Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Review - "The Will of the Dead"

When I learned that George Mann would be writing a Sherlock Holmes book I was excited. Though I have read little of his work, he has written a number of interesting-sounding titles in genres ranging from mystery to science-fiction, and his bibliography includes some associations with Doctor Who as well. Mann was also responsible for Big Finish audio's second Sherlock Holmes release, The Reification of Hans Gerber.

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

William Gillette and the Great Detective

Sherlock Holmes has been ripe for the stage. There's something exciting about seeing the detective's astounding deductions live which simply cannot be rivaled on the page on the screen. Above all others, there is one man who is responsible for bringing the detective to the stage - American actor William Gillette. Perhaps without even knowing it, Gillette was redefining the detective more than he ever imagined.

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
And though Doyle gave Gillette permission to marry Holmes at the end of the show, it really does detract from the detective's personality, and I argue that the romance angle really comes out of nowhere. Therefore it feel pretty tacked on as though Gillette was determined to have a nice, happy ending all tied up in a bow. It is worth noting that Gillette's play has been revived in the past, but hardly the same number of times that other Sherlockian dramas have been. Most notably are runs which starred actors such as John Wood, Leonard Nimoy and Frank Langella. For those interested, Langella's performance can be found in full on YouTube.

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

Sherlock Holmes...Who?

The fact that Sherlock Holmes is an immensely popular figure who has developed a life of his own is a fact which cannot be disputed. Believe me when I say that this does make me a content person. I couldn't imagine living in a world where all things Sherlock Holmes-related are hard to come by. But, when I start to think about the Sherlockian culture in which we now live, I begin to think that something is amiss. Sherlock Holmes is firmly immersed in our culture, but we so easily forget his roots. I am tempted to say that few people remember Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who changed the mystery genre and popular culture forever.

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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Review - "The Stuff of Nightmares"

There has been a new trend in Sherlock Holmes pastiches recently. More and more frequently, the intrepid Baker Street detective is finding himself crossing genre lines into steampunk. For those unaware of this emerging genre, steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction in which advanced machinery and technology can be found in a nineteenth century setting. I freely admit that I am not the biggest fan of steampunk - my logical brain doesn't much take to anachronisms. All the same, I was intrigued by the interesting plot synopsis for James Lovegrove's first Sherlock Holmes pastiche, despite its steampunk trappings, and today his book, The Stuff of Nightmares is the subject of today's review.

It is 1890 and a spat of bombings have caused mass hysteria in London. When Dr. Watson nearly falls victim to the latest bomb planted at Waterloo Station, he insists that Holmes investigate the matter, especially when Mycroft asks for his brother's assistance. Holmes is at first reluctant to take the case, saying he is far more interested in the so-called Baron Cauchemar - a vigilante reportedly seen in the East End of London, equipped with mysterious metal armour weapons far more advanced than anything seen before in the nineteenth century. Holmes feels certain that the mysterious Baron and the recent bombings are connected, and journeying into the city's criminal underbelly, Holmes and Watson are about to engage in one of their most surprising and unusual cases ever.

The Stuff of Nightmares is a difficult book to review. It is heavily influenced by the steampunk genre, which as I noted above is not my favourite. In the scenes which are obviously steeped in science fiction and fantasy, I felt rather unusual having come across things so far removed from the Sherlock Holmes canon that it ceased to feel like a Sherlock Holmes book anymore. The book's climax in particular was incredibly jarring in its absolute craziness, and if it had been placed earlier in the book I'm not sure if I would have finished reading.

I applaud Lovegrove for his valiant efforts in replicating Doyle's style of writing, though his Watson-voice does falter at times, and there were a few too many modern phrases to be found. Where Lovegrove did succeed, and quite well I might add, was in replicating Holmes' deductions. There were quite a few to be found in the book, and each of them was well thought out and made for enjoyable reading. I also enjoyed the vein of dark humour which ran through the book, especially a few wisecracks from Holmes and Watson which made me smile.

However, the highest compliment I can give to The Stuff of Nightmares is how incredibly entertaining it was. Despite the steampunk nature of the story and the crazy plot developments so far removed from the Canon, I was enthralled all the way through and managed to finish the book in two sittings. When the story diverged from steampunk and fell back on traditional mystery, the story was at its best and the presentation of the original characters was excellent.

Though The Stuff of Nightmares may have at delved into the fantastical a bit too much, the story did retain some of its mystery roots. The presentation of Holmes and Watson was well-done, and in all the novel was an exciting, quick read. I therefore give The Stuff of Nightmares 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Review - "The Cotswolds Werewolf and Other Stories"

The Cotswolds Werewolf and Other Stories is yet another in a long line of pastiches which finds the world's greatest detective investigating what seem to be supernatural goings-on. While the concept may not be the most original, I freely admit that I enjoy it. Reading any pastiche which finds Sherlock Holmes in an atmospheric setting, investigating an unusual crime makes for a fun experience. The question is, does this collection of short stories live up to the high standard of its predecessors?

The main attraction of this collection is the eponymous story, "The Adventure of the Cotswolds Werewolf." It finds Holmes suffering from a bout of ennui, and in hopes of curing his friend's boredom, Dr. Watson suggests a trip to the countryside. Once they arrive in the small hamlet of Cotswolds, the two become aware of a mysterious creature which has been killing farmer's sheep. The locals blame a werewolf for the killings, and their hysteria is heightened when a sheep-herder is found murdered.

"The Cotswolds Werewolf" excellently portrays the atmosphere which makes horror-tinged pastiches work so well. The isolated village is the perfect setting, and as the story moves forward, we become aware of the town's dark history including witch trials and curses. In a neat touch, the characters of the village are nicely developed, most notably the vicar and his wife who become instrumental in solving the mystery. It adds to the air of the close-knit community which the story strives to portray. In terms of plot, "The Cotswolds Werewolf" moves along a nice pace, though Sherlock Holmes doesn't become involved in the investigation until the story's third chapter. Nevertheless, these portions of the detective doing what he does best do not seem rushed.

The collection's other short stories are also nice, capturing the spirit of Doyle's originals. First in "The Adventure of the Velvet Lampshade" a woman visits Sherlock Holmes after her maid goes missing. I would say that aside from the title story, this is the strongest story of the set with some fine detective work on Holmes' part and a very nice twist ending which I did not see coming.

Next is "The Adventure of the Missing Mud-Lark" which sees Holmes involved in another missing-person case when a young boy disappears in one of London's seediest districts. This story too featured some nice detective work on Holmes' part, though the twist ending implemented is certainly not as strong as the one in the previous story. This story also features a flashback sequence, which in my mind, goes on a bit too long and makes the middle section of this otherwise short story feel overly long.

The final two stories are the shortest of the collection. The first, "The Adventure of the Forking Paths" finds Holmes and Watson contacted by a botanist after an extremely rare Japanese orchid goes missing. It is a nice little story, but truly nothing to write home about. Lastly, "The Adventure of the One-Armed Pugilist" sees a man come to Holmes after he is brutally attacked in the street. This adventure, though less than ten pages, turned out to use yet another ingenious twist ending, and some fine deductive work from Holmes.

In all, I was very pleased by The Cotswolds Werewolf and Other Stories. Featuring a fine eponymous story and four well-written other stories, the short story collection was a fine selection of Sherlockian offerings and I hope to read more from author Peter K. Anderson in the future. I therefore award this collection 4 out of 5 stars.


The Cotswolds Werewolf and other Stories of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USA, Amazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository . In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle,  KoboNook and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).