Category Archives: Sherlock Holmes

A mad genius, an aging Holmes and the baddest cat that ever walked the Earth! Movies

Criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse was introduced in print in the 1920s in Norbert Jacques’ Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. As my friend Ross got me the most recent of the many Mabuse movies for Christmas, I figured I’d rewatch them starting with Fritz Lang’s DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER: The Great Gambler, a Picture for Our Times (1922). Here Mabuse (pronounced like “a boozer,” not “abuse”) runs a brilliant criminal enterprise (we see a major caper involving stock fraud in the first few scenes) but his real passion is “gambling with men’s lives, with their faiths.” Which is to say, he amuses himself ruining their lives in games of chance (his hypnotic ability guarantees a win) even though he doesn’t need their money. When he encounters Countess Dusy Told, he realizes she’s as detached from humanity as he is (though less evil) and destroys her husband (forces him to cheat) so he can claim her for his own. This is so melodramatic I’m not sure it would work away from the silent screen, but work it does. “I think it’s safe for you to let room 321 to someone else now.”

As was the custom back then, Fritz Lang finished the story in DR MABUSE INFERNO: A Game of People of Our Time (1922) which aired the night after the first. Here Mabuse proves himself surprisingly human as his passion for Dusy starts to crack him. At the same time, he brilliantly anticipates any move by the movie’s nominal hero, the prosecutor von Wenk; as a former lover of Mabuse gloats, nobody can stop the great mastermind except himself. In many ways Mabuse is a forerunner of Blofeld or the Kingpin, a man who controls everything from behind the scenes and crushes all his foes. With Rudolph Klein Rogge as Mabuse, this is well wroth catching, even at 4.5 hours.  “I want to be a giant, a titan, who churns laws and gods like withered leaves!”

I had high hopes for Ian McKellan’s MR. HOLMES (2015), portraying the Great Detective in the 1940s as he finds himself sliding closer to death and worse, losing the sharpness of his wits. From there we join Holmes in his flashback booth as he remembers the case that convinced him to quit, and a visit to Japan after Hiroshima. Unfortunately the narrative (which I think is meant to dramatize Holmes looking over the failures of his life) doesn’t hold together (there’s really no point to the Japan trip) and while I don’t require absolute fidelity to the Canon in a film, the script is very un-Holmes (declaring he despises imagination, for instance — Doyle’s Holmes considered it a vital tool of his trade) and doesn’t offer any compensation. With Laura Linney as Holmes’ housekeeper and Nicholas Rowe (Young Sherlock Holmes) as a screen Sherlock. “The money was to arrange for the headstones your husband would not allow.”

Jim Brown is SLAUGHTER (1972), ex-Green Beret and “the baddest cat that ever walked the earth” seeking vengeance on on mobster Rip Torn for murdering Slaughter’s parents, a quest that happily requires Brown to do the nasty with Torn’s blonde mistress Stella Stevens. This isn’t as well structured as Shaft or Pam Grier’s Coffy, as witness we never really learn what deep secret Brown’s dad had to be killed to hide (admittedly if I liked the movie better I wouldn’t mind) and the revenge plotline wraps up a bit too conveniently. With Cameron Mitchell as The Man. “Be careful Dominic, your lack of patience is what brought him here.”

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Holmes flying solo: The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (#SFWApro)

The oddest thing about the final Sherlock Holmes book from Arthur Conan Doyle is the decision to have Holmes narrate two of the stories, The Blanched Soldier and The Lion’s Mane. I don’t know if Doyle was experimenting, bored or what — and I do give him credit for changing the formula — but it was a bad call.

First off, I wonder, as other have, why Holmes would even bother. He’s always mocked Watson for turning abstract exercises in deduction into sensational literature (though I suspect he enjoyed them more than he admits), so why would he attempt to write one rather than a scholarly work on How To Do it? The intro to Blanched Soldier implies Holmes was responding to Watson’s double-dog dare to surpass the good doctor, but I don’t buy it — Holmes has ego, but I can’t see him taking the bait. Or conceding that yeah, you do have to write it the way Watson does so people will read it.

