Tag Archives: Mystery

Sherlock Holmes on Failure

Sherlock Holmes on Failure

 

He spat a date pip into his hand.  “I have had failures before, but none quite so spectacular as the Rock of Abraham flying into the air.”

“You haven’t many failures.”

“Too many.”

“Such as?”

“This is a delightful conversational topic you’ve chosen, Russell. No, no; you wish to know my failures. Very well, let me think.  I have had at least four men come to me for help, only to be murdered before I could do a thing for them. Granted, I later solved the murders, but that hardly mitigates the fact that from my clients’ point of view, the cases were not precisely successful. Irene Adler beat me, although that was a silly enough case. And that one with the submarine boat plans, what did Watson call that tale of his? Scott something? Howard?”

“Bruce,” I said. “Partington. And that wasn’t a failure, you did retrieve the plans.”

“I might as well have burnt them, for all the good it did.”

 

—Sherlock Holmes to Mary Russell in Laurie R. King’s O Jerusalem (1999)

 

Source and original context of this public domain image

My Fandom is More Hardboiled than Yours: Dashiell Hammett

My Fandom is More Hardboiled than Yours: Dashiell Hammett

Not in photo: my copy of Nightmare Town. Its disappearance from my bookcase is a mystery in itself.

This blog post incorporates ideas from an earlier piece written for the San Francisco Book Review

 

“Flypaper” was the first Hammett story I ever read. It appeared as a featured classic in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and I just loved how it punched me in the gut. Its crisp, no-nonsense style opened up the noir side of detective fiction for me.

Since I adore so many authors, it’s taken me several years to  absorb as much Hammett as I can find. I haven’t gone through every single word he has ever written, although it’s safe to say that I’m more than a casual fan. I freaked out with delight, for example, when I found a bootleg copy of Wim Wenders’s Hammett (1982) in the backwaters of Metrowalk. I had a similar moment of absolute bliss when I finally went on Don Herron’s amazing walking tour. When I first contemplated moving to the Bay Area, the idea of walking the same mean streets as one of my literary heroes tickled my fancy.

All these fangirl elements came into play when I picked up a book called Hammett Unwritten. This slim novel tackles one tantalizing mystery about this literary icon: why did Dashiell Hammett stop writing after 1934?

This novel has a fanciful hypothesis. Tracked down by the femme fatale who inspired Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Hammett finally gives up the one object that she desires. He hands over a counterfeit statue, a relic from the case that inspired The Maltese Falcon. 

Unfortunately, as soon as he gives the souvenir away, his words dry up. People from Hammett’s life—real and fictional—emerge from the past to harass him. As his writer’s block worsens over the years, these people mock him for giving up the one item that had influenced his mercurial rise in society. Sometimes they feed him misleading clues regarding the statuette’s real origins and power. Verbally battered and growing old and insecure, even Hammett’s cynicism cracks under the pressure. He starts thinking there might be some truth in the lies.

Hammett Unwritten is full of brilliant one-liners and twists. Even a hardcore fan who’s read a biography or two might be surprised by all the details. Facts are cleverly sandwiched among a dozen falsehoods, and by the end a reader almost buys the half-truth that Owen Fitzstephen wrote this novel. Mystery lovers, especially hardboiled fans, should appreciate this satisfying con and double-cross perpetuated by Gordon McAlphine.

If I seem to be tossing roses in McAlphine’s path, it’s because I’ve read some cringe-inducing pieces that feature Hammett as a character. Not all fictional versions of Hammett ring true. He’s a complex man, and some attempts I’ve read just feel reductive. He played a lot of roles in his life, and not all of them are pleasant: private detective, communist, womanizer, absentee father, Hollywood scribe. So far, Hammett Unwritten is the only book that does justice to his complexity. It deserves the honor of sharing shelf space with Hammett’s own masterpieces.

 

Writers are Criminals

Writers are Criminals

They didn’t shake hands but drew nearer one another.

