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

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

by Eve Fisher

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.  

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.



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!

by Eve Fisher

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.

17 October 2016

The Big Shift

by Janice Law

I recently finished reading Jo Baker’s excellent Longbourn, a novel that focuses on the downstairs folk of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In the Baker novel, the great events of Pride and Prejudice, a crucial ball, the arrival of the oh-so-eligible Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins’ visit, and Lydia’s elopement are but incidentals to the unseen workers of the Austen novel.

The Hills, Sarah and Polly and the soon-to-be added footman, James, have their own dramas and their own concerns, not to mention an enormous amount of work – pumping and carrying water, doing laundry, emptying chamber pots, building fires, making bread and soap, not to mention preparing and serving the daily meals and generally waiting attendance on their “betters”.

This is a novel long overdue and really enjoyable. Very nice, you say, but what does that have to do with mysteries? On reflection, a fair bit, because published exactly 200 years apart (1813, 2013) the novels neatly illustrate the evolution of story telling from a moral to a psychological focus, as well as a shift in focus from the gentry class to the world’s workers.

The downstairs characters in Longbourn are fully drawn in the modern sense with an emphasis on their psychological states and on their responses to a rigid social system. We get glimpses of their youth and childhood, and instances when sick or injured, their minds reach altered states. There is nothing comparable in Pride and Prejudice, where many of the same human passions are filtered through the author’s rational and satiric mind and served up in the most elegant terms for the dual purpose of comic effect and moral lesson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Longbourn which does a fine job with the workers of the household, is much less successful with their employers. Mrs. Bennet is probably the most convincing. Her backstory of painful pregnancies and deliveries fits better with the grueling realities of domestic service before mod cons. Elizabeth Bennet, by contrast, is almost unrecognizable, most of her rebellion and spark having been gifted to the novel’s heroine, the overworked but indomitable Sarah.

Given the difficulties of merging the two worlds, Austen may have been clever to leave the domestics of the Bennet household well off stage. Events that could be treated as comedy– or retrieved with a good deal of money like Lydia’s elopement – would certainly end in tragedy down in the kitchen.
After many semesters of teaching Austen, much of this did not surprise me. What I did find unexpected was, that despite the modern style of Longbourn, the characters of the newer novel were ultimately no more complex than Austen’s. Yes, we get more of their emotions, we get their sexual lives, and a broader canvas altogether, but they are not necessarily more complete and multisided for all that.

This is particularly true of the male characters. James and Tol, Sarah’s two suitors, are both too good to be true, while Wickham, charming but dishonest and corrupt in Pride and Prejudice, is a potential child molester in Longbourn. The greater depth of characterization in this case has led to characters who are less morally complicated.

Characters, it turns out, can be complex and fascinating in ways quite different from our current style, and there is no better example than that the chief of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes, who is much closer to an Austen character than to a modern detective. He has a brother with whom he is not close. He is prone to depression and overly fond of the 7% solution of cocaine. He is rude to everyone but not without sympathies up and down the social scale, and he is obsessive about all manner of abstruse topics.

What he dreams, fears, desires, remembers – these are absent, along with any personal entanglements such as bedevil every proper modern sleuth. And yet, he is by far the most famous of fictional detectives, cited and quoted and imitated and parodied. One of his cases gave a title to the best selling – and theatrically successful, The Incident of the Dog in the Night, and one of his comments heads a chapter in The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer of all things. He shows no signs of going away, nor do Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, who share some of his characteristics.

Will any of our many fine detective and mystery protagonists rise to a similar iconic status? Are there simply too many of them? Or is psychological completeness and complicated personal life somehow against them? Perhaps Sherlock was successful because he was like a great theatrical role, waiting to be inhabited by our imaginations, a child not of psychology and melodrama, but like the best of Austen’s young women, of the robust rationality of the Enlightenment.

29 June 2016

Sherlock Holmes by the Numbers


by Robert Lopresti

Recently I discovered a Sherlock Holmes story, previously unknown to me, in the government documents collection of the library where I work. No, this is not one of those rare-but-real incidents of someone opening an ancient box of manuscripts and finding an unknown treasure - like this one I read about yesterday. In fact, the story I discovered was not even by Arthur Conan Doyle.

