Posts Tagged ‘ Sherlock Holmes ’

Mystery & Detective Week, Pt 3: Sherlock Holmes in India and Tibet

This is the Third of Three Asia Mystery & Detective Week posts.  Earlier this week we went to Tang Dynasty (618-906) China with Judge Dee, then to Edo Era (1603-1868) & pre-War Japan with Inspector Hanshichi and Detective Akechi, respectively.   Now on to late 19th Century India and Tibet with the inimitable Sherlock Holmes (with a contemporary colleague, Inspector Sartaj Singh of Sacred Games, making an appearance in the Epilog…).  Enjoy.

INDIA:  Sherlock Holmes

  I go back a ways with Sherlock Holmes.  My testimonial to that is set forth in Part 1 of this series as an introduction to this 3-part series, so I won’t belabor it here.  Apparently, Tibetan exile, scholar and author Jamyang Norbu has a long and personal history with Sherlock Holmes, too.  In fact, I know he does.  Norbu’s modern masterpiece (it really is a masterpiece of a kind), The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (HarperCollins Publishers India, 1999).  Mandala attests to Norbu’s deep respect, knowledge and, indeed, love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s (1859-1930) iconic sleuth.  The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes is much more than mere fan fiction, it’s a celebration of Holmes done thoroughly, done plausibly, done completely, in sum:  done right  —  meaning across the broad sweep of a stand-alone novel.

Norbu quotes liberally — sometimes with, sometimes without, attribution — from the original Holmes canon.  But even the non-attributed moments and phrases that pepper Mandala stand out to the truest Holmes fans as virtual winks from Norbu to the reader, as if to say, “Did you catch that one?”  To which the true Holmes fan responds in their mind, across time and distance back to Norbu, “Oh, yes.  Good one.  Well played, sir.  Well played!

How Does Sherlock Holmes Get to India in the First Place?

Let’s keep two things in mind from the outset.  First of all, during Sherlock Holmes’ “lost years,” from mid-1891 to 1894, India is the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, so it’s entirely plausible for most any middle class British subject to find their way to India.  Second, and to put a finer point on it, Holmes himself tells Watson about his travels to and around South Asia in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”  Let us keep in mind that Watson is shocked to discover Holmes alive and well after an absence of two years during which time Watson and the world had thought Holmes had died — along with Professor Moriarty — in Reichenbach Falls… the cover illustration to this latest printing of Mandala.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem.”

Here’s part of what Holmes tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Empty House:

I slipped through [Moriarty’s] grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds, and clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went. With my face over the brink, I saw him fall for a long way. Then he struck a rock, bounded off, and splashed into the water.  .  .

I had only one confidant — my brother Mycroft. I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true. Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret. . .                                                                                                                                                                                                As to Mycroft, I had to confide in him in order to obtain the money which I needed. The course of events in London did not run so well as I had hoped, for the trial of the Moriarty gang left two of its most dangerous members, my own most vindictive enemies, at liberty. I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca . . . .


So that’s how we find Holmes in South Asia in the early 1890s.  It’s from there, more precisely, Malabar Point, Bombay (now Mubai, yes, that’s my photo) that Jamyang Norbu picks up Holmes’ tale.  Holmes nows travels under the pseudonym Sigerson.  And takes up with his Indian Watson (and narrator of the tale), Hurrie Chunder Mookerjee — a Bengali scholar and surveyor employed by The Department, the British Secret Service in India — and they venture across India, into Tibet and on to Lhassa, dodging assassins all the way, until the final, climatic scene. . .  I’ll leave it at that.

Sidney Paget’s Sherlock Holmes. 1891.

.               .               .

A Few Choice Passages (by narrator Hurrie) from The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes

After two days I managed to rent a small but full-furnished cottage for Mr. Holmes — Runnymeade, near Chota Simla.  The previous occupant had been a notorious poodle-faker, a doyen of the Simla smart-set who, due to a number of causes, including inebriation, fell off his horse nine hundred feet down a ravine, spoiling a patch of Indian corn. . . .


Shiva Temple. Badami, India. 2006.


As I have confessed before, I am an awfully fearful sort of man — which is a serious detriment in my profession — but somehow or the other, the more fearful I become, the more dam’ tight places I get into.                                                                                      Yet fear at least performs the useful function of making one careful.  I had taken a number of precautions to ensure that anyone taking undue interest in our activities would not learn very much.  Even our silent, stealthy departure on this dark morning was one of my attempts to ‘muddy the well of inquiry with the stick of precaution,’ as they would say in Afghanistan.


Narasimha slays the demon. Hoysala Temple. 2006.


