Sherlock Review: The Six Thatchers

This review was originally written for the Baker Street Babes, and I’m sharing it here. It can also be found here on the BSB website.

tst_1

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR “THE SIX THATCHERS.”

One year from “The Abominable Bride.” Nearly three from the last regular-season-order episode “His Last Vow.” The combination of seemingly-interminable hiatus, international build, and a fandom given to painstaking analysis means that “The Six Thatchers” came onto screens less like a single episode of a mystery series and more like the receptacle of the collective weight of metric tons of expectations.

The question is: Did it deliver?

The answer is a complicated yes and no and maybe. I’ll delve into all three, in an effort to make a complicated episode (and the complicated opinions of members of our podcast) into something coherent.

First of all, what delivered? Without a doubt, the core cast of Sherlock is one of the finest in the business and perhaps one of the best ensembles that has ever graced television screens. With his usual sharp precision, Benedict Cumberbatch settled into the role of a Sherlock Holmes who is on edge but still completely recognizable as the established character. His rapid-fire deductions during the case montage were as entertaining as ever, and his smugness when he tracked Mary’s location and confronted her was a wonderful cheeky moment. Even more enthralling, in my opinion, were his razor-edge interactions with Mark Gatiss’s phenomenal interpretation of Mycroft, one of the only characters who is consistently able to unsettle our hero and bring his vulnerable side forward. Rupert Graves’s Lestrade, Louise Brealey’s Molly, and Una Stubbs’s Mrs. Hudson were all on point, though not extremely prominent in this episode. (We hope for more of them in the coming weeks.)

When all is said and done, though, the acting plaudits for this episode belong most of all to Amanda Abbington and Martin Freeman. Freeman’s Watson is, as always, a multi-layered man with a seemingly-simple facade that overlays a world of emotion and passion. The final scenes, of course, have pulled a great deal of focus from the rest of the episode, but Freeman plays the earlier scenes of the quiet desperation of a new father losing touch with his wife and experiencing the temptation of another woman with piercing vulnerability. He’s an actor who never settles for the comfortable version, and he forcibly compels the audience to feel his internal conflicts. Abbington, in her swan song on the show, plays a Mary whose past has finally caught up with her. We watch her, like a hunted animal, run from the inescapable, and she’s mesmerizing on screen. Even in scenes that, as plot points, I didn’t care for, I found her screen presence enthralling. Her Mary is by turns brittle, sweet, funny, and finally desperate. In the end, she made me care. As Babe Ashley Polasek says in our reaction episode, even though she didn’t particularly enjoy how the episode arrived at it, Mary’s death made her cry. It was just that well-played. The chemistry between Freeman and Abbington as John and Mary wasn’t so much tender as brutal, and when they finally said goodbye, their pain mingled into something almost unbearable to watch in its intensity.

I’d also be remiss in not mentioning the wonderful direction of Rachel Talalay, new to Sherlock, but veteran of hits like Doctor Who and The Flash. Her deft hand brought atmosphere, style, and beauty to the episode and made some very complicated sequences work and retain visual coherence. “The Six Thatchers” has a gorgeously operatic quality, and the bold images of the aquarium, the stark simplicity of Mycroft’s office, and the richness of the foreign settings created a feast for the eyes.

Finally, the episode had many brilliant references to the Doyle Canon and the world of pastiche. Most prominently, the overarching plot was a very high concept take on The Sign of Four, in which the Agra treasure that should belong to Mary Morstan is lost at sea. As a part of AGRA herself, Sherlock‘s Mary meets her demise under water (in the London aquarium). Seen as a unit, “His Last Vow” and “The Six Thatchers” play out the story arc of the novel. Additionally, the concept of six busts of a historical figure being destroyed is a reference to “The Six Napoleons,” one of Doyle’s stories, which has the solution that Sherlock expects in the episode–the missing Black Pearl of the Borgias. When Mary takes her around-the-world jaunt, each disguise is a reference to a Canon case or disguise Holmes used. A more emotional reference is the use of “Norbury,” a name in the episode, but a place in Doyle’s story “The Yellow Face.” In both cases, Holmes makes an error in judgment, and the word “Norbury” comes to symbolize his own awareness of his tendency toward hubris. Of course, Mary’s death is Canonical as well; after the Great Hiatus, Watson mentions that he’s lost her, but he doesn’t specify how. Acclaimed pastiche author Nicholas Meyer also received a direct shout-out in the episode, through the title “The Canary Trainer,” one of his books. (The showrunners enjoy referencing Meyer; they referred to his most famous Sherlockian work, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in “The Abominable Bride.”)

tst_3

Unfortunately, alongside these brilliant elements, other aspects of the episode didn’t quite work as I’d hoped. I could come at this from several angles, but since this review is already getting long, I’ll try to keep it concise. If you listen to our upcoming reaction podcast, you’ll hear that we had strong criticism of the plot of “The Six Thatchers” and of the implications of what it means for the future of the series.

