PULP News: An Anthology of Pulp Interest

25 Feb

There is often too much for PULPable to cover in any one post, so today we take a brief look at some of the more esoteric, eccentric, and exciting news in our little world of femme fatales and silhouettes.

Margaret Atwood’s “In Love with Raymond Chandler”

Recently revisited by both Roger Ebert and many others is a Margaret Atwood poem from her collection Good Bones, titled “In Love With Raymond Chandler”.


The full text of the poem can be found here, if you prefer using your eyes to using your ears, but Atwood makes for a perfect reader in the video above. She draws us into the physical and descriptive world of Chandler’s prose by focusing not on “mangled bodies and/the marinated cops and hints of eccentric sex, but [on] his interest in furniture.”


He knew that furniture could breathe, could feel, not as we do but in a way more muffled,

like the word upholstery, with its overtones of
mustiness and dust, its bouquet of sunlight on aging cloth or of scuffed leather on the backs and seats of sleazy
office chairs.

Who knew furniture could be so exciting? For Atwood, the “eccentric sex” comes only later:

Only after we
had sniffed, fingered, rubbed, rolled on, and absorbed the furniture of the room would
we fall into each other’s arms, and onto the bed (king-size? peach-colored? creaky?
narrow? four-posted? pioneer-quilted? lime-green chenille-covered?), ready at last to do
the same things to each other.

You only have to flip a few pages into The Big Sleep to see evidence of Chandler’s furniture obsession:

The white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead. There were full-length mirrors and crystal doodads all over the place. The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the window.

*        *        *

Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner & the State of Science Fiction

Another PULPable favourite, Philip K. Dick, also came to our attention with a previously unpublished correspondence with a studio executive working on Blade Runner, the adaptation of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, from 1981.

Based on what he has seen of the movie, and on Harrison Ford’s interviews to promote it, Dick believes that it “will prove invincible”. The whole letter is a fascinating read.

Though some Dick adaptations are best forgotten (Paycheck, anyone?), it is true that Blade Runner broke new ground on its release. Setting action and science fiction in an urban, gritty milieu, and focusing on high sci-fi concepts, it brought some of Dick’s intellectual musings to an otherwise straightforward genre. Without Blade Runner, it is unlikely that we would have had hard science fiction like Inception or Duncan Jones‘ upcoming Mute on our screens.

And though Dick died several months before the movie was released, it’s hard not to smile at his enthusiasm:

Nothing that we have done, individually or collectively, matches BLADE RUNNER. This is not escapism; it is super realism, so gritty and detailed and authentic and goddam convincing.

*        *        *

Dashiell Hammett’s Lost Works Recovered

Perhaps most exciting is the recent announcement that a cache of lost Dashiell Hammett stories has been found in the literary archives of the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas in Austin. Uncovered by Andrew Gulli, editor of pulp magazine The Strand, one of the fifteen stories will be published in the next issue of the magazine.

The Guardian‘s article gives us a sneak preview of said story, titled “So I Shot Him”:

Rainey screwed himself around in his chair to see us better, or to let us see him better.

I was sitting next to him, a little to the rear. Above the porch rail his profile stood out sharp against the twilight gray of the lake, though there was nothing sharp about the profile itself. It had been smoothly rounded by thirty-five or more years of comfortable living.

Artist Owen Smith's interpretation of Hammett

“I wouldn’t have a dog that was cat-shy,” he wound up. “What good is a dog, or a man, that’s afraid of things?” Metcalf, the engineer, agreed with his employer. I had never seen him do anything else in the three days I had known them.

“Quite right,” he said. “Useless.”

Rainey twisted his face farther around to look at me. His blue eyes – large and clear – had the confident glow they always wore when he talked. You only had to have him look at you once like that to understand why he was a successful promoter.

PULPable looks forward to some more classic Hammett, but we will no doubt have to wait until his estate and his publisher put together an official collection of lost pulp gems.

