Sherlock By Moonlight

For over a year I have had trouble falling asleep.

There are many things I can point to as possible blames for my restless evenings. Three jump quickly to mind.

  • The obvious one, and the one we probably all share, is the 2016 election and what happened afterwards. For more information on that, tune in to NPR on any day (or hour).
  • The second is more personal. With my writing, I’m still trying to figure out what to do with my latest book (which I believe is probably the best original fiction I will ever create). It’s a very unique position, where each reader (agent or publisher) says it is important, some even say they love it, but it has yet to find a home. It’s like being the nice guy in high school; everyone wants to be its friend, but no one wants to date it.
  • The third one is I changed jobs last year. While I am very happy with the results of that experience (and it turned out to be a very good thing for me), everything around those stressful months still wears on me.

I wouldn’t say all of this is dramatic enough to call it PTSD, but it does linger in the gut sometimes at around 11 o’clock when my entire family is asleep and a part of me feels like I need to stay awake to keep an eye on all of them. I don’t have time to sleep. It feels like a luxury I don’t get right now.

I’ve tried a few tricks to fall asleep. The first was I got a sound machine, one of those devices that can do the sound of rain or thunderstorm, etc. (Strangely many of them just make me feel like I have to use the bathroom.)

The sounds did work for about a month and then my nine-year-old son discovered it, and I have not seen it since. It lives in his bedroom now, and while I am struggling to fall asleep he is experiencing a peaceful summer night with crickets.

Analyzing myself (which I love to do), overall, I need to put my mind in a sense of peace and harmony. Give myself the “okay” to fall asleep. Just lying in silence doesn’t do that for me. Reality bears down too much in the quiet moments.

…Strangely what has been working has been solving mysteries with literature’s greatest detective.

When people think of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s time as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, they usually jump right to their 14 B movies that they starred in during the 1930s and 40s. I own all those films as well, and some of them are good and some of them are… not so good. My favorites are The Hound of the Baskervilles (best adaptation of the book, period), Terror by Night (murder on a train with a lot of suspects) and The House of Fears (people in an estate slowly getting bumped off with a great twist).  But there are others, like Dressed to Kill and Sherlock Holmes in Washington, which you can’t unsee.

One of the things I love about those old films is they have a sense of community to them. An actor could be a villain in one movie and in the next a police officer or a victim. These actors take on different personalities and different accents, and you get the idea that they are all just a group of friends working together and putting on a “show.” It’s local theater on the screen!

Now here is the thing- What many people don’t know is that during that same period they were doing a very popular radio show, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In many ways, the radio series was supported by the movies, not the other way around. The show was the big deal.

Sadly, most of the episodes of the radio series have been lost. What we do have is one complete year of the series in a clean recording, and it is the last year of the show. The last year Basil Rathbone played the great detective.

It’s always been sad to me how we as a culture allowed radio to slip away into the fabric of time.

Radio shows (like this one) should be collected by the Smithsonian, painstakingly cleaned up by expert engineers. They should be in libraries across the country, and we should be forced to sit in little wooden cubicles there, our hands holding the headphones close to our ears in anticipation.

…Right now that is hardly the case. Now they exist only in a world of free downloads on the Internet and not all recordings (or sellers) are created equal.

I first found this radio series back in the 1980s and at the exact right time for me. The recordings (once thought lost) were discovered and released in a series of audio cassettes by Simon and Schuster. Each cassette contained two episodes and what made the series particularly interesting for me is that each was introduced by someone associated with the radio series, 40 years after the fact. Cast members, producers, and others shared their insight on what it was like to make a radio series, record them live (and they would have to do them twice, for both coasts). Those introductions were quaint to me as a teenager but now with all those people easily gone from this world they feel like cherished whispers. Like finding a recording of a lost loved one.

A few years ago, I was able to find a website where I could download for free (of course) most of those episodes with the introductions. I threw them on my iPod without really thinking about it, definitely not knowing that they would be a night saver.

This is a typical evening for me:

  1. At around 10:30, I force myself to put down my phone (and all the terrible news of the day) or the book I’m reading. If this was any other year I would feel tired and simply close my eyes. But it will be another three years before any of us feels that again.
  2. I reach for my iPod (which is so old that it has a “HOPE” Barack Obama sticker on the back of it- those were the days. Remember the feeling of hope?)
  3. I scroll to The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
  4. I choose an episode that is interesting to me at that moment, and put on the headphones.
  5. I am usually out by the halfway mark on the episode, before the host gets to tell us about one of the great wines they are promoting that week.

At some point during the evening I will get tangled up in my headphone cables. I also might be woken up by an especially active moment in an episode (some of the evildoers can be quite dramatic when caught). But the radio series is never that loud in my ears. I usually have to focus in to hear the voices and then I’ll slip in and out of conscience, wondering exactly if I’m still even listening.

Do I dream in a Victorian world? I can’t say. I don’t taste the thick London fog or smell the pipe.

There is something beautifully tragic about listening to a world so long gone in recordings forgotten by most. This was an incredibly popular series with popular actors! They had a great Monday evening time slot on a major network and they were on for 10 years. 10 years! Any producer would kill for that on television today.

Sometimes I wonder if I am the only one in this world that even cares.

Are my evening communions the only worshiping remaining? The last person in the pew?

The final episode of the year always breaks my heart and I rarely listen to it. Nigel Bruce will go on to do the show for another two years with a different Sherlock Holmes; and while the writers will continue as well, it just doesn’t feel the same. That is not to say that Basil Rathbone was the heart of the show, that would really be Nigel Bruce (which might surprise some critics of his Watson, which was on average more acceptable on radio). Many of the people that do the introductions to the series will say something about how Basil and Nigel were the best of friends and you can tell that is true.

The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not a perfect series. The episodes are not even perfect Sherlock Holmes mysteries. The twists are never that great. These are stories based around a single realization, never about a series of steps to get to a mystery’s conclusion. So if you can figure out that one bit you’re pretty much done for the rest of the episode. Now, I don’t blame the writers for this. They only had 20 minutes to fill and it had to be somewhat family friendly (even though the sponsor was a wine company and you would think drinking was the greatest thing ever based on their advertisements). They didn’t have time for big mysteries with twists and surprises. I’m sure the “real” Sherlock Holmes would’ve solved each of these mysteries before he left 221B.

The shows were also recorded live so there are the occasional moments when actors will talk over each other or forget a line or even say someone else’s line. They are charming moments, maybe even a little cute. When Mr. Rathbone messes up a line he usually coughs and goes back a few words and tries again. Yet, when Mr. Bruce messes something up, his friend is there usually to cover it or tease him (usually tease him).

So in a way, when I am asleep I am listening to two realities. The reality of the story, and the reality of telling the story. Two realities while I need help escaping from mine each night.

While others in my home are falling asleep peacefully one at a time, finding places in their unique dreams, I share mine with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I begin racing through the streets of London in my deerstalker, trying to keep up with two friends on a simple mystery, with clear good guys and clear resolutions. Their world is just as gray as ours, but their goodness is more obvious and I can trust that it will win in the end. Every time.

Elementary.

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