“We Will Begin Another Investigation”: A Storied Christmas for Sherlock Holmes


I read ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ every Christmas Eve, and in that way it has become less a story to me and more a collection of familiar jokes, quirks and reminders. The cubic capacity of Henry Baker’s skull, the ill-tempered smugness of a Covent Garden fowl merchant, the Christmas dinner in which a bird will feature heavily: all of them are present and correct, in the best ways of tradition, when called upon.

But what actually happens in this story? What does it look like? In some ways, it is rather ugly: its very first sentence includes that higgledy-piggledy word ‘upon’ twice within the space of six words. Like Holmes and Watson’s wander through the frosty streets of the capital in search of the breeder of Baker’s gem-laden goose, the story dots and weaves rather abruptly through a number of brief episodes, to the extent that the detective’s insistence to the piece’s villain, James Ryder, that he has “all the proofs which I could possibly need” seems even bolder an assertion than usual. It has a wonderful atmosphere, but an ungainly shape.

On the other hand, it’s an excellent example of what Michael Chabon has called the Holmesian canon’s tendency to produce ‘story engines’, little perfectly-tuned motors of narrative which contain a cascade of plot and incident that helps propel the apparently meagre foregrounded story with considerably more impetus than it might otherwise have. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, slight and swift as it seems, in fact contains a whole series of other tales, a sense of happening which fits a story that rests on the conceit that it is “one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles”.

Even as Watson arrives at Holmes’s rooms – usually the start of a Sherlockian escapade – events are in motion. The good doctor finds his friend deep in contemplation – Peterson, the commissionaire, has already brought a beaten old hat and a goose to Holmes for inspection, and along with them a vignette of a boozy Yuletide evening in which high spirits became a violent altercation from which a man fled without his Christmas goose. That man, we discover, is Mr Henry Baker – whose story Holmes draws from the details of his cracked felt hat (“his wife has ceased to love him”). When Baker answers Holmes’s message – printed in those repositories of narrative, the newspapers – we discover yet more about him, including that he is party to a two dozen-strong goose club. (This latter fact gives us twenty-three other Victorian Christmases to ponder.)

We know by now, of course, that Baker’s goose contained the famed blue carbuncle, a priceless gem belonging to the Countess of Morcar which, Holmes tells Watson, “is a nucleus and focus of crime” – in short, a body around which countless stories orbit. We might wonder, too, how the Countess came upon this storied artifact, about the relationship between Lady Morcar and her lady-in-waiting, whose tip-off to the upper-attendant of the hotel in which her mistress was resident gave rise to this latest theft; we read of a previous conviction for robbery of John Horner, the man framed by Ryder for the carbuncle’s disappearance, and reassess Holmes’s later insistence upon the plumber’s total innocence; and, of course, we wonder what poor old Inspector Bradstreet, quoted in the press as to his certitude of Horner’s guilt, makes of Holmes’s involvement.

These are a lot of jumping-off points for a story so short, and help explain why there is so much space to explore within its apparently slight constraints. Holmes’s final act of festive forgiveness, allowing Ryder to flee, leaves open yet more possibilities: “there is the making of a very pretty villain in you,” the detective tells the villain, and his escape at the story’s close leaves his future career a matter for speculation.

But that, perhaps, is a story for the New Year. In the meantime, readers: merry Christmas to you, whatever your story.

“You know my methods. What can you gather yourself?”

Jeremy Brett oin 'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle'.
“Here is my lens.”

Christmas Eve, in case you hadn’t noticed, is when I re-read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of Blue Carbuncle’. When I took down my bound volume of the relevant year’s Strand magazines (itself a very kind Christmas gift), I noticed the date embossed on its spine: 1892. This was a reminder, if one were needed, that this story is now one hundred and twenty years old. (In fact, the story was originally published in January, so it is almost one year older than that.)

Inevitably, the story creaks in the ways that your great-grandfather’s popular fiction will: all those interjections – “My dear Holmes!” – and all that reporting of action via direct speech – “Pray take the basket-chair. I will just put on my slippers before we settle this little matter of yours. Now, then!” But there are also moments which signify its age in a less grating fashion. Take Holmes’s answer to the question of which newspapers should carry his message to the owner of an abandoned Christmas goose, for example: “Oh, in the Globe, Star, Pall Mall, St. James’s, Evening News, Standard, Echo, and any others that occur to you.” Would that today’s press were so vibrant and varied!

