A Victorian Sci-Fi Writer and a Serial Killer Walk Into a NYC Hotel Bar…

This isn’t the start to a joke.  It’s a scene from Sunday night’s “Time After Time” pilot, and it’s probably one of the better scenes in the show’s two-hour opening shot.

I wanted to like “Time After Time,” ABC’s entrant into the time travel show arena.  (See also “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” on the CW, NBC’s “Timeless,” and Fox’s “Making History.”). Victorians trapped in modern-day New York?  One of them Jack the Ripper and the other H.G. Wells?  A perfectly steampunk-y time machine?  It’s like someone gave them a map to my buttons and told them which order to press them in.  This should have been the perfect show for me.

Which is why it’s so disappointing just how underwhelming the two-part pilot was.

All three leads are just kind of…there.  Present, but never really drawing me in.  Jane, the assistant curator who’s just in it to pay her rent (is that really the kind of job you’re that ambivalent about?) and seems far too ready to believe H.G’s wild story, is the least compelling of the lot.  The Ripper is charming and handsome, but a villain without a cause or a motivation (and I’ve opined on how little I enjoy stock villains before).  And H.G….I want to hug him and shake some sense/personality into him at the same time.

This two-parter hits on two of my biggest pet peeves, too:

  • First, we have the villain whose cleverness is supposed to, apparently, be demonstrated by a near-instant understanding of modern technology.    I hate this trope.  It’s vastly overused, and is usually accompanied by the hero’s complete comparative ineptitude.  Add to this the sudden and effortless ease with which our villain traverses modern New York on his first visit and…well, let’s put it this way: i’ve been to New York twice in my life and would have been utterly lost without an experienced guide and GPS.  
  • Secondly, there’s the show’s heavy handed insistence not only on pushing Jane and H.G. together, romantically, but that it has to be accomplished in the first two hours.  I’m all for a romantic subplot.  I enjoy them as much as the next person. But it has to grow organically.  Forcing it or rushing it just annoys the audience and cheapens the payoff.

Here’s the sad thing, though.  I’ll probably give it another shot.  Some shows (NBC’s “Timeless,” for instance) have a rough start, but find their footing over time.  The episode set during the Columbian Expo and featuring Harry Houdini and H.H. Holmes was one of my favorites, next to the Ian Fleming and Josephine Baker turns.  And the main trio are deep, nuanced, compelling characters.  (If you’re listening, Peacock, bring “the Time Team” back for season two).  Maybe “Time After Time” just needs the same chance to find a rhythm and  I’ll be revisiting this review for a mea culpa later.

Or, I’ll need a time machine so I can go back and stop myself from ever hearing this show even exists.

The Carnation Conundrum

Author’s note: I’m not sure where this fits into my timeline, or even if it does.  The reference to Watson’s ill-timed proposal could put it sometime after their advenures at Baskerville, or it could be any time since.  I didn’t set out to write fiction.  I was working on a post about Victorian Valentine’s traditions, and this happened instead.  

I don’t know why I decided Watson would be the recepient, or the POV character.  I do kind of like the idea of Charlotte planning all this.  Only she could make a romantic gesture so methodical.

Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day, everybody!



John Watson is used to waking up alone. Even on the nights he starts out in Charlotte’s bed, or she starts out in his, they always end up on their own before morning. It doesn’t matter that her aunt knows – or that he’s aware she knows, whether anyone knows he is or not – they go through the motions of pretending that they’re clever and getting one over on Mrs. Hudson all the same. Meanwhile, he pretends he didn’t offer Charlotte a solution to all this that would make the need for sneaking about and skullduggery unnecessary. It went so well the first time he suggested it that he hasn’t dared broach the topic of marriage since. Thus, Watson always wakes to a half-empty bed and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with that singular fact.This morning, though, he’s not entirely alone. When he turns his head to stare longingly at the empty stretch of bed next to him, he’s greeted by the sight of a single red carnation left on the pillow. There’s no note or visible context; just one perfect flower. He stares at it for whole minutes, as if doing so would either provoke explanation, or prove it a remnant of a fading dream. When it remains – and remains unexplained – he plucks it from its perch and climbs out of bed still perplexed.

He trims the stem with every intent of turning it into an impromptu boutonnière, but someone has beat him to the punch. When he pulls his jacket out of his wardrobe, there’s another carnation, just as red and perfect, already in place. Two more are tucked inside his shoes. He finds a fifth waiting in his shaving cup.

“Wasn’t aware I slept so soundly,” he mutters to himself as he sets them all aside so he can dress and shave.

