Tag Archives: sherlock holmes

Help Me Ruin My Vacation

Starting on Friday, I have 11 days of vacation set up. Of course, I’ll still be doing a little White Wolf work during that time (because “vacation” really means “a chance to catch up on work”), but I really do want to try and relax. So, the first announcement is that I’m planning to be less available on the Internet during that time. I have vacation responders set up for both of my email accounts, I won’t be on social networks as much, I won’t be updating this blog, and so on. I’m not going to be completely off the grid, but I do need some time away and live in my own head for a bit.

Part of the reason I’m doing that is that I want to finish off my Hamlet short story, and then roll right into revising and expanding my book of Tour de Holmes essays. Aside from comments on each of the stories, I also have in mind a discussion of Smart Watson vs. Dumb Watson, the popularity of Moriarty over the other (and sometimes more visible) villains in the canon, Holmes’ cocaine use, Watson’s wives, and (if I hate myself enough) the chronology of the cases.

So, faithful audience, what topics of the Sherlock Holmes canon would you like me to discuss/rant about in such a manuscript?

How Watson Learned The Trick (1923)

Holmes and WatsonThis is a special bonus, to celebrate the end of the “Tour de Holmes.”

In 1924, Doyle wrote a special miniaturized book to be placed with in the Queens’ Dolls’ House, which he titled “How Watson Learned The Trick.” It is one of five known extracanonical works of Doyle, and one of the few that is complete. Special thanks to Sherlockian.net for the text.

And thank you, my dear and patient readers, for going with me through these seventy-five essays.


Watson had been watching his companion intently ever since he had sat down to the breakfast table. Holmes happened to look up and catch his eye.

“Well, Watson, what are you thinking about?” he asked.

“About you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, Holmes. I was thinking how superficial are these tricks of yours, and how wonderful it is that the public should continue to show interest in them.”

“I quite agree,” said Holmes. “In fact, I have a recollection that I have myself made a similar remark.”

“Your methods,” said Watson severely, “are really easily acquired.”

“No doubt,” Holmes answered with a smile. “Perhaps you will yourself give an example of this method of reasoning.”

“With pleasure,” said Watson. “I am able to say that you were greatly preoccupied when you got up this morning.”

“Excellent!” said Holmes. “How could you possibly know that?”

“Because you are usually a very tidy man and yet you have forgotten to shave.”

“Dear me! How very clever!” said Holmes. “I had no idea, Watson, that you were so apt a pupil. Has your eagle eye detected anything more?”

“Yes, Holmes. You have a client named Barlow, and you have not been successful with his case.”

“Dear me, how could you know that?”

“I saw the name outside his envelope. When you opened it you gave a groan and thrust it into your pocket with a frown on your face.”

“Admirable! You are indeed observant. Any other points?”

“I fear, Holmes, that you have taken to financial speculation.”

“How could you tell that, Watson?”

“You opened the paper, turned to the financial page, and gave a loud exclamation of interest.”

“Well, that is very clever of you, Watson. Any more?”

“Yes, Holmes, you have put on your black coat, instead of your dressing gown, which proves that your are expecting some important visitor at once.”

“Anything more?”

“I have no doubt that I could find other points, Holmes, but I only give you these few, in order to show you that there are other people in the world who can be as clever as you.”

“And some not so clever,” said Holmes. “I admit that they are few, but I am afraid, my dear Watson, that I must count you among them.”

“What do you mean, Holmes?”

“Well, my dear fellow, I fear your deductions have not been so happy as I should have wished.”

“You mean that I was mistaken.”

“Just a little that way, I fear. Let us take the points in their order: I did not shave because I have sent my razor to be sharpened. I put on my coat because I have, worse luck, an early meeting with my dentist. His name is Barlow, and the letter was to confirm the appointment. The cricket page is beside the financial one, and I turned to it to find if Surrey was holding its own against Kent. But go on, Watson, go on! It ‘s a very superficial trick, and no doubt you will soon acquire it.”

The Best Stories

The BooksSixty stories. Nine books. That’s a lot of reading to get through, and it’s a very small portion of the ink spilled over Sherlock Holmes outside of Doyle. So, which ones are the best?

