Welcome! Like the book of the same name, this blog is an eclectic collection of Sherlockian scribblings based on more than a half-century of reading Sherlock Holmes. Please add your own thoughts. You can also follow me on Twitter @DanAndriacco and on my Facebook fan page at Dan Andriacco Mysteries. You might also be interested in my Amazon Author Page. My books are also available at Barnes & Noble and in all main electronic formats including Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iBooks for the iPad.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Magic and Mystery Fiction

Magic and mystery fiction go together.

This I have known forever, but Sherlock Holmes and the Egyptian Hall Adventure reminded me. The 1993 pastiche by the late Val Andrews has Holmes mixing it up with the legendary magicians J.N. Maskelyne, David Devant, and Buatier De Kolta. They were all real, and so was the Egyptian Hall, Maskelyne’s theater of magic in London.

Douglas Greene’s invaluable John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles refers frequently to the Maskelyne illusions as the source of plot gimmicks for many of Carr’s “impossible” mysteries.

Andrews’s plot is a bit murky and the killer never appears in the book until the unmasking, but Andrews had the atmosphere nailed. And well he should have. Andrews performed as a magician and ventriloquist in music halls under various names as well as writing dozens of works about magic.

None of the Canonical Sherlock Holmes stories features a magician or even a music hall background, but many pastiches do. (See “The Adventure of the MagicUmbrella” and The Amateur Executioner.) And many other mysteries, old and new, involve the magical arts. My own Sebastian McCabe was a street magician in Europe as a young man.

In fact, one could spend a lot of time and money assembling a collection of mystery novels and short story collections that feature magicians as major or minor characters. Pride of place in such a collection undoubtedly would go to Clayton Rawson’s five books about The Great Merlini.

A number of writers have put Houdini himself into the role of amateur sleuth (sometimes in combination with Sherlock Holmes or Arthur Conan Doyle).  My favorite Houdini mysteries come from the fertile mind of Daniel Stashower.

Now my wife and I are preparing roll out a series of mysteries featuring Benjamin Elias Sterling, a magician and ventriloquist on the Keith circuit in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He, too, was a real person – and Ann’s grandfather.

The strongest connection between magic and mystery fiction, however, is in the writing of the latter. Just like an illusionist, the mystery writer practices the art of misdirection – hiding clues in plain sight by distracting the reader’s attention elsewhere.  

Not every fictional detective is a magician, but every mystery writer is.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Reconstructting Conan Doyle's American Speech

Christopher Redmond’s scholarship amazes me. 

When the 35-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle visited the United States in 1894, not long after throwing Sherlock Holmes off of the Reichenbach Falls, he gave a talk called “Readings and Reminiscences” 34 times. But he didn’t save that speech for posterity – Redmond did.  

In an appendix to his Welcome to America, Mr. Sherlock Holmes: Victorian America Meets Arthur Conan Doyle, published in 1987, Redmond presents his 10-page reconstruction of the lecture, based on contemporary press accounts. 

“While I have often had to use personal preference to choose among different plausible readings, and in some cases have had to use imagination and a sense of Doyle’s style to provide continuity,” Redmond writes, “I think the text which appears here would not have seemed unfamiliar to him.” 

There is no way to be sure of that, of course, but I could imagine ACD’s Scottish burr in every sentence. Take this one, for example: “At this point a gentleman appeared in my life who certainly has been a very good friend to me, and to whom I think afterward I behaved in a very ungrateful manner – I mean the late Mr. Sherlock Holmes, of Baker Street.” 

But that’s just the appendix. The whole book is a great read. Redmond, a second generation Sherlockian who has written many other scholarly works in the field, has a great way of peering into the future of various characters his hero meets along the way.

One of the cities ACD visited on that trip (and again in 1922) was my home town of Cincinnati. The Commercial Gazette newspaper pronounced him “charming” and The Cincinnati Enquirer chose the adjective “delightful.” ACD, in turn, pronounced himself “much pleased” with the city. “Your public library is really splendid.” (That is still true.) 

But I have to confess that my favorite paragraph in the book is a side note about ACD’s brother, Innes Doyle, and his lack of speechmaking prowess. Redmond records that at his wedding in 1911 Innes’s speech consisted of no more than “Well – I say, don’t know! By Jove, what?” 

