Welcome to There’s No Place Like Holmes

This is the internet home of Diana L. Marsh, mystery writer, unrepentant geek, and Sherlock Holmes fan. Welcome! Feel free to follow the yellow cobblestone road below to find posts about my (mostly not entirely a failure) project to read and blog about the entirety of Doyle’s canon in a year, see me pontificate about a variety of topics, or read a smattering of fiction set in my slightly altered version of Holmes’ London. If you do stay awhile, make sure to hang your ruby deerstalkers on the coatrack by the door, grab a cuppa from Mrs. Hudson, and enjoy the hospitality of the Emerald Study.

Oh, and remember to ignore the kerfuffle behind the curtain. It’s probably just the Tin Man. Err, I mean, Lestrade.

Fourth Day of Holmes-mas

The fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me,
Four colly* birds…

Young, guileless Hugo Nelson proved a pointless witness. Mr. Valentine and his daughter, Ginny, had put the crates together and left them, already prepared, near the front door of the shop that morning before heading out of London to visit relatives up North. Hugo hadn’t had a single hand in packing a thing, nor did he leave them unattended long enough someone else might have fiddled with the contents. It would be at least a week, if not more, before any of the Valentines were back in town to question.

I poured over every item in the box looking for a bit of unmissed hair or ripped fabric left behind in the planting of the items and found nothing. Anne confirmed the order of every item in the crate, so it wasn’t a mistake in the delivery process, though that option seemed the oddest, given the other recent deliveries. Each successive addition to the collection made the previous items even more confusing. I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand what doves, hens, and juniper had in common, nor what kind of specific code they might have been attempting to transmit. Orange pips made far more sense, or even tiny dancing men. This…left me perplexed.

It was a feeling that the following day did not assuage. When I settled at my desk to address the issue again the next morning, with a fresh pot of tea and a renewed sense of purpose, I discovered another collection of oddness tucked into the center drawer. This time, the juniper, two doves, and three hens laid atop four pristine and carefully plucked black ravens feathers.

“It makes no sense,” I said to Watson as we sat for lunch a few hours – and a fresh headache – later. “I originally pondered the likelihood it was some sort of masked threat, but juniper is nowhere near toxic enough to be considered an obvious one. But ravens, on the other hand, are often associated with death and as a sign of ill portent in most ridiculous ideologies. Does their sudden inclusion mean it all is to be considered a threat? And what then of the hens? And the doves?”

“It is indeed a conundrum,” Watson said from behind his paper. It arrived late that morning and he hadn’t the chance to peruse it over breakfast, per usual.

“As is the delivery method. It began in a very personal capacity – left upon my pillow in the middle of the night. Then, the next two deliveries were through external means. And once more, this latest is extremely personal and speaks of access to the house. But if one has access to the interior of 221B, why would they need to involve others, externally, for any of the methods?” I frowned down into my teacup. “It’s all a bit ridiculous, which should make it easier to make sense of, but…”

Watson snapped the paper as he turned the page. “Perhaps your secret admirer simply thought you in need of a few new quills? Or thinks you need to refresh one of your hats?”

I shook my head. “I fear it can’t be such an easy answer. This will require much deeper thought. And perhaps a trap of some sort, to catch the scoundrel in the act.”

*colly birds – This is one of those verses that has many, many variations. Before it became “calling birds” in 1909, the fourth thing the subject of the song’s true love sent were either colly birds, collie birds, canaries, curley birds, Corley birds, or “colour’d birds.” Most of these variations were all intending to insinuate that the birds being gifted were blackbirds – collier being a term for a coal miner and colliery meaning mine.

The Third Day of Holmes-mas

The third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Three French hens…

By the time Watson returned, I had sketched and measured the boot prints and placed the latest delivery onto my desk, the Greek botany forgotten in favor of the newest bit of curiosity. He watched in mild amusement as I measured each of the paper birds and searched their surfaces for fingerprints.