In his The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey makes a good deal of Holmes’s reliance upon and love of the press. For Carey (though alas he doesn’t cite any one story as evidence for his assertions), this addiction to news is in a roundabout way of a piece with the redemptive message at the festive heart of ‘The Blue Carbuncle’:

“[The] contempt among [modernist] intellectuals for newspapers is not, we should note, shared by the great fictional intellectual of the period, Sherlock Holmes. While the intellectuals were busy inventing alarming versions of the masses for other intellectuals to read, Conan Doyle created, in Holmes, a comforting version of the intellectual for mass consumption […] Holmes’s redemptive genius as a detective lies in rescuing individuals from the mass […] by giving an accurate account, before they have spoken a word, of their jobs, their habits and their individual interests. The appeal of this Holmesian magic and the reassurance it brings to readers are, I would suggest, residually religious, akin to the singling-out of the individual soul, redeemed from the mass, that Christianity promises.” [pp. 8-9]

By this logic, ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ is the quintessential Holmes story: the great detective explicitly cites the case as “one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles”; yet even before meeting him he deduces in exacting detail the shape of the life lived by the man who lost his Christmas goose (“it is extremely improbable that he has gas laid on in his house”). From there, Holmes follows the trail through to a villain whom he sets free with the justification of “saving a soul”. Given ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ is set during the Christian festival which most celebrates the potential for salvation, it’s remarkable that Carey uses that word ‘redemptive’; and, if we were to use Holmes’s methods upon an unreferenced passage which also discusses newspaper personal columns, we might be forced to deduce that Carey had on his mind as he wrote precisely Holmes’s little Christmas miracle.

Elsewhere, Carey argues that Conan Doyle’s Holmes practiced a weird kind of anti-intellectualism in his adventures: all those disparaged clerks and, for instance in ‘The Naval Treaty’, a defence of the intellectuals’ hated Board Schools as “lighthouses”. It seems to me, however, that the redemptive power of Holmes’s method – if we are to join Carey in his vision of Holmes as a saviour of the individual against the mass, which on Christmas 2012 as much as on Christmas 1892 it is almost possible not to do –  lies precisely in his intellect. Sherlock Holmes is not an impossible shaman – “Your reasoning is certainly plausible,” says Watson – but an improbable savant. And when one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

“In Memoriam Sherlock”

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are on the run. Hiding in a damp alleyway somewhere in the back-end of Marylebone, they catch a breath, handcuffed together, and regroup. James Moriarty, Sherlock’s greatest enemy, has framed the world’s only consulting detective for a string of crimes, all of which he purported to solve; even his closest allies within the police force are now doubting that their erstwhile collaborator was ever anything more than an elaborate, sociopathic conman. “Everybody wants to believe it, that’s what makes it so clever,” Sherlock reflects. “A lie that’s preferable to the truth: my deductions were a sham. No-one feels inadequate, Sherlock’s an ordinary man.” Sherlock Holmes knows that we want him to be humbled.

Efforts to topple the great detective from his self-selected lofty heights have a long vintage. They began with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who famously attempted to rid his career of the success that had so blighted it by sending Holmes careering off the edge of a cliff; it is a need which has continued to be fulfilled right to the present day, in manners as disparate as Michael Chabon’s in The Final Solution or Mitch Cullin’s in A Slight Trick of the Mind, both of which imagine Holmes in his creaking senescence, and Matt Frewer’s in four TV movies for the Hallmark Channel, in which Holmes is a joke of a character, zany and cartoonish in a fashion that renders him a laughable caricature. Attempts to humanise Holmes – Rupert Everett’s turn in The Case of the Silk Stocking – or to uncover his psychology – Nicholas Meyer‘s The Seven Per Cent Solution –  have the same ultimate end: to find a chink in Holmes’s armour, and to prise him open.