It appeared, of all places in a book published in 1980 by the Census Bureau: Reflections of America: Commemorating the Statistical Abstract Centennial. As you can probably deduce, the book was intended to celebrate the 100th edition of Statistical Abstract of the United States. If you aren't familiar with these books, they are a type of almanac of varied data, covering whatever the Census Bureau thought was most important about life in the United States that year.

Just for kicks, here are some of the tables in Statistical Abstract, and the first year they appeared.  It gives you some idea when the public - or at least the government - got particularly interested in a topic.
Immigrants of each nationality. 1878.
Public schools in the U.S. 1879.
Vessels wrecked. 1885.
Area of Indian Reservations. 1888.
Telephones, number of. 1889.
Civil Service, number of positions. 1910.
Homicides in selected cities. 1922.
Accidents and fatalities, aircraft. 1944/5. 
Population using fluoridated water. 1965.
Motor Vehicle Safety Defect Recalls. 1978.
Firearm mortality among children, youth, and young adults. 1992.
Student use of computers. 1995.
Internet publishing and broadcasting. 2008.

Reflections of America features essays by distinguished authors discussing many different aspects of Statistical Abstract: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Michener, John Kenneth Galbraith,and Jeane Kirkpatrick, to name a few.

The essay on international trade, cleverly titled "A Case of International Trade," was written by business journalist J.A. Livingston,.  It begins as you see on the right over there.

It goes on for many pages.  You can read it all here if you wish.  But what I am pondering is: why would anyone think that's a good idea?

I'm not talking about parodies, or what I call fan fiction (creating a new case for your favorite detective).  I understand those impulses. But I think it is a bit weird to use a character for a completely different purpose than what made that character famous.

So, for instance, here are a few books about (or "about") Sherlock Holmes:

The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes



 Conned Again, Watson!: Cautionary Tales of Logic, Maths and Probability

What other fictional characters have become cats's paws for authors who wanted to teach a subject painlessly?  I knew without looking that one young lady must be on the list and sure enough:

Alice in Quantumland

I even thought of one book in which the author himself  did this to his character.  Harry Kemelman's Conversations With Rabbi Small is an introduction to Judaism thinly disguised as a non-mystery novel about the amateur sleuth.

I still say the instinct to do this is an odd one.

And as long as we are tying government publications to mysteries, let me point out an old federal document that is not available for free on the web: The Battle of the Aleutians: A Graphic History 1942-1943.   What's the mystery connection?  It was co-authored by a rather superannuated corporal who served in that frozen wilderness: Dashiell Hammett.




11 June 2016

One More Thing: Is Columbo America's Sherlock?

by B.K. Stevens

If we were asked to name the quintessential fictional detective, most of us would probably reply, "Sherlock Holmes." Poe's Dupin came before him, and some fictional detectives who came after him may have greater psychological depth. Even so, Holmes' dazzling deductions and indelibly distinctive personality have given him enduring worldwide appeal. He's the icon who set the standard for the Golden Age, the epitome of the cerebral detective. And, as I'm about to argue, he's very, very English.


Does America have its own Sherlock? We definitely have iconic fictional detectives. The first names to come to mind might be Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, Kinsey Millhone or V.I. Warshawski--tough-talking, life-hardened private investigators who walk the mean streets with both guns and cynical quips at the ready. They're smart, no doubt about it. But their appeal may be based on their attitudes, as much as on their intellects. And their success at solving crimes may depend on their ability to intimidate witnesses and outfight bad guys as much as on their deductive powers. America does have some memorable cerebral detectives--Nero Wolfe, for example, and Ellery Queen. Much as their fans might disagree, though, I'd hesitate to call them distinctively American. In some ways, they're almost too much like Sherlock Holmes--arrogant manners, aristocratic tastes. For me, at least, an American Sherlock ought to embody more democratic traits and attitudes.

Let me propose another candidate. Like Holmes, Lieutenant Columbo relies on his wits to solve cases, not on a gun or his fists. (In fact, while Holmes often carries a gun and sometimes throws a punch, I can't think of a single time when Columbo does either.) Both detectives are incredibly observant, and both excel at sizing up suspects. But there are significant differences, too, and I'd say these differences stem from the fact that Holmes is English and Columbo American.

Let's start with names. A name can't get much more thoroughly English than Sherlock Holmes--unless it's Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even most of the actors who have played Holmes have had distinctively English names, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch. (And all right, once in a while a Robert Downey, Jr., will sneak in, or even--good grief!--an Igor Petrenko, in a Russian television series. The general point still holds.)

