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Sherlock Holmes and breakfast

Friday 2/28/20

This, by the way, is blog post #550. There are fifty others in drafts, all in the process of getting finished. Some are about evil (and thieving) people in publishing (John Freeman), others are about awful writers and/or editors who thrive on connections and things happening for the wrong reasons (Laura van den Berg, Meghan O'Rourke of Yale Review, Halimah Marcus of Electric Literature,) and maintaining a system of bigotry, sexism, and discrimination; some are about sad, talentless, envy-addled, lying little people (Nate Brown of American Short Fiction); discrimination-loving plagiarists and the people who hook them up and lie to infinitely more talented non-plagiarists (David Leavitt and Joanna Yas, respectively, with those first two things); and so on.


Everyone who has taken it here to this point, with me, without relenting, after so many chances, when I have you dead to rights, will have their time on these pages. Some of these people will have multiple entries. And some, like a certain literary editor at a certain well-regarded publication--for no viable reason--will be dogged by me tirelessly as I document every single last favor trade they are a part of, which is to say, I will show you how every last story comes to be in this "vaunted" magazine. And I'll show you how they got everything in their own career, too. I'll show you how someone gave something to them, and then lied to me about the same thing.


In the meanwhile, I will post this excerpt from an essay began today. Same guy who published the New York Daily News op-ed on hockey the other day. Same guy who wrote two short stories this week. Same guy who published the personal essay in The Smart Set this week, same guy who talked on the radio this week about writing 140 short stories in sixteen months and the bigotry that dominates publishing, same guy who was interviewed for a forty-five minute podcast on the Who this week, same guy who just published the Aaron Hernandez essay in The American Interest, same guy with the Hank Mobley piece in the new JazzTimes. In fact, the same guy that some people in this business hate because he can do all of that. And does. Every week. And this is Ass Backwards Land, where talent is hated, discrimination is rewarded, totally unfunny is funny, productivity is envied to the point of wanting someone's life to cease, shitty writing is held up as great, and so and so and so on. And people who say they are not sexist are the biggest sexists going.


I'll finish this essay tomorrow. It's one of the many I am writing to sell on its own, which I also planned as part of the pages that will be folded into a memoir titled, Saving Angles: Finding Meaning and Direction in Life's Unlikely Corners. But look at this. Good stuff.


***


The Case of the Bloody Bacon: Sherlock Holmes’ Life Lessons in Breakfasting


When Sherlock Holmes was not mainlining cocaine (or morphine), he was a man who enjoyed ingesting a hearty—and expansive—breakfast. Had he lasted longer into the twentieth century, I could have envisioned him rapaciously perched over a Western omelet at Denny’s for the early-riser special, perhaps with a grumpy Watson in tow, as the Boswellian doctor was no fan of waking up much before eight o’clock.


Throughout the canon, Holmes eats a lot of richly caloric breakfasts. He shares breakfasts, in fact, whenever he is able, inviting friends and clients to partake of the meal (nabbed criminals are merely offered a cup of joe) which was central to the Holmesian version of community, insofar as Sherlock Holmes was interested in community as we typically view the concept.

Most of us regard community as a go-along-to-get along type of deal. Back the proper causes, put in the time for one’s town, volunteer at the school, vote (Sherlock Holmes would not have been a voter), coach the Little League team. For Holmes, community was something pointed and intensely humanistic, connective, stitching one person to another as a means to understand differences and foster individuality, and then often going separate ways, for such is life. The world’s only private consulting detective, like all of the greatest artists, believed in nothing more staunchly than the autonomy of the individual, discovering what it is that makes each of us who we are, separate from everyone else, so that we can come together with greater usefulness. You might also say that breakfast, for Sherlock Holmes, was the most individualistic of meals.


The indefatigable Mrs. Hudson, presumably, furnished the rich antemeridian repasts: towers of eggs, stacks of toast, piles of bacon, multiple pots of coffee. (She’d also provide a meal of salad, chicken, potatoes, late at night, if that was when Holmes rang his dinner bell, which makes you wonder what he was eventually paying her, or if she was part saint. Holmes, for his part, had no problem waking her up at midnight on Christmas Eve if he was jonesing for some pheasant.) No mere egg and cheese sandwich for our guy. These morning banquets were not bound up in Holmes having been a huge believer in breakfast as a crucial component of a productive day. On his most productive days—that is, when he was working a case—he’d take no food at all, sometimes going half a week without nourishment, as if mere mastication would gum up the well-lubed wheels of cognition.


