25th September, 1 Comment
By John Watson
“Eliminate the Impossible” is the first of two books by Alistair Duncan on Holmes. His second Holmes book, “Close to Holmes” in which he looks at the historical connections between London, Holmes and my literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will be the subject of another review at a later date.
Alistair has also written a book about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Norwood Author“, which I have already reviewed. Currently, he is writing another Doylean book about Undershaw, the house that Sir Arthur had built at Hindhead which remains under threat from developers. This book is not due to be published until next year, by which time the fate of Undershaw will almost certainly have been decided.
“Eliminate the Impossible” runs to 244 pages of which the first three-quarters cover Holmes on the page and the last quarter looks at Holmes on the screen.
I note that he prefers to the term “Sherlockian” which is usually reserved for Holmes fans abroad whilst “Holmesian” is supposedly the term used in the UK. I have always found “Holmesian” a bit cumbersome – “Sherlockian” leaves no-one in doubt who you’re talking about and in the BBC Sherlock series we’re on first name terms with the main protagonists for the first time!
May I also raise a point about our address. It was 221B Baker Street – note the capital “B” after 221. Flats are designated with a capital letter not a lower case letter. So where “221b” has been used “221B” should be used instead. Even the Dummies Guide gets this wrong! But congratulations to the BBC Sherlock props department for getting this right and commiserations to the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street for getting it wrong on their unofficial blue plaque.
Part One – Holmes on the page
This covers the origins of the stories, Holmes’s influence on crime fiction, his appearance and character before dealing with the “Heroes and Villains” as Alistair calls them, beginning with me (I assume I am a hero?) His selection is interesting. It includes two women and I will leave you to guess who they are!
Following this is a short discussion about the “timeline” of the stories which has always, and continues to be, a subject of much discussion (and many books)! Alistair picks out D Martin Dakin’s and Leslie Klinger’s chronologies and sets them against the dates found on the Internet. The order of the stories as listed here puts the last three stories from The Case-Book in the order in which they are now usually published (VEIL, SHOS, RETI) rather than the order in which they originally appeared in The Case-Book (RETI, VEIL, SHOS).
For each of the sixty stories, he then gives the date of publication (in The Strand except for the first two stories which were first published elsewhere), the date the story was set in (just the year) and the identity of the client. Following a brief synopsis he then presents some notes about the story, usually about the dates involved, but sometimes about the real identities of the people involved, and some of the puzzles and inconsistencies.
His own inconsistencies are that he leaves “The Adventure of” off all the stories in The Memoirs and again changes the order of the last three stories – this time to SHOS, RETI and VEIL. I think he has the date of publication of SHOS in The Strand incorrectly as January 1927 when it should be April 1927 making it the last to be published.
In the general introduction to the stories he sensibly suggests that you read the story first before reading his notes and doing it the other way round is likely to confuse matters.
Part Two – Holmes on the screen
This looks at Holmes portrayal in film and on television by looking at a selection of actors who have portrayed my good friend. Alistair attempts to classify them as either “good” or “bad” and “remembered” or “forgotten” making the point that some portrayals (“good” or “bad”) might only be remembered by Sherlockians rather than the general public.
He has left out all the comic portrayals presumably on the grounds that they are universally viewed as “bad” and “best forgotten”.
Rathbone and Brett come out best in this analysis with perhaps Douglas Wilmer coming in third. Alistair puts Brett just out in front and probably the favourite for those who would see the Rathbone films as largely set in their own time rather than the time of the original stories.
Alistair recommends David Stuart Davies book, “Starring Sherlock Holmes“, for more detail about Holmes on film and television (and stage and radio for that matter!)
As Alistair’s book was written in 2008, it predates the Robert Downey Jr film “Sherlock Holmes” and more importantly the BBC Sherlock series. It will be interesting to speculate where these two very different portrayals would be in the “good”, “bad”, “remembered” and “forgotten” categories. Cumberbatch’s Holmes has a good chance of being in the category “good and remembered” if they can maintain the standard of the first series (mostly ignoring The Blind Banker) whereas Robert Downey Jr may end up in “bad but remembered” if they cannot raise their game!
Nevertheless, Alistair Duncan succeeds, as he sets out in his introduction, “to bring a fresh perspective” to some of the puzzles concerning “the anomalies in the stories and the films”. Whilst he “conceived it as an introduction to the canon” it does, as he hoped, “appeal to long-standing fans as well as novice Sherlockians”.
This book, like its successor “Close to Holmes“, is available on the Kindle although Amazon have not linked the two versions properly on their website so you will need to go to the Kindle store to find it.