America's Sherlock, by contrast, has an Italian last name. Was it inspired by the explorer credited with discovering the new world? When asked in 1986, one of the writers who created the character said he couldn't remember how they came up with the name--maybe they were thinking of Columbus, or maybe they were thinking of a restaurant called Palumbo's. Those writers, by the way, were Richard Levinson (Jewish) and William Link (mixed German Hugenot and Jewish descent). The actor who portrayed Columbo was Peter Falk (also Jewish, from families that immigrated from Eastern Europe). So Columbo emerged from a hodgepodge of nationalities and ethnicities, from the descendants of a bunch of immigrants. What could be more American?

The fact that so many people contributed to the creation of Columbo also seems appropriately American. Sherlock Holmes was the brainchild of one writer and made his debut, of course, in print, in the pages of a series of short stories and novels. Columbo emerged from what might be considered the more democratic medium of television. Whatever its shortcomings, television depends upon a group of people working together--writers, actors, directors, producers, musicians, technicians, and so on and so on--and it aims for a wide audience. At its best, television also offers opportunities to talented newcomers--such as a twenty-one-year-old kid named Steven Spielberg, who got one of his first big breaks when he directed "Murder by the Book," which many people consider one of the stand-out episodes of Columbo's first season, perhaps of the series as a whole. Whether you love television or hate it, it seems hard to deny that it embodies central democratic ideals--many people from diverse backgrounds working together toward a common goal, encouraging those just starting out to fulfill their dreams by going as far as their abilities will take them.

What about Columbo himself? He's definitely not an aristocrat. The way he talks, the way he carries himself, the car he drives, the chili he eats--everything tells us he's from a middle-class or working-class background. His appearance confirms it. Like Sherlock Holmes, he has a distinctive style of dress. But Sherlock's clothes set him apart--the deerstalker hat, the caped coat. Columbo wears a rumpled suit and a shabby raincoat (almost always the same ones, from Falk's own closet). If his clothes set him apart, it's because he looks less imposing than other people, certainly far less imposing than the high-class types involved in the cases he investigates. In an interview with David Fantle and Tom Johnson, Peter Falk commented on the contrast: "Columbo is an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had a long neck, Columbo has no neck; Holmes smoked a pipe, Columbo chews up six cigars a day."

In an interview with Mark Dawidziak, Falk made another comment about the contrast between Holmes and Columbo, this one focusing on the way others perceive the two detectives. He's talking about the second episode in the series, which centers on a faked kidnapping: "I'm not a mystery fan, but as a kid I read Sherlock Holmes. I remember being very impressed by Sherlock Holmes. He'd show up, and everybody would turn to him for the answer. I thought it was important in the opening of Ransom for a Dead Man that no one turn to me for anything. I was just a local. All these FBI agents had their job to do. I couldn't know anything except maybe he name of a certain street. I wanted to be ignored. . . . . Nobody wanted to know this guy's opinion, There's a lack of pretension. You expect something quite different from a great detective."

We definitely get something quite different from most great fictional detectives, definitely including Holmes. I don't know if it's accurate to call Holmes pretentious: He is, in fact, superior to everyone else, so there's no pretension involved. But he certainly doesn't try to hide his superiority. Apparently, in Conan Doyle's stories and novels, Holmes never actually says, "Elementary, my dear Watson." He does, however, sometimes say "elementary"--or something along the same lines, such as "it is simplicity itself"--to make it clear he can easily figure out something that baffles others. Some might call his manner arrogant; others might say he treats most of the people he encounters with disdain; still others might protest that he's simply being straightforward. But I don't think words such as "humble" or "self-effacing" come readily to mind when we think of Sherlock Holmes.

Columbo, on the other hand, is extremely humble and self-effacing. He constantly expresses admiration for other people's expertise and accomplishments, constantly acts as if he thinks they're much sharper than he is, constantly seems awed thy their jobs, their houses, their cars, their shoes. Part of it, of course, is shtick: Columbo throws suspects off guard by pretending to be dumb, so they'll relax too much and tumble into the traps he sets for them. But part of it, I think, is sincere. Even when he suspects people of murder, I think he's often genuinely impressed by their knowledge and talents.

