Russian Sherlock Review: Clowns

This post will contain mild spoilers for the third episode of the Russian Sherlock Holmes series but should keep most of the surprises intact.

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The third episode of the new Russian Holmes series (watch here; turn on English subs if needed) is an action-packed romp through director Andrei Kavun’s vision of Victorian London. Much like its predecessor, it’s very action-heavy, and it seems that the first episode is the only one that moves remotely slowly in that  way.

In many ways, “Clowns” is really the emblematic episode of this series, because it brings together each of the threads the creators chose as their emphases. The previous introduction of Irene Adler was not, we see, a one-off. She’s back, and her presence wreaks havoc with the lives of Holmes and Watson. Allusions to “A Scandal in Bohemia” are woven together skillfully with a politically-focused story reminiscent of “The Bruce-Partington Plans” and even snippets of “Charles Augustus Milverton.” Over all of these hangs the specter of what we are now shown is a series arc that relates back to Watson’s military career and continues to cast him as a tragic figure losing friend after friend.

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I would be remiss in not mentioning that “Clowns” contains the most magnificent plot twist of the series so far, a clever reversal I really didn’t see coming. Several criticisms I had while watching the episode were completely resolved by it, and I applaud whichever of the writers came up with the idea.

My major remaining critique is of the portrayal of female characters. The original introduction of Irene cast her as a powerful, self-directed woman. This episode gives her layers, but in so doing, it also diminishes her strength and throws her into the more traditional damsel in distress role. Ultimately, I am comfortable with the characterization of her complicated relationship with Holmes, but I wish she had been allowed to retain her confidence in the process. The episode’s other major female character is also shown to be weak and somewhat useless throughout.

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“Clowns” is a good episode, though I felt that its writing fell just shy of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Nevertheless, its truly clever plot made up for certain bumps along the road, and Petrenko and Panin really dug into their roles in a spectacular way. Panin’s Watson was still excellent, but it was Petrenko who had the difficult task this time around, to portray a Holmes made desperate by events beyond his control. His communication of the layers of frustration and deception the story demanded was exceptional.

In the end, one particular conversation from the episode remains in my mind. It’s just after a very climactic point in the action, and Holmes and Watson muse together on the futility of life in a way that reminded me powerfully of “Waiting for Godot” and many similarly philosophical Russian works. In my opinion, that emphasis on finding the meaning below the surface of the Sherlock Holmes stories is what makes this series sing. It’s not a particularly Western touch, where we like our stories fast and our characters brash, but it’s a truly beautiful one.

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(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 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.

Russian Sherlock Review: Rock, Paper, Scissors

This post may contain mild spoilers for the second episode of the Russian Holmes series, but should keep most of the surprises intact.

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The second episode of the new Russian Sherlock Holmes series starring Igor Petrenko and Andrey Panin (Watch here. Don’t forget to turn on the English subtitles.) begins in a reliable way for a mystery of any kind–with a corpse. From there, “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is a well-paced, well-written mystery that builds on the relationships established in its predecessor and uncovers layers of character previously unknown.

This character dimensionality is shown in many different ways. Lestrade is still a blustering autocrat, but he’s shown to have a reasonable side. Holmes is socially awkward, but his capacity for genuine affection and grief is highlighted. Mrs. Hudson is a frustrated landlady, but her loyalty is unbreakable. Watson is still the tired, wounded veteran we met at the beginning, but he’s also shown to be extremely brave and confident in his abilities.

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It is Watson whose life takes center stage in this episode, as a mostly canonical depiction of his military past is married to the plot of The Sign of Four. Some significant things have been changed from that story, particularly the Mary Morstan character, but a great deal remains and is made relevant to the viewer by the connection to Watson.

The plot also borrows significantly from both “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” and manages to pull off the connection fairly seamlessly. Many canonical characters receive brief mentions, including Watson’s brother and Mycroft Holmes.

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I didn’t necessarily expect this episode to contain a visit from Irene Adler, played by the luminous Lyanka Gryu, but I liked it, because it gave a fleshed-out feel to the world the show is creating and gave us a glimpse of Holmes’s past life. At first, I thought the interaction was straying far afield from the canonical interpretation of the relationship, but it ended up being much closer and cleverer than I expected.

Andrey Panin really shines in “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” His acting, much of it nonverbal, is understated, touching, and, at times, even mesmerizing in its simple poignancy. Petrenko continues to walk the line between genius and awkwardness, giving Holmes an emotional side we rarely see in most other adaptations.

Overall, even though I enjoyed Episode 1 immensely, I thought Episode 2 far outdid it. Without a doubt, it left me wanting more.

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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.

 

29 Sherlockian Faves for my 29th

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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

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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 

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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 

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

Russian Sherlock Review: Baker Street, 221B

This post will contain minor spoilers for the first episode of the new Russian Sherlock Holmes series.