“I never expected to meet you in a place like this,” Madrid confided. “A prison exercise yard, with a number stenciled over your heart! But then, being a detective is not far from being a criminal, is it?”

“It’s been a long time since I was a detective.”

“Ah yes, you have become a writer. Quite famous, too. I’ve read your books. Well, being a writer amounts to the same thing as being a detective. In terms of being essentially criminal, I mean. Writers steal people’s lives. Isn’t that not so?”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been a writer.”

 

—Madrid addressing Hammett in Owen Fitzstephen and Gordon McAlpine’s Hammett Unwritten (2013)

Side Comments for the Month V

Side Comments for the Month V

There are spoilers for Iron Man 3 and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in this post. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text with your mouse.

 

Any excuse to use this photo is good enough for me. From Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (2009).

1. So I watched Iron Man 3 like the rest of the world. I liked it a lot and I found it superior to Iron Man 2. Then again, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my favorite movies, so anything that teamed up Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. again was bound to hit my sweet spot.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3 actually have many things in common: the seemingly pointless voiceover narration at the beginning, the red herrings, the lead character being a fish out of water, the holiday decorations, the bait-and-switch bad guys.

I read a few reviews online, and I can see how the film probably upsets some of the hardcore comic book fans. (I grew up reading more Uncanny X-men myself, and you cannot imagine my nerd rage with X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand. So I can sympathize.)

I digress, though. As someone who likes Robert Downey Jr. and the film that revived his career, I am willing to cut Iron Man 3 some slack. It’s not The Godfather of superhero movies but it’s an above average popcorn film.

Incidentally, this may be the second time RDJ’s been handcuffed to a bed frame. He’s beginning to make a habit out of it.

 

"Did you ever try to do embroidery with a gun in your hand?" Mrs. Hudson is a woman to emulate.

2. For the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). I picked up the soundtrack, purely out of curiosity, from the classical music section of the Berkeley Public Library. I was actually looking for more Hans Zimmer when I found it. (Zimmer’s work on Guy Ritchie’s Holmes films—especially the main theme in “Discombobulate”—has been great music for writing.)

Since I liked the idea of song titles like “221B Baker Street”, “The Diogenes Club”, and “Watson’s Rage,” I gave The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes a good listen and it exceeded my expectations. I cannot claim to be any sort of expert in musical matters, but this particular musical score pleases me. I’m terrible at identifying musical motifs and themes, but I have no problem picking out the Sherlock moments as it recurred throughout the entire CD.

 

3. Due to my enjoyment of the soundtrack, I did not hesitate to borrow the film when I found a copy at the Mechanics Institute.

I’m not sure if I liked Robert Stephens’s conventional interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. (I confess that the idea that he was Maggie Smith’s ex-husband fascinated me more.) Colin Blakely as Dr. Watson was uninspired but I attribute this to the writing. When he started ranting at Holmes—for having started a rumor that they were gay lovers just to be rid of a client—was hilarious. Too bad Watson wasn’t given more scenes like that.

The Holmes brothers having a "friendly" conversation.

The idea of a young-ish Christopher Lee as Mycroft Holmes just floored me. My mental image of Mycroft Holmes remains that of a rotund man with rosy cheeks, like Richard Griffiths or even G.K. Chesterton. Christopher Lee seems better suited to play Sherlock himself, which he has done so several times.

A lovely French actress named Geneviève Page played the main female client. She’s definitely a throwback to all the dainty damsels in distress who seek Holmes’s advice throughout the canon. It especially pleases me, for obvious reasons, that Billy Wilder did not name her character Irene Adler.

It’s just too bad that the central mystery was child’s play—some of the clues were just too obvious—and better editing would have fixed the pacing. Despite these complaints, I still finished watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes because the dialogue was incredibly witty. Bon mots were distributed equally among characters—even Mrs. Hudson got a couple of quips.

