Happy birthday on Wednesday to one of the most creative, talented and interesting people who never lived.
If the source I consulted is to be believed, the great detective Sherlock Holmes will be 156 on Wednesday of this week. Hollywood has celebrated the occasion by creating a new film about the great man - a film which converts the Victorian paragon to someone who might live right down the street from you or me, in the present day.
I've seen the film, which is playing in Jamestown as I write this column, and I'd like to review it for you, and to tell you something about the literary ramifications of Holmes, as well.
Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, Rear) threatens Sherlock Holmes that he will return from the grave to seek revenge on the famed detective, played by Robert Downey, Jr.
WHO IS SHERLOCK HOLMES?
Chances are good, even if you don't read for enjoyment, that you are familiar with Sherlock Holmes. He is a fictional character who was created by a British author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was first written about in 1887, and stories of his genius at crime solving were described by Doyle in four novels and 56 short stories.
In July of this year, Sir Arthur will have been dead for 80 years. His copywrites on his stories and characters have expired, and they have passed into the public domain, where anyone who wishes to do so may use them or copy them. As a result, probably hundreds of authors, both talented and not so talented, have attempted to copy or even to surpass the original.
Novelist Michael Chabon, for example, imagined Holmes emerging from retirement to help a young boy who was a refugee from Hitler's concentration camps, in his novel ''The Final Solution.'' Television series such as ''House,'' ''Monk,'' and ''Psych'' try to imagine a detective with Sherlock's skills, set in the framework of modern institutions such as medical science and law enforcement practices.
Doyle's personal letters indicate that he copied his famous fictional character from the manners and practices of one of his professors at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where the author received a degree as a medical doctor.
Dr. Joseph Bell was the professor who used to amaze his students by noticing small details which were far from obvious, and drawing conclusions from those details which often made obvious, things which were unknown, moments before.
According to Doyle's stories and novels, Holmes lived in rented rooms, at 221B Baker St., in an upper middle class section of London, between Regents Park and Hyde Park. He worked as a consulting detective, often brought in by family members of people who were involved in a mystery because the police were unable to solve the case. He once makes the claim that he has a sliding scale for his fees, and he never deviates from it, although he occasionally remits his fee, altogether.
Early in his career, Holmes found the cost of his expensive living situation to be beyond his financial means. He advertised for someone to share the rent, and was soon sharing the rooms with a bachelor medical doctor, Dr. John H. Watson. All of the books and stories about Holmes which were written by Doyle except for four stories, are narrated by Dr. Watson.
My sources are in agreement, in none of the books nor stories does Holmes actually say the words ''Elementary, my dear Watson,'' which are probably the most famous lines associated with the characters.
Eventually Holmes becomes more successful financially, even solving crimes for national governments and being given medals and expensive jewels by kings and emperors, but Watson has become so useful, serving as assistant, messenger, spy, lookout, and medical advisor, that the two men do not consider making other arrangements, except for a few years when Watson was married. They resume working and living together after Mrs. Watson dies.
Literary scholars who have studied the characters, not just what they actually say or is said about them, but things such as how they pronounce certain words, their use of technical jargon, and other such elements, have pronounced that Holmes attended Cambridge University, where he studied in Sidney Sussex College.
Occasionally Holmes uses hired assistants and he sometimes pays informants, including a group of children who live in the neighborhood of his apartment. He calls his band of young assistants, ''The Baker St. Irregulars.''
Doyle only directly refers to one sibling of his great detective. Mycroft Holmes is a government official, who is described as even more talented, but with considerably less energy and drive. Mel Brooks made a film, back in the 1970s, called ''Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother,'' which starred comic actor Gene Wilder, although for some reason, Brooks demoted Mycroft from older to younger brother.
Several times, in Doyle's writings, Holmes says lines similar to this: ''I wouldn't allow my sister to do such a thing.'' Some literary detectives claim this proves that Holmes had at least one sister, but she is never named and there is the possibility that he meant that if he had a sister, he wouldn't allow her to do it.
Occasionally, Doyle would submit segments of his stories to popular magazines, and they were published in serial style, so that readers had to buy the next issue in order to learn what happened next, in one of his adventures. Various artists were hired to provide drawings of Holmes, Watson, and other characters, to help readers to form images of what they might look like.
Sidney Paget first portrayed Holmes in the clothes with which he is associated. Gradually, other illustrators began to portray the detective in a tweed overcoat with a cape, which was a popular style in Victorian England, and would keep him warm, while causing rain to run off his shoulders and chest without soaking into the sleeves and body of the coat. They also took the line from Doyle's text, that he wore a ''travelling cap with ear flaps,'' and turned it into the image of the famous deerstalker hat, a tweed hat with a peak to keep rain off the wearer's face, and a second peak, in the rear, which caused rain to drip down onto the cape of his coat, rather than run down the back of his neck.
