The Snuggler Paradox

“Bed is one place where someone can simultaneously be on your side and be against you.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 2

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In the Shadow of Rathbone: Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes

holmes-basil-rathboneWhen Sherlock Holmes (2009) originally hit the big screen, it ruffled some feathers for putting a very different, very action-packed spin on the cerebral and methodical detective. It was simply too much re-imagining for some, especially for Holmes purists. Perhaps some of those feathers have since settled.

In this outing, Holmes must debunk a series of supernatural illusions to unravel a complex murder plot, just as he does in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In fact, when considered in light of this very popular novel, the film’s virtues become a bit easier to notice.
Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow

Having Robert Downey Jr. play Sherlock Holmes was a gamble. Once upon a time, movie-goers might have seen Basil Rathbone and thought oh look, there’s Sherlock Holmes regardless of the role the actor was playing. Casting Downey — who bares almost no resemblance to the tall, lean figure commonly associated with Holmes — risked prompting viewers to think oh look, it’s Robert Downey Jr. instead of seeing Sherlock Holmes. In other words, the actor’s presence might have outshone the character’s.

And yet, I didn’t find that to be the case. This is probably due to director Guy Ritchie’s success at placing the actor into a remarkably cohesive and detailed, gritty yet romanticized Victorian London as well as Downey’s talent at distinguishing one role from previous ones. (I will say, though, once or twice, I was pleasantly reminded of the actor’s performance as Charlie Chaplin. This is an especially lithe and otherwise physical Holmes.)

Downey as HolmesTo be sure, casting an actor that at first might seem ill-suited to the role only helps the film reach its goal of offering a new Sherlock Holmes. He’s just as cerebral, wry, and eccentric as the detective with whom we’re familiar — maybe, a bit more so — but he’s also more bohemian, impulsive, rough-and-tumble, and downright nutty. It’s Holmes turned up to 11, and Downey fits this fresh interpretation of the great detective quite well.

Watching Watson

Law as WatsonAnd casting Jude Law as Dr. Watson was equally risky. Too handsome? Too big a star to keep the focus on Holmes? Again, it seems to work. Law is Downey’s equal in terms of being able to jump from comedy to pathos to action to dry exposition. The two have a good chemistry, and while I won’t say that either Holmes or Watson entirely eclipsed my notice of the actor playing him, there’s a nice balance between performance and character in both cases. My point here might become clearer by imagining, oh, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the roles. There, I strongly suspect the performances or the actors themselves would very much distract from the characters. (Now that it’s come to mind, though, I really would like to see Smith and Jones play Holmes and Watson!)

Watson here is given his usual counter-balancing duties. He is the check on Holmes’s eccentricities, the detective’s guide through the drab world of normalcy. Stated plainly, he is Holmes’s friend and doctor, which is very familiar. Less so, this Watson has a gambling addiction, an intriguing new wrinkle that he very likely would have edited out of his written chronicles. It helps us understand why Watson continually returns to Holmes — he’s addicted to the thrill of crime-fighting — even though the doctor is in the process of leaving 221B to marry Mary Morstan. This character insight becomes another way that Ritchie and screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg tell Holmes fans that this film is doing something with Doyle’s characters that Doyle never did. Something a bit more complex, if not true-to-life.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

I mention above that, when compared to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, this movie’s finer points might become more easily noticed. Both stories place Holmes in the role of a debunking occult detective. At the risk of committing blasphemy, I’d say the more intriguing mystery concerns the film’s villain, Lord Blackwood. He aims far higher than the villain in Doyle’s novel, after all, and Blackwood’s evil ambition — to reclaim the U.S. as British — reflects England’s colonial fever during the Victorian period. By the way, I can name the film’s bad guy because this is much more a howdunit and a whydunit than a whodunit.

The novel’s villain and Blackwood also share the desire to achieve their ends through the manipulation of fear. They both prey on others by substantiating the nagging suspicion that the supernatural really does intrude upon our physical world — and, often, in a frightfully unfriendly way. Essentially, both villains are terrorists. Both stories illustrate the cost of being too quick to believe in things supernatural.

Along with these impressive thematic levels, the mystery in Sherlock Holmes is complex enough to feel like a proper Holmesian tale. If it feels a bit too far-fetched, I again remind you of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Explosions, frequent fight scenes, and so on make Sherlock Holmes an especially active and visual film

Explosions, frequent fight scenes, even high-dives into the Thames make Sherlock Holmes more visually active than other films about the great detective — but it’s also strong on character and mystery!

