Tuesday, February 14, 2012
We’ll get to the philosophical underpinnings, and Liam Neeson’s brilliant performance, in a few paragraphs. First I want to discuss the more technical aspects for a moment, because it really is one of the most incredible examples of immersive filmmaking I’ve ever seen. By the end of the film, my nose was running from the cold even though the temperature level in the theater was perfect, and I felt physically exhausted even though I’d been sitting in a chair for two hours.
I worked in a movie theater for nine years, and I LOVE watching films on the big screen. But I am NOT one of those people who pompously says, “There’s nothing like the theater! TV can’t compare!” That’s rarely true, in my experience. Often I’ll enjoy a film even more watching it in the comfort of my own home. I feel more focused. There’s less fear of missing something, because I control the pacing. I can rewind or pause. My eye can take in a fuller image, without having to run back and forth across the big screen. And heck…even with digital projection, I swear a lot of movies still look better in 1080p on my Blu Ray player.
Having said that, THE GREY is one of the few instances where I fear home viewing won’t measure up. This thing was MADE to be seen in a theater.
The sound design is incredible. The feeling of being surrounded by yipping wolves on all sides, the juicy crunch of a knife slowly cutting through the spine of a wolf carcass, the tranquil babbling of a river, and especially the WIND. The film hardly has any orchestral score--a tough thing to pull off, but something that can really heighten the tension and reality of a film if done right (see Sidney Lumet’s early films, like NETWORK and DOG DAY AFTERNOON). Here, in lieu of music, it’s just constant wind barraging the audience and the characters. This is driven home by the few moments where Neeson dreams of his wife, and experiences pure silence. TOTAL silence--the type of silence most mainstream movies are terrified of. The jarring transition from constant sound to complete silence, then back again, is just one of the many ways the film keeps the audience on its toes.
In terms of visuals, well…there’s snow. White saturating the screen, for two full hours, almost without relief. And on the BIG screen, it’s really overwhelming. You feel like you could go snowblind just watching the damn thing. The plot isn’t complicated, and I guessed the outcome before the movie had started. But the purity of the execution, the way that story is told, made the film truly special for me.
I’m shocked that opinions seem to be so divided on this film. A lot of people apparently thought the character moments, and the film’s underpinning ideas about philosophy and religion, were too heavy-handed. I couldn’t disagree more. The movie is economical in giving us details about the characters, and arguably goes for some easy characterizations (the confrontational ex-con; the Christian dad who wants to see his daughter again). However, they always felt like real people to me.
Part of what made me care about the characters was the aforementioned immersive filmmaking. A terrific example is the journey of Delmot Mulroney’s character across a horizontal rope, strung from the top of a cliff to the top of a pine tree, with a huge drop below. This character is by far the least physically able of the group, and every shot in the sequence was perfectly calculated to make me feel like it was ME sliding across that rope. Every move he made felt like the move I would make, in perfect real-time (right down to the loss of his glasses--so painful I caught myself actually reaching to make sure my own glasses were still on). Brutal. By the end of that, I felt like I’d been through battle with the guy. How could I NOT care about him?
The other thing that makes the characters seem three-dimensional is the performers, and particularly the way they play off one another. There’s an immediacy to the performances that matches the immersive filmmaking. Every death feels like it means something. All the supporting performers react exactly the way they would in real life: not with the overwrought hand-wringing or defensive coolness that actors usually portray in such scenes, but with genuine trauma and horror and pity.
Of course, Liam Neeson steals the show as Ottway. I’d watch him in anything (I’m even considering seeing the terrible-looking BATTLESHIP), but I’m having trouble thinking of another film where he was this damn good. Even in the scenes where he’s almost totally silent (such as a riverside monologue near the end of the film), his silence nearly overpowers the speaking actors. This is no discredit to the other performers (Frank Grillo in particular is really remarkable), but Neeson is such a powerhouse.
He starts the film off as a man suicidal over the loss of his wife (a performance where Neeson obviously delved into some VERY painful parts of his own psyche). Ottway has nothing to look forward to. He despises himself and what he’s become. And yet his survival instinct is stronger than anyone else’s in the group. He’s the one who explains to them that if they think about something they’re looking forward to (seeing a daughter again, getting laid again), it will strengthen their will to live. Help them fight. Yet we never exactly get an answer to what is making HIM fight.