Clearly, he doesn't mind letting people underestimate him, doesn't mind letting them think they're more important than he is. Even his trademark "one more thing" seems like an acknowledgment of his inferior status: The people he's pestering are so superior that he hates to take up their valuable time. The most he can hope for is that they'll indulge him for just a few moments more. Would Holmes be so comfortable about letting others regard him as inferior? I don't think so. I think it would drive him crazy. But Columbo has more democratic attitudes. He doesn't need to have everybody see him as the smartest person in the room. If they see him as no more than a regular guy, or even as less than that, that's fine with him.

What's more, I think Columbo honestly sees himself as a regular guy. When he describes his approach to detection, he doesn't talk about his brilliance. He's not so taken with his deductive powers that he thinks he can rely on those alone. No, he attributes his success to things Americans traditionally value, such as hard work. In "The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case," Columbo talks to a man (the murderer, as Columbo already suspects) who belongs to a Mensa-type organization:

You know, sir, it's a funny thing, All my life I kept running into smart people. I don't just mean smart like you and the people in this house. You know what I mean. In school, there were lots of smarter kids. And when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there. And I could tell right away that it wasn't gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around. But I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did. And I really love my work, sir.

I may be wrong, but I don't think Columbo is being falsely modest here, and I don't think he's just trying to throw the murderer off guard. In fact, I think he may be giving the murderer a kind of warning: Even if the murderer is smarter, Columbo may still catch him, because Columbo works harder. And hard work is a distinguishing feature of Columbo's approach. Even after the other police personnel are packing up and getting ready to leave a crime scene, Columbo is still crawling around on the floor, pawing through the carpet, searching for any shred of evidence that might help him understand what happened. Like Holmes, he's observant--he keeps his eyes open, as he says--but that's partly because he keeps looking after others have decided there's nothing more to see. Suspects complain about how often he keeps showing up, how long he hangs around. And he reads the books, learning whatever he can about the suspects and their areas of expertise. If he suspects a winemaker killed his brother, Columbo studies up on wine. If he thinks an expert on subliminal suggestion committed murder, Columbo reads the books the expert wrote and uses subliminal suggestions to lure him into incriminating himself. So Columbo embodies a fundamental American belief. You don't have to be born rich and powerful to succeed. You don't even have to be extraordinarily talented. As long as you're willing to work hard and never give up, you can get ahead.

Columbo also talks about his approach to detection in one of the more recent episodes, "Columbo Goes to College." He's a guest lecturer in a criminology class, and a student asks what advice he'd give a young detective. Columbo's advice is simple: "Don't talk too much." When the student is surprised, Columbo explains:
Well, sometimes, when you know something, it's better to keep it to yourself. You don't have to blab everything right away. Wait. Who knows what will happen? Timing. That's important, And lucky. You got to be lucky.
 This statement definitely isn't just shtick. The murder hasn't been committed yet--Columbo has no reason to suspect these students of anything. I think he's being completely open, genuinely modest. Don't show off by broadcasting everything you know, he says. Wait, even if it means people don't realize how smart you are. That's something anyone can do, regardless of wealth or power or anything else. Waiting may help you succeed--but if you do succeed, remember that it's partly because of luck, not because of any merit you can claim. How much more democratic can a statement about detection get?

It's also worth noting that when Columbo gives the class this advice, two of the students--smart students from wealthy, prominent families, students who are about to murder a professor by using a remarkably clever method that requires both technical know-how and a fair amount of money--don't pay attention. Instead, one turns to the other and whispers, "I wonder who his tailor is." These smug, aristocratic students underestimate Columbo because he looks so low class. They should have listened. After they commit their clever murder, Columbo suspects them almost immediately.

Columbo tends to suspect smug, aristocratic types. In "Columbo Goes to College," the upper-class students try to frame a heavy-drinking ex-con, but Columbo doesn't fall for it. Instead, he keeps zeroing in on the students. Jeff Greenfield comments on that feature of the series in a 1973 article called "Columbo Knows the Butler Didn't Do It." (It's available online--you have to squint to read the tiny print in the PDF, but it's worth it.) As Greenfield notes, "The one constant in Columbo is that, with every episode, a working-class hero brings to justice a member of America's social and economic elite." By doing so, Columbo proves that his opponents often don't deserve the privileges they enjoy, that he can best them by being more diligent, more determined. And with every victory, he affirms our faith in democratic ideals.

