Friday, January 27, 2012

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.

For example:

“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. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Monday Masterpiece: Procession on Good Friday by Darío de Regoyos y Valdés

The first post (finally!) of what I hope will be a long tradition of presenting artworks and some of my amateur art-lover thoughts on them.

If you’re slightly put off by the above image and find it unexciting….keep reading (though if it sparks your interest, keep reading also).

That was also my first response to this work when I saw it at the Musee de l’Orangerie’s exhibit on Spain titled L’Espagne Entre Deux Siecles.On second glance, I was convinced that this was a very clever piece of artwork. In fact, it’s a brilliant illustration of the way in which a painter can use a composition to turn objects and people into ideas. 

This painting symbolizes three ages in history. Below, the procession of the monks, that is the Middle Ages, a time of faith.  Above it is a Roman bridge – the distinctive rounded arch is a feature of Roman and Romanesque architecture. It symbolizes both ancient Rome and the Renaissance – both times of thought and scientific advancement. And above that, the locomotive symbolizes the modern age, the Industrial Revolution. It’s no coincidence that the train is speeding along on the bridge: after all, the advancements of the Industrial Revolution could not have happened without the Renaissance, without the re-awakening of knowledge. And so the technological progress of the nineteenth century is here, quite literally, supported by earlier ideas, an earlier scientific age.

This sort of vertical composition also implies a hierarchy. Though the painting is titled The procession of Good Friday, the procession – and belief, which it represents – are found in the bottom part of the painting. Both the bridge and the locomotive tower above it, literally. The train blows its steam into an iridescently blue sky, an ethereal blue that contrasts with the dry, dead yellow color of the ground. That steam resembles clouds, as if man had made his way to the sky and reached the clouds. And indeed, a few decades later, man would learn to fly and airplanes would overtake trains.

This is a particularly interesting idea in the context it was in: the exhibit I found the painting in was focused on Spain “between two centuries,” the nineteenth and the twentieth. It was a time of turmoil as the nation simultaneously clung to the past and looked to the future. Here, we see a response to that turmoil, and a hint of the future. 

Sherlock Holmes and "Normality"

I would wager that the average person, if asked to describe Sherlock Holmes, would quite probably mention a detective in an armchair, smoking his pipe, putting his fingers together, and saying “elementary, my dear Watson.” The famous deerstalker cap might come up, too, as well as Holmes courteously questioning his clients and coming to a conclusion without leaving the house.

If you asked that same person whether Sherlock Holmes is “normal,” (s)he would probably say yes. A bit eccentric, perhaps, incredibly smart, but a “normal” British gentleman.

“You have really done very well indeed. It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method…”

That, if the reader allows us a quote from A Case of Identity, is quite probably what Sherlock Holmes would say.

Of course, “normality” is one of those words that require quotation marks every time I use them. It’s quite possible that I have a profound fear of making an outrageous or unsupportable claim about something so relative as what is “normal.”  But, whatever the reasons, the point remains that “normality” is subjective. Standards change across time and distance.

With that said, I’d like to point out how, well, not “normal” Sherlock Holmes is.

It’s no secret (to Sherlockians, at least) that Holmes never actually says “elementary, my dear Watson,” in the stories. That comes from a film. He also never actually wears the famous deerstalker cap, which is the invention of illustrator Sidney Paget. And as for the pipe, well, Holmes seems to alternate between that and his cocaine addiction.

In fact, when we first meet Sherlock Holmes in in A Study in Scarlet, he comes off as arrogant and eccentric, has an obsession with crime, the IQ of a criminal mastermind, and a complete ignorance of the fact that the earth goes around the sun.  Instead of being the rather altruistic detective who sacrifices himself to free the world of the greatest criminal mastermind, he complains about the lack of criminality:

“There are no crimes and no criminals in these days,’ he said querulously. “What is the use of having brains in our profession?”

Yet the image of Sherlock Holmes that remains in our minds is the one I began this article with. That image is accurate if one reads nothing but The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. In those stories, Holmes is an entirely different man from the one we first meet. He does, indeed, appear to be a normal British gentleman, quotes Goethe, and often laments his inability to prevent a crime.

So, what happened? Why is Holmes so different in the first two novels than in the stories, and why is the latter image of him more prevalent?