As it’s usually the case with non-canonical adaptations, I enjoyed this for its fannish interpretation. Billy Wilder’s take on Holmes’s sexuality and his gentlemanly reticence is totally in line with more contemporary revisions of Holmes. Laurie R. King’s version of Holmes, for instance, is that of a consummate Victorian gentleman—a man who would never take advantage of a woman, even a naked amnesiac spy.

Maybe in the future, I will tackle the Basil Rathbone DVDs and content myself with Holmes vs. Nazis. When I think about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s penchant for secret societies and the footprints of gigantic hounds, I can’t really fault Billy Wilder for writing Holmes vs. the Loch Ness Monster. It actually makes sense… at least, more sense than Nazis.

My overall verdict: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is flawed but interesting. The music makes all the difference. Check it out if you can find it.

My, my. This has been a very Sherlockian entry, hasn’t it?

Lord Peter on Dangerous Women

Lord Peter on Dangerous Women

Five Red Herrings is probably my least favorite Lord Peter mystery. It strays into the problems of time-tables and train schedule alibis, which I find rather tedious.

Yet even in this novel, Sayers has some brutal observations on the mind games men and women play. I feel that she really did excel at psychological examinations. Sherlock Holmes may be a better detective, but only Lord Peter can be poetic and perceptive at the same time:

 

Wimsey nodded. She was lying, he thought. Farren’s objections to Campbell had been notorious. But she was the kind of woman who, if once set out to radiate sweetness and light, would be obstinate in her mission. He studied the rather full, sulky mouth and narrow, determined forehead. It was the face of a woman who would see only what she wished to see—who would think that one could abolish evils from the world by pretending they were not there. Such things, for instance, as jealousy or criticism of herself. A dangerous woman, because a stupid woman. Stupid and dangerous, like Desdemona.

—Lord Peter’s opinion of Mrs. Farren in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Five Red Herrings (1931)

 

 

Side Comments of the Month III

Side Comments of the Month III

There is a mild spoiler for Life of Pi in this post. To read it, highlight the invisible text with your mouse.

 

1. My annual winter visit to Saskatoon resulted in the consumption of a lot of mass media, including thirteen manga volumes of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, some re-reading of Calvin and Hobbes, and a bunch of other books.

Detective McNulty knows exactly what the f*ck he did. An HBO poster.

Since Adam is taking a course on HBO’s The Wire (2002), I “helped” him with homework and watched seasons one to three. I haven’t followed a police procedural since I weaned myself off CSI: New York, so it was engrossing. Why did I spend the 2000s watching Tony Soprano in therapy when I could have been ogling following the clues with Detective McNulty? It boggles the mind.

2. I also caught two vastly different films this month. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained has lots of blood and exploding guts. Christoph Waltz should be declared a national treasure and Leonardo DiCaprio needs to play more villainous roles. Their performances are riveting, so once they were off-screen I was less interested. I feel this weird urge to apologize to Jamie Foxx, who did a great job. The last act of the film just felt too long.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a lovely bit of cinema. I overheard one woman in the theatre calling it “Hollywood artistic,” a phrase I found amusing if yet degrading. Life of Pi certainly seems more accessible to a larger audience than Ang Lee’s other films like Lust, Caution or The Wedding Banquet (which I both loved, by the way), but it doesn’t make it any less ambitious. I usually hate 3D but there was nothing quite like seeing an entire zoo drowning in a turbulent ocean.

Maybe I’m just biased, I have a soft spot for any director who has the balls to tell Emma Thompson to “stop looking so old.” Ang Lee must have balls of steel!

I digress, though. It was entirely fitting for me to watch Life of Pi in Saskatoon, since Yann Martel is probably the most popular contemporary novelist who lives there.

3. The restaurants in Saskatoon continue to be great. For such a small city, there are so many good places to eat. While I didn’t get to each brunch at Poached again, Adam did take me to The Rook and Raven twice. I like it there. We also revisited Truffles Bistro, because nothing says Canada like French cuisine.