The door swung back somewhat, awkwardly on its clumsy wrought-iron hinges.  A shaft of light from the lantern cut through the darkness of the room to reveal a terrifying red face with long white fangs sticking out of a grimacing mouth.  I gave a little start.  Actually, I nearly screamed, but recovered my wits sufficiently — and in the jolly nick of time — to realise that the fearful apparition was nothing but the idol of a yiddam, a wrathful deity of the Lamaist pantheon.  We were obviously in some kind of chapel.  Mr. Holmes did not betray any surprise but kept the lantern shining steadily on the idol.  Then he slowly moved the beam of light across the room, revealing more images of fierce tantric deities, peaceful Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, all disconcertingly life-like in the silence and gloom of the chapel.  The heavy scent of juniper incense contributed to the mystery of the place.


Tears filled my eyes at the realisation that my noble friend was doomed, and with him the Grand Lama and the Lama Yonten; and then, of course, Thibet, that fascinating country to whose study I had devoted these many years of my life.  Was it all to end in this manner?


Holmes back in London. Cheers to J Brett.

Holmes back in London. Cheers to J Brett.


‘Well, Hurree,’ said Sherlock Holmes with a shrug, ‘seeing that we’ve been together so far on this long journey, it would perhaps be amusing — if the worst came to the worst — having to continue together in the hereafter.’


The Final Bow:  Noticing Two Glitches

I like this book.  A lot.  While its journey into mysticism at the end cuts against the grain of the Holmesian canon and Zeitgeist, I figured that Norbu felt like he was going to take his one shot at a large Holmes Project so he might as well go for broke and put his own individual stamp on the the World of Holmes.  I mean, sheesh, in the 1940s we have Holmes battling Nazis long after he would have passed away and there have been time-traveling Holmeses, and, even more heretical, we have “The Seven Percent Solution,” in which we are told that “The Final Problem” and “The Adventure of the Empty House” never even happened, that they were mere fabrications (which allowed author Nicholas Meyer to then construct his alternative narrative of Holmes “lost years” from 1891-94).  So I don’t begrudge Norbu his particular twists, given that his timeline — and place, Tibet — actually fit-in with Doyle’s/Holmes’ original explanation for said “lost years.”

That said, here are my two (admittedly geeky) Findings of Glitch that I cannot bring myself to not mention here.  One concerns an anachronism and one concerns Norbu’s (and his editors’) fouling-up a classic Holmes maxim.

The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. April 2008.

Anachronism & Architecture:  The Taj Mahal Hotel

In old Bombay, after Holmes disembarks from the ship, the S.S. Kohinoor, he takes up temporary residence at the Taj Mahal Hotel.  This is in late 1891 or early 1892.  The Taj opened in 1903.  I’ve stayed at the Taj (technically, “The Taj Mahal Palace,” and just down from the Taj, and have conducted more than a few meetings there.  It’s a place I know pretty well.  Also, and this is really picking nits:  let’s first go ahead and assume that the Taj itself time-traveled back a dozen years and opened in 1891.  Even if it did, it should be noted that from its (1903) grand opening until well after World War II what people now see as the grand front facade of the Taj, facing Mumbai’s harbor and the Gateway of India, was actually the rear, the back side, of the Taj — for about half of its life the Taj’s front faced west while its rear faced the harbor.  Thus, when our narrator, Hurrie (called “Hurree” by Holmes in Mandala writes, Holmes ran through the corridor and down the narrow staircase, leaving me no alternative but to follow him.  We came out in a rush through the back door into a narrow alley. . .  he gets it wrong.  There was no alley, let alone a “narrow alley” behind the Taj during its first 50+ years. As I’ve admitted, that’s picking nits.

Holmes & Watson. (Brett & Hardwicke)

Botched Line:  Improbable, Impossible

Perhaps the most famous line from the Holmes canon:

We must fall back upon the old axiom that when all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Norbu botched it.  I won’t say how.  If you want to find out you’ll have to read Mandala and find out for yourself.  Maybe in later editions the editors fixed it.  Anyway, nobody’s perfect.  A good lesson in and of itself.

.                     .                   .  

E p i l o g

I’d be remiss in not at least mentioning a local, Indian, detective.  My knowledge of India’s Mystery & Crime Novel genre is as non-existent as other native North American’s.  But I’m fortunate to know (as many around the world know) of Inspector Sartaj Singh, the burned-out Mumbai cop who winds his way in and out of that vast city’s crime world, both petty and organized, in Vikram Chandra’s 2007 epic novel, Sacred Games.  Chandra possesses that rare combination of writing with both attention to detail, moving the narrative along, and making the story crackle with tension as it moves along.