I think it would be safe to claim that the most popular Sherlock Holmes books are The Adventures and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes; even in Doyle’s time, they were far more famous than the two novels that introduced him, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Thus, it seems safe to assume that, given two rather antithetical images of Holmes, the more prevalent one comes from the more famous stories.

But then the question remains: why this discrepancy? That is, if one does not write it off as an error on Doyle’s part, what happened? Did Holmes change and, if so, why?

One possible reading is the influence Watson had on Holmes.  Watson, dear Watson, sometimes comical, always at a loss as to where Sherlock gets his conclusions from, but a loyal friend and chronicler…Holmes finds him indispensable and cannot work without his Boswell. May we deduce from this close relationship between the two that Watson has actually changed Sherlock?  That their “intimate relationship” changed Holmes from a slightly sociopathic loner to a more sociable, though still “Bohemian,” soul?

In any case, one may do well to remember that the original Holmes that readers were introduced to was not the calm, educated gentleman. He’s a man who probably hasn’t heard of Shakespeare. Which raises the question: does the impression we have of the detective come, perhaps, from seeing what we want to see?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: The Scar Crow Men - Mark Chadbourn

It’s been said once, it’s been said a million times: sequels are hard.

Mostly, that’s because the author has to compete with his own originality. A first novel of a series often introduces a stunning magical world that will whisk the readers away by its very originality. In a sequel, however, the novelty of a faraway land fades away; the unexpected becomes familiar. Hence, the characters, plot, storytelling and humor in a sequel need to be pretty damn amazing to make up for what’s lost in novelty. The author can’t just do the same thing – he has to do something twice as good.

That, unsurprisingly, is the problem with Mark Chadbourn’s The Scar-Crow Men. It’s a sequel. 

It's set in the same intricate, but now familiar world, a magical Elizabethan England, and continues the story begun in The Silver Skull of Will Swyfte and Walsingham's band of spies (though Walsingham is dead by this point) in their fight against the Unseelie Court. Chadbourn's originality in the ways he intertwines history and myth is still stunning: the Plague becomes the doing of the Unseelie Court, Marlowe's Faustus actually conjures up a devil...but the characters and plot are less engaging this time around, and that, coupled with a familiar world, is a death sentence for a story.

In my previous review of The Silver Skull, I explained the kind of characters that we women like to develop infatuations with (and who are heroic enough for men to probably like reading about them too). We like our bitter, cynical, disenchanted yet heroic men...we really, really don't like it when those men whine about it. Perhaps two hundred years ago, back when Romanticism was all the vogue, and writers from Byron to Chateaubriand were inventing being emo, that would've been cool. Nowadays, an occasional bitter line is quite attractive, proffered tantalizingly here or there. Mark Chadbourn, however, has treated the readers to very large helpings of such lines. This is true not only of Will Swyfte, but of all the protagonists of this novel. They complain disenchantedly about their happy past, about what they've lost, about how they can't be happy, about their sacrifices. Oh, shut up already, and actually do something interesting. 

It's not even that the characters are unlikeable, or pretend to be heroes when they're not, or that I"m a terrible, heartless person who doesn't care (I am a terrible, heartless person, but fictional characters have been known to melt the ice that I have in place of a heart). It's that they'd be much more interesting as characters if they actually did things instead of complaining about things. After all, with the first book, the reader signed up for reading a book about Bitter, Cynical Heroes doing Heroic Things (and not for reading The Sorrows of Young Werther). In this book, the bitter and cynical is there, but the heroic seems to have gone for a walk somewhere.

That's why I'm rather hard-pressed to summarize the plot of the novel. It begins with London being stricken by the Plague, and Marlowe getting murdered. After that, there's a lot of angry Will Swyfte running away from things and blundering about, only to then conveniently be informed of the enemy's plot by an ally a few chapters from the end. An appearance is made by Red Meg, a feisty, red-haired Irish spy, who strides her way confidently through the story and rescues Will on more than one occasion. She brightens the story with her flaming red hair and fiery personality, but it's certainly not enough to make the tale colorful and engaging.

It may be universally agreed that sequels are hard, but it's also universally agreed that the third time's the charm. The question remains: will the next book be just the sequel of a sequel, and hence even less up to par, or will Chadbourn work his magic again?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Hounds of Baskerville: Review, Analysis, and Thoughts

My thoughts on Hounds of Baskerville (though there’s only one hound, unless some more are lurking in the shadows…). Spoilers below!