“Doves,” he said as he passed a wrapped sandwich into my hand, after removing the magnifying glass from it. “Turtledoves, possibly. Or mourning ones. But doves all the same.”

“Aren’t doves just prettied up pigeons?” I asked as I pulled newspaper back from around the thick slabs of bread piled high with fried onions and mushrooms and melted slices of cheese. I frowned at it, even as my stomach reminded me that food might likely be a good idea. And it did smell remarkable.

Watson laughed again as he sank his teeth into his own sandwich while watching me pick bits of meat from between the pieces of bread. “I suppose one could make that argument on a strictly scientific basis.”

I looked up at him and blinked. “Is there any other basis worthy of consideration?”

He simply shook his head and directed me back to my sandwich.

The following morning, I headed out before breakfast to see if anything remained of the trail of those unidentified boots from the stoop. The snow had remained intermittent the rest of the previous night, and the temperature unpleasant enough to reduce foot traffic in general, but the trail was still hard to maintain for more than a few steps. Watson’s own returning boot prints assisted in making the trail harder to follow, as his larger, more distinct impressions crisscrossed and covered them on the stairs. The owner of those boots had, indeed, come from the north, and had crossed the street after stopping at 221B’s door. Once on the street, however, carriage wheels obscured any further presence, and they did not resume on the opposite sidewalk.

Intriguing. Had they caught a passing carriage? I didn’t remember seeing or hearing one when I approached the door…

Meanwhile, some ornithological investigation confirmed Watson’s assumption. The folded birds were, indeed, meant to represent doves, if the general shape was anything to go by. Unlike their cousins, the standard pigeon, doves were seen as sweet and romantic symbols, likely because they were rumored to pair up and mate for life. It seemed an unimportant detail and likely unrelated to their appearance at my door. The Juniper branch still confounded me as well.

I heard the bell, followed a moment later by Aunt Anne’s bellow. “CHARLOTTE! Please attend to the door. I’ve my hands half buried in a week’s laundry!”

I sighed and set aside my riddles to answer the door. Hugo Nelson, a young lad who did deliveries and other tasks at Valentine & Son’s Dry Goods stood on the stoop holding one box, while another waited on the ground at his feet.

“Morning, Miss Charlotte,” he said, fumbling with the box for a moment as he seemed intent on managing to tip his hat. I plucked the box from his arms to stop him from spilling the contents, or himself, onto the steps in the process.

“Good morning, Hugo. Thank you for bringing this ‘round for us.”

“S’not just my job, but my pleasure, Miss.” He gave a bow and bent to grab the other box. “Should I leave this in its usual, then?”

I stepped aside and waved him through, then shut the door to carry my own burden towards the kitchen. Along the way, I peered into the small crate, moving aside a yard of dark wool to see what else Anne might have included in the week’s order. Tucked just beneath the first fold of the material, identifiable by the slight piney scent that preceded its discovery, was a third sprig of juniper.

And two more paper doves.

And three wooden hens.

“HUGO! I need to have several words with you!”

The Second Day of Holmes-mas

So, my weekend involved some, err, unplanned adventures that involved an apartment door that didn’t want to open on top of an ill-planned grocery trip. (Note to self – that surgeon imposed weight limit is there for a reason, yo. Do not try lifting a bag with 2 2-liters, a case of canned soda, and all your canned goods at once up a flight of stairs again, huh?) As a warning? Slamming your shoulder into a door in aggravation does not, in fact, force it open and it also really doesn’t feel very good, especially the day after. All this is to say, my weekend *hurt* and I’m a few days behind in posting, so days 2, 3, and 4 will all go up, in quick succession, today.

Aren’t you glad now these are all bite-sized bits of nonsense?

The second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Two turtledoves…

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The Twelve Days of Holmes-mas

Oh my God, there’s a blog post! I think I might faint. Oh, wait, I can’t. I’m the one making the post.