If we share those ideals, should we embrace Columbo and reject Sherlock Holmes? Of course not. America, at its best, also values diversity. There's room for everyone, even for a moody loner who thinks he's better than the rest of us. If Holmes and Columbo met, I think they'd get along fine. Holmes might look down on Columbo at first, but he's smart enough to learn to respect him. Columbo might be amused by Holmes's haughty ways, but I think he'd also admire him. Unlike some of the snooty types Columbo encounters, Holmes works hard, and he's earned the distinction he enjoys. And both Holmes and Columbo are devoted to justice, to seeing that the truth is ferreted out, to making sure the guilty are punished and the innocent exonerated. Those are qualities all of our great fictional detectives share, regardless of nationality, manner, or attitude. Once Holmes and Columbo got past any initial disdain or distrust, I think they'd like each other. I think they'd enjoy sitting down to compare their investigative techniques and discuss their greatest successes, perhaps over a lovely cup of tea and a savory bowl of chili.












One More Thing

Wildside Press has released a collection of my short stories. Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime includes eleven stories of various lengths, types, and tones, from humorous novella-length whodunits to a dark flash fiction suspense story. Most were first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Some of the women featured in these stories are detectives, and some are victims; some inspire crimes, and some commit them. After over twenty-five years of writing mystery stories, I'm delighted to see these stories get out in the world for a second time.
Available at: Amazon Wildside Press

"What a great collection of mysteries! B.K. Stevens does everything right in this book of stories: plot, characters, setting, dialogue--it all rings true. It's easy to see why she's considered one of the best writers in the genre."--John Floyd, Edgar-nominated author of Clockwork and Deception

"These finely crafted stories have it all--psychological heft, suspense, subtle humor--and the author's notes on each story are especially illuminating. A treat for lovers of the short story form and students of the craft of writing."--Linda Landrigan, Editor, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

"Stevens' irresistible sparkling wit and style start on the first page and never let up."--Kaye George, national bestselling mystery author 


26 July 2015

Copyright? Elementary, My Dear Watson.

by Dale C. Andrews

Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887 and his last in 1927. There were 56 stories in all, plus 4 novels. The final stories were published between 1923 and 1927. As a result of statutory extensions of copyright protection culminating in the 1988 Copyright Term Extension Act, the American copyrights on those final stories . . . will not expire until 95 years after the date of original publication -- between 2018 and 2022 . . . . The copyright on the 46 stories and the 4 novels, all being works published before 1923, [has] expired.
                                                 Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd.
                                                 755 F. 3d 496, 497 (7th Cir. 2014)
                                                 per Judge Richard Posner
Is there anything left to say about Sherlock Holmes? The fame of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective has now stretched across three centuries, with no expiration date in sight. . . . Recent books and graphic novels find the detective trading bon mots with Henry James, escaping the island of Doctor Moreau and squaring off against a zombie horde. One can also pick up Sherlock-themed tarot decks, rubber duckies, crew socks and — for undercover work — a “sexy detective” outfit featuring a deerstalker and pipe. And, needless to say, the digital landscape is ablaze with blogs, fanfic, Twitter feeds, podcasts and innumerable tributes to the cheekbones of Benedict Cumberbatch. What’s left? As Professor Moriarty once remarked, “All that I have to say has already crossed your mind.” 
                                                Daniel Stashower
                                                The Washington Post, July 12, 2015
                                                Reviewing The Amazing Rise and Immortal Lives of Sherlock Holmes                                                  by Zach Dundas

Sir Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes
       This week’s summer movie roll-outs included Mr. Holmes, which features Sir Ian McKellen’s highly anticipated take on Sherlock Holmes at 93 —  battling age and dementia as he tries to unravel one last case. The movie, based on the 2005 Holmes pastiche A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, actually offers the viewer two takes on Holmes, since the cinema version of the story features a “movie within a movie” in which Nicholas Rowe, who earlier portrayed the detective in Young Sherlock Holmes, once again assumes the role in Watson’s version of the mystery that confounds the elderly Holmes.  (Holmes views the movie version, based on Watson's account, in an attempt to jump start his failing memories of the case.)  The fact that the movie offers a new take on Holmes —  indeed, two new takes, and that the same week yet another Holmes retrospective hit the bookstores —   Zach Dumas' The Amazing Rise and Immortal Lives of Sherlock Holmes — is hardly surprising. For 130 years Sherlock Holmes has been, well, ubiquitous.