So, last week’s episode provided the resolution to a cliffhanger, the expansion of a 20-page story into a 90 minute episode, and thus complicated, convoluted plot. This week’s episode was much more straightforward, and, arguably, better for that reason. As fun as twists, turns, and guessing games are, there’s a point at which beautiful story arc can get too tangled. This was almost the case last week.

Of course, it could be argued that this week’s plot was overly simple and that the hallucinogens as the solution to the mystery were patently obvious. I thought not. I guess it’s just one of those things where, well, “your mileage may vary.” I didn’t suspect hallucinogens for a variety of reasons, mostly the fact that I found it difficult to believe that several people would be hallucinating the same thing so exactly. Also, Sherlock and hallucinations?

Though where they took that idea is brilliant. Sherlock and doubt. This is yet another example in which the series makes Sherlock just a bit human, just enough to be able to explore his character sufficiently, without making him into a normal, feeling, breathing human being (which he isn’t). He feels fear and doubt – but the story explores to kinds of fear that he has. One is the fear of a being of superior intellect: fear of himself. He doubts, and he fears not knowing – and hence the unknown. The other is the fear of a human being: fear for another he cares about. That’s why he sees Moriarty at the end: because he’s begun to care for John, and knows that Moriarty threatens that. This is a change, of course, from his phrase in The Great Game, “I’ve been informed that I don’t have a heart.” He’s developing one, just a bit of one, and the vulnerability that comes with it. Someone who does not feel has no vulnerabilities, and Sherlock likes to pretend he’s invincible – but he’s not. His one vulnerability is himself, both in the doubt and the sentiment that he experiences for the first time.

The story and the setting are perfect to bring to light that vulnerability. The Hound of the Baskervilles – the most famous Doyle novel - is a Gothic novel, of the supernatural explained variety. It’s supposed to be dark and scary and kind of supernatural, almost a horror story, but there’s a logical explanation at the end. That’s Doyle’s brilliance: he adopts the Gothic novel for his purposes, juxtaposes fear and the supernatural with Sherlock’s realizations. As an adaptation, the episode was brilliantly done. It was bloody scary. I don’t get scared too easily, and I can’t say I was terrified, but nevertheless, I can’t say I watched it calmly. The episode with Watson in the lab, in particular, was nerve-wracking. (in his position, I’d lock myself in the cage too. Smartest solution. Though I figured out pretty quickly it was an experiment of Sherlock’s – did anybody else?)

The interaction between Watson and Sherlock is also wonderful. I’m not quite ready to ship them together yet (I don’t think that’s where the series needs to go), but their relationship is certainly developing. They’ve gotten to the point where their friendship is strong enough that they can insult each other and yet help each other and trust each other. There are scenes where they are being complete bastards to each other: Sherlock running that experiment on Watson, Sherlock giving Watson coffee with sugar which he believes contains a hallucinogen, Watson’s inability to understand Sherlock’s fear. That last scene was particularly grating – Watson just would not shut up, and the idea that there might be something wrong with Sherlock was just so incomprehensible to him. But other scenes make up for that and which show that their friendship can survive: “I don’t have friends. I have one,” is possibly one of the best lines in the entire season. And Sherlock’s worry about John after the little “experiment” is patently genuine.

Also, can I just point out what a perfect piece of cross-referencing that Star Trek reference is? In J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film Star Trek, Spock (who is having a conflict between his emotions and his cold logic, rather like Sherlock, which makes it a really apt reference), says “if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” He’s quoting Sherlock, of course. So then, when Sherlock says his own line, Watson calls him Spock. Sherlock and Spock being two of my favorite fictional men (read: crushes), that was perfect. Add to that the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch recently got cast as the villain in Star Trek 2 (I really hope his villain is a clever character who can have a battle of wits with Spock…then my life would be complete). And all those lens flares – remind anyone of J.J. Abrams? It’s like the writers/creators knew Benedict would be cast in the Star Trek film before he was….

And now time for the criticisms. There are few, but they exist...