Breakfast goes much the same. While he eats – alone, but that’s not entirely unusual with Charlotte’s hours – he finds another carnation tucked inside the newspaper, bookmarking the account of a recent cricket match he’d shown interest in. Another bloom somehow finds its way into his teacup; he finds it floating there only after he blindly pours the tea.

“Do you know what all this is about?” he asks the landlady when she brings in his plate.

“I couldn’t begin to guess,” Anne Hudson says, and there’s something in the way she glares at him that makes him question the statement.

His office is a floral scavenger hunt as well. He finds flowers tucked in drawers, hidden inside books, nestled in test tubes. When he accidentally mutters something about wondering what the mad woman’s up to during Mrs. Livingston’s appointment, she only laughs.

“Consider the question a bit longer, doctor,” she says, patting his shoulder in a very “there, there you silly thing,” sort of way. “Maybe an answer will come to you.”

When he has enough carnations to fill multiple bouquets and has had four different patients giggle at his cluelessness, he gives up and goes in search of their distributor, but she’s nowhere to be found. The sitting room is vacant. Her own is empty, too, save another carnation sitting in the middle of her bed, tucked inside a folded piece of paper. “Langham Hotel,” it reads in Holmes’ precise scrawl. “Six p.m.. Room 214. Bypass the front desk, please. –CH.”

He’s nervous as he enters the hotel, though he can’t pinpoint the exact cause. Most of the staff are busy herding guests so it’s not difficult for him to slip unseen across the lobby to the stairs. Things begin to click as he passes the entrance to the restaurant and the sign there, advertising their special Valentine’s Day service. He stops and curses himself as the giggles and glares his questions earned him all day begin to make perfect, mortifying sense.

And there he is, arriving empty-handed. Leave it to him to forget Valentine’s Day because he thought Holmes would find it useless. Leave it to him to forget, like everyone else, that she’s human, too.

He finds the room easily enough and knocks. After a moment, a quiet voice within bids him enter. As he steps inside, Charlotte is waiting in the middle of the room. Her hair is down. Her dress is new. In her hands is a single red carnation. It is shaking with the force of the tremble in those hands. Watson swears he’s never seen her look more unsure in all the time he’s known her.

“Does Fidelia know you’re borrowing her room?” One of her eyebrows lifts in silent question and he chuckles. “I do make house calls on occasion, Holmes. For certain patients.”

She nods, one rebellious dark curl falling across her forehead with the movement. “She offered me the use of it for the night. Her tab with room service as well. Said it was her Valentine’s gift to the two most stubborn people she knows. She thought we might appreciate some actual time alone, where no one’s worried about rushing back to their own bed before daybreak.”

“And what will your aunt think of the both of us being gone overnight?”

“Nothing good, I’d wager. I don’t find I’m overly worried, though. Are you?”

He steps further into the room, locking the door behind him as he does. “Not really,” he says, nodding briefly to the flower she’s still holding. “And those?”

Dianthus caryophyllus,” she says in that matter-of-fact, you-should-already-know-this tone that he both loathes and adores. This time, though, that usually confident tone wavers and her eyes remain fixed on the flower in her unsteady hands. “Common carnation. Native to the Mediterranean, but its reach has spread considerably due to widespread introduction into various areas since the time of its initial discovery.”

He nods. A teasing smile tugs at one corner of his mouth. “I thought you didn’t have room in your mental library for botany beyond hemlock and henbane and digitalis.”

She looks up, then. Blinks. Frowns, too. “I make room for relevant things. Important ones. Things – people – that matter.”

His amusement falters. He takes a step forward, a hand outstretched. “Holmes…”

“I considered one of those silly cards, you know, with all the…the paper lace and overwrought sentiment. I couldn’t find one that didn’t make my teeth ache.” Her eyes roll and a smug grin tries to find purchase on her lips, but fails. “Then I thought, well, there are more meaningful ways of saying it. Less ridiculous ways.”

He gently takes the flower from her and tosses it at the bed. He misses his target entirely, and he doesn’t care. “To say what?” he prompts her gently, tipping her chin up until she has to look at him. “What is the small flower shop you’ve set up in 221B trying to tell me?”

“Well, traditionally, red carnations symbolize love and affection. Darker reds tend to imply a deeper degree of…”

He doesn’t let her finish the sentence. His lips find hers, kissing her with as much passion and emotion as delivery of half the city’s supply of red carnations had tried to impart to him. Her arms wind around his neck and he sweeps her up into his arms without interrupting that kiss, even for a moment. As they tumble onto the bed, he pulls away just long enough to whisper “I love you, too,” against her lips. It’s the first of many places he plans to leave the words.

