Showing posts with label Sherlock Holmes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sherlock Holmes. Show all posts

11 May 2020

The Sidekick Dilemma


The D Case by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini presents an intriguing bibliophile premise. They bring the great fictional detectives together at a consortium in Rome to re-read, analyze, and eventually solve the unfinished Charles Dickens novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

During the course of the action, we see Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Arsene Lupin, Father Brown, Inspector Maigret, Pirfory Petrovich from Crime & Punishment, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Nero Wolfe, and a few others. The only major sleuths I don't remember seeing are Ellery Queen and the cops of the 87th Precinct.

I remembered my introduction to many of these characters from my parents' bookshelves and coffee table. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Rex Stout. I read all the existing Hardy Boys books between my tenth and eleventh birthday and receieved The Complete Sherlock Holmes for my twelfth birthday. I still have that book. As you can see, the binding is held together by duct tape.



Even at an early age, my reading ear was well-developed and I had definite likes and dislikes. I never liked Agatha Christie much, and I know now that it was because her dialogue sounded wooden and her characters felt like cardboard. The women were all either 12-year-old virgins or latent doms. I liked the early Holmes stories, but felt they went downhill after he went over the Reichenbach Falls, probably because Conan Doyle himself lost his enthusiasm. I discovered Nero Wolfe when I was 12 or 13, and always liked those books more. Now I know that Rex Stout was also from the Midwest, so our rhythms were similar.

Reading The D Case showed me something else that I'd never thought about. Another reason I never cared much for Poirot or Holmes is that Hastings and Watson always came across as so profoundly dull. They were the stereotypical stolid Englishmen with no imagination or creativity, and they bored the hell out of me. They spent page after page in arias extolling the brilliance of their companions, but did little else for the stories. Well, Watson had his service revolver. But they were so dull they weakened their heroes.

It's pretty much axiomatic that a hero gains his stature from the strength of his antagonist. A great villain demands a great hero. But if the people trying to solve the case can barely dress themselves, the guy solving that crime only needs to be able to tie his shoes.

All the cops in the 87th precinct were good detectives who spoke human dialogue and had real-life problems. Ditto Mrlowe and Archer. Nero Wolfe was an insufferable egomaniac like Poirot, but Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, and the other operatives were sharp investigators in their own right, and Archie only  put up with so much of Wolfe's attitude before calling him out on it. I always liked Wolfe more because he really did have to be better than Archie and the Cops. Those cops were a little narrow-minded, but they weren't cretins like Lestrade.

Look at the detectives who had to carry the load themselves without a shuffling minion to look up to them. My current favorites include Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro (now retired), Don Winslow's Boone Daniels, and Karin Slaughter's Will Trent, who has to cope with his dyslexia. All these characters are solid investigators with capable help and no fanboys in sight.

Call me elitist, but I like them a lot better.

25 March 2020

Sleeping Murder


"Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle."
          - The Duchess of Malfi

My pal Carole back in Baltimore recommends the latest BBC adaption of Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse. A cursory search turns up the following, that the book it's based on was influenced to some degree by a contemporary of Christie's named Dennis Wheatley. He was a successful popular novelist at the time, his best-known book being The Devil Rides Out.

Wheatley, whom I've never read, wrote thrillers with a supernatural twist - Satanism, black magic, the paranormal - none of which he apparently put much credit by. He was a sometime acquaintance of Aleister Crowley, and published him at one point, but he doesn't seem to have taken him too seriously. The interesting thing, to me, is the idea of using supernatural themes, whether it's demonic possession or a ghost story, as a counterweight to the rational or the orderly.



This surfaces in Christie, in John Buchan, and in Conan Doyle, to pick major names. Holmes remarks more than once, phrasing it slightly differently, that once you eliminate the impossible, what's left, no matter how improbable, is what happened. The Hound of the Baskervilles generates a lot of its electricity by suggesting the otherworldly - is the dog a physical presence, a phantom, a psychological monster, the manifestation of some past buried evil: a curse, in other words? Kipling fools with it, Robert Louis Stevenson works similar earth, sowing dragon's teeth.



Conan Doyle caught a great deal of ridicule, later in life, for his embrace of spiritualism. Harry Houdini famously disabused him on any number of occasions, but Doyle's enthusiasm wasn't dented. It's an odd irony, we think, that this onetime student of Joseph Bell's (the model for Holmes), the careful exponent of logical argument and defining your terms, trusts a false premise and falls into further delusion. A reversal of the Holmes method, to allow a conclusion to affect your view of the evidence.



Agatha Christie was a master of psychological horror, before it was even recognized as such. Daphne du Maurier comes close, but by the time Rebecca came along, the genre was established. The effect that Christie manages, and almost without fail, is to make you doubt the convention of the narrative. In other words, she gives you the building blocks, using much the same method as Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, but you begin to mistrust the design, that in fact the pieces can be assembled in quite the opposite order, or the story turned back to front. Her last published novel, Sleeping Murder, puts all three elements into play, the frisson of the paranormal, the psychological night sweats, and a narrative at right angles to itself.



The story turns on buried memory, and the tension between whether it's actual or imagined. When the weight of memory breaks through the firewall of post-traumatic stress, the "sleeping" murder comes out of hiding. The uncertainty lies in whether you think the heroine is haunted, perhaps literally, traumatized by some childhood nightmare, or just plain nuts. Any one of the three will serve. Christie is entirely at home with these Gothic fugues, and even the confident and resourceful presence of Jane Marple isn't in itself enough to shake your sense of dread. Christie of course contrives a deeply spooky reveal, and you want to go around the house afterwards turning all the lights on.



