Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Problem with the Professor

Professor Moriarty is a fascinating character. Truly fiction's first "super-villain" it is not hard to see his influence in such characters as Dr. Fu Manchu or Ernst Stavro Blofeld. However, there is one thing which sets Moriarty apart from those other two criminal masterminds: his short-lived presence in the original works. As I have written before, Moriarty is more-or-less a plot device in the Canon, dreamed up by Conan Doyle in order to give Sherlock Holmes a final, worthy adversary who would ultimately cause the great detective to sacrifice himself in order to bring to book.

The fact that Moriarty appears only in The Final Problem is interesting in the fact that he has become such an important part of the Canon in this single appearance. He has joined Watson as the most identifiable, and arguably memorable central characters from the original stories. A layperson, unaware of the Canon's many recurring characters, may not know the name Lestrade or Mrs. Hudson, but James Moriarty has taken on a life of his own. Due I think in no small part to his presence in William Gillette's successful play, Moriarty has turned up in a number of pastiches. Various writers have contributed greatly to the mythos surrounding the Napoleon of Crime, giving him a background and life of his own. And it's this decision which invariably leads to the problem with the Professor.

It makes perfect sense when adapting the Sherlock Holmes Canon to the screen to introduce Moriarty earlier than The Final Problem. If he truly is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all undetected in London,chances are Holmes and Moriarty would interfere with each other. The Professor even acknowledges as much when he meets Holmes for the first time saying:
"You crossed my path on the fourth of January...On the twenty-third you incommoded me; by the middle of February I was seriously inconvenienced by you; at the end of March I was absolutely hampered in my plans; and now at the close of April, I find myself placed in such a position through your continual persecution that I am in positive danger of losing my liberty.
These tantalizing tidbits allude to earlier matches of wits between Holmes and Moriarty (only one is ever chronicled; The Valley of Fear which merely finds the Professor's name dropped). To the screenwriter, it is simply too much not to chronicle earlier adventures, or slip Moriarty's name into an earlier adventure. This technique makes sense, except when it does in Series 1 of Elementary when Moriarty is mentioned once and then promptly forgotten until the finale. An equally excellent realization of this foreshadowing can be found in Granada's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which shows that Eric Porter's Moriarty was the one responsible for the Red-Headed League.

But invariably, the over-zealous screenwriter is ready to pop Moriarty into their Sherlockian world as soon as possible. The prime example of this is Sherlock where we discover that Moriarty has been sponsoring criminals worldwide. It's an interesting idea and well-done, but the revelation comes too soon. By the end of episode one, A Study in Pink, Moriarty's name has already been dropped and we, the audience, know that a meeting between detective and criminal is not far away. Now, Sherlock did handle Moriarty well and Andrew Scott's presentation of the character who has obviously lost all his marbles is brilliant. His presentation throughout the second series is well-handled as he stays on the outskirts and allows the plots of the episodes to progress naturally culminating in the tense second series finale.

And that,I think, should have been the end. We saw Moriarty kill himself in The Reichenbach Fall, there is no way that he could have survived such an injury. If Series 4 decides to go with the so-called "second-brother-named Moriarty" theory, then I hope that Gatiss and Moffat handle it well. The idea of having two brothers both named James Moriarty is a humorous explanation to one of Conan Doyle's original lapses of logic, but I daresay an actual realization on screen would be a bit silly.

Now, you can easily refute my argument saying that Moriarty is just such a fine character,so it would seem illogical not to use him. He's also the most memorable villain from the Canon, and the easiest to make into a multi-faceted being. While such characters as Charles Augustus Milverton and Baron Gruner are just as memorable and interesting, they do not have the same weight to span an entire series arc. Also, in defense of Sherlock, when it was first produced, there was no idea that it would become so successful and spawn a number of follow-up seasons. Gatiss and Moffat were throwing everything they had onto the page in effort to take full advantage of the opportunity they had.

