Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mystery #5: “A Burden that Burns”

With last month’s chronicle, “Dark and Dirty Corners,” my sequence of Vera Van Slyke ghostly mysteries has changed a bit. “A Burden that Burns” is now the 5th case, one I posted fairly long ago.

Vera & Lida Oval on whiteHowever, I’ve added details. One of the earliest responses I received when I first started this project concerned the length of the chronicles. “I wish it were longer” was what I was told, a complaint every writer longs to hear. So I went back over my great-grandaunt’s manuscripts and, rather than trim them for an era some describe as suffering from attention-deficit disorder, I copied more. The stories — including this one — are closer to how my ancestor narrated them, and that’s probably best.

This story mentions the newspaper ad that Vera ran across the U.S. to pursue her interest in the supernatural more frequently. That ad opened with the phrase:


One of the first replies to the ad was an invitation for Vera and Lida (then still known as Lucille) to travel to Pittsburgh. There, the two investigate a series of fires that ignite of their own accord. Or, more correctly, no visible hand starts the fires. Acting on one of her well-reasoned hunches, Vera confirms which historical, guilt-ridden party is responsible for the fires.

But will she be able to permanently put out those fires?

“A Burden that Burns” is now available in .pdf, .epub, and .mobi (Kindle) formats on my Snazzy Downloads page. Remember that Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909), which includes the entire collection of “sequential chronicles,” will be published by Emby Press at the end of this year.

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Theater Is the Absurd

“I enjoy watching plays, but putting one on requires a commitment to absurdity I just can’t muster.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 4

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A Cliché Collision

“I explained to the armchair quarterback on the bar stool next to me that ‘giving 110%’ is mathematically impossible. He stared before replying, ‘There is no I in impossible!’ That’s when I began rooting for the other team.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 3

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In the Shadow of Rathbone: Robert Stephens in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

holmes-basil-rathboneThe doorbell sounds.
WATSON: Were you expecting someone?
HOLMES: Not at this hour.
WATSON: Maybe Mrs. Hudson is entertaining.
HOLMES: I never found her so.
Much of the humor in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) feels as if it might have been punctuated with rim-shots. This movie reminds me of when the creators of The X-Files threw in the occasional comedic episodes. They were really funny. If thought of in these terms — as a lighter, funnier “episode” in the series of Holmes films — Private Life, unlike Mrs. Hudson, is indeed entertaining.

Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow

Robert Stephens plays the great detective. He’s well cast for this particular spin on the role, which asks him to be the Sherlock we’ve known ever since the Basil Rathbone movies but with a more Wildean wit. My only quibble here is Stephens’ overreliance on delivering comic lines with a pubescent crack in his voice, bumping a syllable or two up an octave. However, he excels at shifting quickly between the genius jester, the dedicated detective, and a darker, more tragic character.

Stephens as HolmesPhysically, Stephens is interesting for the role. Though appropriately tall and slender, his face has a cherubic quality that works against the traditional Holmes image but in favor of this more comedic variant. The actor’s eye makeup, which seems better suited for the stage than for cinema, is a bit off-putting. And I’m fairly certain Moriarty could hide in either one of his eyebrows. Given his talent for convincingly playing this multifarious Holmes, though, Stephens makes a wonderful title character.

Watching Watson

Blakey as WatsonPerhaps, Colin Blakely had the tougher acting challenge in terms of revealing an interesting if not compelling Dr. Watson. The challenge comes from the fact that the script limits the actor to playing an emotional, often-flustered, sometimes-horny sidekick. In other words, Watson here is a broadly comic character, requiring Blakely to give a performance that verges on Lou Costello- or even Jerry Lewis-style clownishness. Fortunately, screenwriters Billy Wilder, who also directed, and I.A.I. Diamond avoided making their Watson a bumbling buffoon in the Nigel Bruce tradition. Despite a few serious moments, which give a bit of depth to Watson, he’s probably the character most compromised to make a funnier-than-average Sherlock Holmes film.

Dedication to and Deviation from Doyle

It’s clear that Wilder and Diamond knew a few things about Doyle’s canon. For instance, they make a very clever joke about Holmes’ seven-percent cocaine solution. In fact, Private Life is rare among the several Holmes-as-drug-addict films in that it remains at least a bit true to the canon by having the detective turn to cocaine only when he’s not involved in a case.