It is to the credit of the latest series of Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s reimaginng of Conan Doyle, that it takes this trope and uses it for another purpose: to, on the contrary, re-affirm Holmes’s other-worldliness. To one extent or another, the gambit may be slightly weakened by its similarity to the plot of Moffat’s most recent season of Doctor Who, in which a disassociated super-being with few meaningful relationships has only one option if he is to avoid the power of his own myth: fake his own death (and here Benedict Cumberbatch’s pitch-perfect Sherlock is given in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ the motivation of Holmes’s creator), and recede from the immortal limelight. On the other hand, and with a hat tip to the reputedly “preternaturally urbane” Graham Sleight, I’ve been mulling over Jon Blum’s post about ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’, the first of the latest Sherlock trilogy, and along with much of the rest of his analysis tend to agree that beneath the surface resemblance between the Doctor and Sherlock beat three quite different hearts.

In fact, let’s begin with the Belgravian imbroglio. As Blum points out, the episode caused some consternation, since many viewers felt its depiction of Irene Adler – a character who appeared in the first of Conan Doyle’s short stories, got married, and left again – fell short in its gender politics of a literally Victorian forebear. Moffat’s Adler is a professional dominatrix with a string of high-profile clients (an earlier age may euphemistically have called her an ‘adventuress’) who seeks security not from a twist of gold around her finger but by blackmailing the British state. When Holmes arrives at her home, dressed as in the original story as a doddery clergyman, this Adler sees through him; when Holmes tricks her into revealing the location of her hidden valuables, this Adler has booby-trapped the safe; and, when orchestrating her escape, this Adler has no need to dress as a man and do a moonlight flit – she incapacitates Holmes, using his body against him.

That Adler is ultimately and rather triumphantly defanged is also true; but, it seems to me, her role is not to defeat the series’ hero (since nor does she achieve this in the source text): it is, in a manner far more potent than a few Watsonian lines at the end of a story, to test and undermine his commitment to reason and rationality (a characteristic so fundamental to the Holmes character that even Guy Ritchie’s foppish iteration shares it). Holmes’s feelings for Adler – again, so much more far-reaching and plainly stated than in the source text – lead even he to question the central, Spockish tenets of his existence. All limbs and rolling eyes, crashing to the floor, Holmes is out of control not because he cannot solve a puzzle, which of course he may always do at the very last minute, but because he has been incapacitated, literally brought low.

Likewise, in ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’ (the first of two titles this season which play with plurals), Holmes is confounded by the barrier which exists between the world and his mind. In this case, his senses are assaulted by a non-corporeal influence, glimpsing a gigantic hound on the moors – even though, as he insists, ‘hound’ is an archaic term wildly out of place in a world of SMS and first-name-terms, and despite the fact that, to paraphrase Jeremy Brett’s dyspeptic Holmes of ‘The Last Vampyre’, “werewolves don’t exist!” How to respond, then, to a problem which does not yield to the rationalistic observation method Sherlock brings to bear upon every problem? He is for a while at a loss, and confesses an extended moment of real doubt to John (a masterful Martin Freeman, who will not receive the attention of Cumberbatch but deserves all the plaudits). Holmes – naturally – ultimately solves the mystery. But he does so by passing through a Gethsemane, and the audience enjoys it. We – and here we should sigh a sad, patronised, joyless sigh – ‘identify’.

All of this leads to a new kind of precipice, both figurative and literal: Sherlock, defeated and check-mated, is goaded to self-annihilation by Moriarty, atop the roof of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital. At the end of an episode which gleefully retells The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first of Basil Rathbone’s appearances as the detective and the source both of the courtroom drama and the Tower of London heist, the site of Sherlock’s first contact with John is refigured as an alternate location for what Conan Doyle long ago wished would be his last. The Reichenbach fall of the title, however, is not a torrent of water but a movement from unconquerable rescuer of a stolen Turner to potential suicide standing at the edge of a tall building as his greatest enemy brands him a less than worthy adversary. “I’m disappointed in you, ordinary Sherlock,” groans Moriarty, chagrined that even his finest adversary is, in the final analysis, no match for his genius – just normal, just human. Just a sham.

Of course, all that follows  – with different moves, but the same shape as Conan Doyle’s original Swiss tango – exists, as it exists in the real world which so confounded Conan Doyle’s assumption that Sherlock Holmes was mortal, to disprove Moriarty’s thesis. Sherlock, like Holmes, is extra-ordinary, capable of evading certain death, of solving every puzzle, of championing the power of human faculty. This is how we should understand and embrace him – not as an impossible ideal, a tabloid celebrity whom we, like Katherine Parkinson’s Kitty Reilly, are desperate to tear back down (see that issue with Moffat and women? It’s there, but let’s leave it for another day). Sherlock Holmes offers us necessary hope: we leave Freeman’s John walking into a bleak landscape of duller colours, having begged a tombstone to perform one last restorative miracle.

