Monday, July 21, 2014
The Valley of Fear is interestingly one of the later Sherlock Holmes stories, published first in 1914. The novel was Doyle's first Sherlockian effort since The Adventure of the Devil's Foot which was first published in 1910. When one looks at the ingredients of the novel, it seems as though Doyle was returning to the detective with a vengeance. The Valley of Fear features: an impossible crime, a mansion brimming with suspects, a revenge-killing, a secret society and even Professor Moriarty! Unlike the thinly disguised adventure or horror novels that were The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley f Fear is a mystery through and through and what's more, it seems to be the first of its kind as the novel's second half, set in the United States of America, is more akin to a hardboiled detective story than the traditional Sherlock Holmes story.
I argue that the reason for the novel's relative obscurity compared to the other three Sherlock Holmes novels is due to its lack of dramatic adaptations. Much like A Study in Scarlet, Holmes isn't around for the background information which have dramatic possibilities all their own. That's not to say that there have not been adaptations here and there - 1935 saw the release of The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes which starred Arthur Wontner as Holmes. The film is a direct adaptation of the book, the second half intact. The abysmal 1962 film Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes (Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace) retains a few of the novel's plot threads and The Blind Banker, the second episode of Sherlock retained the code-breaking technique used in the novel's opening chapter.
The Valley of Fear also boats one of the finest mysteries in the Holmes canon and it's one of the few times that Doyle utilised the "impossible crime" scenario. In addition, the mystery is one of the few in the canon which features a number of suspects in the style of Agatha Christie. It proves that the novel paved the way for various types of mysteries to come in the future. As mentioned above, the second half of the novel set in the Vermissa Valley, the titular Valley of Fear, follows an undercover Pinkerton agent as he infiltrates a secret order of criminals. This aspect of the story more than any other is a prototype for the hardboiled detective mysteries which were to emerge during the '20's and '30's which truly makes The Valley of Fear the first of its kind.
In the valuable resource Sherlock Holmes for Dummies, much is made of the hardboiled story-line as well as the increased level of violence which interestingly leads into the next set of short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which curiously features some of the most violent stories in the canon.
In all, The Valley of Fear is one of the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories and unjustly forgotten in the canon today. While it is perhaps less famous than its predecessors, the novel has a number of excellent points which make it more deserved of a re-evaluation than any other story.
Friday, July 11, 2014
It is of course obvious that some television shows are better than others and some have gotten the distinction of being loved by a large following. We in the Sherlock Holmes community know a thing or two about this as Sherlock has taken on a life of its own taking the detective to places and being presented to people to an unparalleled extent. What's more, Sherlock has been critically-acclaimed and is oftentimes regarded as one of the best shows on television. I have not come to dispute the show's quality today, I have come to pose a question: in the years to come, will Sherlock be remembered as one of the greatest shows of all time? According to the 2002 edition of TV Guide the sitcom Seinfeld is the greatest show of all time followed by I Love Lucy. The first drama on the list is The Sopranos which ranked number five. Now, how reliable is this list? The fact that it is obviously outdated makes it a bit less reliable as some of the shows which are today regarded as being the best have only come along in the last few years or so.
I for one was pretty surprised by this. Breaking Bad was an excellent show with some brilliant performances from Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul and some complex writing. However, the character development was what made the show so good as you become drawn into the characters' plights and it was nearly impossible not to find yourself hooked at parts. But, what I found surprising was that Breaking Bad is a show which is no longer on the air. Usually, the new and the current is what is most popular and by some standards Breaking Bad is old hat - a show to be enjoyed by those playing catch-up on Netflix (not that there's anything wrong with that).
Could this be the future of Sherlock - fondly remembered by those who watched it, but slowly fading into obscurity? I think not as the fan-base for Sherlock is a large-enough one with enough people who will keep the show alive. The fact that Sherlock appears on PBS in America is perhaps also helpful as Masterpiece Theater is a long-running, beloved show on public television, and often crops up on those Best of Television lists.
So, will Sherlock be remembered as one of the all-time greatest shows? At this time, I really cannot say as it currently has quite a bit of competition, but there is one thing which I can say without fear. Sherlock will be remembered fondly, and for years to come in Sherlockian circles by people (like myself) who view it as the best Sherlock Holmes series since The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. However, in regards to my original question - I suppose the answer for present is that only time shall tell.
Monday, July 7, 2014
In response to the BBC's plea for Doctor Who fans not to spread spoilers after the first five scripts for the up-coming Series 8 were leaked, I have only one thing to say: I couldn't agree more.
