Why You Can Give Me A Bad Review

If there’s one valuable lesson a creator can learn, it’s not to engage with reviewers. With very few exceptions, railing against a negative review reflects most poorly on the reviewed, who are likely to come off as petulant, not the reviewer.

–Susana Polo, [Anne Rice Sics Her Fandom on Unaffiliated Lone Blogger for One Poor Review] 11:45 am, April 30th, 2013 

Once Upon A Time…

…There was a writer who worked really hard, did some hardcore personal PR, and broke into print with a major bestseller. It was a Cinderella-grade story. With sociopathic vampires. Then in an attempt to re-create success, they created a series of books that were increasingly off the wall and disconnected. And when I say it is actually possible to disconnect from both the Regular Realty, and the Reality That Has Vampires, Werewolves, Relentless Dub-Con and Underage Squeamish Bits, trust me, it is.

(more…)

The Case of the Christmas Star: A Review of S. F. Bennett

First off, a brief explanation about S.F. Bennett. Many people (though far too few in my opinion) know of Bennett’s work from the glory days of fanfiction.net, where it was quite possible to find rich, interesting, and grammatically correct short stories along the rules of traditional Canon. Bennett was one of the few, the proud, who knew those rules inside and out. Google this name and you may be pleasantly surprised to find it in The Sherlock Holmes Society of South West of England, as well as a few other lovely publications.

Bennett stood apart. We all checked FF.NET daily in hopes of a new story, and even as we read we thought, “But how will I read this again if the power goes out?” Some few of us were smart enough to save the stories for non-electric reading. I’ll say frankly that I was not one of them because organization happens to be one of the monsters that lives under my bed…under my sink…inside my garbage disposal.

In “The Case of the Christmas Star,” Bennett pulls together some of her richest and appealing elements: the humor that was an inherent portion of ACD’s creation; the inability of The Knight to create dull characters; crackling dialog that allows even a lazy student of the period to know a joke when they hear one, and the casual cruelty inherent in all societies. Consider yourself warned. Bennett isn’t going to call the remains of last night’s dinner a noble work of art. She will make you conscious of the moral failings in the system.

Watson’s loving marriage to Mary is fond and gentle. It also has its occasional frustrations (not unlike the frustrations of living with the equally strong-willed Sherlock Holmes) as Watson forgets that women just may have different priorities and aesthetics. In this story, Watson has purchased a very necessary bit of equipment (or vanity) for his medical office. Thanks to the gasps and wheezes of the Royal Mail and less-than-honorable purchasers, the good doctor finds himself in the middle of the Victorian version of “I bought it on eBay, honest, officer.”

And folks, if you have ever bought or known someone who bought on the Internet, you know where this is going.

Believe me, I am not doing this scenario justice. It doesn’t even fall under “spoiler” it is so under-justice.

But adding to the problem is the fact that Watson purchased the item with his old address with Baker Street attached to it. Co-incidentally or not, London is not so appreciative of the good doctor’s woes because they are all set for an upcoming honoring of the Queen, a regrettable lapse in stupidity within organized crime, and the local charity drive for Police Widows and Orphans is attacking all door-bells in their demands for human kindness. And who, pray tell, is imitating a Vicar? And during the Christmas season no less? No one is ever ‘perfect’ in Bennett’s London. We love the people because we understand their flaws as well as their admirable strengths.

One of my favorite bits about this story is the scene where Inspector Lestrade is clearly frightened for the safety of Holmes and Watson; he’s trying to protect them from a stone-cold murderer without openly letting them know their lives hang on a thread. Whilst he draws a full confession out of the iciest criminal we never hope to meet, Holmes quietly makes his own calculations from the sidelines. Of course knows just how much trouble they’re in but if he says the wrong thing it will all go quite badly.

But if you asked me, the crowning glory is Mrs. Hudson. Those of us who have relished Bennett’s stories from the very beginning know Mrs. Hudson is no light character to be dismissed upon a whim. She comes across as fantastically as ever, which is 30% mother hen and 60% dragon with just enough 10% inscrutable to keep you guessing. She is firm, she is compassionate; and she leaves a hard-bitten policeman in awe as she leaves her lodgers in cowed admiration.

Perhaps I’m jaded and speaking within the restrictions of my generation, but I am sick to death of lazy writers who are genderswapping Holmes and Watson, making them into beings they are not because they think it is better to take strong male protagonists and turn them into strong female protagonists. Why do you want to re-write feminist males and turn them into females? Don’t we need both? How can you do better than look at the already existing strong, female characters, with minds of their own and initiative and nerve? 

For those of us who like respect in our Holmes, Bennett’s work is the perfect remedy. Take this story and call me in the morning.

To read this–and other Christmassy treats–go here straight to the horse’s mouth (which not only supports the author and publisher, but also fails to give Amazon your support for their political bias: GO HERE.

and here:

Amazon.com (non-UK)

Amazon.uk (Great Britain)

 

 

Associates of Sherlock Holmes: A review

George Mann Edits

Click on the image above to see the Amazon Books Page, or go to this link for the direct Titan Books source (remember folks, the author gets more appreciation when you buy from the source!)