Chris Redmond also does a yeoman’s job of maintaining http://sherlockian.net/. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Good Bedside Book

For some strange reason, I enjoy those guides to the world of Sherlock Holmes that may not necessarily say anything new, but say it well. These books are helpful for neophytes, and fun for veteran Sherlockians.
Such is The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Sherlock Holmes by Dick Riley and Pam McAllister.
Although the book was published in 1999, I only recently picked up a copy. Knowing that the authors edited a similarly titled Agatha Christie book 20 years earlier, I frankly came to the volume with low expectations. Bedside far exceeded them.
Just about every familiar topic is given a brief chapter – Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’s London (with crime map), actors who have played Sherlock Holmes, cocaine, Moriarty, Watson, parodies and pastiches, canines in the Canon, etc.
But I particularly liked the essays on the British Empire, the orders of nobility (always a puzzler to most of us Yanks), and the value of money in the Canonical period – from pence to pounds.
Each of the 60 adventures gets a capsule treatment, which makes up a good portion of the book. The summary is called “Principle Predicament,” but the capsule consists of more than that. It also includes a notable feature, sometimes a quotable quote, and occasionally a disquisition on “oddities and discrepancies.”
My favorite quotable quote is one that had not previously caught my attention. In “The Adventure of Golden Pince-Nez,” Holmes asks, “What did you do, Hopkins, after you had made certain that you had made certain of nothing?”
I also like the authors’ approach to “The Adventure of the Empty House.” They just don’t bother with the oddities and discrepancies: “Though astute readers can poke numerous holes in this adventure, no one really cares about the inconsistencies for, after all, Holmes has returned.”
Amen to that!  

Friday, September 11, 2015

Father Brown and Mr. Holmes

G.K. Chesterton, creator of the great detective Father Brown, was a fan of the Great Detective.
“Virtually every genre of his writing – literary criticism, theology and philosophy, social commentary – is littered with references to Sherlock Holmes,” Steven Doyle noted in his introduction to G.K. Chesterton’s Sherlock Holmes.
But –
“Did Sherlock Holmes Meet Father Brown?”
That’s the question the Martin Gardner asked in an essay of that name in his 1989 book Gardner’s Whys and Wherefores. The essay discusses the theory advanced by Robert John Bayer in 1947 that a detective known only as Carver in the Father Brown story “The Man with Two Beards” in The Secret of Father Brown was actually Holmes.
What is the evidence? Much of it is too convoluted to get into here and involves Watson or Conan Doyle changing or concealing facts. More convincingly, Carver is interested in bees and is a “tall, erect figure with a long, rather cadaverous face, ending in a formidable chin.” This causes Gardner to ask: “Could one ask for a better description of Holmes in his old age, after his retirement to beekeeping in Sussex?”
But wait! Carver has blue eyes, whereas Holmes’s are gray. Gardner posits that Father Brown, from whose viewpoint the story is told, altered the color of Carver’s eyes to conceal his true identity and save Holmes embarrassment because he was in error in the case. If the purpose was to hide Holmes, why describe him accurately except for the eyes?
Reluctantly, I think the answer to Gardner’s question has to be “no – at least, not that we can tell from ‘The Man with Two Beards.’”

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Hello, Book, My Old Friend

Yes, it's sideways. Don't ask.
But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. . . . Shall they not always live in Baker Street? Are they not there this moment, as one writes? . . . Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain and Moriarty plans his latest deviltry. Within, the sea coal flames upon the hearth and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease. So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895.
                                -  Vincent Starrett, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes 

There is something special about the books we loved when we are young. Picking them up again takes us back, and never more than when can hold in our hands the very volume (paper, ink, and binding) that we read as a youth – or one just like it.  

I already owned two paperback editions of Vincent Starrett’s ground-breaking The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes when I saw a copy of the 1960 University of Chicago Press hardback edition at the Black Dog bookstore in Zionsville, IN, over the weekend. But even though I’m not a collector, I didn’t hesitate to buy it for my Sherlock Holmes library.  

This was the edition in which I first read the book, borrowed from the public library sometime in my pre-teen years. And as I turned those pages Sunday and Monday, rereading a masterwork, I relived the thrill of learning for the first time about the Baker Street Irregulars, William Gillette, and so much more. 

E-books are wonderful. They are lightweight and the type is never too small. I find them ideal for travel, in particular. Many of own book sales are in e-book editions. The ability to download and start reading a book at any hour of the day or night is a great gifts of the twenty-first century. And, of course, the content of a book is the same whether it appears on a page or a screen. 