There's something enormously satisfying about this class of mystery, and the Brits seem to manage it better than anybody else. Christie, like Sayers or du Maurier, and P.D. James, for that matter, is writing novels of manners, often brittle and generally bad - the manners, not the novels. In some sense, they're comfort food, but the best of them leave you uneasy. The era between the wars, seen at a comfortable distance, seems not so far off or foolish. The ghosts are real enough.

13 July 2019

A Morning in Conan Doyle Land


I woke up on Saturday morning not feeling well (this was a month ago, I'm all better). I was resting on the sofa and doing the swipe through Netflix's recently added and currently trending lists, looking for something new and interesting to amuse, entertain, maybe even enlighten. Finding nothing that "grabbed" me, I moved over to Amazon Prime. Flicking down through the rows, I passed the children's section, and a title in that row reached out and took hold.

A Study in Scarlet. 

An animated telling of a Sherlock Holmes tale? For kids!? Seriously?!? I selected the program and let it start playing, the cynic in me chortling, this will be good for a laugh. I went in with zero expectations; in fact, minus expectations. I expected Dr. Watson to be played by Scooby Doo.


The opening shot is a moonlit set of rooftops; a dark and stormy night in Victorian London. A police constable is on the street, patrolling with a lamp. He winds up on the Brixton Road. He's joined by another bobby. There's a light on in an empty house. They enter. In a dilapidated drawing room, there's a dead body of an elderly gentleman on the floor.

Two and a half minutes in, and I'm thinking, this ain't too bad. The animation isn't going to win any awards, but the storytelling seems to be faithful to the source, and it has mood and atmosphere.
The opening credits started, and I was about to turn the thing off, when the following credit appeared: "With Peter O'Toole as Sherlock Holmes." That got my undivided attention. Naturally, I let the program keep playing. I could happily listen to Peter O'Toole read aloud from the phone directory, or recite the Periodic Table (have I mentioned My Favorite Year is one of my favorite movies?). I had no idea he had ever played Holmes. 

For the next 50 minutes, I was away (once again, happily) in Conan Doyle land. The program did indeed prove to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story, Watson was not played by an exuberant Great Dane, and nothing in the story's telling was "watered down" or "rendered appropriate" in any way for children; my biggest fear while watching.

And it's funny, when you think about it: an adult tale of murder, forced marriage (i.e., rape), revenge, and justice filed away for children's viewing pleasure alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat, and Spongebob. I presume this was because it was animated. There persists (in some minds) that quaint notion that if something is animated, it must be for kids, that all animations are simply "cartoons" and should be dropped into the "Kids and family TV" box. (I gleefully await the addition of Fritz the Cat.) Had the exact same script of A Study in Scarlet been filmed as a live action drama, then it would have gone straight into the adult drama box. No questions asked.

But I'm glad it did, one way or another, wind up in front of kids. They seem to get so much rubbish in their TV diet. Let them find this quiet little doorway into the world of grownup mystery fiction.

Peter O'Toole did four Holmes animated stories. They were all made in 1983, they're all 50 minutes long (with the exception of Baskerville, 70 minutes), and they're all on Amazon Prime (here in NZ, at least).
  • A Study in Scarlet 
  • The Baskerville Curse 
  • The Sign of Four
  • Valley of Fear
I've watched all of them. And as I said, there's nothing overtly special about the animation. The specialness of the telling lies in the stories themselves, and in this instance, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes (not that the films' imagery bears any resemblance to the man). If it's a wet Saturday morning, and you're unwell, I can recommend this medication.






stephenross.live/
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instagram.com/__stephenross/

15 February 2019

The Manual of Mindfulness: Thinking Like Sherlock Holmes


Sherlock Ommmms
The modern concept of mindfulness seems as far from Victorian England as Optimus Prime does from Robbie the Robot, yet maybe it's most ardent fictional practitioner shot out of that era like a bullet from a Webley Bulldog Revolver.  Roughly 2300 years before the Victorian Age's namesake took the throne (and about 2420 years before The Kinks sang her praises in "Victoria"), the seeds of what we now call  "mindfulness" started with Buddha himself, passing into the west largely through meditation, yoga, and for me as a kid, the TV show Kung Fu.

The western medical community began picking up on these stress-reducing practices as an alternative to the drugs, booze, and all the other fun stuff we westerners use to to chill out. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first to do so and call it "mindfulness." "Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally," said Kabat-Zinn. "And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom."

Basil Rathbone being iconic
Jeremy Brett being brilliant
So who is this Victorian-era Buddha I mentioned earlier? His black shag tobacco is still sprinkled all over pop culture, one hundred and twenty-two years after he first appeared in print. We just can't seem to get enough Sherlock Holmes, be it in print, radio, theater, TV or movies. Holmes has been played by actors as varied as Basil Rathbone (my childhood favorite), Jeremy Brett (my all-time fav), Hammer Horror heroes Peter Cushing AND Christopher Lee, Robert Downey Jr, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Mr. Spock and Dr. House certainly share much of the Holmes DNA, as does last year's animated hit Sherlock Gnomes. I bet if you looked long enough, you'd find Holmes porn floating around the internet. Please don't forward any links.

What is it about Holmes that still fascinates us? The knowledge, the reasoning, the braininess of Holmes is what most consider Holmes' primary traits. Fans of the detective know there's so much more. Holmes' imagination, his ability to be present and live utterly in the moment, his awareness of his own thought processes, his mindfulness, are perhaps his greatest and most impressive gifts.

