I admit, the above is possibly the most clickbait-y title I’ve ever used, and it’s a lead-in to some shameless self promotion.
I recently had the opportunity to contribute, alongside a number of other wonderful and erudite Sherlockians, to an anthology called About Sixty: Why Every Sherlock Holmes Story is the Best. I argued for my favorite story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here’s a sneak peak at why this story is not only the “best” (a slippery term), but also, in my view, the most culturally significant:
The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the most famous of Sherlock Holmes stories; it is certainly the most famous novel, and with good reason: if one were to choose a single story that perfectly embodies the cultural significance of Sherlock Holmes, then as well as now, this would be it.
The novel recounts how Watson and Holmes travel to Dartmoor to investigate the mystery of the “Hound of the Baskervilles,” a legend of a fantastic hound that has been reportedly killing members of the Baskerville family, and unearth a murder motivated by the desire for an inheritance. In short, it is a story in which the rational Sherlock Holmes is pitted against the supernatural, in the form of an ancient legend and a familial curse. This trope, or theme, of the ultra-rational Sherlock Holmes confronting the unexplainable supernatural, is one of the most popular in Sherlockian adaptations, pastiches, and retellings, returning again and again in every form and genre conceivable. And unsurprisingly: it gets at the heart of what Sherlock Holmes means, what he stands for.
For the answer as to how and why, though, you’ll have to check out the book. It’s released tomorrow, October 11th, and is available for purchase from Wildside Press. All proceeds go to the Beacon Society, which promotes the teaching of Sherlock Holmes in school, so that we can indoctrinate youths into the lifestyle that is Sherlockiana from an early age.
This is also the first time I’ve been published in a book, rather than a magazine or journal, and it’s also an exciting time for me! I look forward to sharing my thoughts with the world, though I admit, having something go out into the world in print and remain there forever does not come without a bit of trepidation!
One of the most wonderful things about being a Sherlockian is being part of an intelligent, intellectual, perceptive, and very talkative community. You’re never a Sherlockian on your own: ever since I delved into the world of Sherlockiana, I’ve been able to explore the ideas I’ve had about this character and his world with a myriad of other fascinating, interesting people. Consequently, I’ve written quite a bit about Holmes, based on my love for the character and his world, as well as on the wonderful discussions I’ve had. With so many people providing comments and perspectives on my write-up of the BSI weekend, I thought I’d round up all of my writing about Sherlock Holmes in one place so that the discussion can continue:
BSI Weekend 2016: Modernity, Anachronism, and Historical Nostalgia – this blog
“The Abominable Bride” Review – I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere
Canonical References in “The Abominable Bride” – this blog
Sherlock Holmes: The Original Fandom – Den of Geek
Book Review: The Thinking Engine – Cinema Sentries
“His Last Vow” Review – Screenspy
Canonical References in “His Last Vow” – this blog
“The Sign of Three” Review – Screenspy
Canonical References in “The Sign of Three” – this blog
Thoughts on “The Sign of Three” – this blog
“The Empty Hearse Review – Screenspy
The “Pulp-ification” of Sherlock Holmes – I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere
A Brief Introduction to Sherlockian Societies – I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere
Book Review: The Mistakes of Sherlock Holmes – I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere
“A Study in Scarlet and the Study of Mankind: Sherlock Holmes and Pope’s Essay on Man” – Baker Street Journal (not accessible for free)
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice Review – Blogcritics
Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the d’Urbervilles Review – Blogcritics
Sherlock on the BBC – Blogcritics
(Part 1 of my BSI Weekend 2016 write-up)
Last week, I attended, for the third time, what as referred to as the “Baker Street Irregulars Weekend,” though it’s really more like a week, lasting from Wednesday to Sunday. I’ve been meaning to write a post about my experiences attending one of these for several years now, but I think this year is about the right time to do it: my first two years, I was by far too starry-eyed to say anything coherent.
The reason I was so starry-eyed is because the Baker Street Irregulars is the primary Sherlock Holmes society in the world, started in the 1930s by author and publisher Christopher Morley. It has a long and illustrious tradition, and has influenced very much of Sherlockiana and the perception of Sherlock Holmes today. I would use the word “fandom” but it goes beyond that: the Baker Street Irregulars are a way of life, and almost an ideology. As a society, they are dedicated to the study of the Sherlock Holmes stories, referred to as “the Canon,” and membership is by-invitation only. Every year, they hold a dinner (similarly by invitation only) in New York City on January 6th, Sherlock Holmes’ birthday (which is not actually in the stories; in fact, there is nothing in the stories to suggest that it’s on January 6th. The reason we celebrate it on January 6th is because in The Sign of Four, Holmes and Watson are hungover on January 7th). However, though the dinner requires an invite, the rest of the week(end) is a full schedule of events that anyone can attend, and Sherlockians the world over convene in New York to celebrate the great detective – whom we call The Master.
This year has been a landmark BSI year for me, as I was invited to the BSI dinner for the first time (I’m not yet a member of the society itself, but one can hope). In keeping with the tradition of the event, which is meant to be secretive, mysterious, and even esoteric – and cannot be audio or video-taped – I will honor the intentions behind this grand event and won’t dwell too much on describing its details.
I can, however, say that the best description I’ve been able to come up with for the Baker Street Irregulars dinner is that it’s the annual get-together of a by-invitation-only literary society dedicated to the study of a fictional character, whom we pretend is real, and whose life and career was described in a series of texts we refer to as the Sacred Writings. Members are “invested” into the society on a mysterious basis using “investitures” that are phrases from the Canon – essentially, code names.
