Sherlock in the summer

I know it isn't perpetual summer on Baker Street (and appropriately Sherlockian points beyond) but to me it rather is. And always will be. Maybe that's because I never can shake off that first shattering encounter with Holmes all those decades ago at the old summer cottage, lying on my stomach hours on end on a sunny lawn, drinking in every mesmerising word: "Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!" And to make it all perfect the old paperback I was hungrily devouring positively reeked of pipe tobacco (from an old Persian slipper, I shouldn't wonder). A direct link to Baker Street, a personal message, no doubt about it. No doubt whatsoever.

This summer hasn't been particulary friendly so far, so there haven't been any fierce reading sessions outdoors on any lawns or otherwise. Neither have I been reading Doyle so much, not quite. I have, however, been reading about Doyle. David Pirie's trio of novels (The Patient's Eyes, The Night Calls, The Dark Waters) very cleverly exploits the character and influence of Doctor Joseph Bell and his relationship with his young medical student and laboratory assistant Doyle. The first book is pretty much a gem, an intricate and very convincing take on The Solitary Cyclist with a few intrigueing extra layers to give it pleasant depth and dimension. The mood of the book is delightfully gothic and has a mystifying air of perverseness throughout; something you vaguely sense but never can put your finger on, not quite. The second book lets Bell and Doyle tackle a serial killer who targets women of loose morals. Indeed one of the earliest serial killers known to criminal history, Thomas Neil Cream, did in fact study medicine at Edinburgh University at the very same time Doyle did. Now there's a thought that boggles the mind: Doyle and Bell and the trailblazing serial killer Cream in the same city at the same time. The setting, then, is Edinburgh, that seedy terrifying city of Burke and Hare and Stevenson, a seat of poverty and despair and madness, a not at all unlikely theatre for such gruesome events. The string of killings distantly echoes or presages that of Whitechapel a few years later, which is as it should be as Cream has become one of the more periphereal, and to be perfectly honest unlikely, Ripper candidates due to something he may or may not have uttered as his last words on the gallows as he was executed for other murders. The third book is the weakest of the lot. Cream, once Doyle's friend, has escaped the forces of justice to become the Nemesis of Doyle. Wherever Doyle turns he finds Cream's shadow lurking in the dark and damp corners, waiting to pounce, ready to exact his terrible revenge for foiling his murderous plans. The whole thing soon becomes a bit melodramatic, dreary and downright silly, and Pirie gives Cream well-nigh superhuman means and resources to stalk Doyle. And the more omnipotent and ubiquitous Cream or his presence is, the less convincing he is, and therefore, the less credible the novel is. And what's more, there isn't a whole lot of Doyle (the writer, that is) or Holmes in the third book, which to me seems an unpardonable offense.

Not really summer fare, these books, more autumn or even harsh bitter cold winter, I should say. Well worth a read the first two of them, still. The first two books were in fact turned into a TV series by the BBC and very successfully too. A right decent job.

Lately I've seen a lot of Holmes movies, many for the first time. A Study in Terror has John Neville as Holmes and his foe is no lesser villain than the scourge of Whitechapel Jack the Ripper. The murders seem a bit unrelated to the real events and the whole plot a bit trivial. In 1965 having Holmes take on the Ripper was probably a quite fresh idea while today it's somewhat of an old hat and been done to death. Neville, however, is not bad as Holmes, suspiciously fair-haired and Aryan though he is. The same goes for the Holmes of the 2002 Hound of the Baskervilles version, Richard Roxburgh, another pleasant surprise. Neither of them looks a bit like the Paget image of Holmes but they both come off with flying colours. The 2002 Hound is by and large a good one. I especially enjoy the casting: Ian Hart as a plucky and intelligent Watson, John Nettles as Doctor Mortimer and Richard E. Grant as the truly villanous and dastardly Stapleton (delicious echoes of Whitnail there, anyone?). By the way, Hart played Watson in another Holmes thingy as well - the slightly iffy Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stockings with Rupert Everett as the not quite terribly convincing Holmes - and he's even done a brief Doyle in Finding Neverland.