       Ellery Queen had this to say in his (err, “their”) introduction to The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes:   "more has been written about Sherlock Holmes than about any other character in fiction. It is further true that more has been written about Holmes by others than by Doyle himself."  We will return to that Ellery Queen anthology, but for now the important point is that no other detective  —  not Miss Marple, nor Hercule Poirot, nor Ellery himself  —  has so tempted other authors to lift their pens in imitation and tribute.  And all of this begs a legal question:  How, pray tell, have these new takes on Sherlock Holmes been reconciled with the copyright protection originally secured for the character by Arthur Conan Doyle?

     A Proviso before going forward here: While I am a lawyer, I am NOT a copyright and intellectual properties lawyer. So, a caveat  when I discuss copyright rules it may be a little like asking your family doctor to perform brain surgery.  But with that in mind, the simple rule is that in the United States under the terms of the 1998 Copyright Terms Extension Act the author has copyright protection for 95 years following the publication of the author’s work. So if you are inclined to dabble in pastiches (and I plead guilty on that one), well, you need to do this only with the permission of the original author (or their estate) if the character you are using was created less than 95 years ago.

       How easy is it to run afoul of copyright rules? Well, as promised above, lets return again to our old friend Ellery Queen for the answer to that question. In 1944 Queen published an anthology collecting most of the Holmes pastiches and parodies then in existence, The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of all Ellery Queen volumes this one is likely the rarest. If you want to secure a copy on Amazon it will probably set you back around $150.00.  Why? Well, the anthology, it turns out, was published without first securing a license from the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle. As a result, it was quickly pulled from publication when the estate threatened to sue, and only a limited number of volumes ever reached book stores.   (As an aside, notwithstanding all of the above, a rough version of The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes is, as of this writing, rather mysteriously available for downloading on the internet!  Just click here.)

       But, in any event, Ellery's stumble over the copyright rules was way back in 1944, right? Back then the first Sherlock Holmes stories were not even 60 years old. What about today? In 2015 almost 130 years separates us from the first Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet. So Sherlock should have squared his tweed-draped shoulders and marched into the public domain almost 35 years ago, right?  Well, not so fast. The Doyle estate has historically taken a different (and predictable) approach when it comes to counting those intervening years.

       As the quote at the top of the article points out, the “last bows” of the Sherlock Holmes stories were the ten final mysteries written by Arthur Conan Doyle between 1923 and 1927.  And, counting it up, the 95 year copyright on those stories has yet to expire  and won’t begin to for another three years. The Doyle estate has argued that a “fully rounded” (their words) Holmes and Watson arose only upon completion of the entire Doyle canon.   Thus, the estate argues, copyright protection continues until 2022, i.e., 95 years after the last story was published in 1927.  Pause and think about this:  The Copyright laws speak of a protection period running for 95 years from the first appearance of a character, but the Doyle estate argues that this in fact means 95 years from the last appearance of the character.  The argument sounds more like George Orwell than it does Sherlock Holmes!

       The Doyle estate implemented their concededly expansive view of copyright protection in a rather clever manner. The estate decided to charge $5,000 in licensing fees for every use of Holmes and Watson, reasoning that the amount, while substantial, was far less than the cost of subjecting the “fully rounded” theory to a test in litigation. So their assumption was that those wishing to write about Homes and Watson might grumble, but they would pay.  All went well with this approach until Leslie Klinger came along.

       Klinger co-edited an anthology of Sherlock Holmes pastiches and parodies in 2011 titled A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon. Klinger dutifully paid the $5,000 demanded by the Doyle estate before publishing that collection. But when he and his co-editors decided to proceed with a sequel, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, they also decided that enough was enough and refused to pay for a license. The Doyle estate escalated the dispute, threatening to sue if publication occurred without a license. Klinger responded by suing the estate, claiming that Holmes and Watson were in the public domain and had been since 1982, that is, 95 years after A Study in Scarlet was published. As a result, Klinger argued, no license was required.

       A federal district court, and ultimately the Seventh Circuit United States Court of Appeals, eventually settled the matter. In May of 2014 the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision and held that the Doyle estate’s argument was wrong. The court instead agreed, as Klinger had argued, that Sherlock Holmes entered the public domain, and became “fair game” for other writers, 95 years following the publication of the first Holmes story.