And when I put it like that, we do sound a bit insane. Which is quite all right, really.
In fact, I want to use this post to reflect on the culture of Sherlockiana – its beauty, and yet its irony. I have written, time and again, about the way that Sherlock Holmes is ultimately a highly modern figure, using the latest forms of technology, and representing secularism, reason, urbanization, industrialization – all those nineteenth century transformations. And yet the popular perception of him is so often nostalgic and anachronistic, of a Victorian figure in a deerstalker, back when there was fog and gas lamps and fireplaces and tea time in good old England. It’s a myth, and a romantic one, however inaccurate it is. However, it is not just the popular imagination that likes to associate Holmes with good old England – it is also Sherlockian culture that does it, however anachronistic it may seem. In fact, I would hazard a guess that much of this myth was constructed and propagated by the Baker Street Irregulars, many of whom were highly influential writers, actors, executives, lawyers, and politicians, among others, and who helped spread this myth.
In the early days of the BSI, Edgar W. Smith, the founder of the Baker Street Journal, referred to Sherlock Holmes as a “Galahad” from a time of Arthurian mythology and, in the first issue of the Journal, celebrated that very fog and gas lamps. G.K. Chesterton spoke of the stories as fairly tales, and Vincent Starrett, a Chicago man of letters, wrote the poem 221B, which is the best, most beautiful, and most poignant rendition of the myth and magic of Sherlock Holmes I’ve read, and these hallowed words are repeated at the end of every Sherlockian society meeting, including the BSI dinner:
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.
It’s also, obviously, completely anachronistic- but, as the poem itself says, “only those things the heart believes are true. And there’s a reason that, despite the lack of these historical trappings in the Canon, this is what we cling to. As historian Michael Saler notes in the excellent book As IF, the BSI, as well as much of Sherockian scholarship, came into being around the time of the Great Depression and continued through into WWII and the Cold War. And in those trying times, Sherlock Holmes lived in a nostalgic and idealized version of 1895 to which these people could return.
And yet, though it’s the 21st century, that escapism is alive. The irony of this anachronistic “antiquarianism” had puzzled me for many years, as I was surprised that the careful scholars and devotees of the Canon, who knew how modern a figure Sherlock Holmes was, indulge in this nostalgically inaccurate romanticizing. But this year, attending the BSI dinner, and examining the practices of the BSI (many of which date back to the 1930s and really haven’t changed), I think I’ve come to understand why they have been preserved the way they have.
Every epoch has its escapism, of course – we have our own fair share of modern political events that we want to flee from into the comforting rooms of Baker Street. But I also think it has much to do not only with escapism, but with enchantment. As the aforementioned Michael Saler points out in his book, the late nineteenth century was perceived by many (including the sociologist Weber, who theorized it) to be a period of disenchantment due to the march of technology and progress. But Sherlock Holmes, as Saler points out, re-enchanted modernity, finding the romance in reason, the mystery in the quotidian, the magical in the commonplace. “There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace,” he told Watson in A Case of Identity (this is, incidentally, probably the line upon which procedurals hinge, but that’s another topic for another day.
And that sense of (dis)enchantment is, I think, exactly what accounts for the practices of the BSI, which haven’t changed for the most part (which the exception of now allowing in women), and why I love them. I do, of course, rely on the conveniences of the twenty-first century, and wouldn’t ever wish to do without any of them – its transportation and communication technologies, its new forms of reference, and I similarly realize that there was nothing particularly magical or enchanting about the Middle Ages (the Plague and death in childbirth really don’t sound like fun). But there’s a certain joy in creating a magical, anachronistic version of a past reality. Just as readers did in the nineteenth century, we today want enchantment and magic in our convenient, technological, modern, positivistic lives. We want a sense of mystery and adventure, and yet reassurance, and the comforts of modernity. We as humans are picky, and difficult to please – for we want the conveniences of our cell phones, our trains and airplanes, or Wikipedia and Google, and yet while keeping these things, we want to preserve a sense of the magical and the mysterious in our modern world.
And that’s both influenced and kept alive the traditions of the BSI, I think. The Sherlock Holmes stories had mystery, intrigue, and enchantment in a modern world, and so does the BSI. A literary society with unwritten rules, with secretive meetings, with members given, essentially, code names (called “investitures,” they’re phrases taken out of the Canon), with a worldwide membership (but membership that must be earned, through a series of unnamed trials, which are not written down and never described) – well, that sounds like something out of a mystery novel. It’s like a combination of the eclectic membership of The Red-Headed League, the puzzles of The Dancing Men, the esoteric rituals of The Musgrave Ritual, the secret code of The Five Orange Pips, the ancient history of the Baskerville legend – all in one. We meet every year for the BSI dinner at the Yale Club, at which membership is exclusive, and you need an invitation to get in, and if you don’t think it looks like the Diogenes Club from the Canon, I don’t know what to tell you:
Its membership is limited to alums of Yale, and this system of university private clubs seems to have been inspired by British gentlemen’s clubs, of the kind to which Mycroft Holmes belonged. And, of course, Sherlock Holmes, being of respectable birth and having attended “college,” probably went to a respectable British university of exactly the kind that would have a club like this. Studying the Canon is called the Game, and it was inspired by Biblical scholarship at Oxford in 1911 – which gives it a long and illustrious history. At every dinner and gathering, poetic toasts are given to characters, places, and events from the Canon – yours truly has had the honor of giving one at a Sherlockian luncheon.