DLR, 2.25.11


PULP on TV: “Red Dwarf”

16 Feb

n the early 1980s, comedy writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were stuck in radio and looking for a way into British television. Having written two sketch shows – Cliché and follow-up Son of Cliché – they decided to spin one of their favourite recurring sketches into a TV pilot.

“Dave Hollins – Space Cadet” was, more than anything, a comedy homage to its genre. The titular Dave was accompanied only by a computer named Hab – a parody of 2001‘s Hal – and was drifting in space either 300 or 7 trillion years away from Earth, depending on which sketch you were listening to. By the end of Son of Cliché, Dave successfully returns to Earth, however the human race has since become subordinate to fruit flies, beetles and P.E. teachers.

When the pilot was finished, Grant and Naylor shopped it around to just about every production company in Britain. Each said the same thing: the comedy worked, but the science fiction was either unfilmable, or a distraction from the comedy. Even after Paul Jackson (a producer for The Young Ones among other sitcoms) commissioned it in the mid-80s, electricians’ strikes and other obstacles meant that production was delayed until 1987.

Red Dwarf itself

Red Dwarf had finally made it to BBC North three years after the pilot was written, being recorded in front of audiences that had been press-ganged into the studio from nearby pubs.

Combining sci-fi and comedy has never been the most obvious or most successful choice for film or television, but Red Dwarf at its best featured sci-fi concepts that were more original than many of its ‘straight’ sci-fi contemporaries, while still managing to poke fun at the absurdity of the more conventional sci-fi tropes.

It is the 21st (or, the 23rd) century, and Dave Lister is the lowest of the low on Red Dwarf, an ugly, five-mile long mining ship. A Liverpudlian slob, Lister’s direct superior and bunk-mate on board ship is the neurotic, chronically underachieving Arnold Rimmer. After Lister is found with an unquarantined cat, he is sentenced to spend 18 months in suspended animation.

Series I: "Me²"

Unfortunately, during this time, the crew is wiped out by a radiation leak and Lister awakes 3 million years later to find himself alone but for the ship’s computer (renamed Holly), a creature who evolved from his pet cat, and a hologram projection of his dead roommate, Rimmer.

he first two seasons focused on the antagonism between Lister and Rimmer more than on sci-fi plots, since Grant and Naylor wanted to establish the characters before writing them into overtly sci-fi scenarios that might turn viewers off. What was more, Red Dwarf‘s future featured no aliens, and no humans other than Lister. Though they covered some familiar terrain – parallel universes and virtual reality – they also ran into more unusual situations: the Cat-people’s religion venerates Lister as their God, and a mutated version of the flu turns Dave’s hallucinations into flesh and blood in “Confidence and Paranoia” (an episode that featured a pre-American Craig Ferguson as the American incarnation of Lister’s Confidence, below).

Luckily, the BBC had commissioned two seasons from the outset, so the crew’s second outing featured more science fiction, and a little more back story that made Rimmer a tad more sympathetic.

y the third season, Doug Naylor had convinced Rob Grant to bring back a guest character from season 2. Initially resistant to the cliche of a robot on board ship, Grant gave in, and android Kryten was added to the mix, along with a new female version of Holly, and a total revamp to the sets

Series 3 introduced Kryten and a more up-to-date look

which made it appear as though Dwarf‘s budget was much larger than it truly was.

From the third season onwards, the show was at its peak, garnering up to 8 million viewers for each new episode – an all-time high for BBC 2.

Though the sci-fi focus was stronger, Grant and Naylor’s background in sketch writing still shone through in season 3’s character moments. The first show, “Backwards” opens with this conversation between Lister and the Cat as they watch television from their bunks:

Lister: D’ya think Wilma’s sexy?
Cat: Wilma Flintstone?
Lister: Maybe we’ve been alone in deep space too long, but every time I see that body, it drives me crazy. Is it me?
Cat: Well, I think in all probability, Wilma Flintstone is the most desirable woman that ever lived.
Lister: That’s good. I thought I was going strange.
Cat: She’s incredible!
Lister: What d’ya think of Betty?
Cat: Betty Rubble? Well, I would go with Betty… but I’d be thinking of Wilma.
Lister: This is crazy. Why are we talking about going to bed with Wilma Flintstone?
Cat: You’re right. We’re nuts. This is an insane conversation.
Lister: She’ll never leave Fred, and we know it.