       But how does one handle the refinements to Holmes and Watson that occurred in those later stories, that is, the “rounding” of the characters on which the estate had relied? Well, the court answered that question by concluding that only Holmes and Watson as portrayed in the original series of stories by Doyle are currently in the public domain; that is, the characters as portrayed prior to 1923. And any subsequent nuances to the character  those “well rounded” attributes on which the estate’s arguments were based  remain protected by the copyright laws.

       How does this work in practice? Well, as Barack Obama, among others, has observed “a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy.” The estate doesn't get its $5,000, but the author of a pastiche nonetheless writes at his or her peril since the use of attributes only arising in the last 10 Holmes mysteries infringes the continuing copyright on those stories.

       The Seventh Circuit’s opinion only identifies a scant few areas in which Doyle’s characters became "more rounded” in the later Holmes stories that are still copyright protected: First, Holmes (apparently) likes dogs; Second, Watson was married twice. (On that latter point, I think W.S. Baring-Gould set the number of marriages at three, but I won’t argue the point  particularly without a license!)  So the “rounding” of Sherlock Holmes and Watson may be limited, but what does this rule mean for other characters who appeared in a series of works over the years?  Let us take, for example, my old friend Ellery Queen.

       Ellery’s earliest appearance was in The Roman Hat Mystery, which was published in 1929. Thus, all of the Queen canon is still copyright protected. But what happens in 2024, when the first appearance of Ellery reaches its 95th birthday and the canon begins its seriatim march into the public domain? Arguably under the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning Ellery can be used freely by other authors as of that date.  But beware:  Ellery better be wearing pince-nez glasses, and he might be advised to only employ a Duesenberg for transportation.  He should also have retired, with a wife and son, to Italy. All of those early aspects of Ellery disappeared by the middle of the Queen canon as Ellery Queen and the Inspector were "rounded" by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  In fact the first evidence of the Ellery of the latter half of the canon did not appear until about 1936, with the publication of Halfway House. So unlike Sherlock, there are unmistakable differences between early and late Ellery!

       And if all of this were not confusing enough, let’s throw into our copyright primer the fact that parodies of copyrighted materials, unlike pastiches, fall completely outside of the protection of copyright without worrying at all about the passage of time.  This exception to copyright protection is established and was famously re-invigorated in 2001 when the Eleventh Circuit held that The Wind Done Gone, a re-telling of Gone With the Wind from the perspective of the enslaved residents of Tara, did not infringe Margaret Mitchell’s copyright of the original story.

       So let us return again to Queen and see how that rule would work.  Well, apparently the great Jon L. Breen could have freely published his humorous short story mystery “The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery,” (EQMM March, 1969), in which “E. Larry Cune” solves a New York City theatre murder.  That story is a parody, no question.  Tongue is firmly planted in cheek.   But, by contrast, Breen needed a license in order to publish “The Gilbert and Sullivan Clue,” (EQMM Sept. 1999) since Ellery himself solves that theatrical-based mystery. And what about Francis Nevins famous pastiche “Open Letter to Survivors” (EQMM May, 1972), a story that, while clearly featuring Ellery, never in fact names him as the young detective? I asked Mike Nevins, a copyright professor himself, whether he secured a license for that story and his reply was that Frederic Dannay, then the editor-in-chief of EQMM, never brought up the matter one way or the other when the story was accepted by EQMM for publication.

       But back to Sherlock  when you see that new movie, Mr. Holmes, you might reflect on all of this, and what it can take to breathe new life into another author's character.   And think about the "rounding" of Holmes that had nothing to do with Arthur Conan Doyle  particularly Sherlock Holmes as portrayed in the movie and in Mitch Cullin's original pastiche.  As Holmes explains in each, part of his task in telling this story on his own, without Watson as narrator, is setting the record straight, removing the "excesses" of the Watson versions of his stories.  As an example, you will note that Sir Ian McKellen’s Holmes prefers cigars to a pipe. That “rounding” of the famous detective’s character has absolutely no precedent in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon, either before or after 1923. So at least when Sherlock enjoys his cigar we needn't go back to the Holmes canon looking for references that might prove significant for those pesky copyright laws.

       Come to think of it, a similar observation might be made concerning the title of this article.  Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes never once used the phrase "elementary my dear Watson!"