Showing posts with label Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Show all posts

15 February 2019

The Manual of Mindfulness: Thinking Like Sherlock Holmes


by Lawrence Maddox

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!

27 February 2014

Tales Around the Fireside


by Eve Fisher

I am a short story writer.  Yes, I've written two novels, one (The Best is Yet to Be) as part of the Guideposts mystery series, "Mystery and the Minister's Wife", the other a sci-fi/fantasy piece that is still sitting in my closet.  I've written plays.  I used to write songs for myself and, later, a Southern rock-and-roll band called "Fantasy's Hand." (Those were fun days...)  But what I really feel most comfortable with is short stories.

I think a lot of this comes from my childhood.  I was an only child, and my parents were 40 when they adopted me; everyone around me was (it seemed) at least 40 years older than me, and back then children were expected to keep their mouths shut and just be there while the adults talked, talked, talked.  Luckily for me, most of them were storytellers.  A story, told in the night, to make you sigh or smile or shiver...  still pretty much the ideal.
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John Collier

And I like reading short stories.  I don't understand why so few magazines carry short stories anymore.  Why there are so few short-story magazines.  (Especially considering that attention spans seem to be growing shorter and shorter all the time, but that's another rant.)  I love them.  And some of the finest writing anywhere has been done in that format.  Here are my picks for some of the greatest short story writers:

John Collier.  "Fancies and Goodnights" contains some of his best work.  (It won the Edgar Award in 1962.)  Read "Bottle Party" to find out what really happens with a genie in the bottle.  "The Chaser" - on how tastes change over time.  "If Youth Knew What Age Could"... One of my favorites, "The Lady on the Grey."  And on and on.  Many of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays (including "Sylvia Scarlett", [uncredited] "The African Queen", and "I am A Camera"), and a couple of novels of which my favorite is the mordant, devilish, unforgettable "His Monkey Wife."

File:Ray Bradbury (1975) -cropped-.jpgRay Bradbury.  There are not enough words in the English language to praise his amazing output of short stories.  From "The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl" to "I Sing the Body Electric," "April Witch" to "The Veldt", "A Sound of Thunder" to the heartbreaking "There Will Come Soft Rains", "Dark They Were and Golden Eyed", the whole body of "The Martian Chronicles", and on and on, I gobbled each and every one of his stories I could get my hands on. His work inspired me, amazed me, touched me...  couldn't get enough of it. And he was primarily a short-story writer:  aside from "Fahrenheit 451", his other novels didn't really gel for me.  ("The Martian Chronicles" is a collection of short stories, with a narration in between.)  He showed what could be done in the medium of short fiction.  And, of course, he was a regular writer for "Twilight Zone" and other TV shows...

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Somerset Maugham.  One of the few who could write both great novels, and great short stories.  "The Letter" - made into film twice, most notably with Bette Davis as the cool and collected murderess.  "The Lotus Eater" - when Paradise runs out...  "Red" - what really happens when you look up your old childhood sweetheart...  "The Luncheon" - never ask questions you can't take the answer to...  The hilarious "Three Fat Women of Antibes", "The Vessel of Wrath", "The Verger"...  and, of course, the "Ashenden" series which practically began secret agent stories.  (Alfred Hitchcock combined "The Hairless Mexican" and "The Traitor" into the 1936 movie "Secret Agent" with John Gielgud and Peter Lorre.) Seriously, his short stories are like popcorn at the movies - once I start reading them (I have a four-volume set), I can't quit until I've worked my way through...  way too many.
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Poe

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Lovecraft
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Jackson
H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shirley Jackson.  And how do you want to be scared today, my precious?  My sweets?  By many-tentacled horrors from beyond space, or by crumbling ruins of decay and death, or the quiet malevolence of a quiet house or neighborhood? By the breathing darkness or that strange emptiness?  By the sudden creak or that high whistle in the depths?  Any of these will leave you wondering what's really going on next door, when you'll be able to turn the lights off again, and what is that sound in the closet or over head or under the floor...

