The Crimes of Dr. Watson

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Crimes of Dr. Watson: An Interactive Sherlock Holmes Mystery
Duane Swierczynski, 2007

Last week I talked about a version of A Study in Scarlet which recreated all the evidence, accounts, etc. pertaining to the novel by Conan Doyle.  This book is a similar idea, but for an original story.  It mostly consists of a letter from Watson to a friend in Philadelphia, asking for help proving his innocence in a crime.  He has received several mysterious mailings from America, which are enclosed, along with several other clues.  You, the reader, are supposed to use the account and the clues to solve the mystery.  The aesthetic advantage this book has over the last one is that the clues are fully created, not just pictured, and included in envelopes pasted into the book.  It is very very pretty.

Unfortunately, that doesn't stop it from being really terrible.

Now, let's be clear.  I don't mind, in principle, choosing to deviate from canon.  I mind when it's done badly.  I mind when the author (purportedly Watson), makes excuses as to why he doesn't sound like Watson.  (Also a problem in The Seven Per-Cent Solution, and this one did a lot better than Meyer.  To my ear, the fact that this author comes much closer and still misses almost makes it worse.)  I mind a bad pun written in 1895 referencing a book that doesn't come out til 1900, when the author is asking me to examine the evidence.  I mind when the inconsistencies make me doubt the veracity of each clue, when the point is supposed to be to solve the case.  The fact that the dates on the postmarks don't seem to work with the account?  Doesn't mean anything. 

I was hoping this would be like The Eleventh Hour, one of my favorite books as a kid, which also features a sealed solution at the end.  No such luck.  (I don't remember whether I ever opened the solution to The Eleventh Hour, because even though I solved the main riddle, found most of the hidden pictures, solved many of the hidden messages, I was never convinced I'd gotten them all.  I kept trying for a good long while, though.)

Before I get into the realm of spoilers, I will add one more line for anyone who may be reading this book, and stumped, and wondering if they should just open the ending already.

If you are as big a Holmes fan as I am, I say to you: Norbury, my friends.  You are overthinking it.  The solution is less complicated, less interesting, and much less satisfying than you may be thinking.  The ratio of red herrings to actual clues here is obscene.  Forget almost everything you think you've learned, everything you know about Holmes and Watson and everyone else, and look at the bare surface of this thing.  Seem like a dumb solution?  You've probably got it.  I probably should have known from the moment "Watson" feels the need to explain that he, in fact, isn't a bumbling idiot that this book was not written for me. 

If you're never going to read this book or try to solve the mystery (and I recommend you don't), feel free to read on, but we're going into spoilers from here on out. 
Still with me?

Let's start small:
The author moves the end of the Hiatus forward in time to work with the clues he wants to use (First Performances of Hedda Gabler, publication of The Time Machine).  Which is fine, whatever, except that those clues are nothing, mean almost nothing in themselves, and could just as easily have been something else. 

Holmes is the correspondent in Philadelphia, and he is the person who's been sending Watson the clues.  This means that he solves the mystery...he created.  Good job there.  If Holmes felt the need to warn Watson without revealing his whereabouts, wouldn't he just cable Mycroft?  Or send Watson an anonymous telegram with a clearer message than "theater ticket, newspaper, postcard, brochure for antique sex toys, timetable"?  He doesn't have that much faith in Watson's deductive abilities.  Also his alias is an anagram, which is stupid, when you're supposed to be hiding.

Even Worse:
Holmes, the consummate actor, who observes the unkindness of Germans toward their verbs and the unique spelling of American advertisements, writes a letter posing as a Philadelphian gentleman/scientist/Civil War veteran.  This reads like an obscene parody of a Wild West gunslinger.  While I appreciate the concern for Watson at the very end, if he was so concerned, he could have sent a clearer message, and not been such an intentionally mysterious prick.