A fourth, fifth and sixth season followed in 1991, ’92 and ’93, but each successively forced comedy onto the back burner and put sci-fi at its centre. After a break of four years and the departure of Rob Grant, season 7 added filmization and Lister’s ex-girlfriend

Series VIII: "Gunmen of the Apocalypse"

Kochanski, and dropped both Rimmer and the studio audience, while season 8 saw the return of both. However, resurrecting the whole crew of Red Dwarf during season 8 undid the original premise of the show and meant that Lister was no longer the grossed-out slob of a last human.

Though neither season hit the comedy notes that the earlier shows had, they still rode on high-sci-fi concepts: the crew encountered a version of Earth where time is running backwards; destroyed a White Hole which was spewing time into the universe; crashed onto a moon that terraformed itself according to Rimmer’s psyche; and fought a computer virus via a virtual reality version of the Wild West.

But where Red Dwarf worked best was in the combination of its ‘Odd Couple’ sitcom set-up with a science fiction premise that allowed for the ultimate Lister-Rimmer antagonism. In season 5’s “Back to Reality“, Grant and Naylor hit the nail on the head. The crew is killed and awakes from a virtual reality video game named, of course, “Red Dwarf”. Having scored a pitiful 4% in the game, they have to come to terms with their new “reality”, including the revelation that Rimmer is Lister’s half-brother.

More Philip K. Dick than anything else, the episode has remained a fan favourite and one of BBC 2’s highest-rated broadcasts.

With a new season in the works, we can only hope that some of Rob Grant’s writing finds its way back into the show, and that the dreary Red Dwarf: Back to Earth specials of 2008 are soon forgotten. After all, in science fiction, anything is possible.

DLR, 02.16.11

PULP in Print: Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window”

18 Jan


Heigho. I think I’ll write an English detective story, one about Superintendent Jones and the two elderly sisters in the thatched cottage, something with Latin in it and music and period furniture and a gentleman’s gentleman: above all, one of those books where everybody goes for nice long walks.
~ A letter to Blanche Knopf, Oct. 1942

Although Raymond Chandler’s The High Window did not quite turn into a stately, tea-sipping, country house mystery, it is in many ways his most straightforward novel. There are no loose ends, unlike The Big Sleep; and there are far fewer complications than in its follow-up, Farewell, My Lovely. In the end, he believed that people would think it his worst book. All we know is that PULPable is happy to have a 1942 edition of The High Window on our bookshelves.

"The High Window" (1942)

We have previously waxed lyrical about the Brattle Book Shop (where we found both The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely), but Chandler’s third novel made its way to us via Etsy user Rabitty and via Darby O’Shea. It is somehow fitting that it was found at an estate sale.

Originally, Chandler envisioned the book as “The Brasher Doubloon”, named for the rare and valuable coin of the same name which we discover has been stolen from its wealthy owner, perhaps by a wayward family member. Philip Marlowe is hired to track down the culprit, and in the course of the novel, he runs into gangsters, moneylenders and murderers.

Plagued by anxiety and alcoholism, Chandler was deeply depressed when he began work on The High Window. He wrote to his publishers, Blanche and Alfred Knopf, in March of 1942:

I’m afraid the book is not going to be any good to you. No action, no likeable characters, no nothing. The detective does nothing. […] The thing that rather gets me down is that when I write something that is tough and fast and full of mayhem, I get panned for being tough and fast and full of mayhem, and then when I try to tone down a bit and develop the mental and emotional side of a situation, I get panned for leaving out what I was panned for putting in the first time. […] From now on, if I make mistakes, as no doubt I shall, they will not be made in a futile attempt to avoid making mistakes.

He nevertheless liked the full package once the book had been published. With the exception of the author photograph that graced the back cover, Chandler approved of the new typeface, and of the cover design, which featured both the scales of justice and the doubloon itself.

The inside back cover. Note the author photo Chandler so disliked, and the terrible blurb.

