Adventure of the Chuckle-Headed Doctor (223B Casebook)

Dipping into the 223B Casebook of Sherlock Holmes parodies and pastiches, we find one about an aspect of Conan Doyle’s life that we haven’t been explored.

conan-doyle-caricatureAround 1917, Conan Doyle embraced spiritualism, the belief that the human personality survives death and can be contacted. For fans of the ultra-rationalist Holmes, this was a surprising admission. Imagine the response when, three years later, Doyle published an article claiming that photos of the Cottingley Fairies were real.

For the rest of his life, Conan Doyle promoted his beliefs. He bravely faced doubts, insinuations and outright ridicule. One of these attacks took the form of “The Adventure of the Chuckle-Headed Doctor: A Positively Final Story of Sherlock Holmes.” by Reginald Berkeley (1890-1935). The sketch appeared in “The Decorations and Absurdities” by Berkeley and Bohun Lynch.

Stories from the 223B casebook — stories published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — are published here every Monday and Friday. The up-to-date list can be found here.

Sherlock Holmes parody Chuckle-headed doctor part 1

Sherlock Holmes parody Chuckle-headed doctor part 2

Sherlock Holmes parody Chuckle-headed doctor part 3

Categories: Sherlockian Parodies and Pastiches | Leave a comment

Putting Television In Its Place

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Suburban stockade introductionSoon after Bill and I got married, we became television less. Our one, lone TV had broken down. Older son, a tot at the time, was finding it increasingly difficult to do anything BUT watch TV. It zombified him. Bill and I rarely turned it on for ourselves. We didn’t have the money to replace it so we didn’t. Older son found other things to do and we never missed it. It certainly freed up time.

TV underestimates the pleasures of regular, bill-paying, responsible, considerate lives.

TV underestimates the pleasures of regular, bill-paying, responsible, considerate lives.

This distressed some friends and family: how could we live without a television?!?! A number of years later, we were given a TV by one of those concerned souls. We made the command decision to keep it isolated from the outside world. Our TV is attached to a DVD player, a VCR, a PlayStation II, and a Wii. As the TV is in our finished basement, it cannot receive any signals from the outside world. It can only play movies that we select and games we choose. This has saved us thousands of dollars over the years in cable bills. It has probably saved us even more money because we are not bombarded by constant ads.

Television is never free. It is paid for by advertising or subscription or both. Advertising is designed to make you dissatisfied with what you have. Why would you replace perfectly functional dishes or clothes or cars if you weren’t subtly made unhappy with them? The underlying purpose of TV is to sell you things. The stories are to rope you in so you see the ads. Often, they are for things you don’t really need or are not really good for you. You will notice that there are far more ads for potato chips than potatoes on TV.

Television is educational. Every second of it is educational. The question is, do you want your family to be educated that way. Happy, happy, joy, joy; no consequences or costs are ever associated with the beyond thrilling lives you let into your home. Your own life is so drab compared to what you see, and no-one you know has witty writers feeding them clever, cutting lines. Who could not notice the lack of flavor in the real world?

TV encourages dissatisfaction with the real world.

TV encourages dissatisfaction with the real world.

TV encourages dissatisfaction with the real world. Why isn’t your spouse as attractive as that TV husband? Why aren’t your children as clever and cute? Everyone is better dressed than you are and lives in better decorated homes. Their problems are solvable, often quite quickly. TV overestimates the dangers of modern lives (how often do you see a car chase through your town?) pounding a news story at you until something bloodier comes along. It underestimates the pleasures of regular, bill-paying, responsible, considerate lives. Those are dull and don’t make for good storytelling. Interestingly, these dramatic lives rarely seem to lead to grief, suffering or psychiatric care for trauma. Again, consequence-free living.

We are always affected by what we see and hear around us. Television can be deeply involving; if it wasn’t, no advertiser would spend as much as they do on thirty-second commercials. Not seeing the tidal wave of consumer goods pouring into my home keeps my own materialistic desires more in check. I don’t feel the need to go shopping just to get something I saw on TV.

Make It Harder To Watch

Our children are all readers and not TV freaks; it is easier to pick up a book than to choose a movie from our collection (which they had seen multiple times before), turn on the vampire-blocking power strip to allow electricity flow to the TV and DVD player and find the remotes. If they want something we don’t own, it has to be requested from the library and then they wait for it. Easier to play outside or draw or read. Not having the TV also meant not having to hear a lot of “I want this” and “I must have that.” It isn’t just cable bills you avoid, and they total up to a lot over the years. It is bills for all the junk being sold on the television.

I think we have the best of both worlds. We can see movies, although not when everyone else does. I have to wait for the library to acquire it. We can even sometimes see television programs, after the library buys a season long set. Does this mean I miss a lot of must-see TV? You bet it does! Does this free up oodles of time for other activities? Oh my, yes. Remember that every hour you spend in front of that set is an hour you aren’t doing something else. It is true you can do a lot of handwork while watching TV; knitting, rug-hooking, needlepoint and the like. But that isn’t much. It is hard to weed the garden while sitting in front of the TV.