The blurb sums it up well-enough:

A policeman, a criminal overlord, a Bollywood film star, beggars, cultists, spies, and terrorists—the lives of the privileged, the famous, the wretched, and the bloodthirsty interweave with cataclysmic consequences amid the chaos of modern-day Mumbai. . . .

One of the (many) allures of Sacred Games is Chandra’s refusal to patronize his non-Mumbaikar (मुंबईकर) by sanitizing or Westernizing the street-slang and other local dialect/s (except, of course, by having that slang appearing in English, though the books been translated into almost 20 languages).  The extensive glossary at the end of Sacred Games is not only necessary, but makes for fun, PG-17, maybe R, reading in and of itself.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s the online version.

It’s an incredible read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Here’s the site for Sacred Games.

.                     .                 .       

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series.  Please feel free to comment, or to contact me with suggestions for future posts.  Next:  we go back to Japan.  R.R.N.

One parting shot.  Mumbai’s financial district today (or, rather, in 2007 when I took this picture):

Mumbai Financial District. February 2007.


Mystery and Detective Week, Pt 2: Inspector Hanshichi & Detective Akechi

This is the second of three Mystery Week posts.  Earlier this week we went to China with Judge Dee.  Now on to two Detectives in Japan whose authors brought them to life between the World Wars and whose exploits live on to this day in books, manga, film and television.  Coming up this weekend, an old friend will solve crimes and unravel mysteries in India and Tibet.  Until then, enjoy.

JAPAN: Inspector Hanshichi

“The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi”  (半七捕物帳 – The Hanshichi Detective Stories).  Link to Amazon site.   Inspector Hanshichi was the creation of Kido Okamoto (1872-1939), whose life and work spanned three historical and tumultuous epochs of modern Japanese history, the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the  Taisho Era (1912-1926) and the Showa Era (1926-1989), marked by the reins of the Emperors whose names they became known by (as per Japanese custom — Westerners should note that Emperors take on posthumous names, thus Emperor Hirohito became known as Emperor Showa after he passed away in 1989).  A few years ago The Japan Times serialized (in English) “The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi.”  Unfortunately, I can’t find an online version of that.  Nevertheless, the Times published a wonderful, multi-part piece on the background of Inspector Hanshichi, his creator, Kido Okamoto, the times in which Kido lived and wrote, and the times (the late Edo Period) in which he places Inspector Hanshichi.  The Times piece provides a very readable and informative history lesson of 19th and early 20th Century Japan.

Although widely read in Japan since its publishing in the years between 1917 and 1937, it wasn’t until 2007 that [The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi] was translated into English. The book was published by the University of Hawai’i Press .  .  .                                                                                                                                                    Hanshichi is that rare example of Japanese detective fiction that provides both a view of life in feudal Japan from the perspective of the period between the First and Second World Wars and an insight into the development of the fledging Japanese crime novel.  Although it is a product of the early period of Japanese modernism  .  .  .   Hanshichi does not seek to challenge literary conventions.  Instead it aims to entertain and thrill its readers with well-crafted prose, realistic dialogue, and compelling plots, enabling them to escape into a world both strange and familiar.  Strange, in that the customs of mid-nineteenth century Japan must have seemed antiquated, even quaint, to readers of the late 1910s and early 1920s. Familiar, in that Hanshichi was not an imitation of Western fiction — as was much crime writing of the time — but boasted characters and settings uniquely Japanese.  Full article.


And, a couple more quotes from the well-written Japan Times background piece on Hanshichi and its author:

Kido’s fictional hero, Inspector Hanshichi — an old man in the 1890s when the narration of the series is set — represents many Japanese at the turn of the century who had not entirely adjusted to the changes of two to three decades earlier.  Hanshichi [ ] still thinks of the seasons and the weather in terms of the old lunar calendar. . .   Unable to adjust completely, he feels himself somewhat out of tune with the modern world.  Likewise, many traditional customs and practices persisted in Japan amid the onslaught of modernity.  Western democracy and industry were embraced as more “advanced” and “enlightened” than Japanese institutions, but the feudal order proved surprisingly durable.  Kido’s coming-of-age in the early years of Meiji also sheds light on his efforts to adapt Western artistic forms to Japanese tastes.  The trajectory of his career illustrates the diffi culties many Japanese experienced in adapting to the new social order, as well as the opportunities it afforded.  .  .  .  Source.