All this relates in some way to his feelings toward God. He doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but he says he desperately wishes he could. There’s a moment early on when he talks to a dying man, comforting him and helping him to let go. This moment is all the more incredible when you realize that, in Ottway’s view, he’s not shepherding the man to the pastures of the next life. He’s pushing him off the cliff of existence, but doing it in the gentlest, noblest, most human way possible. Unlike a lot of religious folk, who focus too much on preparing for what may or may not happen in the next life, Ottway cares deeply about how he treats people in THIS world--even in their last seconds. The act of collecting the dead men’s wallets, to give to the families, is another terrific example of this. Come to think of it, in the opening minutes of the film, he even comforts a wolf in its dying moments! Even though his own life has stopped meaning a damn to him, everyone else around him matters SO much. In some way, maybe what fuels his survival instinct is the knowledge that only he can keep the others alive, due to his expertise. It would be selfish to let himself die.
Or maybe it really is just pure instinct. No matter how much a human man may struggle to tell himself “It’s over…I’m done,” the body is programmed for self-preservation.
As far as the philosophical aspect of the film, I don’t think it’s striving to make any big point. It prods the audience to think a bit, which is admirable, but there’s no argument for or against the existence of a higher power. It only matters in the context of Ottway’s personal psychological journey…and what an interesting journey it is to watch.
If I had one minor complaint about the film, it’s that the CGI wolves are never quite threatening. When the wolves were off-screen, baying and yipping, they were terrifying. But as soon as the wolves would run up alongside our group, or behind it, they looked too slick and well-rendered. The rest of the film is shot in such a basic, natural style (complete with intentionally grainy filmstock) that the CGI wolves, while they look fairly convincing, feel completely out of place. Moreover, the quick-cutting of the wolf attack scenes doesn’t flow well with the rest of the film, which is edited more like something from the ’70s than the post-BOURNE era.
Still, for me, THE GREY has already established itself as a benchmark film this year. I’d recommend that everyone see it while it’s still in the theater. And if you agree with the group who thinks the film was too on-the-nose in its quieter moments, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
I’ve loved the Sherlock Holmes stories since I was a kid. As a seven or eight year old bookworm, I spent many an evening tearing through one Adventure after another. I thought that I was like Sherlock Holmes because we were both tall and thin and kind of solitary (although of course, I wasn’t much like him beyond that). I would imagine myself in his place as I read the stories. Wandering the wide dismal moor with fog so thick I couldn’t see the dead body three feet in front of me. Crouching in complete silence and darkness in a bank vault on a Saturday night, waiting for robbers, while outside Londoners were happily going to the theater and playing whist.
Whatever allure the stories had for me was absent from Guy Ritchie’s 2009 movie, with its “Jack Sparrow” Holmes and bullet-time effects. When they announced he was shooting a sequel, I was inspired to reread the stories for probably the fifth or sixth time in my life, so that I’d be prepared to really pick the film apart when it came out. But I decided I’d do something else as I read. I would try to create a timeline.
Creating a chronology of all the stories is a notoriously impossible task. Better nerds than I have tried and failed. Here’s the thing: Arthur Conan Doyle loved peppering his Sherlock Holmes stories with dates. The dates, coupled with the first-person narration, heighten the reality of Holmes’ world. When Watson references a case beginning in June 1902, shortly after Holmes refused a knighthood, the reader feels like it’s a matter of history. It’s suspension of disbelief at its best. Yet upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that while writing, Doyle consulted his other stories (and a calendar) maybe 50% of the time. That’s the challenge of constructing a history of Sherlock Holmes’ career: is it possible to create order where order was never particularly intended?
More than a year after starting, I find myself with not only a timeline, but extensive explanatory notes that I wrote as I went along. The beauty of the Internet is that someone somewhere may find this of use seven years from now. So in the interest of my time not having been completely wasted, here it is: My Sherlock Holmes Timeline, followed by notes.