If Doyle meant the Holmes stories to be idle entertainment only, he was wildly successful. What if Doyle was also showing us a better way to live? Maria Konnikova thinks that's exactly what Doyle was doing, and she teaches us how to think like Sherlock Holmes in her fascinating manual-of-mindfulness Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013)

Maria Konnikova first caught the Holmes bug when her father read Holmes stories to her when she was little. She eventually earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia and has published extensively about science, yet she owns up to the role that reading fiction has played in her life:  "I think the best psychologists are actually fiction writers. Their understanding of the human mind is so far beyond where we've been able to get with psychology as a science."

Mastermind presents the two different ways in which people use their brains. There is the Watson system, which is our default system. The Watson system makes all the mental errors that Watson, Lestrade, and the rest of the bumblers make in the Holmes stories. The Watson system jumps to incorrect conclusions, is influenced by appearances, and isn't really paying attention, either to the outside world or to it's own mental workings.

The Holmes system will have none of that. By dent of effort, it takes the Watson system offline and installs a new operating system in our consciousness. "Checklists, formulas, structured procedures: those are your best bet," Mastermind explains.  Through practice, habit, and the pursuit of mindfulness, Mastermind claims that the Holmes system opens up a new world of thought: it forces us to be neutral in our observations; it cajoles us to be doubtful of first impressions and of our own minds; it commands us to be superior observers; it directs us to engage the world with all of our senses; it frees up our imaginations; it forbids multi-tasking and it demands focus on the job at hand.  Be present, it shouts, like a teacher to a student drifting off in class.

Mastermind backs up its precepts with science, and it can be a little dry. Having said that, I think Doyle (and Holmes) wouldn't have had it any other way. Konnikova digs into the science, but there is never any doubt that her inspiration for Mastermind is the fiction of Doyle. I really enjoyed Mastermind when it uses the Holmes stories to illustrate a point.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson and Holmes take turns deducing the biographical details of Dr. James Mortimer by examining the absent doctor's walking stick. Watson makes his usual mistakes, and Holmes "embarks on his own logical tour de force." Holmes goes on to deduce much about Dr. Mortimer's background, age, habits, ambitions, and pet ownership.

According to Mastermind, this scene "brings together all of the elements of the scientific approach to thought that we've spent this book exploring and serves as a near-ideal jumping-off point for discussing how to bring the thought process together as whole." Some of the thought-practices Konnikova garners from this episode are: being aware of our environment; the value of thoughtful observation; and allowing the imagination, maybe the most powerful tool in our mental arsenal, to tangle with life's problems.

It wouldn't be fair to boil Mastermind down to only one mental habit, but if forced to the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, I'd say it's the same exercise that's at the heart of mindfulness. "Holmes' mental journeying goes by many names, but most commonly it is called meditation," Konnikova writes. "Holmes is neither monk nor yoga practitioner," Konnikova adds, "but he understands what meditation, in its essence, actually is–– a simple mental exercise to clear your mind."

Konnikova argues that meditation trains our brains to be more Holmes-like. She discusses studies that show that meditation boosts concentration, learning,  memory, and even brain density. Meditation "can help you create the right frame of mind to attain the distance necessary for mindful, imaginative thought."

I expect some eye rolls at this connection of Holmes and meditation, mindfulness, and anything that smacks of New Age mysticism. First I'd say that meditation has been moved out of the realms of eastern tradition and into medical practice by western science. Don't be put off if your MD prescribes a shot of meditation for what ills you, with a tai chi chaser.

The biggest complaint about Mastermind could be that it's taking Sherlock Holmes too seriously. Doyle conjured the stories while his medical practice was slow, and surely he meant them only as idle entertainment. An argument could be made otherwise. Holmes is, after all, largely based on Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor at The University of Edinburgh Medical School who Doyle assisted. Bell was a doctor, a scientist, a teacher, and Doyle's mentor.

Like Holmes, Dr. Bell is purported to have had the skill of being able to tell a person's job just by looking at him. Bell once said "...we teachers find it useful to show the student how much a trained use of the observation can discover in ordinary matters such as the previous history, nationality and occupation of a patient." Perhaps Doyle is using Bell, a brilliant teacher, to create his own fictional teacher. After all, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes did write a magazine article on his methods for the public edification. He even gave it the rather self-important title "The Book of Life."

Maria Konnikova calls your bluff

After Mastermind, Konnikova wrote The Confidence Game (2016). In it she discusses the history of con artists and the reasons why people can be so easily duped. It's a great resource for crime writers, and a kind of sequel to Mastermind and its mindfulness techniques. Though continuing to write, Konnikova is now a professional poker player. Considering her interests in Holmes, that should scare anyone with a handful of cards and secrets to hide.

Lawrence Maddox and Samuel Gailey
waiting to read at LA's Noir at the Bar
Thanks to everyone who not only blew off one of the lamest Super Bowls ever, but also braved a stormy night to hit LA's Noir at the Bar at Mandrake. It was a great evening with myself, Gray Basnight, Eric Beetner, Samuel Gailey, Nadine Nettman and Wendall Thomas taking turns at the mic, and Eric Beetner and Steve Lauden  hosting. Afterwards I somehow ended up clear across town at the Altadena Ale & Wine House discussing all things lit. See ya at the next one!

09 July 2018

DCS (Dumb Cop Syndrome)


by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, I was critiquing a manuscript and found myself making the same comments over and over.

"Check Police Procedure."   "Check Crime Scene Procedure."  "Check Legalities."

The story was a thriller that relied heavily on two homicide detectives as supporting characters because they suspected the protagonist of a series of murders. That's been done before, and it still works...if you make the details believable. Unfortunately, the writer seemed to base her knowledge of police procedure on Mack Sennett films and Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys.

