Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Elementary, My Dear Holmes!

This article was originally written for and published in the e-zine Mysterical-E. Now that there is a new issue with a new article, I am reposting this article on the blog, complete with the images that I usually illustrate my articles with.

In Bloody Murder, Julian Symons’ famous survey of the mystery genre, Symons writes that “successful comic crime stores, short or long, are rare. One turns away with a shudder from the many Holmes parodies (…)” Perhaps Julian Symons didn’t have much of a sense of humour, though something resembling one does shine through in his book from time to time. Either way, Symons does Holmesian literature – both parody and pastiche – an enormous injustice by dismissing it as he does. He doesn’t really take the time to appreciate the Holmesian literature that has been written over the years.

Symons’ caution is justified in some cases, but with such a huge output of Sherlock-related literature, you can only expect some pastiches to be less successful than others. Holmes seems to have particularly bad luck when he is brought to Canada. Ronald C. Weyman’s Sherlock Holmes: Travels in the Canadian West is one of the worst collections of Holmesian pastiches I have ever read. The mysteries are frankly laughable, and the premise is absurd: apparently, during Sherlock’s Great Hiatus (after his disappearance at the Reichenbach Falls) the detective wasn’t really in hiding… no, no, Dr. Watson and he were just in Canada, chilling with the Indi–– er…I mean, Native Americans (for we must be Politically Correct, my good Watson). No, really—he doesn’t even bother to use a fake name, he keeps introducing himself as Sherlock Holmes. But throughout this time Holmes potentially has Colonel Moran’s rifle aimed at his head from any window. Certainly not the Great Detective’s smartest move, and indeed, the entire book often reads like a fictionalised history textbook, with Watson spending too much time telling you about historical figures, customs, etc. The book is even illustrated with well-known images of Canadian history, making the whole thing that much more like a history textbook… and that much duller.

Stephen Gaspar’s The Canadian Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is far better, but still fairly uninspired. Some of the stories are blatant rip-offs of canonical stories, in particular The Prime Minister’s Papers. It is such an obvious clone of a Holmes adventure that even Watson solves the case because he substituted the names of The Second Stain with the ones they were dealing with in Canada.

Personally, I have always been most intrigued about the “untold stories” of Sherlock Holmes. What was the secret of the Giant Rat of Sumatra? What about the mysterious death of Cardinal Tosca, which the Pope himself asked Holmes to investigate? Or what about the adventure of the tired captain? Or of Colonel Warburton’s madness? These simple phrases are extremely cryptic, and conjure up all sorts of delightful ideas in your mind. What other adventures did Holmes and Watson have? Many authors have attempted to answer the question… and one of them was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s son, Adrian, who collaborated with John Dickson Carr on The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes.

John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle
More specifically, he collaborated with Carr on the first six stories of the Exploits. There are some real gems among these stories, including a locked-room problem (The Sealed Room) and another story in which wax figurines at a museum seem to be playing card games after closing hours (The Wax Gamblers)! Sadly, Carr couldn’t finish the collaboration and so Adrian wrote the final six stories singlehandedly. This move was a strategic blunder in my opinion. None of Adrian Conan Doyle’s stories contain a speck of originality. They are all simply mash-ups of earlier Holmes adventures—particularly bad is The Adventure of the Dark Angels, which is a rewrite of The Five Orange Pips substituting the Mafia for the Ku Klux Klan. The only tale really worth reading is The Deptford Horror, a rewrite of The Speckled Band which nonetheless manages to convey a genuine sense of horror. However, the collection as a whole is quite worthwhile in my opinion, because the first six stories are excellent, original pastiches… even if they don’t always quite follow the original references from the Canon…

One of the most interesting takes on the Holmes stories can be found in The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Kim Newman, a terrific short story collection which is also a novel of sorts—there’s an overarching plot throughout the book that climaxes in the final sentence. The idea, like so many, sounds simple: when Watson met Holmes, the world changed for the better. But what happened when Colonel Moran met Professor Moriarty? Here, the Colonel (perhaps jealous of the doctor’s literary success?) takes to writing his own adventures with Professor Moriarty. But this isn’t a simple retelling of a Holmes adventure from the villain’s point of view. These are entirely new adventures, with Kim Newman shamelessly borrowing events from Riders of the Purple Sage just as easily as he borrows events from The Maltese Falcon. There are too many references to count, but some of the cleverest ones involve The Phantom of the Opera, The Adventures of Tintin, and Dracula. Kim Newman seamlessly integrates these stories into Moriarty’s adventures, sometimes as a throwaway gag but more often as a central part of the story.

