Monday, April 08, 2013

Petri Wine brings you...

The year '87 furnished us with a long series of cases of greater or less interest, of which I retain the records. Among my headings under this one twelve months I find an account of the adventure of the Paradol Chamber, of the Amateur Mendicant Society, who held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse, of the facts connected with the loss of the British bark Sophy Anderson, of the singular adventures of the Grice Patersons in the island of Uffa, and finally of the Camberwell poisoning case.
—The Five Orange Pips

I am a very big fan of the radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It initially starred Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, but near the end of its run Rathbone left the show and was replaced by Tom Conway. The program was sponsored by Petri Wine, and spokesperson Harry Bartell served as the announcer. He gave you three plugs for Petri Wine: at the beginning and at the end of the program, and at a cliff-hanger moment in the middle. But the man’s crisp, clear, smooth voice made it an enjoyable piece of advertising, and often times the final plug would be a bit of a running gag, with Dr. Watson desperately trying to avoid the subject of Petri Wine and Bartell managing to shove the plug in there nonetheless. Take, for instance, the conclusion to The Problem of Thor Bridge:

Bartell: I take you for a very charming gentleman, a wonderful storyteller, and a fine host. [Watson's chuckling, mutters of thanks] Well, you are a gentleman, of the old school... [More mutters of thanks] And you do tell a fine story.
Watson: Well, you flatter me, you-
Bartell: And you are a perfect host. That meal we had tonight was wonderful. And, um, that wine, what kind was it?
Watson: It was Petri wine, and you know it, and I should've known that you were leading up to something. Mr. Bartell, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Petri Wine was one of the many charms of the series, and although there were plenty of other series, no advertiser or host was ever as charming as Mr. Bartell with his Petri Wine— and Mr. Bell of Kreml Hair Tonic frankly creeped me out. By the time John Stanley replaced Tom Conway as Sherlock Holmes, the series really had me lost, and I've only listened to a handful of episodes from this era.

Why do I bring all this up? Well, I’m doing it as a long-winded introduction to today’s reviews. See, as much as I love the Anthony Boucher/Denis Green scripts, there are some that kind-of bothered me. Sure, they were good stories, but it never seemed like this was the definitive adventure of the Paradol chamber, or the tale of the Amateur Mendicant Society. 1887 was a productive year for Holmes, but I had yet to find a story about the Amateur Mendicant Society that I really liked, and the Boucher version of the Paradol Chamber was a bit too silly for my tastes, with Watson having to be incredibly stupid for the whole thing to work. And while Nigel Bruce made Watson into a charming bumbler, the stupidity levels were high even for his standards, let alone the Watson of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.

So who could step in and deliver a good version of these stories? Could such a thing be done? I then discovered, to my delight, that francophone author René Reouven has indeed written a short story about the Amateur Mendicant Society. Only his story, Histoires secretes de 1887 (Secret Stories of 1887) is a bit more ambitious. It not only gives you the mysterious doings of the AMS, it goes in and throws the Paradol chamber at you, as well as the loss of the Sophie Anderson! (It comes from a reference in The Five Orange Pips, quoted above. The Grice Patersons are dealt with elsewhere by Reouven, and for the Camberwell poisoning case the Boucher case is absolutely perfect.)

The Amateur Mendicant Society is, apparently, a charity organisation. People who were once destitute have exited from poverty, and now they have formed the AMS. Their mission is to take deserving people off the streets and give them a good start in life, a shot at success. Surely there can be nothing wrong in that? In fact, it’s an admirable mission.

Only it seems that once the AMS have made their selection, the recipient of their generosity inevitably disappears, never to be seen again… And this is where the Paradol chamber and the bark Sophie Anderson come in to make everything even more mysterious.

Enter Sherlock Holmes. He obviously doesn’t like what he sees and begins to investigate the AMS. He comes to a few conclusions. Some of them are startling, others are not. The not-so-startling conclusion is the plot of the AMS. I have finally managed to outguess Reouven and solve the mystery before he did. But in all fairness, there weren’t all that many possible solutions to begin with. Once I factored in the notion that the story was so shocking Watson couldn’t publish it with the rest of the canon, I was forced to conclude that only one thing could really be going on, and I was right.

However, it is a far more reasonable solution than the hasty explanation that was proposed in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and I like its deviousness and ingenuity. And after the solution has been unveiled, there is another twist, a genuinely surprising one this time, and we see one of Holmes’ major cases foreshadowed beautifully by this adventure. I will not indulge in any cutesy hints about which case it is: it could just as easily be The Final Problem as The Dying Detective as The Hound of the Baskervilles or any of Holmes’ other cases. You’ll have to read this story to find out...

This story was originally published in a French magazine called Enigmatika, in an issue dedicated to Reouven's work. It’s a terrific story that really shows you Reouven’s strengths as a Holmesian writer. Although the solution is not the most shocking one in the universe of Holmesian continuations, the style really matches up with Dr. Watson’s style, and the plotting is nicely paced. It’s a short story of about 7500 words, which matches up more or less with the length of Conan Doyle’s original short stories (which, after all, form the majority of Holmes’ adventures). And it’s a very good addition to the Holmesian universe.