Maybe the idea of the dumb cop started with Lestrade, the bumbling Scotland Yard officer in the Sherlock Holmes series, or the ineffectual Surete officer in Poe's stories starring C. Auguste Dupin, both of whom would make a rag doll look smart.

Remember the Keystone Cops? Lots of running and jumping and high-speed chases, but not much to show for it. The police in the early Hardy Boys books had names that showed they were the comic relief: Detective Smuff (I almost wrote "Smurf"), for example, and Chief Collig. They both exhibited epic laziness and slightly less impressive stupidity, but little else. They needed the teenagers to drag them in the right direction and hand them the solution to the case they didn't want to investigate in the first place.

Alas, the trope of the dumb cop has become a tradition more admired in the breach than in the observance. Too many contemporary stories still portray the police as idiots, and I stop reading when I encounter the first instance in a MS. Sometimes, I continue reading and suspect that these guys will turn out to be working with the bad guys. That still happens a lot, too, and it's legit if you do it well. But I will only keep reading if the writing up to that point is good. If the prose and the hackneyed idea seem to be a matched set, Sayonara Kid, have a nice day.

If the power of your story comes from the strength of your antagonist, it's no less true of the police as supporting characters. If they are going to be adversaries, major or minor, make them worthy ones. If they overlook major clues, contaminate crime scenes, fail to follow up on conflicting testimony and perform illegal searches, they undermine both your plot and your credibility. Your protagonist deserves better.

If the police are this stupid, how brilliant does your sleuth have to be to solve the case for them (See Holmes and Dupin, above)?

Remember the film version of The Fugitive with Harrison Ford? Tommy Lee Jones was the cop pursuing him after the train wreck, and I wouldn't have wanted him chasing me. Jones was smart, thorough, patient and funny. He looked at everything and missed nothing. We hear his admiration when Kimble (Ford) jumps off the dam into the roiling water hundreds of feet below to escape his pursuers. He even gets a funny sidekick who asks, "Can we go home now?"

He kept his mind open and recognized more and more evidence suggesting that maybe Richard Kimble didn't kill his wife. And he helped the innocent man clear himself.

Jones's character strengthens the story in several ways. First, he adds another layer of tension because Kimble is caught between two forces, the strong and capable law enforcement officers and the hidden evil of the real killer. He gives the story more credibility, too. If a smart cop like this guy thought Kimble was guilty, the evidence that convicted him had to be pretty damning, didn't it? That strengthens the real killer again. Kimble, an escaped convict looking at a death sentence, still doesn't kill anyone to escape, and that makes him look more noble, too.

Imagine how different the story would be if Detective Smuff or the Keystone Cops were on the case.

05 July 2018

The Wrong Books


I have a DVD set of the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, and I asked my husband if he'd like to watch it sometime.  He declined: "I'm not up for Tolstoy."  And what he meant by "Tolstoy" was War and Peace.  He'd tried to read it, decades ago, and stalled out pretty quickly, which I think happens to a lot of people.  A lot of people complain about its length, and at over 1,200 pages, it's long enough to complain about.  But then, Outlander is half that length, and then you've still got 7 more hefty books to go in that series.

But I think that reading War and Peace is a classic example of the wrong book.  I think one of the reasons why people avoid "great literature" is that
(1) they're told that it's great,
(2) there's this illusion that great = dull / hard to understand / heavy (ie., depressing), and
(3) they're started off with the wrong book.


L.N.Tolstoy Prokudin-Gorsky.jpgSo, with Tolstoy, start with Anna Karenina, and make sure it's the old Constance Garnett translation:  Anna, about to go into the major midlife crisis in literature, her cheerfully cheating brother Stepan, her pompous irritating husband Karenin, her soon to be lover Vronsky (a/k/a the man who isn't worth it), future soccer mom Kitty, bewildered Levin (only a few jokes away from being played by Seth Rogen), Countess Lydia (think Texas cheerleader mom), and other classic characters all presented with wit, verve,  heartbreak, and amazing insight. As the British poet and critic Matthew Arnold said, "A novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life."


George Eliot.  Forget Silas Marner, (ESPECIALLY in schools).  Start the kids off with Adam Bede, with its amazing portrait of Hetty Sorrel, whose beauty is "like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief—a beauty with which you can never be angry."
No one knows, no one can believe, that such an obviously childlike, innocent young thing like Hetty could be an egoist of the highest caliber.  And from that comes all the rest.
(NOTE:  My major problem with every production of Adam Bede is that the actresses cast as Hetty have been, so far, always sophisticated 20-somethings so that you can't get the essentially transgressive tragedy of Hetty:  it's the fact that she looks like a child that turns her seducer on.) 
Or Dostoevsky.  Don't start with Crime and Punishment.  Unless you're a huge Cormac McCarthy fan.

Start with The Brother's Karamazov, which is about one of the most dysfunctional families on the planet.  The Karamazovs are led by Fyodor, an absolute horror as a man and a father, whose constant womanizing and drunkenness never stand in the way of trying to ruin his sons' lives.  Dmitri's a sensualist, Ivan's an atheist, Alyosha's a novice monk, and Smerdyakov is illegitimate.  One of them kills Fyodor, and while we all say good riddance, the question is who and why and how...  Incredible writing, and even the saints are human.

Speaking of who killed Fyodor, what about mysteries?

Which Sherlock Holmes story should you try to start someone off with?  First off, a heresy:  I think the novels are inferior to the short stories.  The Hound of the Baskervilles, frankly, has too much padding for me, and as for A Study in Scarlet...