The beginning, where Sherlock, to borrow an expression, “really doesn’t have his shit together.” We know that Sherlock’s mind rebels at stagnation. That it’s like an engine, always running. In fact, that phrase, “my mind rebels at stagnation,” is taken from The Sign of Four, the same one in which Holmes takes a 7-percent-solution of cocaine (hence, talking about needing something “seven percent stronger”). In said novel, Holmes calmly takes his cocaine while Watson watches in despair (at least here Watson has the guts to prevent his friend from being on drugs). Nevertheless, there are other instances throughout the stories that suggest that Holmes can occupy himself with other things: chemistry, books, his monographs. In A Scandal in Bohemia, for example, he remains at Baker Street, “buried among his old books, alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.” Clearly, Watson (and Doyle) are suggesting that, despite Holmes’ dependence on the drug, he still has the ability to occupy himself somehow. Surely that engine of a mind must be able to think of something, to solve other problems than detective ones? In any case, Holmes’ anxiety and restlessness at the beginning seem overdone, though it’s clear that they’re a setup for his later breakdown of self-doubt.

Sherlock’s mind palace. The concept is very cool (and quite real, there’s even a wikihow on how to build a mind palace). But the way it was shown was inadequate. Part of the charm of Sherlock’s brilliance is that it’s so beyond the average human mind. It’s something special and of itself. The idea of attempting to transcribe that into a visual medium through words on the screen, manipulated by Sherlock through some ridiculous gestures, is frankly a bit of an insult to Sherlock’s mental abilities. It really does look like the editors decided to have a fun time playing around with different fonts and Google image search. Not to mention that it is rather reminiscent of the slightly hallucinogenic thinking-dream of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock in the Sherlock Holmes movie.

The password. That whole scene was superfluous. It’s a top government secret – and it’s a six letter password, and a name at that? People who work in top secret government facilities are not that predictable with their passwords. And having a brilliant detective character guess the password through profiling really is the oldest trick in the detective story-writing book. It feels like the writers just needed another scene of Sherlock being clever, and this was the best they could do.

Now, on to the most important question: Moriarty the ending, and The Reichenbach Fall(s). The last ten seconds end with Moriarty being released from prison; his cell is covered in the word “Sherlock.” It’s clear that Moriarty has a very intricate plot up his sleeve. A master criminal like him would not allow himself to be caught like that. I’d guess that his arrest is a decoy for what the real crime is; scribbling Sherlock’s name all over the walls as a way to pretend to be insane seems to be a good way to do so. That scene in the teaser which Moriarty is being led from his cell to the courthouse is also rather telling (and, at the same time, not really). It is certainly brilliantly filmed, however - just as it looks like Moriarty’s starting to smile, he walks through shadow, and then his face fades away. But it’s certainly an evil smile….

Which does not bode well for Sherlock, of course. We all know what happened at Reichenbach Falls and about Sherlock’s “death,” and Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat haven’t stopped taunting fans with suggestions of the tears they will have to spill after the next episode. My two cents: we all know that Sherlock didn’t actually die when he fell off the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle brought his character back to life – apparently Holmes faked his death. Both Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are students of the Canon, and I doubt they would differ from Doyle on so important a point. And besides, the two are rather fans of what is called “trolling.” They are probably relishing the fact that we are falling for exactly what they want us to fall for. But what have they actually said?

“..only the fall remains. You have one week to brace yourselves.”

“St. Bart’s Hospital..end of route” (this was a picture that was tweeted).

“somebody certainly [dies].”

Can I point out that none of those actually confirm Sherlock’s death? Moriarty is also supposed to die at Reichenbach. And given how attached some fans are to Moriarty, isn’t it possible that this is what they’re playing off of?

Furthermore, as much as we like to pretend that art is Art with a big “A,” and not subject to things like money and what the audience want….that’s kind of not true. Sherlock is possibly because the BBC commissions it. And Sherlock is one of the BBC’s most popular shows right now. They will probably commission a third season, and our oh-so-clever screenwriters will have to find an oh-so-clever way to bring Sherlock back. Of course, I (obviously) haven’t seen the third episode, and therefore I can’t vouch for how possible it is for Holmes to come back. Benedict Cumberbatch has said that it’s “quite difficult” for Sherlock to return, but, once again, how ambiguous is that? After all, Sherlock Holmes is the master of the impossible, and besides, we’ve seen characters fake their deaths on the show before (i.e. Irene Adler). I have no doubt that Gatiss and Moffat are clever enough to think of something.