Here’s the thing: I have no Christmas spirit this year, at all. I can’t blame it on COVID, either. It’s definitely a holiday that has provided diminishing returns the last five years. I keep waiting for the season to feel “normal” again, or for there to be a return of my previous exuberant Christmas enthusiasm, but it doesn’t happen, and I’m not sure how to get it back. (Or, honestly, if I want it back, but that’s a question for a different time and place.)

But here’s my concession this year, and only because the idea popped into my head awhile back and it won’t leave, and I should be writing daily anyway – The Twelve Days of a Holmes Christmas, or Holmes-mas, if you will. I do not guarantee bright and cheerful Christmas content. Charlotte, perhaps not surprisingly, shares my current view of the holiday.

A few bits of bookkeeping:

  • We’re going with the traditional definition of the “Twelve days of Christmas”, meaning they start with Christmas Day and count forward.
  • I’ll be using what is, according to the internet, the version of the lyrics published in 1882, because it most closely fits the timeframe of the pre-book Holmes, which is what I’m going with here (because, despite there being a couple Christmases past in my books’ version of the canon, they are chockful of spoilers at this point, and if these books ever see the light of day, spoilers would be a bad thing!)
  • These are probably going to be more vignettes than stories, that might possibly connect into something overarching by the end (but I guarantee nothing!) because I’m giving myself a word count limit and not letting my brain/fingers run wild. I just tucked away 90k words worth of nonsense for my 2020 NaNoWriMo project (80,032 of it in November) so obviously I need a leash currently.
  • I didn’t go back to make sure I hadn’t visited Christmas in this universe already, so on the off chance this violates my own canon…uhhh, oops? Apologies. But, really, it would be on brand, since Doyle didn’t manage to remember his own canon or timeline either, so…..

All that said, here is Day One of The Twelve Days of a Holmes-mas.

Bah humbug.

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A Victorian Sci-Fi Writer and a Serial Killer Walk Into a NYC Hotel Bar…

This isn’t the start to a joke.  It’s a scene from Sunday night’s “Time After Time” pilot, and it’s probably one of the better scenes in the show’s two-hour opening shot.

I wanted to like “Time After Time,” ABC’s entrant into the time travel show arena.  (See also “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” on the CW, NBC’s “Timeless,” and Fox’s “Making History.”). Victorians trapped in modern-day New York?  One of them Jack the Ripper and the other H.G. Wells?  A perfectly steampunk-y time machine?  It’s like someone gave them a map to my buttons and told them which order to press them in.  This should have been the perfect show for me.

Which is why it’s so disappointing just how underwhelming the two-part pilot was.

All three leads are just kind of…there.  Present, but never really drawing me in.  Jane, the assistant curator who’s just in it to pay her rent (is that really the kind of job you’re that ambivalent about?) and seems far too ready to believe H.G’s wild story, is the least compelling of the lot.  The Ripper is charming and handsome, but a villain without a cause or a motivation (and I’ve opined on how little I enjoy stock villains before).  And H.G….I want to hug him and shake some sense/personality into him at the same time.

This two-parter hits on two of my biggest pet peeves, too:

  • First, we have the villain whose cleverness is supposed to, apparently, be demonstrated by a near-instant understanding of modern technology.    I hate this trope.  It’s vastly overused, and is usually accompanied by the hero’s complete comparative ineptitude.  Add to this the sudden and effortless ease with which our villain traverses modern New York on his first visit and…well, let’s put it this way: i’ve been to New York twice in my life and would have been utterly lost without an experienced guide and GPS.  
  • Secondly, there’s the show’s heavy handed insistence not only on pushing Jane and H.G. together, romantically, but that it has to be accomplished in the first two hours.  I’m all for a romantic subplot.  I enjoy them as much as the next person. But it has to grow organically.  Forcing it or rushing it just annoys the audience and cheapens the payoff.