Across the churchyard, hidden and unseen – but prepared, like another figure of British legend, to return when we are most in need him – Sherlock Holmes, unhumbled, abides.

“You Look At Me As If I Were A Conjuror”: ‘The House of Silk’

“It’s surprising how few of the stories in the first collection, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ contain murders,” wrote Anthony Horowitz of the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle recently. Indeed, for a modern crime writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories must seem missives from a gentler time: few detective stories are now complete without a grisly corpse or two, and Horowitz’s own new Holmes novel, The House of Silk, is no exception. By its final page, Holmes and Watson have stood sadly over several dead bodies, one of them particularly gruesome, and solved a mystery involving many more. What is impressive about this and every other aspect of Horowitz’s Conan Doyle estate-endorsed volume, however, is that such a deviation from the usual Holmes template doesn’t feel gratuitious or even out of kilter with the canon.

To be sure, the pre-release hype that Horowitz had written The House of Silk in Conan Doyle’s style was misleading: the Watson of this novel, writing from a retirement home after the death of his oldest and dearest friend, is too reflective, and the narrative too economical, to remind one of the four canonical novels, or even any of the short stories. Horowitz is a little above Conan Doyle’s old trick of withholding information from the reader, too, and this makes his mystery a little easier to solve than many of Holmes’s cases. Crucially, however, Horowitz writes in the way that you might fondly remember Watson sounding: erudite but at times dogmatic, with an eye for the ladies but morally resolute, focused on action far more than context. Writing in 2011, on the other hand, Horowitz can’t let Watson get away with his flaws as a narrator, and has the good doctor criticise his own stories for ignoring the poor or the young, for skipping over the mise en scene in favour of the hackney chase. The gambit undoubtedly pays off: this is a nonagenarian Watson looking back on his life, writing the last of his reminscences of Sherlock Holmes, and allowing a suppler, more intimate, style to emerge.

All the details are here: the Persian slipper, the game proving to be afoot, Lestrade’s mixture of defiance and respect. Horowitz admitted in that Telegraph piece that he took Conan Doyle’s lead in paying little heed to chronology, and Baring Gould would indeed find it impossible to place The House of Silk in a chronology: the novel is set in 1890, and the ‘Adventure of the Red-Headed League’, we are told, happened just seven weeks ago; by the same token, one character tells Watson he recently read and enjoyed the ‘Copper Beeches’ which, though set in 1890 (according to Brad Keefauver, though Baring Gould puts it in 1889), wasn’t published until 1892. Indeed, many characters refer to their knowledge of Watson’s stories, and of course this plays total havoc with any journeyman attempt to play the Great Game; at the same time, however, the novel plays that game with abandon, making Watson’s publication history explicit in a way Conan Doyle never did – Waston and Holmes both have fans, and past adventures frequently receive a reference.

So, too, do past characters: from minor ones, such as Dr Trevelyan from the ‘Adventure of the Resident Patient’, to more major and predictable appearances from Mycroft and others. For the most part, bar one rather egregious appearance from the character you might expect, this is done well; other puns, such as an appearance by ‘Ephraim Hardcastle‘ seem a bit gauche. Still, Horowitz is having huge fun, and for by far the most part this transfers to the reader: The House of Silk is a thoroughly good read, and though Horowitz only works out how to make a Holmes story last as long as he needs it to by splicing two mysteries together, the final reveal is terrifically neat – and involves enough of the standard Sherlockian ingredients, from exotic backgrounds to double lives, to ring true.

I imagine, therefore, that the book will be read with pleasure by those who’ve never read a Holmes story in their life. It should also be read happily by Holmes enthusiasts, though no doubt some will find a purist’s reason for a glum face. For instance, at times Holmes seems to one side of this novel – in fact, Watson is probably its main focus. If this is Horowitz’s solution to tackling the most intimidating detective in fiction, one should give him a pass – and hope for another novel with more Holmes for its buck, because when Horowitz does zoom in close, he nails the characters brilliantly: “Show Holmes a drop of water and he would deduce the existence of the Atlantic,” Watson opines at one point. “Show it to me and I would look for a tap.” [pg. 180] This is a novel with precisely enough both of respect and of cheek to do the job. In a few weeks, Robert Downey Jr, one suspects, will give us rather more of the latter. Eat this up while you can.