But for me an e-book will never have the nostalgic pull that comes from the smell and touch of ink on paper – especially when it is the familiar edition of a book that I loved in my youth and still do.

Monday, August 31, 2015

"The Great Detective" is Really Great

Zach Dundas promises a lot with his title The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes. He also delivers.
His book is like a guided tour of the Holmes multi-verse, written from the viewpoint of a long-time Sherlockian who set out to explore just why his hero has been so popular for so long. His searches take him almost everywhere. One charming chapter begins and ends with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, but also bounces into discussions of pastiches, Edgar W. Smith, The Baker Street Journal, The Sherlock Holmes Journal, Leslie Klinger, and the Marylebone Library. 
Is there any aspect of the Holmes phenomenon, past or present, that Dundas misses? I think not.
The Creation Story and Dr. Joseph Bell? Check. Oscar Wilde? Check. Visits in London to the Criterion Bar and the Sherlock Holmes Museum? Check. Dartmoor? Check. The Baker Street Babes? Check. The Great Game? Check. BSI Weekend? Check. William Gillette? Check. Rathbone, Brett, Starrett, fanfic? Check, check, and check. 
Dundas even mentions that masterwork of pig sleuthing, Freddy the Detective.
Steve Doyle appears on page 235, but unfortunately doesn’t make it into the index.
Even the parts that of the Holmes/ACD mythos that are perhaps overly familiar to veteran Sherlockians are engaging because of the chatty way they are written. Dundas triumphantly violates the rule in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style that says “Do not affect a breezy manner.” And it works. The stylistic result is a delightful read that is funny and fun even when you know what’s coming next.
But you don’t always know what’s coming next. Dundas serves up some wonderfully original insights. Such as:
“. . . Arthur Conan Doyle originated Sherlock Holmes. The rest of us, obviously, aren’t yet finished creating him.”
“Though they’re all ostensibly ‘mysteries,’ the Sherlock Holmes tales eventually sweep through just about every major pop-fiction genre. [‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’] alone shifts from comedy of manners to social satire (parodies of newspaper gossip columns convey big chunks of narrative) to Western, of all things. Over the sixty stories, Conan Doyle would jump from hard-boiled noir to romance to Gothic horror.”
“In Watson, Conan Doyle crafts one of literature’s great studies in devotion. In return, Holmes comes to need Watson, though usually that need is unacknowledged. Going down to a major university to study ancient English charters? Bring Watson. Running a long con against a ring of German spies? Bring Watson.”
“The problem is that approximately 98 percent of pastiche, especially in its purely imitative form, is bad. Very. When another writer tries to warm up the magic lantern of 221B, the results usually flicker at best. Dialogue clunks with faux Victorianisms and leaden exposition. Artificial Holmeses and zombie Watsons creak about like creepy broken wind-up toys.”
Sometimes even a good book can exhaust a topic (or the reader, which is worse). But this one reminded me that Sherlock Holmes is a subject that can never be exhausted.    
To hear to a great interview with Dundas, go to the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Doll and Its Maker

If you haven't seen it already, be sure to check out my guest post at Lilac Reviews: For those that love to read and write. In it, I use Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to show that really good writers don't confuse themselves with their heroes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Adventure of the Logical Successor

I bought this paperback when it was new in 1966.
In glancing recently over the September 1982 edition of The Baker Street Journal, then edited by Peter Blau, I was struck by the title of the first article, J. Randolph Cox’s “The Adventure of the Logical Successor.” That could only be about Ellery Queen. 

Shortly after his first appearance in the 1929 novel The Roman Hat Mystery, the American amateur detective was dubbed by a reviewer as “the logical successor to Sherlock Holmes.” The quote appeared on paperback editions for years. I always thought it was a neat phrasing because it could be taken two ways: Ellery Queen was Holmes’s success in the use of logic and/or it was only logical that he would be Holmes’s successor. 

The connection between the two fictional sleuths remained strong over the decades, with Ellery often referring to his logical predecessor. In A Study in Terror, a 1966 movie tie-in book, Ellery becomes involved in Holmes’s solution of the Jack the Ripper murders. 

It’s no coincidence that Frederic Dannay – who with his cousin, Manfred B. Lee, wrote about Ellery Queen the detective under the Ellery Queen pseudonym – was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. 

