Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Actually, That Wasn’t Watson: Some Notes Eventually Circling In Upon the Major Obfuscation in "Young Sherlock Holmes"

(The following essay originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Watsonian, Fall 2016, Vol.4, No.II)


I play The Game with deadly seriousness. It started early. I first discovered Sherlock Holmes when I was ten, in the mid-1970’s, and not long after, I received a copy of Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. I began to learn of The Game, the belief that Holmes and Dr. Watson were living historical characters, and not simply fictional creations. It’s been a great way to enjoy spending time reading about Our Heroes ever since.

Over the next forty-plus years, as I’ve mentioned in a few – well a lot of, really – other places, I’ve read and collected literally thousands of pastiches in the form of novels, short stories, radio and television episodes, movies and scripts, fan-fiction, comics, and unpublished manuscripts. Since the mid-1990’s, I’ve been organizing and assembling a Chronology of the lives of Holmes and Watson, an ever-changing “whole art of detection” that is now well over 600 pages, breaking down each Canonical story and pastiche by year and by day and by hour, systematizing them by book, chapter, page, and sometimes even paragraph. It’s amazing to see the whole gestalt of how The Great Holmes Tapestry all fits together, and how people from all over the world have added threads that reveal ever more about the big picture.

Reading all of these thousands of pastiches and fitting them into the Chronology as I’ve done occasionally requires some serious and clever rationalizing. Obviously, there are contradictions in the various stories, and some things that are flat-out incorrect, such as when an “editor” of Watson’s notes places the Doctor in Kensington during a time when he should be living in Paddington, or if there is a statement that Watson is publishing a story in The Strand in the 1880’s, when in truth that magazine didn’t actually go into business until early 1891.

I always list those inconsistencies when reading a story and Chronologicizing it. Sometimes a part of a story will be so at odds with established Canon that it seems that it cannot be included at all – but I make it work if I can. For instance, the first two chapters of Michael Dibdin’s extremely controversial novel The Last Sherlock Holmes Story are perfectly fine, and are a part of Holmes’s massive battle against The Ripper. But the rest of the book is a scurrilous slander against Holmes, obviously so maliciously fictional that it must have been written at some later date, probably by a Moriarty, and awkwardly grafted onto Watson’s original notes in order to irretrievably damage Holmes’s reputation. I include the first two chapters of that book in The Chronology, but recommend that it be read no further.

Another famous tale that provides both the same problem and the same solution is Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in which the beginning and end of the book are quite opposed to established Canonical Fact. For The Chronology, I leave out Chapters 1 and 2, as well as parts of Chapters 4 and 17, so that the correct meat of the case, Holmes and Watson’s trip to Vienna and their meeting with Sigmund Freud, is represented, but those parts exonerating Professor Moriarty as a harmless and persecuted old man, as well as the segments incorrectly giving Holmes a damaged history to explain this persecution, are rightly ignored. (No doubt, these portions were also written and appended onto the manuscript by someone trying to rescue the evil Professor’s reputation.)

As one can see, certain cherry-picking must take place occasionally to include an adventure in The Chronology. For if I didn’t do this, then it would be a case of accepting these few incorrect parts as complete fact and therefore skewing all the other narratives that had stayed within the accepted lines. In these instances, I keep the correct parts of the story instead of throwing out the whole baby with the bathwater. And – we’re finally here at the reason for this essay – one of the big examples of making a rationalization of this type so that an adventure will be acceptable is the film Young Sherlock Holmes.

In 1985, when this film came out, I was twenty years old. I’d been wearing a deerstalker as my only hat for about a year – something that I’ve done to the present day, although I’m now on my fourth full-time deerstalker, having worn out the other three – and my hat and I settled into my seat for a matinee showing on opening day. I enjoyed the film very much, and I also learned a valuable lesson – don’t leave before the final credits are over. (I missed an interesting little epilogue at the end.)