It’s a huge contrast to what one would call the “fandom” surrounding the newer adaptations like Sherlock and Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes –not because it’s somehow “less,” or less scholarly, or more frivolous, but because it’s based on an entirely different set of traditions. In the case of Sherlock, especially, the intriguing thing is that the show brings Sherlock Holmes back into modernity. It makes him, once again, a contemporary figure, as he would’ve been for his original readers, and not a historical one. I’ve always thought that Sherlock is actually the most accurate adaptation of Sherlock Holmes precisely because, instead of historicizing, it modernizes, which makes Sherlock fandom today rather analogous to Sherlock Holmes’ original readers. As Anne Jameson notes in an excellent book about fanfiction, Fic, fandom tends to be the first to pick up new forms of technology, because they are the ones striving to communicate with other fans and produce transformative work about the texts they like. This, of course, parallels the modernity of both Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in the most modern form of communication technology available to him (newspapers) as well as Sherlock fandom – which emulates his use of those contemporary forms of technology just like Victorian readers would have used the postal service (which had seven mail deliveries a day) to communicate with Doyle. In fact, there’s a lot of accuracy to both the modern technologies surrounding Sherlock and the fandom that uses them. At the same time, there’s a lot of history, and therefore cultural weight and significance around the BSI and their traditional way of studying and celebrating Sherlock Holmes.
Speaking to a friend of mine who regularly attends Sherlockian events, she told me that the BSI traditions are “preserved in amber” – left over from a previous time and preserved by devotees. By who knows how long those traditions will last? There’s been an influx of younger Sherlockians into the older traditions thanks to, ironically, the newer adaptations – and yet many of these younger Sherlockians are also part of Internet fandom. So as we get further into the new century, I wonder, will these traditions –which are almost a century old now – remain alive? Or will more modern forms of fandom replace these older traditions? Will they merge into some sort of weird Frankenstein-monster?
These are questions I’ve been left pondering. I have always been very pro-fandom, pro-Internet, pro-slash fiction, but at the same time, this weekend, and this dinner, has made me realize the value of keeping certain traditions alive, of preserving them, even in amber, even with their anachronism. That’s why I don’t mind how bizarre and, frankly, insane, we seem from the outside. There’s not only a method to the madness, there’s a meaning to the madness. As Vincent Starrett so eloquently said about Holmes and Watson, but which could very well be applied to Sherlockians:
“So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart: in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895.”
It’s become a popular tradition in Sherlockiana to go on a scavenger hunt for Canonical references every time a new episode of Sherlock airs. Since the series is made by two self-proclaimed Sherlock Holmes fanboys, every episode is consistently jam-packed with allusions and references to the Canon – so called Easter eggs. Yet, as one of the showrunners, Mark Gatiss, once stated in a DVD commentary, in their adaptation, “everything was Canonical…every version, we’re not just drawing on the stories but the Rathbone films, Jeremy Brett.” That is, the Canon, which, in the Sherlockian world, means the sixty Sherlock Holmes stories penned by Conan Doyle, and is sometimes referred to as the “Sacred Writings” is expanded by Moffat and Gatiss to include pastiches, sequels, adaptations, paratexts, and clichés. Simply put, they’re redefining the “source” of their show as not just the writings by Conan Doyle, but as pretty much every version of Sherlock Holmes that has ever appeared, including the arguably inaccurate version of him in the cultural imagination. The latter is something that I have referred to in other writings as the “intertextual” Holmes, and which Mattias Bostrom calls the “parallel” Holmes (as opposed to the original Holmes of the stories).
So when I say that this post is about the “Canonical” references in the Sherlock Christmas special, the “Abominable Bride,” I use “Canonical” in the way that Moffat and Gatiss use the term; that is, this post is about (some, as it would be virtually impossible to list every single one) references to every incarnation of Holmes that has any kind of cultural significance. Sherlock is an incredibly layered series, which rarely adapts a plot directly from the Doyle stories, but rather makes layer upon layer of references to both Watson’s writings and retellings. “The Abominable Bride,” however, is striking to me because it’s in this episode that it really became clear to me, I think, just how seriously Moffat and Gatiss take their “everything is Canonical” mantra. In fact, I’m pretty sure that at this point, they’re counting previous episodes of their own show as Canonical, because there’s plenty of Easter-Egg type allusions to them. Here, then, are the Canonical references that, to me, are either thematically significant, intellectually intriguing, or just plain interesting – with some meditations on how their use fits into the larger project of this episode.
The Five Orange Pips
Okay, so this one is arguably pretty obvious: in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, there’s a story called “The Five Orange Pips,” in which, unsurprisingly, several men receive five orange pips in the mail. It’s a coded warning from the KKK, and they all soon end up dead. The story is rather quaint, since to a British audience with no Internet access, the KKK would have appeared appropriately exotic, mysterious, and terrifying. It’s also why it’s transformed the way it is for the episode: a man does indeed receive five orange pips as a warning, but the hoods and chanting serve as a misdirect for those viewers who expect the KKK to be the culprits. Interestingly enough, Sherlock already referenced the pips in “The Great Game,” where they refer to Greenwich Time Signal, alternatively referred to as “the pips.”
“The Monstrous Regiment”
This is one of the titles suggested by Watson for the version of the story he ends up writing based on the events we just watched. A Monstrous Regiment of Women is also the title of the second installment in Laurie R. King’s famous series of Sherlockian pastiches, centering around the young detective Mary Russell and her relationship with Sherlock Holmes. The series has heavily feminist undertones, with serious explorations upon the limitations placed on women by Victorian and Edwardian society, and aptly forces the reader to confront the fact that if Sherlock Holmes’ brain were in a woman’s body, she’d be far less likely to have his fame and adventures. Given the feminist undertones of “The Abominable Bride,” which focuses on the role of women in the Victorian era and the Holmes stories, I can’t help but think that this is another clever reference.