…a collection of coolly polished short stories in which Sherlock Holmes is seen through the eyes of other characters in the Holmesian canon. Many of these are former clients; the rest are those who simply have the cause and means to have crossed paths with the Great Detective or know him from their personal circles. Not only do these Associates have their own story to tell with Mr. Holmes involved in it in some way, they are all people who  can no longer claim to live outside the limelight: knowing Mr. Holmes has changed their lives forever. A few will tell you their lives were changed for the worse, but the reader can make that call for themselves.  This is their chance, and these are the stories they choose to tell us.

I’m reviewing this partially because this book qualifies for the “what ho, geekery” and “poke your librarian” categories. Having lived as a library minion in a previous job incarnation, the search to find actually good tribute fiction for ACD’s characters was at times…deeply unsatisfying. My old boss at NRCTC would approve of this, as well as give a few choice passages some satisfied snickers. Are you reading this, Bob Coston?

(more…)

The Oldest Game: The Professor, the Detective, and the Skein Between

Marcia Wilson

The String’s the Thing

“He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime.”

The Resident Patient

Make no bones about it: Doctor Watson knew his friend, and his friend knew crime as an intolerable thing that ran with life. If one was clever and observant, the eye could see these two opposing strands of life and crime as separate things (Holmes’ view), instead of the two strands as one (the ordinary view).  In a further moment of retrospection, the Great Detective opens the floor to the reader with both an assurance, and a warning:

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

–A Study in Scarlet

While Holmes spouts startling philosophy at the urging of his friend (Watson being not only a conductor of light but also its lens), it is this first clear insight into what he is that makes him Sherlock Holmes.  Even more than his Book of Life or studies of Arcanum, Holmes is a state of being.  He is what he is, and this is how he sees the world.

 

ACD could wield a dictionary like a surgical weapon, and his Detective is atomically precise in his choice of vocabulary.  Skein is more than a word—it is a concept.  Skein shows up in countless pastiches involving Holmes—and why not?  It is too perfect a word/concept to dismiss—particularly if you are a philosopher-scientist who has put his natural gift for observance into his career.

‘A Tangled Skein’ was a common mystery title of the time, as Pat Hardy, curator of the Museum of London observed.  It was even the original title of A Study in Scarlet, but ACD’s surviving notes on the subject show that he crossed out A Tangled Skein and chose A Study in Scarlet in order to differentiate his work from the rest. [1] Among the modern pastiches who contribute to this old custom are David Stuart Davies’ The Tangled Skein,[2] and David Marcum’s new title Tangled Skeins[3].  The word fits with Victorian crime fiction.

But why was A Tangled Skein a popular title?  Because of what a skein is and what it symbolises.  Skein means a ball of thread of specific length, and when it is properly rolled it is neat and orderly with the centre of the thread (making visible the end of that thread).  A tangled skein is impossible to gauge; we do not even know about the thread.  Proof of pudding is in the eating—but a skein must be inspected from end to end.  A tangled skein can hide any possible sins: broken, dirty and spoiled thread; uneven and inferior spinning—a tangled skein is by definition a riddle that must be solved for the same reason why we brush out our hair:  A tangle is a problem.

String is small, easily overlooked, and essential.  We create it because it must be created, but string’s nature requires maintenance and observance if it is to remain useful.  Holmes loves to use the word ‘thread’ in his talks with Watson, for his cases are tangled-up threads.  He must sort them all out (detect), and find the one in charge of his explanation.  In order to solve them he must do as any spinner, and gather up the threads in one hand so that the other hand may sort.  This is a useful description for all its working-class connotations. Inspector Lestrade uses it in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons:

After all, that is nothing; petty larceny, six months at the most. It is the murder that we are really investigating, and I tell you that I am gathering all the threads into my hands.”

But no one in Canon comes close to Holmes’ using thread as a description for problem-solving.[4]

“It seems absurdly simple, and yet, somehow I can get nothing to go upon. There’s plenty of thread, no doubt, but I can’t get the end of it into my hand.”  —The Man with the Twisted Lip

Humans create and solve puzzles made of string, but under the innocence of child’s play are riddles contrived to baffle as much as please.  An Arctic monster baits mortals by weaving string games out of its own intestines; Scottish harpstrings spun of murder victims sing the names of their killers.  An Italian stregoni foretells the future; Celtic knotwork is reflected in the basic loops of cat’s-cradle. Native Americans trap nightmares with Dream Catchers; witchcraft looms in stringlore as much as math. String puzzles create a state of contemplation and satisfaction for the player, which goes far to explain the addictive nature of these games.  To be short about a long topic, we play with string, but string also plays with us—especially when we attempt to use it to answer our deep philosophical questions.  In all of this usefulness we must do one thing:  gather the pertinent strings within our hand in order to put them to their appropriate purpose. One cannot yank them out; this exacerbates the tangle.  We cannot tug out of time; this will lock the tangles into Gordian Knots.  The only solution is to gently work out the thread until it is exposed to the end, the end that is hidden discreetly in the centre.

Human life has been analogous to thread since our concepts solidified into accepting that we have a specific length of life. To increase its length we must petition Divine Providence—but the shortening of said thread, if one is not a believer of predestination, takes no more than an unlucky or willful action.  As our unfortunate lady said in The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez, “…it is not for me to cause the frail thread to be snapped before God’s time.”  

Thread is an appropriate analogy when we wax of destiny and life.  In China the Red String connects soulmates.  In the Kabbalah, red string repells evil.  Red thread in England defeats the power of witches.  Red is passion and life, which is why the colour is either treasured or eschewed in cultures throughout the world.