First, taking the plot alone. It was meta. (I’m not even sure meta is a strong enough word for how self-referential it was). We in the Babes enjoy a bit of meta, and for the most part, we were big fans of “The Abominable Bride,” which was about as meta as you can get–or so we thought. The problem is, at least partially, a context issue. A one-off Christmas episode can take a mind-palace trip that shows us Victorian versions of our beloved characters and dissects their psychology. By placing them back in their original contexts it bought the collateral necessary to get away with it. That is most definitely not the context we find ourselves in with “The Six Thatchers.” We’re back in the “real world” with our modern heroes and their daily jobs and problems. But apart from very brief deductive montages, we didn’t have an episode of Sherlock Holmes being Sherlock Holmes, solving cases, being a detective. We were almost entirely in navel-gazing territory, where the characters’ problems were almost entirely created by themselves. At some point, if Holmes spends most of his time solving problems created by or primarily involving him (the ending of the ep) and his friends (most of the rest of it), there’s a curiously claustrophobic and inward feeling to the action. Even as it goes global, it feels small, smaller than it should.

This episode also asked viewers to accept the idea that John Watson, a character whose loyalty to his friends and loved ones has been his primary trait in the series thus far, is carrying on a late-night extramarital flirtation while his new baby cries in the next room. Three-Continents Watson might be flattered by a woman’s attention on a train; the man we know and love, however, would not let it go beyond that. He’s not perfect, but nothing in the series or the source material paints him as anything other than a faithful partner. I understand the plot’s reason for this–the fact that Watson’s anger at Holmes after Mary’s death is projected anger at himself. That’s possibly the biggest problem. It feels like John’s actions served the plot, rather than the other way around.

Finally, as enjoyable as it was to watch Mary traveling the world as different characters (and it was great fun), it was all a bit much. Sherlock has always had a heightened quality, but it’s anchored in reality. The international espionage elements of “The Six Thatchers” didn’t feel in any sense anchored in reality, and the previous episode it called to mind, in our opinion, was “The Blind Banker,” which also struggled with feeling a bit ridiculous for similar reasons. (Don’t get me wrong; as with this episode, there are aspects of “The Blind Banker” we greatly enjoy, but along with many fans, we consider it one of the weakest of the series.) This criticism has nothing to do with the stellar performances. In fact, if this is Amanda’s James Bond audition, we heartily support her being cast as the first International Woman of Mystery.

In a more general sense, we’re concerned about what this episode says about this show’s trajectory. Sherlock has always been a show about a detective, rather than a detective show; that’s a given. One of the main things that drew us in at the beginning was the side-by-side interplay of what we learn about the man through the mysteries he solves. Memorable moments like Watson yelling about Holmes’s lack of care, Holmes asking whether something is “not good,” and the heart-shattering moment of the Reichenbach Fall were all wonderfully poignant character moments, but those moments were earned by being integral parts of the mysteries the episodes and seasons presented. Once those mysteries fall away, the series becomes nothing but a very heightened show about the relationships between an extremely small group of people. “The Six Thatchers” was phenomenally acted, but in the end, the primary story wasn’t much of a mystery at all.

If we take Sherlock Holmes out of his time, that’s fine. If, as in TAB, we put him back in his time and change up the focus of his story, also fine. What concerns us most is this episode seemingly trying to do both–giving us the modern Holmes of most of Sherlock (obviously), but failing to give him back his primary function as a solver of mysteries. Additionally, by placing such a huge rift between Holmes and Watson, while taking Watson somewhat out of character, the show has also endangered the primary relationship of the source material, the core friendship between the detective and his doctor. Holmes alone is not the Holmes we know and love; he’s diminished. To be fully realized as a character, he needs his Boswell (or blogger).

TST_2.jpg

Let’s finish up on the maybe question. We don’t know what’s coming in the rest of this series of Sherlock beyond general information, and it’s possible we may end up with a different view of “The Six Thatchers” by the end. The Moriarty question still looms over the show, and one of our criticisms in this episode was that it didn’t link Sherlock’s ongoing obsession with any tangible clues. We may find later, however, that it dropped clues we didn’t grasp. Also, if the resolution of the Holmes-Watson rift is strong enough, we may look back and find that the conflict was worth it, or at least less troubling. More than anything, if the next episodes return to tightly-plotted mystery with clues and deduction, we’ll be very grateful, because while we love the characters of Sherlock dearly, what we love most is learning about them while they do the work of solving mysteries in the world around them.

I’ve now seen “The Six Thatchers” three times, and I thoroughly enjoyed each viewing. Even when, in our opinion, Sherlock isn’t quite firing on all cylinders, it’s still very good television with excellent production values. Though not our favorite in terms of story, this season opener will live on in our minds for its beautiful visuals and stunning performances, and we will miss Amanda Abbington’s presence. Criticism aside, she made Mary vibrant and alive and wonderful, and we won’t forget her or what she added to the world of the show.


How to purchase my Sherlock Holmes novels:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

Review: The Abominable Bride

Warning: Spoilers ahead

  

England is England yet, for all our fears–

Only those things the heart believes are true.