“Your Beer Should be Excellent If It Is As Good As Your Geese.”

In a quarter of an hour we were in Bloomsbury at the Alpha Inn, which is a small public-house at the corner of one of the streets which runs down into Holborn. Holmes pushed open the door of the private bar and ordered two glasses of beer from the ruddy-faced, white-aproned landlord.

"As he reached the corner of Goodge Street..."

Few festive tipples can be as Sherlockian as a pint of best ale from the Alpha Inn. It features in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, my regular Christmas Eve read, and is home to the goose club which proves so fateful to all involved. We know well that both Watson and his literary agent, Arthur Conan-Doyle, sought to hide real people and places behind pseudonyms and thin veneers. If we wished to find the Alpha, then, where would we start?

In Finding Sherlock’s London, Thomas Wheeler suggests the most likely candidate is the Museum Tavern, at 49 Great Russell Street. This has the twin benefit of being both of the right period and immediately adjacent to Alpha patron Henry Baker’s place of work, the British Museum.

In the story, however, Baker says the Alpha is “near” the Museum, not directly outside it. And Watson gives us a clear route to the locality of the Alpha from Holmes’s Baker Street rooms: through the doctor’s quarter, down Wimpole and Harley Streets, onto Wigmore Street and from there down Oxford Street. Watson does not mention bearing onto Great Russell Street – we might assume because he and Holmes did not, but rather continued down onto New Oxford Street and turned right towads Holborn.

There’s broad agreement on the year in which The Blue Carbuncle was set, with both Brad Keefauver and Chris Miller agreeing on 1889. In this, these modern Sherlockians differ slightly from past master Baring-Gould, who placed the story in 1887. Key to our investigation, however, is that each of these dates falls after the 1886 completion of Vulliamy and Bazalgette’s Shaftesbury Avenue. Part of the point of this grand project had been to clear some of the St Giles slums, replacing them with a broad Parisian-style boulevard. In this, the architects were ultimately successful, and we are thus left with the suggestion of an eastern limitation for the area in which our down-at-heel public house might be found.

One of the best sources for discovering in this way who lived where in late Victorian London is Charles Booth’s poverty map of the city, completed in 1898-99. Alas, this is ten years following the events surrounding the theft of the blue carbuncle, but we might expect to see some vestigial traces of the income distribution patterns Holmes would have known. We know that, upon leaving the Alpha Inn, he and Watson proceeded across Holborn, onto Endell Street and thus towards the fowl stall at Covent Garden market. We can thus assume that the Alpha is not just west of Shaftesbury Avenue, but south of New Oxford Street and north of Holborn. Peeking at Booth’s map for this area reveals a square, bound on the west by what is now Earnshaw Street, which consists of the pink and purple hues designating the liminal middle classes of which Henry Baker was a part – and which might benefit from a goose club orchestrated by a kindly publican such as the Alpha’s Windigate.

This area of London now includes Bucknall Street and Dyott Street, both of which are unrecognisable from what looks to be their tight-packed Victorian forebears (Booth’s Arthur Street, meanwhile, appears to be no more). This is an area which until the slum clearance programme was home to an infamous rookery. But by the late nineteenth century it had become marginally more genteel, and Baker’s route home from the Alpha to the “the labyrinth of small streets which lie at the back of Tottenham Court Road” is both direct enough from the Museum to suggest a post-work drink requiring only a small diversion well worth the cosiness, and in addition is on Booth’s map lined with the same pink and purple squares denoting families for whom “shillings have not been so plentiful […] as they once were.” Bloomsbury is a rather grand drinking hole for a man such as Henry Baker; the border streets of St Giles hit the spot much better.

We have, perhaps, found the streets on which the Alpha was truly located. Fortunately for us, the London Post Office Directory of 1899 listed pubs for the benefit of the thirsty, and there is only one quite clearly within the remit we have set ourselves. Raise a glass, then, to Edward Woodley (and is Woodley not rather close to Watson’s Windigate?) and his Two Brewers public house. Gone perhaps – but, I think, not quite forgotten.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Have a very happy one.