In these adventures, Moriarty inadvertently sets the mechanics for a Holmes story into motion, and we get to see how vast Moriarty’s criminal empire is, and how his influence was in Holmes’ adventures from the very beginning. For instance, in A Volume in Vermillion, Moriarty deals with villains who were to be seen in Riders of the Purple Sage, and who hired him to exact their revenge on the hero of that novel. But they get impatient and try to fudge the deal, and as a result, Moriarty sends a telegram to the murderer of A Study in Scarlet, letting him know where his victims can be found. It’s a really good idea, and Kim Newman manages to create original tales while integrating many of these references. (The wittiest reference, I think, can be found in a story that introduces us to Moriarty’s siblings… and one of the lines is a terrific reference to what is said by Sherlock about his brother Mycroft!) The result is very pleasant reading, an interesting take on the Holmes adventures. Moran and Moriarty are distorted, dark reflections of Holmes and Watson… and they are unapologetically evil.

Another prolific Holmesian was the American author and critic Anthony Boucher (that name ought to be familiar: the Bouchercon is named after him). Boucher and Denis Green collaborated on the radio play The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Every week, Dr. Watson would tell a new story to the charismatic host Harry Bartell, spokesperson for the Petri Wine Company. (Bartell served in the army during WWII, and I personally found his replacement did not have a fraction of his charm.) One of the most delightful bits of the show was the final plug for Petri Wine, which was often introduced in a roundabout way, with Dr. Watson attempting to avoid the subject, yet Bartell always managed to somehow draw a connection to Petri Wine.

But just as fun was the actual radio play—meaning the story. Many were based on references Dr. Watson makes in the original Canon, but there were some adaptation of Canon stories, such as The Speckled Band. (On at least one occasion, a direct sequel was written—The Second Generation was a sequel to A Scandal in Bohemia, where Holmes and Watson come across Irene Adler’s daughter.) At long last, listeners could find out the secret of Colonel Warburton’s madness, or how Holmes used a dead man’s watch to solve a mysterious poisoning in Camberwell. These are half-hour radio plays that can be found in various places online. Sometimes the mysteries are rather easily solved, but they are always entertaining and star the legendary Basil Rathbone as Holmes. Nigel Bruce makes for a delightful Watson, but it isn’t the same Watson as the one in the stories. In the stories, Watson is a military man: both intelligent (he is a doctor) and something of a ladies’ man. Nigel Bruce turned him into a veritable bumbler, but at least he was a charming bumbler. Some of my favourite episodes include The Living Doll, The Camberwell Poisoners, and The Book of Tobit.

I would like to confess now that I have never read any of Laurie R. King’s continuations of the Holmes saga. I know, that means I’m a foolish mortal and what business have I writing this article? But honestly, eleven-year-old-me was horrified at the prospect of Sherlock Holmes being married to this Mary Russell character I’d never heard of. Foolish as it may sound, my opinion on the subject remains the same— I don’t want to see Sherlock Holmes married and I don’t care how much more human that makes him—I’ll have some words on the subject when I get to talking about Elementary. With so many other unread books lying around my room, I just don’t feel the need to read King’s tales—a purely personal preference that will not apply to everyone.

However, I am acquainted with Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range series. This is a terrific series with an original take on Holmes: he’s a real person who inspires a cowboy named ‘Old Red’ Amlingmeyer to become a detective. (Holmes’ reality sort-of plays a role throughout the series, as we keep hearing that he’s “dead”—but Old Red refuses to believe it. Well no wonder, if the guy showed up in Western Canada and kept using his name!) Old Red and his brother, ‘Big Red’, travel in the Wild West from job to job and somehow keep getting mixed up in mysterious circumstances. Old Red sets about deducifyin’, and although everyone laughs at first, nobody is laughing when Old Red unmasks the killer in the final scene. Big Red chronicles these adventures, and although he has his doubts along with the others at times, he always remains by Old Red’s side, no matter how tough things get. The first book in the series, Holmes on the Range, is particularly good, and the short stories collected in Dear Mr. Holmes are also excellent. They might even be more interesting than the novels, since most of the Holmes tales are short stories. But Hockensmith does a terrific job in both novel and short story form, and delivers a fresh, entertaining tale every time.

One of the most famous Holmesian pastiches is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer, often cited as one of the best Holmes pastiche of all-time. I agree, with some minor reservations about plot structure. But overall, this is a wildly entertaining story that really brings something original to the table. Watson admits to his readers that he has lied to them, making up some of Holmes’ adventures for financial purposes. But his greatest forgery—one that was never suspected—was his faking of Holmes’ death in The Final Problem. For you see, it turns out that Moriarty was simply a harmless professor— Moriarty the criminal was simply a product of Holmes’ cocaine-fuelled nightmares, where Holmes cast the poor man as a criminal mastermind and began to harass him! In order to cure Holmes, Watson takes him to Vienna where he meets up with none other than Sigmund Freud, who helps to clean him up. Then, the real adventure begins—and from that point on, the story becomes a bit more routine and predictable for me, although it’s still a terrifically entertaining book.