Here’s the sad thing, though.  I’ll probably give it another shot.  Some shows (NBC’s “Timeless,” for instance) have a rough start, but find their footing over time.  The episode set during the Columbian Expo and featuring Harry Houdini and H.H. Holmes was one of my favorites, next to the Ian Fleming and Josephine Baker turns.  And the main trio are deep, nuanced, compelling characters.  (If you’re listening, Peacock, bring “the Time Team” back for season two).  Maybe “Time After Time” just needs the same chance to find a rhythm and  I’ll be revisiting this review for a mea culpa later.

Or, I’ll need a time machine so I can go back and stop myself from ever hearing this show even exists.

The Carnation Conundrum

Author’s note: I’m not sure where this fits into my timeline, or even if it does.  The reference to Watson’s ill-timed proposal could put it sometime after their advenures at Baskerville, or it could be any time since.  I didn’t set out to write fiction.  I was working on a post about Victorian Valentine’s traditions, and this happened instead.  

I don’t know why I decided Watson would be the recepient, or the POV character.  I do kind of like the idea of Charlotte planning all this.  Only she could make a romantic gesture so methodical.

Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day, everybody!

John Watson is used to waking up alone. Even on the nights he starts out in Charlotte’s bed, or she starts out in his, they always end up on their own before morning. It doesn’t matter that her aunt knows – or that he’s aware she knows, whether anyone knows he is or not – they go through the motions of pretending that they’re clever and getting one over on Mrs. Hudson all the same. Meanwhile, he pretends he didn’t offer Charlotte a solution to all this that would make the need for sneaking about and skullduggery unnecessary. It went so well the first time he suggested it that he hasn’t dared broach the topic of marriage since. Thus, Watson always wakes to a half-empty bed and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with that singular fact.This morning, though, he’s not entirely alone. When he turns his head to stare longingly at the empty stretch of bed next to him, he’s greeted by the sight of a single red carnation left on the pillow. There’s no note or visible context; just one perfect flower. He stares at it for whole minutes, as if doing so would either provoke explanation, or prove it a remnant of a fading dream. When it remains – and remains unexplained – he plucks it from its perch and climbs out of bed still perplexed.

He trims the stem with every intent of turning it into an impromptu boutonnière, but someone has beat him to the punch. When he pulls his jacket out of his wardrobe, there’s another carnation, just as red and perfect, already in place. Two more are tucked inside his shoes. He finds a fifth waiting in his shaving cup.

“Wasn’t aware I slept so soundly,” he mutters to himself as he sets them all aside so he can dress and shave.

Breakfast goes much the same. While he eats – alone, but that’s not entirely unusual with Charlotte’s hours – he finds another carnation tucked inside the newspaper, bookmarking the account of a recent cricket match he’d shown interest in. Another bloom somehow finds its way into his teacup; he finds it floating there only after he blindly pours the tea.

“Do you know what all this is about?” he asks the landlady when she brings in his plate.

“I couldn’t begin to guess,” Anne Hudson says, and there’s something in the way she glares at him that makes him question the statement.

His office is a floral scavenger hunt as well. He finds flowers tucked in drawers, hidden inside books, nestled in test tubes. When he accidentally mutters something about wondering what the mad woman’s up to during Mrs. Livingston’s appointment, she only laughs.

“Consider the question a bit longer, doctor,” she says, patting his shoulder in a very “there, there you silly thing,” sort of way. “Maybe an answer will come to you.”

When he has enough carnations to fill multiple bouquets and has had four different patients giggle at his cluelessness, he gives up and goes in search of their distributor, but she’s nowhere to be found. The sitting room is vacant. Her own is empty, too, save another carnation sitting in the middle of her bed, tucked inside a folded piece of paper. “Langham Hotel,” it reads in Holmes’ precise scrawl. “Six p.m.. Room 214. Bypass the front desk, please. –CH.”

He’s nervous as he enters the hotel, though he can’t pinpoint the exact cause. Most of the staff are busy herding guests so it’s not difficult for him to slip unseen across the lobby to the stairs. Things begin to click as he passes the entrance to the restaurant and the sign there, advertising their special Valentine’s Day service. He stops and curses himself as the giggles and glares his questions earned him all day begin to make perfect, mortifying sense.