“No Ghosts Need Apply”
Midway through the episode, we encounter Sherlock and Holmes lurking in the dark, waiting for the next appearance of the Abominable Bride, and discussing the case, and their relationship, at length. Watson keeps referring to the bride as a ghost, and Holmes tells him, frustratedly, “you may, however, rest assured there are no ghosts in this world.” This echoes multiple statements by Holmes in the Canon, who has always been skeptical about the existence of the supernatural. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he takes the stance that even if “forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature” exist, then “we are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses before falling back upon this one.” However, his statement in the episode even more closely echoes his claim in “The Sussex Vampire” that “the world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”
The Strand Magazine
During the (superb) opening credits of the episode, which are a historicized version of the regular opening credits, end with the image of the cover of the Strand magazine, which then transforms into a scene on Baker Street where Watson runs into a newspaper vendor and asks him how “The Blue Carbuncle” (another Holmes story) is selling. Though details about how or where Watson publishes Holmes’ exploits are vague (he refers once to a “brochure”), the Strand was the magazine that serialized the Sherlock Holmes stories and catapulted both him and Conan Doyle to international fame.
Sidney Paget was the British illustrator of the Holmes stories in the Strand magazine, and it is his illustrations, with the deerstalker cap and pipe, that have codified that image as Holmes in the popular imagination. In fact, the following silhouette of Holmes is universally recognizable precisely because of Paget:
It looks, rather strikingly, like a particular shot from the episode:
Paget’s illustrations, which would have appeared next to the stories in their original print run, are what contemporary media studies would call a “paratext” – something that is not directly part of the text itself, yet influences the way it is received. Paget has had such a significant influence in that respect that he has become part of what is Canonical, and is thus referenced multiple times in the episode. Moriarty, for example, asks “does he follow you around? Do you pose?” The deerstalker appears in an early scene, when Watson makes Holmes put it on in a scene directly taken from “The Reichenbach Fall” (“you’re Sherlock Holmes. Wear the hat”), another allusion to the hat as part of the “definition” of Holmes.
The fact that this episode is set in Victorian times, however, also gives the episode the opportunity to adapt the Paget illustrations in another way: by creating scenes that are direct replicas of certain particularly famous Paget illustrations, such as the following:
Watson’s an Unreliable Narrator
The fact that Watson is an unreliable narrator has been a running gag in the Sherlockian fandom since, well, pretty much forever. In the Canon, Holmes constantly complains that Watson romanticizes the “exact science” of detection, which is akin to working “a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” Plus, there’s the fact that Sherlockian chronology is notoriously persnickety, since Watson constantly messes up dates and can’t remember if his wife is alive or dead in a particular story – something often explained away by Watson’s terrible memory. This becomes a different kind of running gag in “The Abominable Bride,” where the difference between the real Holmes and Watson’s Holmes is made painstakingly obvious every time someone (usually Sherlock) argues with Watson about the verisimilitude of his stories (Mrs. Hudson complains that she never does anything but show people up the stairs; Sherlock constantly points out that he doesn’t “say that” or “talk like that,” etc…) By the end, however, it becomes clear that this difference is manufactured by Watson in purpose, who follows Holmes around, pretending to be stupider than he actually is to make the detective look smart. Watson might be romanticizing Holmes just as much here as he does in the Canon, might be presenting a certain version of Holmes to the public, but it is an entirely calculated move.
“The Great Falls of the Reichenbach”
No, not the place in Switzerland, the Turner painting. It shows up several times in this episode, including hanging in Mycroft’s room. This painting has previously appeared in Sherlock in “The Reichenbach Fall,” where Sherlock recovers it after it’s stolen. There, of course, it serves as a reference to “The Final Problem,” in which Holmes confronts Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Here, it serves as a reference both to this confrontation (with which the episode ends) and to “The Reichenbach Fall,” since the conceit of the episode is to explore the possibility of Moriarty surviving the end of that episode.
“The Crack in the Lens”
While awaiting the ghost of the “Abominable Bride,” Holmes and Watson get into a rather heated (and suggestive) argument, as Watson insists that Holmes has feelings that he won’t open up about. In response, Holmes claims “all emotion is abhorrent to me. It is the grit in a sensitive instrument. The crack in the lens.” This, of course, is a direct quote from A Scandal in Bohemia, the first Holmes story, which Watson starts off by explaining why Holmes is not in love with Irene Adler:
It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer – excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.
That paragraph is perhaps one of the most problematic in the entire Canon, because if one reads the stories closely enough, it becomes clear that Holmes does, actually, have feelings. He cares very deeply about Watson, as he proves in “The Three Garridebs,” and the queer readings of Holmes never tire of pointing out that there’s ample subtext in the Canon (perhaps that’s why this conversation between two men in the dark is so suggestive). Furthermore, these lines were written by Watson, who, as discussed above, is generally accepted to be a pretty unreliable narrator of the Canon, which makes them even more problematic.
That’s probably why, in response to Holmes’ words, Watson snaps “No, I wrote all that. You’re quoting yourself from The Strand Magazine….Those are my words, not yours! That is the version of you that I present to the public. The brain without a heart. The calculating machine. I write all of that, Holmes, and the readers lap it up.”
