Tag Archives: Sherlock Holmes

The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney

If any one book inspired me to write my William Quest Victorian thrillers it’s this one, Kellow Chesney’s very readable and scholarly book on the Victorian underworld. It was first published in 1970 and – for me – is the standard work on this fascinating subject.Victorian Underworld: Chesney, Kellow

I first encountered it when I was an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Although I majored in literature, I did a minor in nineteenth-century social history. The underworld was only a small part of my studies, but discovering Kellow Chesney’s book sent me of on a wider reading programme, both in secondary reading and the primary sources.

When I’m asked to recommend a book on the Victorian underworld this is the one I suggest as a first read. There are several other titles I like – and I hope to give these a mention on the blog in the coming months – but Kellow Chesney’s book is the most comprehensive and the best introduction.

It’s all here, starting with a walk through the mid-century streets of London – and how vividly the author portrays the place. This is no dull work of scholarship, it’s a page-turner as exciting as all the best mystery thrillers.

Then from the main streets frequented by the richest members of society, Kellow Chesney takes the reader to the borders of the underworld, the places where the dispossessed and those forced into crime to survive are obliged to lurk – and the boundaries between the rookeries and the smart streets of society are often back to back.

We are then taken on a journey into the rookeries themselves. Kellow Chesney conjures them up in all their awfulness. It is impossible to understand the Victorian criminal underworld unless you can understand the causes of crime.

Here are the beggars, the pick-pockets, the footpads and the swell mob. The skilled cracksmen who break the safes and steal the jewellery of the richest members of society. Here are the magsmen, gonophs, macers and shofulmen. The screevers and the Newgate mob. (I’ll talk more about these in a blog early next week.)

There were perhaps 80000 prostitutes in Victorian London alone. Kellow Chesney deals sympathetically with their plight, whether they were working the poorest streets in the East End for pennies or selling themselves for much more in the night houses in the West End.

The book is wonderfully illustrated, mostly with the sketches of the great Gustave Dore, adding to the feeling of being there so brilliantly evoked in Mr Chesney’s words. If you can, seek out one of the original hardback editions – the pictures are not so well reproduced in the paperback editions.

When I came to write William Quest, Kellow Chesney’s book was the first I re-read. If you want a good understanding of the Victorian underworld, I commend it to you.

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Douglas Wilmer (1920-2016)

Douglas Wilmer (1920-2016)

We were saddened to hear of the death of British actor Douglas Wilmer, albeit at the grand age of 96.

For viewers of our generation, Douglas Wilmer gave one of the greatest portrayals of Sherlock Holmes in a memorable television series which began with a version of “The Speckled Band” in 1964, and continued with another twelve of the Conan Doyle stories before Peter Cushing took over the role. Nigel Stock played Dr Watson – superbly – to both actors.

Douglas Wilmer, with his hawk-like profile, was almost born to play the great detective. He looked just like every one’s imagining of Holmes. Even after all these years I can hear his voice bringing Doyle’s words off the page.

As if that was not enough, Douglas Wilmer played two other great characters in the genre; he was a memorable Nayland Smith, adversary of Dr Fu Manchu, in two film versions of Sax Rohmer’s classic tales, and played the detective Professor van Dusen in a televising of one of Jacques Futrelle’s stories in the series “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes”.

He reprised Sherlock Holmes in the Gene Wilder’s pastiche film “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother”, as well as recording sound versions of a number of the stories.

He was a familiar face in a number of great British films and a regular in television series such as “The Saint” and “The Avengers”, and had a considerable reputation as a stage actor.

It would be wonderful if, in tribute, the television networks reprised the Sherlock Holmes series.

Another great actor has gone from us.

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Raffles – The Amateur Cracksman

A.J. Raffles, gentleman about town, celebrated amateur cricketer, notably at Lords, and – most importantly of all – amateur cracksman, burglar and thief without parallel.

In these short stories by E.G. Hornung, first published in book form in 1899, Hornung gives us the idea of the gentleman-burglar. Not original in itself. There were a number of gentlemen-burglars in the popular literature of fin de siècle England. And in France the great Arsene Lupin was still to come. John Creasey was clearly inspired by these stories with his creation John Mannering, The Baron as late as the 1930s.