Me, I'd start someone off with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which contains "A Scandal In Bohemia", "The Speckled Band," "The Copper Beeches," and "The Red Headed League", among others.  The collection ranges from hilarious to deadly serious, and are what hooked me as a child.  After you read that collection, chances are you'll read all the rest.  I did.

Which Agatha Christie?  Personally, my favorite is Nemesis, which always seemed to have less mechanical plot (although the plot is very good) and more atmosphere.
"Miss Marple remembered saying to her nephew, who was standing her this Shakespearean treat, "You know, Raymond, my dear, if I were ever producing this splendid play I would make the three witches quite different. I would have them three ordinary, normal old women. Old Scottish women. They wouldn't dance or caper. They would look at each other rather slyly and you would feel a sort of menace just behind the ordinariness of them."  — Nemesis
And then Miss Marple looks around to the three Bradbury-Scott girls...

Dashiell Hammett:  The Maltese Falcon, of course, but Red Harvest is fast and furious.
Ellis Peters:  An Excellent Mystery (my favorite of the Cadfael Chronicles)
E. X. Ferrars:  Frog in the Throat 
Josephine Tey:  The Daughter of Time, with a special shout-out to Miss Pym Disposes
Rex Stout:  Death of a Doxy  
Dennis Lehane:  Mystic River 
Liza Cody:  Rift  

Oh, and if you want to try some poetry, try Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book - written in 1868-69, about a real-life Italian murder trial of 1698. Count Guido Franceschini, impoverished nobleman, despite professing his innocence, has been found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia and her parents. They were all stabbed; he's admitted he suspected Pompilia of having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi.  Each canto is a monologue from the point of view of a different character, including Count Guido and Pompilia on her death bed.  Multiple viewpoints, multiple voices, multiple excuses:  What's the truth?  Read it and decide for yourself.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Speaking of the Brownings, here's a story for you.  Elizabeth Barrett, of course, was a well known poet in Victorian times, perhaps the best known poetess.  Her father - a Jamaican plantation owner who'd made his money off slaves and sugar - raised his family in England.  He was a family dictator, micro-managing his children's lives, and disinheriting each and every one of them as they married.  Elizabeth and Robert's courtship had to be done mostly by letter and only occasional meetings, because Edward Barrett would never have approved it.  In fact, when the 40 year old Elizabeth married Robert Browning in 1846, she literally had to escape while Daddy was out.  It worked, and they were married and moved to Italy.  

There have been some theories about Mr. Barrett's possessiveness:
(1) There was African blood (from Jamaican slaves) in the family tree, and Mr. Barrett didn't want it perpetuated.
"For the love of God,
Montressor!"
"Yes, for the love of God."
(2) He was simply a control freak, who wanted to keep his children under his control forever, and almost succeeded entirely.  He certainly seemed determined to keep Elizabeth confined as an invalid for her entire life.  
(3) The Barretts of Wimpole Street flat-out said that he wanted Elizabeth, and perhaps her sister, to be more ( ahem ) than a daughter to him...

BTW: Edgar Allan Poe greatly admired Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry. Poe reviewed her work in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, saying that "her poetic inspiration is the highest — we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself." In return, she praised The Raven, and Poe dedicated his 1845 collection The Raven and Other Poems to her, referring to her as "the noblest of her sex". 

I think that Edgar Allan Poe would have cheerfully made Mr. Barrett the object of my favorite Poe story, The Cask of Amontillado.  Who knows?  Maybe he did.  

Read the classics - it will take you to places you never thought you'd go.  Just make sure to start off with the right book.  

08 December 2017

From the Analytical to the Imaginative


This post appears on the last day of the last week of the semester's classes at George Mason University—but while this may seem to mark an ending of sorts, it's also a beginning, because as I'm writing this, I'm thick in the middle of grading those final papers, projects, and revisions that have suddenly appeared.

And then there are exams beginning next week, so the moment we finish up one batch of grading, another batch will arrive.

One of my classes is an upper-level creative nonfiction class, a smaller workshop filled with some fine and even extraordinary writers. So many of their submissions are really a joy to read, and I find myself eager in many cases to see what some of those writers are going to produce next. Grading there is work, no doubt about it, but it's also fun in many ways.

My gen-ed lit class, however, maxed out at 75 students—much larger, many more assignments to manage. And students in this class often face more struggles with writing.

The class itself has been enjoyable—the subject is "Sherlock," so hard not to feel indulgent about the readings and discussion—and I've been fortunate to have a great T.A. for the class to help with grading. But as the final days loomed, both of us got that deer in the headlights look about the onslaught of project and exams ahead. At the beginning of Monday's class, I told her flat-out I was dreading it—and one of the students overheard our conversation and piped up with, "We are too! So why are you assigning all this?"

Clear answers to that one, of course: We need to have ways of measuring learning and performance. But the whole exchange underscored the fact that all of us were feeling overburdened a little and on a sharp turnaround for meeting deadline after deadline.

One thing I've tried to do to boost enthusiasm at end-of-semester in my lit classes: Give students the opportunity to write some fiction themselves. While many students still choose to write a more traditional analytical essay—thesis, textual evidence, etc.—others welcome the chance to, in this case, write their own Sherlock Holmes pastiche or parody. We've read a number of Sherlock stories by writers other than Conan Doyle in The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, and I've been grateful to have a couple of writers Skype into the class to talk about their own stories reworking the characters and these elements, including Dan Stashower and Dana Cameron. And several of the students have been pursuing terrific ideas: Sherlock and Watson investigating a scandal related to Brexit, Sherlock Holmes on a visit to Mason's campus and investigating shenanigans in the classroom, and then something about Sherlock as a Mason student himself and losing some laundry—building on one of the cases that Watson mentions only briefly in the canon: the bogus laundry affair. (This student did his research, clearly, but ultimately opted instead to write an analytical essay about different kinds of justice in the stories.)