Vincent Starrett, 221B

The poem 221B by Vincent Starrett is treasured among Sherlockians for its final line, which reminds young and old that “it is always 1895,” but Sherlock’s first holiday special turns my mind to the lines above even more. The Abominable Bride is not really an episode about plot, though it has a good one, and it’s not about advancing the overall arc of the series very much. Instead, it’s about the things the heart believes are true, specifically the heart of Sherlock Holmes. Mycroft Holmes once asked, long ago, in A Scandal in Belgravia, “What might we deduce about his heart?” This episode answers that question.

In the early days of publicity, we were told that the story would be a complete one-off, fully Victorian and unrelated to the series arc as a whole. In recent days, a low-key change occurred, in which cast and showrunners began teasing a series connection after all. The episode began with a confirmation of this in the form of a montage showing the viewer a quick timeline of everything that has happened in the series so far, surely a strange choice if the episode wasn’t going to connect to it. Immediately after, however, we were thrown into an immersive Victorian world, complete with a Doyle-heavy origin story and new-old versions of our favorite characters (with the exception of Vinette Robinson’s Sally, whom I was sad to miss).

The case is brought by a mutton-chop-sporting Lestrade, who introduces Holmes and Watson to the Abominable Bride herself (played by the phenomenal Natasha O’Keeffe), a wedding anniversary murderess-suicide who somehow appears to have risen from the dead to kill her husband—and happens to have killed herself in the exact same way we saw Moriarty kill himself earlier in the series.

What follows is a fairly straightforward investigation that echoes both the style the BBC Series has established and Doylean canon tropes. Two reveals were particularly enjoyable—Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft, bearing the girth and sloth of Doyle’s version, and morgue director Molly in male disguise. At the same time as the case progresses, however, there’s an intrusive subplot that keeps weaving its way through—the female voice in the Victorian Era, with a frustrated Mrs. Hudson going on a silence strike, an angry Mary Watson taking employment without her husband’s knowledge, and a particularly outspoken maid. Hovering above all this is a cryptic tease by Mycroft about an unseen army that needs to win.

It all seems pretty straightforward until it doesn’t. Suddenly, the modern photo of Irene Adler surfaces, and characters begin speaking in increasingly anachronistic terms. The action sequence with the Bride seems like it should be climactic, but it really isn’t, and it’s not meant to be. A Victorian Mind Palace sequence culminates in a visit from Andrew Scott’s Moriarty at his creepy best, and the truth starts to emerge: The case isn’t about the case at all, and furthermore, it’s not even real—the whole thing is a drug-induced delve into Sherlock’s Mind Palace, an attempt to use an unsolved mystery to solve an all-too-modern one.

Knowing this Shyamalan-level twist changes the entire framing of the episode as a whole. No longer are we seeing a surprisingly clever Victorian John; we’re seeing the idea of Watson who lives in Sherlock’s brain. The same is true for each character, and, in turn, they reveal different aspects of Sherlock’s psychology.

The episode’s pre-climax takes place when Holmes unveils the Victorian feminist society that produced the Bride. I’ve seen various confusion and criticism about this, but it’s not a real thing, and it’s not meant to be seen that way. Again, it’s a part of Sherlock’s mind, the working-out of guilt over the women he’s wronged, a gallery led by Molly and including Janine, with whom he engaged in a fake romance. The scene has strong similarities to Sherlock’s courtroom Mind Palace from earlier in the series.

The true climax occurs when the Bride unveils herself and turns out to be Moriarty. As a modern-time, but still dreaming, Sherlock frantically digs up the real-life Bride’s grave to find two corpses (a reference to Lady Frances Carfax), he’s plunged into the canonical version of Reichenbach, a showdown with Moriarty on the edge of the falls.

Except, this time, it doesn’t end the same way. In an echo of long-ago episode A Study in Pink, Watson appears at exactly the right moment and kills Moriarty himself. This is entirely symbolic, Sherlock’s mind finally exorcising the ever-present Moriarty, who has come to represent his weaknesses, by realizing that he will never have to confront his failings alone because he has John by his side.

The end of the episode doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that Holmes understands the next phase in the (truly dead) Moriarty’s plan and that he’s still using a drugs on occasion, a fact that deeply concerns his brother Mycroft, whose combination of care and anger throughout the episode was played beautifully by Mark Gatiss. We’re left on a cliffhanger, not in a very different place from where we began, but also worlds away from where we began.

Much as The Sign of Three explored the relationship between Holmes and Watson, The Abominable Bride explores Sherlock’s relationship to himself—his fear that he’s far less clever than he’d like to be, his ambivalence about his lack of conformity, and his deep-seated terror of weakness. Ultimately, the series stays absolutely faithful to its own heartbeat, allowing its protagonist to finally, and fully, realize that his hope lies in human connection and in the friendship of his Boswell. The Abominable Bride is the fulfillment of The Reichenbach Fall. The man who fell alone can now fly because he’s not alone any more.

