Monday, May 22, 2017

Baker Street Irregulars

Writer Arthur Conan Doyle was born on this day in 1859. He's best know for creating this guy...

...Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes appeared in four novels, the best known of which is the third, The Hounds of the Baskervilles, and fifty-some short stories, where with the assistance of sidekick/first-person narrator Dr. John H. Watson he investigated and solved numerous crimes in late 19th-early 20th century London and thereabouts. So impressive was Holmes powers of observation that he could deduce a complete stranger's personality, occupation, biography, love life, etc., by a simple examination of a single article of clothing. Take this example from "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle". Some poor fellow was mugged of a goose he was bringing home to dinner, and, if that wasn't bad enough, he also lost his hat:

 "On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however,
     to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your

     "Then, pray tell me what it is that you can infer from this hat?"

     He picked it up and gazed at it in the peculiar introspective fashion
     which was characteristic of him. "It is perhaps less suggestive than
     it might have been," he remarked, "and yet there are a few inferences
     which are very distinct, and a few others which represent at least a
     strong balance of probability. That the man was highly intellectual
     is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly
     well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen
     upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly,
     pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline
     of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably
     drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact
     that his wife has ceased to love him."

     "My dear Holmes!"

     "He has, however, retained some degree of self-respect," he
     continued, disregarding my remonstrance. "He is a man who leads a
     sedentary life, goes out little, is out of training entirely, is
     middle-aged, has grizzled hair which he has had cut within the last
     few days, and which he anoints with lime-cream. These are the more
     patent facts which are to be deduced from his hat. Also, by the way,
     that it is extremely improbable that he has gas laid on in his

     "You are certainly joking, Holmes."

     "Not in the least. Is it possible that even now, when I give you
     these results, you are unable to see how they are attained?"

     "I have no doubt that I am very stupid, but I must confess that I am
     unable to follow you. For example, how did you deduce that this man
     was intellectual?"

     For answer Holmes clapped the hat upon his head. It came right over
     the forehead and settled upon the bridge of his nose. "It is a
     question of cubic capacity," said he; "a man with so large a brain
     must have something in it."

     "The decline of his fortunes, then?"

     "This hat is three years old. These flat brims curled at the edge
     came in then. It is a hat of the very best quality. Look at the band
     of ribbed silk and the excellent lining. If this man could afford to
     buy so expensive a hat three years ago, and has had no hat since,
     then he has assuredly gone down in the world."

     "Well, that is clear enough, certainly. But how about the foresight
     and the moral retrogression?"

     Sherlock Holmes laughed. "Here is the foresight," said he putting his
     finger upon the little disc and loop of the hat-securer.  "They are
     never sold upon hats. If this man ordered one, it is a sign of a
     certain amount of foresight, since he went out of his way to take
     this precaution against the wind. But since we see that he has broken
     the elastic and has not troubled to replace it, it is obvious that he
     has less foresight now than formerly, which is a distinct proof of a
     weakening nature. On the other hand, he has endeavoured to conceal
     some of these stains upon the felt by daubing them with ink, which is
     a sign that he has not entirely lost his self-respect."

     "Your reasoning is certainly plausible."

     "The further points, that he is middle-aged, that his hair is
     grizzled, that it has been recently cut, and that he uses lime-cream,
     are all to be gathered from a close examination of the lower part of
     the lining. The lens discloses a large number of hair-ends, clean cut
     by the scissors of the barber. They all appear to be adhesive, and
     there is a distinct odour of lime-cream. This dust, you will observe,
     is not the gritty, grey dust of the street but the fluffy brown dust
     of the house, showing that it has been hung up indoors most of the
     time, while the marks of moisture upon the inside are proof positive
     that the wearer perspired very freely, and could therefore, hardly be
     in the best of training."

     "But his wife--you said that she had ceased to love him."

     "This hat has not been brushed for weeks. When I see you, my dear
     Watson, with a week's accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when
     your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you
     also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife's affection."

     "But he might be a bachelor."

     "Nay, he was bringing home the goose as a peace-offering to his wife.
     Remember the card upon the bird's leg."

     "You have an answer to everything. But how on earth do you deduce
     that the gas is not laid on in his house?"

     "One tallow stain, or even two, might come by chance; but when I see
     no less than five, I think that there can be little doubt that the
     individual must be brought into frequent contact with burning
     tallow--walks upstairs at night probably with his hat in one hand and
     a guttering candle in the other. Anyhow, he never got tallow-stains
     from a gas-jet. Are you satisfied?"