4. Now that I don’t have to get on another plane for a couple of months, I think I can start listening to the new season of BBC Radio 4′s Cabin Pressure. Every time I mentally dubbed the pilots Douglas and Martin, the plane I was riding would be subject to some freak delay—like frost on the wings in SFO, one of the largest airports in the world without anti-frost equipment. “Douglas” cheerfully informed us passengers that wings frosting over in San Francisco happens once a decade. I’m dead sure “Martin” refused to fly until the sun came out. This resulted in a three-hour delay that made me miss my connecting flight.

Moral of the story: do not dub any real pilots Douglas or Martin! None of them look like Benedict Cumberbatch, anyway.

A Man and his Muse: James Tissot and Mrs. Newton

A Man and his Muse: James Tissot and Mrs. Newton

Art books are awesome. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Serendipity led me to a book on James Tissot in the Berkeley Library. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s okay, because he’s not exactly a superstar of nineteenth century art.

I first encountered Tissot in one of my mother’s art books, Edward Lucie-Smith and Celestine Dars’s How the Rich Lived: The Painter as Witness 1870-1914 (1976). That title is incredibly snooty and I suspect that’s why my mother owned it.

As a child, all the reproductions in that book fascinated me. It was only when I was older that I actually read the accompanying essays on the incomes, manners, and scandals of the period.

How the Rich Lived furnished me with some basic education about the class divide in nineteenth century Europe. When I started reading Charlotte Brontë and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a girl, it helped me understand the social context of these works. Why both Mr. Rochester’s marriages were shocking and why Irene Adler was an unsuitable match for a royal personage became clear to me.

Yes, I was always an arts-and-culture nerd.

Going back to Tissot, though, I found his paintings compelling because of the repetition of the same female figure in all of them. How the Rich Lived gave scant details on Tissot, merely noting that the woman was his lover and she died young.

My inability to find out more—remember, this was the age before the internet and public libraries in Manila are in a woeful state—really frustrated me, teased as I was with this idea of a painter’s great love affair that ended in tragedy.

In any case, I simply filed the visual information away in my head and forgot about it for years.

As an adult, my interest in Tissot was rekindled when I saw one of his works at the Auckland Art Gallery. I recognized its style immediately, which included Tissot’s signature ruffled frocks and “that woman.”

It was a graceful, flighty thing that the museum was understandably proud of. One of their monographs detailed how the painting was restored after it was damaged in a botched art heist back in 1998.

Belated as it is, I’m really glad I found James Tissot, as edited by Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz (1984). After all these years I found out the identity of the mysterious woman.

 

"Too Early" by Tissot. This is one of my many favorites of 19th century art. I believe Mrs. Newton is the model for the central figure (in profile). Guildhall Art Gallery, London.

II.

Her name was Mrs. Kathleen Newton and she was described as “a hauntingly pretty Irish divorcée.” Born Kathleen Kelly, Tissot’s great love led a very interesting life even before she met him in 1876. Apparently she was sent to India to meet her fiancé, in a match set up by her family. On the trip out, however, she fell in love with another officer. Despite her feelings, Kathleen was still married off. She was only seventeen years old.

When her husband discovered the situation, scandal erupted and he sought a divorce.

It’s unclear whether Kathleen Kelly Newton was a victim of circumstance, youthful indiscretion, or even the patriarchal attitudes of the time. Online sources suggest different ideas from the essays in the Matyjaszkiewicz book. It’s all quite confusing. What’s definite is that by the time Tissot met her in England, Kathleen was a twenty-two-year-old divorcée with an illegitimate child. She would give birth to another, whom many believe was fathered by Tissot.

Despite their relationship, Mrs. Newton and Tissot lived in separate households, living across the street from each other in St. John’s Wood. (Again, some online sources state differently.) The book itself never states why they never married.

Kathleen Newton died of tuberculosis at age twenty-eight. Even after her death, Tissot continued to draw and paint her likeness. There’s no indication that he had another serious relationship again.

 

III.

Tissot was an odd man. He seemed to be a calculating sort of guy: equal parts artist, hustler, and businessman.