Here dwell together still two men of note 

Who never lived and so can never die

In the context of the series, the Victorian Holmes and Watson of The Abominable Bride never lived, but Starrett said it best: They still dwell together, seated by their Baker Street fire, where Sherlock’s heart, and mine, believe they will live forever.

_____________________________________________________

How to purchase my Sherlock Holmes novels:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

Post-Post-Modern Holmes

Sherlock New Pic

This past weekend brought a strange and wonderful gift to fans of Sherlock Holmes, the first clip of Sherlock’s Christmas Special, an episode set entirely in the Victorian period.

Click here to see it.

Most reactions to the footage that I’ve encountered have been positive, including my own. There’s something charming about seeing the versions of Holmes, Watson, and Mrs. Hudson that we’ve come to love in the modern era suddenly swanning about in Victorian London.

But there’s something weird about it, too. Suddenly, it’s not 2015 Sherlock Holmes who feels like the AU of a Victorian original; it’s Victorian Holmes who feels like a period AU of a modern character. I realize I’m getting very meta here, but I’m trying to describe the slightly strange feeling I had when the clip came out. For once, I think, I had the experience of fans who met Holmes first in the BBC version (or Elementary) and then went back and met the original.

I’d like to say I gleaned a whole bunch of Sherlockian wisdom from this, but I really didn’t. What sticks out to me is the overarching truth that Holmes is a character universal in time and place. It really doesn’t matter where you put him; he’s still Holmes. I sometimes wonder exactly where we might be headed with him, now that the “Holmes renaissance” is giving way to something else–an era where Holmes mania is less of a fad but more of a cultural staple. I’m not very worried, though. What Benedict Cumberbatch in a deerstalker reminded me of this weekend is the fact that Holmes isn’t going anywhere, and he’s not changing into a different person. As he once said about his friend John Watson, he’s a fixed point, no matter how much the age around him changes.

Oh, and I can’t wait for Christmas.

How to purchase my Sherlock Holmes novels:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

Canon Thursday: The Klinger Decision, Myths, and Comic Books

CushingHolmes

Several months ago, the much-publicized case of Les Klinger versus the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate finally went before a lower court judge. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Estate had, for years, been extorting and attempting to extort money from authors and other producers of Sherlockian media, based on a totally fictitious idea that Holmes was still in copyright, even though many of the stories were already firmly in the public domain and free for use.

(Lest this seem like a small problem, I have personal friends and acquaintances who were harassed, either personally or through their publishers, and there are myriads more, many of whom paid up just to avoid a legal fight.)

The Estate lost in court, but, as usual, did not know when to say uncle and appealed, all the way up to the US Supreme Court, who didn’t even deign to give a reason for refusing to hear such a ridiculous case that had already been firmly decided according to the rule of law. This past week, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals put the icing on the cake by ordering the Estate to pay a large chunk of Klinger’s legal fees, while calling Klinger a public servant and the Estate frivolous.

What I want to discuss is the philosophical component of the Doyle Estate’s argument, the idea that all the stories should stay under copyright because Sherlock Holmes, as a character, is incomplete without every single one of them. Now, this argument predictably didn’t hold up in a court of law, and I suspect the Estate’s legal team didn’t think it would. I sense major straw-grasping when the house of cards started tumbling down. Everything worked fine when they were scaring people into paying money they didn’t owe. When Klinger, who knew the law well enough to know he could fight, stood up and challenged them, they were like a schoolyard bully left without his mojo.

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let’s evaluate the actual defense as if there’s someone, somewhere, who truly believes in it, the idea that Sherlock Holmes is somehow incomplete as a character without every last story Doyle wrote about him. (Even if this were true, it’s hardly a copyright argument, since copyright law is not based on character completeness, but bear with me.)

I have a somewhat unusual origin story when it comes to my affinity for Sherlock Holmes. I read the stories as a child and enjoyed them, but it was the pastiches of Laurie R. King that really hooked me. She was the signpost that pointed me back to the originals, but what truly intrigued me was the idea that there could always be more. Holmes’s world, I learned, would never be static is long as lovers of the character chose to write about him in new and interesting ways. It was that huge, expansive world that drew me in.

Since the beginning of the current Sherlockian wave, my story has become less and less unusual. Lots of fans, these days, are coming at Holmes through doorways marked “Sherlock” or “Elementary” or “Watson & Holmes,” a racebent comic that puts the characters in an urban American setting. Some are even coming through a door marked “fanfiction,” their literal first experience being one gifted to them by another enthusiast choosing to share their passion with the world.

This week, after seeing the film Guardians of the Galaxy, I did a little bit of research on protagonist Peter Quill. What I discovered is that, like most comic book heroes, Quill has more than one origin story, and the filmmakers picked the one they liked best. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the main X-Men characters–they’re all this way. At different times and places and cultural moments, a writer chooses to reinvent them in a way that he or she feels is relevant.