A Gut Instinct

Thread was originally sinew and gut and our ancestors learned to divine the future and scry the truth in sacrificial entrails. Amongst the Samaritans, Greeks, Romans, Etruscans, and Hebrews, the entrails are burnt upon the altar to please respective Deities—such actions were expected to influence events for the better.  These first scarlet threads were literally scarlet, and be it from the hunt or a sacrifice, a life had to be given up to use the scarlet cords.

At the risk of being graphic, when I field-dress game I am reminded why there would be divination of answers in the entrails:  The heart will stop; the brain ceases to function and the head is separated from the neck…but the entrails will move for minutes even when taken out of the cavity.  In our old patterns of reasoning this would assure us of the proof of something more, something outside the easy spectrum. Since ancient times these ungraceful organs were treated like a secondary brain.  Our intuitive reactions are often reflected in that region hence our phrases, “gut feeling,” “Felt it in my gut,” “gut instinct,” and “butterflies in the stomach.”  Our brains are our most reliable calculators and computers, but it is our gut that is expected to let us know when something is out of true, unreliable, or to be blunt, dishonest.  Our entrails are the brains for our intuition.

Holmes knows intuition and relies on it, and this article would be the size of a bus directory if we listed all the canonical examples where he spoke and performed on behalf of instinct running side by side with his intellect.  It is enough to state that Holmes keeps intuition and reasoning together and takes great pains not to separate them.  He uses the one to check the other.  This sets him apart from the common crowd.  He does not worship intuition over intellect as a spiritualist or mesmerist; nor does he think there is only one form of reason.  His great brain is praised, but less attention is given to his adherence to intuition—and by sheer logic alone he knows to use intuition.  To discount it makes as much sense as denying Mycroft is his mental superior.  It is illogical; we need the logic and reasoning within the cranium, and the intuition that resides in the entrails.

 

Thus are the original threads of fate and oracular science. Despite the unpleasantness of such reasoning, there is a lesson: Somewhere in all of this mess is order instead of chaos, and logic instead of nonsense.  But how to find it?  Again we look to skein and its second definition:  Skein is also a tanglement; something complicated and impossible to discern at a single glance.[5]

The imagery of entrails as dark weavings of destiny is still within our cultural mindset.  Blake’s Milton, a work that Holmes could have scarcely ignored, described the bloody Valkyries weaving destiny upon a gruesome loom of intestines. In Jerusalem he repeats this scene in even more graphic detail and name-drops the cities and portions of England that Holmes knew:  London, Edinburgh, York.  Violence fills the Thames with blood and the players continue on, their motives murky and obscure even as cities burn.  The harbingers of fate weave upon gore, but to what end?  What is the overall purpose?  There is something there that does not love unanswered questions. Holmes asks us this when he asks it of himself.

Crime

Our earliest attempts to find the truth have often been murky and muddled with the social mores of our times.  Murder is consistently one of the worst.  Crime is a societal action upon which there must be a reaction.  Adonai scolds Cain The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground![6]  The Old Testament is no exception.  After Creation, crime follows, and the blood is the life.

Crime as the word we use today is rooted in the Latin cenere: ‘to judge’ and shifting to crimen ‘judgment, offense’, and through Old French to Middle English it solidified as “wickedness; sin” but no matter what time or translation, the word reminds us of an eternal assault against the very threads of destiny—the sheer seriousness of it explains centuries of executions and swift trials.  Crime attacks the fabric of society and threatens the balance that keeps chaos at bay.  In some societies even an accidental death meant death to the killer—not out of hatred but because the fear of a Universe out of balance was too terrible.  This lack of balance manifested in disasters that affected not just the killer, but the killer’s community.  Floods, famines, diseases, wars—you name something bad, and someone will instantly start looking for a reason behind it.  Thus, the need to solve crimes may very well be rooted in spiritual motivation.

We will add more on this later, using Holmes’ proof of philosophy, but for now we can point out that we laugh at the past minds who blamed a plague on Oedipus’s unknowing patricide and incest, but every day we see our authorities posit social and moral explanations for concrete actions—such as tolerance for alternative lifestyles as a reason for epidemics.  Intricate and flawed, the human brain has the capacity for coming to its own conclusions regardless of proof.  One thing that has not changed is our desire to look for reason…and to create a reason when there is none to be found.

In solving crimes we have created broadly variable methods of solution that begin with observance and ends in detection:  Watchmen, sentries, and soldiers were sworn to observe and report, but they were not alone.  Priests sacrificed, and oracles, consulted.  Omens were a way of finding the truth and the very dead were interviewed using mediums and practitioners of spellcraft.  The ‘murder ballads’ of England include the earliest surviving examples of our language as we recognise it today.  Our oldest song in English is ‘Twa Corbies,’ a chilling tale of intrigue, betrayal, and murder exposed by ravens, the birds who wait upon the entrails-weaving Valkyries. Logic and reason may be newcomers to the scene but while we have slowly evolved in our science of discerning the truth, the old methods remain in our folklore, the proofs of which are in our language—which is much slower to change than our conduct.  In matters of murder, the threads of truth require inexorable methods and the holy man burning entrails upon the fires was as feared then as our modern-day detective who can pull immovable facts to the unstoppable prosecutor, judge, and jury.  Priest and policemen both follow Law.