However, along with suggesting Holmes did dope more frequently than readers glean from reading the canon, this film joins others by fixating on the detective’s sexuality and his relationship with women more than Doyle ever did. That’s really the ultimate mystery here and the reason this movie is about the private life of the character. It handles this issue fairly well, not entirely solving the puzzle but gently suggesting that Holmes’ distrust of and detachment from women is because the only smart ones he ever meets turn out to be criminals. There’s a bit of logic there. Sure, Watson can fall for the bland damsels in distress who come to 221B, as he does in The Sign of the Four. But it would be as weird for Holmes to do so as it would for him to, say, flirt with Mrs. Hudson.

But there are other ways to interpret what the film is saying about these issues, too. Imagine that. A Holmes film that can spark thoughtful discussion afterward.

One of the pleasures of the leisurely The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the leisurely jaunt through scenic Scotland

One of the pleasures of this leisurely film is its leisurely jaunt through scenic Scotland.

Much to the film’s benefit, this murkier mystery does not detract from the main one, which is not nearly as ambiguous. This puzzle involves, yes, a damsel in distress — but also a covert plot involving Sherlock’s brother Mycroft and the Loch Ness Monster! Genevieve Page is very good in the former role, and Christopher Lee plays Mycroft in a way that shows he could easily transcend the deep-voiced, menacing characters that seem to dominate his résumé. Now, one could argue that Mycroft would have saved everyone a lot of trouble by letting Sherlock know certain secrets a lot earlier. Let’s chalk that up to the sibling rivalry that Stephens and Lee play very nicely.

Be warned that the movie has a very leisurely pace to it, a bit slow even for a film from 1970. The “prologue” about Holmes being offered a Stradivarius in exchange for services having little to do with detection seems especially in need of some trimming.

Nonetheless, the acting, the humor, the locations, and both mysteries are fun to watch. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes deservingly persists at the top of many lists of the best Holmes films.

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

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A Nightmare Unpillowed

No monster lurks beneath my bed.
My sleepy parents said instead
a fact both hard and cold.
The ugly truth they told:
The monster’s really — in my head!

Celtic Knot 2


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A Call for Help in Locating 1925-1940 Occult Detectives

First, I’m pleased to point out that Mike Gray, whose Ontos blog is always interesting, has made good use of my research on early occult detective fiction in his overview of Carolyn Wells’ Pennington Wise series of novels. I recommend reading this post and wandering around his site for others.

Vera & Lida Oval on whiteAnd I’m very pleased to announce that I have completed writing Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909). I’m sure I’ll want to spit-shine a few spots here and there, but I should be able to get the manuscript off to Emby Press in a couple of weeks. We’re aiming for a release date that will let us take advantage of holiday shopping.

This frees me up to return to my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. With help from Nina, who writes the wonderful Multo (Ghost) blog, I’ve gone back as far as 1840 with Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead.” This date works nicely to mark a budding of detective fiction that includes William Evan Burton’s “The Secret Cell” (1837); “Unpublished Passages from the Life of Vidocq, the French Minister of Police” (1838-39); Catherine Crowe’s Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence (1841); and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe’s three tales featuring C. Auguste Dupin (1841-44). I have a feeling I won’t find any earlier occult detectives — at least, not in British or American literature.

This urges me to continue my bibliography by looking the other way. There’s a certain logic to redrawing the boundaries of these early occult detectives at 1840 and 1940. Up to now, I’ve used 1925 as my ending date.

DarkWith this in mind, I’m putting out a call for help in locating fictional occult detectives who were first published between 1925 and 1940 (or anytime beforehand). These should be characters who 1) can reasonably be called detectives, be they amateur or professional, and 2) discover or accept that, for better or worse, the supernatural intervenes in their world. Please remember that I’ve avoided detective characters who debunk cases of the supernatural, such as Carolyn Wells’ Pennington Wise. Though interesting, these characters strike me as not quite the same thing as the many detectives on my list.

Let’s see what’s out there…

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Convectional Wisdom

“People who live in glass houses also shouldn’t throw stones because they retain solar energy.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 1

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