Archive for The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Crime Does Not Neigh

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , on March 1, 2013 by dcairns

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The best episode of 1971 ITV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, of those I have seen, has to be The Horse of the Invisible, in which Donald Pleasence nimbly impersonates William Hope Hodgson’s psychic investigator Carnacki the Ghost-Finder. In the stories, which I’ve actually read, Carnacki isn’t much of a character, but Pleasence fixes that alright, embodying a sort of early twentieth-century Mulder & Scully rolled up into one bald and blinking package. (Pleasence perfs fall into two categories: those like Blofeld who never blink, and those like Carnacki who blink all the time, as if being spritzed with water by offscreen hands).

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Desiring to mix things up a bit, Hodgson alternated between tales when Carnacki unmasked a Scooby Doo kind of criminal mastermind, parading as phantasm to cloak still more sinister activities, and ones where the ghost was a real, certified-dead supernatural manifestation and not a burglar in a bedsheet. When I tell you that this story involves an invisible horse, galloping around a country house after dark, whinnying in a threatening manner, breaking people’s arms, and opening and closing doors with his translucent hooves, all with the apparent aim of staving off the impending nuptials of amiable young Michele Dotrice, you will naturally wonder whether this equine revenant is the Real McCoy or merely a jealous suitor wearing the front half of a pantomime horse costume and uttering ventriloquial clip-clopping coconut sounds.

I’m not going to spoil it for you, but you may discern a clew in the following image.

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The episode is deeply daft, but Pleasence is riveting, and some of his interactions with Dotrice get some human feeling going, an almost unheard-of thing in frock-coated drama shot on videotape.

The series, with its lilting kazoo theme-tune and crepe side-whiskers, got me wondering about other Victorian sleuths who have been denied their fair shake. Surely a follow-up series is overdue? Surely Nigel Havers needs a retirement plan to support him in his twilight years?

While the original run of the show gave dramatic meet to forgotten literary figures like Dixon Druce, Romney Pringle, “Gaylord,” Professor Van Drusen, Lietenant Hoist, Archduke Othmar and Lady Molly, there are still other popular fiction investigators lurking unadapted. Let’s meet some of them.

Crammond Guffey. Ernest Bramah may have given us the first blind private eye, Max Carrados, but it was left to Sanford Stoor to create the first deaf-mute detective. Guffey’s habit of interrogating witnesses with a series of scribbled notes allowed Stoor to present his stories in epistolary form, and if he had a weakness, it was his tendency to use Guffey’s appalling handwriting to conceal clews from the reader. For instance, in The Concussed Seamstress Affair, a misleading reference to a “flung boat-hook” turns out to actually have meant a “forlorn beach-house,” causing the reader confusion and some frustration.

Lord Jocelyn Spock. This titled crime-solver, created by Eugene Laudenberry, was part English Lord and part Vulcan. His emotionless alien brain, coupled with his nerve pinching and mind-melding abilities, were a great help to him in his part-time detecting career, which usually involved infractions in the game of whist.

Dr. Eustace Criminy. Evelyn Parpe’s irascible criminologist relies on the science of phrenology, the reading of bumps on the head, as his infallible means of detecting the guilty. However, his liberal use of the cudgel or blackjack to create these bumps has alarmed some critics, who feel it is much too easy to simply diagnose the guilty party with a noticeable swelling on the base of the skull, then whack the nearest butler over the cranium with a lead pipe and have him dragged to the gallows as culprit. Still, the stories provide a charming insight into (largely) obsolete methods of jurisprudence.

Fabrice Febreeze. This French chef, created by Augusta Thresher in a popular series of novels/recipe books, fights crime through the medium of cookery. All his cases involve murders committed in kitchens, pantries, larders, the private dining rooms of continental restaurants, or butcher’s windows, and the assailants always use breadknives, meat cleavers, tenderizers, frying pans or sharpened spatulae. The eccentric but brilliant culinary shamus tends to solve his cases using sauces, or occasionally just herbs: in The Hollandaise Outrage he unmasks a professional assassin using only parsley.