I’m pretty sure his contemporaries didn’t know what to make of him. He was known to backbite some of his friends, like the printmaker Marcellin Desboutin and Edgar Degas. On the other hand, he was on good terms with Édouard Manet and Camille Pissarro. He received some high-profile visitors at his English home, including Berthe Morisot, who was not very impressed with anything. (To quote a caveat from the book: “Everyone probably seemed a little vulgar next to Berthe Morisot.”)

"Kathleen Newton in an Armchair" by Tissot. It's not my favorite portrait of her but it's a typical representation. All languor and illness!

As an addition to his known social weirdness, it’s been posited that Tissot was attracted to Kathleen’s sickly nature. After all, several of his paintings deal with fleeting seasons and ephemera. Tissot was definitely not bothered by depicting his muse covered in blankets, whether nursing a cold or merely looking frail.

I did not think deeply about these portrayals of Mrs. Newton before reading the Matyjaszkiewicz book. After more information on the nature of their relationship, in hindsight it all seems rather weird. Why would anyone want to capture their lover’s worst moments and romanticize them? I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps some Art History graduate student can make much of it for a thesis. This is going to be one of those trivial bits of history that I will turn over in my mind, time and again, in fruitless speculation regarding motive and artistic intent.

I suppose the goal of most artists is to be remembered after they are gone. In this way, Tissot succeeded, at least with me.

If you are in the Bay Area, you can check out some Tissot etchings and mezzotints at the Legion of Honor. If you are rolling in dough and wish to add to your art collection, you can buy some Tissots from the Christopher-Clark Fine Art Gallery near Union Square. Adam and I had stumbled upon this find in yet another moment of serendipity. I have a way of just chancing upon Tissot; even after this post is done, I am sure I haven’t seen the last of him yet.

My Fandom is Older than Yours: Sherlock Holmes

My Fandom is Older than Yours: Sherlock Holmes

I.

I'm a non-smoker who owns a pipe. It's a long story.

I am absolutely delighted with the explosion of all things Sherlock Holmes. I’ve previously mentioned my love for Holmes before, but it’s only the rumblings of the intense BBC Sherlock fandom that has made it all chic again.

Inspired by some obscure side comments on Ghost Bees & Consulting Detectives—my favorite Sherlock Holmes tumblr—I picked up the incredibly influential William S. Baring-Gould biography from the Berkeley Public Library.

A little bit on the Baring-Gould and Holmes connection first, though. There existed a real person by the name of Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. He was an amateur antiquarian, novelist, and folklorist. In Laurie R. King’s The Moor (1998), he is portrayed as a crusty old invalid who sends his godson, Sherlock Holmes, to investigate the death of a Dartmoor man.

Aside from this fictional appearance, Sabine Baring-Gould’s real and interesting childhood—as detailed in the first volume of his autobiography—is freely used by his grandson, the aforementioned William S. Baring-Gould, as the basis for Sherlock Holmes’s childhood.

So: fiction intruded upon a life, then life intruded upon fiction. Then the dance continued.

For a reader like myself, it’s almost impossible not to think of the Baring-Gould name without Holmes, and vise versa. While the old reverend was accomplished in his lifetime and still marginally remembered for his own contributions, I wonder if his ghost is bothered that younger generations think of him as “Sherlock’s godfather.”

But I digress.

What I think about his grandson’s biography is a different matter altogether!

 

II.

Fun with copyright-free clip art.

I can only describe William S. Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of The World’s First Consulting Detective (1960) as a seminal piece of fanfiction. It’s an unintentionally hilarious piece of work, with most of the giggles and teeth-gnashing coming from the serious tone coupled with the author’s unbelievable flights of fancy.

This is not the work of a fool uploading half-finished first drafts on fanfiction.net, folks. In 1967, William Baring-Gould published the two-volume Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which is still a definitive piece of Holmes scholarship. He is one of the first to fix the internal chronology of the stories (which is something Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seriously screwed up.) Baring-Gould’s many scholarly contributions are mentioned in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (2005), and he’s supposed to be someone to take seriously.