File:Conan doyle.jpgArthur Conan Doyle.  Let us never forget that 90% of the Memoirs of Dr. John H. Watson about his inimitable companion, Sherlock Holmes, are short stories. We all have our favorites.  (Sadly, the relentless reinterpretations of Holmes and Adler have reduced my pleasure in "A Scandal in Bohemia".)  Among mine are "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", "The Speckled Band", "The Greek Interpreter", "The Devil's Foot", and "The Norwood Builder".  I have spent many a rainy afternoon curled up in a couch with a hot cup of tea and my father's one-volume "Complete Works", reading, reading, reading, time travelling to Victorian/Edwardian London, as Sherlock Holmes - the world's only private consulting detective - solves case after case after case...  Ah...  Excuse me, I have some reading to do...

NOTE:  These are, of course, only a few of the many tremendous short-story writers I've read.  Flannery O'Connor, Guy de Maupassant, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier ("The Birds", yes - but never forget "The Little Photographer"), Nikolai Gogol  and Anton Chekhov, Ursula LeGuin and Isaac Asimov, and so many of my esteemed colleagues...  I really do have some reading to do!

17 December 2013

Pastiche or Parody?


by Terence Faherty

First, a little shameless self-promotion.  The new issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the February number, starts with one story of mine and ends with another, which I consider a career highlight, right up there with being published in Queen for the first time in 1999.  In between those bookend stories, the February issue contains six other tales, including a great one by SleuthSayers alumnus David Dean, "Murder Town."  My contributions are two Sherlock Holmes parodies:  "The Red-Headed League" and "A Case of Identity."  These stories are follow-ups to "A Scandal in Bohemia," which Queen ran last year.  It was my first Holmes parody.

Or do I mean pastiche?  That's the question that occupies me today:  Am I writing parody or pastiche?  Ellery Queen straddles the fence, referring to my stories as parodies here and pastiches there.  Could they be both?  Could parody be a form of pastiche?  That seems reasonable to me, but not to Wikipedia, the all knowing.  It defines pastiche as a "work of visual art, literature, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists.  Unlike parody, pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates." 


Mr. Wodehouse and cigar
That last bit seems a little harsh to me.  Surely every parody isn't a mocking one.  Some, at least, could be thought of as affectionate.  The Holmes parodies written by P.G. Wodehouse, the great English humorist, fall into that category, I think.  Wodehouse loved the detective fiction of his day, but he was aware of its shortcomings, especially the stories of the "Great Detective" school, which includes the Holmes tales.  I quoted one of Wodehouse's insights on the dedication page of my first short story collection, The Confessions of Owen Keane:  "A detective is only human.  The less of a detective, the more human he is." 

Back to my own Holmes pastiches/parodies.  I refer to this series of stories in my journal and my filing system as The Notebooks of Dr. John H. Watson.  The conceit is simple enough.  Recently unearthed notebooks have been found to contain first drafts of Watson's immortal Sherlock Holmes stories.  (Yes, I know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually wrote the stories, but Doyle gave the credit to Watson, so I do too.)  And while a given first draft bears a certain resemblance to the famous story of the same name (which I'll refer to as "the Strand version"), each is really quite different.  Holmes is more of a blue-collar, working detective with blue-collar tastes (principally a taste for beer) in Watson's first drafts, and the cases he undertakes are a little more "down-market" as well.  And the solutions are always different.

When I write one of these, I first reread the Strand version looking for a "back door," an alternative way into the story for purposes of reimagining its basic events.  Sometimes the back door is an alternative solution, as it was for the two parodies Queen published this year.  Sometimes it's a famous "problem" with the story, something about it that's bugged generations of Sherlockian scholars.  An example might be the fabulous coronet that a distinguished personage (the Prince of Wales?) pawns in "The Beryl Coronet," a piece of public property that he has no right to pawn.  Resolving that problem can suggest an entirely new take on the tale.  Sometimes the back door is simply an ambivalent title, as in the case of "A Scandal in Bohemia."  Since "Bohemia" can refer to both a geographical region (as it does in the Strand version) and a lifestyle, simply switching the meaning can suggest an entirely different course of events.