Nevertheless, here is my challenge to any future Sherlockian screenwriters out there (and how I wish I had the opportunity you have). When you go to plan your next Sherlockian series, perhaps keep Moriarty off-screen for a while. Don't try to integrate the Napoleon of Crime in from the word "go." We fans will know that he'll probably be along at some point in time and this'll only add suspense. What's more, if you decide to keep Moriarty around, you won't write yourself into a corner by either having him imprisoned (see Elementary) or maybe dead (see Sherlock). If you wish to ignore my challenge, that's fine, and I won't be offended. But perhaps now the time has come for a change. Remember, you don't have to play every card you're dealt.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Appeal of the Victorian

By now I'm sure that Sherlockians the world over have seen the picture at right, the promotional photo for the special episode of Sherlock. There have also been pictures snapped on the set which show Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in period costume once more, adding to the mystery of these photos. My personal hope is that the special will be set in the Victorian Era, unrelated to the arc set out in the previous three series.

The very fact that Cumberbatch and Freeman are dressed in period attire for this special seems to betray the public's predilection towards all things pertaining to the Victorian Era. Why after three seasons are the makers of Sherlock (possibly) returning to the characters' origins, when their intention was to show how Holmes and Watson could inhabit the modern world? While it may seem like it's going against the show's raison d'etre, I think general consensus towards the above picture has been positive, and has at the very least generated discussion and speculation (which there is always a lot of when it comes to Sherlock).

When it comes to the BBC, they can pull off the Victorian look brilliantly. They have been able to do for years, and in retrospect the Victorian and Edwardian Eras are pretty simple for television and film studios to replicate. There are no puffy shirts and collars, no obnoxiously bustling dresses or knee-breeches. In terms of costuming, things are rater similar, just a bit more formal. Set and production design is also easy to handle, especially in today's world of computer-generated graphics. You need a thoroughfare bursting at the seams with hansom cabs? That can be simply done with a few taps of computer keys. The relative ease with which the Victorian Era can be brought to life is one of the most often argued reasons why the locale is so often used on Doctor Who. Since the show's revival n 2005, the TARDIS has cropped up in Victorian England five times. When it comes to Doctor Who, it certainly seem easier to dress a set like a Victorian parlour than a far-off galaxy.

The Appeal of the Edwardian
I keep returning to aesthetics, and I think that's one of the reasons audiences like the era so much. But, something must be said for the manners of the era. Especially in the aristocracy, good-mannered conduct was required. Modern audiences I think are captivated by this notion,and I think there's a certain thrill when those morals are broken by a film or television show's characters. Just as audiences love an antihero today, we get a certain thrill when we can watch someone breaking the rules of society from the comfort of our own sofas.

But, as I alluded to earlier, there is a certain reliability to the Victorian Era. The fact that some of literature's most famed creations emerged during the period, and these creations were invariably transferred to film countless times, has ingrained the Victorian world in the public's consciousness. It has become familiar and relied upon. Take for example the 2012 horror film, The Woman in Black. Produced by Britain's Hammer Films (after a hiatus of thirty-odd years), the studio decided to go with the familiar and produce a film set in the Victorian Era, immersed in Gothic horror, as that was what had worked for them so well during their heyday in the '60's and '70's. Hammer could have returned to screens with a run-of-the-mill slasher film, but they didn't. The studio returned relying on their formula which had thrilled audiences for years.

So, all of this leads to the question of the hour: is it time for the return of a period-set Sherlock Holmes series? It's clear that audiences seem to enjoy the period of history; look at the two Robert Downey Jr. films. Both of them are set in the 1890's, and both have been financially successful. Look at Downton Abbey which has become a cultural phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. True, Downton Abbey is set in Edwardian England, but for the purpose of this post, the two eras are similar enough. Personally, I feel the time has come. As we've seen, the Victorian era has been excellently realised in a number of mediums, so why not bring it to television. It would be great to see the detectives in their proper setting and a return to tradition.

But, let's just make one thing clear: at the end of the day, the era doesn't matter. As history has shown, Sherlock Holmes can work in a variety of eras (from the Victorian, to the present to the future), and at the end of the day it's respect to the character which matters.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Canon Made Simple


In the grand scheme of things, the original publications which featured Sherlock Holmes are fairly prolific. There are 56 short stories spread out across five collections as well as four full-length novels. When you compare that to a character such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, who only appeared in one published work, but has taken on just as large a life and following, it's actually sort of surprising. Due to the extensiveness of the Canon, it may be believed among some there is an intense continuity between stories and characters. And while there is some to an extent, the Canon is actually fairly simple. Of those 60 original stories, almost all of them can be classified into five major categories. Today, I'll take a look at these categories and explain how the Canon is really a lot more simple than meets the eye.