Short Thoughts on Shorts

I’ve been writing a review of a collection of Larry Niven’s short stories, and analysing the way in which he puts them together has led me to reflect a little on what I look for in a short. The introduction to the collection, by Jerry Pournelle, claims that SF shorts are harder to write than any other, but I don’t think this is right. I think I’m closer to Richard Ford, who writes in an introduction of his own (to the Granta Book of the American Short Story):

I’ve always liked stories which make proportionately ample rather than slender use of language, feeling as I do that exposure to a writer’s special language is a rare and consoling pleasure. I think of stories as objects made of language, not just as reports on or illustrations of life, and within that definition, a writer’s decision to represent life ‘realistically’ is only one of a number of possibilities for the use of his or her words.

I like this very much, and think it somewhat short-circuits the often heard SFnal complaint that the standards of short story criticism are routinely weighted in favour of ‘mimetic’ writers. The idea that great short story writers should have their own ‘special’ language – Ford explicitly says that this excludes writing merely functional – which they use for whatever purpose to which it is best suited is a liberating one in many ways, and puts me in mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, whose Holmes stories are such pulp and yet are rescued by their particular prosody. The type of story you’re writing is not what makes it hard.

What all this means for my take on Larry Niven, you must, dear reader, continue to guess for now.

Sherlock: A Life

One of the most consistently pleasurable aspects of re-reading Sherlock Holmes stories is that, in each of them, there will be a surprise: that Persian slipper, or that sly reference to a forbidden adventure. To the reader who returns to him sparingly, Sherlock Holmes will always surprise, and the stories always give the illusion of layers beneath. Partly this is a result of the inconsistencies present in Conan Doyle’s routinely slapdash continuity, but in large part it is to do with his skill as a writer, rather than his deficiencies: the duo at the heart of his stories, and the world in which they live, is so deftly blocked in with such tiny details that one develops the sense of looking into hidden corners rather than skating over the penny dreadful surface.

For the dedicated Sherlockian, I’d imagine, the problem is quite different: endless repetition and analysis of the stories catalogues each and every one of their kinks and details, leaving only the inconsistences to puzzle over, to beg time and again a return to the canon in search of the thread that joins it all together. This seems to me a sadder kind of appreciation, but for many it is addictive – Sherlockians the world over derive deep pleasure from returning endlessly to stories which possess no master narrative, and yet which may yet yield to one.

One of the best things about Nick Rennison’s Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorised Biography is the manner in which it captures both these experiences. On the one hand, its central conceit  – that Holmes was a real man, and that a definitive biography of him is therefore possible – is pure Great Game, offering the Sherlockian pleasures of intellectual leaps and forced links. On the other, Rennison’s constant return to creases in the individual stories themselves, and his insistence on connecting them, scatter-gun, to genuine Victorian social and cultural history, reminded me most of re-reading, for instance, The Three Garridebs – and rediscovering the filigree or two which can give the part-time devotee such pleasure.

The chapter in which Rennison theorises that Holmes and Mycroft planned the death of Moriarty all along, or the several in which he chronicles Holmes’s movements during the Great Hiatus, draw on both the great sweep and the telling detail to piece together a bravura piece of factional. Though the reader wearies at times of Rennison straining credibility, or his tendency to over-do the urge to render Holmes friend and servant to every famous Victorian you’ve ever heard of (and many you haven’t), that is also part of the strange frisson of the book: from the off, it’s so clearly a jeu d’esprit, a bit of sly fun, that every plate Rennison sets spinning deserves a round of applause in and of itself, even if the sight of all of them whirling around together might make you sick.

“At the time of his death,” Rennison writes towards the end of his book, “Holmes was, paradoxically, both a forgotten man and one of the most famous people in the world.” This biography’s real purpose, of course, is to muddy the waters even further: to push deeper into myth the life of a detective who might never have lived – but about it is felt, as with Robin Hood, that he might have done. If Rennison doesn’t quite achieve Kate Summerscale’s feat in The Suspicions of Mister Whicher – of writing a book about a detective interesting to to an audience far wider than simply crime readers – he’s still fine company. As an example of abstruse reasoning from disparate and limited evidence, here is a biography of which Sherlock Holmes might have approved.

“I Go Where You Point Me”: ‘The Blind Banker’

Straight out of Paget.