Knowing these things only made Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street an even more infuriating experience for me!

First off, Baring-Gould names Holmes’ parents and endows him without another older brother, Sherrinfold. With Sherrinfold as the heir of the family estate and with Mycroft as the spare, this makes third son Sherlock rather superfluous (in terms of succession or the entail.)

Holmes’s position as a third son enables him to rebel against his father’s choice of profession for him (engineering!) which in turn gets him disinherited. It makes sense in terms of characterization, given that Holmes only reluctantly mentions his family to Watson.

What doesn’t make sense, however, is all the other stuff Baring-Gould insisted on.

It amuses me that Baring-Gould went through extreme lengths to explain how Holmes attended both Oxford and Cambridge. (I understand that both universities claim him.) Among his other youthful exploits, Holmes meets Karl Marx and some anarchists, he hangs out with Lewis Carroll, and he embarks on an acting career (?!) in the United States. Seriously.

As a hilarious clincher to these goings-on, Baring-Gould has Holmes dressing up as a blonde streetwalker trying to entrap Jack the Ripper. Of course a struggle ensues when he is found out to be a man, and of course Watson comes along to save the day. Seriously.

It was at this point in the book where I felt the chapter could so easily devolve into a BBC Sherlock yaoi fanfic.

Dr. Watson would like to have a word with you now. Promotional still of Jude Law from Warner Bros.

Instead of that scenario (perhaps he found himself unable to write that scene?) Baring-Gould falls back on that old heterosexual standby, “The Woman.” Unable to collapse gently into Watson’s arms, during his great hiatus Holmes instead has a passionate affair with a recently divorced Irene Adler. Ms. Adler abandons Holmes once she realizes she’s pregnant. She flees Europe and later gives birth to Nero Wolfe.

Seriously.  

I won’t bother with commenting on the rest of it, aside from mentioning that the ending is pure schmaltz. I just refuse to believe that Holmes spends his last day alive surveying his life’s work while sitting by the sea, whispering “Irene, Irene” to himself like a lovesick fool.

If this was supposed to be the secret life of the great detective, I’d rather he had died at Reichenbach. At least Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted him to go out with a heroic bang. Too bad the reading public wouldn’t let him.

Holmes surely deserves more than this piteous whimper.

 

III.

I’m not sure why I’m getting all riled up over a fifty-two year old piece of fanfiction (back in the day, it would have been called a pastiche), but seriously! It gets my goat. I don’t mind bad fanfiction on the internet. That’s easy enough to dismiss out of hand. What I do mind, however, is bad fanfiction somehow made legitimate with its hardbound cover and staid dust jacket, sitting decorously on the shelves of the Berkeley Public Library, merely waiting to pounce on unsuspecting readers like myself. The nerve!

Tonight, I think I will retreat back into the welcoming arms of the canon, sniffling for this great blow to Holmes’s dignity.

 

Miss Climpson on the Gender Wars

Miss Climpson on the Gender Wars

“I think men are apt to be jealous of women,” replied Miss Climpson, thoughtfully, “and jealous does make people rather peevish and ill-mannered. I suppose that when one would like to despise a set of people and yet has a horrid suspicion that one can’t genuinely despise them, it makes one exaggerate one’s contempt for them in conversation. That is why, my dear, I am always very careful not to speak sneeringly about men—even though they often deserve it, you know. But if I did, everybody would think I was an envious old maid, wouldn’t they?” 

— Miss Climpson to Miss Findlater in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Unnatural Death (1927)

Lord Peter on Private Libraries

Lord Peter on Private Libraries

“Books, you know, Charles, are like lobster-shells. We surround ourselves with ‘em, and then we grow out of ‘em and leave ‘em behind, as evidences of our earlier stages of development.”

 

— Lord Peter Wimsey to Detective Inspector Charles Parker in Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)