But Raffles is special. Not least because of the links between Hornung’s character and that of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was Willie Hornung’s brother-in-law, and it was a roundabout comment by Doyle that led to the birth of Raffles. Doyle had admired a public school rogue that Hornung had killed off in an earlier story, and remarked that such a character would feature well in popular fiction.

There are considerable likenesses between Sherlock Holmes and Raffles. Both are based in 1890s London, both are gents of the middle class, both have rooms in nice parts of town. Both have companions; Holmes has Dr Watson, Raffles has Bunny Manders. Indeed, some of the stories have a vague similarity, though whether this is conscious or not in debateable. “The Amateur Cracksman” as a volume is dedicated to Doyle.

And here I owe Hornung an apology. Since I last re-read the stories decades ago, I had pictured in my mind that some of Hornung’s major plot developments had been lifted from the Holmes stories. Particularly the way Raffles fakes his own death and re-appears in disguise to an astonished Manders. I was quite wrong. In fact Hornung came up with the idea first. And it was Doyle who lifted the plot device for his Holmes resurrection yarn “The Empty House”.

But I think there is no doubt that Bunny Manders, from whose point of view we are given most of the stories, is a deliberate aping of Watson. To Hornung’s credit they are both very different men. Bunny is taken on by Raffles initially so that the former can pay off a gambling debt. Bunny had been Raffles’ fag at a possibly inferior public school. Raffles likes him because of the innocent look Bunny always seems to have on his face – a useful counter to the suspicions of the Scotland Yard detective Inspector Mackenzie.

And here we have another departure from Doyle. In Sherlock Holmes, the various police detectives are usually not terribly clever and are outshone by Sherlock. Not so Mackenzie. He suspects Raffles is the gentleman-burglar plaguing London almost from his first appearance. He just can’t prove it, though he has some darned good tries.

Now I like Mackenzie in his own right. He is one of the great fictional detectives, worthy of a series of his own. In a way you kind of want him to succeed, even if it means bringing Raffles to heel.

Bunny’s one talent is his aura of innocence. He really has no others. He is quite incompetent as a thief, and his hero-worshipping of Raffles can be quite annoying. Some critics have tried to imply a kind of homo-erotic motivation to the feelings of adoration that Bunny has for Raffles. I think that’s going too far. Victorian men often had strong masculine friendships, without a hint of homosexuality. And Hornung counters any suggestion by having Raffles occasionally besotted with a female or two along the way – though nothing ever comes of it very much. You might imagine Raffles and Bunny nodding a greeting towards Oscar Wilde at their club, but that would be as far as it would ever go.

In later years Conan Doyle frowned a bit at the Hornung stories. The idea of making the hero a villain. The morality of the Raffles stories is worth reflecting upon. Here is A.J Raffles, famous cricketer and gentleman about town. He is often invited as a guest to the mansions of the rich, and then proceeds to burgle them while he is being entertained under their roof. And not just for the financial profit of stealing her ladyships’ jewels. More than that. For the thrill of it! Raffles hunts these family treasures in much the same way, and for the same motivation as his hosts might pursue foxes.

And why is Raffles invited to their homes at all?

Certainly not because of his social background. In the snobbery of the English class system – and Hornung is really very good at exposing its silliness – Raffles in himself is a nothing. He knows a lot of people who are members of what we might call the Class, but he is never one of them. They invite him as a guest purely because of his talent on the cricket field, his ability as an all-rounder. The fact that he gets mentioned in the newspapers.

Though Raffles has been to a minor public school, he is really not at all a member of the Class. He has no ancient lineage, and, though he might have a set of rooms at Albany, very little in the way of cash – except what he makes from fencing stolen goods. He has a moral code of sorts – he never robs anyone who can’t bear the loss. Hornung was, I think, very clever to root his hero in the middle-class, who in the 1890s were eclipsing the upper-class and the aristocracy. There is something in Raffles as a middle-class of the entrepreneur, even if it is by the way of crime. His is the class on the rise. His victims are effectively social dinosaurs.

Doyle’s concerns about Hornung making the hero a villain tend to be disregarded by the reader. The morality of Raffles’ situation tends to be ignored because of what George Orwell called the ‘sheer efficiency’ of the storytelling. The reader gets so wrapped up in the telling that scruples are banished from the mind.

