Bows and Bees

Everyone loves a good Hound of the Baskervilles or Study in Scarlet. But for a true Sherlock superfan, true insight awaits in Doyle's final stories, and their only complete radio broadcast.

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I harbor a host of dreams — “ambitions” seems too vulgar a word to me — that, were they to be realized, would crystalize in something very quiet, contained, at ease, and not especially splashy so far as dreams go, but indicative of a repast that comes with more obvious victories. There will be me in a house by a rocky, cliff-strewn shore. It will be two in the morning — or it always seems to be, in my daydreams of my dream — with low-level lighting as I sit up in a room not unlike one of those quaint old projecting structures at the top of early 19th-century homes where the women of the house gathered and looked seaward for the men of the house. I’ll have a dram of Laphroaig whisky atop the converted lobster trap table by my side, a set of Liszt Paganini études playing at low volume, a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories will be upon my lap, and I will sit, and read, until I fear the sun is about to come intruding upon my coastal Eden with its first ocean brightening rays. 

There is also a slightly tweaked variation on this dream of mine that has been developing. I think Sherlock Holmes himself would understand my thought process here, especially were I amenable to swapping out the converted lobster trap table with a credenza befitting his rooms at 221B, and likewise trading the dram of Laphroaig for a more punchy stimulant, and losing the Liszt Paganini études for a sampling of the violin virtuoso’s own music. So in that same spirit of what Holmes might regard as a kind of Anglo Swap, a sort of variation on the Yankee Swap so many of us have taken part of at Christmas, I should add that there are many nights when I would opt for the only complete version of Sherlock Holmes stories — of which there are 56 — and novels — of which there are four — ever committed to tape.

I am a Sherlock Holmes fiend. Where the detective goes, in whatever iteration, I will follow, at least for a look. Even as pertains to the Robert Downey Jr. films, which I hoped to be surprised by, or, at alternately, to have found a clever, B movie type approach to the character and the relationship at the core of all of the Holmes works. Which, really, is more important than the detective himself or any sleuthing that went down in the thwarting of fake humpbacks, evil geniuses, or red headed leagues. I’ve written professionally about the BBC series Sherlock, and wished to be able to make claims for it at the level of the first two Basil Rathbone Holmes pictures — The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (both 1939) — and Martin Freeman might be my favorite living actor. He’s up there, anyway. But I couldn’t hang out with his Doctor John Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes as I wished to, and in came a brace of questions.

Why do the Holmes stories, and the finest adaptations, work as well as they do? Because they’re so well plotted? Tell me: would you return to something again and again, reread it over and over again, if your main reason for doing so was the plot? Or would you require something more? Why do you hang out with your friends? Do they ever have new tales to blow your mind with? Or do you hang out with them because hanging out with them is amidst the most crucial parts of your relationship, because you can be yourself, feel accepted, feel bonhomie, and, as they say, pick up where you last left off, picking up implying both familiarity, and something new.

Often, that something new is more time in a setting with people who make you feel a way that you feel most yourself and which best suits you. That is what Holmes and Watson do, for all of the Moriarty problems in need of troubleshooting. We all come to 221B, just as they do. And in their relationship with each other, and yours with each of them, individually and in tandem, we all come together. And as any Holmes buff will attest, that feels damn good, and damn human. More human, I’d wager, than we tend to feel when we’re not in those settings, picking up where we last left off, and moving forward in solid, and never stolid, company.

I listen to a lot of Sherlock Holmes radio productions. There have been huge masses of them. Rathbone and Bruce did them for years in the 1940s, but they tend to be fusty, and Nigel Bruce’s buffooning of Watson has always been a turn off to me. I am not sure if Holmes is the most admirable character in literature, but he’s a contender; having said that, while you esteem him more — for this is what we do with geniuses — you like Watson more still, in large part because he understands that genius cannot be understood, but that it can be cultivated by the non-genius all the same, provided that non-genius has a humility that, I daresay, flirts with its own kind of genius. One born of a questing spirit, empathy, and a desire to grow. A genius of the soul, rather than the mind. Some few people in history have both. But in the Doyle universe, it took two to make that one.

The excellent Granada TV series from the 1980s featured two Watsons, in David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, who got this, in turn launching Jeremy Brett — my choice for the definitive Holmes — into realms so Holmesian that you come away thinking, “those dudes were out there once, they looked just like that, they sounded just like that, they lived.” Of course they didn’t, but that’s how the best ones make you think when you are all in the same moment together.

And to that end, I must submit Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, and their complete run of Holmes radio productions. Rathbone and Bruce didn’t use the canonical texts, and you get snippets of this story here, a red herring from this other one flown in there, the fruit salad approach to Conan Doyle’s detective-and-his-best-mate corpus.

Merrison, Williams, and a litany of character actors, sound effects makers, scripters, violinists even, and bit players made their Holmes recordings between 1989 and 1998 for the BBC. No one had done this before — or has since — for a number of reasons, I imagine. It’s a big ass task, for starters, and let’s be honest, while you can’t go wrong in killing twenty minutes with a Holmes story, most people traffic in the perennials: Hound, “The Final Problem,” “The Empty House,” “The Speckled Band,” A Study in Scarlet, “The Dancing Men.” No one gravitates to something like “The Last Bow,” for instance, in these endeavors, but should my set of dreams result in my quiet, contained, at ease, and not especially splashy dream, it may be the Merrison/Williams take on “His Last Bow” that I first fire up as the clock strikes two.

