Friday, August 22, 2008

Edinburgh by Gaslight

I am a Sherlock Holmes nut. Now, my knowledge is not encyclopedic of all things Holmes-ian or Sir Arthur; I couldn't rattle off all sorts of minor trivia such as how many steps are on the stoop of 221-B. I don't take him so seriously that it hinders my enjoyment of movies like Without a Clue or Young Sherlock Holmes. However, I love reading Doyle's stories of the Great Detective as well as other works of his such as Rodney Stone, The Lost World and various short story collections. I enjoy reading the various pastiches to varying degrees, especially August Derleth's Solar Pons stories that grew beyond that limitation. I have all sorts of books with Holmes and about Holmes, some by Doyle and some not. My enjoyment of Doyle's stories led me to reading other detective fiction of the time as well as modern writers takes on Victorian era mysteries such as Anne Perry's wonderful Mr. Monk series. My favorite actor in the role of Holmes has to be Jeremy Brett in the great Granada produced series. However, I've developed a fondness for the Ronald Howard and Howard Marion-Crawford series. Jonathan Pryce does a good job as a slightly older version of the character in The Bakerstreet Irregulars. Matt Frewer and Rupert Everett are best left forgotten as are most others with American actors in the role. One can only wonder what we're going to see in 2010 from Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey, Jr.

I also enjoy shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, Law & Order. Of late, I couldn't help but think that a great show would be something that combined the two genres, a mystery series set in Victorian times dealing with the science and culture of the times. Something not too dissimilar to Caleb Carr's book The Alienist.

This is all a lead-in to the fact that last weekend my gal checked out of the library a two-disc DVD set of a British series called "Murder Rooms". Not included was the pilot, this contained 4 episodes: The Patient's Eyes, The Photographer's Chair, The Kingdom of Bones, and The White Knight Strategm. I'd never heard of the series, at its core is the fact that Doyle based Holmes on his medical professor Dr. James Bell who during an examination could proceed to give a life history of the patient based on observation and deductive reasoning. It's not a big leap then for a creative writer to come up with stories that team the two in a Holmes and Watson relationship and involve them in mysteries of their own. Indeed, Doyle has appeared in books such as Frost's The List of Seven, though with a different Holmes stand-in. This series of 90-minute mysteries are based on such a series of mystery novels.

The first disc with "The Patient's Eyes" and "The Photographer's Chair" are the better two I think. They also are a bit spookier with a heavier feel of menace that pervades them. The first starts off shortly after Doyle has graduated from medical school and starting his practice as a doctor. He has as an attractive patient with eye trouble and she talks about how she is often followed by a mysterious bicycler along an otherwise deserted remote road. This is also the set-up of the Holmes story "The Solitary Cyclist", one of his better I feel. While the set-up is definitely familiar, the story goes in other directions.

"The Photographer's Chair" deals with dead bodies appearing with signs of being bound and choked. When one victim's brother says that his sister will appear in a seance and prove his innocence, we start venturing towards the supernatural. Heavy in this show is Doyle's own struggles with the senseless death of his wife from some time before. The wound here seems so raw, yet this sadness is absent in the other episodes. But, it provides a rationale and foundation for Doyles fascination with spiritualism later in life.

"The Kingdom of Bones" has a great set-up as the unwrapping of an ancient mummy reveals a not so distant murder. We meet a character that is very reminiscent of Doyle's Professor Challenger especially in his disdain for the press, a reference to "the giant rat of Sumatra" and even a bit of boxing. However, it's a bit more adventure oriented than mystery.

"The White Knight Strategm" switches gears as it involves Doyle travelling back to Edinburgh in order to help Bell with a case. We also meet Doyle's father, touched upon in the previous episode, who is in an asylum. There is a strange and uncomfortable question raised about the treatment of family when they become ill and cannot support themselves. A detective on the case that Doyle and Bell butt heads with is supporting his wife who had suffered such a severe stroke she is barely cognizant of surroundings and must be hand fed. He does so out of duty and vows as opposed to sending her to an asylum such as Doyle's own paranoid delusional father is in. You see the moral conflict in Doyle's face, the detective's words and actions come across partly as unintended judgment and condemnation. The episode ends with hints of more but as this has been seven years ago, and the actor playing Bell passed away in February '07.

The lead actors, Charles Edwards as Doyle and Ian Richardson as Bell, are great in their roles. They seem more real than Watson and Holmes as they should be. Doyle is smart and clever, not quite so the blunderer as Watson. Bell is intelligent but very human and prone to human mistakes and humor. He's not as artificially arrogant, emotionally blunted or theatrically flamboyant as Holmes could be. The friendship between the two come off as genuine and heartfelt, it would be hard to watch the pilot with a different actor as Doyle, the two play off each other so well here. It is interesting to note that the dvd case lists comic-book based movies for each of the two in telling who they are. Charles Edwards had a small role in Batman Begins while Richardson who has had a long and lustrous career is credited with a role in From Hell. Richardson also played Holmes himself in 1983 productions of The Sign of Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles (That has to be up there for one of the most filmed novels of all time. Please stop) and the voice of Doyle in the tv series The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. The role that most Americans will remember of my generation will probably be that of the Rolls Royce owner stopping other drivers and asking "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?"


Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds: This is pretty much the only Final Crisis mini I'll be getting. And it's mainly because of the work by stellar artist George Perez. When you have a book with this big a scope and this many superheroic characters, Perez is not only the natural choice, he's really about the only choice. If there is any drawback to the series, it's I have to echo Superboy-Prime's sentiments that the older Legion costumes are better than this Emo-Legion. Lightning Lad's long-haired bad boy look, ugh. And, when did he get so whiny? Is there a sleeve shortage in the future? I was never a big fan of Cockrum's art, but most of his costume designs were near perfect. Poor Timber Wolf and Polar Boy tend to look worse with each re-boot.

Guardians of the Galaxy: SI catches up the GG team, for no real reason other than it's crossover-itis. Normally, this title would seem a natural for the skrulls to show up in, but with their big push on Earth and all of the titles that resolve around it, it just seems a little forced to have it also hijack the storyline of this book that takes place nowhere near Earth and has very little to with the happenings on Earth. Otherwise, it has some good plot bits and mistrust is sown, not just because of the possibility of a skrull spy in their midst. However, if you are just trying the title out, you might be a little disappointed because this is an all-subplot issue as various little intrigues, mysteries and situations are set up, but not much real story to it, it's akin to watching a random episode of a soap opera.

Justice League of America: An ok issue. The pacing seems a little strange after the build-up of Amazo as a threat and he's taken out halfway through the comic so that we can move on to the resolution of Vixen's change in powers and ends with a cook-0ut with Buddy "Animal Man" Baker and family. The big shock, emotional cliffhanger of an ending? Vegetarian Buddy eating fried chicken without realizing it.

Secret Invasion: Thor: Matt Fraction does a very good job here, no decompressed storytelling. He sets up the human drama as Don Blake examines a pregnant woman who goes into labor when something strikes the nearby hidden Asgard. He wonderfully juxtaposes the tensions on Earth and Asgard: as the situation in Asgard worsens with news of imminent attacks by the Skrulls and the Asgardians prepare for war, we see the repercussions reflect in the terror of the pregnant woman wondering where her doctor is and people reacting to the storms that are designed to actually protect them from the terror of witnessing gods going to war. What happens on the epic scale is reflected by what's happening on the mundane and we have a Thor with duties to both. Luckily, we also have Beta Ray Bill. Braithwaite's sketchy art works well here in also capturing the real-world rural countrysides and the viking gods of Asgard. Indeed, it was his artwork that attracted me to trying out the title.

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