Of course, maybe I’m just in denial, because I really, truly cannot accept the idea of there being no more Sherlock. I haven’t even considered that possibility, because I know it will involve me weeping for hours on my bed. Let’s hope my logical reasoning prevails over an emotional breakdown.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Silver Skull - Mark Chadbourn

It all started in the bookstore. Borders bookstore, to be exact, back when it still existed. My friend Amy and I were bravely fighting our way through shelves of spinoff vampire romance and formulaic sword-and-sorcery in a quest for literary treasures of the science fiction and fantasy variety. I picked out a book with a man in Elizabethan dress on the glossy cover; he was holding a sword and looked to be in the midst of an exciting scene.

“Meet Will Swyfte -- adventurer, swordsman, rake, swashbuckler, wit, scholar and the greatest of Walsingham's new band of spies,” the back cover proclaimed.

Amy glanced over and laughed.

“He sounds like exactly your type,” she said.


Will Swyfte is, after all, exactly the type of character that women (including me) tend to develop literary crushes on. He is a bitter, disenchanted figure with a dark past, yet on the inside he hides a heart, a heart that once loved and suffered terribly. And now, he has become a hero with a mask of cynicism. We women have a weakness for our anti-heroes with a heart of gold (and his wits about him), and I admit that I spent a large part of the novel with a minor infatuation with Will Swyfte.

That’s not to say that Mark Chadbourn’s The Silver Skull has nothing else going for it besides its main character; it simply means that it’s a novel for people who like a certain kind of story with a certain kind of character. In some ways, Will Swyfte is like the Elizabethan James Bond, with John Dee as his Q, and the scenes in which Swyfte gets his latest “gadgets” really do mirror those of the Bond movies. It’s a story whose hero is unheroically heroic: he’s really good at saving the world, and despite all the cynicism, he’s going to be the Hero who does Right in the end.

And he’s going to become famous for it. In fact, he’s going to become known as England’s greatest spy.

But what is the point of a spy who is famous for being, well, a spy?

The already-intriguing back cover has an answer for that, too:

“Swyfte’s public image is a carefully-crafted facade to give the people of England something to believe in, and to allow them to sleep peacefully at night. It deflects attention from his real work — and the true reason why Walsingham’s spy network was established. A Cold War seethes, and England remains under a state of threat. The forces of Faerie have been preying on humanity for millennia. Responsible for our myths and legends, of gods and fairies, dragons, griffins, devils, imps and every other supernatural menace that has haunted our dreams, this power in the darkness has seen humans as playthings to be tormented, hunted or eradicated.”

Mark Chadbourn has a talent for intertwining mythology and history to create a unique setting and a unique story, and he’s certainly done it here. It’s not uncommon knowledge that Walsingham was several centuries ahead of the MI6 when he created his vast spy network; it’s quite probably the first secret intelligence service in the modern world. But Chadbourn adds another defining part of Britishness to the Elizabethan era – Britain’s mythology. He is extremely well-versed in both history and mythology, and he intertwines two worlds intricately, seamlessly, and with fastidious attention to detail and accuracy.

Of course, that makes it very easy to say that he allows the reader to truly plunge into a different world and live in it – after all, isn’t that what fantasy is supposed to do? But Chadbourn’s book does more. It’s engaging and well-researched to such an extent that it’s amazing how much one can learn about Elizabethan Britain. Reading it is, in a way, reassuring – it’s not necessary to worry about whether somebody actually dressed like that or if some minor event actually occurred. The accuracy with which Chadbourn writes of his time period makes the story as real as the best of fantasy worlds.

The plot itself is part Indiana Jones, part spy story (rather more Mission: Impossible than James Bond, though), and part fantasy. There are labyrinths, riddles, gadgets, sword fights, and all manner of magic. There are also some really scary bits – it’s not just fog and darkness, but a feeling of foreboding about a mystery that Will Swyfte spends the book hunting for. But saying any more than that would be spoiling the story.

A swashbuckling fantasy spy story in Elizabethan England – you know you want to read it.

Announcing....A Sherlockian January and Art History Posts

January is very much a Sherlockian month even without my help. The great man, Sherlock Holmes, was born on January 6th, and this year, both the second series of BBC's Sherlock and the new film Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows come out in January (well, at least, in France, where I live at the moment). This has resulted in many January Sherlockian-themed events, dinners and other fancy Goings-On. It has also resulted in my present infatuation (again) with Sherlock Holmes.

