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.