Well, in 1927, Doyle himself selected that he thought were the best of his short stories in an essay for Strand Magazine. He picked twelve stories and ordered them from most to least favorite. Later he then added seven more, for a total of ninteen:

  1. “The Speckled Band”
  2. “The Red-Headed League”
  3. “The Dancing Men”
  4. “The Final Problem”
  5. “A Scandal in Bohemia”
  6. “The Empty House”
  7. “The Five Orange Pips”
  8. “The Second Stain”
  9. “The Devil’s Foot”
  10. “The Priory School”
  11. “The Musgrave Ritual”
  12. “The Reigate Squires”
  13. “Silver Blaze”
  14. “The Bruce-Partington Plans”
  15. “The Crooked Man”
  16. “The Man with the Twisted Lip”
  17. “The Greek Interpreter”
  18. “The Resident Patient”
  19. “The Naval Treaty”

As for me, let’s say that I disagree with some of Doyle’s choices. I have my own list of favorites.

Of the novels, the best is far and away The Hound of the Baskervilles. There’s a reason why it’s the book most people know of when they think of Holmes, and why the deerstalker hat is so well known (even if it only shows up in this book and one or two other places).

Of the short stories, I’ve narrowed it down to my top ten (and let me tell you, I shuffled these around for the past twelve months). These aren’t necessarily the stories I would encourage a new reader to pick up, but rather the ones that I find myself reading over and over:

  1. “A Scandal in Bohemia”: Although the first two novels predate this story, I feel this is where Doyle really finds his feet with Holmes.
  2. “The Final Problem”/”The Empty House”: Yes, I’m cheating here, but I really feel these are both one connected story, and they also comprise most of the canonical references to Moriarty. Absolutely gripping stories.
  3. “The Blue Carbuncle”: The first place where I deviate from Doyle, but for purely personal reasons. This story is such a part of my childhood that I can’t possibly be rational about it.
  4. “The Red-Headed League”: Doyle uses this plot a few times throughout the canon, but the first time is, to me, the best.
  5. “The Musgrave Ritual”: The actual ritual is used in various Sherlockian societies, and it’s very likely the seed for the cliche of “the butler did it.”
  6. “Charles Augustus Milverton”: The other place where I disagree with Doyle. Milverton is probably the second-best villain in the canon.
  7. “The Second Stain”: Probably the best example of the Lestrade/Holmes dynamic.
  8. “The Bruce-Partington Plans”: Big use of Mycroft, a great spy story, and a good companion to “The Second Stain.”
  9. “The Devil’s Foot”: The story isn’t always the best, but the powerful exploration of the friendship between Holmes and Watson is just too good.
  10. “Silver Blaze”: I had a tough time between this and “The Five Orange Pips,” but the tracking scene and some of the dialogue just manages to put this into the top ten for me.

The Lion’s Mane (1926)

Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1927. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.

“The Lion’s Mane,” right after “The Blanched Soldier,” is the second (and final) story narrated by Holmes. This story is noteworthy because it is the only one set after Holmes’ retirement, and thus doesn’t involve Watson in any way. The loss of Watson is keenly felt by Holmes:

At this period of my life the good Watson had passed almost beyond my ken. An occasional week-end visit was the most that I ever saw of him. Thus I must act as my own chronicler. Ah! had he but been with me, how much he might have made of so wonderful a happening and of my eventual triumph against every difficulty!

In retired life, Holmes references “his old housekeeper,” although never by name. In “His Last Bow” we learn her name is Martha, and there’s nothing here to contradict that fact. Further, Mrs. Hudson is never given a first name, and many fans consider Holmes’ housekeeper to be Martha Hudson. At first it seems a bit of a stretch that Holmes would suddenly stop calling a woman by her last name and use her first one instead, but it was the Victorian fashion to refer to people by their last names whenever possible, using first names only for family (such as in the case of Mycroft). Around the Edwardian era, though, it became more accepted for friends and close acquaintances to use first names instead. It is telling, however, that Holmes continues to refer to his friend as “Watson,” though.