And later, when they fall asleep tangled up with each other, it’s with the knowledge, that for once, neither of them will be waking up alone.

Wrapping up ‘The Return…’

I finished reading these stories a few weeks back, and even started writing this post.  Then, I got hit with the one-two punch of the worst kind of lingering cold and a pervasive sense of gloom directly related to online Sherlock fandom and I unplugged a bit to deal with it all.  (My thoughts on Season Four, the finale in particular, may differ substantially from a good portion of fandom and I’m honestly still feeling a little too rundown to dive into any of that now.  Maybe once I can breathe consistently through my nose again and laugh without coughing I’ll be up to it.)  So that’s why this is so late.

Also, vaguely related here and directly regarding this post, researching and writing about serial killers while feverish and heavily medicated leads to some seriously bizarre dreams.  If you define “seriously bizarre” as “creepy, disturbing, and mildly terrifying.”

Anyway…

The four stories I had remaining in The Return of Sherlock Holmes had one very interesting detail in common: murder.  None of these cases were simple burglaries or cases of basic intrigue.  These criminals weren’t just out to befuddle the authorities – they had murder in mind.  In “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” jealousy, obsession, and a woman’s reluctance to just be honest with her husband directly lead to his death, making it essentially a darker version of “The Adventure of the Yellow Face.”  (In case you don’t remember, that story is an earlier example of a woman hiding letters and the reason they freak her out from her husband under the auspices of protecting him from something.)  “The Adventure of the Priory School,” a story that includes my favorite character name ever – Dr. Thorneycraft Huxtable – is a tale of sibling rivalry gone too far that leads to kidnapping and the death of a teacher.  “Abbey Grange”  continues Doyle’s extended literary shaming of abusive and cruel husbands by giving us the justified (as declared by one-man jury John Watson) murder of Lord Treats His Wife Horribly and Throws Liquor Bottles at the Staff-fordshire, Sir Eustace Brackenstall.  Then, in “The Six Napoleons,” we have a man murdered in the course of an apparently pointless and bizarre string of burglaries/serial vandalisms that turn out to be so much more.

This isn’t a trend just in these four stories, though.  Out of the thirteen stories collected in The Return, ten feature a murder either as the inciting incident or part of the climax.  Okay, technically the death in “Priory School” happens before the climax, but that’s generally a solid statement otherwise.  Comparatively, the first two collected volumes – The Adventures and The Memoirs – only contain eight stories combined that fit the “murder mystery” mold.  Of the twelve stories in The Adventures, only four turn on someone’s death.  The Memoirs ration is 4 out of 11.  Either pre-Great Hiatus Holmes took on far more low-key kinds of crime than his post-hiatus self, or Watson chose to write about them far less often.

Does that mean Holmes’ London was just a darker place from 1894 on (the canon date of “The Final Problem”)?  Was Watson more interested in the darker cases after his wife’s presumed death?  (Not getting into the argument of whether canon evidence that Mary Watson is definitely dead exists.  At this point, the assumption is pretty much canon.)  Or was it Doyle’s own wife’s ill health and impending death that cast the darker hue over the universe?  Louisa Doyle died in 1906, a year after the stories were collected in book form and was likely in decline while her husband was writing Holmes’ resurrection.  Tuberculosis isn’t a pleasant or easy way to die, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think this could influence her husband’s writing.

Of course, it could have been a much simpler answer, though: maybe Doyle just had more fun writing about his boys running amuck and solving murder.  Maybe those stories were easier for him to write.  A more external incentive may have existed too.  Doyle may have written murder stories because that’s what people wanted to read.  Murder sells, after all.  Considering Doyle’s decision to bring Holmes back from the dead was in large part financially motivated, that’s probably a good possibility, too.  Doyle was a clever lad, after all.

I guess you can’t really talk about “The Six Napoleons” anymore without mentioning “The Six Thatchers,” at least broadly.  Beyond the obvious feels (referenced in the entry just after the episode), I thought they found an interesting way to twist the canon, but did kind of wish they hadn’t made it such a small part of the overall narrative.  It worked as a handy device, I guess, for packaging the true mystery of the episode; I just kind of wanted it to feature a little more prominently, considering they named the bloody episode after it.  Kind of like how I wished “The Blind Banker” was more like “The Dancing Men” than it is.  Meh.

Honestly, I liked this season, which I know is an unpopular opinion.  I still have a few issues with things, though.  I’ll be capable of talking about them in depth eventually.