I am, by the way, including the television you can watch on-line like Hulu or YouTube videos or tv show streaming. It isn’t that different: someone else is being creative while you passively absorb it. I can see the point of instructional how-to videos. Some things just have to be seen in action to understand how to do them. But after you finish watching the demonstration, you have to do it yourself.

Competing Against the Kardashians

The television is so much a dominating force that it doesn’t get turned off even when company arrives. I have visited many households where the TV is never turned off. The noise is irritating and difficult to for me to hear over. Even more annoying are the constant ads. Worst of all is the realization that the person I am speaking with is trying to watch the TV at the same time. Clearly, I am boring compared to the television. This just seems rude. The barrage of ads and stimuli do remind me of all the reasons why my TV stays isolated, so there is some benefit.

If you are looking for a way to cut back on expenses, disconnecting your TV from the outside world may be just the ticket. Add up all your TV-Related costs for a year, both dollars spent and hours per day. Now think what you could do with that money. Think what you could do with that time. If you are really serious about preparing for an uncertain future, then do you really want to put this much money and time into … what? Watching Kim Kardashian? Talk shows? Other people being creative with food and landscaping? Shoot-em-up cop shows?

Think of it as another opportunity to live what you say you value.

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Sherlock Holmes Parody from Punch 1910 (223B Casebook)

For more than 150 years, the humor magazine Punch kept a firm and slightly cock-eyed gaze on the follies and foibles of British society. It was only natural that Sherlock Holmes and its creator would be parodied. R.C. Lehmann took the canon through its paces in 17 stories featuring Picklock Holes, and P.G. Wodehouse indulged himself in several short stories about Dudley Jones. There was even a recently discovered Holmes story about his adventures in the trenches during World War I.

Conan Doyle was also nudged in the ribs a few times. He was portrayed by E.T. Reed in Mr. Punch’s Animal Land as “The Coneydoil or Churlcombs,” and in 1926, Bernard Partridge portrayed him as a giant, shackled to a tiny Sherlock Holmes.

This time, we’re opening the Casebook at 223B Baker Street (because these Sherlock Holmes parodies are next door to the originals) to present a slightly saucy look at Holmes solving the Case of the Missing Muff from a 1910 issue of Punch. The artist was Lewis Baumer (1870-1963) who worked at the magazine for more than 50 years.

Stories from the 223B casebook — stories published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — are published here every Monday and Friday. The up-to-date list can be found here.

WHY READ AT ALL?

For Busy Men — The World’s Greatest Authors Taken In At A Glance

Sherlock Holmes parody from Punch 1910

Sherlock Holmes parody from Punch 1910

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Review: Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well by Nancy Atherton

I which I betray a liking for cozy mysteries and thereby revoke my mancard.

Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well. Nancy Atherton. Viking. $25.95.

aunt-dimity-wishing-wellLight and dark. Sweet and sour. Night and day. Work and rest. Life is best lived by moving through contrasts, enjoying each in turn. We derive pleasure from experiencing changes, and when we’re sated, we can only wait for the renewal of desire.

Which is a roundabout way of anticipating criticism for saying that I liked “Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well.” Fiction, we’re told repeatedly, are supposed to teach us, make us more empathetic, show us a new way of viewing the world. In other words, the puritans in intellectual clothing warn us, we are fallen and must mend our ways, and Gaia forbid that we praise a book for being entertaining.

It doesn’t help matters that Nancy Atherton’s mystery story is set in a paradisiacal English village overseen by a ghost full of sound advice, a spectral Dear Abby if you will. In the small Cotswold village of Finch, everyone knows everyone and their business. No one seems to work for a major corporation or has to commute long distances to go to work. There’s the owner of the tea shop, the riding academy, a lawyer, the local businesswoman who owns several businesses, the vicar and a mother, Lori Shepherd, who narrates the stories. There are retirees and semi-retirees who still keep their hand in.

Then there’s Aunt Dimity. She extraordinary because she’s dead, and she talks with Lori with the help of a blue notebook in which she writes. Lori keeps the notebook next to a stuffed rabbit that is sort of her talisman.

Even for cozies, sounds awfully twee, but bear with me for a moment.

“Wishing Well” opens with the funeral for a quiet man who kept himself to himself and never got to know the villagers very well. At the graveside, the residents are surprised at the late arrival of a personable young nephew from Australia. Charged with fixing up the place for sale and to deal with his uncle’s memoir, he is the focus of everyone’s curiosity, particularly when clean-up begins on the overgrown yard and reveals an unusual wishing well. Not surprisingly, wishes are made and, surprisingly, many of them are granted.