And to think, Holmes deduced all that without the aid of Google!

The popularity of these stories did not go unnoticed by the generation or so of mystery writers that came after Doyle, as there was a whole parade of eccentric sleuths in the first half of the 20th century. Hercules Poirot, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, Charlie Chan, Father Brown, and Lord Peter Wimsey all owe a little something to Holmes. The actual mystery itself (as well as its solution) may have been completely forgotten by the reader about fifteen minutes after they'd finish the story, but the person who solved the mystery lingered on in the memory. No more so than Holmes, who has also lingered on in pop culture.

If you haven't read any of Doyle's stories, and you really should as they're quite good, you may know Holmes and Watson through these two fellows:

Basil Rathbone as Holmes (left) and Nigel Bruce (right) as Watson. They appeared in a  couple of movies for 20th Century Fox, and then a dozen more for Universal Studios. You're better off with the two Fox movies The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both from 1939. Both were classy mysteries with just enough fog and shadows to give one a real sense of 19th century London (OK, re-reading that sentence, it occurs to me that London during ANY time period probably had it share of fog and shadows, but those two aspects play so much better when you know Queen Victoria is sitting on the throne.) The Universal offerings? These sometimes cheesy films, unnecessarily in my view, updated the Holmes tales to the 1940s. In at least one of them, Professor Moriarity is in cahoots with the Nazis! Still, it's fun watching Rathbone and Bruce play off each other.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on the Universal films. A popular British TV import (meaning it's on PBS) has Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) solving crimes in the 21st century. What's interesting is that while 100 years or so separates this series from the original stories and only 50 years or so separates the Universal films, the Cumberbatch version is actually much more faithful to Doyle.

Perhaps the oddest version of Doyle's creation to date. Jonny Lee Miller plays a somewhat surly Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu is Dr Joan Watson (figure out for yourself which is which) Elementary, produced for American network television (perhaps that explains the oddness) has Holmes as a British emigre solving crimes (very grisly crimes in the episodes I've seen--less "The Red-Headed League" and more Silence of the Lambs) in New York City. Watson is there to make sure he doesn't slip back into his old cocaine habit (actually a feature of the original stories, believe it on not, though this new version treats the whole subject of addiction more thoroughly than Doyle, who portrayed it more as an eccentricity.) While I'm not quite a fan of this series, I do watch it whenever I come across it channel surfing.  Miller makes a fun, if a not always mature, Holmes.

Though we may think of Doyle as a 19th century writer, he was still alive by the time sound came to movies:

Doyle may not be the most animated speaker in the world, but I think his ample wit, so essential to the Holmes stories, comes through in that clip. One surprise--he calls Watson "stupid". In the stories themselves, the good doctor never strikes me as stupid. He's just not the obsessive-verging-on-anal retentive that his friend seems to be. The prose Watson, that is. However, once Universal Studios got their hooks into the former army doctor, he was transformed into a doddering old fool who could barely follow Miss Hudson the housekeeper's train of thought, much less Holmes. Actors other than Bruce never played Watson that way. If fact, Bruce himself didn't play him that way in his first two outings as the character. Yet, according to Doyle, I guess maybe that's the way he should have been played all along. Who knew, other than Bruce and Universal?

If you watched the whole clip, Doyle talks quite a bit about his investigations into psychic phenomenon. This is what he really wished to be known for, not Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, he tried killing of Holmes only to resurrect him after the public outcry (as well as having lots of money thrown at him.) I don't want to debate what's true or what's not true when it comes to the paranormal, only to point out that Doyle was willing to believe in just about anything. He was a Mulder badly in need of a Scully, especially after the pictures below surfaced right after World War I:

Photographic evidence of the existence of fairies. Aw, aren't they cute? Doyle didn't take these pictures, but he championed them, and went to his grave (in 1930) believing in their eventual validation, and that his publicizing of the pictures would be his lasting legacy.

The photos were never validated, and Doyle's lasting legacy seems to be Sherlock Holmes, after all. A much better outcome, in my view.

Don't you agree, Watson?

Monday, May 15, 2017

Smart Art (Betsy Ross Edition)

You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flying flag 


And forever in peace may you wave.

 You're the emblem of
The land I love.
The home of the free and the brave.

Ev'ry heart beats true
'Neath the Red, White and Blue,

Where there's never a boast or brag.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

Keep your eye on the grand old flag.

Artist Jasper Johns was born on this day in 1930, and is still with us at 88.

Though I hear he's moved on to bald eagles.