So, that’s a wrap on The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the collection that starts with Holmes’ resurrection and ends with Watson’s announcement that the Great Detective has retired and put a moratorium on all future accounts of their stories.  Of course, good old Watson doesn’t listen to his friend, which is how we still have His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes ahead of us.  (And The Valley of Fear, too, but we’ve been there already.)

The Austin-Whitechapel Theorem

Picture it: 

An animated gif of Sophia Petrillo, from Golden Girls, saying
#sorrynotsorry

Austin, Texas. Christmas Eve, 1885.

The entire city is overcome with fear and tension.  City-wide curfews have bars and saloons closing at almost reputable hours.  People are forming neighborhood watch groups (or the 19th Century equivalent) to patrol their streets.  Vigilantism is the newest fad (minus the utility belts and cowls, of course).  Anyone who crosses the town line and isn’t instantly recognizable as a local is accosted for identification or gets escorted back out of town.  Why all the hullabaloo, you ask?  Because for the last year, crime has been running rampant in Austin, the worst of it being the brutal murders of six people by an unknown assailant.  And guess what?  That number is about to increase by two before the night’s over.

Over the course of 1885, eight people – 4 African-American women, 1 child, 1 man, and two white women – were struck while they slept, dragged from their homes, and murdered.  Seven others were seriously injured in similar attacks.  Some reports indicate the bodies were mutilated.  There are conflicting reports about whether or not the victims were raped as well.  An axe, typically left behind, seemed to be the weapon of choice.  The majority of the victims were servants, hence the spree becoming known as “The Servant Girl Murders.”  The single male and child were victims of consequence who happened to be in the exact wrong place at the wrong time.

(For the record: “Servant Girl Annihilator” was a term coined by the writer O.Henry and wasn’t ever how the contemporary papers referred to the case, so I won’t, either.)

Violence wasn’t unheard of in the Old West, of course, but this was different.  So many murders, with such specific similarities, targeting a specific group?  People in Austin at the time couldn’t even comprehend the possibility, even with all that, that one person could be behind all this chaos.  This was still three years before Jack the Ripper would terrorize Whitechapel;  Eight years from H.H. Holmes opening his Murder Hotel at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Humanity hadn’t yet been formally introduced to the concept of “multiple murderers” and wouldn’t hear about serial killers for decades.  At best, the citizenry of Austin thought they were beset by a gang of murderers running amok in their streets.

Only two people ever stood trial in connection to the crimes – James Phillips and Moses Hancock, the husbands of the last two recorded victims.  Of them, only Phillips was convicted (though it was overturned later)and that was despite evidence introduced of a possible alternate (though dead) suspect.  Hancock, thanks to said alternate theory and a sheriff’s convincing testimony, got off.  The man that spared Hancock but failed to save Phillips was 19-year-old Nathan Elgin, an African-American cook at a local restaurant who was shot (in the back) and killed after attacking a young saloon girl in early February, 1886.  Elgin was linked to the crimes by circumstance, temperment, previous run-ins with the law (which amounted to things like carrying a pistol in town, public disturbance, shooting outside the governor’s house, and making written threats to the deputy sheriff), and a missing toe on his right foot that officials said matched bloody bare footprints left behind at the other crime scenes.  At the time of his death, it had been a little over a month since the last attack.  No others ever happened in Austin after.  Some felt sure they got their man.

But not everyone agreed.  Some people thought that maybe the reason the Servant Girl Murders ended is because the murderer left town and unleashed his impulses on a whole new city.  Say, London, circa 1888.

Come on, you knew we were going there as soon as you saw the title.

Newspapers were making the connection between Jack the Ripper and the Servant Girl Murderer as early as 1888, and who could blame them? Both instances involved horrifying acts of violence, mostly upon women, and featured mutilation.  Now, granted, the modus operandi of the two killers isn’t a perfect match.  Austin’s victims were servants (and people who shared homes with them); Jack hunted prostitutes.  Some accounts point to the probability the Servant Girl Murderer raped his victims; no such claims exist about Jack.  Bloody axes were left behind in Austin; Jack was meticulous about his tools.  But it’s close.  Close enough to maybe point to an evolution in his method.  Close enough people have spent over a century speculating on the possibility of a connection.

A frequent suspect floated by those who like this theory is a Malaysian cook named Maurice who worked at the Pearl House hotel during the time the Servant Girl Murders took place.  The Pearl House was geographically significant, lying in the middle of the killing ground.  Also working against Maurice is the fact he left Austin for London three weeks after the last murder and had, by some accounts, been a potential suspect.  Which sounds like a good reason to get a job on a steamer and get the hell out of Dodge, for sure.  But Maurice doesn’t quite fit the image people have in their minds of Jack the Ripper.  People like to theorize that Jack was a surgeon, was upper class, was maybe even part of the nobility.  Something to keep in mind, though: nothing definitely points to that having to be true.