Law: The Immutable State

Law descends from the Old Norse lag “something fixed.” Originally laws were sunk into a metaphysical concept of reality.  Harmony meant living according to the Laws.  Wrong conduct or wrong-thinking went against the harmony and created destruction and life out of balance.  Now we have separated these laws of science from laws of conduct (ethics, codes of conduct and administration govern behavior—but our brains reject the pure separation of the two.  Why?  Because our laws are based on emotional and logical reasoning—the great brain and the intuitive gut bridged by the heart.  Crime warrants constant vigilance, for its actions are limited only by the abilities of the criminal.  We are just as affected now by crime as we always have been.   Law is one of the colourless threads in our lives.  Law is our right, and even though we cannot always verbalize what is right or wrong, we rely on nonverbal methods to help us choose.

In Sherlock Holmes’ era, hard science was sharing the same space as spiritualism, supernatural fears, and a heavy jostling of caste animosity (Holmes’ own take on the subject is impatience mixed with asperity).  Victorian fiction was as rife with crime as it was with ghosts, curses, forbidden knowledge and sinister odditoriums.  It was not unusual to see rationality and superstition mixing it up like a bad drug. It shows in the writing of the time:  words like skein, which is loaded with unspoken but known meaning, was commonly used by both sides.  Each attitude was aiming for a common end.  They all wanted closure for the wrongs of the world.  But more importantly than closure, they wanted sense to be made of it all.  But how to do this? Where is the reason?

In the old days we relied on the Moira–the three Fates who apportioned each mortal’s skein.  Our separate life begins at the cut that defines the start of the thread (umbilical cord), and ends where the other side of the string is cut.  Frightening enough, the Moira answered to an even more frightening deity: Tekmor (Proof).  In the woven threads of destiny rests the proof at its end.  Tekmor’s name survives in our language as token (evidence).  When we give a ‘token of our affections’ we give evidence of our feelings.  Tekmor is the last word, the final blow, and the coup de grace.  Proof is the whole reason why we bother about this mess.  Proofs are the scales on which all balances.

‘I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection.’

The Sign of Four

It takes no imagination to picture Sherlock Holmes, with his incessant thinking and puzzling, as a devotee of Tekmor.  He admires the purity within the cold efficiency of the brain, and would follow Tekmor’s bare-bones purpose of existence.  Proof is after all, the evidence of truth. But how to discern the proof of the metaphorical pudding?  One cannot unravel a tangle all at once.  Reality is…messy.  As messy as the very entrails our ancient priests unraveled in hopes of answers.  Snarls are worked through by pieces and bits, gently eased out…promising threads chased down and examined, abandoned, and picked up at a later date.  This requires more than a worrier of thread; it requires someone to see; to detect. This is what you may expect here, as Watson witnesses Holmes pick up threads of crime from years past even as he discusses the current ones.

 

“Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram

or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere.”

The Sign of Four

Is it any wonder that a baffled Stamford tries to explain Holmes and then winds up being more confusing than ever?

“I have no idea what he intends to go in for.  I believe he is well up in anatomy, and he is a first-class chemist; but as far as I know, he has never taken out any systematic medical classes.  His studies are very desultory and eccentric, but he has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors.”[7]

Or as Stamford finally admits when pressed: “It is not easy to express the inexpressible.”[8]

Dr. Watson makes this observation of the man that is about to be his closest friend in A Study in Scarlet:

“He was not studying medicine.  He had himself, in reply to a question, confirmed Stamford’s opinion upon that point.  Neither did he appear to have pursued any course of reading which might fit him for a degree in science or any other recognised portal which would give him an entrance in to the learned world.  Yet his zeal for certain studies was remarkable, and within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute that his observations have fairly astounded me.  Surely no man would work do hard or attain such precise information unless he had some definite end in view.  Desultory readers are seldom remarkable for the exactness of their learning.  No man burdens his mind with small matters unless he has some very good reason for doing so.”

And after making his famous list of Sherlock Holmes, we can but pity Watson.

“When I had got so far in my list I threw it into the fire in despair. “If I can only find what the fellow is driving at by reconciling all these accomplishments, and discovering a calling which needs them all,” I said to myself, “I may as well give up the attempt at once.”

If Holmes could be tracked down and treated on matters of mind alone, Stamford and Watson would not be so stumped.  But there is a method to his seeming madness.  Holmes makes clear his calling to Watson:  “I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and I pocket my fee.”  After this opening statement his dissatisfaction is revealed: his gifts give him his bread and cheese, but it is not enough.  He needs more. Sherlock Holmes holds multiple skeins in his hand.  He frequently confounds his enemies and bewilders his allies but remains calmly separate from both, mentally gauging the complex adventures that occur all around him. The wonder of it all is, what appears to us as a complicated world isn’t complicated at all–because Holmes sees what we cannot.  We the readers must trust along with Watson…and follow him because he is the only one who can lead us to the suddenly clear ending.  We can only agree:  Holmes makes everything clear.  How strange and obfuscating his stories are in the beginning! How could we hope to understand?  We see nothing—we do not observe–and yet Sherlock Holmes has!

This is to be expected, for he is Sherlock Holmes.  He observes.  He is more than a watcher.  He is a guardian on a holy mission.  A stranger may see a child—but its caretaker will observe it.  A man who sees, only uses his eyes to function in the world.  An observer protects.  Truly, this is Sherlock Holmes and the world he has adopted into his crusade.  In the very unravelling of skeins he can take apart the confusion and replace it with illumination.

