****Jack the Ripper: Case Closed

Doyle and WildeBy Gyles Brandreth – London’s 1888 Whitechapel Murders have provided seemingly endless inspiration for authors’ speculation. Latest in this parade of theorists exploring the grisly deaths of five prostitutes is a former Conservative member of Britain’s Parliament, actor, and broadcaster who uses the real-life friendship between playwright Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle as his premise.

Six years after the Jack the Ripper murders, these two luminaries are brought into the investigation by another real-life character, Metropolitan Police CID Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten. Why them? Most of Macnaghten’s chief suspects are known to Wilde and, the detective says, “you are a poet, a Freemason and a man of the world. All useful qualifications for the business at hand.”

The police are resurrecting their failed investigation for several reasons. Because Macnaughten is writing a definitive report and would like to provide a conclusion. Because he wants to end speculation about the identity of the killer, which, in the absence of a convincing alternative, even occasionally extends to the late Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. And, because a new murder has occurred that bears all the hallmarks of a Ripper case, except that the body was found not in Whitechapel but in Chelsea. More particularly, in the alley behind Tite Street, where Wilde and Macnaghten have their homes.

Whether you fully buy into the plausibility of this notion, you cannot deny that it makes for an entertaining read, as Brandreth is able to draw on the wide and diverse acquaintanceships Wilde had among members of London society, high and low. He does a creditable job of eliminating Macnaghten’s weaker suspects—the suicide John Druitt, the spiritualist Walter Wellbeloved, and actor Richard Mansfield. He avails himself of opportunities to mention Wilde’s friend, the painter Walter Sickert, briefly considered a suspect in real life. (As evidence of the long half-life of Jack the Ripper theories, American mystery author Patricia Cornwell produced her second book attempting a case against him last February.) Brandreth then constructs a scenario in which the more unsavory suspects and some new players can cavort.

Brandreth has written six other mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and his circle, sometimes including Doyle, and he knows his principal character and their London milieu well. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s plays, you’ll recognize various lines in the witty epigrams he’s constantly spouting. Brandreth liberally butters the narrative with other literary allusions as well. There’s even a character named Bunbury, and you know what happened to him.

As to the clever resolution and identification of “the real Jack,” this may not be so satisfactory. The motivation is weak and the method (which I cannot reveal as it would be a spoiler) is now discredited, though it was thought effective in the Victorian era. These issues, which would be serious in a contemporary crime thriller, are almost beside the point in this book. It’s a case of the journey being more important—and entertaining—than the destination.

Chicago Theater Treat

Sherlock Holmes

Michael Aaron Lindner (as Arthur Conan Doyle) and Nick Sandys (as Sherlock Holmes) contemplating “A Three-Pipe Problem”

Hey there, Chicago-land readers and visitors: For a fun time, see The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes, a lively musical on stage at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Avenue, through March 20. The book is by popular Chicago theater stalwart John Reeger, with music and lyrics by Michael Mahler and the late Julie Shannon. Plot, acting, musical numbers, and singing voices—all super!

The story has two main strands (sorry, Sherlockians!). The first deals with the outraged aftermath when Arthur Conan Doyle published “The Final Problem,” a short story in which Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor James Moriarty are said to die in a plunge over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. Doyle was sick of Holmes and wanted to write something else, but The Great Detective’s fans were furious.

The second thread, also drawn from real life, covers Doyle’s own efforts at crime-solving in the case of solicitor George Edalji. Edalji was the son of an Indian vicar and Scottish mother, none of whom were well accepted in their small Staffordshire village of Great Wyrley. George was falsely accused of harming a number of horses and served three years’ hard labor before Doyle’s and others’ campaign led to his pardon.

If Edalji’s story sounds familiar, it was explored in the 2005 novel, Arthur and George by British author Julian Barnes (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), and a UK television series last year. The Mercury theater production differs from the television version in that it brings in Sherlock Holmes himself, channeled by Doyle, and proposes a different solution.

The entire 13-member cast was strong, especially singling out Nick Sandys (Sherlock Holmes), Michael Aaron Lindner (Doyle), McKinley Carter (Louise Doyle), and Christina Hall (Molly Jamison). Sandys and Lindner even physically resemble the characters they play! Having a live five-piece orchestra added immensely to the enjoyment. Energetic and well staged by director Warner Crocker.

Mr. Holmes

Ian McKellen, Mr. Holmes, Sherlock

Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes

In Mr. Holmes (trailer), it’s post-war England, and the elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), lives on a remote property on the Sussex coast. He tends his bees and shuns detecting, ever since the tragic conclusion of his last case some 35 years earlier. But he’s bothered by John Watson’s account of the case and a movie about it, both of which got the wrong end of the stick.

Between stretches of mentoring his housekeeper’s young son Roger in the details of managing an apiary, avoiding his housekeeper (played to a “T” by Laura Linney), who is apprehensive his declining physical state and advancing dementia will soon be too much for her to handle, trying unproven botanical memory aids, and enjoying terrific view of Seven Sisters white cliffs, Holmes has taken pen in hand to write his own record of that final case. Its details are elusive and come back to him only in fits and starts.

The movie is based on a 2005 literary mystery by Mitch Cullin, A Slight Trick of the Mind, which “is not a detective story; it’s a work of literary fiction, and as such it’s much more interested in the mysteries Holmes can never solve,” said Salon reviewer Laura Miller.

Director Bill Condon obtained fine performances by McKellen and Linney, as well as the strong supporting cast, including Roger Allam (who plays Holmes’s doctor), Milo Parker (Roger), Hattie Moraham (as the principal in his last case), and Hiroyuki Sanada (who provides Holmes some of his botanicals, but issues his own challenge to the aging detective). Late in life, that challenge teaches Holmes an important lesson.