The victim of A Study in Scarlet
#1 - The Murder Mystery - Unsurprisingly, the most common type of story found in the Canon is the murder mystery. It's probably the most common type of mystery overall, and with the emergence of the thriller as the modern-day genre of choice, the murder mystery is becoming increasingly popular. The murder mystery of today usually deals with a hunt for a psychopathic serial killer, but Doyle's mysteries were a little more grounded and realistic. Holmes' debut, A Study in Scarlet is a murder mystery with emphasis placed on the background and motive of the murderer. In fact, most of the early Canonical stories follow this same set-up. The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Five Orange Pips and The Crooked Man all feature a murder as their central predicament, the culprit is discovered (is some cases quite easily) and the remainder of the tale provides a background of sorts.

Doyle was at his best when his murder mysteries had a bit more heft.  The Speckled Band and The Problem of Thor Bridge are both excellent examples of an impossible crime. The first half of The Valley of Fear also features a nicely-plotted impossible crime, while the second explores the character's motivations, much like Doyle's earlier efforts. And, there are some stories which at first glance may not seem to be murder mysteries, but in fact are. For example, The Six Napoleons begins as a curiosity, but Holmes' interest is not piqued until blood has been spilled. Take also The Hound of the Baskervilles. On the surface, it's a Gothic horror novel (and an excellent one at that), but at heart Holmes is investigating a single murder.

Holmes confounded by The Musgrave Ritual
#2- Crack the Code - Unlike the previous category, this one is actually the most rare in the Canon, but should be considered on its own since some of the best-loved of the original stories can be found herein. What's more, some of Doyle's tightest plots all belong to this category. What is it? Holmes and Watson must put their deductive reasoning to the test as they decode ciphers or puzzles in an effort to bring about the truth. There are only really two examples of note: The Musgrave Ritual and The Dancing Men. One could argue that the code-breaking scene which appears in the first chapter of The Valley of Fear could qualify, but as I noted above that novel truly is a murder mystery.

The Musgrave Ritual is truly the best example of a Canonical code-cracking mystery. The Ritual itself contains cryptic clues to the whereabouts of great riches, and it's only with Holmes' keen deductive ability is he able to deduce its whereabouts. The Dancing Men starts out with the same scenario, the dancing men code having to be cracked by Holmes, which he does without too much assistance. The case eventually becomes one of murder, but I chose to include it in this second category as the dancing men figures, and the code which they represent is really the most memorable aspect of the short story. However, by combining two of these categories, The Dancing Men proves to be one of the strongest stories, and one of my favourites.

#3- Something/Someone is Missing - This category is also prolific, and features some of the Canon's strongest stories as well. The name of the category is pretty self-explanatory with Holmes searching for a missing object (more often than not state documents of the highest order; see The Naval Treaty, The Second Stain and The Bruce-Partington Plans) or a missing person. However, other items of value disappear with starling frequency elsewhere in the Canon, especially large, lustrous diamonds. Both the Blue Carbuncle and the Mazarin Stone go missing in the case of the Canon, as do the jewels from the Beryl Coronet.

When it comes to people, it's odd that only six disappeared throughout the Canon. What's more, it's an arguable point, but the missing persons adventures are not always the strongest. The Man with the Twisted Lip is a notable exception, having one of the more clever solutions to a missing persons , but inquiry, but stories such as The Noble Bachelor and The Missing Three-Quarter hardly stand out as great representations of Doyle's story-telling ability.