The student who wrote about Brexit had originally proposed having Sherlock investigate the voter fraud claims in the U.S. but then felt like setting the adventure in Britain would be better. Either way, he's been very enthusiastic about the project and mentioned at end of class (if I'm remembering the relationships correctly!) that his girlfriend's father is a big Sherlock Holmes fan and is eager to read what he produces.

I've done this in other classes in the past with fascinating results. One student in a survey course on the mystery short story several years ago relocated a Sherlock-like figure to a U.S. Army base investigating trouble at the perimeter. Though he'd never written fiction before, he'd been in the service himself and he drew on his own past as well as the readings from class to produce what I thought was a first-rate story: engaging, suspenseful, satisfying.

Students appreciate the opportunities here for a number of reasons—maybe first and foremost that it's something different. Some of them think, I'm sure, that it'll be easier than that whole thesis, evidence, analysis thing. And on our side of the table, I'll admit that my TA and I are appreciating it too—something different to read for us as well.

But the trick is that whether they choose the creative or the analytical project, students are still revealing their engagement and understanding (or lack of engagement/understanding) of the course materials. Understanding the characters, navigating the way the stories work, folding in some of the common thematic elements, even mimicking here and there Conan Doyle's singular style.... Well, there's much to be said for application over analysis. And because students opting for the creative project are still required to write a reflective essay, connecting their work to their reading, with in-text citations and a bibliography to boot, ultimately they're entering into some analysis as well.

I'm still early in the grading at this point, plenty ahead. But I'm looking forward to seeing what they've come up with—and to spending a little more time with Sherlock himself, courtesy of the students and their imaginations.

15 November 2017

A Policeman's Lot, A Writer's Plot


by Robert Lopresti

It seems like just two weeks ago I was writing about having a new story published.  And it was.  After an 18-month gap I have two fresh kills in November.  Go figure.

"The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan" is my first appearance in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.  It is an old-fashioned fair-play mystery in which the aforementioned cop, who is happily engaged in running the evidence room, is dragged out of his cozy shelter to solve a murder which may or may not depend on a clue only a Savoyard would understand.

Did I hear someone ask What's a Savoyard?  Perhaps I need to explain a bit.

Gilbert and Sullivan were nineteenth century Englishmen who created comic operas.  G wrote the words, S composed the music.  The third member of the duet, so to speak, was Richard D'Oyly Carte who produced their works.  Think of him as Brian Epstein to the Beatles, trying to keep them from breaking up, or killing each other.

D'Oyly Carte  created the Savoy Theatre, where most of the works premiered, and thus, a fan of their work is called a Savoyard, because Gilbert-and-Sullivan-head takes too long to say.

Here is an example of the sort of out-of-the-box thinking D'Oyly Carte contributed to the operation.  You may remember that Oscar Wilde made a famous lecture tour of the United States.  (Customs Official: Do you have anything to declare?  Wilde: Only my genius.)  The tour was arranged by D'Oyly Carte because the G&S opera Patience was a satire on the Aesthetic Movement and would have fallen flat if Americans didn't know about Wilde.

The operas featured memorable, beautiful music, hilarious, ingenious lyrics, and, let's be honest, abysmal plots.  As my hero notes in the story you can't go too far into the stories of any of the operas without finding a plot hole you could  drive a hansom cab through.

A random example: In The Gondoliers a woman admits to trading her own baby for one of a pair of other boys.  But twenty years later, coming across those now grown men, she expresses no interest in knowing which of them was her flesh and blood.  Huh?

The fact is that Gilbert couldn't plot his way out of a paper bag  But his stuff was hilarious and being tied to Sullivan's tunes makes it immortal.

Fortunately, considering Gilbert's dreadful plotting, he never tried a mystery, but crime does feature in a few of the operas.

The main character of The Mikado, for instance is  Koko, the Lord High Executioner, who promises that he's ready to do his job:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I've got a little list -- I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed -- who never would be missed!
There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs --
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs --
All children who are up in dates and floor you with 'em flat --
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that --
And all third persons who on spoiling tete-a-tetes insist--
They'd none of 'em be missed -- they'd none of 'em be missed!

The Mikado himself rolls off a gleeful list of appropriate punishments he has ready for evildoers.

All prosy dull society sinners, 
Who chatter and bleat and bore, 
Are sent to hear sermons 
From mystical Germans 
Who preach from ten to four.
The amateur tenor, whose vocal villainies 
All desire to shirk, 
Shall, during off-hours, 
Exhibit his powers 
To Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

Among the lesser known (but still good) works is Ruddigore, in which a character named Robin  is cursed. He must commit a crime every day or die in agony.  Unfortunately, he is not very good at it.

Robin (melodramatically) How would it be, do you think, were I to lure him here with cunning wile -- bind him with good stout rope to yonder post -- and then, by making hideous faces at him, curdle the heart-blood in his arteries, and freeze the very marrow in his bones?  How say you, Adam, is not the scheme well planned?
Adam.  It would be simply rude -- nothing more.

But the greatest connection between G&S and our  field is The Pirates of Penzance, which features a gallant troupe of constables.  No doubt my sergeant, dragged out of his cozy evidence room to cope with murder would agree with them on this subject.

