TV Review: Houdini and Doyle


Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew each other, and they had a conflict regarding the validity of spiritualism. Houdini and Doyle, the new ITV-produced miniseries, has this friendship at its core. Lest you expect any further historical accuracy than this general framework, however, let me disabuse you of the notion immediately: Houdini and Doyle is not without fun moments, but it is not a historical series in any respect.

The story wastes little time in getting to the heart of the premise, which is an antagonistically-friendly crimesolving partnership between Houdini and Doyle, who set out to solve the murder of a nun—a murder with supposedly-supernatural overtones. An (expectedly) uncooperative Scotland Yard assigns them the third member of their unit—a female officer named Adelaide Stratton. If you are a student of history, this is, well, an issue. The first female police officer was not hired until 1919, when Doyle was nearly 60. This series presents a younger Doyle, who is acutely mourning the loss of his wife Louise, who died in 1906 (without contending, at least initially, with the reality of his second wife, Jean Leckie, with whom he was already deeply in love when Louise died).

I belabored these points early to get the issue of history out of the way: This series is neither realistically accurate to its time nor is it accurate to its characters. It is both anachronistic and as violently murderous of timeline continuity as Doyle himself was in his stories.


However, and it’s a large however, that is not at all to claim that Houdini and Doyle isn’t very, very fun at times. Seen as a work of fanfiction in which characters loosely based on Houdini and Sir Arthur have been placed in a quirky AU world somewhat resembling turn-of-the-century England with equal parts Steampunk silliness, it actually somewhat works. It’s a bit like the world of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films taken to the next level of heightened reality.

Stephen Mangan and Michael Weston do a capable job as the believer Doyle and the skeptic Houdini, respectively, and Rebecca Liddiard plays an eager and self-possessed Stratton. Some of the first episode’s most enjoyable moments exist in the characters’ banter rather than in the solving of the mystery itself, which is fairly standard for a crime series.

 Houdini and Doyle presents some very pretty visuals and an amusing way to spend three quarters of an hour. It’s not exactly memorable, and it’s certainly not a work of historical significance, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out if you enjoy light mystery and entertaining procedurals.

Houdini and Doyle can be viewed on ITV Encore in the UK and will begin airing weekly on May 2nd on Fox in the US.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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: Mr. Holmes

A slight trick of the mind makes for a great experience in the cinema.

Last year, the Baker Street Babes interviewed Mitch Cullin, author of the recently-published novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, still one of the most unusual Sherlock Holmes novels in existence. We enjoyed the novel and Cullin’s company, so we were thrilled when the film version of the book was announced (with a probably-wise title change to make the subject clear to filmgoers). I don’t live in a huge city, so my cinemas only just got the film, and to my delight, I finally had a chance to see it.

I’ve thought a lot about how to approach this review because Mr. Holmes is not a traditional Holmes film, and it doesn’t tell a traditional Holmes story. It’s nothing like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, but it has an equally vast amount of contrast with everything that’s come before it in the Holmesian world.

I think I’ll just dive in with my favorite thing about the story: Mr. Holmes is for people who live with Sherlock Holmes on a daily basis. Films like Guy Ritchie’s versions or TV’s Sherlock and Elementary may be nontraditional in some ways, but they’re all written and produced with casual viewers in mind. Each one, in its way, periodically reintroduces the viewer to exactly who this Holmes chap is and what he’s supposed to be good at doing.

Mr. Holmes is, I would argue, not really for the casual viewer. It’s for the person who has lived with and loved Holmes long enough that he’s become not just a guy we’ve heard about once, but a part of our lives, an archetype within our imaginations who helps us understand the world and ourselves, a figure who, to us, goes beyond one traditional story format.

I can’t imagine Mr. Holmes being made even ten years ago, and if someone had chanced it, I highly doubt it would have been successful. But the world has changed, and many of us have embraced Holmes and interpreted him and re-interpreted him over and over for our times.

I am thankful to Mitch Cullin, Sir Ian McKellen, BBC Films, and Miramax for realizing that Holmes no longer has to stay in a box where he puts on a deerstalker, peers through glass, and solves a case (not to say that I don’t enjoy traditional stories and adaptations–they’re great). Writers have known this for a long time, but finally, someone dared to depict something new for us on screen.

