Can’t Put Out a Fire, but I Can Melt Some Ice

“Is it sexist of me to feel a wee bit superior when I find there’s a pile of ice in the bar’s urinal?” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 5

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In the Shadow of Rathbone: James D’Arcy in Sherlock

holmes-basil-rathboneI had read far from pleasant things about Sherlock (a.k.a. Sherlock: Case of Evil) (2002) on the Web. I hoped I would see something worthwhile in it that others had missed. But no. Mostly, I saw a lot of men’s hairstyles that looked very anachronistic. I’m pretty sure Victorian England wasn’t witness to so many men with hair shoulder-length and longer, ponytails, and even a mullet.

Then again, Professor Moriarty is presented as a drug kingpin who dresses a bit like a 1970s pimp. Okay, maybe the filmmakers were up to something daring by telling a late 20th-century story of drugs and gangs and murder in a late 19th-century setting in the way that Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H is set during the Korean War but is actually commenting on the Vietnam War. The opening music of Sherlock — rife with a synthesizer and a hard beat — suggests as much.

But then why make it a Sherlock Holmes movie? Specifically, why make it a Sherlock Holmes origin story? Sherlock tries to be two very different movies, and neither one works very well.

Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow

I hope James D’Arcy gets another chance to play Holmes. He has the talent and the right look for the role. Here, however, he has to play a character that is both anti-Holmes — meaning, deliberately stepping out of the shadow of the Rathbone tradition — and not really Holmes at all. Piers Ashworth’s script introduces Holmes as a young rock-star detective with a taste for alcohol, sex, and celebrity. Inexplicably, he’s also sincere, courteous, and eager to cooperate with the police — especially with the Coroner, a bloke named Dr. Watson. He falls in love, too, being able to switch off his mile-a-minute logical brain to get all mushy with a woman who’s, well, nice enough — but she’s certainly no Irene Adler.

Add to these complications, a boyhood trauma that stems from watching his brother Mycroft turned into drug addict by Moriarty. This is another version of Compulsive Holmes, the interpretation of Holmes whose maladjustments come, not from his hyper-rational focus, but from chemical addiction, childhood suffering, or both. This Holmes is all over the place, making D’Arcy’s acting challenge formidable, if not impossible.

James D'Arcy as Sherlock

In a nutshell, the problem involves trying to turn a traditionally static character into a dynamic one. As I’ve been exploring in many of these reviews, Holmes is unchanging but fascinating because he must struggle to find some balance between his super-human sense of logic and his very human sense of decency. This film avoids that struggle in favor of ferreting out reasons behind the character’s drug use and his avoidance of women and the public spotlight.

Watching Watson

Roger Morlidge as WatsonWhile Holmes is too diffuse, Watson is almost cartoonishly limited. Graham Theakston’s direction is part of this, but Roger Morlidge’s Watson reacts with exasperation to meeting Holmes, to Holmes’ drinking binge, even to a shootout between the cops and criminals. It seems to be his only response. The ghost of Nigel Bruce haunts Morlidge, a pudgy actor asked to get laughs with all that exasperation and by predicting that, one day, London street traffic will be eradicated by the Underground and cigarettes will be illegal.

Even worse, this Watson is an inventor. He apparently invented a variation on the miter saw, one for skulls; a cane-rifle to replace cane-swords; and flash photography. It all feels very contrived and convenient. More fun might have come from having these inventions come from, say, a quirky neighbor in 221-C instead of from Watson.

As it happens, Nicholas Gecks, who does excellent work at playing Lestrade, has greater chemistry with D’Arcy, and the two actors together feel more like a proper Holmes-and-Watson duo.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

As he does with Watson’s dead-wrong predictions of the future, the screenwriter leans into the shot just enough to wink at the audience by including a character named Rebecca Doyle. This is the woman with whom Holmes falls in love, and I guess one could argue that she’s as limited as many women created by Victorian male authors, including Arthur Conan Doyle. Rebecca Doyle first deceives Holmes with her womanly wiles, she next nurses him back to health, and finally she waits patiently when Moriarty takes his gun off her to taunt Holmes. Apparently, not much has improved for women characters over more than a century.

Other than that disappointment, there is little connection between this film and the works written by Holmes’ creator. Instead, Sherlock owes far more to the earlier Holmes films The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). At least a clever allusion to the former movie is made when Watson refers to a detox treatment devised by a colleague in Vienna (a.k.a. Sigmund Freud), but the dreamy flashbacks to boy-Holmes approaching something traumatic feel less like a nod to that film and more like an unoriginal grab from it.

There are two reasons why Young Sherlock Holmes beats this one as an origin story. First, the earlier (and younger) Holmes feels like the Holmes we know. He already struggles with being a genius in a world of Watsons. And, yes, he has a love interest — a suspiciously conventional one — but adolescence goes a long way to explain this. Again, Sherlock feels as if it borrows too much in what it does with this love interest at the end.

The second reason is Young Sherlock Holmes is committed to the task of explaining how the Holmesian trademarks such as the deerstalker, the pipe, and such came to be. Sherlock, on the other hand, strives to similarly “construct” Holmes while, schizophrenically, playing with those parallels between Victorian England and the dilemma of drugs and crime of a century later. In the end, it winds up not doing either one very well.

At the conclusion of Sherlock, Holmes is too busy sword fighting with Moriarty to observe that Big Ben works -- with no clockworks!

At the conclusion of Sherlock, Holmes is too busy sword-fighting with Moriarty to observe that — astoundingly — Big Ben somehow works with no mechanical clockworks!