The older films invariably let one down. Holmes comes off as a stupid egomaniac whom one wouldn't hire to empty the bin, Watson is rarely anything but a clown and Moriarty chews the carpet for dear life and mostly concentrates on shaking his fist at Holmes - Napoleon of crime indeed. Arthur Wontner was one of the first to portray Holmes on the silver screen in The Sleeping Cardinal of 1931 (which I haven't seen). He doesn't look bad, in fact he looks quite a bit like Paget's illustrations, only slightly older and bulkier. The settings are contemporary and the plots a mixed bag - some original Doyle but oftentimes mangled beyond recognition. And the bits one does recognise are so poorly done and clichéd it's usually an embarrasment. In the not so aptly named The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935) Holmes has retired and gone to Sussex to keep bees. The plot is basically The Valley of Fear but with very little sleuthing going on and a remarkably lame Moriarty trying to outwit Holmes who naturally comes out of retirement to crack the case, much to the chagrin of Moriarty. No Watson and Wontner comes off as a insipid somnambulist. Pretty bad. As is the other Wontner movie I've seen: The Silver Blaze (1937). In it Sir Henry Baskerville invites Holmes and Watson to Baskerville Hall as it now has been 20 years since that illustrious case. The movie follows the Silver Blaze story very marginally and owes absolutely nothing to The Hound of the Baskervilles, which makes Sir Henry's appearance only confusing. And of course it is Moriarty personally who is behind the sabotaging of the horse (as the "Napolen of crime" obviously hasn't got anything more urgent to attend to than fix horse races). Ian Fleming (not him!) does a not bad Watson and Lyn Harding does a Moriarty who really ought to play against Laurel and Hardy rather than the man from Baker Street. Compared to these A Study in Scarlet from 1933 seems halfway decent. Holmes is played by Reginald Owen (who only the year before played Watson in the movie version of the Gillette play Sherlock Holmes with Clive Brook as Holmes) and is the best feature of the movie. And of course the plot has nothing to do with A Study in Scarlet but does resemble The Sign of Four a bit. The members of a secret society are bumped off one by one and each time this occurs the survivors get to inherit the wealth of the deceased member. Anna May Wong plays the widow of one the murdered men and gets to scowl a lot in a very villanously oriental manner. Sinister. Watson is played by the unremarkable Warburton Gamble. Wouldn't actually be such a bad movie if Holmes were removed. So it would be just an ordinary crime movie.

I've never been a huge fan of Basil Rathbone's Holmes films but having seen the older stuff I must say he and the movies are a huge improvement on every level. Except of course for the imbecille Watson. Nigel Bruce is horrible and ought to be shot. Also, after Wontner one is apt to forgive Jeremy Brett and his sometimes almost hysterical excesses. His early work is quite solid - like The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet, both of which I only just had another look at. Good stuff.

One thing that often tends to get overlooked is Holmes on the radio. Quite a lot of adaptations were produced before the heyday of TV and some of it is still good by any standard. A lot of the old productions are now being issued on CD and a lot is to be found on the net. Before he went to Hollywood and became a cinematographic genius Orson Welles was a wunderkind of the radio. With a hectic pace he produced radio plays with his company (or companies, actually), many of which have become classics - none more so than The War of the Worlds in 1938 (but not, perhaps, for the right reasons). Before that, Welles produced and starred in The Immortal Sherlock Holmes, based on the famous play by William Gillette. Now my knowledge of this play is weak at best, I've neither seen it nor read it, but it doesn't seem a very good play. Might be that it works better on the stage with a strong lead. In the radio version Welles does a surprisingly weak and whiny Holmes, a stilted character with no charisma, no inner strenght, no wit, nothing to show us we have here a remarkable man, and frankly one does begin to wonder if he has no idea whom he is supposed to be playing. The plot is the usual melodramatic hodgepodge and in no way is The Immortal Sherlock Holmes even close to those brilliant productions Welles turned out so many of and which simply pushed the limits of what radio drama can and should be and thus redefined the whole medium like Citizen Kane redefined the cinema. A pity really. Especially as one can imagine what a Welles radio play about Holmes could have been like if only he'd have commissioned a proper script and let himself go in the title role. Nobody does radio drama like Welles, his scope and range are phenomenal. His voice is an instrument and he the greatest virtuoso ever to have lived. Would've been dynamite.

Next, I imagine, it's back to Doyle's original canon. Won't be a proper summer without reading some of that I don't think.