Incidentally, if any reader is wondering why I’ve suddenly dipped myself into a lot more René Reouven than usual, there is a very good reason for this, one which will be revealed in good time…

And one other thing: why so much Sherlock Holmes all of a sudden? I’ve got one Holmes book in my “Currently Investigating” box and I can already tell you I’ve got another Holmes book read and ready to review. What’s going on? Well, a few weeks ago I realized that 2013 was shaping up to be a nostalgic year, with me going back and re-reading old favourites. If I was going to do that, I might as well toss in some Sherlock Holmes stories, I reasoned. And so I went and started reading a bunch. But hey, look on the bright side – Nick Cardillo now does other stuff, not just Holmes! So I’m not exactly stealing his niche away. I hope this leaves me justified. No? Then forget it. It’s Sherlock Town.

12 comments:

  1. Oh, Patrick - you never cease to make me wish my grasp of French was greater! I look forward to anymore Sherlock Holmes-related items you may be reviewing in the future. Who am I to have the monopoly on Arthur Conan Doyle's fine creation?

    By the way, have you ever read "The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes" by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr? While the collection is certainly flawed, I rate these pastiches as some of the finest I have ever read and certainly give the definitive version of "Wilson the Notorious Canary Trainer."

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    1. Nick, I did read the EXPLOITS a few years ago (August 2010 if the Internet is to be believed). I really, really like the first half, which has some of the most creative Holmesian pastiches of all-time. Adrian Conan Doyle's half, however... is... uhm... well, to be charitable to it, it really *emulates* the Holmes we all know and love. Unfortunately, the Holmes we all know and love seems to have been caught in a time loop, forced to re-investigate cases like THE NORWOOD BUILDER, THE SPECKLED BAND, and THE FIVE ORANGE PIPS with a slightly renamed cast of characters.

      That being said, THE DEPTFORD HORROR, despite being a remake of THE SPECKLED BAND, is my favourite version of the Wilson story as well. However, I cannot call it the definitive one, because Wilson is not arrested but killed at the end, and Conan Doyle brushes it off as a mistake typical of that idiot Watson. It's a sour note to end on, and if anyone ever does a better version where Wilson *is* arrested, I'd call that one the definitive version. No serious contenders as far as I know, though...

      It's interesting, though, how some good Holmesian pastiches don't *quite* match up with the original references. The first story of the exploits, the one with all the clocks, is a perfect example. For another instance, when Reouven deals with the adventures of the Grice Patersons on the isle of Uffa, he seems to get it wrong: his story is about the adventure of a man named Grice Paterson on the isle. And while it fits in perfectly with the rest of the book, it's at odds with the reference in the canon. This is probably due to a translation error, however, since Reouven does not speak English, and the quote from the Canon (reproduced in the book) seems to contain a translation error that would leave a French reader under the impression that a man named Grice Paterson was involved rather than the Grice Patersons (whoever they were). I'd have to find out about French Holmes translations before I could make a definitive comment here.

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  2. Until recently I never realized quite how many Holmes pastiches are out there now. It's really remarkable.

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    1. It's rather depressing. I read a lot of Holmesian pastiches years ago, but back then I couldn't care less who the authors were. What mattered to me was Holmes and what *he* was up to. As a result, I have only vague memories of a lot of this time, such as a story about the giant rat of Sumatra which was basically a rewrite of the Hound of the Baskervilles. No idea who wrote it or even what the title was, I just recall seeing all the plot similarities and wondering to myself "Really?"

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    2. That's probably "The Giant Rat of Sumatra" by Richard L. Boyer. I still highly regard that one despite the similarities to "The Hound."

      I agree with you Patrick - I jump at the opportunity to read any pastiche. It doesn't have to be written by Anthony Horowitz or John Dickson Carr just for me to have liked it (although that's an added bonus). As long as Holmes is Holmes and Watson is Watson, I'll give it a go.

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  3. Curt, it's positively scary how many have been published - you could spend a lifetime chasing them and not get to the bottom of the haps!

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    1. But then again, isn't that true of the genre as a whole? ;)

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  4. I may be in the minority in having really liked "The Exploits." The impossible crime stories are clever and fun!

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    1. I don't know about that. Both Nick Cardillo and I have expressed some very positive things about the Exploits, it's just the Adrian Conan Doyle stories that I have major reservations about. Well, those and the one with all the clocks, which had a rather silly ending and didn't seem to fit in with the original reference in the Canon...

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  5. I love the Rathbone/Bruce radio series. Don't forget that the early series were sponsored by Bromo-quinine tablets. After Bruce left the show, Clipper Craft clothes for men sponsored the series.

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    1. That's true, of course, but I elected to start my overview with Petri Wine, which was always my favourite sponsor. That being said, is it just me or did Clipper Craft really push the sponsor plugs? I recall Watson once saying something like "if only Holmes and I had worn Clipper Craft overcoats!"

      Meanwhile, even though Dr. Watson invites Mr. Bartell to have a glass of port or sherry from the sideboard, he never says anything like "You'll be pleased to hear that it is, of course, Petri port".

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    2. Once, the sound effects man accidentally broke a piece of glass, and Nigel Bruce jumped in and said, "Look out, Holmes! That man just spilled his glass of Petri wine!" The sponsors loved it. The incident appears to have been lost: they recorded each episode twice, once for the East Coast, once fir the West, and not everything was preserved.

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