Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sherlock: The Great Game

Due to cable issues, I missed the second episode. Ironically, exactly why I lamented it being on PBS and not BBC America as with the latter I could at least watch it at a later date on the On Demand channel. No such luck with PBS, miss it and you're up the creek without a paddle.

The third episode concerns Mycroft's efforts to enlist Holmes and Watson in a case concerning the strange death of a government official and theft of government plans while a mad bomber straps bombs to innocent individuals and challenges Holmes to solve a variety of puzzles under different time limits (the accidental death of a swimmer years ago when Sherlock was a boy that he always suspected was murder, the apparent death and disappearance of a husband, the "accidental" death by tetanus infection of a television celebrity, and the death of a museum security guard). By the end, the identity of the bomber stands revealed as Moriarty and it ends on a cliffhanger.

With this episode, we get a major departure from the canon. There are several references to various Holmes stories, but it takes the characters and the show forward and let them develop a life of their own. "The Great Game" is a smart modern day thriller with powerful compelling characters inspired by Doyle's writing without being slavish to them. The story starts off referencing "A Scandal in Bohemia" which was the third story of Sherlock Holmes and thus the most likely subject for re-imaginings. However, it moves quickly from there to reference the stories "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans", "The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips",  and the stand-off between the Great Detective and his arch-foe on the precipice of assured mutual destruction before a body of water is clearly from "The Final Problem". There's more humor at the expense of modern day sensibilities regarding Holmes' asexuality and the close friendship between two men and the two leads excel at capturing the essence of the characters yet presenting them as if new: a weary and worldly Watson who struggles with holding on to his optimism and humanity, especially in light of the other, Holmes never before depicted as being so truly cold and analytical and sociopathic yet somehow still passionate about his chosen profession in the service of others even though he cannot really relate to them. Watson's own humanity helps humanize Holmes.

I especially enjoyed the inclusion of a hulking hitman named Golem due to his size and strength and killing by strangling with his bare hands. He comes across as a gothic or pulpish throwback and the hunting him among the homeless beneath the streets briefly reflects a dark and shadowy world reminiscent of early German films along the likes of "Nosferatu" and "The Vampyre". Given the hitman's name, the association is more than likely intentional. Seemingly a minor and throwaway villain, he's exactly the type of minor character that is instantly larger than his small part and worthy of a fuller story built around him. Much as the legend and importance of Moriarty himself has become.

This third episode marks the end of the season, remarkably short even for one accustomed to the shorter English television seasons. I first became aware of this phenomenon watching "As Time Goes By" on PBS, and over time the characters aged rather dramatically due to two seasons being about the equal of one over here (and then the last several seasons skipped years).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sherlock in the 21st Century

It's been slow going with the second novel "The Sign of the Four". With the exception of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" I enjoy the short stories better. Part of that is that at this point Doyle is still growing as a writer and figuring these characters out. Which also makes the novel slow going as I also stop to take notes of first appearances of certain common Holmesian tropes. Lastly, my copies of the Holmes books are collected editions, so they don't make as easy portability as various paperbacks.

However, PBS just recently aired Sherlock, a new BBC series based on the character. Only this time the characters and stories are transcribed to modern day. It's an interesting and intriguing idea. Like many, I tend to think of Holmes as being thoroughly Victorian. And, thanks to all of the movies and shows, Holmes and Watson are generally at best middle-aged if not approaching old age. Yet, Holmes and company didn't start out that way, neither old nor artifacts of an older, simpler time. By doing Holmes and Watson in modern day and relatively young men, it allows a generation to actually see Holmes more in the manner of his original readers and author did, a genius and proponent of modernity. This is not the first time this has been done. The old Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce movies portrayed the character as being current though the England depicted seemed to contain elements of both the 19th and 20th centuries, giving them a certain limbo feel to the time period.

The series has another advantage, the writer is Steven Moffat, writer of many episodes of the recent Dr. Who series, writer and producer of the wonderful Jekyll and the creator and writer of the hilarious series Coupling. He knows his way around telling a story, creating compelling characters and witty dialogue.