I won’t go into how the movie was perceived at the time – possibly too influenced by producer Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones involvement, etc. My big problem with the story was that this purported to be the very first meeting between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, negating the truth that we already knew. If this was their first encounter, then the events related in the opening chapter of A Study in Scarlet were incorrect at best, with fudged facts, or it was an actual lie. If one believes that Watson initially met Holmes when both of them were attending a London school in the early 1870’s, as shown in Young Sherlock Holmes, then the events in that laboratory at Barts on January 1st, 1881 are terribly misrepresented. Holmes didn’t make any brilliant deductions about a total stranger – Stamford was introducing him to someone whom he’d already met, albeit a decade earlier.

Instead of classifying the whole film (and the accompanying novel by Alan Arnold) as fiction and never watching (or reading) them again, I gave the matter some thought. There were a few minor objections that could be explained away, but the biggest problem was that the young man with glasses identified as Watson could not be Watson. Who, then, could he be?

The answer jumped out at me. Who is another person that grew up to be a doctor that Holmes might have encountered at that younger age, a meeting that did not contradict with his meeting Watson in early 1881? The answer was obvious: It was Holmes’s cousin, Dr. Verner.

The only mention in the Canon of this cousin is in “The Norwood Builder”, a post-Hiatus adventure wherein Watson states that he was able to move back to 221 Baker Street upon selling his practice to this Dr. Verner, whom he later learned to be Holmes’s relative:

A young doctor, named Verner, had purchased my small Kensington practice, and given with astonishingly little demur the highest price that I ventured to ask – an incident which only explained itself some years later, when I found that Verner was a distant relation of Holmes, and that it was my friend who had really found the money.

If one accepts that the young fellow with glasses in the film is Verner and not Watson, the difficulties go away.

This renaming of a character for a Holmes film is not a new idea. In my essay “Basil Rathbone’s Solar Pons Films” (The Baker Street Journal, Vol. 63, No. 4, Winter 2013 and also in this blog - see November 29th, 2016,) I explain how screenwriters in the early days of World War II, anxious to show some films of Holmes fighting Nazis, were dismayed in their ignorance to learn that Holmes was in his nineties at that point, and that Watson had already died. Therefore, they reached out to Holmes’s active successor, Solar Pons, then in his early sixties, and transformed three of his wartime cases into the first three Holmes films produced by Universal Studios – Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943).

In order to avoid confusion for modern audiences, who had likely never heard of Solar Pons – and who wouldn’t go see Solar Pons and the Voice of Terror – the name was changed from Pons to Holmes, and Pons’s friend and chronicler, Dr. Lyndon Parker, was re-identified as Dr. Watson. (Unfortunately, Nigel Bruce didn’t portray Dr. Parker any better than he did Dr. Watson.) Thus, the first three Universal films, unmistakably set in World War II, and featuring bombers and bomb sites and other modern technology, were really Pons adventures. (The rest of the Universal films, however, were actually adapted from Watson’s notes, relating his and Holmes’s investigations in World War I or shortly thereafter, with only minor updates added to give the impression that they, too, were occurring in the 1940’s.)

And the same thing was done by screenwriters when preparing Young Sherlock Holmes from whatever notes from which they were working – in this case those of Holmes’s relative instead of Dr. Watson’s. If one doesn’t take as absolute gospel what is presented on the screen, but rather realizes that it has been adapted, mashed, simplified, altered, and rewritten from the true facts, with names changed to make for easier familiarity to a modern audience, then it all makes sense. Watson in this film is really Verner, because general audiences would have no idea who Verner was.

Previous objections go away. Holmes had traveled a great deal as a child, as documented by Baring-Gould. It would not be unusual for him to meet this relative, a cousin in all likelihood, for the first time when they both ended up at the same school – just as it would not be unusual for Verner’s parents to send him to a school where they knew that his slightly older cousin was already attending. (And this helps to explain why the boy in the film is so much smaller than Holmes, when Watson was actually a year-and-a-half older than Holmes. Although one can’t make assumptions based on the appearance of actors chosen to play the part, the idea that cousin Verner was younger would help to explain this.)