Writer Shirley Harrison offered up another suspect in her book Jack the Ripper: The American Connection.  The book is based in part on an anonymous diary reportedly attirbuted to James Maybrick that includes a confession that he was Jack the Ripper.  Maybrick was a Liverpool cotton merchant who died from arsenic poisoning – either at the hand of his wife or from a malaria medication he became addicted to in his youth; Florence’s murder conviction was overturned in 1904, so there is some potential question there – in 1889.  (Shirley Harrison also wrote The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Chilling Confessions of James Maybrick about the much-disputed diary, for the sake of transparency.)   Leaving the issue of the diary’s authenticity aside, Harrison claims other, less-disputed journal entries prove that Maybrick was in Austin during the timeframe of the murders, as well as being in London during the atrocities in Whitechapel, and that makes him a valid suspect in Harrison’s wreckoning.

I do not claim to be an expert on Jack the Ripper.  That is a case sufficiently disturbing enough that previous attempts at in-depth research have just left me kind of disturbed.  It fascinates me in the same macabre way these sorts of things fascinate any of us, but I have to maintain a certain distance to sleep anywhere near soundly at night.  I’m also only a casual reader of things about the Servant Girl Murders.  It’s only been on my radar for a month or so and I only dipped my toe into the veritable ocean of information out there on the topic.  So I don’t know if I can pass judgement on the possibility the two things are connected, or on either of the presented suspects.  I’d like to think there weren’t multiple men running about brutalizing women in the most horrific ways possible then.  But I also know, come 1893, a man was luring hotel guests to their doom just for the “fun” of watching them die.  Yes, the world has the capability of giving us multiple monsters at any one time, which just means that anything’s possible in regards to the events in Austin and Whitechapel.

But it’s an interesting thing to think about.

Unlucky in Love: the Veiled Lodger and The Missing Three-Quarter

Yes, there are brief, mostly spoiler-free thoughts on last night’s “Sherlock” episode below.  But first, I need to blather on a bit about “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and “The Missing Three-Quarter.”  Because that’s what I do.

**

What could a vaguely suspicious accidental death and the disappearance of a rugby player have in common?  Yes, they’re both mysteries solved by Sherlock Holmes, but that’s just the start.  What they also have in common is something deeper and a little more poignant – the repercussions (potential or actual) of unfortunate love, something that lies at the center of both “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and “The Missing Three-Quarter.”

How can love be unfortunate, you might ask?  (In which case, my first response is “Have you ever read any Shakespeare?”)  Love is definitely rife with the potential for complication and those – and it – are rarely if ever within our direct control.  It’s a subject that writers, poets, and lyricists frequently acquaint with madness or pain; it’s also been called blind.  The disastrous turns love can take spell doom for Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona, and Hamlet and Ophelia, to name a few.  (Also, Jack and Rose, Jack and Ianto, Glen and Maggie…that last one might be too soon, actually.). Love bites; it also bleeds, dies, wounds, scars, and never, ever, runs smooth.  (Yes, I did just quote/paraphrase Def Leppard, Nazareth, and Shakespeare, shamelessly, in one sentence.  Sue me.)

Love definitely hurt and scarred Eugenia Ronder, the eponymous lodger with the veil, and she meets Holmes and Watson when she’s ready to finally tell the story of how.  First, it led her into the arms of a cruel, beastly man who she married with questionable consent; she described it the “evil moment I became his wife.”  Her husband tortured and tormented her for his own sick amusement or whenever she committed some perceived sin that earned her punishment, which usually included being tied down to their bed and beaten with a whip.  In the midst of this hell, Eugenia found a bright spot in Leonardo, the strongman that worked at her husband’s circus.  Briefly, this seemingly angelic creature showed her what love was supposed to be like, which only put her torment at the hands of her husband in sharper contrast.

At that point, Leonardo and Eugenia hatched a plan to kill Mr. Ronder.  It was a simple and elegant plan, intended to stop her torment and free her from a situation she had few other avenues out of.  If you remember from an earlier post, the law made it ridiculously difficult for a woman to get a divorce in those days.  Their plan even worked, except for one little hiccup – the lion that was to take the fall for Leonardo’s brutal murder of Ronder reacted like a lion would to the smell of fresh blood and turned on Eugenia.  Leonardo, instead of attempting to save his love, ran screaming from the scene.  Love managed to fail Eugenia twice.