Apprehending the felon in The Three Garridebs
#4 - What's Going on Mr. Holmes? - Without doubt the most vague category, this encompasses the most stories aside from the murder mystery category. Basically, Holmes is contacted by a client who has just experienced a most unorthodox situation and believes the world's foremost criminologist can be of some assistance. Holmes investigates, usually discovering some criminal activity, and with the aide of the police apprehends the felon. This is not always the case, but more often than not, it is. While these stories can be considered formulaic and extremely similar (The Red-Headed League, The Stock-Broker's Clerk and The Three Garridebs are in essence the same plot), a lot of them are extremely entertaining and quite clever.

The stories which break the aforementioned formula invariably stand out as the strongest of this category - that's not to say that The Red-Headed League is bad, in fact it's quite good as it was the first of it's kind. Stories such as The Copper Beeches and The Solitary Cyclist are both creepy, atmospheric tales, and truly exemplify the mysterious nature of this category. I argue that the stories found herein are some of the best as they offer the most puzzling incidents for Holmes to sort through. As a writer, Doyle was excellent at coming up with interesting concepts and he was able to utilise so many of them here. While they're not all great (few people are prepared to defend The Blanched Soldier or The Creeping Man), this category arguably stands out as the most original and creative of the Canon.

From The Illustrious Client
#5 - Stop the Bad Man - Another fairly minor category, but must be included for the fact that it introduces a number of memorable characters to the Canon. Perhaps the best example of this category is The Final Problem. This category doesn't find employed to solve any particular mystery, but to use his brains to bring a criminal to book. That is a perfect summation of The Final Problem as the detective will use any means possible to bring Moriarty to justice. These stories are exciting, often dark and intense, and show use a side to the detective which isn't glimpsed too often. This is the Sherlock Holmes who will take the law into his own hands should he find it right to do so.

Aside from introducing us to James Moriarty, this category also presented us with Charles Augustus Milverton, the master blackmailer and "worst man in London." Culverton Smith,poisoner, is presented in The Dying Detective, where Holmes feigns being at death's door in order to get a confession from the medico, and Von Bork, the German spy is the focal point of much of His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes. As you can tell, the villains of the piece are the real memorable characters found herein, which shows the reader that Doyle was excellent at creating antagonists for whom Holmes can duel. Perhaps the most memorable (aside from Moriarty) is Baron Gruner who appeared in The Illustrious Client, who surely holds the title as creepiest Canonical villain.

So, there we have it. Five categories into which each of the stories can be filed. In some cases there are overlaps, but hopefully this little analysis makes the Canon seem a little simpler. I should add one last item: despite my nitpicking here and there and grouping the stories together, I am by no means trying to demean Doyle's ability as a writer. All of his stories are well written and executed, and of course without him, we wouldn't have the world's greatest detective.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Peter Cushing Month Returns!


I couldn't keep this a secret any longer, and what with it being the beginning of a new year, I thought I would give my readers something to look forward to. I had a tremendous time watching and reviewing Peter Cushing-related films last May in honour of his 101st birthday, so I thought why not do it again to celebrate the great actor turning 102 this May?

What films will be included in the line-up this year? There I will keep you in suspense. However, one of the reasons I wanted to make this announcement so early is I hope for your input. If you're a Peter Cushing fan and have a movie in mind that you'd like me to take a look at, please do not hesitate in leaving a comment below and I will try and add it to the watch-list.

In the meantime, you can click here and read the articles which pertained to last year's Peter Cushing Month.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Review - "Moriarty"

I hope that I have made it clear on this blog that I really liked Anthony Horowritz's Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk. The plot and presentation of Doyle's characters was exceptional, making it one of the best pastiches in recent memory. Perhaps due to the fact that I enjoyed his novel so much, I was a little disappointed to learn that his follow-up novel, Moriarty, would not feature the great detective in anyway.

All the same, I was interested to read Horowitz's novel and hoped that it would reach the high expectations which I'd set for it following The House of Silk. So, how did Moriarty fare? Let's take a closer look...

The novel begins in 1891. Sherlock Holmes is presumed dead following his struggle atop the Reichenbach Falls with Professor James Moriarty. The novel's narrator, Frederick Chase, an investigator for the American detective agency, the Pinkertons, is dispatched to Switzerland after a body is recovered from the Falls' basin. There Chase meets Scotland Yard inspector Athelney Jones, and together they investigate the corpse. The two discover a slip of paper concealed on the dead man, addressed to Moriarty, which leads them to believe they have found the Napoleon of Crime. The paper alludes to a meeting between Moriarty and American crime boss, Clarence Devereaux, who Chase has pursued to London. Chase and Jones return to London and begin their investigation, entering a dark world of murders and unexpected twists.