The High Window was very much the beginning of Chandler’s career as a commercial artist. Shortly after the book’s publication in 1942, he was approached to work on the screenplay for a Billy Wilder movie, Double Indemnity – based on a James M. Cain story – which in turn led to writing credits on The Blue Dahlia and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. But Chandler was no fan of Cain’s:

I hope the day will come when I won’t have to ride around on Hammett and James Cain, like an organ grinder’s monkey. Hammett is all right. I give him everything. There were a lot of things he could not do, but what he did he did superbly. But James Cain – faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls […] Hemingway with his eternal sleeping bag got to be pretty damn tiresome, but at least Hemingway sees it all, not just flies on the garbage can.

Nonetheless, Cain’s novella brought Chandler financial and commercial success, and – even better – it pointed Hollywood in his direction. By 1946, Bogart and Bacall brought Philip Marlowe to life in the film adaptation of The Big Sleep, and soon there were more Marlowes than you can shake a stick at, including 1947’s The Brasher Doubloon, which used the plot of The High Window alongside Chandler’s original title.

But what sticks with you after you finish Chandler’s third novel is not the tight plot or the acid-sharp similes. It is the wry tone of a writer who is having a good time with his genre, to the extent that he can poke fun at the ridiculous world of PIs, film noir, and Angeleno gangsters that he had helped to create. One character is “the fellow for whom they coined the term ‘ignorant as an actor’.” And there are more self-aware nods peppered throughout the book.

The man in the black shirt and yellow scarf was sneering at me over the New Republic.
“You ought to lay off the fluff and get your teeth into something solid, like a pulp magazine,” I told him, just to be friendly.
I went on out. Behind me someone said: “Hollywood’s full of them.”

Later, Marlowe even references dialogue that his soon-to-be Hollywood counterpart Humphrey Bogart uttered in Casablanca: “Skip it. I know it. Marlowe knows everything—except how to make a decent living. It doesn’t amount to beans.” Reading Chandler’s letters and articles, it’s difficult not to think that he considered movies an indecent living. But this didn’t stop him from making a small, uncredited cameo in Double Indemnity, reproduced here for film noir buffs and those of you who made it this far.

Chandler was right: The High Window isn’t his best. Nor is it his worst. But it is a book that is a lot of fun, and one that includes a mystery that runs logically from point A to point B. In that way, if in no other, it was as close to an English detective story as Raymond Chandler would ever get.

DLR, 01.18.11

PULP Paperbacks: “Farewell, My Lovely”, a 1944 edition

12 Dec

He was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. He was about ten feet away from me. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers. […] Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

It’s not hard to see where the cover artist got his inspiration for this pulp paperback classic. We have written before about the marvellous Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and many of its second-hand pulps are now on our office shelves gathering primary colour dust. Just yesterday, we hit the store again, and PULPable picked up this 1944 edition of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. The artist, credited simply ‘Hoffman’, clearly read at least a few of the sentences above before going to work that day.

Front cover of a 1946 Pocket Books edition of "Farewell, My Lovely"

His second novel, Chandler fought hard for the unusually wistful title. Published by Knopf, the company’s founders Alfred and Blanche Knopf were worried that the name Farewell, My Lovely might, instead of attracting the usual rough-and-tumble reader of detective noir, encourage romance fans to pick up the book.

During writing, Chandler’s working title had been The Second Murderer, but he had dropped the Shakespearean reference in favour of a whimsical ‘farewell’. In a 1940 letter to George Harmon Coxe, he wrote:

I didn’t know it had been announced under that name [The Second Murderer]. When I turned the manuscript in they howled like hell about the title, which is not at all a mystery title, but they gave in. We’ll see.

By October, the book had been published and sales were disappointing. Further, more conciliatory, letters to Blanche Knopf suggest that Chandler felt harried into choosing his title and had received little guidance from her or Alfred. Nevertheless, Farewell stands the test of time, and remains for many people Chandler’s best. Unlike its predecessor, The Big Sleep, it leaves no loose ends to its central mystery; and its other competitor for top noir, The Long Goodbye, can drift a little too close to melancholy and further away from the arch tone that makes his earlier novels so much more fun.