In A Study in Scarlet, we come as close as we ever do in viewing the giant cogs that turn in Holmes’ great mind.  What a pity we could not read his Book of Life!  But we must settle for what scraps Watson shared with us, and very enlightening they are:

“From a drop of water,” said the writer, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.”

Most will agree that many things are connected, but Holmes is stating that all things can be discernible.  This is bold news.  Watson is initially against the whole thing—he is equally repelled and compelled by the words but already Holmes has sunk under his skin.  Before long he will be completely in agreement with the Detective.

 ‘What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?  It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.’

The Cardboard Box.

Tekmor, we should remind, is the proof of evidence at the conclusion of the greatest, most tangled mystery of all.  Life.  Holmes may not bow to any particular ‘abstract god of justice’ for he makes his own justice where there is none.  His Great Enemy, the Spidery Moriarty, creates tangles whilst Holmes un-tangles them with relentless patience.  In illuminating their opposition, we know their game is doomed to end with death, for neither’s nature will tolerate the other.  It takes no more than a few paragraphs for Holmes to lay it before Watson: Holmes solves mysteries and restores unknown balances…but the only balance for Holmes himself is the presence of another pretty problem.

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

 –A Study in Scarlet

There can hardly be a more stripped-down definition placed in non-spiritual terms on what humans must do.  Sherlock Holmes has managed to scythe down thousands of years of language with a poetry elegant in sheer efficiency.

Let us return to Watson’s fascinating observation about Holmes:

“He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime.”

The Resident Patient

Now, what does Holmes think of Professor Moriarty?

“He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.”

The Final Problem

The comparison is absolutely frosty.  Holmes has recognised not a kindred spirit, but a kindred brain.  And he knows Moriarty exists because he has deduced his existence with cold logic and a lifetime of training.  In unraveling countless skeins, he has become an expert of seeing what fits and what does not fit—and something does not fit.  There is a being within this tangle—one that creates more tangles upon tangles, and hides itself, and feasts silently and invisibly upon his London.  There is a monster at work, a parasite within the colourless threads of life.  It attacks the chain of life he has identified early on in his Book.

“For years I have endeavored to break through the veil which shrouded it, and at last the time came when I seized my thread and followed it, until it led me, after a thousand cunning windings, to ex-Professor Moriarty of mathematical celebrity. … He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city.  He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker.  He has a brain of the first order.’

The Final Problem

Holmes has spent his life trying to find out if there is a bedrock of reason behind the crimes he studies.  He has his drop of water in the red thread of crime:  where is the Atlantic, the source on the other side of the drop?  He is not the first nor will he be the last man who makes a study of flaws in order to understand perfection, but there is a difference in his approach.  There may be a smarter man than Holmes—what of it?  There may be more spontaneous brains that think where he cannot.  But he has the energy, the drive, and the focus to find this truth.  One can imply from his words that Moriarty’s motionless state of being is contemptible to the younger man.  Truth will not come to the seeker—the seeker must go forth and meet it.  Only this drive combined with his legendary energy could unspin the ultimate spider from his cocoon:  Professor Moriarty.

 “’Are you aware, Watson, there is no one who knows the higher criminal world of London so well as I do.  For years past I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organising power which forever stands in the way of the law, and throws its shield over the wrongdoer.’[9]

Holmes does not imply that Moriarty is the one cause of all the darkness beneath these skeins—but he is the most powerful and dangerous because he is unseen.

“’Aye, there’s the genius and the wonder of the thing!’ he cried. ‘The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him. That’s what puts him on a pinnacle in the records of crime.  I tell you, Watson, in all seriousness, that if I could beat that man, if I could free society of him, I should feel that my own career had reached its summit, and I should be prepared to turn to some more placid line of life. … But I could not rest, Watson, I could not sit quiet in my chair, if I thought that such a man as Professor Moriarty were walking the streets of London unchallenged.’”[10]

Holmes really has no choice but to unravel and expose this hideous mutation that takes the colourless skein of life and dyes it red with the blood of his crimes. It is his duty, the duty he speaks of in A Study in Scarlet.  Of all the minds he has met, only the Professor has shown himself to be like the Great Detective.  They see and cipher along similar lines in method, but the fires of motive are sorely different.

Moriarty is self-woven within the skein of London, making the countless strands work his will.  He is a mathematician and threads are his natural realm.  His brain is uniquely suited for shifting the threads of fates:  Threads and arithmetic are inextricably bound to each other and have been since we added string to our list of tools.  Incans make a sophisticated calculator with knotted string.  The Abacus is no more than a string and ball evolution from our own fingers, and thread, which is carefully twisted matter, is the ancestor for the mathematical instrument that changed our world forever: The screw.[11]  His spider’s web of Holmes’ mental comparison is a geometric string graph of London with many lines and point interconnecting within each other, a deadly cat’s-cradle of cause and effect.

Yet we overlook these beautifully explanatory works of mental architecture. String was not a respected vector for problem-solving in Holmes’ world.  The vaunted minds of his day were looking forward and away instead of behind and below.  String games are catalouged as cultural amusement of…lesser races and games of the poor—charming but outmoded facets of ‘primitive cultures’, like wearing paint and tattoos, or the poverty-stricken immigrant with charms around his neck.  String is useful, but embarrassingly outmoded.  There are other, more scientifically respectable things to look at.