In my opinion, it is the French author and Holmes enthusiast René Reouven who has turned out the finest Holmesian pastiches ever written. They are sadly not translated at the moment, but they deserve translation by a Holmes expert, because they read like French translation of stories written by Doyle himself! In Les passe-temps de Sherlock Holmes (The Pastimes of Sherlock Holmes), Holmes investigates the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays in The Addleton Tragedy. Holmes then investigates the death of Cardinal Tosca in a locked room alongside Israel Zangwill, author of The Big Bow Mystery, one of the most famous of all locked-room mysteries! To wrap things up, Holmes verbally duels with one Anthony Smith as he unravels the secret to the peculiar persecution of tobacco millionaire John Vincent Harden. Each story is a delightful experience and reads just like one of Doyle’s, and the mystery is satisfyingly solved. When Holmes meets a real-life figure such as Israel Zangwill, it is a well-done encounter, and not a crossover for its own sake. And Reouven’s style is an intelligent one full of French wordplay; in short, it is a delight to read. Reouven’s writing career was heavily inspired by Conan Doyle – the author writes sci-fi as well as mysteries, and in conversations with him I have learned that it was Conan Doyle who influenced both strands of his writing. Works such as The Poison Belt influenced Reouven’s sci-fi output, while the Holmes tales inspired his mysteries.

If Reouven’s pastiches are the best, that leaves the field of Holmesian parodies wide open. And here, it is Robert L. Fish who takes the prize. His Schlock Homes stories are single-handedly the finest Holmes parodies I have ever read. Homes and his chronicler Watney march on the streets of London, defending it from the likes of Colonel Moron and the villainous Professor Marty. They manage to solve a case using only the soundest logic, but it turns out that their logic is based on misinterpretation and half-facts… And as each story ends, they read of some heinous crime that they’ve either inadvertently perpetrated or helped to commit. Homes then asks Watney to offer his services to Scotland Yard. They remain blissfully unaware of their misadventures… and perhaps that’s for the best. Who else could solve the case of the Printer’s, Inc.? Or the adventure of the Spectacled Band?

It’s also worth mentioning that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself tried his hand at a Holmes parody! How Watson Learned the Trick is a delightful short story in which Watson tries his hand at deduction, using Holmes’ behaviours and deducing several things about them. Holmes is delighted, but as he reveals, each of Watson’s deductions was quite wrong, although it was based in nothing but sound logic. “But go on, Watson, go on!” Holmes encourages his companion at the story’s conclusion. “It's a very superficial trick, and no doubt you will soon acquire it.”

In recent times, we have been extremely fortunate to see a rebirth in Holmes’ popularity with the popularity of the BBC’s TV series Sherlock. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular sleuth and Martin Freeman as the sidekick Watson, the series was an extraordinary hit both in the UK and internationally. I have friends in Canada who’ve never read the original stories, but who have seen and adored Sherlock. It does a fine job capturing the magic that made Holmes the household name he is. The premise of the show is deceptively simple – it is basically Sherlock Holmes in modern-day London, solving crimes. When I saw the first series, I thought it was okay. It had plenty of potential and the first episode was terrific, but the second episode relied too much on the laughably silly plot device of the Evil Chinese Gang (complete with the unnecessarily-slow-moving Device of Death!), and the third episode was a real shambles, too complex for its own good. It also had what I considered the worst Moriarty of all-time, a really weak punch line to a joke that wasn’t funny the first time around. But I thought the second series sparkled – the reimagining of Irene Adler was terrific, and the Hound of the Baskervilles was a terrific episode (even if it relied on the dubious plot device of a super-secret science project having its own T-shirt). But it was the final episode, The Reichenbach Fall, that really fascinated me: the plot idea proposed in The Great Game in season one was perfected here, and the ‘mistake’ that was Moriarty was emphatically corrected, as he became a genuinely menacing, somewhat creepy, and very fun villain for Holmes to duel.

But for every splendid British television show, it seems that there has to be a derivative American version. (I’m pretty sure it’s one of the laws of physics.) And the American answer to Sherlock is entitled Elementary. It uses almost the same idea at its core—Sherlock Holmes in modern day—except the big, ultra-special twist is it’s set in New York. Oh, and Watson is now a woman, played by Lucy Liu. This generated a lot of controversy, but it’s not a new idea—Rex Stout wrote a delightful essay entitled Watson Was a Woman in which he proposed this very thing. But ironically, the show failed to live up to its hype. It was neither extraordinarily good nor extraordinarily bad. It simply… exists. Johnny Lee Miller is decent enough as Holmes, but Lucy Liu is downright bland as Watson, and sometimes it’s only too obvious that she’s reciting her script. Apart from acting, though, Elementary makes one fatal blunder: it tries to be too different from Holmes. He has ridiculously fake tattoos now, because that’s bad-ass. He’s got a temper problem, because that’s bad-ass. What singles out the show is that when it introduces Holmes’ signature violin, instead of playing it, Holmes sets fire to it: a fitting metaphor for what this show should be…