But like the cover artist, Pocket Books’ back-cover blurber must have felt the need to jazz up a slightly whimsical title with some terrible prose:

Beneath the headline “Bad Blood Flows Freely”, we have a poorly punctuated attempt at summarising Chandler’s novel in the style of Chandler.

This is a thrilling story – shockingly realistic – of a world in which viciousness is normal. In it you will find Philip Marlowe, Private Detective, and a rare rogue’s gallery of unbeautiful characters, including: a giant who did not know his own strength; a Negro who ends up with a broken neck; a gin-drinking drab with a fine new radio; a ravishingly beautiful blonde with a rich and sadly tolerant husband, but no morals; an Indian with the shoulders of a blacksmith and the legs of a chimpanzee; a charlatan who calls himself a psychic consultant; a doctor with a plug-ugly for an assistant; a gambler; and an honest cop and several crooked ones.

Who could resist these unbeautifuls?

In addition to being a wonderful pulp paperback, this books is also a testament to the US’s involvement at the time in a World War. At the bottom right-hand corner of the back cover, pulp readers are advised to “send this book to a boy in the armed forces anywhere for only 3 cents”. Pocket Books’ inside covers also

Pocket Books helps the war effort

encouraged people to recycle any paper items they had – including pulps – so that they could be donated to the war effort and converted into “a container for a quart of blood plasma that will save a GI’s life”, “an airborne container… that will drop food or medicine to liberated peoples” or, thrillingly, “it may show up as the shell case for the shell, or the bomb band for the bomb, that will be the very last explosion to finally shatter the nerve and will-to-fight of the enemy!” In short, “save every scrap and you’ll help end the scrap.” Perhaps, then, Chandler and his fellow pulp authors did have a hand in bringing the bad guys to justice in 1945.

Though original sales of Farewell, My Lovely might have been lower than hoped, these Pocket Books editions kept the title in circulation for years to come. In a 1951 letter to their Vice President, Freeman Lewis, Chandler thanked Lewis with his tongue firmly in cheek for the new Pocket Books’ edition of Farewell:

Is it permissible to wonder why the people who do illustrations and covers can’t pay some attention to the text? The bedspring shown in your cover illustration is entirely wrong, since it is a type of spring which is very light and would be useless as a weapon. If your illustrator had taken the trouble to read merely a few lines at the top of page 144 in the book, he might not have made a fool of himself and incidentally of me, since the kind of spring I was writing about would be a very efficient weapon, almost as efficient as a blackjack. The kind he illustrated would be of no use at all!

DLR, 12.12.10

PULP Fictions: Crafting the Perfect Pulp

8 Dec

he tropes and types of pulp fiction still populate our pages and screens: femmes fatales emerge from shadows, gangsters claim lone guns on mantelpieces, and gumshoes crack wise on the mean city streets. In his treatise on mystery fiction, The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler advised his correspondents:

When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.

Today, PULPable is going to teach you how to craft the perfect pulp. What you need first is:

A Title to Die For

Pulp titles fall into surprisingly few categories, and the best are a form of melodramatic poetry.

1.  A pun based on an idiom or phrase:
My Kingdom for a Hearse (reproduced below in all its glorious technicolor) provides a classic example. Rhyming puns are also popular. If you’re interested in some seasonal pulp, check out my very own guest post over at Darby O’Shea entitled Slay Bells Ring.

2. The classic formulation: The Adjective Noun
Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon are perhaps the most famous of any pulp novels, and inspired countless imitators and hangers-on. The Gentle Hangman is a personal favourite, and is featured in PULPable’s header (look up).

3. A variation on the format, The Man/Woman Who Did Something
Also spearheaded by Chandler with The Man Who Liked Dogs, this has provided some Western-style retribution in The Man Who Got Even With God as well as some variations of my own, including The Woman Whose Chihuahua Blew Away.