Just as Watson is, Canonically, an unreliable narrator that makes paragraphs like the above difficult to interpret, “The Abominable Bride” has amply established that Watson is, indeed, a (purposefully) unreliable narrator, which is perhaps why this allusion works so well. It points to one of the most difficult-to-interpret paragraphs of the Canon and practically shouts “it’s not accurate! Watson’s misleading you on purpose! Don’t believe it!”
“I always survive the Fall”
Sherlock Holmes makes this statement right before jumping off the Reichenbach cliff. The jump itself is a re-enactment of “The Reichenbach Fall,” in which he jumped off the roof of St. Bart’s. In fact, the two were so similar they may very well have re-used footage. So, this is a nice little network of references, since Holmes here at the setting of “The Final Problem” is re-enacting his fall from the Sherlock episode that adapts “The Final Problem.” However, his jump is also a refusal to answer Watson, who asks how Holmes could possibly survive that kind of fall. I see two references here. The first is to the 1964 Study in Terror, which was referenced in “The Empty Hearse” in the same context: that of explaining how Sherlock could’ve survived his death. Like in the film, where Holmes refuses to explain how he could’ve escaped from a blazing inferno, Sherlock refuses to tell us explicitly how he survived, leaving us to use his methods to deduce it (“You know my methods. Use them,” he says in the film). At the same time, it’s a reference to the fact that Holmes, as a character, will always survive and live on in the cultural imagination. If Moriarty tried to destroy the myth of Holmes by killing him, then he failed yet again, as Sherlock Holmes survives to live on.
While thinking through a new article idea today (about Sherlock Holmes, of course, and yes, I have about five of those), I started thinking about detective fiction, detecting, and the process of reading. While there’s still much thinking to be done before I come to a thesis on that particular topic, I did remember a piece I’d written on the subject a few years ago. I thought it’d be relevant to dig it out and repost it, as I do quite like the piece. It is entitled, as one might surmise…
The Sherlock Holmes Method of Literary Analysis
It was at some point during the twenty-four-hour cycle we call “the day,” and the line between night and morning was becoming just as blurry as the text before my eyes. The play count of several select songs on my iTunes had increased significantly, contributing largely to my feeling of accomplishment, copious amounts of graphite had been left on the pages of a well-worn book in the form of notes and underlining, and I was almost finished with my essay on Wilde’s artistic philosophy as presented in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It was in that bleary-eyed state that I went for a stroll through the utterly deserted Hyde Park in Chicago. As a part of my brain wondered whether there was another human being left on the planet – hardly likely, it seemed in that complete and utter emptiness – the rest of it considered how well some of Sherlock Holmes’ statements about crime solving applied to literary study.
Of course, that idea is nothing new. That’s what the whole idea of playing “The Game” is about.
If you don’t know what “The Game” is, allow me to explain.
“The game is afoot!” figures among those famous Sherlockian quotes that pop up ubiquitously along with “elementary” and “you see, but you do not observe.” To Sherlock Holmes, that phrase meant that there was a crime to be solved, a challenge to be faced. To us Sherlockians, the notoriously obsessed, it also means that there’s a mystery to unravel. It means pretending that Sherlock Holmes was real and applying his sleuthing skills to fill in the gaps in the Canon. Gaps such as trying to figure out what happened to Holmes’ cocaine habit after The Final Problem, or finding the location of Watson’s strangely mobile war wound.
But what occurred to me during those early morning hours is that those sleuthing skills apply not simply to speculating about how many times Watson was married (between two and six, depending on whom you ask). They apply to writing the kind of literary criticism that the aforementioned essay on The Picture of Dorian Gray involved.
“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts,” Holmes states in A Scandal in Bohemia.
The above quote embodies the first rule of the study of literature. One does not come up with a thesis and then look for evidence to support that thesis in the book. One lets the book speak. Each quote, symbol, image, color, literary reference, each word, really, is one piece of data. All the pieces of data must be weighed and examined. Then (in my case, at least), lots of logorrhea must ensue, during which thoughts become theories and theories are refined and perfected. And then a thesis emerges. Which makes it sound, of course, like throwing a bunch of pieces of data into a brain-machine, cranking it up, and coming out with a thesis. That’s not inaccurate: Holmes is described by Watson as a reasoning machine, and I like to be able to immodestly say that I emulate his methodical process.
But the ability to reason like a machine is not the only important one. In The Sign of Four,Holmes outlines “three qualities necessary for the ideal detective.” They are: “the power of observation, the [power] of deduction, knowledge.” The literary critic is also a sort of detective, searching for Truth (or a publishable thesis, as the case may be), and those three qualities are invaluable.
Observation: to know what to look for, to notice themes and images and be able to pick out the significant phrases from a text. To notice the imagery of light in a text dealing with knowledge, or in a science fiction novel – such as the fire at the end of Frankenstein. Knowledge – the knowledge of what those themes and images mean, of literary history and context and the influence of both upon the text in general, of what the author knew and how that could have influenced him or her. The knowledge that light is a metaphor for knowledge, for example, or that the word “miracle” comes from the Latin word “to look.” Deduction – the ability to apply knowledge to observations and make deductions. To deduce, for example, that Frankenstein’s death in a fire at the end of the novel symbolizes his destruction through knowledge.
All of that makes it sound, of course, as if books have one clear, unarguable message; that each classic contains one Truth that is as impossible to contradict as the results of Sherlock Holmes’ hemoglobin test. Which just really isn’t true. Literature does have wrong answers, I would argue, but it doesn’t have one right answer. It has right answers. It’s the search for those answers, and what they mean to us, that makes literature meaningful. A wonderful teacher once said to me that when you come up with a thesis that applies to a work of literature, it “clicks.” Really, I think this is true. There will be certain theories about literature that will feel “right.” They will feel like the truth, even if it’s the truth of one’s subjective world, and Sherlock Holmes just might have had something to do with finding that truth.