A being of Moriarty’s cold intellectual power sees no logic in dismissing the usefulness of string.  Moriarty the Logician would not dismiss string as childish and immature.  If anything, the obscure knowledge is more useful to him because his prey has chosen to be blind to it! What a delightful camouflage for his brain!

And Moriarty as much confesses that he likes to play as much as anyone:

“It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be a grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure. You smile, sir, abut I assure you that it really would.”

The Final Problem

Moriarty could choose to be satisfied with his earnings and book sales.  But like Holmes, basic gratification is inadequate.  Holmes understands the burn that goes past the mark of mere gratification, but while he is a devotee of Tekmor, Moriarty serves a far more fearsome god:  Mammon.

Mammon:  

Mammon originally meant ‘material wealth’ but as our concepts changed, so did the meaning.  We needed a word to describe the ultimately self-defeating clutch that collects material gain far beyond our need for security.  Mammon is now a pejorative for greed.  And Moriarty has ably demonstrated he is all about materially rewarding himself for his intellectual challenges.  He is the Napoleon of Crime, and his coffers are filled to bursting.

Where Sherlock Holmes sees it his responsibility to unravel the scarlet threads of murder and expose them, Moriarty takes this shared gift of observance and makes something truly awful:  He puts the scarlet threads to work for him, twists his own, and burrows deep into the heart of this life-web, feeding quietly and invisibly as a virus.  He is a spider indeed, an Orbweaver who spins his own world of traps and pitfalls.  Just by living he has proven himself a supreme predator.  Who sees the spider, after all?  We rarely see one without the web but can we see a spider who spins a truly invisible web?

In The Valley of Fear Holmes makes a freezing summary: “Of course I have other reasons for thinking so — dozens of exiguous threads which lead vaguely up towards the centre of the web where the poisonous, motionless creature is lurking.”  Charles Augustus Milverton is a wicked, flat-faced reptile; Stapleton is a lean-jawed pike. It is only with Moriarty that Holmes reserves the coldest of assessments.  His side to side way of looking about, and his careful, deliberate way of moving is a being living within pure calculation.  He is a spider in the shape of a man, stepping lightly and delicately across a filamentous web, careful not to be trapped but ensuring the capture of others.  Holmes is shaken when this unnatural creature comes to visit!  A predator has left his territory and coolly gone a-hunting.

Intellectually, Moriarty has good reasons for going to Holmes.  It is not the expected thing to do, and one must never be predictable to one’s enemy!  Also, this allows him a moment to see what his minions cannot.  There is also the slightest off-chance that he can bow Holmes to his will, and psychologically, an attacker often gets good results when going against someone in their own home:  concession is achievable when speaking in a calm, reasonable manner and the prey in question realizes they are here to be reasonable—not instantly swallow them whole.

But Holmes stands fast after the pleasantries, and does not change.  Moriarty has admitted to enjoying the stimulation of the game, as Holmes, but all good things must come to an end.

“He rose also and looked at me in silence, shaking his head sadly.  “‘Well, well,’ said he, at last. ‘It seems a pity, but I have done what I could. I know every move of your game.

–The Final Problem

Moriarty is a delightfully realistic and believable spider.  His string puzzles are mathematical and advantageous.  Unlike Holmes, who actively responds to the faintest quivering of the web, the Professor has set the web up to do the dirty work for him while he sits passive.  He symbolizes all that is wrong with the world when injustice gets away and walks off to spawn more injustice.  We can see his precedent in the hapless Arachne, who thought to place herself as a greater weaver than Athena, the goddess of Destiny’s threads.  While many people tout this story as a triumph of the underdog against the establishment, the original tale is far more deadly.  Arachne’s gift was from Athena herself but refused to admit it.  Her actions were motivated by vanity and material gain, not the betterment of her people.  Thus for her gains she broke the cardinal laws: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.  In declaring herself greater than the Spinner Goddess was to insult the laws that held up the Universe.  For this she was condemned, gifts and all, into the form of a spider where she could at least do some good.

The Norse trickster Loki would not be out of place with Moriarty.  A slippery, self-serving character who lives off the benefice of the gods, Loki first invented the net as he was on the run for murder.  Sensing they were about to catch him, Loki burnt his fishnet and hid in the shape of a salmon.  But the gods saw the net’s pattern in the ashes and from the ghostly traces learnt to make their own—catching the murderer at last and sentencing him to divine justice.  Moriarty is Loki in that he makes tangles (the net weave) operate for his own benefit…and Holmes is the perfect pursuer to riddle out the purpose of the net in the smoking ashes.[12]  Loki’s ultimate fate is to be bound by entrails twisted into cords—a grisly “Chain of Life” that symbolises the natural order of things (Life) has forced him back from his role as an Outlaw into the realm of Natural Law.[13]

It is an interesting note that in England spiders are historically held in a benign light.  The peasantry of Holmes’ time would not damage a spider or its web out of respect for the fact that a spider allegedly spun a web over the Christ Child and protected him from all the dangers around him—a type of Dream Catcher for encroaching threats.  In Kent goes the proverb that ‘if one must thrive, let spiders run alive.’[14]   One would do well to let the spider that is Sherlock Holmes live.  He may not refer to himself as an arachnid, but he casts his nets about the guilty and drags them to his reach!  And why not?  String puzzles, which are emblematic of humanity in so many ways, are traps, snares, and seizing nets when drawn tight.  As long as the cords are loose all is well.  But to trigger the cords is to activate them to their true purpose:  The trap springs; the spider moves.