I really do not want to give away too much of the plot since it is surprising on its own, and I wouldn't want to be the one who spoiled it for you. Suffice it to say that I should have had no qualms about Horowitz's plotting. The story moves along at swift pace, easily pulling you into the narrative. Like his first Sherlockian foray, Moriarty is a dark novel,and surprising violent in places. So, the reader with a weak constitution should be warned.

In the absence of Holmes and Watson, Horowitz has created the characters of Frederick Chase and Athelney Jones. Chase makes for a fine narrator and proves to be a complex character. Jones is not an original creation, having appeared in Doyle's The Sign of Four. After having been shamed by Holmes during the course of that investigation, Jones studied the great detective's methods, and practices them during the course of the novel. In this way, Jones substitutes for Holmes, and does an admirable job, unraveling the tangled plot which is woven through the book's pages.

In some respects, Moriarty can be viewed as an inverted Sherlock Holmes story, telling the story of an investigation in the Sherlockian universe from the police officers' perspective. These scenes were surely the novel's strongest, perhaps the greatest set-piece occurred as Jones and Chase discuss the case with other inspectors at the Yard who cropped up in the Canon. Seeing characters such as Inspectors Lestrade, Gregson, McDonald and Hopkins all under one roof brought a great smile to my face. And like The House of Silk, Horowitz proves to have a tremendous grasp of the Canon with a number of asides and references to the original stories. He did make one tiny error by saying that Inspector McDonald had never met Sherlock Holmes, though the two worked together in The Valley of Fear, which was set some two years before the events of this novel.

As I noted above, if I'm being vague I'm doing so intentionally. The plot is thoroughly surprising, with a well-implemented pot twist which I didn't see coming, but in retrospect I certainly should have. I am happy to say that Anthony Horowitz has succeeded in producing a fine follow-up to his first Sherlockian foray, with an intense, interesting plot, and likable original characters. Therefore, I award Moriarty 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who - Last Christmas"


Warning - This review will contain spoilers

I was of the opinion that the inclusion of Santa Claus at the end of the Series 8 finale, Death in Heaven, shattered the morose and downbeat atmosphere which the episode invoked. Therefore, I went into this year's Christmas special with some mixed feelings. Would Father Christmas interrupt yet another episode's atmospherics? Let's take a closer look at Last Christmas.

After meeting Santa Claus (Nick Frost) on her rooftop, Clara (Jenna Coleman) is spirited away by the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) to the North Pole. A group of researchers stationed at the base have fallen victim to an alien race known as the Dream Crabs. When under the Crab's power, the victim enters a dream-like state and cannot separate reality from dreams. Soon, the Doctor comes to understand that their situation is more dire than he could anticipate and that Father Christmas may be their only hope for survival.

It is collective opinion of many Doctor Who fans that showrunner Steven Moffat is at his best when he's writing stand-alone episodes,ones which do not have to relate back to the overall arc of the series. I am in inclined to agree and I select Last Christmas as evidence of this. This Christmas episode managed to be quite intense and suspenseful, something which surprised me as most Christmas specials are lightweight in tone. Last Christmas is arguably the darkest Christmas special thus far - the characters' uncertainty about whether they are dreaming or not added real gravitas to the story. What's more, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who got a chill up their spine during Clara's dream sequence; a chalk board looming in the background foretelling her death if she didn't wake up.

"Nobody likes the tangerines"
Performances were, as expected, excellent. Peter Capaldi's Doctor has undergone a slight change in personality.Perhaps it was just the festive holiday spirit, but the Doctor seemed far less angry and uncaring. There was the occasional moment of true aloofness, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Twelfth Doctor's heart of ice continues to melt throughout Series 9. Jenna Coleman gave a genuine performance as she confronted her feelings about Danny Pink's death from Death in Heaven. I'm also happy with Clara returning for Series 9. She's been a good companion thus far - I only hope that she doesn't take centre stage too often like she did in Series 8, when the focus should have been on Peter Capaldi's still-developing Doctor.