Sherlock Holmes comes across as a young man of dangerous intelligence coupled with disassociation or empathy with his fellow man. His temptation at the end to actually take the pill, just to see if he had figured things out correctly is played completely convincingly. By that point of the show, one is never sure where his ego and his desire to know will take him. Also amusing was the playing up of the character's asexuality and the sometimes confusion that leads to modern readers over the relationship between him and Doctor Watson. Although my favorite bit is Holmes with the young woman that allows him access to fresh cadavers for experiments. I couldn't decide if he was oblivious to her attentions or just playing with her mind.

Watson himself is updated, a soldier and doctor, he operates in both arenas here.While the story is not narrated by him nor strictly from his point of view, in many ways he is the view point character. His introduction to Holmes and the world he operates in is ours. However, more is made of Watson than narrator. As mentioned, his dual background and conflicted nature as a healer and taker of life is a big part of his characterization. Worked into it is the nature of his wound and its location. Just as in the first novel, he is invalided home and he walks with a limp through the use of a cane. However, according to his psychoanalyst and Holmes, this limp is psychosomatic, thought to be due to post-traumatic stress. When he's later "cured" of his limp, shown to truly be in his head Holmes asks about the wound, if he really was shot. Watson replies that he was shot, only it was in the shoulder. Plus, it turns out that Watson's problem is not living with the horrors of the war but being attracted to the excitement, and adrenalin from the danger and the guilt of that. It's a nice turn, adding depth to his character and strengthening the bond between him and erratic and eccentric Holmes. The two fulfill a need in each other.

The first episode is titled "A Study in Pink", clearly a nodding reference to the first Holmes story. It covers much of the same ground, updating it to modern times. Naturally, the whole Mormon and revenge angle is gone. The mode of murder is the same, the victim chooses between two identical pills, one of which is poison and one not, but instead of being an element of divine retribution, it's the game of a sick mind. The bit about Holmes giving a complete rundown on Watson's "brother" based on his cell-phone is almost verbatim of a bit with a gold pocket watch in the second novel "The Sign of the Four" when Watson tries to put him to the test). The only thing, wish they hadn't played the Moriarty nor Mycroft cards so soon though though it was a neat twist and play on preconceptions. One of the things about the novels is the surprise when they finally do show up, the idea that as smart and strange Holmes is, his brother is even more so (done to a hilarious degree in the tv show Monk, but the idea that Monk has a brother who is every bit as smart but even more of an anti-social recluse is an obvious allusion to Sherlock and Mycroft).

There are interesting little turns, playing on expectations. Holmes using nicotine patches instead of a pipe to help solve problems, I couldn't decide if it was funny or an annoying concession to these political correct days. Being the type of animal Holmes is, it's hard to see him as someone that would really care about the increasingly unpopular societal views on smoking if it helped him think. After all, he used drugs. But somehow, nowadays it's more acceptable to be a closet drug user than a tobacco smoker. Even the tv show House has the Holmes inspired character addicted to painkillers and a bit ruthless about the lengths he'll go to keep on his drugs, but he doesn't smoke. Mycroft in turn is played by a tall thin man and there's even a reference to him losing some weight where in the books, Mycroft's chief physical characteristic is his obesity.

Despite the liberties taken, the show manages to be more faithful than the Robert Downey Jr. film (which is an enjoyable movie if you can manage to ignore who the character is supposed to be) and make the show work as a modern crime drama and Holmes and Watson as fresh yet recognizable characters. Makes me yearn to see what they will do with Irene Adler. Hopefully, other than one or two of his more famous cases, the show will venture into all new stories and mysteries, just pulling bits and pieces of scenes and inspiration from various stories like the excellent Murder Rooms show did.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Study In Scarlet

Trying to read "A Study In Scarlet" cold, without any sort of preconceived notion of who Sherlock Holmes is and his place in literary history is difficult. He has impacted our popular subconscious, one of the most popular and enduring fictional characters of all time.

Yet, that is what I set out to do. I couldn't erase from my memory the accumulated baggage and legends, but I could try to see it with fresh eyes, to see what does show up and what does not. Plus, it has been years since I read the original tale, much of it long forgotten.