Worse Still:
The solution to the mystery is: Mary (Mrs. Watson), concerned about Watson's inability to get over the death of Holmes, hires an arsonist to destroy the Baker Street apt (which no one lives in).  Holmes, IN AMERICA, somehow hears about this and has time to send Watson a series of mailings vaguely related to marriage or wives before anything happens.  He could have come HOME in that amount of time. 

Moving on: the arsonist was instructed by persons unknown to look for papers before torching the place, and in the meantime Watson is warned about the intruder by a Baker Street Irregular.  He confronts the man, who claims to be seeking Holmes' help.  The arsonist somehow gets the drop on Watson, then sets fire to the place, but Watson is pulled out, possibly by the Irregular lad, and the arsonist dies in the fire.  Why?  How?  We don't seem to care.  Watson, found unconscious in the street, is charged with the murder of the arsonist. (Who is now missing a leg, because he had a fake one.  That part is laughably obvious, even before they give you a stupidly obvious clue in case you missed it.)  Mary brings Watson a few more red herrings (here's where the pages of The Time Machine come in) even though she apparently started all this to save her marriage, so I'm unclear on why she tries to confuse the issue seriously enough to keep Watson imprisoned indefinitely. 

Watson writes to Philadelphia, and his correspondent (Holmes) writes back with the explanation and writes the same to the authorities.  The fact that Watson's lawyer tells a story that seems to reference the mailed clues?  Meaningless.  The numbers which repeat? Nothing.  Hedda Gabler/HG Wells connection?  Nope.

Worst of all:
Despite reprinting "The Final Problem" in its entirety, the text of the letter contradicts the end, stating the Watson has not found the "papers done up in a blue envelope" that are needed to convict Moriarty's gang.  FOR FOUR YEARS.  Besides the fact that I think Holmes would have cut the Hiatus short if most of the gang had still been running about making trouble, this undercuts the power of the original story.  Taking this as so, all Holmes accomplishes in "The Final Problem" is killing Moriarty, when the whole reason he doesn't just arrest Moriarty to start with is to get the whole gang, or as many as he can.  The beast without the head is less dangerous, but if Watson is talking about worldwide trouble four years later, it doesn't seem to have helped much. 

Now the whole reason they seem to have changed this is so: 1) Watson can be scared of something (the gang), 2) The Arsonist can have some connection to the gang, giving Holmes a reason to hear about it (again, I say, really, hear about a simple arson payoff, from across an ocean?), and 3) gives the Arsonist something to look for in 221B Baker Street, delaying him long enough for Watson to get there.  Now, disregarding that if they had known about the papers, (and nothing seems to indicate this is new information) Moriarty's surviving agents should have made a play for them long ago, I have a problem here.  Simply, despite breaking the storyline to have them be missing, the solution to the mystery does not include the finding of the papers, or, in fact, anything about the papers.  At the end of the book they are still lost.  (Holmes's letter doesn't even say, 'look in place X,' or anything.)  The central mystery has no weight, no larger implications other than that Mary went off the deep end.

I don't care that Mary goes to jail instead of dies (or goes to an asylum, or leaves Watson, or any of the other theories), but because I'm familiar with those theories, it was impossible for me to see the solution the author intended.

I have contemplated better solutions to the mystery, but actually, forget it.  Better Solution: just read "The Empty House" and be done with stories about the Hiatus already.

1 Star - Didn't Much Like It

A Study in Scarlet (reconstructed)

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Study in Scarlet:A Sherlock Holmes Murder Mystery;
Based on the Story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Publishers: Webb & Bower (Simon Goodenough credited inside), 1983

This book is more a gimmick than a pastiche in truth, but a cute gimmick.  It is, simply, the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, reverse engineered.  For example, the first few pages include a 1983 letter to the publisher describing the contents of a fabled dispatch box, and an 1886 letter from Watson to Conan Doyle, giving him permission to take the notes/documents which follow and form them into something readable.  It then, in a colorful and entertaining way, outlines the entire happenings of A Study in Scarlet, starting with Watson's medical discharge from the army, ending with the newspaper article cited on the last page of the original. 

