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Up front: I liked it.

Sunday’s final episode of Lost, that is… a show I’ve been watching with fascination for five years now. (No, not six… I missed S1 when it aired, but got hooked by the DVDs.)

That’s not to say that I found it completely satisfying, especially on an intellectual level. But clearly the show was shooting for emotional catharsis in the finale, more than anything else, and on those terms it succeeded very effectively. It was true to the characters we’ve come to know and care about, hitting emotional beats that almost brought tears to my eyes more than once. And it didn’t do that by resorting to cheap sentimentality; it was well-earned sentiment. As a viewer, one had to have been following along with these characters through years of travail, had to understand who they were, what they’d experienced, what kind of redemption they’d been seeking, in order for those moments to work. When everything is weighed in the balance, I think that this will go down as one of the most ambitious, and artistically successful, shows in television history.

[Spoilers below.]

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David Brooks, throughout his long history as a pundit, consistently seems to love drawing sweeping generalizations from just a handful of anecdotal examples. Sometimes even just one. In his latest column, he’s resorted to using an imaginary one.

Brooks retells the fable of the ant and the grasshopper through an imaginary middle-American voter he calls “Ben.” Ben is the ant. Ben came from a broken home, but “worked hard” and got “decent grades” and went to a couple of mediocre colleges to study hotel management, in which field he’s worked for the past 20 years, only to find himself increasingly disenchanted with America’s political culture… in a fashion, Brooks imagines, that’s manifested in last Tuesday’s primary results, in which incumbents of both parties got a drubbing. (IMHO a well-deserved one; I was delighted to see Joe Sestak take down Arlen Specter, to see Bill Halter force Blanche Lincoln into a runoff. Even Rand Paul’s victory in Kentucky bodes well from certain angles. And the victory in PA-12’s special election, where Mark Critz (D) defeated Tim Burns (R) in a district that actually swung for McCain in ‘08, was a pleasant surprise that confounded lots of pundits.)

But since Brooks is making up the example to suit his predetermined thesis, he gets to ignore inconvenient realities. His little fable elides quiet a few along the way, some of them rather significant…

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The critical reaction to the new movie Robin Hood, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe in the title role, has been decidedly mixed. It averages a mere 45% from critics compiled on, many of whom seem to have been cribbing from the same notes. They complain of the movie’s 140-minute length (apparently gleaned from a press kit rather than their own watches; the actual running time is just 130); they complain that the climactic beach battle evokes Saving Private Ryan; they complain that it’s an origin story seemingly designed to set up a “franchise”; most often, they complain that it’s not Errol Flynn, that it’s too short on swashbuckling merriment, that “the Robin Hood of myth and moviedom is for the most part AWOL,” as WaPo’s Michael O’Sullivan puts it.

Much of this carping seems to me not just wrong but fundamentally misguided. I’m a huge and unapologetic fan of Flynn’s classic 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood, but that movie’s already been made, and it’s out there on disc for anyone who wants to enjoy it again. This film isn’t an attempt to remake that, or the much more forgettable 1991 Kevin Costner version of the story, or any of the other literally dozens of film and TV adaptations to which the Robin Hood legends have been subjected. It’s not trying to give viewers the same old cereal in a new box. It’s trying to come up with a new take, a story different enough to be worth telling. In large part it succeeds, and taken on its own terms, it’s a heartily enjoyable film.

Neither the creative revisionism nor its success should be a surprise. Ridley Scott is the director who gave us such films as Blade Runner and the classic Thelma & Louise, not to mention—in previous work with Crowe—Gladiator, American Gangster, and Body of Lies. As for Crowe, those three films alone demonstrate his phenomenal range as an actor (nearly as much of a chameleon as Edward Norton), even without looking at his work in other roles as diverse as L.A. Confidential, his Oscar-nominated turn in The Insider, and his incredibly layered performance in the otherwise mediocre A Beautiful Mind. Both men are prolific, but neither is known for doing retreads of familiar work. Teamed with Brian Helgeland, the screenwriter behind L.A. Confidential and the recent and unjustly neglected Green Zone, Scott and Crowe have turned out a Robin Hood that does not attempt to cater, as Kenneth Turan observes, to “those expecting traditional Robin Hood satisfactions.” It’s more history than Hollywood—or at least a well-balanced compromise between the two.

[Spoilers ahead.]

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At last, the grand finale! Over the course of several previous installments (all linked below), diligent effort and careful reasoning have allowed us to structure a timeline of all 60 cases in the Sherlock Holmes canon, to a degree of precision of at least a month or season and a likely year even for the most ambiguous of them. I have endeavored throughout to honor (rather than contradict) whatever chronological information Watson gave us to work with, and in only one instance (WIST’s reference to 1892) was this flatly impossible. The results illuminate a number of fascinating relationships among the cases as they progress over time.