What might first strike an uninitiated reader is the relative youth of the characters. After all, almost all portrayals of Holmes and Watson have been by men in their middle ages, and in Watson's case, often quite a bit past it. However, this story is set around 1880-81 judging by some references and we have a specific year of 1878 as when Watson finished medical school and went to the battlefields of Afghanistan as a doctor. After he is invalidated out and is back in London, he is introduced to Holmes through Stamford, a man that served as an assistant or "dresser" back in his medical school days. Stamford is apparently still a student and Holmes is portrayed as being some kind of student, taking all manner of courses though for what trade is a mystery to all. Logically, this would place Watson as being a few years older than both Stamford and Holmes but all under thirty. After Holmes & Watson move into their digs at 221-B Baker Street there is no more mention of Holmes attending University or making use of their laboratories for his experiments.

In this early story, Watson is portrayed as being somewhat sickly, recovering from his experiences in Afghanistan and specifically, the bullet wound in his left shoulder.

Holmes is described as being hawk-nosed, tall and thin (making him seem even taller). His knowledge is both singular and widely encompassing as his studies are exclusive to his chosen profession. Holmes is a study in contradictions. While he knows a lot concerning poisons, history, anatomy, paper types, ashes, chemistry, etc, his knowledge of current literature, politics and astronomy are all but completely lacking as put forth in this first novel. He already shows his vanity and flair for theatrics while coolly dismissing the amazement of others at what is almost second nature to him in way of observations. He both desires recognition and acclaim for his prowess but does not personally want to call attention to himself. In this he is like all of us, desiring most of all that others will recognize the greatness in us on their own. One can practically see him growing frustrated daily by Watson's clumsy attempts at trying to figure him out until Holmes finally comes clean as to what his profession really is, what he's capable of.

It should also be noted that until this adventure, Holmes is more of an armchair detective. The cases come to him and he gives advice on their resolution. He's not really a private detective. He means what he says when he calls his profession is that of a "consulting detective". Also, present in this book but not often touched upon is Holmes uses precedence in solving crimes. He relies on his knowledge of past crimes in order to solve current ones, that almost anything a criminal thinks he has come up with, someone else has done it first. So clues to a current crime can be solved by looking at past ones. There is an irony in this that will be born out in the future, as most of his laments are how unimaginative criminals are, that there is nothing new under the sun. However, here he delights in how his knowledge of the past helps him in the present.

Other notable inclusions are
-the Baker Street Irregulars: though not called this by name in the first story, Holmes fondness and use of the street urchins figure heavily in the resolution of the story. After establishing that Holmes has a squad of them, Doyle has Holmes chastising them for showing up en masse and that from then on, to send only Wiggins up.
-Inspector Lestrade: Described as rat faced and beady eyed, the Inspector that is the most familiar to readers and fans of Holmes in other media is there from the start.
-Inspector Gregson: Tall and flaxen haired, Gregson will appear in several stories. He and Lestrade are described as being ambitious and bitter rivals and the best of the lot of the official police.
-The magnifying glass. One of the objects most identified with Holmes to the point of becoming an essential item of any parody of the character, Holmes does make use of it in this first story.
-The violin. Another object closely associated with Holmes. Holmes is portrayed as being able to play extremely well and able to play popular and classical pieces, though he often plays no notable tune as if he uses playing the violin for meditating and organizing his thoughts. Through the violin, Holmes shows a marked interest and appreciation for music, one of his few interests that otherwise have no bearing on his chosen profession.
-Here Holmes casually dismisses those that came before him, specifically Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin and Gaboriau's Lecoq.

Most notable missing references are:
-Mrs. Hudson: at least by name. There is mention of a landlady but she's not named. Likewise there's a mention of both "a servant" and "the maid" so there's at least two servants also in the house.
-drug use: this is interesting in that there are a couple of references to Holmes' moods and even Watson being at first concerned that drugs were involved but which he subsequently is able to rule out.

Also, of minor interest is Holmes making reference to the old "heads I win, tails you lose" game. A phrase that apparently goes further back than I would have thought and imparting a bit of humor into the story.