Most of the original text is recreated here, split between quoted documents, articles, telegrams, and such, and personal accounts.  Watson's words are themselves split between diary entries, written with a free hand, and sections which he types up with more details.  Much of Holmes' dialogue from the original, when not quoted exactly by Watson, is corrected or added in the margins in Holmes' own hand. 

The author's name (Goodenough), only appears on the letter to the publishers, not on the cover or the publication page.  A Google search confirms that he was the editor/designer of the book, and that he did at least two more, based on The Sign of Four and Hound of the Baskervilles.

The most amusing part of this may be where it varies, always gently, from the Doyle text, especially at the beginning.  Doyle hurries through to putting his protagonists together and on the trail of the crime, but since the recreation is all of Watson's papers, we get, for example, more about his military service (cut short), a map of where he had been, a medical article about enteric fever, etc.  Goodenough also obviously enjoyed playing with slightly more blunt reactions from Watson to the financial situation which requires him to get a roommate, his first meeting with Holmes, and their first few months together before they become friends.  A solution to the problem of Watson's disappearing bulldog is even addressed. 

The book is packed with nice touches, recreations of various clues and everything encountered over the course of the case.  The recreated photos of the murder victims are a bit silly, but overall the evidence photos are well done, as well as excerpts from Holmes' monographs, police reports, accounts in the press, witness statements, and of course the culprit's journal and spoken account, which make up the bulk of "Part II" of the original.

I don't know that I would necessarily recommend it to someone who's never read the original, because while you can follow the story, much of the humor for me came from which bits are added to Watson's original pages by Holmes later.  I may be too close to the original, though, so I was most intrigued by where it deviated from the text, which it never did unreasonably.

The cover, incidentally, is a bit of a lie.  It encourages you to try to solve the case before the end, which is somewhat unfair, since you are not given the final clues (telegrams to Holmes from USA) until after you are given the solution.  This is best from a story-telling point of view, Holmes never reveals all his conclusions until after the case is solved.  So it's just the marketing people (who designed the cover) who dropped the ball there.

Next week, a pastiche that does honestly expect you to solve the case.  And if you thought this review was boring or gentle, be patient, cause the next one's a doozy.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

The Seven-Percent Solution

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Seven-Percent Solution
Nicholas Meyer, 1974
(re-post of my goodreads review)

For anyone who is unaware, The Seven-Percent Solution is a novel in which Sherlock Holmes loses control of his cocaine addiction, requiring a trip out of the country and treatment by Sigmund Freud. I read it back in 2008, and wrote most of this at the time [since edited for clarity].

Color me unimpressed. It's an interesting concept, but not so well executed. I'll believe that it was impressive when published (and the general populace/culture still respected Freud when it was written), and maybe I'm too much of a Holmes fan (and too much of a Holmes/Russell fangirl).

But it felt to me from the beginning that Meyer didn't have any new ideas.  It continually rankled me, the way he made lame excuses for why his book doesn't read like Conan Doyle, despite supposedly also being written by Watson.  He kept pointing out allusions to this or that Holmes story, or to other literary works.  As if to say: 'Nudge, nudge, see! I read the original, and all these other books too! Aren't I smart!'

I've hardly ever read a chase scene that was so... slow.

He halfway tries to make it fit with the story (The Final Problem/Adventure of the Empty House) as written, by saying that Watson wrote those to cover the real story (cocaine induced dementia, soul-searching holiday).

However, if you're going to write Moriarty out of the Holmes canon, you better have a damn good story to replace it, and he doesn't.