However, there is more to Watson’s writings than just the chronicled cases (and for that matter, there is more to the life of Holmes and his biographer than just the writings). Watson alludes from time to time to other cases he had recorded in his notes but which for various reasons he never chose to put in print—many of which are mentioned with enough chronological information to allow one to place them in the timeline. (These tantalizing untold tales have inspired many a latter-day author, some of whom claim to have discovered lost notes or manuscripts in Watson’s own hand, and some of whose works ring with a sense of authenticity… but there is no way to prove them authentic, and it would be foolhardy to accept them as legitimate. The Canon is what Dr. Watson allowed to have published under the auspices of his agent, Dr. Conan Doyle, no more and no less. And the sad fact is that the vaults of Cox & Co. Bank at Charing Cross, wherein Watson in his later years preserved the “battered tin dispatch box” that held his papers (as he described in THOR), was destroyed by the London Blitz during World War II. No further reminiscences from Watson’s pen shall ever be forthcoming, so as to unrevealed details all we can do is speculate… which can, however, be fun in its own right.)

This, then, is the entire chronology of the career of Sherlock Holmes, as worked out in earlier installments, supplemented here with additional notes and observations on unchronicled cases and other pertinent matters of historical context:

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At this point we have very nearly completed our chronology of the Sherlock Holmes Canon. We have spanned his entire career, from his earliest investigations through his disappearance and return to his retirement and beyond. We have determined along the way that his colleague and biographer Dr. Watson married twice, once in 1888 (to Mary Morstan, d. circa 1892-’93), and again in 1902. We have placed 52 cases on the calendar, all but a few with a considerable degree of certainty.

There remain, however, a few cases from among those published after the Hiatus in which Watson provides us with no clear dates. Included among these are cases that have posed some of the greatest difficulties to students of the Canon, and provoked the greatest debates among them. The texts are not entirely devoid of evidence, and in that regard we continue to trust Watson’s testimony, but they require close examination. It is to these that we now turn our attention.

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We have reached the midway point of our chronological project, having dated and arranged all the cases of Sherlock Holmes prior to his apparent death in the spring of 1891. The time has come to turn our attention to the later part of his career. Thirty-two adventures of Holmes (novels aside) were published between 1903 and 1927, later collected in the volumes The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Of these cases, all but three (as discussed earlier) belong to the latter half of his career.

On “the night of March 30, 1894,” young Ronald Adair was mysteriously murdered in cold blood in his own home on Park Lane. Only days later, Sherlock Holmes returned to London, after three years traveling the world under an assumed name. He reintroduced himself to Dr. Watson and explained his deception at the Reichenbach Falls, where he had faked his death in order to elude the remnants of Prof. Moriarty’s criminal organization. He promptly enlisted Watson’s aid in capturing Col. Sebastian Moran, the last member of that organization, proving in the process that Moran had killed Adair. Watson was overjoyed to see his old friend, who, he noted, “in some manner… had learned of my own sad bereavement”: for although Watson never shared the details with his readers (thereby stimulating much later speculation), Mary Morstan Watson had apparently suffered an untimely death.

All this we learn from the adventure of “The Empty House” (EMPT), which appeared in print in October, 1903; Watson reports that he would have shared it with the public earlier, “had I not been barred by a positive prohibition from [Holmes's] own lips, which was only withdrawn upon the third of last month.” About all of this, there is almost no debate or controversy.

About the details of the following decade, of course, there’s more than a little.

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In the endeavor to derive a comprehensive Sherlock Holmes chronology, we have at the outset resolved (to my satisfaction, at any rate) the question of the number of Watson’s marriages through a judicious application of Occam’s Razor. This has allowed us to set up a framework that covers the cases published up through the Great Hiatus of 1891-’94 (the period in which Holmes was presumed dead), and within that framework we have placed all those cases that can be easily dated—those in which Watson provides both a month (or season) and a year, or clear clues pointing to same.

There remain several cases from this period (nine, in fact) in which the clues are more opaque, and the reader must bring to bear more careful deductive abilities. In addition, the two later novels also fit into the pre-Hiatus phase of Holmes’s career (this is relatively uncontroversial), as do three of the later-published short cases (there’s more argument here, but I believe a strong case can be made for these three and no others, as I’ll discuss when we reach them).

The time has come to start fitting the more ambiguous pieces into the puzzle. The game is afoot!…

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So, the project is this: to construct a reliable, chronological reading order for the Sherlock Holmes canon, as written by Dr. Watson. The goal is clear: to glean a more complete and robust sense of the life of the Great Detective, and of his friend and colleague, than afforded by any single tale. The methodology is straightforward: when seeking clues, trust Watson first and foremost. And beyond that, the resources are ample, as many other Sherlockians have trod this path before… without ever reaching any serious consensus.