But it is the post-retirement Holmes’ quirks that fascinate me the most. In his late life, he likes to swim and keep bees. This story does a great job of showing Holmes’ methods of deduction a couple of times throughout (inlcuding a mention of photographing evidence, something not previously detailed). It’s not surprising that Holmes remains “an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles.” What is surprising, though, is how Holmes reacts to the beauty of a woman:

Women have seldom been an attraction to me, for my brain has always governed my heart, but I could not look upon her perfect clear-cut face, with all the soft freshness of the downlands in her delicate colouring, without realizing that no young man would cross her path unscathed…. Maud Bellamy will always remain in my memory as a most complete and remarkable woman.

Later he even mentions that “I value a woman’s instinct in such matters.” What a change from the man who was inherently distrustful of women!

In fact, as you dig into the story, a number of details about post-retirement Holmes feel a bit odd. The Great Detective seems particularly stumped by this case (although likely this is because there would be little other way to provide suspense from Doyle’s perspective), and at one point he admits to being at “the limit of my powers”. More specifically, Holmes admits to being “culpably slow” about whether the victim had been swimming or not, when a simple examination of the body to determine if it was wet would have sufficed. Further, a Holmes that has retired to avoid all mental stimuation seems a very long way from the man who needed cocaine just to get through days of boredom. He also muses on the “beautiful, faithful nature of dogs,” which is a different stance from the man who experimented on dogs in his youth. Finally, Holmes’ description of his own mental processes seem a very long way from his “brain attic” at the start of the canon!

You will know, or Watson has written in vain, that I hold a vast store of out-of-the-way knowledge without scientific system, but very available for the needs of my work. My mind is like a crowded box-room with packets of all sorts stowed away therein — so many that I may well have but a vague perception of what was there.

Much of this can be chalked up to age — we are very rarely the same people in our late years that we were in our youth. It’s not hard to believe that Holmes has merely changed over time, and has convinced himself that he was always this way rather than accept the contradictions in his nature. This is the stance I tend to hold to, because it not only connects with my views on human nature, but it also reinforces the complexity of Holmes’ nature as a man. Of course, other scholars have proposed different theories to explain the inconsistencies. One of my favoritesis from Mary Ann Kluge, who simply believes that the case was actually solved by Watson!

There are two other minor points of interest. Historically, the reference in the story to J. G. Wood and his book are factual, and he really was nearly killed by Cyanea Capillata. As a writer, I appreciate that in the original manuscript for “The Lion’s Mane,” there were several references to a “Dr. Mordhouse,” a naturalist also in the area. He was excised from the story in a later draft, and many of his actions and lines given to Stackhurst and Holmes. Doyle, like many good writers, understood the value of cutting extraneous characters to make a story tighter.

So… Much… To Do….

I Look At Keyboards A LotAfter I got back from The Grand Masquerade, I had to catch up on work I missed during the show, as well as new opportunities and ideas that came from the show. Then I helped to get the Vampire 20th PDF sorted, fixed, and out to people. And just when I thought I was getting caught up, I got hit with a nasty headcold/flu that has been knocking me down all week. Which is, of course, perfect timing, as I had planned to get stuff done after the Vampire 20th/GenCon/Grand Masquerade run.

Tour de Holmes: I missed last week again, which is doubly irritating because the story is “The Three Garridebs,” and I don’t have much to say aside from “it’s The Red Headed League with a couple of interesting additional bits.” Since my essay on it was so short (I just finished it up), I’m going to see if I can get two out this week, and then make a serious push to get the last six stories read, researched, and written. My hope is to get this wrapped up by Thanksgiving (end of November for my non-US readers), take a break from it over December, and then approach it in January with a fresh eye towards turning it into a proper manuscript.

Vampire: The Masquerade Retrospective: The folks at FlamesRising.com have asked people for retrospectives on Vampire: The Masquerade. I think it’s a great idea, and I definitely want to contribute to it, but time has not been my friend. I’m hoping to knock something out this week.

Far West: I recently got the setting bible for Far West so I can start working on a short story for in the upcoming Tales of the Far West. The draft is also due by the end of November. I have a half-pitch in to Gareth, but I need to dig into some parts of the setting a bit and see if the story takes shape.