Like an orbweaver, Moriarty wears the bright colours of respectability.  He is a pleasant scholarly mentor.  His public web is clean of victims, neatly tidied away so as not to offend our eyes.  We see him right there, out in the open, as obvious and harmless to us as a cheerfully brilliant yellow and black garden spider suspended on his web in the sun.  This spider weaves threads visible to the human eye so that we won’t be so rude as to blunder through his pretty strands and spoil everything.  It would be a pity, really.  All that hard work and dedication in his craft destroyed by a meddler and a bumbler. Tch.  And this is how he initially sees that upstart, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and that is what his epic meeting with the younger man means:

“You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes, or be trodden underfoot.”

The Final Problem

We can almost forgive him his error, for haven’t lesser minds made the same mistake about Mr. Sherlock Holmes the meddler, Holmes the busybody, Holmes the Scotland Yard jack-in-office?   Although Holmes has severely warned Watson against openly verbalizing the fact of Moriarty’s criminal position due to the man’s sheer untouchability, Holmes does not take his own advice.  And we ought to have known that because of what Holmes has said of another corrupt spider:

“I think that there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge.”

The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton

Holmes has spent his entire life hunting down the proof that there is a Moriarty within the string map of London.  He will not back down now—the stakes are too high.  This is why when it comes down to it the only real predator of a spider is another spider, and Holmes is a magnificent one!  If Moriarty is an orb-weaver, Holmes is the cave orb-weaver, a spider who not only spins a web, but also leaves that web to go hunting.  Unlike Moriarty, he is a hunting hybrid who casts his net and goes out and seeks his prey rather than passively allow his quarry to come to their doom in his grip.

 

And why?  Here is where we return to the word crime, as we promised long ago.  Crime is something that does not escape Sherlock Holmes because of a single, succinct and bloodlessly devastating definition, best outlined by the Oxford English Dictionary:

1: An action or omission that constitutes an offense that may be prosecuted by the state and ispunishable by law:

2: An action or activity that, although not illegal, is considered to be evilshameful, or wrong.

Did not Holmes warn Watson of the dangers of going up against Moriarty, who despite his horrific actions remained respectable, above law, separate from consequence and clad in comforts?  In the heart of the murky matter, Holmes proves the great heart that beats behind that great intellect—greater even than the proofs his friend witnessed in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs: “It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.”

Sherlock Holmes is a true devotee of Tekmor.  To a man so precise in his language, the word crime must be used in complete accuracy. Holmes is capable of great feeling—but for him his work is all because his work is the means by which he can accomplish the greatest good—to restore the oldest imbalance and uproot crime at its source.  If the knot proves Gordian, rest assured that Holmes will slice through it to expose Moriarty’s corrupted threads.

Entire books have been written on the polarised natures of Sherlock Holmes and the Professor, but this essay will not stand on the shoulders of those giants.  In closing, we may suggest that among the handful of women in his life that left their mark, it was an ancient Greek Goddess who made hers the lasting one.  We can sincerely say that if there is truth in the Chinese belief that a red string of fate binds each person to their properly destined soulmate, the soulmate of Sherlock Holmes would be Tekmor, Goddess of Proof and Evidence.  He stands for everything Tekmor is:  The exposure of the truth, and the true length of the thread of life.  He does all of this despite the conundrums of his great enemy, Mammon’s invisible Moriarty.

They make for bitter rivals, the Professor who hides in and creates tangles, and the Great Detective who unravels and exposes them.  Moriarty and Holmes.  Mammon…and Tekmor.  Two figures, playing the oldest mind-games of our race:  That of life, and string, and destiny.  They can exist side by side so long as both are unable to touch each other.  Moriarty is the Hidden Ugliness of Humanity, but Sherlock Holmes is its bright beacon, and its ability and desire to solve the obstacles within life.  No matter how complicated or simple their games are, they are still patterns of string, gathered in one hand and manipulated by the other…

…and with a single, decisive movement of the winner, the string puzzle stops being a puzzle…and becomes a net closed around his foe.

[Above]: A Scarlet Thread of Murder, by Spirit Level, the artistic signature of the author Marcia Wilson.  All copyrights apply.

[1] Kennedy, Maev.  “Sherlock Holmes Exhibition Reveals Conan Doyle’s First Plots for Hero Sleuth” October 16, 2014 online article http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/16/sherlock-holmes-london-museum-exhibition-conan-doyle-notebooks

[2] Davies, David Stuart.  “The Tangled Skein”, June 10, 2006 Bibliophile Books, 2006 Ed., ©Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 2006Audiobook, Big Finish, Release Date January 2012 online page http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-tangled-skein-20

[3] Release Date 2015, MX Publishers; http://www.mxpublishing.com/category/Sherlock+Holmes+Books

[4] Once by Inspector Lestrade and a murderess; twice by Watson; Holmes 10 times.

[5] Oxford Online Dictionary

[6] Genesis 4:9-16 Complete Jewish Bible

[7] A Study in Scarlet

[8] Ibid

[9] The Final Problem

[10] Ibid.

