Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Other Traveller/Olympia Press

The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes predated the K/S-driven birth of bonafide slash fiction by several years, which hasn’t stopped touchy-feelie true slash believers from going after it with knives honed and eyes all a-bloody.

I, who first read and loved the Holmes/Watson stories as a pre-teen and return to them regularly, don’t quite understand the brouhaha. For my money, writer Larry Townshend (whom the unpaginated first edition coyly credits as "J. Watson") is a fortuitous combination of no-nonsense pornographer and Holmes fan who's unafraid to rework the canon with both a twist and a certain sly sensitivity.

My guess is that beneath all the highly specific complaints about acts and attitudes, the problem lies largely with the fact that Townsend is a pornographer: In my experience, the slash community likes exquisitely refined feelings described in graphic detail and base fornication cloaked in a shimmering veil of euphemistic vagueness. I'm

London, 1881: Twenty-five year-old physician John Watson had just finished his training when he joined the Army Medical Department and was dispatched to the Afghan front as a field doctor. Though lucky to have survived the injuries he sustained shortly after his arrival, Watson returned home too enfeebled to establish his own medical practice and is now scraping by on a meager government pension in a city where affordable housing is an oxymoron. He's lonely, living in a depressing lodging house and more than a little worried about his future. 

A chance encounter with onetime comrade in arms (and bed) Stamford, who appears to have prospered in civilian life, sets his life on an unexpected course. Young Stamford, Watson learns over a genteel lunch, has become a high-toned procurer — sufficiently high-toned to quietly wait out the inevitable show of indignation when he suggests that the still-handsome flesh his old friend used to share freely could be the answer to his current financial difficulties. Once Watson has finished paying lip service to propriety, Stamford arranges a meeting with the client he thinks would be a perfect match.

"[W]e came here on business," Stamford says briskly to Mr. Sherlock Holmes (one of many lines lifted verbatim from Doyle that takes on a rather different meaning in this context), and once the business is concluded, Holmes and Watson repair to 221B Baker Street, where the undergarments soon fall where they may. It’s a testament to Stamford’s sound judgment that Holmes and Watson prove sexual soul mates, and within days they’re snuggling in their cozy front room while the great detective-to-be marvels that “a bit of buggery should so completely change one’s life.”

It's not long before Scotland Yard's Inspector Gregson appeals to Holmes for help in a conspicuously queer case of murder: An American named Enoch Drebber has been found dead in an empty house, clad in nothing but a pair of frilly, pale-purple ladies’ underpants, with no signs of violence upon his person. This is, of course, more or less the beginning of Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, and the primary difference between the original novella and Townshend's pastiche is the sex of the young person cruelly destroyed by Mormon zealots.

In the former, the despoiled innocent is a lovely girl named Lucy, while in the latter it’s beautiful boy Lucius. In both, heartbroken lover Jefferson Hope arrives too late to save his beloved and instead devotes his life to vengeance, and in neither version does anyone feel particularly good about bringing him to justice.

This sad, brutal narrative segues into a sexed-up variation on The Greek Interpreter, in which Mycroft Holmes calls upon his little brother to untangle the (again) queer business into which a linguist named Mr. Melas has stumbled. Brought blindfolded and in chains from the basement of the Diogenes Club, Mycroft's home away from home, Melas, who's blessed with the lean, flexible “body of a gymnast,” tells this puzzling story: Hired on short notice two long days earlier for what appeared to be an ordinary job, Melas was blindfolded, bundled into a carriage with blacked-out windows and borne to God knows where. Once at his mysterious destination, Melas was ordered to mediate between new employers — Latimer and a man named Harold — and a naked, viciously abused Athenian named Paul Kratides. Melas' improvised efforts to get to the, um, bottom of the strange matter are dashed by the unexpected arrival of Paul, Kratides' delicate, handsome lover (in Doyle’s original, Kratides’ delicate, beautiful sister, Sophy). Poor Paul is sexually abused in an effort to get Kratides to reveal some piece of information to his captors and Melas, though compelled to participate the degenerate goings on, went to Mycroft in the hope that he could unravel the mystery and save Kratides and Paul.