And there he is, arriving empty-handed. Leave it to him to forget Valentine’s Day because he thought Holmes would find it useless. Leave it to him to forget, like everyone else, that she’s human, too.

He finds the room easily enough and knocks. After a moment, a quiet voice within bids him enter. As he steps inside, Charlotte is waiting in the middle of the room. Her hair is down. Her dress is new. In her hands is a single red carnation. It is shaking with the force of the tremble in those hands. Watson swears he’s never seen her look more unsure in all the time he’s known her.

“Does Fidelia know you’re borrowing her room?” One of her eyebrows lifts in silent question and he chuckles. “I do make house calls on occasion, Holmes. For certain patients.”

She nods, one rebellious dark curl falling across her forehead with the movement. “She offered me the use of it for the night. Her tab with room service as well. Said it was her Valentine’s gift to the two most stubborn people she knows. She thought we might appreciate some actual time alone, where no one’s worried about rushing back to their own bed before daybreak.”

“And what will your aunt think of the both of us being gone overnight?”

“Nothing good, I’d wager. I don’t find I’m overly worried, though. Are you?”

He steps further into the room, locking the door behind him as he does. “Not really,” he says, nodding briefly to the flower she’s still holding. “And those?”

Dianthus caryophyllus,” she says in that matter-of-fact, you-should-already-know-this tone that he both loathes and adores. This time, though, that usually confident tone wavers and her eyes remain fixed on the flower in her unsteady hands. “Common carnation. Native to the Mediterranean, but its reach has spread considerably due to widespread introduction into various areas since the time of its initial discovery.”

He nods. A teasing smile tugs at one corner of his mouth. “I thought you didn’t have room in your mental library for botany beyond hemlock and henbane and digitalis.”

She looks up, then. Blinks. Frowns, too. “I make room for relevant things. Important ones. Things – people – that matter.”

His amusement falters. He takes a step forward, a hand outstretched. “Holmes…”

“I considered one of those silly cards, you know, with all the…the paper lace and overwrought sentiment. I couldn’t find one that didn’t make my teeth ache.” Her eyes roll and a smug grin tries to find purchase on her lips, but fails. “Then I thought, well, there are more meaningful ways of saying it. Less ridiculous ways.”

He gently takes the flower from her and tosses it at the bed. He misses his target entirely, and he doesn’t care. “To say what?” he prompts her gently, tipping her chin up until she has to look at him. “What is the small flower shop you’ve set up in 221B trying to tell me?”

“Well, traditionally, red carnations symbolize love and affection. Darker reds tend to imply a deeper degree of…”

He doesn’t let her finish the sentence. His lips find hers, kissing her with as much passion and emotion as delivery of half the city’s supply of red carnations had tried to impart to him. Her arms wind around his neck and he sweeps her up into his arms without interrupting that kiss, even for a moment. As they tumble onto the bed, he pulls away just long enough to whisper “I love you, too,” against her lips. It’s the first of many places he plans to leave the words.

And later, when they fall asleep tangled up with each other, it’s with the knowledge, that for once, neither of them will be waking up alone.

Wrapping up ‘The Return…’

I finished reading these stories a few weeks back, and even started writing this post.  Then, I got hit with the one-two punch of the worst kind of lingering cold and a pervasive sense of gloom directly related to online Sherlock fandom and I unplugged a bit to deal with it all.  (My thoughts on Season Four, the finale in particular, may differ substantially from a good portion of fandom and I’m honestly still feeling a little too rundown to dive into any of that now.  Maybe once I can breathe consistently through my nose again and laugh without coughing I’ll be up to it.)  So that’s why this is so late.

Also, vaguely related here and directly regarding this post, researching and writing about serial killers while feverish and heavily medicated leads to some seriously bizarre dreams.  If you define “seriously bizarre” as “creepy, disturbing, and mildly terrifying.”