The thing is, Peter Quill wasn’t any less complete as a character when his stepfather tried to kill him (original story), and he’s no more of a character now that he was raised by a single mother (current story). Loki is no less Loki when he’s a woman, a kid, or the iteration we now know from the Avengers films.

The point is, modern heroes are our own equivalent to oral tradition, like the stories sung by poets like Homer, that changed and expanded and contracted based on ancient contexts. In an ironic way, the ever-changing nature and impermanence of the Internet facilitates similar changes and expansions. The current craze has swept Sherlock Holmes into this kind of existence.

Fanfiction writers, show producers, and comic illustrators take Sherlock Holmes as the basis for their myths, and they expand him, change him, and sometimes even contract him. I do this in my books, less aggressively than some, but my stories would have nowhere to go if I refused to expand the character or his world. Laurie R. King showed me that this was possible. Her Holmes is (intentionally and self-awarely) just off the original, like a dialect derived from a language. But he’s a complete character in his own right. As is my interpretation. And as is the Holmes in the fan fiction some high school student somewhere is writing in her bedroom as I type this. When you love a character, change and expansion are not disrespect. They’re homage. But they also don’t add or take away from the character as he originally appeared, either.

Some might throw up their hands and wail at the idea that Holmes is in any sense like a comic book hero, but it’s an honor for him to be lifted into the pantheon of characters so passionately loved that fans cannot resist continuing to write new things about them, new stories that reflect new places and times. But no new iteration takes anything away from the old ones.

Perhaps the biggest reason the Estate’s philosophy fails to resonate with me is a personal one. You see, I may not be a guardian of any galaxies or the wielder of the Tesseract, but I’m a character in the story called life, and my time hasn’t ended yet. I’m not the same person I was yesterday, and I’m not the same person I’ll be tomorrow. And yet, I’m a 100% complete person today, just like Sherlock Holmes is in A Study in Scarlet, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, and every story in between.

_____________________________________________________________________

How to get my newest book:

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

How to get the previous two books in the series:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

Top 5 Holmes Actors

The other day at my knitting group, someone asked me who my favorite Sherlock Holmes actor is. After about half an hour of trying to answer, I had given her about a dozen different responses. I don’t really think I could get it down to one, but here are my top five, in no particular order. (Note: Jeremy Brett does not show up on this list. While I fully acknowledge his expertise and legacy, he’s not a personal favorite, which is what this is about.)

1) Basil Rathbone

RathboneHolmes

He’s got the look. He’s got the feel. Even when he’s in a totally AU time period, he’s Sherlock Holmes through and through. Basil Rathbone is, without a doubt, my favorite Holmes of the early years.

2) Barrie Ingham

GreatMouseDetective1

The voice of Basil of Baker Street, Ingham fully embodied the world’s only consulting detective mouse, and he did it with an incredible amount of panache, making The Great Mouse Detective not only a fantastic children’s film, but also a worthy part of the Holmesian film canon.

3) Peter Cushing

CushingHolmes

I don’t hear the illustrious Peter Cushing mentioned in connection with Holmes as often as with his other work, but he deserves to be. His portrayal is cerebral, complex, and compelling, a treat to watch from a time when Holmes adaptations were in transition from the propaganda films of the Rathbone era to the deconstructionism of the 60s and 70s.

4) Robert Downey Jr

RDJHolmes2

At this past 221b Con, I was much encouraged, at one point, to find myself in a room full of people who all appreciate Mr. Downey’s take on Sherlock Holmes. RDJ Holmes appreciation can sometimes be a lonely island in the Sherlockian world. And yet, in my opinion, the man who reminded us that Holmes is funny, physically adept, and extremely psychologically complex deserves a place in the pantheon of Holmesian greats.

5) Benedict Cumberbatch

HisLastVow2

It almost goes without saying at this point in time. “That guy from ‘Amazing Grace'” who made me want to check out that new Sherlock Holmes show (though I doubted a modern adaptation could work) has become a household name in Britain and the United States. Other Holmeses will no doubt come and go, but it’s hard to imagine a future in which we look back without seeing the tall, spare figure of Mr. Cumberbatch looming over them all.


 

How to get my newest book:

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

How to get the previous two books in the series:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

29 Sherlockian Faves for my 29th

Wordpress1

Tomorrow is my 29th birthday, and I’ve decided to celebrate with a list of 29 of my favorite things about the world of Sherlock Holmes.

1) The ACD Canon

Nothing compares to the 56 short stories and four novels penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Now that most of the stories are in the public domain, it’s easy to find them on the Internet for anyone who wants to take a look. My favorite story is “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” but there’s something I love in every single one.

Doyle is often credited for creating amazing characters and intriguing mysteries. He’s less often given his due for how funny the stories are and how much truth about friendship and tolerating differences they contain.

Visual media adaptations are a wonderful way to enter the world of Holmes, but there’s no reason to stop there. The canon beckons, and Sir Arthur has so much to offer.

2) The Granada/Jeremy Brett Series

Jeremy Brett’s life was, in many was, a tragic one, but he (and his Watsons) left behind a stunning legacy–hour after hour of beautiful television adaptations of the canon, painstakingly and brilliantly traditional in character.