[11] This is why we refer to the spiral of the screw as the ‘threads’ of the screw.

[12] In Hound of the Baskervilles, the word ‘net’ is written 14 times by Watson to 1) describe invisible nets closing around Sir Henry; 2) in description of Stapleton whom is rarely without his ‘poisoned net’ and 3) by quoting Holmes who refers to Stapleton as a ‘lean-jawed pike’ in want of being caught in his nets.

[13]Chain’s possible origin is in’PIE root *kat– “to twist, twine” (cognates: Latin cassis “hunting net, snare”).’

[14] Henderson, William.  Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, 1879; The Folk-Lore Society

 

Review: The Case of the Rondel Dagger by Mark Mower

It is always a joy when the reader gets to learn something (in a respectful way) about a chapter in history.  Mr. Mowers is an established historian of crime and we are treated to his original character, Mr. Mickleburgh who may possibly reflect an aspect of the author’s voice.  The Rondel Dagger of the title is the linchpin clue brought to this humble expert of ancient weapons by a young Sherlock Holmes. We enjoy his voice, which is markedly different from Watson, but equally good.  He simply sees things in a different way and traces of an avuncular admiration tinge this (sigh) short story.

1880 shows us the meeting of these two men, both masters at their field regardless of the disparity in ages. Mr. Mickleburgh is entrenched, respected, and largely invisible to the world but Holmes is already rising in what he calls his “financially precarious vocation.” The conversation between the men flows easily; they both like each others’ company and we enjoy watching them puzzle out the matter of a brutal murder in which a rondel dagger is significant piece.

Without giving away the plot (sometimes avoiding spoilers is just agony), the two men discover that the Dagger is a relic of a personal piece of history for a group of “gay blades” and one fond story leads to less fond one; the deeper the men go the darker the stories until a well-concealed fact is finally brought to light.

I rate this one of the best of the book!

 

Review: A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

Peter Bevelin’s small book (81 pages) is every argument you ever wanted to win against another Holmesian–or every defense you needed to backup someone you felt was right.  Period.

Imagine what a book would be like if Watson had simply lifted out all examples of his friend’s reasonings and philosophies and placed them in a separate volume.  Here it is.

In these trying times, where students are re-learning the art of debate in wangling grades or proving classroom participation, their jobs counselor would be advised to recommend this book–or the instructor place this on the reading list.  You’re getting more than the most famous quotes of Sherlock Holmes–you are getting the context of these statements and why they act as linchpins upon the plots and intrigues that fuel human nature.

Part reference, part Sun Tzu, part history lesson and part social science with a smattering of Heraclitian Logos, A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes are small examples of a large macrocosm lifted to the light for a closer examination.  The subject matter is easily found, but the definitions are pithy and full of meaning and require contemplation.

Easily accessible, one can page to a statement made in bold black:  ‘Distance Gives us Perspective’, Patience’, or ‘Check for other possibilities’ and so on.  beneath the statements are the backup data that includes direct quotes from the Canon, and/or relevant parallel examples such as from Poe or Bell or ACD himself. A nice touch are the examples where you can see Holmes is paying hommage to his peers and elders in the mental field; this is an extra boost when we may confess to being less than expert in the Era in which Holmes lived.

Bevelin helps us focus on what makes the Philosopher Holmes tick; this compilation of statements are proven true and valid by action or example. Buy this book for the friend who has everything; for the frenemy who likes to taunt you with choice quotes from the Canon, or add it to your shelf of koans. This is truly The Art of Holmes in the way that The Art of War was for the mental approach of a physical problem.

MX Publishing in the UK: http://www.mxpublishing.com/brand/Peter+Bevelin

MX Publishing in the USA: http://www.mxpublishing.com/search?ssv=bevelin

 

Heavenly Manna for the Researcher: The National Archives

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 9:39 am  Comments (2)  

Slang Dictionary of Victorian London: A

Abbess: Female brothel keeper. A Madame.

Abbot: The husband, or preferred man of an Abbess.

Acushla: An Irish term of endearment

Albert-chain: A heavily linked watch-chain

Alderman: Half-Crown

Alehouse: Where only malt liquors can be sold.

Area: The below-ground servant’s entrance in the front of many London town-houses. (Not underworld slang)

Area Diving: A method of theft that necessitates sneaking down area steps, and stealing from the lower rooms of houses.

B

Bacca-pipes: Whiskers curled in small, close ringlets.

Banyan days – This phrase is employed by sailors to denote the days when no animal food is served out to them.

Barkers (Barking Irons): Guns. Pistols, esp. Revolvers.

Barney:  A noisy argument; a row

Bang: Drug.  From Bhang (more bang for your buck?)

Barney: a noisy argument; a row

Beak: Magistrate

Beak-hunting: Poultry stealing

Bearer up: Person that robs men who have been decoyed by a woman accomplice.

Beef: (1) (v) Raise hue-and-cry.  (2) (n) Thief. (cr) = Hot Beef! = Stop Thief!

Bend: Waistcoat, vest

Betty: A type of lockpick

Bile-shot:  Ill-tempered

Billet:  A situation of employment

Billy: Handkerchief (often silk)

Bit Faker: Remember six bits?  A coiner.  A counterfeiter of coins.

Blackleg: a scab

Blag: To steal or snatch, usually a theft, often by smash-and-grab

Blob, on the (Blab): Begging by telling hardluck stories.


C