The Dastardly Past: the Death of Sherlock Holmes.
Forget Star Wars. The true importance of May the 4th is that it’s the day Sherlock Holmes died. In Arthur Conan-Doyle’s story “The Final Problem,” set in 1891, Holmes and Moriarty meet at the Riechenbach Falls in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland. They glare at one another. They charge. They fight. They plunge into the torrent, locked in battle, and fall to their deaths. Finis.
The reading public, however, rejected this (or any) end to their analytical hero. Conan Doyle, who had wanted to pursue other projects, held out from 1893, when the story was published, to 1901, when he relented and produced The Hound of the Baskervilles, set prior to 1891. Aficionados refer to this period as The Great Hiatus. A year later Holmes came back for good in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Set in 1894, it details his remarkable escape from the clutches of Moriarty and his henchmen. Holmes stories appeared regularly after that and no more thought was given to a permanent end to the immortal detective.
J. W. Turner’s view of the Reichenbach Falls.
The Dastardly Past: In Praise of Persephone Books.
There is little of a dastardly nature is today’s post, mostly because I have been sick and not doing much research. Instead, I’d like to praise Persephone Books of London. If you are unfamiliar with them, rejoice in the lacunae about to be filled in your life and library. Persephone specializes in reprinting neglected twentieth-century books, mostly by women writers. They produce visually and tactilely pleasing volumes at reasonable prices. If you enjoyed the film adaptation of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, for example, you’ll be delighted with the novel on which it was based, by Winifred Watson. In addition to humor, Persephone’s list encompasses a wide variety of categories, fiction and non-fiction, basically something for everyone. I cannot praise them too highly, but I leave it to you to discover them for yourself. You will not be disappointed.
The Dastardly Past: Bram Stoker.
April 20, 1912 marked the passing of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. The authors of the Stoker article in the Dictionary of Literary Biography said this of him, “Without Dracula, Bram Stoker would be forgotten. As it is, he is one of the least-known authors of one of the best-known books.” Born in Ireland, Abraham Stoker, Jr., was by turns a civil servant, drama critic, actor and theater manager, as well as a writer. His social circle was wide and cultivated (as was Stoker himself). Scholars have attributed his interest in vampires to Hungarian Arminius Vambery, a colorful figure who told wild tales of the vampires of Eastern Europe. Intrigued, Stoker began researching the topic. Four years later he completed his world-famous novel. It has been adapted for stage, screen, radio, and every other conceivable medium. Although somewhat prudish, the circumstances of his marriage led Stoker to seek companionship outside of his home. He died of advanced syphilis at the age of 65.
The Dastardly Past: Rebecca (1940)
On April 12, 1940, David O. Selznick Productions released Rebecca, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Alfred Hitchcock directed this, his first American production and the only one of his films to win an Oscar for best picture. David O. Selznick had purchased the rights to the novel in 1938 for $50,000, but had difficulty casting the film. His first choice for Maxim de Winter was Ronald Colman, who refused the part. Selznick next considered William Powell and Laurence Olivier. Olivier came cheaper than Powell by $100,000 and so won the role. Joan Fontaine was one of several actresses, including Margaret Sullavan and Anne Baxter, considered for the part of the second Mrs. De Winter. The best bit of casting did not involve the leads, however. Dame Judith Anderson as the menacing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, outshone the principals and redefined malevolence. The movie, like Anderson’s performance, remains a classic.
The Dastardly Past: George Chapman & Jack the Ripper.
On April 7th 1903, British authorities execute Polish murderer George Chapman, who was responsible for the deaths of three women by poison. Some people also consider Chapman a likely contender for the Whitechapel murders perpetrated by Jack the Ripper over a decade previously. Helena Wojtczak explores this possibility in her book, Jack the Ripper at Last? George Chapman, the Southwark Poisoner (2016), available on Amazon.
The Dastardly Past: Judging Bond by His Book Cover.
On the 5th of April 1954, publisher Jonathan Cape releases Ian Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die, another action-packed adventure involving the suave and ruthless James Bond. Yet the publisher chooses to package the world’s most interesting secret agent in the world’s most boring book cover.
That brings us to something they rarely tell aspiring authors: they can sweat blood for years to produce a masterpiece, yet they don’t get a say in the book’s design. The dust jacket will be selected as agenda item #6.1b in a publisher’s production meeting based, not on the book’s content, but on the fact that Randy is on his honeymoon and Gwen has the ‘flu. So that leaves Dave who has only ever designed covers for college textbooks. But they decide to give Dave a break and he comes up with something like this, suggesting Bond does his gambling on riverboats rather than the Riviera. Poor Ian Fleming.
Over time the book covers for Live and Let Die improve gradually. But, frankly, it looks like they only got serious about a clean, cool design in recent years, 60+ years after James Bond has become a proven cultural icon. I’ll let the picture speak for themselves, though.
On this day: writer Jack Trevor Story.
On March 31, 1917, the writer Jack Trevor Story was born. His best-known work is the black comedy The Trouble with Harry, which Alfred Hitchcock made into a popular movie with Shirley MacLaine. Hitchcock paid $500 for the movie rights yet, despite the movie’s success, refused to augment the original sum. Story continued to write short stories, screenplays, and novels with mixed success. He passed away in 1991 of a heart attack.