When Hanshichi was launched in 1917, very few of Kido’s readers would have had firsthand knowledge of Edo (Tokyo) in the 1840s to 1860s, the period when the adventures are set.  As the series progressed and more and more of the old city vanished (most notably after the Great Earthquake of 1923), decreasing numbers of his readers could have recalled what Tokyo had been like in the time before Japan’s overseas wars with China and Russia in 1894 and 1904, respectively.  .  .        Hanshichi’s Edo is populated not only by fl esh-and-blood men and women but also by ghosts, spirits, and monsters of various descriptions, whose existence, while never actually proven, is frequently hinted at. They take the form of human specters, fox spirits, shape-changing cats, and other mischief makers such as the goblin-like tengu and watery kappa that lurk in rivers and on desolate moors, liminal spaces where the relative safety afforded by the city and the presence of other human beings gives way to the unfathomable and forbidding natural world. As the opening sentence of the very first adventure suggests, the Edo period was a time when the supernatural exerted a strong grip on the Japanese imagination. It was used to explain any strange and troubling event, and was as readily accepted by most samurai as by the less well-educated townspeople. Even Hanshichi, the wise and worldly expert on human nature, is never willing completely to rule out the supernatural as a plausible explanation. In recounting his adventures, he defers to his young interlocutor on all matters of modern science and empiricism, modestly professing that such things are beyond his ken.  .  .  . Source.


Detective Kogoro Akechi

Detective Kogoro Akechi was the brainchild of Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), pen name for Hirai Tarō.  Here’s a wonderful write-up on Rampo and his works of mystery and fantasmagoria.  And here’s a Rampo fansite.  From the Wiki, regarding Akechi:

“Like [Sherlock] Holmes, Akechi is a brilliant but eccentric detective who consults with the police on especially difficult cases. He is a master of disguise and a judo expert whose genius  lets him solve seemingly impossible cases.  Also like Holmes, Akechi makes use of a group of young boys — the Baker Street Irregulars — to gather information.  Akechi’s version is known as the Boy Detective Club. Akechi smokes Egyptian cigarettes when he is thinking about a case.

“Akechi is a tall, handsome man with heavy eyebrows who dresses well. He is married to a woman named Fumiyo and has an adopted son, Yoshio Kobayashi, the leader of the boy detectives club.  Kobayashi often plays an important part in solving cases.  Like his mentor, he is an expert at disguise and is especially adept at posing as a young woman.  Aside from these relationships little is known of the detective’s personal life, which always takes a back seat to the mystery in his adventures.

“Detective Akechi’s most frequent foe is the infamous Kaijin Nijū Mensō (the ‘Fiend with Twenty Faces’) <-2002 made-for-T.V. film poster.  The fiend is a master criminal whose infallible gift for disguise may have been inspired by Hamilton Creek, Thomas W. Hanshew’s heroic but amoral “Man of Forty Faces.” The Fiend is a non-violent criminal who steals to demonstrate his brilliance rather than out of need for money. He and Akechi have a mutual respect in the stories.”  From here

Masakazu Tamura as Detective Akechi in the 2002 made-for-tv film, "Kogoro Akechi vs. the Fiend with 20 Faces."

Regarding that 2002 TV version of Kogoro Akechi vs. the Fiend with Twenty Faces, here’s a link to the full film (sorry, with only Chinese subtitles; it’s a Chinese site):  Link to Film.  It’s rather hokey but visually interesting and even if you don’t understand Japanese (or Chinese), you can “get” what’s going on in at least the first 20 minutes, which I recommend.  Historical/Cultural Note:  the very beginning, Prologue portion, of the film is set in China during WWII, in the fictitious “Unit 634” (bio-warfare).  There actually was an infamous Japanese biological warfare program in China during the war, “Unit 731.”

An even more recent “Detective Akechi vs. the Fiend with Twenty Faces” movie was released in theaters in 2008.  It’s set in an alternate history, 1949 Japan where  WWII never happened and Tokyo is called “Teito.”   Here’s the trailer to “K-20,” which looks pretty hokey and unwatchable to me, but it is interesting to see what other filmmakers are doing (which, here, looks not too different from what American and British studios are doing, which is not a compliment).

Mystery & Detective Week, Pt 1: Judge Dee.

This is the first of three Mystery Week posts.  We begin in China with Judge Dee.  Later in the week we go to Japan.  Our last of the series finds an old friend solving crimes and unraveling mysteries in India and Tibet.  Enjoy.