TITLE (OR EVENT)
|Summer - 1877 or earlier||The Adventure of the “Gloria Scott”||MEMOIRS|
|1878||Watson graduates M.D. from University of London.|
|July 27, 1880||Watson wounded at the Battle of Maiwand.|
|1881 or earlier||The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual||MEMOIRS|
|March 4, 1883||A Study in Scarlet||A STUDY IN SCARLET|
|April 1883||The Adventure of the Speckled Band||ADVENTURES|
|Oct. 1883||The Adventure of the Resident Patient||MEMOIRS|
|April 14, 1887||The Adventure of the Reigate Squire||MEMOIRS|
|1887||Watson's brother dies.|
|Sept. 1887 (or July 7, 1887)||The Sign of the Four||THE SIGN OF THE FOUR|
|Aug. 1887||The Adventure of the Cardboard Box||HIS LAST BOW|
|Sept. 1887||The Five Orange Pips||ADVENTURES|
|Oct. 1887||The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor||ADVENTURES|
|Jan. 7, 1888||The Valley of Fear||THE VALLEY OF FEAR|
|Early 1888||Watson marries Mary Morstan.|
|March 20, 1888||A Scandal in Bohemia||ADVENTURES|
|1888 (or 1890)||A Case of Identity||ADVENTURES|
|June 1888||The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk||MEMOIRS|
|Late July 1888||The Adventure of the Naval Treaty||MEMOIRS|
|Summer 1888||The Adventure of the Crooked Man||MEMOIRS|
|Autumn 1888 (or July 1888)||The Adventure of the Second Stain||RETURN|
|June 1889||The Boscombe Valley Mystery||ADVENTURES|
|June 19, 1889||The Man with the Twisted Lip||ADVENTURES|
|Summer 1889||The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb||ADVENTURES|
|First 3 weeks of Oct. 1889 (ending on Oct. 19)||The Hound of the Baskervilles||THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES|
|Dec. 27, 1889||The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle||ADVENTURES|
|Early spring 1890||The Adventure of the Copper Beeches||ADVENTURES|
|Oct. 9, 1890 (or June 1890)||The Red-Headed League||ADVENTURES|
|April 24, 1891||The Final Problem||MEMOIRS|
|May 4, 1891||Holmes kills Moriarty, stages his own death at Reichenbach Falls.|
|March 1892 (see notes)||The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge||HIS LAST BOW|
|Circa 1894||Watson's wife passes away.|| |
|April 1894||The Adventure of the Empty House||RETURN|
|Aug. 1894||The Adventure of the Norwood Builder||RETURN|
|Nov. 1894||The Adventure of the Golden Pince-nez||RETURN|
|April 23, 1895||The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist||RETURN|
|Early July 1895||The Adventure of Black Peter||RETURN|
|1895||The Adventure of the Three Students||RETURN|
|Nov. 21, 1895||The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans||HIS LAST BOW|
|Late 1896||The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger||CASE-BOOK|
|Late winter 1897||The Adventure of the Abbey Grange||RETURN|
|March 16, 1897||The Adventure of the Devil's Foot||HIS LAST BOW|
|Late July 1898||The Adventure of the Dancing Men||RETURN|
|Summer 1898||The Adventure of the Retired Colourman||CASE-BOOK|
|May 16, 1901||The Adventure of the Priory School||RETURN|
|June 1902||Holmes refuses a knighthood.|
|Late June 1902||The Adventure of the Three Garridebs||CASE-BOOK|
|Summer 1902||Watson remarries.|
|Sept. 3, 1902||The Adventure of the Illustrious Client||CASE-BOOK|
|Jan. 1903||The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier||CASE-BOOK|
|Summer 1903||The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone||CASE-BOOK|
|Sept. 6, 1903||The Adventure of the Creeping Man||CASE-BOOK|
|Nov. 1903 (or Nov. 1889)||The Adventure of the Dying Detective||HIS LAST BOW|
|Circa late 1903||Holmes retires to the Sussex Downs to keep bees.|
|July 1907||The Adventure of the Lion's Mane||CASE-BOOK|
|Aug. 2, 1914||His Last Bow||HIS LAST BOW|
UNDATED STORIESThese are cases I was not able to place due to a lack of internal evidence. See additional notes below.