I understand the appeal of getting to know about the episodes early, but there really is something special about going into an episode with few (if any) preconceived ideas. Even if someone, like myself, who has no intention of reading the leaked scripts comes across some words scattered somewhere in the vast expense of the Internet, it's liable to change the way I view an episode. I think I can speak for many when I say that it would be very disappointing to ruin someone's enjoyment of the show.
So, if you are one of those who were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to get your hands on a copy of those leaked scripts, please keep as much of the information to yourself. Believe me fellow Whovains, 23 August will come soon enough.
And on an unrelated note, for those anticipating more content from me, your wait shouldn't be much longer.
Thursday, July 3, 2014
Set in 1913, Gods of War finds Sherlock Holmes living out his retirement keeping bees in Sussex. Dr. Watson journeys to the seaside to visit his friend, and no sooner has the doctor alighted from his train than he is swept up into a mystery with his old friend. Holmes and Watson investigate a jewel robbery, but the case serves as a prelude to bigger things. While taking a stroll on the beach, the duo come across the body of a young man washed up on the shore. The man's father, industrialist Craig Mallinson, hires Holmes to look into the case hoping to prove that his son committed suicide after being jilted by his lover. Yet, the woman in question believes that there is more to the young man's death, insisting that his death is in some way connected to a mysterious cult operating in the village. Holmes and Watson's investigations will lead them into uncharted waters as they uncover a conspiracy and a world which is on the brink of a war the likes of which has never been seen before.
As I have written before, the subject of Sherlock Holmes' life in retirement has influenced many writers in the past. The publication of Gods of War is timely, not only has it honours the 100th anniversary of World War I, but as it serves a nice prelude to the movie version of A Slight Trick of the Mind starring Sir Ian McKellen which is slated for release sometime early next year. So, does Gods of War add to the multitude of similar works? In short, it does. Much like James Lovegrove's The Stuff of Nightmares, his second novel is immensely entertaining. Its fast-moving plot doesn't allow for much downtime, but when the plot slows down to deliver exposition, it retains a level of interest and I found myself reading the book in only a few sittings.
|Frederic Dorr Steele depicts the detective|
While much of Gods of War was nicely handled, there were one or two things which hinder the reading experience. The plot's presentation can at times be cumbersome - the opening jewel robbery serving only to wet our appetites for things to come, and its connections to the true mystery are tenuous at best. A few chapters also find the detective journeying to London leaving Watson alone, and for no real reason the good doctor begins to believe that the detective has been disposed by the villains. Watson's ramblings at times border on the paranoid which can make some at times annoying narration. That's not to say that Gods of War is all bad. It is a very entertaining read with a fast-moving, intriguing plot and excellent presentations of its central characters. I therefore give it 4 out of 5 stars.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
I must admit that my anticipation for Mann's book was somewhat lessened when I read the plot description and learned that the book would merely be a novelisation of his Big Finish script. That doesn't necessarily mean that the eventual final product, The Will of the Dead is bad, and it is the subject of today's review.
The plot follows much the same lines as its audio-drama counterpart. When the wealthy Sir Theobold Maugham suffers a terrible accident and dies. His nephew Peter arrives at 221B Baker Street after the fact to consult Holmes and Watson. Peter does not think that is elderly uncle died of foul play, but has come to consult the detective after Sir Theobold's will disappears, and if it is not recovered Sir Theobold's oldest nephew, Joseph, shall inherit the entire estate. Holmes feels that there is something wrong with the whole story and begins his investigation at once, and it is before long that the intrepid detectives discover that Sir Theobold's fatal accident was in fact an act of murder. Meanwhile, Inspector Charles Bainbridge has been detained with another case as he investigates a spate of daring jewel robberies which seem to have been perpetrated by robotic men! As the Inspector gets closer to the truth, will he have to rely on the aide of the great Sherlock Holmes?
The Will of the Dead was an interesting Sherlock Holmes book. Released from Titan Books, the novel follows a similar vein as the publisher's previous Holmes book, James Lovegrove's The Stuff of Nightmares, in that the detective finds himself in steampunk-inhabited world. As I have written before, I'm not crazy about steampunk on a whole, so luckily the more fantastic elements were toned down in this book, and Holmes' involvement in the 'iron men' jewel robberies was minimal.
As for the actual plot, it's good, not great, but it's a nice addition to the Holmes canon. Due to the fact that the case involving Sir Theobald's missing will is firmly rooted in fact, it could easily stand alongside Conan Doyle's Canon. However, due to my knowledge of this story's Big Finish release, I was a little underwhelmed as I knew all of the twists and turns which to come my way, and reading some of the same dialogue and description verbatim was a little jarring at times. However, this would not be a problem to the casual reader, who it is likely would be reading this story for the first time.