4. And if you’re lost as to a pun or a simple formulation, just ensure that your title includes the words “murder”, “death”, “kill”, or any other pulpable term that takes your fancy.
Try:

A Dame Called Murder
Kill Now, Pay Later

Love Me To Death, or
Suddenly A Corpse
.

My favourite might be Death Wore an Astrakhan Hat.

 

A Simile as Sharp as Paper Dart

Turning a phrase like no other, Chandler unwittingly created pulp cliches like no other. In The High Window, he crafts a perfect paragraph hooked around a simile fully aware of its cheesiness:

 

Raymond Thornton Chandler

The heart-rending dialogue of some love serial came out of the room behind her and hit me in the face like a wet dishtowel. The bright-eyed woman said: ‘You a friend of theirs?’ In her voice, suspicion was as thick as the ham in her radio.

If in doubt, make a statement and then qualify it with a simile: He was tough. As tough as nails, and half as charismatic. And yes, you can have that example free of charge. Even the best parodists have come up with some classics. On A Prairie Home Companion, one of Guy Noir’s dolls is described by Garrison Keilor:

She wore a knit sweater and jeans so tight it looked as if she’d been poured into them and forgot to say When.

So what’s left? Well, don’t forget to commission:

An Exploitative, Technicolor Pulp Cover

The great pulp artists are no longer with us. Though hipster irony might bring us McSweeney’s anthologies of Thrilling Tales, the unironic, sexually provocative pulp book cover is long gone. Last time at PULPable, we took a look at a classic, Visa To Death, that featured all the classic elements of pulpdom: gangsters, dames, and death!

The original detective novels spawned a plethora of niche pulps.  And these niche pulps have provided some of he best by way of exploitative femmes fatales and sexy gun molls. A damsel in distress evades a bullet; a square-jawed hero, comes to the rescue; and you have (drum roll, please) Romantic Detective magazine.

The angles of the language and the painted lines of the cover art have, inevitably, been lampooned and pastiched into oblivion. But some of the most melodramatic and nonetheless appealing graphic design graced the covers of the original pulp magazines and paperbacks. For all the knowing nods and winks, what pulp did best, and can still do, is pull us out of the humdrum and into the high-stakes, and in doing so, entertain and amuse.

As usual, Ray said it best in The Simple Art of Murder:

The mystery story is a kind of writing that need not dwell in the shadow of the past and owes little if any allegiance to the cult of the classics. It is a good deal more than unlikely that any writer now living will produce a better historical novel than Henry Esmond, […] a sharper social vignette than Madame Bovary, […] a wider and richer canvas than War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. But to devise a more plausible mystery than The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Purloined Letter should not be too difficult. Nowadays it would be rather more difficult not to.

DLR 12.09.10

PULP Paperbacks: “Visa To Death”

29 Oct

A typically dangerous trip to the Brattle Book Shop earlier this summer ended with a slew of original pulp paperbacks gracing our bookshelves, many of which are now part of PULPable‘s primary-colour header (just look up).

In a new series of posts, and in honour of my upcoming, though final, Green Card paperwork, today we celebrate Visa to Death.


A bargain at twenty-five cents, any pulp cover needed to stand out from the crowd, and Robert Maguire’s cover art certainly helps. A mysterious figure bearing an uncanny resemblance to Cary Grant merges into the titular visa, while a somewhat befuddled-looking version of Brando hovers just over the author’s name, as though he would rather be associated with Marlon than Cary (clearly the wrong choice). Throw in some femmes fatales and a common or garden detective, and you’ve got yourself a pulp masterpiece.

Over the years, if you care to click here, it seems that Perma Books cornered the market on schlock cover art. But as important as the illustration is the jacket copy. “The juiciest racket in town needed too many MURDERS!” screams the front cover, as though including both “death” and “murder” at the top of the cover converted always into better sales.

But the back cover, as with most pulps, delivers the goods.

Cary Grant’s double appears again, mirroring his position on the front cover, and introducing a series of non-sequiturs that would be too cliche-ridden even for a Muppets film noir parody. Perhaps it was written by “a real nothing guy who just won a thousand bucks in a slogan contest.” In any case, our colour scheme reverts to a deliciously pulpy yellow, red, and black and white.