Sometimes Watson likened him to a man transformed into either an animal—like a bloodhound—or some spirit being, perhaps a two-for-one combo. Either way, dear Watson—as Holmes so often referred to the late-rising doctor—had never seen anything like it. And this was a man who sat down for more than a few breakfasts with the bacon-loving sleuth, who was also a fellow who could pack away the rashers without puffening his aquiline features, another mystery socked away in the sideboard of skullduggery.


I get this. It is inconceivable to me to eat something before I sit down to compose. I will drink coffee, occasionally tea for my stress (chamomile) or blood pressure (hibiscus), and always black, better if it is a day or two or three old—tough, no-nonsense brew, for the tough, consequential, courage and creativity-driven task of making art.


A lot of artists have been this way. Beethoven, for instance, who was the first classical composer to think of himself as an artist—self-referencing in that manner throughout his letters, something Mozart never did—quaffed the nectar of the bean in copious amounts as he innovated in even more copious arrays. It’s no wonder to me that Holmes loved the violin as Beethoven did, and that I read stories of the one and listen to the music of the other. Feels almost like a gang united by overlapping sensibilities.


Holmes means a lot to me, on many fronts, including what I think of as the future front. I have these daydreams—though I curtail them quickly, lest they distract me from my steely purpose—where I have returned, Ulysses-style, to the house I used to inhabit not far from a rocky shore, which I wish to inhabit again, where the haaz rolls in and on days where I think I deserve a respite, because I have worked hard and life is going well, I will read my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, quite likely while listening to Beethoven’s string quartets, and drifting off, at least in part, to what Holmes lovingly called violin land.


On those days—my wished-for future days—there may be a bit of dabbling in robust breakfast fare. But I also have a curious history with Holmes, what he might call singular (which seems to be the perpetual Word-of-the-Day in the Holmes tales), in that my estimation for Arthur Conan Doyle’s various Holmes-related works has shifted throughout my life, to the degree that I now welcome nebulosity in these matters, even though in our lives we tend to gravitate towards fixed points and sure things. Knowing, we might say, where we stand, and where other things and people stand with us.


For quite a long time, I viewed the fifty-six Holmes short stories and the four novels in the series as populist entertainment, certainly not art, but also not pure piffle. Which isn’t to say that populist entertainment cannot be vanguard art. I hew to the line that that’s exactly what the best artists do—Mozart, the Beatles, Dickens, Hitchcock.


You can keep your Gertrude Steins and David Foster Wallaces—I think people like that are full-on frauds whose names are made by other frauds with a need to try and prove to you how smart they are without being especially smart at all. This takes the form of saying that the nonsense no one can understand is deep or meaningful or some such, as if they, possessed of the most potent of brains, “get it.”


Doyle himself reached a point where he dreaded his own most famous creation, thinking—wrongly—that his far superior works were volumes of historical fiction (1889’s Micah Clarke, for example), which can be a slog to power through.


Maybe it was all of the Sherlock Holmes fan boys, or perhaps the women who loved the “bromance” of two roomies who had come together in the first place because neither could afford the rent on their own. But whatever the reasons, it didn’t take long for Doyle to want to have nothing to do with his famous detective, which is why he chose to toss him into a waterfall and down the sheer face of a cliff—or so we thought—in “The Final Problem” in December 1893, less than four years after having debuted the character.


That friendship is what underpins everything in the canon, and it’s why you can reread the works over and over again, even after you are well-versed in who, exactly, up and done it in these whodunits, which becomes, paradoxically, almost immaterial.


We are not really here to see how the tiger was caught by its toe, but rather to chart the evolution of a bond. The older I became, the rarer I understood true friendship to be, that actual, legit, unfettered friendship was a form of art. By extension, these works that document friendship so well are also art, but then I would have quibbles with what Doyle was doing at the level of the sentences, in part because I came to know so many adaptations (in particular radio productions of all sixty works in the canon written by Bert Coules which were taped throughout the 1990s with Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson) that patched in the holes of his language, upped the flow, made Doyle’s stories better than he himself sometimes designed and executed them.