If one has traveled this far through this rationalization, then the next question to ask is: Was the boy’s name really Verner? In spite of Watson’s spelling it that way in NORW, I believe that it’s really spelled Vernier, exactly the same as the man who narrates the Holmes adventures “edited” by Sam Siciliano. These narratives, The Angel of the Opera, The Grimwell Curse, The Web Weaver, The White Worm, and The Moonstone’s Curse, are all related by Holmes’s cousin, Dr. Henry Vernier.

I have no doubts that this is the same fellow that we see in Young Sherlock Holmes, hallucinating in a cemetery while being attacked by pastries. Dr. Vernier doesn’t realize it as he relates his own adventures with his cousin Holmes, but he’s actually a rather unlikable character. He’s whiny and terribly emasculated. He sometimes gets his facts and dates wrong, and he tells outright fibs. And he’s extremely jealous of Watson, frequently and egregiously trying to give the impression that he, Vernier, is Holmes’s best friend. In The White Worm, Vernier even erroneously quotes Holmes as saying, “Dr. Watson and I are not quite so close as he has portrayed. In fact, Henry is my preferred companion.” Vernier deludedly believes this fact. It colors his perception so that he is convinced that he is the most involved and important figure in Holmes’s investigations, while Watson is a peripheral figure that Holmes doesn’t really like, in spite of the thousands of cases with Watson – and not Vernier – that prove otherwise.

It’s likely that Watson was aware of Vernier’s jealousy, but I don’t believe that Watson himself would be so deliberately petty as to misspell Vernier’s name in “The Norwood Builder”. Rather, I lay that error on a printer’s mistake at The Strand, or perhaps it was Doyle, the Literary Agent, who mis-copied from Watson’s notes – something which had happened before. However, this slight against him no doubt simply added to the fire of Vernier’s pique.

Verner – or Vernier – has appeared in a few other places, most notably some really excellent adventures originally published as Young Sherlock Holmes-related fan-fiction. Of course, these “editors” took their cue from the film, since they didn’t know any better, and assumed that the tales were being narrated by Watson, when it was actually Vernier. However, it was clear to me when adding these stories to The Chronology that Vernier was the true narrator, and it is now so noted.

It was announced a few years ago – in true Hollywood fashion – that a remake of Young Sherlock Holmes was in the works. I’m very curious to see what form that it might take. In the nearly thirty-two years since the original appeared, there has been quite a bit more revealed about Holmes’s life in the form of massive amounts – but never too much! – of additional stories. Andrew Lane has chronicled a number of excellent adventures in his Young Sherlock Holmes series, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the events of the film. Other “editors” of long-lost notes have also filled in many gaps. Will the new version, should it ever be made, honor the original, or go in a completely different direction?

The 1985 film has gained a certain amount of respect over the intervening years. In 2015, the actor who played young Sherlock Holmes, Nicholas Rowe, played him again, this time in a Holmes film-within-a-film being watched by the elderly sleuth, (played by Ian McKellan,) in Mr. Holmes. For those in the know, this was a neat tip-of-the-hat to honor the long thread that connects all Holmes films, stretching back for over a hundred years.

Another question I have about the possible remake is how, after all this time, they’ll be able to avoid the deep Harry Potter connections found in Young Sherlock Holmes. I’m not the first one to notice that this film, written by Chris Columbus, features two boys and a girl as the main protagonists, with Watson/Vernier looking exactly like a young Harry Potter. There is a Malfoy-like villain, a Hogwarts-like setting, and a mystery that might involve magic. Who can say if Jo Rowling was influenced by this film when she was writing the first Harry Potter book? But it’s no coincidence that the man picked to produce the first three Potter films (and direct the first two,) giving them much of their style and visual appearance, was this same Chris Columbus, making them look and feel so much like his earlier Holmes effort.

If a new version of Young Sherlock Holmes is made, my deerstalker and I will be there on opening day, just like we were back in December 1985. But however they choose to do it this time, I’m certain that the screenwriters will still be incorrectly calling Henry Vernier by the name “John H. Watson”.