I want to thank Dani, my intrepid assistant, for filling in for me here last week and for keeping the shop running efficiently in my absence. As to the blog post, when one says to an employee “Will you?” one is never sure that it’s not being heard as “You will,” but either way I think she enjoyed the opportunity to write about her convention after listening to all of the mystery fans here go on about Bouchercon. I’m sure she also enjoyed being free of me for nine days.
The holiday was our annual trip to London to visit our son, who lives and works there. Dedicated Anglophile that I am, I am happy to have this excuse to get to the UK regularly. Kevin and his partner, Claire, always manage to plan a “little” side trip that turns into an exciting excursion. They could have careers as travel planners if the energy industry begins to bore them. Last year it was Scotland, and the opportunity to meet our own Lynne Patrick on the way. This year it was Provence, as Claire wanted to show us her country. Having just arrived back two days ago, I am still full of the sunshine and warmth of southern France, and could go on about the scenery, the ancient hill towns, the beaches, and finding in Claire’s mother a fellow book and mystery lover. I knew there was some reason those two found each other. I got clued in to several French mystery authors, so you may find a switch from the Scandinavians in my future posts.
One pleasant surprise was arriving in London on October 15 and learning that October 17 was the opening of an exhibit at the Museum of London: “Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die.” There was time to see this exhibit after our return from France, so instead of boring you with the glamor of the Cote d’Azur, I will linger a bit in Victorian London.
The best term to describe the exhibit is “atmospheric.” In addition to some of Conan Doyle’s original manuscripts and the original lithographs of Sidney Paget’s illustrations, there were photos and paintings from the period, depicting the “dense yellow fog settled on London.” One began to feel the shadowy world in which Sherlock’s villains operated.
Entering a door numbered “221B,” one is treated to examples of the forensic tools available to Mr. Holmes, with appropriate references to the stories: an early typewriter, for the unique imprint of each letter; newspapers, open to the crime stories and personal ads through which sinister plots were uncovered by the genius detective; hats, shoes, and clothing of the times which the master of disguises used to go undercover; and chemical apparatus for determining the origin of clues such as mud or ashes. A display of codes was particularly fascinating; included were examples of Pitman shorthand, with the English Book of Common Prayer “translated.” Commentary about the army of young women who found employment through typing and shorthand skills was food for thought. There were also the requisite violin and drug paraphernalia, along with other evidence of a Bohemian existence.
One section was dedicated to the stage, film and television versions of the Great Detective, ending, of course, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s incarnation of Sherlock. Throughout the entire exhibit, there were screens with clips from early films alternating with clips from the current BBC interpretation. Seeing Basil Rathbone in the role again, I was reminded of the late nights I spent while young watching the Sherlock movies. It occurred to me that at the time there were only three stations to choose from, but always something good to watch. Why is it that now, with hundreds of choices, I can never find anything that I want to see?
Sherlock Holmes could not have gotten around London without the hansom cab. At one point, there are three maps of London with moving arrows showing his route in a particular chase or investigation. Next to each is a screen showing the same route from a car-mounted camera in today’s city. The city is brighter and cleaner, but no less crowded.
In a section on Arthur Conan Doyle’s life, there is much made of his admiration for Edgar Allan Poe, and of the fact that Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock because he felt it was distracting from his “serious” writing. My thoughts went to recent posts here about Wilkie Collins and Anna Katharine Green. I had to admit to myself that Collins and Green may have been the pioneers of the detective novel, but it was the short story writers who really got the genre going. And that, even then, the “fun” writing was belittled by many, including its creators. But it sold! Doyle ultimately had to resurrect Sherlock.
The subtitle of the exhibit is “The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die.” As I left the museum, I realized that I felt for the first time as if Sherlock Holmes was, and is, a living person. It’s time to reacquaint myself after many years. Basil? Benedict? The stories? Where to begin?
Note: The exhibit is on until April 12, so if anyone of our readers is in London during that time, I would highly recommend a visit. Even if you get to London after this show, the museum is well worth a visit. The history of the city from its primitive beginnings to today is displayed over several floors. On my first foray, I got only to the Great Fire. This time it was Sherlock Holmes. I want to go back to again … and again.