|February ~ 1884-1887||The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet||ADVENTURES|
|Autumn ~ 1883-1887||Silver Blaze||MEMOIRS|
|Spring ~ 1883-1887||The Adventure of the Yellow Face||MEMOIRS|
|Summer ~ 1883-1887||The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter||MEMOIRS|
|Winter ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1902||The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton||RETURN|
|June ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1902||The Adventure of the Six Napoleons||RETURN|
|1894-1898-ish||The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter||RETURN|
|Winter ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1902||The Adventure of the Red Circle||HIS LAST BOW|
|~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1902||The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax||HIS LAST BOW|
|Oct. ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1901||The Problem of Thor Bridge||CASE-BOOK|
|Nov. 19 ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1901||The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire||CASE-BOOK|
|~ 1883-1891 or 1894-1903||The Adventure of the Three Gables||CASE-BOOK|
|May ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1902||The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place||CASE-BOOK|
There are 60 Sherlock Holmes stories (four novels and 56 short stories). 24 of the stories explicitly state the year that they occur. These dates are noted in bold on the chart. My thought process in assigning years to the remaining stories is detailed below.
18 of the stories mention exact dates (month and day). Any exact dates in my timeline are taken directly from the stories. In most cases they indicate the day the case begins, although the entire story doesn’t necessarily take place on that date.
24 of the stories mention a season or month, but no year. Any time a month or season is used in my timeline, it’s taken directly from the stories.
I assume that all stories take place before their real-world publication date. Aside from that, publication dates are irrelevant.
NARRATIONAlmost all of the Sherlock Holmes stories are supposedly written by Dr. John H. Watson. Two are written by Holmes (“The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”—which are also the only two stories that don’t feature Watson as a character at all). Two-and-a-half are written by an unidentified third-person narrator (the second half of A Study in Scarlet, “His Last Bow,” and “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”). Watson possibly takes credit for the third-person stories in “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” as he considers the possibility of recounting cases where he was “either not present or played so small a part that they could only be told as by a third person.” (“Thor Bridge” was published as the next story after “His Last Bow” and “Mazarin Stone”).
We know almost nothing of Sherlock Holmes’ family. In “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” he says that he is descended from simple country squires, yet indicates a belief that his brilliant nature is hereditary, as his grandmother was the sister of Émile Jean-Horace Vernet (a real-life French painter who died in 1863). He has a brother, Mycroft, who is seven years older and far more intelligent even than Sherlock, but is incredibly lazy. In adulthood Mycroft works for the British government (“occasionally he is the British government,” according to Sherlock, due to his encyclopedic knowledge of every department). Mycroft never goes anywhere except his own home, his job, and the Diogenes Club (a club he founded himself where men can go to sit and read—but are forbidden under any circumstances to speak). Sherlock and Mycroft’s parents are never referenced.
Watson’s family information comes from the beginning of The Sign of the Four. His father had the initials H.W. and has been dead “many years” as of the late 1880s. Dr. Watson also had an elder brother who shared their father’s name, was an alcoholic, and bounced back and forth between prosperity and destitution before finally dying shortly before the start of The Sign of the Four. Watson’s mother is never referenced.
Holmes is referred to as being 60 in 1914 in “His Last Bow.” He calls himself and Watson “middle-aged” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” which takes place no later than 1890. These both favor an early-to-mid-1850s birth for Holmes, although “‘Gloria Scott’” seems to contradict this.
“The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott’” and “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” are the only stories that take place before Holmes met Watson. (They’re presented in the format of a framing story, with Holmes relating the cases to Watson years after the fact).
“‘Gloria Scott’” takes place while Holmes is still in college. The backstory of a main character, Justice Trevor, begins in 1855. This is immovable, due to the importance of the Crimean War in his story. Two references are made to that having been “thirty years ago.” This too seems pretty likely: He had time afterwards to make a fortune in Australia, then return to England, get married, and have a college-aged son, Victor Trevor. Yet it can’t be 1885, or anywhere near it. Victor is attending college with Holmes, who was a fully-practicing consulting detective by 1877 (see next section).
In “Musgrave Ritual,” Reginald Musgrave is referred to as a college acquaintance Holmes hasn’t seen in four years. Holmes only attended college for two years according to “‘Gloria Scott’”; so even assuming that “‘Gloria Scott’” takes place in his second year and he knew Musgrave in the first, at least three years have to elapse between the two stories. Holmes is in active practice, living in rooms on Montague Street. He says that Musgrave’s case was his third “after months of inactivity.” By the time he meets Watson in early 1883 he’s built up a fairly solid practice, so “Musgrave” can’t be any later than 1881.
