Pen Ultimate / Elementary, my dear readers
A few good reasons for fans of Sherlock Holmes to celebrate this week.
These days there aren't too many reasons to celebrate, especially if we discount the customary ones (New Year's Eve) and the false ones (renewed hopes for negotiating with the Palestinians). But here's a good reason, even if we are two days late: January 6 was the birthday of Sherlock Holmes, whose new incarnation in "Sherlock Holmes" - by Robert Downey, Jr. - was released worldwide on Christmas, as if to honor the 156th birthday of the immortal and by-far greatest sleuth that ever "lived."
Of course Holmes and his friend and biographer, Dr. Watson (portrayed in the new film by Jude Law), were fictional characters, who sprang from the fertile mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And yet, Holmes' birthday is celebrated by aficionados of the canon (sometimes called also "the Conan") - comprising four novels and 56 short stories - all over the world, as if he were flesh and blood.
In this, Holmes is unique: No other literary figure has achieved such an overpowering illusion of real life, especially if we take into account the fact that this occurred before the thin line separating fact and fiction was fudged by the passage of time, and while he was still being written about by his creator.
While I am sorely tempted to do so, I won't spoil the celebration by trying to explain how all that happened. But I will reveal how we know that January 6 is Sherlock Holmes' birthday. Elementary, my dear Watson. (Incidentally, that expression does not appear even once in the canon.)
The date was fixed by Christopher Morley and "seconded" by William S. Baring-Gould, two eminent "Sherlockian" scholars. Their reasoning goes as follows: On the occasion of Holmes' literary debut, in "A Study in Scarlet" (published in Beeton's Christmas Annual, 1887), Watson draws up a list of his friend's shortcomings. The first one is: "Knowledge of literature - nil." However, already in his second appearance, in "The Sign of Four" (in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, 1900), Holmes quotes Carlyle and Goethe (in German!), as well as Shakespeare. Indeed, Messrs. Morley and Baring-Gould found that in the Canon, Holmes quotes no less than 14 of the Bard's plays. Even one of the best-known Sherlockian quotes - "the game is afoot" - comes from Shakespeare (Henry V). But there is only one play that he quotes twice: "Twelfth Night." In "The Adventure of the Empty House" (published in 1903, set in 1894), he unmasks Colonel Sebastian Moran, "the second most dangerous man in London," and declares: "'Journeys end in lovers' meetings,' as the old play says." He repeats the same quote in "The Adventure of the Red Circle" (1911), upon meeting Scotland Yard's Inspector Gregson. Those who know the methods of the master will deduce that "Twelfth Night" is his favorite play - and there must be a reason for that.
According to Christian tradition, the 12th night is that of the Epiphany - i.e., when Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus were visited in the manger in Bethlehem by the Magi, the wise men from the East, who were dispatched on behalf of King Herod (Matthew 2:1).
There is some confusion, though: If the first night is the one following December 25, when Jesus was born, then the 12th night is the one following the day of January 5. However, there are some experts who say that the Epiphany is the night of January 6. One reason for this confusion is the medieval custom of declaring sunset as the beginning of a new day (as in the halakha, traditional Jewish law), so that 12th night precedes 12th day.
The possibility that January 6 is Holmes' birthday is further corroborated in "The Valley of Fear" (1914). The story is set on January 7, as Holmes stresses, and what is particularly revealing is a sentence in the second paragraph of the novel: "He leaned upon his hand, with his untasted breakfast before him." That, claim the eminent Sherlockians, is an unmistakable sign that Holmes was suffering from a hangover, following an evening of inebriation while celebrating his birthday.
There is one small matter left to clarify, and that is the age of the master-sleuth. In the story "His Last Bow," he comes back from retirement and catches a German spy. The story, published in September 1917 (and recounted in a third-person narrative, not by Holmes or Watson), is set in August 1914, and describes Homes thus: "He was a tall, gaunt man of 60, with clear-cut features." Ergo: He was born in 1854.
As for the new movie itself, I won't spoil the festivities by going into detail about it here. In brief, it is set after the end of "A Sign of Four" (1890). Watson is getting ready to marry Mary Morstan, and he and Holmes are young and fit, and ready to rumble - much more than the latter usually is in Conan Doyle's works. Holmes solved cases by thinking hard, but that apparently does not provide enough action for a movie. But there is no doubt that even according to the author, Holmes is well trained for combat: Indeed, Watson says he "is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman" ("A Study in Scarlet"). Furthermore, Holmes says about himself: "I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me" ("The Adventure of the Empty House").
The movie may seem to be an action-packed period piece, with a lot of supernatural and totally out-of-character situations (I won't spoil your fun - but Holmes naked in bed, after some bondage games?), but its solution is true to form, according to the holy Holmesian credo: "When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" ("The Blanched Soldier"). Consider this while you observe Holmes-Downey solving the case.
Two more bits of trivia, to round off the celebrations. First, actor Robert Downey, Jr. (who will probably not manage to eradicate the memory of Jeremy Brett as Holmes, in the BBC series) has had trouble with drugs, and Holmes is a well-known addict, who injects himself with a seven percent solution of cocaine and resorts to morphine when his brain does not have a case to work on. Watson tries, in vain, to wean Holmes of the habit. (By the way, the good doctor in the movie is much more resourceful and witty than in the stories; after all, you wouldn't sign up Jude Law to play a fool.)
Lastly, Robert Downey, Jr. was nominated for an Academy Award in 1992 for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, and Chaplin's first part on stage was in the part of Billy in "Sherlock Holmes" (1903-1906), starring William Gillette in the leading role.
As Holmes would say, there are no coincidences.