… but somehow, despite all the mistakes it makes, it’s reasonably enjoyable. There’s one major drawback to it all: this mixture relies heavily on a strong plot to be much good. The first two episodes deliver, with clever deductions and legwork from Holmes’ part. I particularly like the plot idea of the second episode, which has a series of strange deaths and a suspect seen at the scene has been in a hospital with a coma the entire time. Since the third episode, though, the stories have been far weaker. (The most recent episode at the time of writing this article is the fifth.) In particular, episode four has such a ridiculously obvious red herring that Holmes would never have wasted time on it in the first place. In episode three, there’s a generic serial killer, and Holmes spends too much time sitting around shirtless and showing off his fake tattoos.

See, this for me is the biggest mistake Elementary makes: it tries to make Holmes fit into the mould of the modern, angst-ridden, “human” detective. It doesn’t work. Holmes is a genius: get over it. It’s the point of his character—without his genius, he’s not Holmes. I know we’re supposed to have very human detectives who let us know just how fallible they are, but no matter how good such a character is, it’s not Sherlock Holmes. He is practically infallible, he’s almost always right. Well, not always (see Irene Adler), but the batting average is really high. This is what Sherlock gets right: Holmes isn’t an outcast because of temper tantrums, daddy issues, women and drugs; he’s an outcast because he’s got a brain, knows how to use it, and thinks that makes him superior to mere people. And slowly but surely, Watson helps to humanize him. In Sherlock’s “Baskerville” episode, Holmes is terrified when confronted with a problem he doubts he can solve with his intellect— the Holmes we see in Elementary would break down crying if he broke a nail.

Unlike most fans of Sherlock Holmes, I like the recent interpretation of the Robert Downey Jr. films. It’s not a good take on Holmes, but director Guy Ritchie crafts two very good Victorian action movies, and as an unrepentant fan of both Sherlock Holmes and Jean-Claude Van Damme, I was quite entertained. In my opinion, the first movie is far better; the second movie relies on a huge deux ex machina and also has too much shaky-cam. But the casting is decent for the movie’s purposes, some of the lines are pretty funny, and the movies’ crowning achievement might just be the casting of Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes. There are also the scenes where Holmes must think his way out of a fight by planning each of his moves and his opponents’ likely responses, and in the second film, he and Professor Moriarty engage in such a duel of minds in a very nicely edited and rather thrilling sequence.

There are so many other things I could discuss, such as a brilliant essay by Catholic priest Ronald Knox, in which he analyzes the Holmes stories using the methods of Biblical scholars. (The curious can find it in his collection Essays in Satire, and the essay speaks far louder than any summary I can give you.) Or I could talk to you about Guy Adams’ The Breath of God, which is far more interested in Thomas Carnacki than in Sherlock Holmes. Or I could digress into a discussion of other Holmes films, ranging from The Strange Case of Civilization as we Know It (where John Cleese plays Holmes) to Young Sherlock Holmes. But honestly, many of these deserve an article of their own, for both good and bad reasons. Many times in this article I’ve been regrettably brief. If I wrote everything that came to mind, we’d be here for a good 40 more pages at least. I hope that I have proved my central point: despite the reservations of Julian Symons, Sherlockiana is not going to die down any time soon. People today are just as fascinated by Holmes and his untold adventures as they were a hundred years ago. It’s as diverse a field as it is wide; some entries are good and others are downright ugly. Some simply descend into the bizarre, while others are well-constructed mysteries. And every once in a while, someone comes along and recaptures the magic that made Holmes the success he was in the first place. This last group of stories is the hardest to find, but they are also the most fun to read.

So why spend so much time obsessing over Holmes? The answer is simple: I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mr. Holmes. Without his adventures, as faithfully set down by the good Dr. Watson, I might never have moved on to discover Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Ross Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton… the list goes on! Without Holmes, I might not be here today, insulting Julian Symons and taking cheap shots at Raymond Chandler during my time off. It was Holmes who first awakened in me a passion for mysteries, and I suspect that many are in the same boat. And so I propose a toast to his health! May Mr. Holmes continue to live a long and prosperous literary life!


  1. I believe Symons didn't really have a great sense of humor. Agree that the stories Carr plotted in Exploits are quite good, Adrian Doyle's are not.

  2. Great overview Patrick (and I really must read those Newman novels I have on my shelves,obviously, not least because I went to a talk he gave on Wednesday in which he memorably described Frankenstein not as an example of bad science but bad parenting...) - I don't agree with everything you say, but I really enjoyed reading it - thanks!