And both stories are weak. They suffer from Holmes having to talk to us directly, from the lack of Watson’s style and persepective (they do feel different from the way Doyle-as-Watson writes), from just being bland. Blanched Soldier suffers more from an unconvincing, coincidental happy ending. It’s an odd departure from Doyle’s willingness to give good people tragic fates, as in Valley of Fear. Some Holmesians argue that the stories aren’t written by Holmes or even true (it’s an assumption of fandom that yes, Holmes was real) — perhaps Doyle (who in fan canon serves as Watson’s literary agent) trying his hand at a story.

Despite those poor stories, and several others (The Creeping Man for instance), there’s some good stuff in this book. The Three Garridebs reworks the scheme of The Redheaded League very effectively, and demonstrates how much Holmes genuinely loves his friend. The Problem of Thor Bridge is a good story with a striking scene where Holmes stares down the arrogant American millionaire  Neil Gibson. The Illustrious Client is mediocre, but the scene at the end, where the bad guy has been scarred by a vial of sulphuric acid to the face, is intense and powerful.

And I really love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s introduction (photo is from the official Arthur Conan Doyle website, all rights to it remain with current holder). In it, Doyle admits that he’s been ambivalent about Holmes for much of his career, writing in response to public demand but always worrying that turning out Holmes stories would interfere with his other literary efforts. Looking back, he realizes Holmes didn’t stop him from working at what Doyle thought of as better fiction, nor from his long late-in-life crusade in favor of spiritualism (the Professor Challenger novel The Land of Mist is a long pro-spiritualist polemic, regrettably unreadable). It’s nice to know that even though Doyle isn’t thrilled that his name is tied with Holmes rather than his other work, he’s at peace with Holmes.

Although this ends the Canon, many writers, filmmakers and TV series would continue the legend of the World’s Greatest Detective. I anticipate looking at some of them in 2018.

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It’s the first day of Christmas! Well, sort of (#SFWApro)

It’s December which means I start watching lots and lots of Christmas movies (as long-time readers are undoubtedly aware). I checked out Netflix’s streaming side and marked several. Unfortunately the first two were bad enough I didn’t even finish, which takes some doing.

MANDIE AND THE FORGOTTEN CHRISTMAS (2011) is third in a film series adapted from a children’s book series about a tomboyish girl’s adventures at a school for young ladies. In this one, Christmas is coming and Mandie wonders why the school has an attic stuffed with Christmas decorations but won’t use them. In fairness, it’s a kid’s movie and I’m not the target audience, but then again, there are lots of kids films I liked. Part of the problem is that they seem to assume everyone’s seen the previous movies and the Southern accents are really, really bad.

GOOD LUCK CHARLIE: It’s Christmas (2011) was a spinoff from a Disney family sitcom in which the family faces Planes, Trains and Automobiles obstacles in getting together for Christmas. Unfortunately the cast and the jokes seem cribbed from every other Disney family sitcom I’ve seen — they have the same personalities, the same jokes, the same comic beats, every single time. Compared to this one, the Disney live-action family films of the 1960s look like high art.

Hopefully better stuff next letter. Now, moving on to the good films,  THE LADY IN THE VAN (2016) stars Maggie Smith as the eponymous homeless woman who winds up taking advantage of a writer’s (Alex Jennings) charity to move her mobile home into his driveway and stay. But is it really charity, he wonders, or is he just taking advantage of a potentially cool character he can turn to a story? Why doesn’t he treat his aged mother as well as this stranger? Well-performed (of course) and excellent, though unsettling in its tackling of eldercare issues. “You’re afraid she’s dead because then the story is over — and you’ll have to write it.”


WITHOUT A CLUE (1988) has a great premise, that John Watson is the real deductive genius who uses Holmes as his front man (“I was up for a position at a very conservative hospital so I credited my deductions to a friend — Sherlock Holmes.”), gets fed up with being portrayed as the dimwit sidekick, but decides to work on One Last Case before walking away. Ben Kingsley does a great job as the put-upon, brilliant Watson, but Michael Caine just doesn’t work as Holmes — he’s good at the slapstick, but he lacks Holmes’ intensity and energy, even as fake Holmes (Roger Moore was better). I’m glad I rewatched it, but I laughed a lot more the first go-round. With Peter Cook as Watson’s publisher, Lysette Anthony as a Bad Girl and Jeffrey Jones as a thick-headed Lestrade. “I’ve got it — Moriarty’s real name is Arty Morty!”