The story of Godfrery Stauton, Oxford’s missing three-quarter (it’s apparently a rugby position.  Anything beyond baseball is Greek to me, though) is less violent, but no less grim.  Staunton was a swell kid and a hell of a rugby player, but he had a rich but cheap uncle whose penny-pinching ways kept his nephew perpetually in the poorhouse (figuratively, since those actually existed back then).  This cheapness wasn’t an instrument to teach Staunton humility or out of any disapproval of his lifestyle, but because Lord Mount-James was just a cheap son of a bitch.  At least Staunton could look forward to inheriting all that money his uncle refused to spend when he finally meandered off this mortal coil, right?  Well, that was apparently in question, since Staunton managed to go and fall in love with a girl his uncle would never, ever approve of, then further doomed himself by marrying her.  But he kept all this a secret in the hopes of preserving his claim on the family fortune and ensuring a better life for him and his wife one day.

And that’s exactly how it all would have gone down, if Mrs. Staunton hadn’t gotten sick. She fell victim to an illness that plagued the era, and the underprivileged in particular – tuberculosis.  There was no cure for consumption in 1897, when the story takes place; the medical community had only recently begun to understand TB and wouldn’t have a firm grasp on it or proper treatment until the early 20th Century.  Staunton knew the diagnosis was a death sentence, and he carried this knowledge and the associated burden mostly on his own.  Sure, her father and physician knew, but he couldn’t confide in a single friend, his family, or even a stranger on the street.  He had to suffer through his impending widowhood entirely on his own because of one cheap, prejudiced old man.  When the end finally loomed imminent, he had to disappear (which is how Holmes and Watson become involved) so that he can be with the woman he loves as she dies.  That sounds like a living hell for anyone, especially a young man.

There’s another similarity: how Holmes handled both cases.  Due to their individual sensitive nature in both circumstances, Holmes refrained from involving the police.  Per his usual judgement that sometimes a broader form of justice is more fitting, he let the matter of Ronder’s murder settle with the recent death of Leonardo and Eugenia’s disfigurement.  In young Mister Staunton’s case, there was no actual crime to report.  Exposing the events would have been criminal – in a moral sense – however, and neither Holmes nor Watson felt the need to put the widower through more than he had already suffered.  I mostly agree with one of those decisions, and only slightly disagree with the other.

**

In other news, I have so many thoughts about last night’s Sherlock season four premier, “The Six Thatchers,”and they are all so full of spoilers, which is why I’m not sharing them here.  Needless to say, I was blown away.  I also kind of want to punch John Watson in the nose, for a few reasons.  And hug Sherlock as well.  Martin Freeman’s performance in that scene was exceptional in its heartbreak.  Mark Gatiss, the bad bad man responsible for writing it, is both a genius and a bastard.  Which trait is dominant, by my reckoning, switches from minute to minute.

I can’t wait for next week.  I’m also terrified by how they might be planning to break us, too.

As a distraction, I plan on posting about an era-appropriate set of unsolved mysteries that caught my attention thanks to (yes, again) a podcast I listened to last week.  I think I plan on finishing up the canon by working my way through the remaining stories in batches based on which collection they were published in as well. So, the four remaining stories from The Return of Sherlock Holmes next week, then what’s left of His Last Bow the next, and maybe break The Casebook up over the two remaining weeks in order to finish up by February 1st.  I am not throwing in the towel.  I can do this!

(And then, maybe after that’s done, I’ll go back and fill in the fiction blanks.  Because otherwise I have all these useless notes mini-outlines and nothing to show for them.)

And now for a little “sub”text

I’m finally writing a post about something that my friend James knows way more about than I do. (Be gentle, JY, if my facts go slightly off the rails here. This is your area of expertise, not mine.)

In “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are tasked by the British government – or at least the manifestation of it that is Mycroft Holmes – to retrieve the stolen plans for a top secret submarine. Did you know, though, that at the time Doyle was creating the fictional version, the British government was working on an actual, real-life one? 
(Okay, you may have known that already. I didn’t, though, and I find it pretty interesting. But, I’ve already demonstrated that I find very odd things interesting.)  

The British Royal Navy began playing with submersible ships with the A-Class submarines which rolled out in 1902, but the idea of submerging a boat for tactical purposes dates back to the US Civil War and ships like the Confederate Navy’s H.L. Hunley. Early attempts had as many failures as successes – the Hunley sank off the coast of Charleston in February of 1864 with all eight of its crew; the A-Class subs tended to have issues with their petrol-based engines and every one of the 13 boats fell victim to some kind of fatal accident in their lifetimes. Failure just led to innovation: Britain rolled out the B, C, and D-Class in short order over the next decade, and finally unveiled the E-1, the first of the E-Class submarines, in November of 1912.   