Judge Dee

Several years ago, when I was already grown up and all, I started reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  But I knew Holmes from way back.  When I was a little kid I remember watching the old Sherlock Holmes movies, late on Saturday nights when they would sometimes air on WTOP, a Washington, DC television channel.  Those were the (now stilted-looking, sort of cringe-making) Basil Rathbone movies.  I liked the Charlie Chan movies better, though the racial stereotypes of those old films make them pretty unwatchable now(1).  Another way my father introduced me to Sherlock Holmes was reading me “The Hound of the Baskervilles” to me when I was just, I don’t, 7 or 8 years old.  I remember this old book of Alfred Hitchcock stories for kids that my dad read to me, too.  I read and enjoyed Poe as a little kid, too.  Cool father, mine.

Anyway, before reading all the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes canon, over and over, I watched many of them while living in Japan in 1990-1991.  Back then, in the late afternoons, there was this one Japanese television channel that ran the Granada Productions (BBC) of the Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, the ones starring Jeremy Brett (1933-1955) from the 1980’s.  I watched almost all of them I think.  Jeremy Brett was Sherlock Holmes.  Which drove him to madness for a time (unfair to Brett, as he was an accomplished actor capable of and having performed many roles).

So my history with mysteries goes back a way.

About two years ago a dear friend of mine introduced me to the Judge Dee Mysteries, novellas written by Dutch diplomat Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967).  I’ve become a big fan.  It seems that Judge Dee was, indeed, a real person. I quote here from the author’s Postscript to “The Haunted Monastery,” a favorite (“The [Taoist Monastery] Abbot, Jade Mirror, is dead after delivering an ecstatic sermon.  The monks call it a supernatural experience, but Judge Dee calls it murder.  Somewhere hidden in the tangled corridors of the monastery is the killer.” — from the back cover):

Judge Dee was a historical person who lived from A.D. 630 to 700.  In the earlier part of his career, when he was serving as magistrate in various country districts, he earned fame as a detector of crimes; and later, after he had been appointed [to the Royal] Court, he proved to be a brilliant statesman who greatly influenced the internal and foreign policies of the Tang Empire.  The adventures related here, however, are entirely fictitious, although many features were suggested by original old Chinese sources.

Along with just good reading, when you curl up with a Judge Dee mystery you’ll also learn something.  Judge Dee was a strict Confucianist and often grapples with Taoists and Buddhists, haranguing their beliefs along the way.  Van Gulik writes:

The Chinese professed three creeds, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, the last having been introduced from India in the first century A.D.  Since old Chinese detective and crime stories were written in the main by Confucian scholars, that literature evinces a pronounced partiality to Confucianism, a feature I adopted in also in my Judge Dee novels.  The characterization of Confucian and Taoist ideals given in the present novel is based on authentic Chinese texts.


I offer a couple excerpts from the Judge Dee mystery, “Necklace and Calabash,” just to give you a feel for the prose and atmosphere:

Entering the main street, he suddenly realized that his legs were stiff from the long ride, and his mouth was parched.  He went into the first tea-house he saw and ordered a large pot of tea.  Half a dozen citizens were gathered round the larger table in front of the window. . .  Sipping his tea, Judge Dee reminded himself that, since he was here in a Special [Imperial] Area subject to strict security regulations, he was required to register at the Guard’s headquarters as soon as he had arrived.  He would do that on his way to the hostels, for according to the old monk they were located a little way beyond the headquarters.  Since the cashier of the Kingfisher had been tortured and killed in such an abominable manner, everybody there would, of course, be upset.  he had better take a room at the other hostel, the Nine Clouds.                               .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          .

Me and my friends want you to know that we have nothing against you two.  We do what we are paid to do, because that’s the only way we can make our living.  The judge knew that this was the death sentence.  Low-low class scoundrels were superstitious; they always said this before killing their man, so as to prevent his ghost from haunting them afterwards and bringing them bad luck.  .  .

.  .  .   The judge turned round.  The bearded leader was coming for him, a crazed look in his one remaining eye.  He had picked up a pike, and now aimed a sweeping thrust at Judge Dee’s head.  The judge ducked and drove his sword up into the other’s breast.  As the bearded leader sank to the floor, the judge bent over and barked:

‘Who sent you!?’

The giant looked up at the judge with his one rolling eye.  His thick lips twitched.

‘How . . .’ he began.


Here’s another another Judge Dee website.  And, now, a Judge Dee movie is set for release in the U.S.:  “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.”   I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen it.

Please check back in a couple of days when we venture over to explore mysteries   in 1890s and 1920-30s Japan.


(1) “Positive assessors of Chan argue that he is portrayed as intelligent, benevolent and honorable — in contrast to the adverse depictions of evil or conniving Chinese then current on page and screen. Others state that Chan, despite his good qualities, reinforces certain Asian stereotypes, such as an alleged incapacity to speak fluent English and the possession of an overly tradition-bound and subservient nature. . . .” quoting the Wiki