The four stories I had remaining in The Return of Sherlock Holmes had one very interesting detail in common: murder.  None of these cases were simple burglaries or cases of basic intrigue.  These criminals weren’t just out to befuddle the authorities – they had murder in mind.  In “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” jealousy, obsession, and a woman’s reluctance to just be honest with her husband directly lead to his death, making it essentially a darker version of “The Adventure of the Yellow Face.”  (In case you don’t remember, that story is an earlier example of a woman hiding letters and the reason they freak her out from her husband under the auspices of protecting him from something.)  “The Adventure of the Priory School,” a story that includes my favorite character name ever – Dr. Thorneycraft Huxtable – is a tale of sibling rivalry gone too far that leads to kidnapping and the death of a teacher.  “Abbey Grange”  continues Doyle’s extended literary shaming of abusive and cruel husbands by giving us the justified (as declared by one-man jury John Watson) murder of Lord Treats His Wife Horribly and Throws Liquor Bottles at the Staff-fordshire, Sir Eustace Brackenstall.  Then, in “The Six Napoleons,” we have a man murdered in the course of an apparently pointless and bizarre string of burglaries/serial vandalisms that turn out to be so much more.

This isn’t a trend just in these four stories, though.  Out of the thirteen stories collected in The Return, ten feature a murder either as the inciting incident or part of the climax.  Okay, technically the death in “Priory School” happens before the climax, but that’s generally a solid statement otherwise.  Comparatively, the first two collected volumes – The Adventures and The Memoirs – only contain eight stories combined that fit the “murder mystery” mold.  Of the twelve stories in The Adventures, only four turn on someone’s death.  The Memoirs ration is 4 out of 11.  Either pre-Great Hiatus Holmes took on far more low-key kinds of crime than his post-hiatus self, or Watson chose to write about them far less often.

Does that mean Holmes’ London was just a darker place from 1894 on (the canon date of “The Final Problem”)?  Was Watson more interested in the darker cases after his wife’s presumed death?  (Not getting into the argument of whether canon evidence that Mary Watson is definitely dead exists.  At this point, the assumption is pretty much canon.)  Or was it Doyle’s own wife’s ill health and impending death that cast the darker hue over the universe?  Louisa Doyle died in 1906, a year after the stories were collected in book form and was likely in decline while her husband was writing Holmes’ resurrection.  Tuberculosis isn’t a pleasant or easy way to die, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think this could influence her husband’s writing.

Of course, it could have been a much simpler answer, though: maybe Doyle just had more fun writing about his boys running amuck and solving murder.  Maybe those stories were easier for him to write.  A more external incentive may have existed too.  Doyle may have written murder stories because that’s what people wanted to read.  Murder sells, after all.  Considering Doyle’s decision to bring Holmes back from the dead was in large part financially motivated, that’s probably a good possibility, too.  Doyle was a clever lad, after all.

I guess you can’t really talk about “The Six Napoleons” anymore without mentioning “The Six Thatchers,” at least broadly.  Beyond the obvious feels (referenced in the entry just after the episode), I thought they found an interesting way to twist the canon, but did kind of wish they hadn’t made it such a small part of the overall narrative.  It worked as a handy device, I guess, for packaging the true mystery of the episode; I just kind of wanted it to feature a little more prominently, considering they named the bloody episode after it.  Kind of like how I wished “The Blind Banker” was more like “The Dancing Men” than it is.  Meh.

Honestly, I liked this season, which I know is an unpopular opinion.  I still have a few issues with things, though.  I’ll be capable of talking about them in depth eventually.

So, that’s a wrap on The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the collection that starts with Holmes’ resurrection and ends with Watson’s announcement that the Great Detective has retired and put a moratorium on all future accounts of their stories.  Of course, good old Watson doesn’t listen to his friend, which is how we still have His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes ahead of us.  (And The Valley of Fear, too, but we’ve been there already.)