*Nitpicky Sherlockian Alert*
ALSO: It doesn't work. The explanation at the start of "The Final Problem" is that Watson writes the story to explain what happened between Moriarty and Holmes, since Moriarty's brother "defends [Moriarty's] memory [with].... an absolute perversion of the facts". If we were to take The Seven-Per-Cent Solution as true in-world, then Moriarty, despite being a jerk, is not evil, and is ALIVE in England. Why in the world would Watson write a story accusing an innocent man of being a criminal mastermind? It doesn't make a bit of sense. If he were to write a story to "cover" Holmes' disappearance, he could have written anything! Meyer says that Watson wrote it, but never why, other then to 'cover' the true facts and because Holmes makes a terrible joke on the last page. Humph.
*End Nitpicking Alert*

Finally, the part where he's actually getting over the cocaine addiction is BORING, and the mystery that pads out the second half of the book is as well.  Either make it work with the existing stories or don't, but in my view this author never made up his mind.

One Star - Didn't Like It.

New Theme: Holmes Pastiche

I wasn't going to follow up my research-heavy dissection of "A Scandal in Bohemia" with more Holmes, but that's what I'm reading now.

Some re-reading in the list below, some new books, and one review that's familiar to my goodreads friends.  All books about Holmes and company, not by Doyle.

A Scandal in Bohemia

Monday, January 4, 2010

"A Scandal in Bohemia," Strand Magazine
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes
William S. Baring-Gould, 1967

"A Scandal in Bohemia"
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Granada Television, 1984

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.

So begins the account of one of the most talked about, argued over, reinvented and reinterpreted characters in Holmes canon.  Irene Adler was invented for, and only appears in, the first Sherlock Holmes short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia".

A series of novels by Carole Douglas star Adler as a detective in her own right.  Laurie R King posits her further encounters with Holmes in The Language of Bees, and invents a son who is an artist.  John Lescroart implies that the son of Holmes and Adler is Rex Stout's 30's detective Nero Wolfe.  In the 2009 movie, Adler (Rachel McAdams) seems to be a professional thief, or at least a classic femme fatale who has a romantic history with Holmes.

Of course, to the dismay of all of these people, the next line of the story is:

It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler.  All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.

You can argue, of course, that this is Watson's perspective, and in later stories Holmes is shown to be sympathetic and caring toward women who come to him for help, and understanding of others' love interests.  In "The Copper Beeches", Watson even holds out hope that his strongly protective feelings toward Miss Violet Hunter might grow into something more, but nothing comes of it.

....And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

Hold it.  Depending on your reading of that line, the woman whom so many Holmes readers and pastiche writers put forth as the love of Holmes' life has just been killed off at the end of her introductory paragraph, a mere three years (by publication date) from her encounter with the detective.  So much for the later affair.

What actually interests me here is who is Irene Adler.  Not working from the pastiches, just from Doyle's text.  Speculation is necessary, but I'll try to keep it to a minimum.

Is Irene Adler a criminal?

She "defeats" Holmes.  This is not argued.  But what is Holmes' task?  He is attempting to recover a photograph on behalf of the King of Bohemia.  It's her photograph of the two of them, ostensibly from when they had an affair.  In "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", Watson cites this case as one "free of any legal crime".

Now, the King wants the picture because Adler has threatened to blackmail him, to prevent the King's marriage to another woman.  This is according to the King.  According to Irene's account, the photograph is her protection from the King, and she has been "cruelly wronged".  By the King's own account, he has paid agents to steal the photograph five times:

"Twice burglars in my pay ransacked her house. Once we diverted her luggage when she travelled. Twice she has been waylaid. "

Waylaid.  As in, accosted in the street.  Nice guy.

The Granada Television adaptation of this story chooses to play up this aspect, including a potential motive for Irene.  They imply more directly that the King led her on with talk of marriage, but then dismissed her because she was lower class.  This is somewhat supported in the text: "Well! I wish she had been of my own station! What a queen she would have made!"

Irene is referred to in the text as an "adventuress" only once, by the King himself.  An adventuress would lead on rich men to part them from their money.  Whether or not she did this in the past, when we meet her she refuses to accept money for the photograph. 

Holmes' biography of Adler:
“Let me see!” said Holmes. “Hum! Born in New Jersey in the year 1858. Contralto—hum! La Scala, hum! Prima donna Imperial Opera of Warsaw—yes! Retired from operatic stage—ha! Living in London—quite so!..."