Along with the performances of D’Arcy and Gecks, the sets and costumes in Sherlock are very impressive. Still, I recommend this film solely to people who want to see what can go wrong with a Sherlock Holmes film that tries to be too much. Even with that in mind, I suggest stopping the DVD when you see the words:

The Casebook of
Dr. Watson
 Sherlock Holmes.

That joke is pretty good. The humor that follows is . . . well . . . not.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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A Word Away

“It takes a lot of pushing aside to put ‘those’ in front of ‘people’.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 4

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Vera Van Slyke’s First Appearance in a Book!

I’m pleased to announced that the Vera Van Slyke ghostly mystery “Vampire Particles” has been accepted for an anthology titled Reconstructing the Monster: An Homage to Classic Horror Films. The editors challenged authors to “reconstruct” an important horror film in the form of short fiction.

Carl Kolchak

While my great-grandaunt recorded the events of “Vampire Particles” decades earlier, the chronicle bares unsettling similarities to the 1972 TV-movie The Night Stalker, which stars Darren McGavin as Carl Kochak. Though I’m not entirely sure this movie qualifies as a “classic,” it was undoubtedly influential. Chris Carter frequently cited it as inspiration for his long-running TV series The X-Files. I remember enjoying The Night Stalker, too, when I was much younger — so maybe it did have some influence on how I edited my ancestor’s chronicle.

Vera & Lida Oval on white

In a way, “Vampire Particles” is not a typical Vera Van Slyke tale. Whatever it was that took the lives of four workers tunneling deep beneath downtown Chicago in 1906, it wasn’t a ghost. Ghostly, perhaps, but not a ghost per se. Thanks to Vera, the deaths stopped — but short-sighted city officials prevented her from solving the puzzle and defeating the supernatural foe once and for all.

And what I find to be especially unnerving is that those same tunnels remain today under the streets of Chicago. They’re no longer in use. But they wait.

“Vampire Particles” will also be included in Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909), which will be released later this year by Emby Press.

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Thought for Food

“I asked the zombie on the barstool next to me what he finds most appealing about people. His answer was admirable yet predictable.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 3

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My Writing Process — My Stop on a Writers’ Blog Tour

I was invited by Mike at the Parlor of Horror blog to respond to four questions being answered by a variety of writers as part of a blog “tour” called My Writing Process. Mike’s blog is well worth a gander. It’s filled with all things horror, from movie and book reviews to model kits.

Now, writers writing about writing seldom stirs my interest (unless it’s, say, a writer such as Ray Bradbury writing about writing). In the past, I stopped following one blog that specializes in exactly that when I saw a post offering a step-by-step guide for writers making New Year’s resolutions. Ouch. Micro-managerial. No thank you.

Still, I saw this invitation to answer the four questions as a challenge — if only a challenge to avoid being untowardly frolicsome in my responses.

Vera & Lida Oval on white1) What am I working on?

Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909) primarily. In fact, I finished a first draft of the penultimate tale this weekend. It’s a collection of thirteen stories that are best read sequentially. It’s also slated to be published by Emby Press before the end of this year.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The Vera Van Slyke chronicles can be considered part of the cross-genre of mystery fiction and the ghost-story branch of supernatural fiction. I think what makes these distinctive is their tone. I’ve described them as as “ghost cozies,” a supernatural spin on the kind of genteel, ratiocinative murder mysteries that Agatha Christie usually set in the English countryside.

There’s more emphasis on character and theme than on high-action and violence. More detection than devastation. More ghost than grit, and more wit than wallop. There’s a literary feel to them, too, so let me add:  more human than, uhm, hammer.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Now, it’s getting tough to avoid being untowardly frolicsome. Why climb a mountain? Why drink a beer?

hawthorneI’ve liked supernatural fiction since I was a kid, especially the subtle, thoughtful Twilight Zone or Nathaniel Hawthorne kind. Why did I prefer that to, say, the slasher-movie style or even Edgar Allan Poe stuff?

I honestly don’t know. Because it’s there?

4) How does my writing process work?

The process of writing the Vera Van Slyke chronicles was new to me, since I’d never worked with a series character before. First, I sat down (in various bars with various beers) to see if I could come up with story ideas for twelve tales featuring my own twist on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson — except that Vera and Lida are American, not English; female, not male; from the Progressive Era, not the Victorian; and ghost-hunters, not crime-fighters. I discovered that I was able to come up with a dozen ideas without feeling as if I were repeating myself. In fact, I’ve since added a thirteenth adventure.

quill-pen-and-inkwellThat’s when I knew I had a series character who could hold my interest and, hopefully, an audience’s. The process of writing the stories themselves is pretty routine. Tinker with an outline that I seldom stick to. First draft. Revise and enhance, both on my laptop and in my head during bouts of insomnia. Revise, revise, print out a draft or two, revise, revise.

Read it aloud to my wife to hear how it looks.

Proofread. Proofread again. Wonder why I call myself a writer when I catch myself making the its/it’s mistake that I see so often unattended to by others who call themselves writers. Proofread some more. And then proofread.

Nothing spectacular here, I fear. But, hey, I don’t think I’ve been too, too untowardly frolicsome, huh?

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Crime and Punctuation

“He was a repeat offender in terms of punctuation. The police lineup of exclamations points following his sentence revealed his crime.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 2

Posted in Finbar Every Friday: The Tipsy Quips and Rickety Limericks of Finbar Kelly as Remembered by Tim Prasil | Tagged | Leave a comment