Obviously, there’s more than three of them in the latest Sherlock epiosde, but a particular three caught my eye – ones that I consider to be slightly more obscure, and slightly more interesting than a simple adaptation of plot or name. Here (a bit belatedly) are my favorite subtle nods to the Canon in this episode.
John’s International Reputation
In the aftermath of John and Sherlock’s stag night, we see the two of them lying drunkenly on the stairs of 221b; Sherlock asks John “do you have an international reputation?” after bragging about his own. John, modest as ever, says that no, of course he doesn’t have an international reputation.
How very wrong he is, and how that made me shout with glee. John “three continents” Watson. The nickname stems from a line in The Sign of Four, where Watson himself says
“In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face…”
And there you have it, ladies and gentleman; John Watson is a player, a lover, a ladies’ man, with experience on three whole continents and, presumably, a number of different nations on each continent. He’s so very modest about it (despite his string of five or so wives, which probably explain everything), but a man who’s slept his way through three continents must have a reputation.
And there, I think, is another subtle nod by Sherlock at the Canon and at John’s supposed reputation.
Sherlock’s a Drama Queen
At least, that’s what Watson thinks. “You’re a drama queen!” he shouts at Sherlock at the climax of “The Sign of Three,” and yet again he’s hit upon the truth.
Throughout the Canon, Watson makes it a point to underline just what a drama queen Sherlock Holmes actually is. Canonically, he really, really can’t resist a dramatic situation: throughout the stories, he stages big, dramatic reveals; in “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” he actually sneaks a stolen jewel into the thief’s pocket, tricks the thief to admit that possession of the stone would be incriminating, and then dramatically pulls the aforementioned stone out of his pocket. He spends a whole story putting on an act and pretending to die, parades through the stories in a variety of believable disguises ( clergymen, manual laborers, and women among them), and…oh yes, there was that actual time he “died,” which was also just an act. Watson constantly compares Holmes to “a conjuror performing a trick” (“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”), and, most significantly, he claims “the stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoned, when he became a specialist in crime.” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)
Sherlock Holmes is, indeed, canonically a drama queen, and I thank John Watson for pointing that fact out.
Or, alternatively, the poor, long-suffering Sherlock’s woes. One of the themes of the Canon (or, at this point, one of the clichés) is that of Watson writing up a case only to have Holmes complain about the “romanticism” in it and all that emotional and unnecessary stuff in the story. Poor Holmes, having Watson tinge his pure science of deduction with feelings. From the very second Holmes story ever published (The Sign of Four), Holmes complains about the way Watson writes up their cases, including their very first one, A Study in Scarlet. Holmes insists that the whole romanticism thing is about as bad as working “an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid,” but Watson, bless his heart, insists that “the romance was there.”
So when Holmes, during his wedding speech, states several times that “John a romantic,” I think it’s an allusion to more than John’s sentimental tendencies (though it’s that, too). It’s a nod to the canon, and to the fact that Watson does, indeed, tend to see everything through an emotional lens, and that’s how he writes his stories. Sherlock Holmes, even if he feels (and of course he does), tends to view the world through a more rational, and more scientific lens, and that’s of course why these two characters complement each other so well. So, it’s a nod to that, too – the differences between these two people, but also their similarities.
A fun fact: canonically, Sherlock Holmes’ birthday is on the 6th of January.
Of course, it doesn’t actually say this anywhere in the Canon. Nevertheless, we Sherlockians, who have undertaken the challenge of The Great Game, have deduced that Sherlock Holmes’ birthday must be on January 6th.
In honor of this fact, every year in January, Sherlockians from all over the world gather in New York for the Baker Street Irregulars Weekend (which is less a weekend and more like five days of Sherlockian shenanigans). Though the Baker Street Irregulars themselves convene on Friday for a by-invitation-only dinner, the other events are open to all Sherlockians.
This year, for the first time, I have the chance of attending the Weekend. I’ll be flying out tomorrow and staying all the way through Sunday, and in the meantime attempting to fit in as many events as humanely possible. Though it remains to be seen how much free time I’ll have in between running all over Manhattan in the cold, but the plan is to blog my way through the weekend. I won’t be the only one doing so – I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere will doubtless be dedicating a few posts to the weekend. Nevertheless, I, too, plan to make my small contribution to commemorating the weekend with thoughts and reminiscences. If you’re interested, to stay tuned – all my experiences of the Weekend will be posted here in the coming days.
As a final note: I suppose this is not exactly directly related to television itself, though the argument could be made that it is indeed related to a particular television show named Sherlock. Nevertheless, at this point Sherlock Holmes has become such a cultural icon (references to whom seem to exist in every television show ever made, ever), that it seems more than appropriate to blog about this cultural phenomenon here.
Watching Sherlock is often like a scavenger hunt. It’s written by people who are intimately familiar with the Holmes Canon (though I question some of their interpretations of it, such as their opinions on Irene Adler, but that’s a different story), and always manage to add deft little hints and subtle references to the canonical stories in addition to the more glaring references. Watching for them is always an extra layer of enjoyment to the already enjoyable episodes. And, though I suspect that I’m neither the first nor the last person who’s made this kind of post, I thought I’d make a list of (and short commentary on) what I found to be the most interesting nods to the canon in “His Last Vow”.