For my taste there was too much aging and not enough mystery. Perhaps Monsters and Critics’ Ron Wilkinson captured the problem when he wrote, “A charming but fatally slow exposition.” Too, more should have been done cosmetically to differentiate the 93-year-old Holmes from the flashbacks of him at age 58.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences, 78%.

***Ellery Queen – February to May 2015

Sherlock Holmes, detective

(photo: wikimedia)

The short stories in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine sometimes lead me to authors whose books I also enjoy. Here are several of the stories I especially liked from the February, March/April, and May 2015 issues:

  • Terence Faherty’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip”—a Sherlock Holmes parody—very entertaining. Faherty is an award-winning mystery writer with two long-running series. His most recent stand-alone novel, The Quiet Woman, set in Ireland, was published last year. [February issue]
  • “Leap of Faith” by Brendan DuBois about the lengths a boy will go to in order to protect his sister. DuBois’s most recent book is Fatal Harbor (2014) features his “fascinating character” (Boston Globe), former Defense Department analyst Lewis Cole.[February issue]
  • Loren D. Estleman’s story, “The Black Spot,” has hitman Peter Macklin doing clean-up for a Detroit-area mafia chieftain. Estleman’s 2014 book Don’t Look for Me is book 23 in a series featuring Detroit private investigator Amos Walker, “who views a dishonest world with a cynical eye—and is still disappointed” (Booklist).[March/April]
  • In “The Lovers of Traber,” private eye Willie Cuesta travels from the Miami he inhabits in Pulitzer-winning journalist John Lantigua’s crime novels to a rural Florida farming area to sort out a romantic interest gone too far afield. His most recent Latin-flavored book is On Hallowed Ground. [March/April]
  • Art Taylor’s first-person story “Commission” is told with a good sense of humor and will appear this fall in his book of short stories, On the Road with Del and Louise. [May]
  • “A Loneliness to the Thought,” by Michael Caleb Tasker, is set in New Orleans, with a teenage narrator whose life has that amber-enclosed feel of adolescence, while a series of murders takes place in the city. Nice evocation of place. Watch for his short stories. [May]

Always an entertaining read and available digitally from Amazon, B&N, Google Play, Kobo, Apple iPad, and Magzter.


Baskerville, McCarter

Lucas Hall & Gregory Wooddell in Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville

In the fan fic spirit I wrote about yesterday, the current production at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, Baskerville, is a yet another take on the perennial Sherlock Holmes favorite.

Playwright Ken Ludwig wrote this version as a romp through the moors. Aside from the commercial differences with fan fic, another difference–and one that weakens the show–is that it so closely follows the original tale (“canon” in the fan fic vocab). Ludwig doesn’t have the freedom for farce of his Lend me a Tenor or Moon over Buffalo. Though it lacks fic’s mind-bending flights of fantasy, the production is massively entertaining, nonetheless, and no doubt some audiences prefer a retelling versus a reimagining.

The two main characters are ably played by Lucas Hall (Dr. Watson), who has the occasional chance to mug at the audience when encountering some particular absurdity, and Gregory Wooddell (Holmes). Ludwig has written both of these parts mostly as foils for the other actors, and they often come across as excessively bland. All the other characters, whether playing significant roles or walk-ons, whether servants or opera stars, whether German or Castilian, are played by Jane Pfitsch, Stanley Bahorek, and Michael Glenn. This calls for manic pacing and lightning fast costume changes, which become part of the fun. Can they do it? Pfitsch calculates that during a week of this production she makes 200 costume changes.

An early decision was to make this a fully costumed show, giving every character a full outfit, as if they were on stage for twenty minutes, not two. Costume “stations” are set up all around backstage, and a specific costume is positioned where a player will exit or enter. Often two costumers help get the old off and the new on—sometimes over the old outfit, sometimes as the character is walking. Michael Glenn wears the same shirt throughout, but has individual neckties for each character he plays. With no time to tie them, the secret is magnets.

The crew that enables all the costume changes and special effects to occur precisely on time deserves special recognition. The production makes full use of McCarter’s generous under-stage traproom with its elevators and hoses for smoke and fog effects and has other surprises in store.

Baskerville is a co-production with Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, and although it was rehearsed and the effects all mapped out here in Princeton, it played in D.C. first. You don’t have much time: It closes March 29. Tickets here.

London Calling

Sherlock Holmes, London

(photo: wikimedia)

The Museum of London has a new exhibit that will have mystery lovers dusting off their passports. “Sherlock Holmes: The man who never lived and will never die” will be on view until April 12, 2015. If you can get there by Friday, November 21, you can participate in “Late London: Sherlock’s City,” a multipart event that includes mind games, improv, theater, and liquid refreshment. There are archaeology events, a Sherlock Holmes walking tour, and much more planned. During Dickens’s 200th birthday celebration in 2012, the Museum of London offered a terrific exhibit. This promises to be as good.

The Sherlock Holmes Museum claims the address of 221B Baker Street (but is actually between 237 and 241). In Conan Doyle’s day, the street did not extend into the 220’s. The entity (now closed) that actually did have his address had to employ a full-time secretary to open and respond to the voluminous correspondence sent to Holmes there.

Or, branch out a bit with the Mystery Reader’s Walking Guide: London – Second edition. I have the first edition (also available), and it’s a tantalizing neighborhood-by-neighborhood tour where favorite fictional detectives—even modern ones—have encountered deadly doings. Enjoy!