Here we come to a more plausible potential connection, if we must invent a romance.  Not the detective and the adventuress, but the violinist and the singer.  I admit to being influenced again here by the Granada episode, which subtly plays up their mutual love of music.  Irene is a trained actress and opera singer, which in some places and times is seen as no better than a criminal, but we won't dwell on that here.  Incidentally, this is also the story in which Watson first observes "The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when [Holmes] became a specialist in crime. "  Again the arts connect them.

Of course, a hiccup in all these romantic notions is that on the day Holmes first meets her, she gets married to Godfrey Norton.  (A less-lethal explanation of the phrase "the late Irene Adler" is using late to merely mean former, since she is now Irene Norton.)  Holmes, following her, witnesses the wedding, then comes up with a plan to find the photograph.  Masquerading as a clergyman, he fakes an attack in the street to get into her home, then has Watson pitch a smoke rocket in through the window, surmising that she will head straight for the precious photograph to save it from the fire.  The person operating outside the law here is not Adler, Holmes even cautions Watson that he risks arrest by helping.  After thus discovering its hiding place, Holmes and Watson take off for home, planning to return in the morning and seize the picture.  Irene, meanwhile, begins to suspect that something was off about that whole episode, follows the men home in disguise to assure herself that they are who she thinks they are, and immediately takes off for the Continent with her new husband and the photograph.  She leaves Holmes with a letter of explanation and a sense of embarrassment that she had seen through his ruse.

The fact that Irene herself is now married, in her own words "I love and am loved by a better man than [The King]",  makes the King's account, that she was threatening his upcoming marriage, feel a little...thin.

Incidentally, her use of male costume, which she seems to use to travel safely where women cannot go, is plausible for non-nefarious purposes:
"Mr. Guy Warrack, in Sherlock Holmes and Music, has correctly concluded that "It is therefore to the male-impersonation contralto roles that we must look to in trying to reconstruct Irene Adler's career."  He cites several such roles..."
-The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

So in the end, what do we know about her?
American, spent most of adult life in Europe: Italy, Poland (then under Russian rule), London
Professional Opera Singer, with acting experience
Very Beautiful
Occasionally wears male costume
Had affair previously with King of Bohemia, kept photo
Clever enough to build secret panel to keep photo in
Currently married
Smart, perceptive and quick to act
Arguably takes a bit of pleasure in taking Holmes' arrogance down a peg

She is probably a bit bohemian herself (the movement, not the country in this case), probably flirted with many rich men in her youth, but now at age 30 appears to be settling down, far from London.

I am not one to say it would be out of character for there to be an affair between Holmes and Adler, later in life, but to justify such there is no need to make her into anything she is not.  Holmes keeps her photograph, although
"Those who are sentimentally inclined seize on the fact that Holmes asked... for her photograph as evidence of attachment," Dr. Richard Asher wrote in "Holmes and the Fair Sex."  "Is it not patently obvious that Holmes, having been decieved by her skill in disguising herself, wanted the photograph to add to his records to make sure that he would recognize her if she ever crossed his path again...?"  -The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

Can you tell that a lot of this rambling was inspired by my mixed feelings about the new Sherlock Holmes movie?  And they are mixed.  On principle I object to the Catwoman-izing of Irene Adler in the film, even though I like Catwoman.   I don't mind her in the context of the movie, but I did come away feeling the need to look for different interpretations of the character.  And I think Doyle gives her enough.  Graceful under pressure, sincere in her passion (if we are to believe her letter), artistic and lovely.

“What a woman—oh, what a woman!” cried the King of Bohemia, when we had all three read this epistle. “Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”

“From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes coldly.

The story closes with a healthy dose of mutual respect on both sides.  She doesn't need to be a femme fatale to outwit Holmes, she just needs to be herself.

And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom of Bohemia, and how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.