06 November 2017

Killer Tunes


by Steve Liskow

I've played guitar since the Monkees hit it big, and I read music (a little) and know (a little) theory, but I don't write songs.

I've been known to commit poetry under extreme circumstances, but songs have more technical demands than I can handle: melody, rhythm, lyrics, harmony, maybe even a bass line...and that's all assuming I can sing, which is still a topic of heated debate.

Strangely enough, several of my stories involve made-up songs. I had to convince people they're real to make the stories work.

In Blood On The Tracks, my first Woody Guthrie novel, we learn that dead singer Jeremy Garth wrote a song to Megan Traine. At the recording session, Meg blew a chord change and her mistake caused lots of bad stuff to happen. Since the session was years ago and Guthrie is only a so-so guitar player (probably a little better than I am), I had two problems. First, how would he figure out that the song was written for Meg? That was easy because I could put a hint into the lyrics. But how could Guthrie surmise that Meg made a mistake years after the fact?

That took some thought. I know just enough about music to recognize typical chord progressions, and I changed one chord so it wouldn't quite fit the rest of the song. It took me about half an hour to create a logical chord sequence for a song no reader will ever hear. Once I had it, I knew how a brilliant musician could make the necessary mistake, too. Several musicians have told me they enjoyed the music background in the book, and nobody has ever had any trouble believing what happened. I still have a general idea what the song sounds like, but don't expect to hear it on my next CD. Don't hold your breath for the CD, either.

Two other stories explore musical plagiarism. "Hot Sugar Blues," which appeared in the MWA anthology Vengeance (and was nominated for an Edgar) tells of a white blues singer who copied a song he heard a black man perform in a southern bar. I had to make it logical that he'd have trouble figuring out the chords until the performer showed him what they were, so I had Deacon Maddix put his guitar into a special tuning.
Keith Richards, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson all frequently re-tune for different voicings in their songs. Robert Johnson's early blues are hard to figure out, too, partly because he had amazing technique, but also because he played most of them in different tunings so he could use a slide or reach unusual notes. Johnson gave me the idea, and I put Maddix's song into a tuning I've never heard anyone ever use. Maybe someday I'll try playing a song in that tuning to hear if it even works. Maybe I'll do it for that same CD.

"Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma," in last summer's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, casts Woody Guthrie and Megan Train in another musical mystery. A man claimed that a singer worked with him on several songs, but released them without giving him any credit or royalties. Since the singer was known for her lyrics, I could work with words more than music, and had far too much fun creating esoteric rhymes. I even made one song use the rhyme scheme AAAAAAAA, which is harder in English than in the romance languages with an inflected ending. I simply listed the words that rhyme. I'd hate to try to write verses with those words that actually made sense, though. Maybe that's why someone ends up getting killed.

Right now, I'm polishing another story that involves a song. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes classic "The Musgrave Ritual" may have been my unconscious starting point because I was on a panel with Lindsay Faye, who recently published a collection of "new" Holmes stories. The song in my new story seems to be an obscure old ballad, but the characters suspect it's really much newer...and that the message is dangerous. I've written out five verses and even have a general idea of the chords and melody.

Look for it on the second CD I don't plan to produce.



19 July 2017

Five Red Herrings 8


1. Maybe I've been here before.  Five years ago in this space (wow, we've been doing this a long time, haven't we?) I wrote a piece about incidental music in movies and TV, (and by incidental I mean it wasn't written for  that show and is not being performed by a character).  The inspiration was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" showing up in yet another TV show.  I wrote: "It was about five years ago that I concluded that the FCC had passed a new rule requiring every TV show to feature 'Hallelujah.'" I now have evidence that I was right (not about the FCC, but about the frequency of that song's appearances.)


I am reading The Holy or the Broken, a book by Alan Light that is entirely about you-know-which song.  It reports that the first appearance on TV was in Scrubs  in 2002.  There were five more visits in 2003 and seven in the year after.  Each performance pays in the $50,000 range, with half going to the author (and his publisher) and half to the performer (and the record company).  Not bad.

By the way, the whole book is fascinating.  If a writer of fiction tried to make up the story of Cohen's "Hallelujah" she would have to sell it as fantasy or magic realism.  It involves two generations of singers dying young, an animated children's film, TV talent contests, the 9/11 attacks...


Meet the new boss
Blonde as  the old boss
2. Blonde on Blonde. Going even further back in my blogging past, in 2008 I commented on my affection for the British TV show New Tricks.  I noted that there seemed to be a rule that all shows about cops working on cold cases (New Tricks, Cold Squad, Cold Case) had to be led by a blonde woman. 

I recently discovered new episodes of New Tricks and all but one of the  characters had been replaced, including the leader.  And yes, the new one is a blonde woman.
from Gratisography


3.  Getcha pretty pictures right here.  Some of us here at SleuthSayers HQ find ourselves from time to time looking for illustrations that we can use without fearing the Long Arm of the Copyright.  The website Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes has a very helpful list of four websites with images free for the using. 


4. Steven on Sherlock.  The latest issue of Strand Magazine (February-May 2017) has a very interesting interview with Steven Moffat, co-producer and co-creator of Sherlock.  Even if you don't watch his show, Moffat's insights into the great original are interesting.  To those who complain about his making the characters young and modern he replies that when Doyle invented Holmes and Watson they were young and used the newest technology available.  They aged into period pieces as Doyle wrote about them for forty years.  He also points out that people don't complain about the James Bond movies yanking the character out of his time period, although Fleming's character was a World War II vet.  Definitely worth a read.