One day when Dr. Somerton was down with a fever a little Andaman Islander was picked up by a convict-gang in the woods. He was sick to death, and had gone to a lonely place to die. I took him in hand, though he was as venomous as a young snake, and after a couple of months I got him all right and able to walk. He took a kind of fancy to me then, and would hardly go back to his woods, but was always hanging about my hut. I learned a little of his lingo from him, and this made him all the fonder of me.

[…] We earned a living at this time by my exhibiting poor Tonga at fairs and other such places as the black cannibal. He would eat raw meat and dance his war-dance: so we always had a hatful of pennies after a day’s work. [The Sign of Four, Chapter XII]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not averse to the casual Imperial racism of his time. Again and again, his stories featured natives or crudely drawn shadowy-yet-exotic parts foreign – of which Tonga, the dart-blowing ‘pygmy’ of The Sign of Four, is the most famously egregious example. Tonga is practically denied humanity, so savagely separate to the Victorian gentleman around him is he depicted as being. But Tonga isn’t the only one: in ‘The Three Gables‘, a “huge negro” with the improbable name of Steve Dixie barges into Holmes’s study in a flurry of malopropisms and comical misunderstandings; in ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge‘, a wife’s passionate, muderous nature is explained by her Brazilian heritage; ‘The Red Circle‘ assumes that all, or at the very least most, Italians are basically connected to the mafia.

That a 21st century writer should also resort to these sorts of ethnographic shorthand is troubling. True, the broad stereotypes of Conan Doyle are often extended to the English – who, where upper class, are all starched collars and upright dignity and, where working class, mangled vowels and questionable probity – and in part they are part of the fabric of the playful adventure story; but they are also relics of an earlier time, when, with half the globe red, other, more genuine, voices were rarely permitted. In ‘The Blind Banker’, the latest episode of the BBC’s new series, Sherlock, Steven Moffatt tries a little too hard to recreate the Victorian in the modern city.

His story starts – with echoes of ‘The Gloria Scott‘ – with an old university friend. It ends – recalling ‘The Veiled Lodger‘- with sinister circus performers. In between, there are all sorts of other references: the detailed knowledge, as with Henry Baker’s hat, of men’s accessories and their seasons; an enthusiasm for cryptography which matches that in ‘The Dancing Men‘; and a promising young police inspector for whose career Holmes has “high hopes” (for Dimmock read Hopkins). The affection for and knowledge of the original stories exhibited byMoffat cannot be questioned. In a curious way, this modern dress production has a Sherlock at its centre who is closer to Doyle’s than Rupert Everett’s more traditionally garbed Holmes in The Silk Stocking, also a BBC effort.

So it is that a story set in the modern milieu of London – all gherkins, grafitti and chow mein – nevertheless feels somehow as one with our inherited image of the great detective. Partly this is the wardrobe – Watson wears cardigans which serve the function of waistcoats, Holmes great winter coats and a scarf tied like a louche cravat – and partly it is the set dressing, which leaves 221B practically unchanged from the one inhabited by Jeremy Brett. But there is also the question of tone and topic, and here ‘The Blind Banker’ pays homage to the wrong parts of Doyle. It centres on, yep, an exotic crime syndicate; its members, yes, are the sort of racial types which might have troubled Allan Quatermain – stealthy assassins and ruthless, heavily accented, ‘generals’. It’s a nifty transposition, but unworthy of the hip, modern spin the series seeks to give the concept.

Elsewhere, there’s much to enjoy, although the dialogue is not as sharp as in the series opener. Cumberbatch and Freeman remain splendid in the main roles, and the central mystery is decidedly more difficult and engaging than in ‘Study in Pink’ (though that ain’t saying a lot). The action sequences aren’t bad, either. But the episode also feels not quite as tight as the premiere, and that silly Chinaman stuff undermines the whole edifice. (Oh, there’s an indeterminately ethnic swordsman at the start, too.) If Sherlock is to maintain its credibility as an anti-period piece, it needs to be more like ‘The Yellow Face‘, in which Conan Doyle showed compassion – rather than condescension – for the denizens of a multicultural England.