And that’s where the fun kicks in, because while the village can be a paradise, the villagers are not. There’s jealousy, meanness, and pettiness, and the well’s gifts sometimes come with a sting attached.

“Wishing Well” is an easy book to sneer at as a comfort read. I supposed some people sneer at sleep, but we need it, too. Reading “Wishing Well” got me into bed, under the reading lamp, early on a Friday evening. The wife was downstairs reading about resource depletion on the computer, and the kids were safely occupied. For awhile, my life and its concerns faded while I roamed with Lori and Aunt Dimity, seeing the villagers discover that not all wishes are golden, and learning who was behind them and why.

So I admit it. When I closed the book, its tale told, I felt more at ease with the world. What more could I want?

Categories: Mysteries & Thrillers | 4 Comments

Today’s Weather Report from the Hershey Area

Mornings start early at the House Beautiful. The kids get up for school 6:30. Ivan the Terrible meows us up at 5:45. Ivan spends the day sleeping to prepare for his duty of acting as unofficial alarm clock. Which works fine except on Sundays. That earned him a stint on the Florida room, but I suspect that a couple hours spent contemplating nature only encourages him.

The point is that today we woke up to the first extended shower of the season. There’s something comforting about sipping my coffee, looking over my to-do list, hearing the patter on the skylight and knowing that none of my chores requires me to go outside.

Except to take the kids to school. On Tuesday and Thursdays there’s early band rehearsal, so I had to go out anyway.

But here’s the view from the front window, to get you situated:

Hershey in the spring, 2014.

As you can see, the daffodils exploded. But what inspired me to take the picture and post this is to remind myself of what this looked like two months before.

Hershey in winter, 2014

We’ll have to enjoy it while it lasts. It’s 63 now. It’ll drop to below freezing tonight.

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Dashiell Hammett’s The Master Mind (223B Casebook)

One fact that’s cropped up in my researches into Sherlockian parodies is how many great writers turned their hand to the task. A.A. Milne, P.G. Wodehouse, O. Henry, and even Watson’s literary agent (a chap by the name of Conan Doyle) seemed to have quite a bit of fun with their stories. Everyone except for Mark Twain, who didn’t appreciate Holmes’ talents.

Dashiell Hammett and his sherlock parody pastiches

Dashiell Hammett

In the latter couple of years of Doyle’s life, some surprising names turn up. Thanks to Charles Press’ “Parodies and Pastiches Buzzing ‘Round Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” we find that humorist James Thurber, as a 29-year-old reporter for the
Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, wrote a dozen parodies for the newspaper in 1923, where they have remained ever since, unseen by anyone. Are the good? Are they interesting? We won’t know until someone goes down to the Columbus Public Library and examines the microfilm. Volunteers?

Then there’s the case of mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, who turned in this brief, acidic portrait of “The Master Mind” for The Smart Set, then under the editorship of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. The magazine had published his debut story, “The Parthian Shot” in October of the previous year, and his leftist views and experiences as a Pinkerton detective influenced his take on Holmes.

Stories from the 223B casebook — Sherlock Holmes parodies and pastiches published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — are published here every Monday and Friday. The up-to-date list can be found here.

The Master Mind, Dashiell Hammett Sherlock Holmes parody pastiche

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Winter Laundry

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Suburban stockade introduction

I have never been really keen on sending my money to the electric company. Please don’t misunderstand me. I love electricity. There is no good substitute for electric lights or refrigerators or washing machines. That said, why use — and pay for! — what I don’t need. I can always find better uses for my cash.

I grew up with my mother hanging laundry on a clothesline. She was very happy to get a dryer but still hung the wash out whenever she could. At the time, I could not understand why my mother didn’t use the dryer for every load of clothes. Once I acquired my own electric bill, I understood a little better. When Bill and I got married, I moved from my apartment into his house and for the first time in years, had a clothesline again. So, I started using the clothesline every sunny day. We lived in South Carolina then, so there were a lot of warm, sunny days, even in January. I did not have to use the dryer that much.

Then we moved up here to central Pennsylvania. It is lots colder in the winter and not quite as hot in the summer. It takes longer to warm up in the spring and cools off quicker in the fall. Winter days tend to be shorter with less daylight and sun. Which is to say, the clothesline season is not nearly as long as it was in South Carolina. I used my dryer frequently. When it was raining, when it was cold, when it was convenient, when I hadn’t planned ahead, when I had a load of towels and I wanted them snuggly soft. My electric bill went up. When the rates were raised, it went up some more.