The Sherlock we meet in Mr. Holmes is 93, retired, and preparing, quite obviously, for the end of his life. The myth of who he is has grown up around him, to the point that he can go to the cinema and see films about himself. The contrast of legend with reality serves to humanize the man Sir Ian portrays with such compassion and understanding.

I said above that the film isn’t a traditional mystery, but it does contain cases–three, to be exact. Perhaps it sounds strange to say that a film with three entire mysteries in it isn’t about mystery at all, but believe me, it’s true.

Or, rather, the real mystery that weaves through all the others and makes the film profound is the question of what is truly important in life and how we judge our actions and view the lasting legacies of ourselves and others. It’s about becoming whole.

If this doesn’t sound like a fast-paced thriller of a theme, it shouldn’t. The movie is slow-paced and jumps to three different places and times (with deft enough direction that it’s not confusing). Most of it concerns the internal workings of a tired 93-year-old mind. The magic is found in the slow untangling of the truth that sometimes, when logic fails, deeper truths of worth and love grow stronger.

Mr. Holmes is a poetic exploration. It asks a lot of questions and gives few answers, but the experience of the journey is a remarkably beautiful one. Cullin has said that he used the character of Holmes to explore his own close relative’s experience of aging and mind failure, and the marriage of concepts is seamless–it’s obvious the writer has intimate knowledge of the struggles of the aging mind, but Holmes never loses his essential Holmesness in the story.

There’s a great deal of sadness in Mr. Holmes, but there’s also hope–hope found in the eyes of a wise child who chooses to unsentimentally carry on the legacy of an old man, and hope in the idea that even the most set-in-his-ways person can learn and grow until the very last moment of life.

I’ll end on a personal note. Last year, my grandmother passed away after a long battle with dementia. Mr. Holmes reminded me of her, specifically of the strange contrast that happens when a soul begins to lose specific facts only to gain glimpses of glory.

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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.

Sherlock Review: The Sign of Three

SignofThree2

This review, like my previous review of “The Empty Hearse,” will have two parts—a spoiler-free section, and then a clearly-labeled spoiler section.

Part I: Spoiler Free

The middle episode of each series of Sherlock thus far has been something of its own animal. “The Blind Banker” in Series 1 and “The Hounds of Baskerville” in Series 2 stand alone from the other episodes in their series, both in tone and style. I suspect that when all Series 3 episodes are viewed together, the same thing will be said of “The Sign of Three,” which is about as radically different from “The Empty Hearse” as it’s possible for a coherent show to be. I stress coherent because it works, on basically every level.

Where “Hearse” was fast-paced and intentionally frenetic, “Sign” takes a gentler approach and lingers on various breathtakingly beautiful visuals, while still managing to feel as if the action moves along at a brisk pace. Text-on-screen and other effects like Holmes’s mind palace are used even more effectively than in the first episode, and their presence serves the story well.

The plot of “The Sign of Three” is extremely complex, doubling and tripling back on itself in ways that could be confusing if the direction was any less clever than it is. Thankfully, the editing is clear, and the transitions are well marked. I didn’t get lost at any point, and I found my mind engaged rather than baffled. At its heart, “Sign” is a very personal story about three people: Sherlock, John, and Mary. Throughout the episode, each of their characters is explored in complex and touching ways.

Of all the episodes of Sherlock to air thus far, “The Sign of Three” is one of the most canon-heavy, with quotes and allusions to numerous stories occurring constantly throughout. Long-time fans of Holmes, some of whom were less than pleased with the tone of “Hearse,” will, I believe, find much more to enjoy here, and those who loved “Hearse” as much as I did will find “Sign” equally entertaining.

Part II: Spoilers

You might have expected Sherlock Holmes to be a terrible Best Man, but if you did, you’d have been wrong. From the unbearably touching moment of John asking Sherlock to stand with him, to Sherlock’s admission that he loves to dance, “The Sign of Three” was almost achingly beautiful in its delivery of character moments.

No less intriguing was the twisting, turning plot, which united the seemingly unrelated ghost boyfriend case with mysterious military murders, while showing Sherlock’s mind palace in a new way—a courtroom that revealed a great deal about how his brother and friends impact his mental processes.

The Sherlock of “Sign” is firmly post-hiatus, a man who has realized the value of the friends in his life and is willing to work to care for them. While humorous, his obsessive care for the details of John’s wedding showed a depth of love the viewers have rarely seen from Holmes before.