Charles Augustus Magnussen
This is the fairly obvious reference, but let’s delve into it a little more.
One of the most interesting stories in the Canon is “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” It’s frequently cited as a favorite, and with good reason. It’s a fascinating story in which Watson and Holmes take the law and justice into their own hands: recognizing that blackmailer Milverton cannot be taken down by traditional means, they resolve to break into his home with the intention of stealing back incriminating documents to preserve a lady’s honor. Breaking and entering isn’t all they do, though; they take the law into their hands even further when they end up finding Milverton, a gun being held to his head by a lady he blackmailed (a scene easily recognizable in “His Last Vow” as the scene with Mary Morstan in Magnussen’s office). Instead of intervening, Holmes and Watson watch calmly as he shoots him point-blank, deciding that his death (and her honor) are for the greater good.
The story raises a lot of fascinating questions about the role Sherlock Holmes plays in finding justice. Does he simply seek knowledge and the truth, or is it his duty, in solving cases, to serve justice rather than truth? It’s a thorny problem that becomes most apparent here, and Sherlockians love to debate the morality involved. It’s a problem that also seems to come up in “His Last Vow,” though less glaringly – Holmes clearly shot Magnussen to protect John, Mary, his brother, and the country at large, and yet he committed a murder. (If you’re looking for shades of grey, you’ve found them. Go forth and discuss!)
What’s most fascinating, though, is that the above makes Milverton one of the scariest, deadliest villains in the canon. He even outclasses Moriarty, because Moriarty was a plot device invented by Doyle to kill off Holmes. Moriarty doesn’t really have a personality in the Canon, and it’s only in show that he acquires one, thanks to Moffat, Gatiss, and co. Milverton, however, holds the entirety of British society in the palms of his hands, and he has no qualms about it – to the point where Holmes must take the law into his hands.
So when Sherlock Holmes says “I’ve dealt with murderers…psychopaths….none of them can turn my stomach like Charles Augustus Magnussen,” he’s pretty exactly right. Milverton/Magnussen is about as terrifying as Moriarty, if not more. In the canon, Holmes compares him to the devil himself, and I think it’s actual canonical reference, rather than television melodrama, that makes Sherlock describe Magussen in such terrifying terms. He was one scary villain.
Sherlock’s Engagement to Janine
If you thought that was what one might call a “dick move,” you are correct. Sherlock Holmes pretended to date, and then proposed, to Janine for the sake of getting information and breaking into Magnussen’s office. It’s really, really not a nice thing to do.
It’s also completely canonical; in fact, it’s a rather funny scene from the aforementioned Charles Augustus Milverton story:
“You would not call me a marrying man, Watson?”
“You’ll be interested to hear that I’m engaged.”
“My dear fellow! I congrat-“
“To Milverton’s housemaid.”
“Good heavens, Holmes!”
“I wanted information, Watson.”
While the scene itself is quite amusing, one cannot help but pity the poor housemaid, who is not heard from again in the story. Thankfully, in this particular adaptation, Janine is more than a match for Sherlock, and takes her revenge without being too evil about it. Still, Sherlock Holmes has a canonical reputation for being a very unpleasant person when he needs to solve a case or get information, a point clearly made here. Nevertheless, Sherlock also has a capacity to care very deeply about John Watson, despite his not-so-gentlemanly behavior to Janine- another point the episode clearly makes.
Cottage on the Sussex Downs
“I’m buying a cottage,” Janine informs Sherlock as soon as he wakes up from being shot. After a back-and-forth full of quips and insults, Sherlock inquires “where’s the cottage?”
“Sussex Downs. It’s gorgeous. There’s beehives, but I’m getting rid of those.”
It’s an off-hand reference that’s easy to miss, but it’s actually quite clever. In the canon, Sherlock Holmes retires (a rather sad ending for the great detective. I’d have preferred for him to go out with a bang, but that’s me) to the Sussex Downs, where he spends his time keeping bees. Now, I’m now quite sure why this reference came up in this particular context, and it remains to be seen whether this cottage or Janine will show up again, but even if it’s an off-hand reference that will never be returned to again, it’s an interesting one.
When Mary Morstan hands a flash drive with her “real” (well, that’s questionable but let’s assume they’re real) initials on it, they say A.G.R.A. We don’t find out what they stand for (much as we don’t find out very much about Mary at all), but the initials themselves are a reference, once again, to canon. A simple one this time: “The Great Agra Treasure” is a chapter from The Sign of Four, the Holmes novel in which Mary Morstan is introduced (and in which Watson falls in love with and marries her).
The Empty House
“The Adventure of the Empty House” is the story in which Sherlock Holmes returns from the dead. He dresses up as a bookseller, Watson doesn’t recognize him, he shows up at Watson’s place, Watson faints, and then it’s all good…they team up again, and go after Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s right-hand man. They lure him out by putting a silhouette of Holmes in the window of 221b, knowing that sharpshooter Moran would be looking for an opportunity to kill Holmes, and observe the events from an empty house across the street from 221b.
If you’re reading that and raising your eyebrows, you’re correct, because almost none of that showed up in any way in the previous two episodes. There was no empty house, and, even more suspiciously, no Moran. Thankfully, said empty house finally shows up in the episode, in the form of a façade hiding train tracks (a clever adaptation, I thought). Inside that empty house is a silhouette that looks like Sherlock Holmes, but actually isn’t; this time, it’s meant to lure out Mary Morstan.