I went back to Amy Dacyzyn and “The Complete Tightwad Gazette” and recalculated how much I was spending, every time I used the dryer. You need to know about how long the dryer runs, what its wattage is and how much you pay the power company for each watt used. Electric utilities bill by the kilowatt-hour or KWH. A KWH is 1,000 watts used in one hour. Your dryer (or other electrical appliance; this works for all of them) should have the wattage marked somewhere on it and, maybe, in the instruction manual. Multiply the wattage on the dryer times the number of hours you use it per load and divide by 1000. This is the dryer’s KWH usage. Multiply this number by the electric company’s fee per KWH which is on your bill. This is how much it costs to run that appliance for however many hours you use it per load. Don’t forget to add in the cost of any magic dryer products you use. For us, it worked out to about fifty cents per load. So, if I dry thirty loads of laundry per month then it costs me fifteen dollars a month in electricity plus a box of dryer sheets now and then. We won’t count the wear and tear the dryer inflicts on clothing.

As we are very, very serious about our goal of financial independence, we always look for ways to spend less. Using a clothesline is free, so this was an easy choice. I planned ahead and all the laundry went onto the line, weather permitting, in spring, summer, and fall. On rainy days and cold, gloomy winter days, I used the dryer.

This cut our electric bill noticeably, but still not enough. I wash more laundry in the winter because we wear more, heavier clothing. What in the summer might be one load of shorts and t-shirts, becomes two loads of long pants, turtlenecks, and sweaters. Thus, my costs are higher.

I became more aggressive about hanging out the laundry on iffier days. Gradually, I began using any day that it wasn’t actually raining or snowing. Heavy, humid mist and fog counts as rain. Outdoor temperature became immaterial and so now you see me, in a parka, putting wash on the line in 15 degree weather.

suburban-stockade-clothesline-1

Hanging Out in Winter

Hanging laundry in the winter is quite different from the summer. In July, it really doesn’t matter what time you hang it up as long as you get two or three hours of daylight. In the winter, every hour of daylight is precious.

To start with, you have to get outside with the laundry basket before ten AM. If you have a second load to do, get started washing earlier and wash the heavier, longer drying items first. Things like polar fleece and acrylic sweaters dry pretty fast. Jeans, heavy wool and cotton sweaters, and bulky layered fabrics take a lot longer. That load has to be washed first so it can go on the line first. Then it has some additional drying time while load two is being washed. This extra hour can make the difference between being dry enough to put away and still wet garments that have to finish overnight on the racks.

Winter laundry should be spaced so that there is air flow around each and every piece. Clothing or towels that are overlapped because you don’t have enough clothesline space will not dry. If you haven’t yet set up your clothespoles, think about how much space you will need for multiple loads of winterwear and plan ahead for extra line space. T-poles with three or four lines are much better than those square clotheslines. The laundry won’t shade itself and hangs freely with more space for air and sun. If you have a choice in locations, put the poles in full sun and at right angles to the prevailing winds. Avoid the square clothesline unless you have no space for anything else.

I went into huge detail in the “Hanging Laundry” post how to exactly hang everything you own so I will try not to repeat it here too much. In the winter, you have less sun and less time in which to extract moisture from the laundry so clothes management matters.

Sort your laundry inside the house! A pile of wet, tangled garments will freeze into a solid mass and that gets difficult to work with. I arrange my laundry on the line so it is easier for someone else to bring it back inside and put away. As I pull clothes from the washer, I shake out each garment, open any buttons, snaps, zippers, or Velcro and lay them out flat in the basket. I put the lighter weight stuff (like socks) in the basket first and end with the heavy sweaters and jeans. They take much longer to dry and they freeze up fast so they go on the line first. Shake out every wrinkle and smooth every collar and flap while you are still inside and warm. Crumpled clothes will freeze up and won’t dry well and they get permanent press wrinkles as well. I also pull out any pockets so they hang free, and undo and smooth out any ties or sashes.

I keep a special pair of gloves by the door for laundry use. Heavy gloves get in the way of my hands and I end up taking them off. Holding wet, frozen laundry in twenty degree weather is a good way to court frostbite so find a pair you can live with. My gloves are a cheap pair of Joe Boxer two layer knit gloves from K-Mart. The pair consists of a full, inner glove of some cheap polyester knit and an over, fingerless glove of the same cheap knit. Worn separately, the gloves are pretty poor at keeping the cold out. Together, they work fairly well at a) keeping your hands from freezing and b) allowing you fine muscular control of your fingers so you can manage the clothespins. The other reason I like these gloves is the fingerless portion (the over-layer) can be separated and worn while typing in our cold house.

Once I have put on my parka, hat, and special laundry gloves, I head outside. A full sun day with a breeze will dry almost all laundry no matter how cold it is. Overcast and windy will work pretty well too. No sun and no wind mean that only things like sheets will dry completely. Everything else has to finish on the indoor drying racks. Fortuitously, my clothesline is at right angles to the prevailing north wind. We lucked out here; we put the clothespoles alongside the existing sidewalk. This means I, sometimes, get sun on the front of the garments and wind on the back. If the day is windy, with no sun, I will hang the laundry from the back side of the clothesline so that the wind blows through the garments. This is especially helpful with heavy pants, to have the wind blow down through the legs. Any openings on the garments: sleeves, necklines, legs, pocket flaps; if you can face them into the wind, then do so. The wind will blow into the garment, separating front from back and it will dry far faster. As you hang everything up, shake out wrinkles and crumples and open up legs, sleeves, pockets, and the legs of socks. Two layers of fabric frozen together will take far longer to dry. Having an airspace speeds up the process.