And while it’s tough not to dock a writer a notch or two when another writer comes along and improves upon what was there in the first place, the hull of the ship belonged to Doyle, we might say, even if some tweaks of the rigging made the HMS Holmes more efficient in its deductive sailing. Not that Doyle couldn’t gather up a nice, frothy pace under full sails when he wished to. For instance, there are passages of prose in the most successful of the four novels, The Hound of Baskervilles, which is nature writing at the level of a Thoreau, with Doyle speaking through Watson, who is essentially on assignment—he functions as an ecological journalist in his detailed epistles to Holmes—upon the foggy Dartmoor moors.



The story collections are generally better than the novels, which put too much reliance on backstories that cause large passages to read like something from a history tract. When I read a Holmes novel, I often think, “come on, man, I don’t want to jump back twenty years for us to get to the bottom of this thing happening right now, stay with me!” Doyle’s Holmes adventures are always better in the present tense, or damn close to it.


Doyle himself was asked to rate his favorite Holmes-Watson short stories, and in doing so, leaned especially on the first collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which came out in 1892, and really ratchets up the breakfast game, or variants thereof (interestingly, Baskervilles also has a big breakfast theme). It’s always amused me how Doyle chose to order the stories of this collection. He looked at what he had and all but said, “eh, just put them in the order they were published. That’s cool.” Thus, “A Scandal in Bohemia”—which gave seemingly every Holmes-based movie or series of the future a romantic interest for the detective in Irene Adler, never mind that he didn’t look twice at her that way—from July 1891 bats lead-off, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” from June 1892 tops us off, and we get ten more stories in between that had been published at a clip of one a month.


As a general rule of thumb—and more on thumbs in a moment—the collections get worse as we go along, though none are bad, all are within ballpark shouting distance of each other, and you’ll find some classics and what I think of as top-level B-sides in any of them; those quirky songs—only here they are stories—that have a knack for being more interesting than their splashier A-side. You know how A-sides can be—they get the radio play, become the anthems of summer, but the really cool fans know where the best stuff is at. The collections are akin to seasons of The Twilight Zone that way. The first season debuting in 1959 is the standard-bearer, but we sometimes feel the others more or less pull even in the race, before dropping back for secondary commendation.


In that first collection forever lives one of my favorite Holmes stories, an offbeat little number in which Holmes solves absolutely nothing, but he’s a good friend to a young man he’s not going to know once the tale is complete. He is, though, helping this man cater to his future, which is one reason—as I strive to fulfill my own desired future, with those awaiting haaz-filled days—I love the story so much and find in it the meaning and direction that I do. The guidance. The ordered calm required to stop a dangerous flow of blood (quite literally in this tale), regroup, find a way to carry forth.


The work is called “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb,” and it commences on a train (that smoke-coughing Industrial Age steel monster imperative to so much mystery over the years) where neither Holmes nor Watson are present.


In fact, they are at one of those junctures in their relationship where they don’t live together. Watson is married to Mary—whom he met in novel #1, The Sign of the Four—and Holmes resides at 221B, hating, as Watson tells us, all manner of conventional society in his bohemian soul. No wonder Holmes would enjoy the music of Beethoven.


What’s amusing about this friendship is that when one of Watson’s wives—he had multiple wives, though not, of course, concurrently (but John Watson, Bigamist, Sherlock Holmes, Voyeur, strikes me as a rich vein for an off-Broadway play)—goes away somewhere, he usually comes and stays with his buddy, as if he can’t bear living alone. Plus, he gets those really awesome breakfasts.


Watson is a man who likes his sensual pleasures, one reason why his body is described as “thick” in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” come 1904. He enjoys ale (a favorite John Watson moment occurs in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” when he is grief-stricken that he is not able to finish his beer at the tavern—and at Christmastime, no less—because Holmes has leapt back out into the night with the whole game being afoot thing), he enjoys an artful derriere. In combination, all the better. When the duo have to stop at an inn for nourishment on some caper out of town in the wilds of England, Watson tends to complain about the food. While no foodie, he has standards. The cheese sandwich will not cut it.