My only true complaint about the book is it structure. The plot about Sir Theobald's missing will, the highlight of the book, was in no way connected to the 'iron men' robberies, and the few references which were made about the case seemed truly out-of-place as the two stories really couldn't be more dissimilar. If the 'iron men' plot had been removed entirely, it would not have altered the story in any way.
In all, The Will of the Dead was a good, but flawed Sherlockian effort. The plots, though tenuously-connected were interesting, and the novel was an entertaining read. With news that Mann has written another Sherlock Holmes pastiche to released in August of this year, I will certainly be anticipating its release. The Will of the Dead is given a solid 3.5 out of 5 from me.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
So, how did Gillette become associated with the detective? Gillette was an American actor born in Connecticut in 1853. Throughout most of his life he worked as an actor, producer and director making quite a name for himself in theatrical circles. All the while, Arthur Conan Doyle, having already killed Sherlock Holmes off in The Final Problem discovered that he could make a steady income off of his great creation, and needing money to finance the building of his new home Undershaw, decided to bring his creation to the stage. Doyle's original conception was a five-act play which featured a young Holmes and Watson. Doyle offered his final product to two of English theatre's biggest names - Sir Henry Irving and to Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Tree was interested but asked for drastic rewrites to suit his theatrical style - and so he could both Holmes and Moriarty! Through a literary agent, the idea for a Sherlock Holmes play eventually ended up in Gillette's hands.
At once, Gillette began writing his own play, with Doyle's endorsement, and took some creative license. In a now infamous telegram, Gillette asked Doyle: "May I marry Holmes?" Doyle responded: "You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him." What eventually transpired was Sherlock Holmes: A Drama in Four Acts which was based on the short stories A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem. The plot, almost entirely original, finds Holmes becoming involved with Alice Faulkner who has come into the possession of incriminating documents in the effort to avenge her murdered sister. These documents are of course too much to resist for Professor Moriarty who sets out to stop the detective in his tracks. The play would eventually bring Gillette international fame.
What is perhaps the most important thing about Gillette's Sherlock Holmes play is how much it added to the Sherlockian mythos. This was truly the first time that any interpretation of Doyle's stories was done, and so for many, Gillette was the one, the only Sherlock Holmes. He was Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing and Benedict Cumberbatch all rolled into one! Gillette introduced the calabash pipe and made the deerstalker and magnifying glass parts of the detective's persona. A true testament to Gillette's impact on the detective can be seen in the works of artist Fredric Derr Steele whose illustrations of Doyle's stories for Collier's Magazine was obviously inspired for Gillette.
So, there's no denying how revolutionary Gillette was in the history of Sherlock Holmes, but what of his play? I have a feeling I might get some flack from other Sherlockians for this, but I'm not afraid of a little controversy - I simply don't like the play. Now, I have never seen the play performed live, but I have read it. Maybe this has something to do with it (I have seen Paul Giovanni's The Crucifer of Blood performed live which might account for why it is my favourite Sherlock Holmes play). My main complaint about the play is its plot which is just too dull for me. The breakdown of scenes is stodgy, and though this was the norm at the time, Gillette's play has certainly not aged well. Though the characterisations of Holmes, Watson and Moriarty are presented accurately, some of them are seen far too little. In fact, Watson is almost side-lined completely throughout the show's run.
|Frank Langella as Holmes in a revival|
of Gillette's play
Why hasn't Sherlock Holmes: A Drama in Four Acts circulated theatres as often? I suggest the changing times as the main culprit for the show's somewhat obscurity. The times have changed a great deal since Gillette premiered in the show, and perhaps some of my criticisms of the play are due to this fact. The laid-back, dare I say stodgy, approach was conventional in Gillette's time and he was simply writing like any other playwright would have written at his time. All the same, Gillette's play isn't ranked amongst my favourite Sherlockian efforts, but I do not discount the dramatic impact which the play had on the history of the character. Even after Gillette rose to international acclaim in the role, the play continued to have a profound impact. Gillette starred in a movie version of his play (now lost to the pages of history). John Barrymore's turn as the detective in 1922 also took inspiration from Gillette's play. And 1932's Sherlock Holmes starring Clive Brook, though dramatically changing the plot, was more-or-less an adaptation of Gillette's work.
As I mentioned above, there is no denying the profound impact which William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes play has had on the history of the character. Gillette's influence on the character is seen to this day. Nonetheless, I am less-than enthused by the play. That doesn't mean that if I had the opportunity to see the show performed live I'd turn it down as I consume all things Sherlock Holmes, and after all this is all just my opinion.
One last word: Gillette was devoted to the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and for the rest of his life he would never be far from the great detective. In 1929, Gillette embarked on the show's farewell tour, and though only scheduled for two seasons, he continued playing the part until 1932 wrapping up at the age of 78. That's what I call devotion to Holmes, so bravo Mr. Gillette!