As to guest star Nick Frost as Santa Claus, I couldn't help but feel that his contribution to the episode was inconsequential. This was of course a fault of Moffat's script and Santa darts in and out of the action with startling frequency. He turns up in the end to save the day which felt like a tremendous deus ex machina, and that's about it. However, Frost's line delivery was nice and he managed to make the fabled Father Christmas a humane character with some incredibly witty dialogue. Also, seeing Capaldi's snarling Doctor getting into a heated confrontation with Santa was a sight which had to be seen to be believed.

I don't think Last Christmas can be called the best of the Doctor Who Christmas specials, that honour going to A Christmas Carol, but it manage to feel large and epic, unlike last year's festive offering The Time of the Doctor which promised to be made on an epic scale, but felt small. Exciting in execution, the episode manged to be an intense, emotional ride. I cannot give it full marks as Nick Frost's Santa Claus seemed out of place and really took much of the emotional weight out of the proceedings. Therefore I give Last Christmas 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review - "Sherlock Holmes and the Horror of Frankenstein"

There are certain characters who Sherlock Holmes has run across a number of times: Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Arsene Lupin etc. However, there is one literary character with whom the great detective has seldom matched wits - Frankenstein and his Monster. This in retrospect, this makes some sense. Mary Shelly's novel is not set in metropolitan London, and it set some seventy years before Holmes took up his magnifying glass and deerstalker. However, that doesn't mean that some authors haven't tried to combine this famed characters into one story. Luke Benjamin Kuhns' Sherlock Holmes and the Horror of Frankenstein does just that. How does it fare? Let's find out...

It is 1885 and a spat of grave robberies have startled London. Sherlock Holmes, in the midst of a bout of great ennui, is disinterested in case. That is until he's approached by Inspector Bradstreet of Scotland Yard. It seems that at the scene of the latest grave robbery, a night watchman has been murdered. His curiosity sufficiently piqued, Holmes and Watson begin their investigation. The murdered man's face betrays signs of tremendous horror, and upon further investigation Holmes discovers a giant footprint nearby. By the detective's estimation, the man's murderer was at least eight feet tall. Who is the murderer? What do they want with the bodies, and is there a connection with the infamous Dr. Frankenstein?

Despite the fact that this graphic novel shares a title with one of Hammer horror's lesser-known works, it owes more to the style of the Universal horror films of the '30's and '40's. There's a genuine sense of mystery, adventure and horror mixed into the plot. Plot tropes from Universal's films are mixed in from the mad scientist and his lab. I won't spoil the story, but one character who appeared in one of Universal's most famed Frankenstein films turns in a wonderful appearance here. Despite its horror story trappings, author Luke Kuhns manages to weave an excellent Sherlockian plot and his presentation of the characters through dialogue is excellent. I am not very familiar with Kuhns' writing, but this makes me interested to look into more.

As I mentioned above, this is a graphic novel. Illustrator Marcie Klinger did an excellent job in capturing the Gothic atmosphere of the story. The artwork is dark and evocative and very nicely detailed. However, I was rather surprised to find Sherlock Holmes dressed in a standard twentieth-century trench coat though!

Without giving away too much plot, Sherlock Holmes and the Horror of Frankenstein gets around the logistical problems of combining these two famous stories by acting as a sequel to Mary Shelly's original. For fans of Frankenstein, some of the characters some of the original novel pop up in flashback and fill in some of the gaps. In this way, the story is able to work on its own without trying to limit itself to the confines of a previously-published work. I applaud the original story telling, especially since I had no idea what to expect going into the graphic novel.

In all, Sherlock Holmes and the Horror of Frankenstein is a very surprising work. Author Luke Kuhns is obviously well-versed in both his Sherlockian and horror film knowledge. With an interesting, original plot, and moody (though at times anachronistic) artwork, the graphic novel comes recommended from me. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

***

Sherlock Holmes and The Horror of Frankenstein is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble USA, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).