In the summer, I may hang tops by the shoulder seams or by the bottom hem, depending on the garment. In the winter, all tops get hung by the bottom hem as the sleeves, especially the armpit area dry better. When a pullover is hung by the shoulder seams, the sleeves hang down alongside the body of the garment and the underarm area just won’t dry. Regular sweatshirts and pullovers get four clothespins, evenly spaced on the hem, to support the garment. I don’t want to stretch out the hemline. Sweaters get five, seven, or even nine clothespins on the bottom hem to keep it smooth, well supported, and unrippled.

Putting the wash outside in the dead of winter cut my dryer bill down substantially. I only used it when it was raining or snowing or to finish off slightly damp laundry. But I wanted to do more. I knew about indoor clotheslines (Amy Dacyczyn has one in her attic and I saw, while house hunting here in Pa, a few basement clotheslines) but we had no space for one. The drying racks I had seen were tiny and flimsy. And then, there they were. Waiting for me at Wilhelm’s Hardware were an array of Amish made heavy duty, solid wood drying racks of various sizes. The biggest ones had just shy of forty-eight feet of total drying space.

I bought two racks in the largest size for about 115 dollars for the pair. We have had these racks for eight years now. They get used on a regular basis and have held up beautifully. They see some use in the summer when it rains, but they really shine in the winter. It took a few years of use to pay back their initial cost and now they cost me nothing but some time and floor space. Since purchasing my two lovely racks, I have trash picked some others and been given a few racks as well. None of them hold as much as my big racks, but they allow for overflow.

Now that I have a bunch of racks, I can see that there are things to look for. Solid wood construction is at the top of the list. Anything else just won’t hold up. How the rungs are arranged can affect how much clothing you can put on the rack. Tippyness is a big defect. My best trash picked rack is solid wood and is clearly designed to hold underwear and socks. Get the very biggest racks you have space for! Underwear, socks, heavy sweaters, pants; they all take an amazing amount of rack space. Consider that a big clothesline may have 150 feet of linear drying space. You will need several big racks to come close to that amount of room. You also have to have storage space for the folded racks that is easily accessible (so you use them instead of the dryer) but not too much in the way. The biggest racks hold the most clothes. They also take up quite a lot of floor space when in use.

When you go shopping for racks, start with old time, local hardware stores. They are more likely to have well made, wooden racks than Wal-Mart or Lowes will and they can use your business. Antique stores may have old wooden racks too. Ask around; many people have a rack or two tucked away that they inherited when Grandma got her dryer. Solid wood racks can be repaired with new dowels and rubbed down with butcher block oil to restore them. If you have to put butcher block oil on a rack, let it stand for a few weeks before using so nothing gets on your clothes. Lehman’s catalog and the Vermont Country store both sell wooden racks but they are expensive and the shipping for a big one gets costly. Go local and ask around first.

Laundry that goes straight to the racks from the washer gets handled a little differently than laundry that goes on the clothesline. Clotheslines have far more room and it is all in a straight line. Racks hold a lot of garments in a very small space with rungs close together and the bottom-most rungs only inches off of the floor. So if I have two loads, I wash the smaller, lighter stuff first and fill the rack from the bottom up and the inside out. The second, heavier load gets washed last so as to go on the top and outside rungs. Underwear, socks, and napkins go closest to the floor and I will arrange and rearrange until everything is on the rack, without any overlap or crowding. Practice has made me a lot faster in loading a drying rack. I wash most of my laundry inside out to prevent sun and washer fading of the fabric. I put the garments on the rack inside out and then, at the end of the day, I turn the clothes right side out to finish drying overnight. Racks do take more time to dry heavy clothes completely; far more than an outdoor clothesline ever will so be prepared for this. Don’t put away even slightly damp garments as they get a mildowy, musty odor from this practice.

I use the racks to finish drying any wash that is still damp from outside. When the weather is bad, the laundry goes directly onto the racks in our living room. Depending on the item, it may take 12 or more hours to dry, but everything is always dry by morning. The only laundry the racks don’t do well are sheets and large towels. This is a function of acreage, not drying ability. You have to have a huge rack in order to spread out a king size sheet. As large as my racks are, sheets have to be folded over multiple times to fit and then they don’t seem to dry as well. So, I let the sheets wait for better weather.