Given these similarities to “The Empty House,” though, there’s one thing missing: Moran. Canonically, we know he’s a sharpshooter, and quite deadly – rather like Mary, who manages to toss a coin into the air and shoot it accurately. Coincidence? I think not. My personal theory is that Mary Morstan is indeed Sebastian Moran, but that, like so much other theorizing, is far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, this episode finally touches on many of the canonical aspects of Sherlock’s return, and I’m glad of it.
Sherlock’s (lack of a) drug habit
Edit: it’s been brought to my attention that many viewers consider that Sherlock Holmes is, in fact, back to doing drugs in this episode. I must, respectfully, disagree – my interpretation of the episode is precisely that Sherlock Holmes has not returned to his habit, a fact I find significant, and which – given the conflicting interpretations – I think it may be interesting to delve into.
Early on in the episode, we find Sherlock Holmes in a den of druggies, presumably high, though he insists that he’s working on a case. John and Mycroft are both angry but unsurprised- after all, Sherlock’s drug habit is canonical: in the second Holmes novel, he calmly injects himself with a “seven percent solution” of cocaine while Watson off-handedly asks “what is it today, cocaine or morphine?” That drug habit is something Sherlock also references, most notably with the drugs bust and “three patch problem” of A Study in Pink.
However, there are a few aspects that make me think Sherlock Holmes is not on drugs. There’s the fact that they can’t find any in his apartment (for the big secret he’s hiding in his bedroom is Janine). Most importantly, though, Sherlock has a canonical tendency to do drugs when he’s bored because there’s no case. It’s something Sherlock himself admits to in this very episode: he solves cases “as an alternative to getting high.” Now, in this case, he is on a case. He’s after Magnussen – making it, to me, unlikely he’d be doing much more than smoking a cigarette. Plus, the whole idea was to make project the image of a druggie in order to make Magnussen underestimate him – hence, actually being high and impeding his ability to think seems pretty counterproductive. Of course, there’s also the scene with Molly, which to me seems a little ambiguous – I can’t quite make out the tone in which she says “clean.” Admittedly, she’s angry and slaps him -but Molly also has a history of being in on a lot of Sherlock’s elaborate schemes, and I find it more than plausible that she wanted everyone to believe Sherlock was on drugs (John included, because apparently John can’t be trusted with…well, anything).
Why do I think that’s interesting? Because, canonically, Sherlock Holmes’ drug habit disappears during the Great Hiatus. When Watson first meets Holmes in the canon, Holmes is doing drugs left and right (this was legal back in the Victorian period). It takes Watson a while to catch on, and he sort of informs Holmes off-handedly how harmful it is, but doesn’t really worry about it too much. Then Holmes “dies,” disappears for three years, and comes back completely clean. His drug habit is never mentioned again. It’s just …not there. It’s easy to write that off to Doyle’s absentmindedness, but fans have come up with a number of much more plausible and interesting theories. One of them, detailed in the pastiche “The Seven-Percent Solution,” suggests that Holmes sought help for his drug problem from Freud. Whatever the explanation may be, however, the point remains that Sherlock Holmes’ very famous drug addiction completely (and rather unbelievably) disappears during his “death.” To me, the reference here is that everyone seems to expect Sherlock to be continuing his drug habit – the people closest to him included. But if you look closely (to me, at least) – that drug habit is gone. Sherlock’s different.
The East Wind
In John and Sherlock’s final scene, Sherlock tells John “the east wind takes us all in the end.” It’s a phrase he mentioned earlier in the episode, and he explains that it’s from a story Mycroft used to tell him:
“The east wind…this terrifying force that lays waste to all in its path…seeks out the unworthy and plucks them from the Earth.”
This sounds like it comes out of nowhere, but, like so many other things in this episode, it’s yet another canonical reference – this time to “His Last Bow,” the story whose title was transformed into the title of this episode. The story in itself is rather lackluster, but it does feature Sherlock Holmes as an undercover agent among the Germans during World War I, and the general theme of the story is that a new age is coming, a new world. Sherlock Holmes is ready to step into that world, to accept the changes that are coming (and WWI was truly a turning point in European history – a war of a magnitude and a brutality unseen before on European soil).
At the end of the story, Holmes asks Watson, “stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have.” (Quite reminiscent of Sherlock’s statement at the end of this episode that it’s likely the first time he’ll ever see John). In the canonical story, Holmes calls Watson “the one fixed point in a changing age,” before poetically going on about the future:
“There’ s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast.”
There’s a number of literary explanations to be derived from this reference that are beyond the scope of this post – after all, I’m not here to theorize about what’ll be happening in season four (at least, not yet. That’s to come). Nevertheless, I think it’s telling. We’ve seen so many changes happen over the past few seasons, including changes to the character of Sherlock himself, and I think we’ll see even more transformations coming. (Incidentally, that’s why I don’t believe Moriarty is actually back, despite what the cliffhanger says. I think what’s coming is some kind of change that we couldn’t even begin to predict, to the story and the characters).
There’s likely a number of other interesting references here and there throughout the episode, but these are both the ones that come to mind and the ones that I find most interesting from a literary point of view.
At this point, this little fact is a bit…belated, but nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not brag a little here, of all places.
I have recently had the honor of being published in the Baker Street Journal, the formost publication of Sherlockian studies, which has been publishing said Sherlockian scholarship for decades.
Unfortunately, to read the article in question one must have a subscription to the journal (either through the journal site itself, or through a university library). The most I can do is direct my readers to the table of contents, and suggest that they take a look at the Baker Street Journal if they so have the chance – it publishes some wonderful scholarship (if I do say so myself).