Like every Sherlock episode to date, this one had beautiful details, from the story of Mrs. Hudson’s cartel-running husband, to Sherlock’s way with children, to Mary being an orphan. Wondering which ones will come back up in future episodes is always a fun mental exercise.

Sherlock’s side characters also had fantastic moments in the episode. Lestrade proved his care for Sherlock by choosing him over major professional recognition. Mrs. Hudson did her best to prepare the detective for life after John’s wedding. Molly and her boyfriend provided ample comic relief. Even Donovan, whom we haven’t seen for a while, proved to be as capable and intelligent as ever.

For me, “Sign” was a little bit hard to watch in the best possible way, because the happiness was so very happy, but the undercurrent of darkness was never far below the surface. For those who know the canon history of the characters, it’s impossible not to foresee the potential for dark days ahead. Nevertheless, a wedding is cause for joy, and “The Sign of Three” is a gorgeous episode with a captivating story and wonderful character development.

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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.

Sherlock Review: The Empty Hearse

Image

This is a two-part review. The first part will be spoiler free, and I’ll let you know when I’m moving into spoiler territory.

Part I: Spoiler-free

It’s been many moons since Sherlock graced our screens, and it seemed that with every passing day, expectations grew stronger and anticipation heightened. After seeing the episode, I can say with 100% certainty that even the highest expectations were not misplaced. As with previous series, the writing is clever, the directing fast-paced and stylistically unique, and the acting unparalleled. What I did not expect was the liberal (and extremely effective) use of humor to an extent we haven’t previously seen in the series.

Perhaps what surprises me most is how absolutely satisfied I am. Literally every box on my Sherlock wishlist was ticked, and not in the perfunctory way we sometimes see with longer-running franchises. Without spoiling details, I can assure you that giving an hour and a half of your time to “The Empty Hearse” will present you with an intriguing and twist-filled plot punctuated by character moments so numerous and so good that I’m tempted to use the word sublime to describe them.

I’m having a little bit of a problem here, because it seems that when it comes to reviewing, negative opinions add credibility, but I can’t seem to come up with any of significance (minus a couple of vulgarities that are not to my personal taste). The opening salvo of Sherlock Series 3 is about is perfect as it gets, and I can’t wait to see what the next two episodes have to offer.

Part II: Spoilers

Where to begin?

There was a little doctor with a mustache. There was a detective who needed a shave. And there was a hilariously dramatic scene in which Benedict Cumberbatch kissed Louise Brealey. At some point, I tweeted, “I CANNOT WITH THE WATSTACHE.”

Yep, “The Empty Hearse” broke my brain. The devious genius of Mark Gatiss gave us not one, but three, ways Sherlock “did it,” never really definitively telling us which was real, but sending up about every fan theory in existence. I think we all wanted John to punch Sherlock. I didn’t know I wanted him to punch him like twelve times, but once I saw it, I knew I really did.

Anderson. Dear goodness, Anderson. Anderson is, as they say, all of us. Crank-turned-conspiracy nut, he turned out to be the one who was right all along. Like the beleaguered fandom, he endured, growing increasingly and more hilariously insane. He may have deserved it, but give the poor guy a few props for persistence.

In many ways, as Kafers pointed out in her review for the Baker Street Babes, a main theme of the episode was relationships, and I agree. Sherlock is about a mad, surrogate family, and “The Empty Hearse” was about what happened when the glue that held it all together–Sherlock Holmes–was gone and what had to happen to put it back. Surrogate sister Molly and surrogate mum Mrs. Hudson were their usual brilliant, funny, understated selves, and Inspector Lestrade’s heartfelt reaction to Sherlock’s return was equal parts humorous and heartwarming. Getting the gang back together was far from a routine necessity; it was a pleasure to watch.

At the same time, Amanda Abbington’s luminous warmth as Mary added a beautiful dimension to John’s life, and I was glad to see that Mofftiss used a canonical reading of her character–a strong woman who likes Sherlock Holmes enough to let her boyfriend/husband spend a great deal of his time with the detective. The ending tease of the man we know to be the Big Bad of this season was another intriguing touch.

“The Empty Hearse” was funny, clever, completely captivating, and left absolutely nothing to be desired. I really couldn’t have asked for more. Bring on eps 2&3.

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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.