more personal take on the originals, as I tackle the stories, roughly one a week, usually on a Sunday (but don't hold be to that). I'll be observing the trifles, the things that make each tale memorable for me, and what I think makes it work (or not). Sometimes serious, sometimes silly, usually forgettable. But you're all welcome to come along for the ride.

I'll also look, where relevant or interesting, at TV or film adaptations of the stories, where available. It will be mostly from the Granada series, because a) they did more of the stories than anyone, b) I own them all, and c) Hey, Jeremy Brett, right? But there will be other series looked at, too. Because maybe looking at how a story is adapted can tell us something about it's strengths (or weaknesses).

Oh, yeah, and there might be a comic book or two showing up.

So come on back tomorrow, when we'll kick off with A Study In Scarlet, and the very odd first reading experience I had with Sherlock Holmes.