(Apropos of hardly any of my point: I need to remember to make use of the Hunley if I ever get back to things that aren’t Holmes adjacent.)

There is a lot of speculation that this submarine – or the rumored existence of it – inspired Doyle to have someone steal plans for a highly classified submarine in “The Bruce-Partington Plan.” 

Nothing about the E-1 probably sounds all that revolutionary compared to modern submersible warships. It had a maximum recommended depth of only 100 feet, though some later models managed to hit the 200s. These weren’t exceptionally fast ships by our standards, either: surfaced, it could only manage around seventeen miles per hour; diving, it topped out around nine and a half. While it had four engines – two 800 horsrepower diesel-powered ones that did most of the heavy lifting above water and two six hundred horsepower electric ones for under water – it had a maximum range of somewhere around 3,500 nautical miles. Considering its predecessors were mainly stuck doing coastal missions, though, that was a monstrous leap in distance. For its time? The E-Class were some badass mothers. 

E-Class subs performed admirably for Her Royal Highness’ Navy during World War I, primarily seeing battle in the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Turkish theater, though some served – and then were scuttled – off the Russian coast. The Germans made wider, and more notorious, use of subs during the First World War, of course (does the Lusitania sound familiar?), but the rest of us weren’t far behind the curve there. World War II would see an increase in submarine warfare, as well as a broadening of its boundaries and its users, but those strategies began being tested more than twenty years earlier. 

So, how much evidence is there that Doyle based the Bruce-Partington sub on the E-1? Well, there’s good old coincidence, and if Leroy Jethro Gibbs (random NCIS reference) has taught me nothing else, it’s that there’s probably no such thing as coincidence. Doyle published his fictionalized theft in 1908, just four years before the E-1 was launched and three years before construction began. The plans had to have been in existence by then. It’s not beyond possibility that Doyle heard about the ship’s future existence from one well-placed acquaintance or another and that it laid the groundwork for his imagination to run a bit amuck. Holmes and Watson had retrieved their fair share of national secrets by then, so giving them another opportunity to save the day and prevent nationwide scandal seems almost obvious. 

This story also features one the cleverest bits of deduction I think Doyle ever wrote (and possibly the least possible plot point as well, though I’m not going to wait for a metro train to park outside my window so I can push a body out onto the roof and see if it’ll stay there), but I don’t want to go too far into it and spoil it for you (oops? Ignore the previous parenthetical). Needless to say, there’s a reason so many people enjoy this story, and why it made it into the number two slot on Doyle’s own list of his favorite Holmes and Watson adventures (he apparently made two of these lists in his lifetime, and “Bruce-Partington” made it onto the second one; it wasn’t written yet when he made his first).   

If this all sounds familiar, and you’re only a fan of BBC’s “Sherlock,” this would be the case Mycroft keeps trying to give Sherlock but gets pushed off onto John repeatedly in that ever important subplot to “The Great Game.” That episode packed so many fantastic canon references in, it’s almost hard to keep track, but that one featured very prominently.   

Now, let’s all sit back and see if James reads me up one side and down the other for my military knowledge/research, shall we? 

“And Peggy!”, or, “The Other 46 (Cops, That Is)”

Did you know that, over the course of 56 short stories and 4 novels, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced us to twenty-five Scotland Yard Inspectors, fourteen Constables, three French inspectors, two Pinkerton Agents, one German Inspector, one private detective, and one New York City cop in a pear tree?  That might seem hard to believe, considering most adaptions only focus on G Lestrade (he of the first initial and no canon given name) or Tobias Gregson, but there was an exhaustive cast of supportive Yardies and other law enforcement personnel bumping heads with and lending a hand to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.  And they get forgotten way too often.  

A lot of what looks like favoritism or forgetfulness might be nothing more than quantity – Lestrade shows up in eleven of the Sherlock stories and two of the novels – the two more well-known and more frequently adapted, A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles.  The frequency of his appearance means we have far more time to get to know him and for Doyle to develop his character.  His continued antagonism of Holmes and his frequent disrespect of Holmes’ skills also makes him a popular friendly foil.  Gregson’s adaption popularity probably stems in part from his long-standing feud with Lestrade, and the fact Holmes considers him the smartest of the Yardies.  In fact, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes refers to Gregson and Lestrade as “the pick of a bad lot.”  