As for Watson’s backstory: A Study in Scarlet lets us know that Watson finished his medical training at the University of London in 1878, then enlisted as an army surgeon. He served with the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers in the Second Afghan War (yes, we westerners have been at war with Afghanistan on-and-off for well over a century!). He was wounded at the Battle of Maiwand (7/27/1880) by a bullet in the shoulder (or leg, according to The Sign of the Four), leading to his return to London. There, he spends some time convalescing, and even more time bumming around and depleting his bank account.
We can calculate the beginning of Holmes’ career thanks to one of the last published stories, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” which tells us that Holmes’ active practice lasted for twenty-three years, and Watson acted as his collaborator and biographer for seventeen of those years. Working backwards, we know for sure that the second phase of Holmes’ career ran from April 1894 (“Empty House”) to late 1903 (“Creeping Man”). That’s about nine and a half years.
The first phase of their partnership ended in May 1891 (“The Final Problem”). It goes back at least as far as 1883, because “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is explicitly dated April 1883. That’s another eight years, bringing us up to seventeen and a half. So it’s safe to say that A Study in Scarlet, the story where they first meet and move to Baker Street, takes place in 1883. The actual murder (their first case together) occurs on 3/04, although they’ve already been roommates for several months by that point.
Adding the six additional years Holmes was in practice before meeting Watson gives us 1877 for Holmes’ first year as a professional consulting detective.
I dated “The Adventure of the Resident Patient” based on a passage that’s not in most U.S. versions of the story available today. What happened is that “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” was left out of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection, presumably because the controversial plot involved infidelity and severed ears. However, Doyle liked the opening scene, so to rescue it from obscurity, he stuck it onto the front of “Resident Patient.” “Cardboard Box” was eventually published as part of the later collection His Last Bow, but for some reason no one has ever bothered to restore the original opening to “Resident Patient,” resulting in two stories that have the exact same first few pages. The lost opening of “Resident Patient,” as originally published in The Strand Magazine, explains that the adventure takes place in October of Watson’s first year with Holmes. This puts it in 1883.
The Sign of the Four takes place in September according to Watson’s narration, although Mary Morstan (Holmes’ client and Watson’s future wife) presents a letter dated 7/07 that she received that morning…so the month isn’t quite clear. As for the year, Mary describes 12/03/1878 as “nearly ten years ago,” and 5/04/1882 as “about six years ago.” While the math might seem to indicate 1888, 1887 works better considering Watson’s married state in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” explicitly dated March 1888. And if The Sign of the Four takes place in Sept. 1887, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that Mary is rounding the years up when she explains her backstory.
“The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” takes place in August. I place it in 1887, as Watson is still living the bachelor life at Baker Street, but has written The Sign of the Four (it’s not necessarily published yet, but Holmes has read it). Admittedly, this placement only works with Mary’s July date for The Sign of the Four, not Watson’s September date.
“The Five Orange Pips” is explicitly dated Sept. 1887. Watson states that he was back in Baker Street for a few days, as his wife was visiting her mother. “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” contradictorily, takes place in October “a few weeks before [Watson’s] own wedding,” and he is still living with Holmes. I surmise that in “Five Orange Pips” he is unmarried (using “my wife” in the sense that he is married to her as of the writing of the story), and that he was in the process of setting up a home elsewhere during this period, but still spending time at Baker Street. (I have no explanation for the fact that Mary Morstan was an orphan in The Sign of the Four, and has now suddenly sprouted a mother).
The Valley of Fear is dated 1/07, and the year seems to be 1888 based on the character John Douglas’ backstory (summer 1875 + some time in Chicago + five years in California + six years [“nearer seven”] to the present). Watson is seemingly unmarried and still at Baker Street, and several characters refer to him as a published author (one guy is hoping he gets into Watson’s next book! I guess it worked). The famous continuity problem in this story is that Watson is aware of Moriarty, whereas in “The Final Problem” (which occurs later) he claims never to have heard of him.