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Moriarty, retconned: The Valley of Fear (#SFWApro)

THE VALLEY OF FEAR, the final Sherlock Holmes novel, is Sherlockians’ best evidence that the Canon is, in a way, not canon. When Moriarty debuts in The Final Problem, Watson has never heard of him; in this retcon novel, set three years or so earlier, he’s fully familiar with the Napoleon of Crime.

(By the way, this is full of spoilers, so be warned).

The opening, as seen in the image (by Frank Wiles) has Holmes receive a message in code from Porlock, a lowly drone in Moriarty’s hive of criminal industry. Worried his boss suspects him, Porlock unfortunately doesn’t send the follow-up letter identifying the book the cipher refers to (the numbers refer to words on various pages). Holmes, being Holmes, identifies the book, then cracks the code: something is going to happen to a Mr. Douglas at Birlstone Manor. And sure enough, Inspector MacDonald (like Baynes in His Last Bow, he’s one of Doyle’s capable detectives) shows up to report Douglas has been murdered.

What follows is a surprisingly straight murder mystery. We have the body, we have the clues, we have the details that don’t fit (why did the killer remove Douglas’ wedding ring, then restore the ring that was above it on the finger?), and Holmes has to put them together. There’s no chasing or pursuing as happens in Study in Scarlet and Sign of Four, nor as many diversions as in Dartmoor in Hound of the Baskervilles. It turns out the victim is actually Douglas’ killer, shot with his own gun. After years of running from his enemies (as established earlier in the story), Douglas saw a chance to fake his death and thereby end the hunt.

Who was he running from? Much like Scarlet, Part II takes us back a couple of decades, to Vermissa Valley in the U.S. It’s a “valley of fear” under the grip of the brutal Scowrers, a miners’ brotherhood that’s turned into a network of crime, enriching itself through extortion of the mine owners. A tough guy, McMurdo, arrives, joins up and becomes our viewpoint character witnessing life in the valley of fear. When he gets word that ace Pinkerton detective Birdy Edwards is gathering information to break the Scowrers, McMurdo gathers the ringleaders to trap Edwards. When they arrive, McMurdo reveals they’re the ones in the trap, for “I am Birdy Edwards.” He’s been the hero all along (a twist which completely blindsided me — I’m sorry I’ve spoiled it for you). The Scowrers go down.

(This is loosely based on the Molly Maguires, a similar fellowship busted by the Pinkertons. There seems to be some debate whether they were really villains, dupes of a Pinkerton agent provocateur or something in between).

It’s a stronger story than the flashback in Study in Scarlet. And when we return to the present, Doyle shows again his willingness to have Holmes’ clients come to a bad end. Holmes knows Moriarty’s crime ring helped the killer (for a price, of course) and that Moriarty won’t let himself be seen to fail: Douglas and his wife need to run. They take an ocean voyage … but Douglas falls into the sea and drowns in “an accident.” After an entire novel establishing him as a good guy, it’s a shock. The only consolation is that when Holmes broods upon Moriarty’s sins at the end, we know the professor’s doom is already sealed …

I don’t know if Doyle got an itch to write Moriarty, or just thought that was an angle that would help sell the book. Either way, it’s a well-done novel with some delightful moments, such as Watson tweaking Holmes’ vanity early in the story.

Next month, Doyle’s last Holmes hort story collection.