What do we know as a starting point? There is relatively widespread consensus on a few basic facts, and I see no reason to disagree with the statement that Sherlock Holmes was born in 1854, while John Watson, slightly older, was born in 1852. Neither date is ever stated outright in the Canon; but Holmes is described without reservation as a “man of sixty” in 1914 in “His Last Bow” (LAST), and we know from A Study In Scarlet (STUD) that, in the very first words from Watson’s pen, “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London,” which places the good doctor’s birth 26 years earlier given the typical duration of a British medical education of the day.

We know very few facts about either man’s childhood, family, or upbringing (although speculation is rampant). The next definitive information comes in a pair of “flashback” tales describing two of Holmes’s earliest cases, before he met Watson:  “The Gloria Scott” (GLOR) and “The Musgrave Ritual” (MUSG), which appeared in print back-to-back in consecutive months in 1893. (It’s interesting to note, in passing, that departures from the usual narrative structure of the Writings seem to come in pairs; the only two cases told in the third person also appeared consecutively, in 1917 and 1921 respectively, as did the only two written by Holmes himself, both in 1926.) Thus, it is time to begin delving into the details of the cases.
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Sherlock Holmes has been much in the public eye of late, thanks to the big-budget Hollywood movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. (And it’s an enjoyable picture; if the overall style is a bit too frenetic and overblown, and a few obvious liberties are taken with the source material, still the filmmakers at least seem familiar with that source material… and the cast, especially Downey, does a terrific job of capturing the subtle quirks of their characters.)

Of course, Holmes has been a cultural icon for well over a century, and I’ve been a fan for some years. As it happens, around the same time my girlfriend and I acquired the DVD box set of the 1980s-’90s TV series with Jeremy Brett as Holmes, and have been watching it from beginning to end. It offers more faithful adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories than any other filmed version before or since, in a style that’s a closer match for the original sensibilities of the material (i.e., fewer chase scenes, fistfights, and explosions)… and Brett does an uncanny job of capturing the persona of the Great Detective (although in some scenes he seems, perhaps, just a bit too caustic and antisocial), ably abetted by first David Burke and later Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson. It’s a fantastic series, well worth watching.

Even the best adaptation is a mere interpretation of the original, though, and I found myself moved to turn my attention back to “The Canon,” the original four novels and fifty-six short stories by Conan Doyle, published between 1887 and 1927. I’m fortunate enough to own both annotations of the complete works, William Baring-Gould’s classic Annotated Sherlock Holmes from 1967, and Leslie Klinger’s New Annotated edition from 2004-’05. Both offer not only the original texts but a fascinating treasure-trove of scholarly exegesis, analysis, background information, and speculation about the characters, settings, and myriad other details of the stories.

The Holmes canon has been peculiarly attractive to armchair scholars almost from the beginning, perhaps due to the natural appeal of applying the Master’s own analytical methods to the source material in which we discover them. And the exercise is more enjoyable for the distinctive rules of the game, the set of underlying premises observed with scholarly solemnity when possible and with tongue clamped firmly in cheek when necessary: namely, that the Canon represents a true and genuine (if tantalizingly far from complete) account of the life and career of Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, as recorded by his friend and colleague Dr. John H. Watson, published under the auspices and (for reasons lost to history) under the name of Watson’s literary agent (and occasional editor), Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle. I respect and observe these rules.

There are as many facets of Sherlockian scholarship as there are enthusiasts ready to undertake it, but one area of longstanding controversy that I find particularly engaging (given my own deep-seated and frankly self-evident interest in narrative chronology) is the matter of how to date the cases. I’m coming late to the game, of course; there have been well over a dozen books published on the matter of chronologizing the Canon. Nevertheless, I think I have some insights and observations worth exploring… and this is the first in a series of posts in which I’ll share that exploration.

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Superman Secret Origin #2No, I haven’t posted in several weeks, but no, I haven’t abandoned this blog, either. I’ve just been exceedingly preoccupied with other things. More on that at a later date. It’s starting to ease up, though, so for the moment I at least have the opportunity to offer a short new post.

About? Superman: Secret Origin #3, which shipped last week.

As I wrote at the time, I actually kind of enjoyed the first issue of this Geoff Johns-written revamp of Superman’s backstory; it didn’t really seem necessary, but at least it was being done reasonably well. I had some more reservations about the second issue (which elaborated on Lex Luthor’s origins in Smallville in a way that made it completely pointless to have transplanted him there in the first place, and which reinserted the Legion and a kinda-sorta Superboy career into Clark’s youth in a way designed to pluck all the most obvious emotional chords, but which still had some fun elements). The third issue, though? This one was an outright disappointment.

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