“It is a capital mistake to theorise without data…”

Finally saw Sherlock Holmes this weekend, as a farewell gift from a friend. And enjoyed it immensely, warts and all.

I have never quite understood the purists who insist on Holmesian externals as the be-all and end-all, that Victorian London be picturesque, cozy and uncomplicated largely because Holmes stands like a bulwark against evil: all-knowing, all-wise, calm and collected.

Well, no. The canonical Holmes is one of the most spectacularly unstable characters in all literature, a bundle of manic energies who depends on cocaine to keep up with them — that is, when he’s not digging through the lowest of London’s grime, propelled by the most grotesque crimes he can ferret out. He’s arrogant, impatient, selfish, sloppy, the despair of his poor landlady and rude to his closest friends.

In short, how exactly do you complain when he’s being played by Robert Downey Jr.? (Even the normally hyper-perceptive Roger Ebert falls into this trap — objecting because he sees Holmes as always ‘immaculate’. Uh-huh. I think Ebert has seen one too many Basil Rathbone movies.)

Yes, Ritchie’s film falls down more than a bit as an action-adventure. The ‘fierce reason against the baroque dark arts’ schtick is the laziest possible way to plot a Holmes movie, as evidenced by the fact it’s almost a direct ripoff — right down to the elaborately intrusive CGI — of Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes, which… well, produced by Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus. In 1985. This is not the kind of source material you’d expect Mr. RocknRolla to be cribbing.

On the other hand, you’d also not expect him to have quite such an affinity for the internal Holmes. The heart of this movie is Downey’s incredibly charismatic performance. Where Jeremy Brett’s interpretation made a fetish of holding himself together in order to fend off vulnerability, Downey’s revels in eccentricity as a law unto itself; intellectual brilliance barely held in check by the needs of the body, let alone of civilised interaction. He hangs onto Watson not because he needs a foil but because he needs a link to reality, practicality — and he knows he’s not liable to find another such tolerant sidekick anytime soon.

Jude Law’s Watson, meanwhile, earns my undying appreciation by reacting to all this the way any sane, normal man would, which is to say exasperated by his very admiration. He does not make the mistake either of disdaining or of devoting himself to what he does not understand. Again, inexplicably bewildered critics: the canonical Watson is a handsome, athletic, intelligent, reasonably perceptive man, who gets involved with Holmes’ adventures to begin with because he’s bored out of his mind with civilian life. Bingo.

To my mind, it’s the most intimate portrait we’re ever liable to get of either man. This is a movie that assumes you’re watching it because you appreciate Holmes, not some phantom vision of Anglophile nostalgia. To that end, it refuses to insist on itself, which is a big part of what I think the critics are missing. There are no ‘OK, Watson, let’s pause to demonstrate my brilliance by using you as the dopey audience stand-in’ moments here; neither is there the need, beloved of more recent revisionists, to break Holmes down completely into his component neuroses.

The movie simply beats in tune with Holmes’ mind: fitful, fretful, never quite what it seems but always completely confident in itself. Which is, after all, what propelled Doyle’ otherwise silly pulp-magazine stories to legend in the first place.

Yes, some of the obligatory references are awkward, notably Rachel McAdams as a not-too-convincingly capable Irene Adler; then again some, like the re-instatement of the ‘bull pup’ (not to say the ‘patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks on the sitting-room wall’) are clever and lovingly subtle — signs we’re in the sure hands of an Irregular in good standing. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel can build further off that affinity — The Sign of the Four is right out, obviously, but I bet this team could put together a rip-roaring Hound of the Baskervilles…

In which murder can sometimes smell like hot buttered crumpets

So I was thinking about this Agatha Christie post thing – I do that from time to time, thinking – and decided that I wasn’t going to work my way systematically through the entire canon, a la fuzzy little Bully the Wodehouse-obsessed blogging bull. Just because others have heroically blazed the trail doesn’t mean I have to follow them down it, say I. If it means not having to go in-depth on the likes of Elephants Can Remember or The Big Four, I am all for standing off admiring from a distance.

(Truth in blogging: The Big Four isn’t all that bad a book. Just – well, sort of stupid, in that particularly quaint ‘pre-WWII spy thriller’ sort of way that some find totally endearing but which drives me straight up a tree.)

At any rate. What I decided to do, in the end – ie, once I discovered a workable spoiler script, thus eliminating my last hope of procrastinating further – was a series of light ‘appreciations’ of Christies I have known and loved, or at least liked quite a bit. The perspective of the Christie-reader-on-the-street, if you like. A grab-bag of review, comment, reference and snark. More

It’s a mystery to me

Every mystery fan operates off a set of ground rules, in re: what they want from their ideal thriller. There are so many ways to lay out a puzzle, in so many combinations, that it’s nearly impossible even to browse the ‘Suspense’ shelves of the local library without boundaries.

Mine are pretty straightforward: I like the classic stuff. Fair clues and fascinating suspects leading to a satisfyingly logical solution; rather like an old-fashioned garden maze. Years of nurturing my fanhood on an aunt’s Nero Wolfe collection has left me with a fundamental appreciation for the well-turned, economical scene, also the leavening of humour. Characterisation is important, and I will sacrifice clarity of plot to it to a certain extent, but Byzantine literary flourishes can be dispensed with thanks much all the same. Especially if the author is British.

Noting that Raymond Chandler’s books caught on much more quickly in the UK than in the States, Colin Watson in Snobbery With Violence speculates whether years of cozy mysteries ‘had left the British…in greater need of an astringent than the Americans’. Certainly something has happened to sour the national thriller-writing temperament.
I read only in English, so there may be some greater European point I’m missing here; but as far as I can tell the British really don’t seem to like each other much. Honestly.

I know smart, sensible, kind and attractive UK natives exist. I have met several of them personally. So I’m a little baffled by the vague sense of repulsion, both physical and emotional, that suffuses their modern¬†mystery fiction. It’s too pervasive simply to be a stylistic flourish. Suspects are inevitably ‘lank’, ‘spotty’, ‘pasty’;¬† when confronted they are contemptibly hapless at best and unpleasant cowards at worst. All of which is mere grist for the mill of the starring detective, who is himself dragging around enough baggage to make cargo carriers weep with joy.

Barring Ruth Rendell, who has raised the banality of evil to a legitimate art form, it all just seems so spectacularly pointless. More

From the ridiculous to the sublime…

The current audiobook is Jane and the Stillroom Maid, one of the series by Stephanie Barron and read by Kate Reading, and it comes highly recommended indeed.

I’m not ordinarily a huge fan of novelists that use real historical figures. Even if the author is skilled enough – which is very skilled indeed – to incorporate fact into fiction without coming off as annoyingly arch, their affection inevitably starts to come off as blatant hero-worship, what I believe is known these days as a Canon Sue. (As happens to Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding series after awhile, although the first three or four, before Jeremy becomes fairly convinced that his boss is God or the closest earthly equivalent, are still very readable.)

Barron’s Jane Austen pastiches, though, have managed to hold off the pitfalls admirably thus far – given her subject, even extraordinarily. Credit is due to any author who can sketch out a star-crossed romance between Austen and an aristocratic secret agent without giving the reader cause to believe the lady herself would laugh it out of court. More