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Sherlock Holmes’ Last Bow (#SFWApro)

Following The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle continued writing Holmes short stories on into WW I (and after, but we’ll get to that in a later post), as well as the novel The Valley of Fear (ditto). Then came the collection HIS LAST BOW, named for a short story that came out in 1917, detailing Holmes’ heroic fight against the German menace (illustration by Arthur Gilbert, taken from the Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia)

The story is set right before the war began. It opens on Von Bork, a German spy who by posing as a good sporting chap, always ready to keep up with the English in their games and fun, has wormed his way inside society and used that position to worm out information about England’s defenses and military plans. His main weapon has been Altamont, an Irish renegade and hoodlum, who’s quite happy to help Germany wreak havoc upon the English. Von Bork and his superior are very smug about how stupid and clueless the English are about what’s going to befall them. Von Bork actually tells Altamont that the August 1914 start of the war was planned for years in advance (nope).

Ah, those foolish Huns, underestimating British pluck and ingenuity! In reality Altamont is Sherlock Holmes on a deep-cover mission (four years!) to worm his way into Von Bork’s confidence. All the secret plans and valuable information he provided is bogus — the Germans are going to get a big shock when they take on Britain (by 1917 it was obvious Germany hadn’t been that clueless, but apparently nobody objected). At the end Holmes and Watson optimistically hope for a better world to arise from the war that’s coming (sigh).

The other stories are competent, but not particularly remarkable. The best is The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot in which Holmes and Watson investigate an almost supernatural death in the countryside. The Bruce-Parkington Plans is noteworthy for establishing that Mycroft, rather than a mere paper-pusher in the government, uses his deductive genius to forecast the outcome of multiple inter-related events and trends (“At times he is the British government.”)

Holmes shows the same enthusiasm for lawbreaking to get the job done that he did in Return. And like Return, this one treats the cops much better than the early stories did. Like the previous volume’s Stanley Hopkins, we have the capable Inspector Baynes in one story and even Gregson comes off more competent. Perhaps now that Holmes was established, Doyle didn’t feel the need to prove it by showing the Scotland Yarders as idiots.

In the introduction Doyle reveals that Holmes has indeed returned to retirement after the events of His Last Bow, devoting himself to beekeeping in Sussex and writing a masterwork on the subject. This, of course, is one of those details (like the two years after his supposed death) that later writers love to elaborate on: isn’t it more likely he was working for British intelligence say? And multiple later mystery writers have assumed that even in retirement, Holmes is still Holmes. A Taste of Honey by H.F. Heard has a beekeeper named “Mr. Mycroft” involved in a mystery. Laurie R. King has written a whole series of mysteries built around Holmes and his protege and later lover Mary Russell (hmm, I may have to look into those now). There’s even a theory Holmes developed an immortality serum based on royal jelly.

The two remaining volumes of Holmes’ adventures took place before his original 1902 retirement. I’ll get to them soon.

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Sherlock Holmes: the missing years (#SFWApro)

As I’ve mentioned before, Holmes fans were obsessing over continuity, inconsistency and details years before it became common for Trek, comics and other fandoms. And few things have inspired as much speculation as Holmes’ return in The Adventure of the Empty House.

As Holmes explains it to Watson, he faked his own death so that he could work secretly to entrap Moriarty’s remaining lieutenants, most notably ex-army officer and celebrated big-game hunter Col. Sebastian Moran. He spent the two years traveling in Tibert (under the pseudonym Sigerson), Persia, Mecca and researching “coal tar derivatives.” When Holmes deduces the murder of Ronald Adair — apparently shot at close range in an empty room — is Moran’s work, he returns to London to take the villain down.

The trouble is, Moran ambushed Holmes at Reichenbach in the moments after Moriarty falls to his death. It’s understandable lying low made more sense after that than Holmes returning publicly to London (Moran’s a crack shot), but why lie to Watson? If Moran already knew Holmes was alive, there’s no need for Watson to give a convincing show of grief. So what’s the real story?

One school of thought is that despite inconsistencies in Holmes’ account (there are practical problems with his course of travel that I won’t get into here), we should accept the story at face value: Holmes was away, he did have those explorations, case closed.

Another view is that he spent the two years working in London to take Moran and the other survivors of the Moriarty ring down. Watson knew this but didn’t want to admit it so Final Problem and Empty House offer an alternative sequence of events where Watson had no idea he was giving his readers a false yarn.