Unlike many of my friends, I don’t consider Brett my favorite actor to play the role, but he is certainly one of my favorites, and his immense legacy defines the question of what it means to portray Sherlock Holmes.

3) Internet Memes

Sherlock Early Years

4) Young Sherlock Holmes

In 1985, Paramount tried to jumpstart a franchise about a teenaged Sherlock Holmes (and Watson). The idea didn’t take off, but I still find Young Sherlock Holmes an extremely enjoyable watch, and I count star Nicholas Rowe among my favorite actors to portray the detective, enough that I wish he would have another go as an adult.

5) Big Finish Audio 

BigFinish1

The often-overlooked art of audio drama is one where Sherlock Holmes continues to flourish, particularly in the capable hands of Nicholas Briggs and the Big Finish team.

I recently had a chance to help interview Nicholas about the challenges and joys of playing Sherlock Holmes in an audio format. Listen here

6) Dodgy Adaptations 

AsylumSherlock1

We all know of Holmes adaptations that are disputable–some people love ’em, other’s hate ’em. Then there are those adaptations so terrible they’re like the Sharknados of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

If you want to see the mother of them all, check out the one simply titled Sherlock Holmes and put out by The Asylum. You will not be disappointed.

7) BBC Sherlock 

Three series of pure bliss, that’s what show creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have given us, along with the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and a host of gloriously idiosyncratic side characters. I was skeptical when I first heard about the idea of a modern Holmes, but I gave it a try anyway, because of the people involved. Nine episodes later, I’m still stunned by a piece of art that continues to be both gloriously traditional and thrillingly of-the-moment, all at the same time.

8) The Fandom

I’ve never engaged with a fandom as much as I’ve engaged with the world of Sherlock Holmes in the past three years. I’m perpetually stunned by the sheer creativity, brilliance, and good will. I know Holmesians in their 80s and Holmesians in their teens, along with everything in between. Like in every fandom, there’s a conflict now and then, but overall, I’ve found the world of Sherlock Holmes to be an astonishingly pleasant place.

I’m not exactly sure why, but I like to think Sherlock Holmes and John Watson appeal to the best in all of us.

9) The Russian Series

RussianHolmes2

I’ve never been lucky enough to see the classic Soviet Holmes series from the 1980s with English subtitles, but there’s a new Sherlock in town. He’s quirky, extremely Russian, and ultimately as clever and captivating as any I’ve ever seen.

This is a new discovery for me, and I have yet to see more than the feature-length first episode, since translation is currently occurring, but here’s a link to start the journey along with me. (Make sure to turn on the English subtitles if you don’t understand Russian.)

10) 221b Con

Blog3

Conventions have long been a chance for fans to connect and enjoy shared interest in particular shows, books, and films, and 2013 saw the inaugural year of 221b Con, a weekend filled with Sherlock Holmes-themed parties, panels, and insane fun.

I had a wonderful time at 221b Con (enough to be back for 2014), and what delighted me most was the range of ages, genders, and interests. BBC Sherlock devotees rubbed shoulders with Brett-philes, and young and old mingled in a wild cacophony of Sherlockian glee. It was truly a celebration of Sherlock Holmes in every form.

11) The Guy Ritchie Films

Sherlock Holmes

Holmesians are somewhat divided on the Ritchie-Downey Jr outings, but I’m a huge fan. I don’t watch them expecting purist canon adaptations. I’m looking for a stylized, fun romp through Holmesian settings and stories.

Jude Law is justifiably venerated for his Watson, but I don’t think Robert Downey Jr gets enough credit for portraying the complexity and vulnerability of Holmes’s personality, aspects that are sometimes overlooked in other adaptations.

12) The Baker Street Babes

BabesEdit

In Holmesian terms, they complete me. The Baker Street Babes is an all-female Sherlock Holmes-themed podcast. We cover everything from the canon to The Great Mouse Detective, and we have a blast doing it.

If you love us, please consider taking a moment to vote for us in the Podcaster category of the Shorty Awards.

13) Sherlock Holmes’s Introversion

Holmes is not a traditional hero. He’s moody, introverted, and uses his mind to solve most of his cases, rather than his physical strength. He’s physically capable, but his superpower is his mind.

I love the fact that just as Western society finally begins to appreciate the advantages of introversion, Holmes is a role model and emblem for introverts everywhere.

I wrote about this topic in depth here.

14) The Great Mouse Detective

GreatMouseDetective1

15) Forensic Advances

It’s not often that a fictional character impacts the real world to the extant that Sherlock Holmes did. When the character was created, the police were barely using forensic techniques, and Doyle’s texts were required reading for police training for quite a while. He’s credited with having a huge part in changing the face of police work to be what it is today.

16) Dr. Joseph Bell 

JosephBell1

Had there never been a Joseph Bell, there might never have been a Sherlock Holmes. As a young man, Doyle saw Bell deducing patient complaints the way he later wrote Holmes making deductions about his clients, and the idea of an immortal character was born.