As of “A Scandal in Bohemia” in March 1888, Watson is definitely married to Mary Morstan, is practicing medicine, and has seen “little of Holmes lately.” This is the first case they collaborate on since the wedding.
“A Case of Identity” is problematic. The story itself doesn’t offer a year, but occurs after Watson’s marriage (placing it between 1887 and 1891). In “The Red-Headed League” (explicitly dated mid-to-late 1890), Holmes refers to “A Case of Identity” as having occurred “the other day.” However, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” also features a reference to “A Case of Identity,” and “Blue Carbuncle” can’t be any later than 1889 (see below). I stuck it after “A Scandal in Bohemia” because it contains a reference to Holmes having recently received a gold snuffbox from the King of Bohemia for his work on that case.
“The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk” is shortly after Watson’s marriage. He says that it’s June, and that he has been building a medical practice for three months. “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” is the July immediately succeeding his marriage. “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” is the summer a few months after his marriage. This places all of them in 1888.
“The Adventure of the Second Stain” is first referred to in “Naval Treaty,” wherein Watson says that it occurred in the same month (the July following his marriage). However, when the story was eventually published years later, it didn’t quite match up with the details Watson had previously provided—including the season changing to autumn. Watson also appears to be living with Holmes in “Second Stain,” with no mention of his wife. Hm.
The murder in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” happens on Monday, 6/03. Based on the day-and-date information, that would place it in 1889. Watson is married.
The Hound of the Baskervilles, however, is another entry in the Case of the Missing Wife. It’s October. Holmes says 1884 was five years ago, implying the story takes place in 1889. Yet Watson is not only living with Holmes, but goes away on a two-week mission to Dartmoor and doesn’t seem to write any letters except to Holmes! Terrible continuity or a terrible marriage?
“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” both include very similar conversations about how Holmes’ most interesting cases may not involve criminal activity at all. Both times, Holmes and Watson refer back to the same prior adventures: “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “A Case of Identity,” and “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” This places both stories later than the June 1889 date of “Twisted Lip,” but earlier than winter 1890 (see “The Final Problem”). “Blue Carbuncle” is two days after Christmas, so it must be 1889. “Copper Beeches” is spring, so it’s 1890.
Incidentally, in “Blue Carbuncle,” Watson refers to the adventures they discuss as “three of the last six cases which I have added to my notes.” This seems to imply that only five stories can occur between “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “Blue Carbuncle.” The real-world reason for the dialogue is that “Blue Carbuncle” is the seventh story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes cycle, and Doyle was doing some self-promotion (“read my other six stories!”). I prefer to assume that Watson (like Doyle) was referring to the six stories he’s recently written up for publication, and not necessarily the six most recent cases they’ve handled.
“Copper Beeches” returns to the marriage problem. How is it that Holmes and Watson discuss three post-marriage cases, and yet Watson is hanging around Baker Street for weeks on end?
“The Red-Headed League,” like The Sign of the Four, features two conflicting dates. It’s even more embarrassing here, as it’s only a 20-page story, and yet no one caught the error. On the one hand, 4/27/1890 was “two months ago.” On the other hand, a sign is dated 10/09/1890. Either way, the year is explicit, and this is the latest case Watson chronicled before Holmes’ “death.”
THE DEATH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
In “The Final Problem,” Watson notes that he fell out of contact with Holmes, collaborating on only three cases in 1890 (two of which would be “Copper Beeches” and “The Red-Headed League”). In winter of 1890 and spring of 1891, he only received two notes from Holmes, who was apparently engaged by the French government in a matter of supreme importance. When Holmes eventually pops up in April 1891, he is at war with Prof. Moriarty and desperately fears for his life. He states that he is willing to die if it means bringing down Moriarty, and on 5/04 he apparently does so when the two seemingly tumble over Reichenbach Falls. Only later does Watson learn that Holmes killed Moriarty and faked his own death, in order to protect himself from Moriarty’s underlings.
It’s interesting to note that “The Five Orange Pips” (published in November 1891) is the first story where Watson’s narration refers to Holmes in the past tense, indicating that Doyle was already planning to kill him off two years before he actually wrote “The Final Problem.” Subsequent stories are inconsistent, some referring to Holmes in the past tense, some in the present.