Eventually, we may set up a clothesline on our Florida room so as to dry sheets, towels, and other large items when the weather is bad. I am flexible in my laundry schedule, I have storage space for some waiting laundry, and the racks let me dry all the regular stuff so this hasn’t really needed to be done. A Florida Room clothesline would give me more flexibility with sheets, fabric yardage and such so I keep revisiting the idea when we have bad weather for days and big stuff piles up.

Exercise, fresh air and savings

So, a fair amount of work to save fifteen bucks or so a month. But hanging clothes outside in the winter isn’t as much work as it would be to earn that money. That money adds up over time. Earning extra money would be taxed. I am not levied an additional tax when I choose to keep more of my income in my pocket. As a side benefit, I get a little exercise walking back and forth, fresh air, and much needed sunshine.

I look at winter laundry as an exercise in mindfulness and goal-setting. How serious am I at achieving financial independence? Do I really want to be able to never set foot off of my property unless I really, really want to? Am I willing to live my beliefs of caring for my environment and not sending dollars to terrorists and heartless corporations? Or am I going to take an easier way, a less organized way, a more costly way that says I don’t want to be bothered with meeting my values; that I don’t believe in them when it takes some time and effort. Winter laundry is a way of saying my goals matter to me. Do your goals matter to you?

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The Unmasking of Sherlock Holmes (from the 223B Casebook)

“So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle, / The doll and its maker are never identical.” So wrote Arthur Conan Doyle in 1912 in a poetical rebuttal to a critic’s accusations that he borrowed from Poe’s stories only to have Holmes’ dismiss his detective-hero Dupin as “very inferior.” We know, of course, that Doyle admired Poe. To an American reporter’s question about whether he had been influenced by Poe he replied, “immensely!”

John Cusack portrays Edgar Allen Poe

When your author has appeared in movies more often than you, it’s time for a gritty reboot.

He wrote later: “If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay a tithe to a monument for the master; he would have a pyramid as big as that of Cheops.”

Nevertheless, those who could not distinguish between the theft of others’ words and the use of ideas to create original works were fond of bashing Holmes. Today’s example from the February 1905 issue of “The Critic” comes from Arthur Chapman (1873-1935), the newspaper columnist and cowboy poet whose most notable work is “Out Where the West Begins.”

Stories from the 223B casebook — stories published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — are published here every Monday and Friday. The up-to-date list can be found here.

In all my career as Boswell to the Johnson of Sherlock Holmes, I have seen the great detective agitated only once. We had been quietly smoking and talking over the theory of thumbprints, when the landlady brought in a little square of pasteboard at which Holmes glanced casually and then let drop on the floor. I picked up the card, and as I did so I saw that Holmes was trembling, evidently too agitated either to tell the landlady to show the visitor in or to send him away. On the card I read the name:

Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin,
Paris.

While I was wondering what there could be in that name to strike terror to the heart of Sherlock Holmes, M. Dupin himself entered the room. He was a young man, slight of build and unmistakably French of feature. He bowed as he stood in the doorway, but I observed that Sherlock Holmes was too amazed or too frightened to return

the bow. My idol stood in the middle of the room, looking at the little Frenchman on the threshold as if M. Dupin had been a ghost. Finally, pulling himself together with an effort, Sherlock Holmes motioned the visitor to a seat, and, as M. Dupin sunk into the chair, my friend tumbled into another and wiped his brow feverishly.

“Pardon my unceremonious entrance, Mr. Holmes,” said the visitor, drawing out a meerschaum pipe, filling it, and then smoking in long, deliberate puffs. “I was afraid, however, that you would not care to see me, so I came in before you had an opportunity of telling your landlady to send me away.”

To my surprise Sherlock Holmes did not annihilate the man with one of those keen, searching glances for which he has become famous in literature and the drama. Instead he continued to mop his brow and finally mumbled, weakly:

“But—but—I thought y-y-you were dead, M. Dupin.”

“And people thought you were dead, too, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said the visitor, in his high, deliberate voice. “But if you can be brought to life after being hurled from a cliff in the Alps, why can’t I come out of a respectable grave just to have a chat with you? You know my originator, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, was very fond of bringing people out of their graves.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll admit that I have read that fellow, Poe,” said Sherlock Holmes testily. “Clever writer in some things. Some of his detective stories about you are not half bad, either.”

“No, not half bad,” said M. Dupin, rather sarcastically, I thought. “Do you remember that little story of ‘The Purloined Letter,’ for instance? What a little gem of a story that is! When I get to reading it over I forget all about you and your feeble imitations. There is nothing forced there. Everything is as sure as fate itself—not a false note—not a thing dragged in by the heels. And the solution of it all is so simple that it makes most of your artifices seem clumsy in comparison.”

“But if Poe had such a good thing in you, M. Dupin, why didn’t he make more of you?” snapped Sherlock Holmes.