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Once upon a time, there was a classic Russian TV series that starred Vasili Livanov as Sherlock Holmes and Vitali Solomon as John Watson. Much like the Granada series is legendary in the UK and US, this series is respected and venerated in other parts of the world. Fast-forward to 2013, twenty years from the original, and Channel One Russia decided to create a new, Victorian-period, Russian-language adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, this time starring Igor Petrenko as Holmes and Andrey Panin as Watson.

According to Sigita Matulaityte’s review for the Baker Street Babes, The series was never intended to be a direct adaptation of the Holmes canon, so as to avoid re-covering the same exact ground as the classic series. Still, the characters and situations are heavily influenced by the Doyle stories. Currently, the first episode is available on youtube with English-language subtitles. Titled “Baker Street, 221B,” it tells the story of Holmes and Watson’s initial acquaintance.

The most important thing I can do in this review is, I think, to provide cultural context. The series is set in England, but it’s very, very Russian in its situations and interactions. It’s also very Holmesian, but it’s written as if Holmes had been reborn in Russia. In fact, I wish they had gone all the way and set it there, rather than keeping the thin veneer of Englishness, because the characters are so very Russian.

What do I mean? To me, the most significant way this comes out is in the interaction and friendship between Holmes and Watson. I’m tempted to go into a long explanation of high and low context cultural communication, but I’ll try to make it quick. Cultures like those of the US and UK are fairly low context, which means that in relationships, we say a great deal and don’t assume that much. Russia is, in contrast, a high-context culture, meaning that friendship and love is much less about what is said and directly expressed and hugely about what is implied, hinted at, and communicated physically. (Read more about these ideas here.)

Specifically, what this means for the series is that Holmes and Watson form an extraordinarily warm attachment as the episode progresses, but they express it in very different ways than their lower-context counterparts in other adaptations. They say little, but their physical interactions grow closer and closer. They don’t have long conversations about needing each other; they practice boxing together. They don’t define their partnership; they risk their lives for each other without so much as a hesitation; sometimes they even insult each other, but in the fondest of ways. Petrenko and Panin’s dance of ever-increasing friendship is as beautiful and heartwarming as any I’ve seen in a Holmes adaptation, but for the viewer from a far away culture, it requires careful analysis and observation to see signs our culture trains us to miss.

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I found the case itself the hardest thing to follow in the episode. The subtitles were quite good, but there are idioms and sayings in any language that don’t have perfect equivalents, and some of the action confused me a little bit. By the end, however, I understood how everything had come together.

Petrenko is a young Holmes, the age he’s supposed to be when the Doyle canon begins. He first describes himself as a scientist, and that’s an accurate introduction to the character. He’s a softspoken voice with a razor-sharp brain, imbued with the incredible deductive abilities of the original character and an emphasis on Holmes’s social awkwardness. If the character of Sherlock Holmes can be seen as a spectrum, he’s on the Columbo end of it. Panin is a middle-aged Watson, made somewhat frail by a wartime head injury, but extremely capable and protective of Holmes. He puts his physical self on the line a few times in the episode, and he makes his worth obvious to Holmes from the very beginning. The two men form a complement to each other. Watson is a gentle lion, kind in his interactions, but fierce in his loyalty. Holmes is a volatile lamb with an extraordinarily powerful brain and a need for someone to help him interact with the world. It’s a totally equal partnership.

I particularly enjoyed several very traditional scenes in which Holmes makes deductions about people and situations. At those moments, Petrenko’s performance came straight from the pages of the canon. I was less taken with the musical soundtrack, which seemed unable to decide what style it wanted to be.

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Bottom line: Do I recommend this series? Yes, I absolutely do, as long as you understand the cultural context you’re entering.

If you’re fond of Russian literature, even more if you’ve ever seen a play by Chekhov, you’ll have an advantage to understanding where this series is coming from. The characters, the way the plot unfolds, and the nonverbal communication (down to things like the placement of objects and use of personal space) read culturally different from what I’m used to seeing in a show about Holmes and Watson.  I don’t know how else to quantify it except to say that it’s just so Russian, and that’s something I absolutely love, because I believe Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are characters who belong to the whole world.

The greatest characters in literature say something universal about the human experience, and the wonderful thing about Doyle’s creation is that it’s not just about one person–it’s one story of two, the great detective and his Boswell. Their friendship is endlessly fascinating and touching, wherever it’s found, because it speaks to the desire we all share to find friends who will care for and support us, no matter how imperfectly human we may be.

Ultimately, Petrenko and Panin play a Holmes and Watson from a distant culture, whose interactions bear few of the markers I’ve come to expect in adaptations from cultures nearer to mine. And yet, I went away from “Baker Street, 221B” with, most of all, a profound feeling of warmth due to the experience of a beautiful relationship that entirely transcends the limits of a single culture.

I look forward to further episodes and to experiencing the wider world of this new, enjoyable Sherlock Holmes.

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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.