Stay tuned for more pulp paperback covers coming soon.

DLR

PULP: “Sherlock”, House & Holmes

27 Oct

Hugh Laurie, House and Holmes

n a season five episode of House, Hugh Laurie is presented with a birthday present: a copy of the Manual Of the Operations of Surgery by one Dr. Joseph Bell. A medical lecturer at Edinburgh University during the late 19th Century, Bell was most famously the inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes; Gregory House is, in turn, based on Holmes, down to his apartment number (221B) and his on-again off-again roommate (Dr. James Wilson instead of Dr. John Watson).

While House is just a riff on Arthur Conan Doyle‘s detective, there have been plenty of faithful adaptations, and Holmes remains the most frequently portrayed character on screen. So escaping the shadow of previous Holmeses – from the gentlemanly Basil Rathbone to the restrained lunacy of Jeremy Brett – has always been an issue for any new actor taking on Sherlock.

A new BBC adaptation gets around this problem, in part, by transplanting Holmes to contemporary London. Featuring the wonderfully-monikered Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, Sherlock stays close to the original stories in tone, and Cumberbatch is adept at channeling the mania of Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey, Jr.


But Sherlock’s cool, deductive mind, in the 21st Century, has become tech-obsessed, cold, and sociopathic by comparison to Conan Doyle’s original. He prefers to text than to talk, the abstraction of texting allowing Holmes to perform his “thinking-out-loud” deduction without having to enter a dialogue with Watson, and he solicits business as a “consulting detective” via a personal website. Though technology plays a role in solving the mystery in “A Study in Pink” – the first episode of this debut season – its role is more important in its relation to Holmes the man. As is the case in most recent adaptations, Holmes’ Asperger’s-like symptoms of social maladjustment are tempered only by his brilliance.

This isn’t to say that Sherlock is no fun. On the contrary, the writing team comes from prime pulp entertainment stock – Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have both written for, and Moffat now runs, the BBC’s Doctor Who. In places, Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Holmes,

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, and Martin Freeman as John

though not as dark as other incarnations (he is addicted to nicotine patches, not to Conan Doyle’s cocaine or House‘s painkillers), seeme like a more nuanced version of Who‘s saturnine genius. In terms of both appearance and manner, Cumberbatch would have made a good Doctor, but it is perhaps more interesting to see play up the darker facets of a character such as Holmes. If he had played the Doctor, he would have been constrained by Doctor Who‘s family entertainment label.

Balancing out the abnormal Sherlock is an actor who has specialized in paragons of British normalcy, Martin Freeman. As John Watson, a military doctor recently returned from service in Afghanistan, Freeman helps ground both Watson and Holmes in their new, contemporary setting. And Watson’s blog – set up as a form of therapy for PTSD – ties contemporary technology into the original Conan Doyle stories: Watson blogs in order to document his adventures with Holmes.

Afghanistan is the most startlingly contemporary reference in the show, and might come to play a bigger role when the writers have the chance at a full series (so far, only three movie-length episodes have been produced). Watson is warned by a police officer that Sherlock is one step away from psychopathy, that he “gets off” on murder, violence, and the dark underbelly of crime that still thrives in London.

Watsons: Martin Freeman & Jude Law compare notes

But the most novel aspect of Sherlock is how this dark side of Homes is mirrored in Watson: the doctor is already missing the adrenaline rush of war, and he seems to be as fascinated with their investigations of gruesome crime as Holmes is.

But Sherlock Holmes has a long-standing pedigree when it comes to gruesome crime. Conan Doyle’s inspiration, Dr. Joseph Bell, was consulted by the Metropolitan Police during the Jack the Ripper murders. According to hearsay, Bell claimed to have identified the Ripper, and submitted the name of his suspect to Scotland Yard. Though the name he submitted has never been revealed, the murders stopped as soon as the police had received Bell’s letter.

It seems that Bell’s deductive powers may have been just as legendary as Conan Doyle led us to believe.

DLR

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