“Ah, that’s where Mr. Poe proved himself a real literary artist,” said M. Dupin, puffing away at his eternal meerschaum. “When he had a good thing he knew enough not to ruin his reputation by running it into the ground. Suppose, after writing ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’ around me as the central character, he had written two or three books of short stories in which I figured. Then suppose he had let them dramatize me and further parade me before the public. Likewise suppose, after he had decently killed me off and had announced that he would write no more detective stories, he had yielded to the blandishments of his publishers and had brought out another interminable lot of tales about me? Why, naturally, most of the stuff would have been worse than mediocre, and people would have forgotten all about that masterpiece, ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue,’ and also about ‘The Purloined Letter,’ so covered would those gems be in a mass of trash.”

“Oh, I’ll admit that my string has been overplayed,” sighed Sherlock Holmes moodily, reaching for the hypodermic syringe, which I slid out of his reach. “But maybe Poe would have overplayed you if he could have drawn down a dollar a word for all he could write about you.”

“Poor Edgar—poor misunderstood Edgar!—maybe he would,” said Dupin, thoughtfully. “Few enough dollars he had in his stormy life. But at the same time, no matter what his rewards, I think he was versatile genius enough to have found something new at the right time. At any rate he would not have filched the product of another’s brain and palmed it off as his own.”

“But great Scott, man!” cried Sherlock Holmes, “you don’t mean to say that no one else but Poe has a right to utilize the theory of analysis in a detective story, do you?”

“No, but see how closely you follow me in all other particulars. I am out of sorts with fortune and so are you. I am always smoking when thinking out my plans of attack, and so are you. I have an admiring friend to set down everything I say and do, and so have you. I am always dazzling the chief of police with much better theories than he can ever work out, and so are you.”

“I know, I know,” said Sherlock Holmes, beginning to mop his forehead again. “It looks like a bad case against me. I’ve drawn pretty freely upon you, M. Dupin, and the quotation marks haven’t always been used as they should have been where credit was due. But after all I am not the most slavish imitation my author has produced. Have you ever read his book, ‘The White Company ‘ and compared it with ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’? No? Well do so, if you want to get what might be termed ‘transplanted atmosphere.’”

“Well, it seems to be a great age for the piratical appropriating of other men’s ideas,” said M. Dupin, resignedly. “As for myself, I don’t care a rap about your stealing of my thunder, Sherlock Holmes. In fact, you’re a pretty decent sort of a chap, even though you are trying my patience with your continual refusal to retire; and besides you only make me shine the brighter in comparison. I don’t even hold that ‘Dancing Men’ story against you, in which you made use of a cryptogram that instantly brought up thoughts of ‘The Gold-Bug.’”

“But you did not figure in ‘The Gold-Bug,’” said Sherlock Holmes with the air of one who had won a point.

“No, and that merely emphasizes what I have been telling you—that people admire Poe as a literary artist owing to the fact that he did not overwork any of his creations. Bear that in mind, my boy, and remember, when you make your next farewell, to see that it is not one of the Patti kind, with a string to it. The patience of even the American reading public is not exhaustless, and you cannot always be among the ‘six best-selling books’ of the day.”

And with these words, M. Dupin, pipe, and all, vanished in the tobacco-laden atmosphere of the room, leaving the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, looking at me as shamefacedly as a schoolboy who had been caught with stolen apples in his possession.

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Agatha Christie: Murder Among the Academics

As we noted yesterday, an author’s works can get spread through the culture by being recast and retold. The work gets stripped down and rebuilt by others, much like the way a home can be remodeled. A Victorian can have its gingerbread ripped off, its wooden clapboard siding covered over with vinyl, and its furnishings of heavy dark oak and ceramic be replaced with couches and tables devoid of any ornamentation. A kitchen hearth that would have delighted our grandparents can be replaced with chrome and steel countertops and tables that remind one of an autopsy suite and be declared beautiful and enjoyable. At least that’s the only way I can explain why Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” can resurface as an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle.

When literary scholars debate Agatha Christie.

When literary scholars debate.

Another way an author gains immortality is to be put on the dissecting table by professors and students of literature. This usually happens to literary writers such as Edith Wharton, Henry James or James Joyce. Even with the rise of Genre Studies or Cultural Studies (usually focusing on television), Christie has been ignored by those who strive for their PhDs or MFAs.

But in recent years there has been an infestation of scholarly rummagings inside the body of Christie’s works. A seething lava of studies and papers has been produced that will erupt this weekend at the University of Exeter in southwest England.

As Christie was born and raised in Torquay, the Riviera of England, it’s natural that the university would take an interest in its native daughter. The university acquired her correspondence with her lifelong business agent, Edmund Cork, the only publicly available archives of her papers.

So this weekend, they’re putting on a daylong show at Exeter: “Agatha Christie: Crime, Culture, Celebrity.” Scholars from around the kingdom, including two from Europe and one from the U.S., will gather to display their collages of papers created by breaking down her books like auto thieves in a chop shop.