A popular view with romantics is that Holmes was away but not on the trip he told Watson (or that Watson offered to the public). He was in the U.S. working on various cases. He was acting as a secret agent for British interests, as he does later in His Last Bow. He spent at least part of the time on a romantic idyll withIrene Adler; there’s a school of thought that their child (depicted in Sherlock Holmes in New York) grew up to be fictional detective Nero Wolfe (all rights to image remain with current holder).

Then there are the wilder theories. Seven Percent Solution is built around the idea that Moriarty was a fantasy from Holmes’ cocaine-addled brain and that his time away involved clearing his head and kicking the drug habit. An earlier variation on the idea is that Holmes simply made up Moriarty to explain away some of his failures.

Other theories suggest that Holmes did, in fact, die at Reichenbach. Watson knew he could generate some extra money writing more Holmes stories, so he mixed real cases with made up ones. Or it was Moriarty, not Holmes who survived The Final Problem, and took his old foe’s place (a twist on this in one Wild, Wild West episode has a Holmes analog posing as Moriarty to give himself entertaining crimes to solve).

I don’t have a strong opinion on this myself, other than yes, Holmes would have told Watson he lived a lot sooner. Beyond that, the truth is anyone’s guess.

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The Return of Sherlock Holmes (#SFWApro)

So three years after Arthur Conan Doyle revisited Sherlock Holmes with The Hound of the Baskervilles, he bowed to popular demand by retconning away Holmes’ death in The Final Problem. Or, if you prefer, he decided to go back to his cash cow for a little more milk. Either way readers had the thrill of seeing Holmes alive and in action again in THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.

The opening story, The Adventure of the Empty House, (which will merit a separate post soon) reveals how Holmes used his knowledge of martial arts to throw Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls, then climbed to safety. However Moriarty’s most dangerous lieutenants were still at large, so he decided to fake his own death; even Watson couldn’t know, because he’d be watched and could never fake grief well enough to fool them.

(From Dancing Men but I’m not sure of the artist)

However Holmes recently deduced that Col. Moran, Moriarty’s murderous right hand, has committed a murder, returns to London and alongside Watson, takes the man down. Mary Watson having died, Watson moves back into Baker Street with Holmes (I suspect if Doyle had known there’d be so many Holmes stories, he’d never have married Watson off) and life resumes as before. Well, a little different: Holmes is off cocaine with Watson’s help, and he’s feeling very bored without Moriarty, which may be why he sometimes comments it would be more exciting to be a criminal. And the stories introduce a young, capable Scotland Yard detective Stanley Hopkins, though I don’t believe he appears much after this volume (and later writers invariably prefer Lestrade).

With the exception of The Second Stain, all the stories take place in the years following Holmes return, which is in the early 1890s; Watson is publishing them with Holmes’ consent because his friend has now retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs. I was surprised when I read that detail — I’d thought his retirement took place years later — but he did in fact, talk of retiring after busting Moriarty.

Holmes fan though I am, this is definitely a drop in quality from Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. There’s nothing specific I can put my finger on, but the stories don’t have the same spark as that collection or Hound. Still there’s plenty of good stuff here:

The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Why do simple stick figures drawn by a child plunge Holmes’ client’s wife into a panic? This is one of those where the ending is tragic, Holmes being just a little too late to save the day.

The Adventure of the Six Napoleons. What kind of lunatic would smash every bust of Napoleon he finds? Or … is he a lunatic

The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. Holmes’ client appears to be a murderer, but Holmes detects another, nastier scheme at work.

The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. I don’t think this is a great story (and several critics have pointed out Holmes’ getting engaged to a maid to further his scheme is pretty darn callous), but Milverton (according to my friend Ross, based on a real person) is an impressively nasty piece of work. A ruthless blackmailer, he’s poised to destroy Holmes’ client’s marriage by presenting her intended with some injudicious love letters she wrote. When Holmes suggests Milverton should accept a lower payment — otherwise he gets nothing — the man replies that in the long run ruining the woman will make other clients pay up, so it’s all good. He’s all the nastier for being an affable man, cheerful, not at all threatening in demeanor and sublimely confident he’s got the upper hand.

If not Doyle’s best work, there’s still no place like Holmes.

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