Although Doyle never protested against Holmes being portrayed in those clothes, he never incorporated them into his writing, either.
Probably the most controversial part of the Holmes stories is the fact that the detective is shown to have symptoms of a bi-polar disorder. When he is on a case, he sleeps very little, and is completely swallowed up in his efforts to solve the case. When he is between cases, he becomes deeply depressed and often fails to eat and doesn't come out of his rooms.
Especially in his ''down'' periods, Holmes was prone to take habit-forming drugs, especially cocaine, which he injected, in what he called ''a seven-percent solution.'' He also occasionally used morphine.
Use of those drugs was not illegal at the time.
Now that we have a sense of the character Sir Arthur dreamed up, let's see how he fares in Guy Ritchie's contemporary film.
THE MODERN FILM
The events of history cause people to change in what behavior they admire and of what they disapprove.
In the 1950s, for example, Doris Day was portrayed as the ideal young woman, because she was attractive and fashionable, but she sacrificed her desires to her beliefs that she should conform to the rigid morality which was officially sanctioned.
In the 1960s, Jane Fonda became legendary for films in which she not only flew in the face of popularly-sanctioned morality, she invented futuristic devices to promote her own pleasure, contrary to that morality.
In the last years of the 19th Century and the first three decades of the 20th Century, Sherlock Holmes was admired and imitated because he devoted himself, monk-like, to his duty as a detective. He didn't date, he didn't marry, he never loosened his necktie. While he neglected the tidiness of his living situations, during his ''down'' periods, his personal appearance continued to display what was described as a ''cat-like love of personal cleanliness,'' in ''The Hound of the Baskervilles.''
Director Guy Ritchie has decided that modern young people - who are the audience which is most desired by the film industry, because they spend the most on films themselves and on items inspired by films - would identify more with the detective who utilized that seven-percent solution of cocaine than they would with the one who never loosened a necktie.
Beginning with his ground-breaking introduction to the film industry, ''Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,'' Ritchie has made a very identifiable kind of films. He uses a great many computer-created images. He often leaves out frames of film. We see a character enter a room, then suddenly he is at the other end of the room. It's just like pressing the ''fast-forward'' button on our television remote so we aren't bored by someone doing something as monotonous as walking from here to there.
He isn't troubled by events which couldn't fit together, in real life. In ''Sherlock Holmes,'' for example, his characters begin a chase in the basements under Westminster Palace, where Parliament meets, and suddenly run out onto the upper level of Tower Bridge, which was then just under construction. Not only have they risen in one instant from underground to more than 200 feet in the air, they have travelled a distance which takes at least 20 minutes to travel by high-speed subway trains.
Ritchie combines a lot of sexual suggestions with a lot of violence. He tosses in a few helpings of what works for other films. There is the magic of Harry Potter and the sarcastic ignoring of reality, such as in the Indiana Jones films. The result is entertaining, if you don't care much about understanding it.
The film begins with a black magic ritual. A lightly-clothed young woman writhes on a slab while a man in a hood and a black robe mouths ritual mumbo-jumbo which seems to compel her to lift a dagger over her own anatomy. Holmes breaks in, followed by a troupe of police officers, and the robed man is arrested.
He turns out to be a nobleman named Lord Blackwood. The evil doer is put on trial, but before his execution by hanging, he warns Holmes that he will return from the grave and eventually triumph. Three days after his hanging, witnesses begin to claim they have seen Blackwood around the town, and the ritual murders begin again.
Holmes tries to solve the mystery while trying to keep Watson as his assistant, although the good doctor has determined to marry a pretty young woman. He also finds himself playing cat and mouse with a woman from his own past who is the only person he has ever known who could match his deductive skills.
Ritchie doesn't care if you believe it. He dazzles you with the gorgeous scenes of the London of the early 19th century. He scares you with close escapes and dramatic gestures. He has cast Robert Downey, Jr. as the title character. Considering the actor's reputation with drug addiction, he is more believable than you might think.
Downey's Holmes is usually unkempt, although he does manage to show off an extensive muscularity. He is a wonderful actor who can throw away a line with real style, and who always manages to act somewhat above the material. His interaction with Jude Law's more buttoned-down Watson is enjoyable. It brings to mind Shawn and Gus in ''Psych.''
I enjoyed the film, although I thought it was painfully loud, much of the time. ''Sherlock Holmes'' isn't sacred writ, so a film crew is entitled to experiment around with it. I did find offensive the constant manipulation of time. For example, in a fist fight, the attacker's arm moves faster than normal. The impact of fist with jaw is almost stop action, after which we see the results of the blow in the face of the victim, as jaw is unhinged, bones break, etc. Then the action resumes at unnatural speed.
It was an entertaining night out, if not a work of art. It does make one compare what things were valued by the 19th Century, with what things are valued in the 21st Century, and hang one's head in dismay.