The fun for me is trying to make these read as though they might actually be first drafts by including items that Watson can adapt for his final versions, like the plumber's smoke rocket that creates havoc in my "Scandal in Bohemia" and clearly inspires the smoke rocket device that works so well in Watson's "Scandal."  I also enjoy putting in allusions that I hope  Sherlockians will spot and enjoy.  My source for these is often Leslie S. Klinger's wonderful The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.  In his notes for the "The Red-headed League," for example, he tells us that Holmes and Watson's trip on the underground in that story is the only one mentioned in the entire canon.  I explain that in passing (claustrophobia).

Speaking of allusions, I also use a few turns of phrase familiar to lovers of the works of the aforementioned Mr. Wodehouse, like Holmes "getting outside of three pints of bitter (beer) in record time."   These stories are meant to be funny, so I strive for a Wodehousian tone throughout.  I don't think P.G. would mind, and I like to think Sir Arthur wouldn't either.  Because my parodies, defined in Faherty's Collegiate Dictionary as a time-honored subset of pastiche, are nothing if not affectionate.   

09 July 2013

Tether's End


by Terence Faherty

In a review of J.K. Rowling's recent book, The Casual Vacancy, I came across the following haunting quote by Flannery O'Connor, the Southern novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Flannery O'Connor
"The writer can chose what he writes about, but not what he can bring to life."

The book reviewer (whose name I forgot to note when I was recording the O'Connor quote in my journal) was making the point that Rowling had breathed life into a series of books about an improbable boy wizard but had fallen short with a realistic novel about a contemporary English town.  I have no idea whether this was a valid criticism of The Casual Vacancy, but it got me thinking about some favorite mystery writers and about writing in general.

The first writer who came to mind was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wanted badly to be Sir Walter Scott, creator of Ivanhoe.  Doyle chose to spend a great deal of his time not writing about Sherlock Holmes--even famously killing him off and one point--or any other detective and he certainly wrote many successful non-mystery tales.  But Holmes and Watson remained the characters Doyle truly brought to life, along with their fogbound, gas-lit world.

Another example is Dorothy L. Sayers.  She drew herself back from the brink of failure and poverty by creating a fantastically wealthy sleuth who never failed, Lord Peter Wimsey.  She wrote a series of increasingly literary novels about Wimsey before finally breaking out of the Wimsey chrysalis--as she saw it--to write religious plays and translate Dante's Inferno.   But neither of these efforts cast the long shadow of Lord Peter, as improbable a character as Harry Potter and yet just as lively.

Then there are other favorites of mine like Margery Allingham, who lent me a title for these musings, and Raymond Chandler.  They established successful realms in crime fiction and never strayed far from them.  Were they less adventurous than Doyle and Sayers, more certain of the value of their work, or more conscious of that invisible tether of which O'Connor hinted?

Naturally, I also thought of my own writing, of the years I spent writing in the voice of Owen Keane, my failed seminarian and mystery addict, and the years I spent trying to find other voices.  Also about my faithfulness to mystery writing in general.  Does that fidelity reflect a conscious choice or an unseen tether?  And if it's a tether, who's holding the other end?

I find something else O'Connor said about writing more hopeful:  "The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.  His job is to find that location."

The implication, unstated, is that every successful fiction writer will find a different crossroads, due to the variables of time and space.  The hope, also unstated, is that the writer will recognize that crossroads when he or she finds it, like an Allingham or a Chandler.  The historical record suggests that this isn't always the case, but also that it might not matter, that a Doyle or a Sayers might be writing for the ages whether or not he or she suspects it.

Good luck finding your own crossroads.  When you do, write your heart out.