Arthur & George @ The Birmingham Rep

Arthur & George has now ended its run at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, so these remarks can’t act as a recommendation you see the play – although hopefully it will go elsewhere, because you really should. It is, of course, an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s superlative novel – perhaps his finest, and certainly his most humane – and David Edgar has done wonders transforming an inward-looking novel about identity into an engaging murder mystery about English society. The added emphasis the play puts on the questions surrounding the crimes at Great Wyrley provides it with a strong forward momentum, and an added focus on the accused – the eponymous George Edalji, the son of a Parsi vicar – provides a welcome balance to the novel’s defining portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle does remain, inevitably, the play’s central figure, however, and Adrian Lukis was superb in the role: domineering yet vulnerable, he had a child’s enthusiasm for cocking a snook to authority, but the newly moneyed’s fear of rejection and under-achievement. Chris Nayak as George suffered from a part defined primarily by awkwardness and a sort of strained dignity; the moments in which he is called upon to act the role of George’s prosecutor, however, reveal that the stilted element of his performance was part of the direction rather than a limitation of his art. Nevertheless, it’s a choice at odds with the play’s decision to round out George’s role. Since the play begins and ends with him, and is essentially a story about an Asian Briton finding his voice, it is a shame that Edgar so faithfully retains Barnes’s conceit of the strait-jacketed personality.

Nayak’s portrayal works in the context of the production, however, which is dynamic not just thanks to that rollicking crime narrative, but thanks to a revolving central portion of the stage which helps facilitate the many scene changes of the play. Arthur & George could have been a static affair, but in fact it includes shifts from drawing room to pub, hotel lobby to country field, which are wholly convincing and entertaining to boot. Not only that, but the manner in which Edgar’s canny script – in which scenes in disparate locations take place on stage simultaneously, and flashbacks exist concurrently with flashforwards – is presented on stage without confusion. The supporting cast were also uniformly excellent, and – crucially for any revival – this was not least in part because each character’s role is written with sensitivity and keen observation.

Thus matching its (admittedly less complete) treatment precisely for the different demands of the medium, Arthur & George is no retread of the novel – for instance, it changes the final scene of the book entirely, better to suit its own ends – and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was thoughtful, aware and deceptively complex entertainment. Very nicely done indeed.

A Reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.” [A Study in Scarlet]

Non-canon FTW!

I was the chief of the doubters when I first resolved to read all 56 of the Sherlock Holmes short stories in a year. The reason I managed it was simple: for all their faults, they hold up remarkably well, particularly for a reader with fond memories of them. There are several decidedly ropey installments, and a number of distinctly average ones, but as a corpus of literature the stories coalesce into something much greater than the sum of their parts. They have their own momentum and movement.

There are two famous lists of the best stories, one composed by Conan Doyle himself and another by the Baker Street Journal. My own top ten differs markedly from both of them, containing just two from the author’s favoured dozen, and sharing only half of the Irregulars’ picks. This is heartening stuff: if I can’t quite understand Sir Arthur’s love of The Speckled Band, or might raise an eyebrow at the Journal’s inclusion of The Six Napoleons, then we can at least agree that it must be a canon of rude health which can support such differing assessments of quality. My list, for the record, would be something like this (arranged in merely chronological order):

1. A Scandal In Bohemia [also ACD and BSJ]
2. The Boscombe Valley Mystery
3. The Blue Carbuncle [also BSJ]
4. The Beryl Coronet
5. Silver Blaze [also BSJ]
6. The Naval Treaty
7. The Dancing Men [also ACD and BSJ]
8. The Solitary Cyclist
9. The Bruce-Partington Plans [also BSJ]
10. The Problem of Thor Bridge

It’s true that 40% of the list is taken up by stories from the very first collection – and 60% of it is populated by adventures which took place prior to Holmes’s trip to the Reichenbach Falls – but it’s also satisfying that, quite unplanned, there is a story from each of the collections in that list. Conan Doyle may be right that The Devil’s Foot is better than The Solitary Cyclist on a formal level; The Musgrave Ritual may well be in its own ways a more solid entry than The Naval Treaty. I compile this list merely from a recollection of past enjoyment – it’s open to revision.

Enjoyment is my prevailing memory of the whole endeavour, actually – even whilst reading a Mazarin Stone or an Engineer’s Thumb. To wit, I’m loath to say goodbye to Holmes this year. Expect more – ho ho – irregular posts, but posts all the same, on other matters Sherlockian: Basil Rathbone movies, non-canon novels, and maybe even the four longer stories Conan Doyle himself published. Watch this space…