“The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” is an epic fail from a continuity standpoint. Watson states in no uncertain terms that the story takes place in March 1892, and yet this date is right in the middle of Holmes’ three-year absence. It’s worth nothing that Watson is unmarried, and this story was presumably meant to take place after Holmes’ return. It’s a great story, despite the careless dating.
During Holmes’ three years as a dead man, he spends some time in Florence, meets the Dalai Llama in Tibet, then visits Mecca and Khartoum (conveying his findings to the Foreign Office under the guise of a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson), before finishing up with a study of coal-tar derivatives in Montpellier, France. It’s April 1894 when he finally reveals himself to Watson and Scotland Yard, and helps them capture Col. Sebastian Moran, the last of Moriarty’s foot soldiers (“The Adventure of the Empty House”). Watson’s wife has seemingly died shortly before Holmes’ return, as Watson states that “[Holmes] had learned of my own sad bereavement,” and Holmes suggests that work will help Watson forget his sorrow. Mycroft, Sherlock’s only confidante during his disappearance, has kept the Baker Street rooms exactly as Holmes left them, so that he and Watson can conveniently return to status quo as if marriage and death had never happened.
BACK AT BAKER STREET
“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” is August “some months” after Holmes’ return, placing it in 1894.
In “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” Watson is living away from Baker Street in late 1896. Aside from this one story, he seems to live with Holmes continuously from 1894 to mid-1902. He was situated at Baker Street in November 1895 (“Bruce-Partington Plans”), and was back by early 1897 (“Abbey Grange”), so if he moved out it wasn’t for more than a year.
“The Adventure of the Dancing Men” is July, one year after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, which was 1897.
“The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” takes place in the summer. The story occurs “within two years” of a marriage in early 1897, placing in summer 1898.
“The Adventure of the Priory School” definitely occurs after 1900, due to a date cited in Holmes’ encyclopedia. 1901 makes sense due to 5/13 falling on a Monday as in the story.
(It’s worth noting at this point that while I use day-and-date information to place years on “Boscombe Valley” and “Priory School,” several other stories indicate that Doyle rarely looked at a calendar when writing—particularly in the earlier stories. “The Man with the Twisted Lip” starts on Fri. 6/19/1889, “The Red-Headed League” on Sat. 10/09/1890, and “Solitary Cyclist” is Sat. 4/23/1895. No such days exist).
According to “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” Holmes refused a knighthood in June 1902, for services which Watson isn’t at liberty to describe.
“The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” takes place in September 1902. Watson has moved out (and, we can assume, remarried).
“The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” takes place in January 1903, and contains the only definite reference to Watson’s second marriage. (Holmes has abandonment issues: he refers to it as “the only selfish action which I can recall in our association”).
“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” takes place post-Return (Watson references “Empty House”). It’s summer and Watson has moved out of Baker Street, so it must be 1903. (Incidentally, Doyle adapted this story from a play he’d written, The Crown Diamond. This is why it’s narrated in the third person and takes place entirely in one room).
“The Adventure of the Creeping Man” takes place in September 1903. Watson is living elsewhere, and says this is one of the last cases Holmes handled before retiring. Holmes makes a couple of comments about retirement and mortality throughout the story.
“The Adventure of the Dying Detective” takes place in November of “the second year of [Watson’s] marriage.” He doesn’t specify which marriage, so it could be 1889 or 1903. If it’s 1903, that makes it the last case chronicled before Holmes’ retirement from London.
It’s interesting to note that Holmes retires about a year after being “deserted” by Watson. One has to wonder whether the two events are related. Near the beginning of “Creeping Man,” there’s a very cool passage where Watson compares himself to Holmes’ pipe and violin as “an institution.” He says that thinking out loud to Watson had become a habitual part of Holmes’ problem-solving routine, even though Watson himself rarely contributed anything.
Holmes’ retirement is first referenced in the opening paragraphs to “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” wherein Watson indicates that Holmes has taken to bee farming in Sussex Downs, and has forbidden Watson to publish any further stories due to his desire for privacy. That edict didn’t hold for long, due to Doyle’s (and possibly Watson’s) need for cash flow, and Holmes seems to have accepted the situation good-naturedly. He sends a telegram suggesting that Watson write about “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” and he even authors two stories himself!