Monday, June 9, 2014
Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we have seen a number of manias. For example: Beatles Mania or Dalek Mania (two examples close to my heart I might add) and I argue that now, the fourteenth year of the twenty-first century, the world is undergoing Sherlock Mania. What has constituted this mania? There are currently two highly acclaimed television shows running simultaneously (well sort of simultaneously - we're playing that Sherlock waiting game again), a third show has aired in Russia and episodes complete with all-important English subtitles are available on YouTube, Sherlock Holmes pastiches are being written at a fantastic rate, and the people of the Internet (*cough tumblr cough*) are still discussing things that happened in His Last Vow. Perhaps this mania isn't as profound as Beatles Mania, but it certainly seems like a twenty-first century equivalent. But the real question is this: is this mania good or bad?
I hate to be indecisive, but I have to strike a balance between good and bad. For someone whose interest in the great detective runs pretty deep, I should be over the moon with all of this Sherlock Holmes stuff. So, why do I feel a little upset by it all? When I really get around to thinking, I feel that this mania has built itself up around the modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and not the Sherlock Holmes of old. What could that possibly mean? It is my opinion that Holmes has changed with the times and echoes whatever era into which a certain version was born? Two cases in point: 1965's A Study in Terror, filmed at the height of Hammer horror's reign in the genre and the influence of Batman is about as campy as you can get. 1979's Murder by Decree took the same subject matter (Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper), but made it far darker in tone, featured a kinder, gentler detective and featured a plot filled with conspiracy and deception (ala Watergate).
The ever-changing face of the detective extends to the modern day. The Sherlock Holmes name has cashed in on highly successful action films (see the two Guy Ritchie-directed movies) and modern updates. Of course, for a modern version of the canon, the facets of Holmes' personality has changed dramatically, making him far more distant and unsocial. Sherlock even made an inevitable comparison to Star Trek's Mr. Spock. And don't even get me started on the antisocial behaviour of Dr. Gregory House, expertly played by Hugh Laurie, who is (by creator David Shore's own admission) an obvious Sherlock Holmes homage.
So, Sherlock Holmes has become an at-first unlikable anti-hero for the modern age. Okay, fine. There is nothing wrong with that. Holmes of the canon was no angel, so all we have done is extrapolated this fact. But, by extrapolating this one characteristic, I daresay we lose sight of the detective's other characteristics. Sherlock Holmes has become less of the literary creation that he was at one time and more of a staple in the modern world. It is likely that more people today would recognise the scarf and coat made famous by Sherlock than the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape. Interestingly, when you search 'Sherlock Holmes' in Google Images, the first three results are of Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch respectively, each one conspicuously lacking the famous piece of headgear. Whereas if one is to conduct a similar Google Images search simply for 'detective' the deerstalker, pipe and even a few silhouettes of the great detective are among the first results.
After watching the much-beloved Russian Sherlock Holmes series starring Vasily Livanov, I was interested in trying the new Russian series which had received a number of different reviews. As I wrote near the top of this post, that new series is available on YouTube, complete with English subtitles since my knowledge of the Russian language is almost nonexistent. Anyhow, as I began watching, I became aware that this series too was taking a page from Sherlock and Elementary's books - Holmes was presented as a far more distant individual, and taking a leaf from the playbook of Guy Ritchie presented the detective as a disheveled, sloppy man sporting a five o'clock shadow and a bad case of bedhead. This was the final straw for me - Sherlock Holmes was quite a different person than he had ever been before.
If you are yelling at me through your computers saying, "Just be happy," I can understand, but I don't want you to come away from this thinking I'm fed-up with the Sherlockian community and will be taking my collection with me to some remote cave to live out my life as a hermit. I am happy with the Sherlock Holmes world. I thought that Sherlock Season Three was good, even if I'm at odds with many people elsewhere, and I continue to find one or two morsels in Elementary. Also, if there's ever going to be a third Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, rest assured I'll be there, popcorn in hand, eagerly munching and enjoying every minute of it.
Nevertheless, I do find some things which set me off. Discussions over whether Sherlock Holmes would ever shoot a man in cold blood coming from people who have never delved into the canon infuriate me, and don't - I repeat DO NOT - get me started on Johnlock. I suppose I'm more of a traditional Holmes fan than I ever realised. Perhaps I should change this blog's title to 'Musings from the Conservative Sherlockian.' On second thought, that's a bad idea. All the same, I'm reminded of Doyle's words in His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes: "There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared." Could that East Wind be the emergence of a new future to Sherlock Holmes? I suppose only time shall tell.