Reading the schedule creates an effect much like seeing a celebrity you’ve known for a long time after undergoing an extensive round of plastic surgery. It’s the same person, but something artificial has been applied that’s disconcerting.

The titles of these lectures tantalize. It’s a bizarre world of reading Christie, not for entertainment, but with an eye for the hidden meaning and unconscious associations. Can Christie’s “The Hollow” really be compared to Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” as Dr. Makinen will describe in “Anxiety of influence and the woman as artist”? Did Jane Baker (no doctor, alas) find enough cloth to weave into “Textiles in text: Clothes in Agatha Christie’s interwar detective fiction? Can Poirot survive being queered by Dr. Atay in “Queering Agatha Christie’s work?” And when did “queering” become a verb anyway?

And the work must give the educated some joy. After considering a career plowing through Thomas Mann or James Joyce, ground that has been harvested to the point of depletion, it must be a pleasure to dwell in Christie’s world.

I’m sure all of these talks make perfect sense to the scholars in attendance. Evolution has trained the human eye to find patterns in everything it sees. But I also have no doubt that Christie would be vastly bemused by all the fuss.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger Meets Agatha Christie, And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

(Yes, I am ashamed to write that headline. Let’s move on and pretend it never happened.)

What keeps a writer like Agatha Christie alive once she is no longer around? Writers and other artists seem like firewood to be used and consumed. Some burn like oak: long-lasting and giving off an even heat. Some go up like flash paper. Then there’s the damp twigs and worm-riddled logs that never catch fire at all.

Arnold meets with movie critics after the premiere of "Sabotage." based on an Agatha Christie novel

Arnold meets with movie critics after the premiere of “Sabotage.”

Agatha Christie has been gone nearly four decades, and she seems to be burning like well-seasoned pine. It’s been a steady flame, with the stately progressions of TV adaptations and continued sales of her books. Every now and then, she gives off a pyrotechnic pop, emitting a shower of multi-colored sparks that catch your attention.

There have been several sightings of sparks lately that has caught my attention. The biggest one came from Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose movie “Sabotage” failed to find an audience when it premiered last week. It’s the story of a DEA agent and his squad who find themselves in an isolated place and being slowly killed off, one by one.

Can you guess that it was “inspired by” a Christie book? Can you guess which one? Can you watch the “red band” trailer below, with added dollops of violence, cursing and general Arnoldish-ness, before deciding that life is too short to spend with this?

I admit that I was skeptical about the Christie connection, but it was repeated so many times that I had to accept it as fact, especially after it was revealed that the movie’s first working title was “Ten.”

What I can’t imagine is the producers thinking that it was worth paying Agatha Christie Ltd. for the right to use her book as the skeleton for Arnold Freakin’ Schwarzenegger. The concept of a group of people locked away somewhere being slowly killed is hardly original to Agatha, as anyone who has heard of the “Friday the 13th” movies would recognize. And they certainly wouldn’t have revealed the Arnold/Agatha connection without paying the estate.

One could only conclude that the original idea was to remake “Ten Little Indians,” perhaps with another actor in the lead role. Then Arnold was signed, and like a black hole, the light of the story had to be bent around this new gravitational field, distorting it so much that it reworked the title from “Ten” to “Sabotage,” and guaranteeing that the movie would fail. Because “Ten” (now permanently emblazoned “And Then There Were None”) is essentially a tragedy, a tale of revenge.

And Arnold doesn’t do revenge unless he’s dishing it out.

Time to reboot Poirot

What they should have done, you see, is bend the light the other way. They needed to do what Christie did in her time, rewrite the script with Arnold as Hercule Poirot.

Plus, Arnold would look soooo cute as Agatha Christie's Poirot with a wax mustache.

Plus, Arnold would look soooo cute with a wax mustache.

Imagine it! A Poirot who is fussy and foreign. Arnold could do that. Poirot is a comic figure who no one would believe was that smart. Arnold had been underestimated as a lunkhead with muscle for brains, yet succeeded as a movie star and governor of California.

Admit it, you want to hear “my little grey cells” spoken in an Austrian accent.

Imagine the premiere of “Dead Man’s Folly,” shot where Christie set the story, at Greenway, her home on the River Dart. We’d get to hear David Suchet opinion of Arnold’s performance, which would probably rank among the greatest acting jobs of his life.

And you know what? I’ll bet the producers will still manage to insert a chase scene at the end, with a dapper Poirot taking down a row of baddies with a machine gun while spitting out “let’s see your little grey cells.” Because, after all, Arnold must still be Arnold.

During it’s first week, “Sabotage” took in only $8.9 million. It’s rated 22% by the critics and 46% by the audience on Rotten Tomatoes. Arnold-as-Poirot will certainly take in more than that.

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