On the negative side, there’s the persistent problem of what to do with women in a Holmes story. Mary Morstan doesn’t do much. Mrs. Hudson gets a few laughs. Irene Adler gets more attention, and she’s smart and capable. But she’s still a criminal. In fact, she’s working for a certain Professor who remains in the dark. For now.

There’s an awful lot of fighting, too. It’s interestingly presented in that Holmes is a decidedly logical fighter, and Holmes’s acumen in the boxing ring is true to canon. In Doyle’s The Sign of the Four, we read this: “’Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!’ roared the prize-fighter. ‘God’s truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o’ standin’ there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw , I’d ha’ known you without a question. Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have!'” In other words, Holmes could have been a good prize-fighter.

But this brings us back to the film’s positives. There’s one scene in which Holmes performs his Profile a Person from Tiny, Physical Clues act. One very crucial mistake, however, leads to a glass of wine thrown in the genius’s smug face. Holmes is left to have dinner out all alone, and the facial expressions of Downey nicely capture a man who simply hasn’t matured enough to know how to function in polite society. In the next scene, he’s in a boxing match. He’s letting himself get beat up for his earlier bad behavior. There’s a depth to characterization here that seldom appears in other Holmes movies, and the fact that this deeper characterization is balanced with a sophisticated mystery and a good deal of fun makes Sherlock Holmes one of the best cinematic treatments of the great detective available.

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

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Good Tidings of Bad Timing

“I’ve made complaining about how early stores put holiday merchandise on the shelves into a cherished, yearly tradition.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 1

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An Occult Detective from 1817? E.T.A. Hoffman’s Doktor K.

I really thought the year 1840 would stand firmly as marking the earliest publication of what can reasonably be called an occult detective in fiction. I even extended my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives to 1940, since the 1840-1940 span looked so neat and tidy. Then I read E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Deserted House,” first published in German in 1817. It’s a great story that mixes clairvoyance with mind control, madness with dreamy and nightmarish images.

And it includes a character who fits the doctor-detective branch of occult detective fiction in a way that is, well, neat and tidy.

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822)

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822)

Many supernatural tales are either told by — or focus on — a protagonist who suffers from an otherworldly experience. “The Deserted House” is no different in this respect. This story enters the realm of occult detection when that protagonist/narrator takes his troubles to “Dr. K., who was noted for his treatment of those diseases of the mind out of which physical diseases so often grow.” Despite this very earth-bound description, Dr. K. quickly reveals that he accepts the supernatural as part of his diagnosis process. He trusts both psychometry (receiving psychic impressions from a physical object) and mind-to-mind clairvoyance, the latter by placing his hand on the patient’s neck to share his vision of a face in a mirror.

Dr. K. then probes the details of the title house, which is his patient’s object of obsession and horror. This investigation happens “offstage,” and the narrative focus remains on the patient, something that isn’t usually seen with subsequent clairvoyant doctors, such as Drs. John Silence, Xavier Wycherley, John Durston, and John Richard Taverner. Stories with these characters usually follow the standard detective-story tradition of shifting attention away from the client’s account of the mystery to the step-by-step investigation of that mystery. In other words, the spotlight turns from the client/patient to the detective/doctor.

One notable exception is Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries” (1908), a tale that bears enough fundamental similarity with “The Deserted House” that a case could be made for Hoffman having been a direct influence on later author. Both works feature a patient who goes through a traumatic haunting involving a woman with mystical powers, and relating the details of this takes up the bulk of the story. Both doctors disappear to conduct an investigation. In classic detective story fashion, though, both tales end with the doctors reappearing to provide the big reveal, meaning they recount the history that explains the haunting. Curiously, neither doctor can do very much to defeat the witchy woman who has cast a spell over the patient. Neither story ends with a splashy exorcism or a grandiose staking of the vampire. They both just sort of — end.

As such, while “The Deserted House” is in some ways not typical of a detective story, Dr. K. clearly stands as a founding member of the doctor-detective branch of occult detective fiction. (In fact, I see him as a far more impressive doctor-who-treats-occult-ailments than Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius.) Perhaps this isn’t quite so surprising when considering that Hoffman frequently used Gothic elements in his fiction. He’s often named as an influence on Poe, and fittingly, Hoffman’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri (1819) has been seen by some critics as a pre-Poe work of detective fiction. With this in mind, the claim that Hoffman combined supernatural fiction and early detective fiction to create one of the very first occult detectives in “The Deserted House” seems rather mild.

But the early date when he did so is a bit startling!

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Things that Go for Bupkis in the Night

“A friend told me she had been frightened by her own shadow. I considered replying, ‘Shadows are more afraid of you than you are of them’ — but I knew that it would be no more convincing than when we say it about spiders.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 5

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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:

HELP FOR THE HAUNTED.

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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