5.  Riding a trend?  But maybe the most interesting thing in the Strand (and my apologies to John Floyd and the other authors of fiction who appear therein) is a full-page ad for Ted Allbeury's novel The Twentieth Day of January.  There are plenty of ads in the magazine for books, but this one is almost forty years old.  So why bring it back now?  Perhaps the plot description holds a clue: 

"Seemingly out of nowhere, wealthy businessman Logan Powell has become President-elect.  But veteran intelligence agent James MacKay uncovers shocking evidence that suggest something might be terribly wrong with the election: is Powell actually a puppet of the Soviet Union?"

Timing is the key to success.







11 May 2017

Who's your family?


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the thirteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

May 15th is the International Day of the Family, which will undoubtedly be celebrated by many people pretending they're going to get Norman Rockwell, but knowing it'll be more twisted:

Call me cynical, but I've been around. More as an observer than as a participant, because, as many of you know by now, I was an adopted child. As I've said before, I arrived here back in 1957, a mystified 2½-year-old, with a bad cold, a TWA flight bag (which I still have), and a charm against the evil eye pinned to my dress. But I finally made it, and I became Charlie and Elaine's daughter.

Now it wasn't always sweetness and light in our house – there were a few alcohol issues, for one thing – but I don't think it's sweetness and light at any house except on the Hallmark channel. But I can assure you that I was their daughter, and they were my parents, legally, emotionally, really. Which was surprisingly hard to get across to a lot of people.

Some standard stupid comments and/or questions:
Me, in the Athens orphanage
  • "Shame your parents couldn't have children of their own." (Uh, they did. Me.)
  • "Don't you wonder who your real parents were?" (Uh, biologically, yes - I need to know who to blame for the thalassemia and the arthritis. But I know who my REAL parents were: they were the people who raised me, fed me, housed me, clothed me, loved me, and generally put up with me for all those years.)
  • "Do you ever wish you had a real family?" (See answer to above. I do at times wish we had been a LARGER family - I had no brothers or sisters, and only one uncle, who we rarely saw. It would have been nice to have a few more people to talk to or at least someone else to take the heat…)
  • "Have you ever thought of finding your biological parents?" (Yeah, especially when I was a teenager and trying to hurt my real parents, as in, somewhere I'm a PRINCESS, dammit! Or Aristotle Onassis' illegitimate daughter, and when I get the money, I'm going to do ANYTHING I WANT!!!! Sigh. Teenagers.)  
Actually, I did try, years after my parents died, to "discover my roots" and it didn't end well. Far from it. The story was one of illegitimacy and shame and abandonment and the hope that I would vanish forever. So I did. But it still hurt. As a contrast to all those TV shows and articles about adoptees hunting down their biological parents so "they can find out who they are." Listen, if you need someone else to tell you who you are, what you really need is therapy, not more relatives in the mix.

Speaking of finding out who you are, years ago, I was at the great tribal family reunion back in my grandmother's home town. BTW, it's my personal theory that family reunions are what gave Peter (or whoever translated 1 Peter 2:9 back in King James' time) the idea of calling us "a peculiar people". Anyway, various members of the tribe were acting like complete lunatics, and I realized, in a flash of insight: "I don't have to be like these people. this is not my gene pool." It was an extremely liberating experience, because at that moment I realized that I could be anyone and anything I wanted to be. I didn't have to find myself, I could become myself. There were no pre-set patterns. And that's very important.

Because sometimes not being adopted gets in the way. In small towns, you hear all the time, "Well, they can't help it, they're just like their father/mother/whoever", or "what can you expect, with that family?" Small towns never forget, and they always bring it up (whatever it is), and this is another reason why young people move to big cities. It's the equivalent of getting themselves adopted.

Another advantage is that, in the immortal words of Chance the Gardener, "I get to watch." I watch as people tell me that their family is everything to them. Sometimes this is true, and they have a wonderful family straight out of the Waltons. Other times, however, I see people giving up friends, education, opportunities, careers, even love, all for the sake of not rocking the boat, or (gasp! the horror!) being different from the rest of the tribe. I watch as people somehow manage to live in the same house with people they never speak to.
  • NOTE: I was working for a lawyer in Tennessee, when a woman came in to talk about the situation at home. She was afraid that her mother, a widow, was giving all her money to the ne'er-do-well youngest, and she didn't know what to do about it. I asked where her mother lived, and she said, "With me." I asked, "Well, why don't you talk to her about it?" "Oh, I couldn't do that." Jeez, Louise...
This is why I think another advantage of being adopted is that I've learned that whoever loves you is your family. Blood is irrelevant. Friends can indeed "stick closer than a brother".

Paget Holmes Yellow Face child.jpgFinally, I'd like to submit to you what is often described as Arthur Conan Doyle's most sentimental piece, and an old favorite of mine: "The Adventure of the Yellow Face" in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Mr. Grant Munro's wife, Effie, has been begging money from him and begging him to not ask why. Mr. Munro fears that his wife's first husband, presumed dead in America from yellow fever, did not die, and is now blackmailing her for being a bigamist. He has followed her to an obscure cottage, where a creature with a livid inhuman face stared out the window. Holmes, Watson, and Mr. Munro go to the cottage and force their way in. The creature is a little girl in a mask, who, unmasked, proves to be Effie's daughter by her [truly] deceased husband, John Hebron, who was "of African descent". Effie explains everything, saying that she was, and still is, afraid that Mr. Munro would never accept a black child in his home.
It was a long ten minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence, and when his answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned towards the door.
“We can talk it over more comfortably at home,” said he. “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.”
What can I say? I tear up a little every time I read that. God bless you, Mother and Daddy, and thank you for being better than you ever knew.