Modern sensibilities also stand a good chance at being offended when in order to prove a pill is poison, Holmes and Watson try it out on an old and ailing dog that just happens to be hanging around the flat. I'm not sure which is more shocking, that Watson hadn't come up with a kind way to put the dog out of its misery earlier or the rather casual off-hand acceptance of using it as an experiment to prove a lethal and potentially very painful poison. Dramatic, yes. But, surely there were better ways to get a chemical analysis.

Doyle has a lot of ground to cover in this story. He has to introduce his narrator, have him meet the hero, set up the hero's abilities and reason for getting involved in the plot and then tell the story. A Study in Scarlet is not really much of a mystery as it is a crime story to showcase Holmes' particular talents and peculiarities. The mystery is pretty much given away that right before Holmes reveals the who and why behind the murders and the how of his solving the case that the story stops for an extensive flashback.

This comes quite a bit out of left field, especially for those not well versed in such story stylings. Nowadays, it would be nigh a high crime to start a story with a first person narrator, to hold it through almost the whole story only to have a large section, almost as large as the rest of the story be a third person narrative flashback. Doyle (and most mystery writers) make extensive use of flashbacks as the detective or villain narrates the story behind the crime to the readers. However, there is no pretense at that here. It is of an omniscient third person telling until the end of the chapter. At the end of this chapter, the last sentence has Doyle himself interjecting into the narrative with "As to what occurred there, we cannot do better than quote the old hunter's own account, as duly recorded in Dr. Watson's Journal, to which we are already under such obligations." With which, the story transitions back to Watson's 1st person account.

However, reading older fiction, especially of this era and earlier, such transitions are not unusual. Moby Dick for example has several different narrative styles, including something more akin to a play than a novel. The gothic horror novel The Monk has a longish section in the middle as a previously minor character tells a complex and involved story of the "Bleeding Nun" and involving the Wandering Jew.

This section also serves as an odd turn in that until then, the mystery is rather prosaic and routine other than involving murder. The scene shifts from the streets of London to several decades earlier in the desert of America and involving the Mormons relocating to Utah and the very historical and real figure of Brigham Young! What started as an ordinary story has become something with more complex and exotic underpinnings. It is not hard to imagine that this fanciful and more lurid turn may have factored into why Doyle having trouble finding a publisher for the story at the time. There is something almost cheap and "penny dreadful" with this section, the Mormons starting off seemingly benign but becoming more and more sinister as it progresses, with their own secret police (compared to the Inquisition among others) that root out troublemakers and those that don't follow their practices, especially of polygamy.

Again, this is not really out of place concerning the time. In addition to The Monk, there was a subset of fantastical gothic stories concerning Catholicism and the un-natural aspects of the lifestyle of monasteries, monks and nuns, imparting all sorts of hidden rituals, deviances, and secret societies. So, it should come as no surprise that an English protestant might take the same point of view of the Mormons and their polygamy, especially based on published writings at that time even from one of Brigham Young's many wives decrying the practice.

What really leaves a bad taste in the mouth is the double standard and holier than thou attitude of the Victorian outlook towards women that this implies contained in the very same novel. Much of this section deals with a girl named Lucy. Originally, she and her adoptive father are rescued from certain death in the desert by the Mormons as long as they adopt their beliefs. Years later when it's time for her to marry a Mormon, to become one of their members' harems, she and her father flee, helped by an outsider she has fallen in love with. The preordained end has her taken back to the settlement and her boyfriend who has risked all to try to kidnap her when she was single (and presumably virginal), risks more in heading back only to give the whole thing up when he finds she has already been married off just the previous day. Instead of trying to rescue her again from a loveless marriage, he just goes to the mountains to live while swearing eventual revenge. No rationale is given for this. He does not act until after Lucy dies just a month later, having lost the will to live in this godless arrangement. So much is built around how capable and unswervingly single-minded the guy is, that to modern sensibilities it is shocking just how quickly he gives up on Lucy. The fact is that in this time period, she'd be a marked and fallen woman, no longer a virgin, she is immediately lost to him. Yet, he is willing to spend decades, wreck his health and cross the ocean to kill those who stole her from him. It's no longer really about her but what they did to him.

On the whole, an interesting read. A lot of the elements associated with Holmes are present in this first story. However, it's also quite a bit different from what one would expect as a standard Holmes mystery and is very much a story of its time.