In the later stories, featured in the volume “The Black Mask”, Raffles comes back to life, after his Holmesian fake death, as Mr Maturin, a supposed invalid living quietly in the London suburbs. Raffles of Albany has been exposed. His cricketing and gentleman’s club days are over and Raffles is in hiding. He meets up with Bunny and they resume their life of crime, this time in a more covert way.

There are no invitations to the homes of the ‘Grand’ this time round. But the stories are every bit as good. Hornung can do the suburbs of London every bit as effectively as the great houses of England. There is a kind of wistful, autumnal feel to some of these later tales. Wonderful portrayals of late Victorian England. Hornung is in many ways a considerable literary stylist. He could probably have built quite a reputation writing more mainstream novels.

Raffles has featured a great deal in the theatre, in films and on television. In the cinema he has been played notably by Ronald Colman and David Niven. There were some quite early stage productions. More recently Graham Greene penned a modestly successful play “The Return of AJ Raffles.”

On television in the 1970s Raffles was played very successfully by Anthony Valentine with Christopher Strauli as a very innocent-faced Bunny, and the late Victor Carin as a quite superb Inspector Mackenzie. We’ve just watched them again and found them thoroughly enjoyable this time round. More recently, there was a one-off television production with Nigel Havers as Raffles. This was interesting because they ditched the character of Bunny altogether and gave Raffles a companion who was East End working class with criminal abilities worthy of the master himself. If you enjoy classic television do seek them out.

Hornung was one of those authors who gave a word and an image to the English language. Today, when we hear the name Raffles, we hardly think of the imperialist Sir Stamford Raffles, but usually only of a gentleman-burglar in a top hat and crape mask, forcing open the casement of a country house and filching a diamond necklace from a safe hidden between the bookshelves of a sumptuous library.

Quite an achievement for any writer.

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The Country of The Hound of the Baskervilles

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s longest Sherlock Holmes story is undoubtedly the most famous novel with a Dartmoor setting. It is well known, so I won’t look too closely at the plot. It was written by Doyle after he had “killed off” the famous detective at the Reichenbach Falls in ‘The Final Problem’ and before he brought Holmes back in ‘The Empty House’. It was said to be an episode from Holmes’ earlier career.

But here I want to talk about some of the settings of the Hound on Dartmoor. It’s a place I know rather well, having walked every inch of the Moor over forty years and having been a walks guide there, as well as spending nine years as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association in the days when it was a proper campaigning organisation.

The murder of Sir Charles Baskerville takes place at his home of Baskerville Hall. In point of fact, Doyle took his inspiration for the legend of the giant hound from legends in the Welsh Marches and the Black Shuck in Norfolk. Though it has to be added that Dartmoor has a considerable number of hound legends.

In particular, Doyle was probably thinking of the legend of Richard Cabell of Brook Manor, near Buckfastleigh, who led – tradition relates – an evil life before his death in 1677. He was buried in a particularly ornate tomb in Buckfastleigh churchyard, a tomb within a tomb within a tomb. He was often said to be accompanied on his hunts by a very vicious hound. Some have suggested, with no real evidence, that the hound tore his throat out. A whole pack of hounds are said to have rampaged across the Moor on the night of his death. A local legend says that if you walk seven times around his tomb and then put your finger in the keyhole of the door, Cabell, now a vampire will bite you! Some say his hound does the chore for him. I have to say I’ve tried it. And nothing happened. Or if it did I didn’t notice.

Brook Manor certainly fits the description of Baskerville Hall, though the location is too far off the high moorland to correspond to Doyle’s description. I would personally set the house somewhere in the vicinity of Prince Hall, on the Dartmeet to Two Bridges road. Not far away are Bellever and Merripit – the home of Stapleton the naturalist – which are mentioned in the book. The convict prison at Princetown, from which the prisoner Seldon has escaped, is just a few miles away.

A few miles into the Moor from Prince Hall is Fox Tor Mire, undoubtedly the setting for the Great Grimpen Mire of the story. In reality Fox Tor Mire is nowhere near as treacherous as its fictional counterpart. I have crossed it more times than I can count, and suffered little more damage than muddy feet. Though, I should add, it is not a risk to be taken by the inexperienced moor-walker. The mire was partially drained by mining operations over a century ago and may have been more difficult to traverse in earlier times. There are now more treacherous valley mires on Dartmoor, such as Raybarrow Pool, above Chagford, where I once went in up to my chest.