17) Graphic Novels

Sherlock Holmes has been the subject of many phenomenal graphic novels over the years. A notable current example is the racebent, modernized Watson and Holmes series by New Paradigm Studios.

18) Holmesian Scholarship

Sherlock Holmes isn’t only a hobby. He’s also the subject of all kinds of serious and tongue-in-cheek scholarship. (It’s hard to separate the two, but why try? They’re both great to read.)

One place to find all kinds of fantastic articles about Holmes is the Baker Street Journal. Another is the recently-published collection One Fixed Point in a Changing Age: A New Generation on Sherlock Holmes.

19) Playing the Game

Doyle’s inclusion of near-factual events and near-historical characters has long tempted fans into playing The Game, which simply means reading the stories as if Holmes and Watson are real historical figures and fitting all of their exploits into a historical context.

I did this in my first novel, The Detective and The Woman, in which I wrote about Holmes meeting inventor Thomas Edison.

20) The Tropes

cropped-pipe2.jpg

The pipe, the hat, the cape…Sometimes I roll my eyes at the overuse of the tropes we’ve come to associate with Sherlock Holmes, but it’s always a fond eyeroll.

Like a secret handshake, Holmes tropes are the little emblems of a shared world. They’re the things that remind us that whether we’re watching Sherlock or a Basil Rathbone film, we’re all appreciating the same thing.

21) Basil Rathbone

Speaking of Rathbone, his classic films illustrate the timelessness of the character of Holmes, taking the detective out of the Victorian context to fight Nazis and other miscreants.

22) The Mary Russell Series

I first encountered the Holmes canon as a child, but during my teens and early 20s, my strongest link to Holmes was through Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series, stories about the post-retirement Holmes and his partnership with a young woman.

If it wasn’t for Laurie, I don’t believe I’d be a pastiche author today. Her writing broke the glass ceiling of what I thought was possible in the world of Sherlock Holmes.

23) Irene Adler

Irene_Adler

She’s The Woman, she outsmarted Sherlock Holmes, and I love her.

24) Holmes’s London

In my books, I refer to London as Holmes’s mistress. Doyle’s writing is so atmospheric that it’s as if the setting is a character in its own right. The name Sherlock Holmes is instantly synonymous with hansom cabs, dirty streets, and gas lights–an alternate universe London that never existed but really, really should have.

25) Nicholas Meyer and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer remains one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes pastiches ever penned, and Meyer followed it up with two respected sequels.

Seven-Per-Cent isn’t perfect, but it’s a brilliant take on Sherlock Holmes that introduces him to Sigmund Freud and manages to turn a lot of things we think we know about Holmes on their heads–without seeming disrespectful in the least.

26) Continuity Errors

Eternal thanks to Sir Arthur “Continuity” Doyle for things like having Mary Watson forget her husband’s name, inexplicably calling Mrs. Hudson Mrs. Turner, and various other major timeline shenanigans.

Reading Holmes would be way less fun if it all made sense.

27) 221B by Vincent Starrett

221B

Here dwell together still two men of note

Who never lived and so can never die:

How very near they seem, yet how remote

That age before the world went all awry.

But still the game’s afoot for those with ears

Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:

England is England yet, for all our fears–

Only those things the heart believes are true.

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane

As night descends upon this fabled street:

A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,

The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.

Here, though the world explode, these two survive,

And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

–Vincent Starrett

28) Epic Mashups

There are some truly fabulous mashups of Sherlock Holmes with other universes–Doctor Who, Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera–the list could go on forever.

One of my personal favorites is the book My Particular Friend by Jennifer Petkus, which reimagines Holmes and Watson as women in Jane Austen’s Regency England.

29) It’s Personal

PipePic

We all bring something different to the experience of Sherlock Holmes; we all get something slightly different out of it. And yet, we can all find common ground through our love of the greatest detective character the world has ever known.

That’s why it’s brilliant.

____________________________________________________

The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

7 Canonical References in His Last Vow

Spoilers ahead; you know the drill. Continue at your own risk.

HisLastVow2

This episode was as canon-heavy as “Hearse” and “Sign,” so I’m simply hitting the high points here as I did with those.

1. The Drug Den

The place John finds Sherlock at the beginning of the episode is a direct nod to “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” in which Watson goes in search of a man named Isa Whitney at an opium den and finds not only him, but his friend and colleague, Sherlock Holmes, who is disguised and working on a case. In addition, John’s mistake of thinking the woman who comes to visit him and Mary is looking for her husband instead of her son is a sly reference to the fact that Isa is the woman’s husband in the story.

2. Watson Name Issues

This may be slightly debatable, but I find it too interesting not to include. “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” referenced above, is the story in which Mary Watson inexplicably calls her husband “James” instead of “John.” That the writers chose to reference that particular story in the same episode in which the viewers learn that Watson’s wife has a real name other than “Mary” is a delightful confluence of ideas.