Personal Projects: I have a personal project that I’ve been working with a publishing on for a few months now. A lot of higher-priority things have taken priority (on both sides), but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to announce something soon about that. I’ve also had an itch recently to take a crowbar to my old Whitechapel drafts and turn that into a proper novel, but at this rate it’ll be at least December before I can even think about that.

Gaming: I’ve started up two new tabletop games – a weekly game over lunch at work (a homebrew fantasy game of my own creation that’s getting its first test run), and a biweekly-ish Sunday night Vampire 20th game over Skype between some folks in the office and our new friends from Machinima Realm over in LA. The one game needs some polish (as I’m reworking the rules as we play), and the other requires some maintenance writing in order to communicate information more easily over the Internet, which mean both games also qualify as “writing projects” on some level. I’m also getting back into playing in both the local Sabbat and Camarilla LARPs as well, which knocks out one day a month (although that’s so much better than two nights a month), as well as increasing my email RP a bit, but I’m doing a pretty good job of keeping my bandwidth on those reasonable.

Work: And this is all on top of working on the outline for Victorian Lost, organizing and working on the development of Mummy and Werewolf 20th, finishing up work on Strange, Dead Love and Dust to Dust, keeping my podcast up to date, starting up a new blog, and the other three zillion projects I have going on over on the White Wolf/CCP side of things. Although my interview on Machinima.com did come out recently:

This Blog: I do have some ideas queued up for this blog as well, including a couple more “What I Learned” essays. I fully admit, however, that this blog is one of the lower priorities in my writing. Once the Tour de Holmes wraps up, though, I do need to think of another weekly feature to take its place (ideally one with a lot less research needed). We’ll see, we’ll see.

The Sussex Vampire (1924)

The Sussex Vampire
The Sussex Vampire

Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1927. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.

The biggest thing this story brings to the canon is one of the most evocative apocryphal case references:

“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”

This casual reference by Holmes has spawned more pastiches than any other. The Spider Woman and In Pursuit of Algiers (both Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce movies) contain references to it, and novels such as The Holmes-Dracula File by Fred Saberhagen, The Giant Rat of Sumatra by Rick Boyer, and Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra by Alan Vanneman address the case, just to name a few. The idea has even extended outside of Holmes himself to properties such as the Hardy Boys and Doctor Who!

And speaking of Dracula, the reference to vampires in this story have caused a couple of pastiches involving the most famous vampire in literature, including the previously-mentioned Saberhagen novel, as well as Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula : The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count written by Loren D. Estleman (which I naturally have a copy of). I could probably write a whole essay just on the Victorian fascination with vampires even before Dracula was published, but suffice it to say that the concept was as known to Victorian culture as it is to us now, and it isn’t as off of a match-up as it might appear at first.

Next to Hound, however, this is the most popular story of Holmes investigating a situation that appears supernatural but turns out to be perfectly mundane. And yet, right after “The Creeping Man,” it seems a bit arbitrary: scientists becoming monkeys due to injections is plausible, but vampires aren’t? (Although, to be fair, in “The Creeping Man” Holmes mentioned how the study of dogs can give an indication of the household that owns it. Here we see a perfect example of that idea in practice.) Regardless of the context, though, one of the most iconic quotes of Holmes’ attitude towards the supernatural is in this story:

“This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”

As usual with the better stories in the canon, there are lots of good bits about Holmes and Watson here. There’s a nice nod to “The Gloria Scott” here. We learn that while Holmes is meticulous in collecting information, he rarely gives credit to the source he got it from. Watson played rugby for Blackheath, which was an amateur rugby club formed in 1858. Holmes admits that while he prefer to not form theories without data, he is still prone to it sometimes. Finally, a reference to “the dry chuckle which was his nearest approach to a laugh” shows how inconsistently Holmes’ laughter is portrayed in the canon (cross-reference this with his laughter in “The Mazarin Stone”).

Again, in such an uneven volume, this stands out as a pure and classic Holmes tale. Holmes’ stance on the supernatural is consistent with that of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s surprising that this is such a pragmatic case, as Doyle was quite firmly in the grip of Spiritualism at this point, but it’s good despite (or perhaps because of) Doyle’s beliefs.

An Interview and a Review

shameless self promotionA quick note of a couple of things I’ve done recently as I prepare for The Grand Masquerade.