Spionel Ditch. In an age when eccentricity and disability were often used to make detectives more colourful and memorable to the public, Leon Erst’s once celebrated sleuth is even more distinctive than most. Legless, one-eyed, stuttering, lisping, afflicted with violent muscular spasms and equipped with a third nipple (on his forehead), Ditch was also blessed with an eidetic memory, a hypnotic sway over the lower animals, and X-ray vision. Where Erst erred on the side of implausibility, it has been suggested, was in making him a master of disguise. For interested readers, The Case of the Blurry Turtle is probably a good story to start with.

Jasper Papageorgiou, the Spelunking Detective. Anticipating both Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and John Dickson Carr’s Dr Gideon Fell, Papageorgiou, the creation of Elizabeth Gaskell writing as Alan Funt, was a gigantically fat man, with the added wrinkle that he solved murders committed exclusively in caves. Working beneath the earth’s surface, he was placed at a marked disadvantage by his morbid obesity, which resulted in him getting jammed fast in a tunnel in every single story (perhaps for this reason, Gaskell/Funt wrote only three). The plot contrivances necessary to allow the bloated bloodhound to crack each case while wedged in a narrow crevice were so exhausting to his creator that she ultimately killed him off, not with a plummet from the Reichenbach Falls, or the expected cave-in, but with a combination of volcanic eruption and daggers. As a result of a gigantic letter-writing campaign by readers of Strand Magazine, he stayed dead.

Blind Tuesday: Max Carrados Investigates

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2013 by dcairns

It’s high time I did another “blind person in jeopardy” post, I was just thinking, so here we go.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was an ITV series of 1971-2 based around the idea that Victorian London was swarming with sleuths, and maybe some of them were interesting enough to warrant televisual treatment of their own. The show ran for two series, with an amazing roster of guest stars impersonating the forgotten flatfoots (flatfeet?), but as to whether any of them really deserve to be called “rivals” of the Baker Street genius, one would have to fall back on the old Scottish verdict of “not proven.”

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In The Case of the Mirror of Portugal, Peter Vaughn Vaughan plays Arthur Morrison’s shady private eye Horace Dorrington, a shameless crook who defrauds his customers, his only saving grace being that he gives the money to charity. Or so we’re supposed to believe. Vaughan is always good at playing menace, fake bonhomie and overbearing ebullience shading into aggression, and these qualities combine with his threatening bulk to rob the character of any lightness he might have had. He quips archly with clients about the deaths of family members, though this is meant to be excused by the customers being foreign and therefore devoid of true family feeling; he’s also a merciless taskmaster with his quavering staff (Kenneth Colley and Petronella Barker). Of course, Holmes was lacking in some of the social graces, but he stood for something, damnit. Reason, possibly.

The episode does feature a touchingly young Jeremy Irons and a heartbreakingly alive Paul Eddington.

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James Cossins (left) and John Neville.

A Message from the Deep Sea stars John Neville, Baron Munchausen himself, as Dr Thorndyke — no relation to Mel Brooks’ headshrinker in HIGH ANXIETY, but certainly a close relative of Edinburgh physician Dr Joseph Bell, who inspired Sherlock Holmes in the first place. He’s another arrogant dick, but thanks to Neville’s elegant playing the show’s final scene turns on a dime from plea for preserving the sanctity of the crime scene, to something rather poetic and mysterious. Neville’s dreamy quality must be what commended him to Gilliam.

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And so to Max Carrados, Ernest Bramah’s blind detective, essayed by Robert Stephens with plummy relish in The Case of the Missing Witness, just after he took the role of Holmes himself (played with a touch of Oscar Wilde) in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES — my favourite Holmes movie. I didn’t think this story made the best use of a blind detective — Fred Zinnemann’s EYES IN THE NIGHT has a good handle on the idea, and I also enjoyed Dario Argento’s CAT O NINE TAILS for its investigations by Karl Malden. Carrados is smart, but this particular plot depends on him happening to meet a key witness at just the time he’s establishing a false alibi for a Fenian terrorist, so the heavy hand of coincidence rather spoils my engagement in Carrados and his brilliance. In fact, I don’t even require him to be brilliant — I would love to see a blind detective based on Mr. Muckle in IT’S A GIFT, rampaging around the crime scenes smashing everything in (everybody else’s) sight, while Dr Thorndyke looks on aghast. Why has no commissioning editor put this on air, starring Robson Green? Since all the other Holmes rivals are a bunch of horrible swine, why not the one who at least has a disability in mitigation? Probably people will still feel sorry for him so he might as well flail about violently and smack them in the face.