In “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” Holmes describes the setting of his retirement villa in greater detail. It overlooks the English Channel from the top of a tall white cliff, with a pristine beach below, accessible by a steep slippery path down the cliff. He goes swimming regularly. There is a seaside village called Fulworth a little ways down the coast from him. (Watson’s introduction to His Last Bow further specifies that Holmes is five miles from Eastbourne). He has a housekeeper (who he tries not to engage in conversation); his only close friend in the area is Harold Stackhurst, who runs a nearby trade school. During this period, he hardly hears from Watson, aside from the “occasional week-end visit.” A bizarre death on the beach in July 1907 briefly leads to him putting his detecting skills back into practice.
By 1912, Holmes has written a Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. He is called out of retirement by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, who visit his home, begging for his help in detecting and subverting a German spy working in Britain. Holmes goes to work establishing a secret identity: Altamont, an Irish-American bitter at the British government due to their hold on his native land. This process leads to Holmes spending time with subversive societies in Chicago, Buffalo, and Skibbareen Ireland before finally catching the eye of Von Bork, the German agent. (It also leads to him growing a goatee, which he despises, and speaking in a hilarious caricature of American slang). “Altamont” feeds Von Bork subtly false information and weakens his operation, before revealing his true identity on 8/02/1914, forty-eight hours before Britain’s entry into the Great War. For “His Last Bow,” Holmes can’t resist wiring Watson to join him for one last caper, and Watson poses as Altamont’s chauffeur. They haven’t seen one another for several years, and Holmes rather sadly indicates that their chat after Von Bork’s capture “may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have.” Their final exchange is worth reprinting in full, as it’s one of Doyle’s finest moments, and the last words we ever hear from Sherlock Holmes:
As they turned to the car Holmes pointed back to the moonlit sea and shook a thoughtful head.
“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”
“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”
“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it's time that we were on our way. I have a cheque for five hundred pounds which should be cashed early, for the drawer is quite capable of stopping it if he can."
The last line, with Holmes’ characteristic dry wit, refers to Von Bork’s final payment to “Altamont.”
There’s no reference in Doyle’s stories to Holmes’ ultimate fate. Although new stories continued to be published up until 1927, they all took place much earlier. The latest we hear of him is Watson’s introduction to the collection His Last Bow, which informs us that he returned to Sussex after the Von Bork affair, and divides his time between philosophy and agriculture, “somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism.”
Watson is living at Baker Street in “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” “Silver Blaze,” “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” and “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” placing them sometime before his first marriage. Both “Yellow Face” and “Greek Interpreter” refer to Watson and Holmes’ relationship as “intimate,” so they’ve presumably been together for at least a few years. In “Silver Blaze” and “Greek Interpreter,” characters refer to Watson’s status as a published author.
Watson is living at Baker Street in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” and "The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place," placing them either before Watson’s first marriage, or after Holmes’ return. “Lady Frances Carfax” is probably in the latter period, as Watson feels “rheumatic and old.” In “Sussex Vampire,” Holmes refers to Watson having published “‘Gloria Scott.’”
“The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter” takes place post-Return, referencing Moriarty’s death. It occurs in February “some seven or eight years ago” (it’s nice to know Watson was taking such precise notes). The story was published in 1904. While as a rule, I’ve deemed real-world publication dates inadmissible, common sense dictates that this takes place in the mid-to-late 1890s. (Sidebar: Watson claims that by the time of this story he had weaned Holmes off of his drug addiction, but still saw the craving in Holmes’ face during periods of boredom. This is the only reference to Holmes’ cocaine / morphine use in the post-Return stories).
“The Adventure of the Three Gables,” in addition to being the worst Sherlock Holmes story, is also the one story that could literally take place any time in Holmes and Watson’s association. No year is given, no month, no season…and it’s ambiguous whether Watson is living at Baker Street, or married, or what. (He says at the beginning of the story that he hadn’t seen Holmes for days, but he doesn’t explain why).
Well, that's it. More than you ever wanted to know about the life and times of Sherlock Holmes! Feel free to comment with any discrepancies or problems you can find in my logic. For instance, you might argue that Sherlock Holmes could not have retired in 1903, as he is a fictional character and did not exist. This sort of information will be very useful to me in perfecting future drafts of this timeline.