Quick historical sidebar (I promise it’ll be quick) – Scotland Yard (aka the Metropolitan Police Force) was a fairly young institution at the time Doyle was creating the likes of Lestrade and Gregson.  Policing in any form close to what we’re used to didn’t come to exist in England until the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.  Previously, London had been overseen by the Marine Police Force (created in 1798), the Bow Street Runners (1749), and the Bow Street Horse Patrol (1805).  None of these groups had extensive governmental oversight.  Previous experience with less than entirely moral and law abiding “cops”- both before the MPS was created and after – led to considerable distrust of the police.  When you take into account unofficial “thief-takers” who would extort victims in order to get the criminals that wronged them punished, the public just had more reason than ever to not trust the “official” versions blessed by the government.  It took time, and some good cops, for the general populous to begin seeing cops as anything but a public menace all their own.

I could make a comment about history repeating itself where public perceptions of law enforcement are concerned, but I try to keep this blog, at least, fairly politics-free.
If I wanted to really stretch this out, I’d go into the difference between the Metropolitan Police Force and the City of London Police, but that might lead into other tangents, and we all know what happens if I give in to too many of those. Chaos, that’s what.

So why am I talking about the other 46 (#hamilparaphrase) in regards to “Black Peter,” since that’s the story I’m supposed to be blogging about?  Because this story is the second time we get to spend a little fictional time with Inspector Stanley Hopkins, who we previously met in “The Golden Pince-Nez.”  (We’ll meet him again in “Abbey Grange” and he gets mentioned in “The Missing Three-Quarter.”)  Hopkins is something of a student of Holmes’methods, even if how he applies them is sometimes…well, wrong.  But hey, he’s only human.  It’s not his fault the evidence of a notebook at a crime scene pointed to a killer who couldn’t actually manage to commit the murder.   We’re all susceptible to falling for a red herring when it drops in our lap, right?  As was discussed back when I covered the “Boscombe Valley Mystery,” it’s super easy to take the, well, easy way out. 

Hopkins isn’t the only dutiful student among the Yardies: Alec MacDonald, which we met in The Valley of Fear, appears to be studying – and applying – Holmes’ methods.  Unlike other members of the force, MacDonald is willing to believe that Moriarty might not be all he says he is – remember, VOF is set in a time before Reichenbach, possibly to deal with the fact Doyle basically one-shotted the man who was supposed to be Holmes’ ultimate nemesis.  We know, from Watson, that MacDonald is big, brash, ginger, and from Glasgow, and that he and Holmes are close enough that Holmes has given him a cute nickname – Mr. Mack – which is something none of the others earn (unless ferret-faced is a term of endearment). 

Inspector Bradstreet, he of no first name or initial, appears in three stories, but we don’t know much about him at all, except he was a Bow Street Runner before he became a cop.  He doesn’t make much of an impression on Holmes – or not enough of one to have him say anything about him to/around Watson that gets conveyed to us.  He does get to carry the ball in one of the most iconic of Holmes stories – “The Blue Carbuncle” – and has been used as a fill-in for Lestrade in the Granada series in an episode where the actor playing Lestrade was unavailable.

Then there’s Inspector Baynes, who only shows up in the two-part story collected as “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge.”  Baynes is the only inspector ever shown to be even close to as good an investigator as Holmes, and that’s potentially because Holmes just didn’t care enough to really investigate (or was a ghost, or a doppleganger, or sick…see this post about “Wisteria Lodge.”). 

Of course, I’m as guilty of forgetting about the rest of the Yardies as anyone else.  When I started writing Charlotte – when I started outlining and world building and filling out the stick figures holding places for actual characters in my universe – I went straight to Lestrade.  Which is funny, since I still haven’t written the story where Charlotte and Lestrade first cross paths, though I’ve got a clear picture of it in my head.  I’ve dusted off Bradstreet – he even clocked Watson – but I’ve stayed entirely away from Lestrade so far.  That was an entirely unconscious decision that I find really interesting now.

(Confession: I played with Lestrade a bit in November.  But he was backup to my playing mostly with Inspector MacDonald.  I may have relocated him to Scotland.  I needed an excuse to romp about in the Highlands for a month.  Fictionally.)

So, my point is this – the bullpen at Scotland Yard is very deep and a lot of the relievers Doyle traded for don’t get the innings of work they should.  There is a very handy Wikipedia list of all the canon inspectors, constables, detectives, and agents that worked with or assisted Holmes.  If you’re writing pastiche or fanfiction and you need a handy Yardie or two, try looking into one of Lestrade and Gregson’s colleagues and give them the ball for a couple innings.  You might find something really fun.

Like a cheeky, kilt-wearing Glaswegian who tries his damnedest to take over your story.