Doyle intended this to be the last Holmes work he would write. Wasn’t the first time this had been his plan, with the whole over-the-cliffs bit in “The Final Problem,” which came out in 1893 and was set in 1891. “His Last Bow” is set in August 1914, which means we’re marking the centennial of the month and the year in which Doyle planned to leave his, and just about anyone’s, most famous creation.

We tend not to think of Holmes as carrying on into the WWI era, but he actually went beyond it, with the final collection, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, coming out in 1927. Which is to say, the year Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs. I am betting you know someone living now who was living then. Nuts, right? That notion of a casebook has always been so apt to me. What is humanity and observed humanity but a casebook for the willing learner, the accumulator of truths, trends, signs, ticks, the various modes of communication, and of the silences we deploy as we kick about the same sphere of encrusted stone?

I thought, right, I’m nicking that, and did just so for a subtitle to one of my own books, but what grabs me about this intended final Holmes story, and the eventual radio production, is how we’re going quieter now, with less splash and dash in the mystery, and more insight, were that even possible, between two old friends who — and I have long felt pricked with sadness on this score — hardly see each other anymore. Not because they’re less close as friends. They are, I believe, as close as friends have ever been.

But rather because there is life, and life is a process of taking things that are close together and moving them further and further apart. New proximities are realized with similarly displaced things, and the process repeats. The best of friends remain so, across the memories of the various groups and degroupings they’ve experienced since their earlier days of living nose to nose. When they come together, once again, that process of picking up where things have been left off resumes.

I think this is one of the more telling ways that you know you love someone. And that they love you. And that, when we are speaking in terms of books, characters, and radio productions, they are all-timers, the beat-all lasters, the perpetual visitants with a ready answer whenever the gods get to arguing about what it means to be most fully human.

Merrison is a fairly warm Holmes. He clearly has a blast with the delicious sounds he gets to sample, but he’s less theatrical than Jeremy Brett could be, his voice extending the syllables in some words and then tersely delivering others. He jokes some, but you get the feeling a joke is always there, just waiting to emerge from the back of the throat, or in a movement of the eye. You sense those as well, which is quite the feat for a radio performer to pull off. You don’t want to know how often I listen to the Merrison/Michaels version of “The Musgrave Ritual,” and if you want a Christmastime treat beyond Charlie Brown, Rudolph, and Jimmy Stewart, try “The Blue Carbuncle.” Full-stop awesome. Actually, you notice some plot holes as you listen along, like with the guy stuffing the jewel of the title in a goose just because he doesn’t want to carry it on his person. Not hugely sensible, but you know what? Who freakin’ cares — the plots are good, but we’re not here for plots. You don’t last and last and last like this, unless you provide an open invitation for a reader, or a listener, in this case, to return again and again. And such an invitation can’t be diagramed. It simply has to be there, and to infuse all parts of the “there,” if you will.

Maybe it’s where I’m at in life right now that has me so locked in on “His Last Bow” and those final stories. I know what my would-be Elysian Fields consist of, and in those last works, and in the very voice of Merrison, we understand how well Holmes has come by his. He is also by the sea, living a solitary life, keeping his bees. The adaptations of “His Last Bow” and other back catalogue stories like “The Lion’s Mane” take liberties with the original texts. Watson isn’t even in the prose version of “The Lion’s Mane,” a tale of a solo Holmes cracking the case of what turns out to be a shore-drifted deadly jellyfish (or as a someone at an aquarium might scold you, a “jelly,” given that there’s nothing fish-like about them; “fishy,” maybe, as one could expect Merrison to crack, doing some Holmesian humor) in between tending to his hives.

The English have a phrase: telling the bees. That is, you speak to the bees, you tell them what’s going down, what you hope to do with your day, who you’re aiming to marry, who was born, who died, who left you, who you’re thinking about visiting again, how your boss is a total pain in the ass. Tell the bees.

Holmes keeps his bees, and I like the idea of them being especially auditory-friendly creatures. And while I don’t think a verb like “tell” would suit Holmes, and Merrison’s Holmes, I could see him being fond of a phrase like “apprising the bees,” and it is easy for me to imagine him telling Watson he has been busy doing just that.

When I listen to Merrison and Williams, and I hear how this relationship of the characters they represent has changed — come together, gone apart, come together again — and you toss in the sonic/radio aspect, I think, hell yeah, tell the bees, good sirs, tell the bees, and listen to what the bees have to tell you. Who is a bee and who isn’t? I don’t know. I think we’re all some version of one, and maybe them of us.

Watson is given to such flights of rumination in these broadcasts. Ever the writer, Doctor Watson. He is chided by his companion, of course, but some forms of chidings are actually promptings to keep going, to keep in search of, if not final answers to final problems, the spirit that keeps the best of men forever searching. The motor, if you will. That which keeps the hive buzzing. The heart, too. And the mind.

So. August 1914 did not see the end of the world’s only consulting detective. But in the Merrison/Williams adaptations that follow on from that point, they do see him plunged into cases of a somewhat more metaphysical nature.

In the production of “The Lion’s Mane,” Holmes says to his friend, “I’ve devoted my life to exploring the dark side of humanity.” You can feel Watson listening, as easily as you can feel yourself doing so. You lean forward. He probably does, too. And then the continuation, and the query:

“What have I missed?”

Not enough people know that a question is always a statement, for to ask one is to say, this may be true, this is a possibility, it is on the table. You can make a lot of hay in this life by asking the right questions. By hay I mean what Holmes is asking after here, and what, by the same token, he is stating. There are more bees to round up, more bees to inform, more bees, of course, to question. He also, I suppose, could have gone with “consult” over “tell,” but I understand how a person might wish to keep apiarian pursuits distinct from that which is spelled out on a mere calling card. • 13 August 2014

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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