Cox’s piece in the BSJ is a charming five-page pastiche written from Dr. Watson’s viewpoint in which the young Ellery, still a Harvard student, visits Holmes on the Sussex Downs. Ellery comes for advice, not knowing that Holmes was an old friend of his father, Inspector Richard Queen. They had even met once, Holmes tells Watson. Ellery was just a child, “but even then somewhat precocious, with a decided bent for deductive reasoning.” 

Ellery, who is both a mystery writer and an amateur (and sometimes professional) detective in the Dannay-Lee stories, is torn between the two paths in Cox’s pastiche. This is Ellery Queen of the first period, a Philo Vance clone who wore pince-nez eyeglasses. 

“If he can overcome his affectations and his tendency to impress people with how correct he is in his deductions, he should succeed in both of his careers,” Holmes tells Watson. 

And indeed he did. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A TV Hound Worth Watching

It has long been an axiom of mine that “you can’t have too many copies of The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Although I’m not a collector, I own more than 80 copies of the great Sherlock Holmes novel and a few versions. I recently acquired a film I’d never seen before.
It’s a 1983 British TV movie starring Ian Richardson. Only when I started watching movie did I realize that the script was by Charles Edward Pogue. As I wrote in a previous blog post, I once saw an original Holmes play by Pogue and met him afterward. Pogue also wrote the teleplays for The Sign of Four (1983) with Richardson and The Hands of a Murder (1990) with Edward Woodward.
According to Wikipedia, Pogue considers his take on The Hound his most satisfying achievement. Considering that The Hound has been filmed approximately 150 times, I’m in no position to compare it any meaningful way to other productions. But I can make a few observations.
Ian Richardson and his Watson, Donald Churchill, are thoroughly satisfactory in their roles. Holmes even wears a top hat in London; Sidney Paget would approve.
Among the better actors below top-billing was the phosphorous-coated Hound. 
Sir Henry Baskerville, who comes from the United States rather than from Canada, sounds like an Englishman attempting a Texas accent.
The script departs in significant ways from the novel. Laura Lyons was having an affair with Sir Charles Baskerville. Her black-bearded husband, a violent artist, appears as a character. Pogue lifts the poker-bending scene from “The Speckled Band” to show that Lyons is tough but Holmes is tougher. Laura Lyons is strangled to death and Lyons is charged with her murder.
Holmes appears in disguise as a gypsy who reads Beryl Stapleton’s palm and is therefore able to tell that she formerly wore a wedding ring.   
The purpose of the changes apparently was to strengthen the detective story aspect of the plot by creating a strong new suspect. As a Sherlockian purist, I don’t approve. But as a mystery writer, I applaud the effort. I stand with those who believe that Basil Rathbone’s 1939 Hound was the best filmed adaptation, but this one is worth your time.      

Monday, August 17, 2015

Some Friendly Advice to Pastiche Writers

Sherlock is everywhere - this is a pub in Switzerland 
This is the Golden Age of Sherlockian pastiche. Thanks to the heroic legal efforts of Leslie Klinger to free Sherlock, it has been definitively established that the character of Sherlock Holmes is not protected by U.S. copyright laws.
Anyone can write fiction about Sherlock Holmes, and sometimes it seems like everyone has.
I’ve been guilty of writing pastiches, and I’ve even written an essay about how to do it. (See “The Peculiar Persecution of JohnVincent Harden,” which includes the essay.) Recently, however, I received a new insight from an old book review.
Philip A. Shreffler, then editor of The Baker Street Journal, reviewed L.B. Greenwood’s Sherlock Holmes and the Thistle of Scotland in the March 1990 issue of the BSJ. In the course of that review he made the following astute observation:
There are at least three criteria that must be satisfied in order for a work that presumes to imitate the Holmes stories to succeed: Its plot must be structured similarly to the originals; Holmes and Watson must be characterized as they are in the Canon; and the syntax and diction employed must match Arthur Conan Doyle’s.

That seems simple enough, but a fair number of pastiches fail at all three – and for mostly good reasons.
Take plot structure. A novel-length pastiche that followed the structure of the original would have to be fairly short (from the 43,372 words of The Sign of Four to the 59,452 of The Hound of the Baskervilles), with Holmes missing for half the book.
Syntax and diction? I don’t think any writer can ever completely master the voice of another.
Where I have less patience is with the Shreffler’s second point – remaining true to the characters of Holmes and Watson. Please, pasticheurs, if you must “demythologize” our heroes to fit your own vision, at least give them their own names and don’t pretend that they are our old friends.