The village of Coombe Tracey in the novel, where lives the mistreated Laura Lyons is based on Bovey Tracey on the eastern side of Dartmoor.

The idea for the Hound was given to Doyle by his friend Fletcher Robinson of Ipplepen. Robinson took Doyle on tours of the Moor (his coachman’s name was Baskerville). Doyle also stayed at the Old Duchy Hotel at Princetown. Interestingly, the room he used became my office when I was chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, though the internal space had been somewhat adjusted by that point.

At one point in the story Holmes hides in a prehistoric hut on the Moor. This was based on the Bronze Age village of Grimspound, North-West of Widecombe, which Doyle visited during his moorland tour. Some of the huts in the old village were restored at around the same time. A few miles to the north is Fernworthy (not a village as suggested, but now a reservoir on the River Teign surrounded by some dull conifer forest and splendid antiquities). It is here that the litigious Mr Frankland is burned in effigy for closing a footpath.

Conan Doyle didn’t have a great knowledge of Dartmoor, despite being at one point a doctor in Plymouth. In fact in his Dartmoor short story “Silver Blaze” he puts Tavistock into the centre of Dartmoor, rather than on its western borders.
But there is no doubt that “The Hound of the Baskervilles” captures the spirit of Dartmoor, particularly the moorland of October. It is a story now completely associated with Dartmoor, though it is in only recent years that much has been made of it locally. Interestingly the only film version that was mostly filmed on Dartmoor was the version for BBC Television featuring Peter Cushing as the detective and Nigel Stock as Dr Watson – a fairly faithful adaptation.

The Hound is a good book to read if you are visiting the old Moor for the first time, even though the author does play fast and loose with Dartmoor geography.

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Arthur and George

Arthur and George is a three-part British television production based on the historical crime novel of the same name by Julian Barnes. Now I make all of my judgements from the television series as I haven’t read Mr Barnes’ novel.

Arthur and George is a fictionalised account of the successful attempt by Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to clear the name and criminal conviction of the Anglo-Indian George Edalji in 1906. Edalji had served a period of imprisonment following a conviction for animal mutilation. The case attracted the attention of Conan Doyle after he read about it in the newspapers.

In reality, Conan Doyle was successful in clearing Edalji’s name. Much like his creation Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle interviewed all parties concerned, visited the scenes of the crimes, sifted the evidence and, finally, was successful in exposing the folly of the original prosecution.

You can read some very good accounts of what actually happened in the better biographies of Conan Doyle. It was in many ways a most important case in the annals of British jurisprudence. It led to the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal. In itself, it is a gripping yarn that might well have come from the pen of the master himself.
The television production is, I think, a bit of a mixed bag. It is extremely well acted, though I find – as a Black Country boy myself – some of the Midland accents rather on the dodgy side.

Martin Clunes makes an admirable Conan Doyle, catching something of the bluff and determined nature of the man himself.

(For collectors of TV trivia, this production has some interesting Doylesian and Sherlockian links: Martin Clunes is the cousin of Jeremy Brett who played, I think, the definitive Holmes on television in the 1980s; Charles Edwards – who plays Conan Doyle’s secretary Wood (almost his Watson) in this programme – portrayed a younger Conan Doyle in the wonderful TV series Murder Rooms; the Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes, alongside the late Ian Richardson as Dr Joseph Bell. Both series are well worth buying on DVD.)

There is a sub-plot in Arthur and George dealing with Conan Doyle’s guilt over his long relationship with Jean Leckie (later the second Lady Doyle) following the very recent death of his first wife Louise.

The production, certainly in the first episode, portrays the Edalji case more or less accurately. The second (the third is on this Monday night – you can see the first two on ITV catch-up TV) goes wildly astray from what actually happened, with chases, fights, and a good old-fashioned murder thrown in.

Now I know that fictionalising a real event is perfectly permissible, but in an account of the Edalji case it really wasn’t necessary. What actually happened to Edalji is gripping enough.
Despite these flaws the production has much to commend it. The acting (Midlands accents ignored) is generally very good. The set dressings and photography are quite superb. You really have the feeling that you are there. There have been some criticisms of Clunes’ Scottish accent. I thought it was rather good for an English actor.

It is worth seeing Arthur and George and it would be pleasing to see Martin Clunes play Conan Doyle again in some of the other real-life cases that the creator of Sherlock Holmes investigated.

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