Hence, many January posts will be dedicated to Holmes - to analyzing and reviewing the newest episodes of BBC's Sherlock, a review of the film once I see it, thoughts and ideas about Holmes as a character, and some posts about the Fancy Sherlockian Dinner I'll be attending later this month. I'll still be posting thoughts and reviews of other things, of course, but I think that posts will be predominantly Sherlockian.

I'm also going to be trying out a new thing that I'm going to call Masterpiece Mondays until somebody thinks of a better name. Each Monday, I'll be posting some thoughts and ideas about some masterpiece of Western art - after all, I do need to do something with all the thoughts that crowd my head every time I go to the Louvre. I must add that I am by no means an art history expert - I'm a literature major. However, I'm immensely interested in the history of ideas, and will be applying that knowledge and my literary skills to talking about art. We'll see how it turns out.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sunday, January 1, 2012

DVD Review: Sherlock, Season 1

Fog rolls through the gas-lit, cobblestone streets of London as a gentleman in a top hat descends from his elegant carriage. But somewhere in the distance, the streets are lit by electric lights, while trains thunder through the countryside, punctually following the law of the printed timetable. The Sherlock Holmes stories conjure up a charmingly old fashioned Victorian England, but it’s a romantic illusion. The Victorian Age was a period of change and technological innovation, a time when so many of the inventions we take for granted today were developed and perfected. And so perhaps transplanting the Sherlock Holmes stories to the modern day is not a sacrilege against the beloved tales. In fact, the BBC’s new series Sherlock, a witty, thought-out adaptation of Doyle’s stories in the 21st century, is truly homage to the great detective and everything he represents.

Sherlock Holmes was the superhero of his day. The stories about him were so popular that Conan Doyle received fan mail addressed to Sherlock; people seemed to feel the need to be reassured by his existence. Perhaps it was because Sherlock could face a world made terrifying by change and find logic in a universe in which it seemed like the human mind might get ahead of itself. He always had all the answers and he found the culprit using the latest technology. In the first Sherlock novel, for example, he’s shown discovering a new test for blood stains. He’s an innovator, always ahead of the game and in control. BBC’s Sherlock responds similarly to our time: Sherlock texts instead of sending telegrams, for example, and thus similarly uses the latest gadgets to bring order to a complex, changing world. He reassures us, too, that in the 21st century, it is the human mind, and not its inventions, that will be in control. He becomes, in our world, the reassuring figure that he was for Doyle’s readers. Thus, the series takes on a tricky parallel that it manages to pull off spectacularly.

The screenwriters, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, closely follow the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in their pilot episode, A Study in Pink, which is arguably the best of the three. There’s certainly more suspense than exists in Doyle’s original, as the writers have replaced the drawn-out backstory of the criminal with the development of Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, as well as thrown in hints of Moriarty’s scheming. The other two episodes take more liberties; in fact, the second episode, The Blind Banker, even borders on the ridiculous. The ending hinges on Watson being mistaken for Holmes, something highly when everybody caries around IDs – driver’s licenses, library cards, gun permits (in Watson’s case)…The third episode, The Great Game, is an epic battle of wits between Holmes and Moriarty. As usual, the writers take from the common trend of making Moriarty the archenemy; despite showing up in only two Holmes stories, he is, as usual, the scheming mastermind behind everything from the very first episode. However, the cliffhanger ending with which the writers taunt the viewer suggests that at least this time the two a bit more evenly matched.

But the storytelling’s only half the battle. It’s Holmes himself who is the real enigma to solve. As Doyle tells us in A Study in Scarlet, “the proper study of mankind is man,” and, in our case, of this particular man. Benedict Cumberbatch, with his lanky frame dressed in perfectly pressed suits, becomes the cold, calculating, and heartless detective. He’s both fascinating and disturbing in the depths of his brilliance and his ignorance. There are, of course, a few moments in which exchanges that calm composure for some comic relief, but that feels strained and unnecessary. Martin Freeman truly seems to be one of those shape-shifting actors who can take on any role: he’s gone from Arthur Dent to Bilbo Baggins to Dr. Watson and incarnated each one perfectly. Watson likes his adrenaline rushes as much as Sherlock likes to risk his life to prove he’s clever, and with that dangerous combination, the best New Year’s present one could get is the second season, which does, in fact, air today on the BBC.

Note: this is an expanded and edited version of a review of mine that appeared on Blogcritics.