3. Magnussen

Lars Mikkelsen’s Magnussen is an obvious parallel to Charles Augustus Milverton, Doyle’s master blackmailer, described by Holmes as, “the king of all the blackmailers. Heaven help the man, and still more the woman, whose secret and reputation come into the power of Milverton! With a smiling face and a heart of marble, he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry.” Doyle, in turn, based his creation off real-life blackmailer Charles Augustus Howell, who was found mysteriously murdered with a ten-shilling coin in his mouth.

Several of Magnussen’s specific traits come straight from Doyle, in particular his glasses and his disturbingly affable manner. There’s an overall skeeviness to Milverton that jumps off the pages of the canon, and Sherlock managed to capture it more perfectly than I’d hoped.

To learn more about Milverton, a villain well worth your time, have a look at this post and read “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” here.

4. Billy Wiggins

At the sound of his name, I heard millions of canon lovers shrieking in glee, through the haze of my own euphoria.

In canon, Billy is the name of Sherlock Holmes’s young page, and he’s featured in the novel The Valley of Fear and two stories, “The Problem of Thor Bridge” and “The Mazarin Stone.” He’s also featured in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes plays.

Wiggins is the name of another young character, the intelligent child leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’s street-prowling network of urchins. He appears in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.

Cleverly, Moffat chose to unite two young associates of Holmes–one known for only his first name, the other only his last–into one single character of young but not childish age, smart enough to have the potential to carry on Holmes’s legacy, but also retaining Wiggins’s trademark cheeky personality.

5. Unreliable Narration

Throughout the canon, there are numerous times when Holmes and Watson say things about themselves that, through their actions, are shown to be untrue. It would take ages to pinpoint them all, but generally, Watson thinks he’s much less clever and more foolish than his actions display, and Watson and Holmes speak of Holmes as being much colder and devoid of human feeling than his behavior reveals him to be.

I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but the Sherlock writers’ continual insistence on having Sherlock describe himself as a high-functioning sociopath fits squarely in this category. In this series, particularly, the viewers have seen Sherlock repeatedly act in ways that are the opposite of sociopathic, and the lengths he’s willing to go in “His Last Vow” to protect the people he obviously loves go completely against the idea that he lacks empathy or is unable to form attachments. Even his obvious feelings for his brother go against the idea.

“His Last Vow” also included Mary in the assessment, having her agree that she, too, is a sociopath, which is clearly untrue, based on her genuine love for John and Sherlock, expressed in extremely unusual ways though it may be. This post is not long enough to do intricate psychological assessment, nor am I qualified to do so, but many of the actions of both Mary and Sherlock go against any definition of sociopathy, not just in the area of attachment, but in other areas as well.

Canon lovers tend to value the unreliability of Doyle’s narrative voice, recognizing the subtlety it took to craft characters who, like real human beings, often fail to understand or accurately characterize themselves. Sherlock, intentionally or not, has chosen a similar path.

6. Sherlock’s Personal Justice

Many people have done extensive analyses of Sherlock Holmes’s attitude toward justice in the canon. The Norwood Builder on Tumblr produced an excellent and easy-to-understand one here. The point is that Holmes often (according to TNB about 25% of the time) takes things into his own hands when the law cannot address them adequately.

“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is notable because it contains one of the most striking examples of this. For those who are unfamiliar with it, in the original, Holmes looks on as Milverton is killed. He does not pull the trigger himself, but he does nothing to stop or turn in the woman who does, because he considers her act to be justified.

In “His Last Vow,” Moffat chose to have Holmes himself carry out the execution, but the spirit is very much the same. Magnussen is an unspeakably vile man whose power places him outside the reach of normal retribution. Holmes’s strong internal view of justice cannot let him go unpunished, particularly as Magnussen endangers the lives of his friends and loved ones. As he does many times in Doyle’s stories, he chooses to carry out justice himself.

7. Sherlock as a Spy

The idea of Sherlock Holmes going undercover as a government operative comes from “His Last Bow,” a story from the latter part of the Doyle canon, in which Holmes goes undercover to aid the English war effort on the eve of World War I.

BONUS: Janine

In the canon, Sherlock Holmes gets engaged one time, to Charles Augustus Milverton’s housemaid. When he tells Watson, his friend is first delighted and then horrified to learn that the relationship is completely for the benefit of the case. As in “His Last Vow,” however, Agatha the housemaid doesn’t end up caring any more than Janine does.

In an episode heavy with action and emotion, it was great to get this nod to one of the funniest things (in my opinion) that Doyle ever wrote. Seeing poor John try to understand the idea of Sherlock in a romantic relationship is a mental picture that will live with me for years to come.

And One Non-Canonical Reference: William Sherlock Scott Holmes

The writers of Sherlock have made it very clear that they are fans not only of the Doyle stories, but of other adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. When they gave Holmes’s full name as William Sherlock Scott Holmes, they were not channeling Doyle, but rather a reference to the Wold Newton family, a massive fan creation that connects many fictional characters, including Holmes. Learn about it here.

____________________________________________________

The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.