Though too late to save Kratides, Holmes and Watson rescue Paul from The Roaring Bitch, a disreputable male brothel, and send him on his way with Kratides’ legacy — the deed to a private island resort that will support him for the rest of his life. Watson notes sadly that the relentless sordidness of this case cast a pall over his relationship with Holmes, who subsequently surrendered himself to drugs and debauchery, and that he soon after bought a medical practice in “an outlying section of London,” moved out of 221B and set up housekeeping with sweet little Jeffrey Phelps, nephew of the Percy Phelps Holmes helped in The Naval Treaty.

"I have referred to this period as my 'marriage'," Watson writes, and for the sake of apparent conformity, lithe, pretty Jeffrey agrees to wear women's clothing and play his wife. But the day-in/day-out masquerade creates a rift in their relationship, and when Holmes comes looking for Watson’s help one last time -- Jeffrey, conveniently, is away -- Watson makes his choice.

With The Final Problem looming, Holmes reveals that he has finally tracked down "the Caligula of London,"  a brilliant, amoral sociopath who uses his perverted sexual magnetism to seduce, destroy and control young men from wealthy, well-connected families.  His name is Professor Moriarty, and he has challenged Holmes to a duel of sexual superiority (it's impossible to keep the word cockfight at bay) that will determine who will continue to ply his trade and who must retreat into the shadows.

En route to the fateful rendezvous, Holmes and Watson have hot sex in a train car (immediately after Holmes has shed his latest disguise, the robes of a priest — calling all Catholic fetishists!), and after Moriarty and Holmes plunge together to their (presumed) deaths in the roiling waters of Switzerland's Reichenbach Falls, Watson accepts Jeffrey’s heartbreakingly graceful farewell, closes his medical practice and returns to Baker Street with Moriarty’s pale and equally devastated Swiss boyfriend, Friedl… and that’s how it all ends.

Born in 1930, Townsend is best known as the author of pioneering S&M how-to manual The Leatherman’s Handbook (1972) — also published by The Other Traveller — and its sequels, The Leatherman’s Handbook II (1983) and The New Leatherman’s Workbook: A Photo Illustrated Guide to SM Sex Devices (1984); he also wrote dozens of gay-oriented novels, some under pseudonyms and many under his own name and was lauded as an "authoritative but principled voice for sexual liberation" who championed extreme sexual practices within the context of mutual consent and respect.

I have no way of knowing the exact extent of  Townsend's investment in the Holmes stories, but I appreciate his keen eye for the suggestive phrase, like Holmes' offhand remark that Scotland Yard Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade are “as jealous as a pair of professional beauties;” sudddenly Townsend's notion that they're former lovers whose romance has curdled into bitter rivalry makes all the sense in the world.

And it takes no more than the addition of the phrase "yet prettiest" to turn Watson's description of the Baker Street Irregulars -- “half a dozen of the dirtiest and most ragged street Arabs that ever I clapped eye on” -- into a rather different sort of appreciation.

It's Doyles' Stamford who describes Holmes as "a little queer in his ideas" (a note for the pedantic: the earliest printed examples of "queer" in the gay sense date to some 30 years after A Study in Scarlet was published, but it could easily have been used much earlier within the insular London underground of male brothels, hot-to-trot telegraph boys, horse guards and slumming aristocrats). It's Doyle's Holmes who calls the Diogenes club as "the queerest... in London" and his brother Mycroft as "one of the queerest men," but it's Townshed who grabs that ball and runs with it.

And let's be honest: Hardcore Holmesians expend a lot of time effort attempting to wrestle the evident intensity of Holmes and Watson's relationship into a comfortably normative context, a task made more difficult by Doyle's conspicuous lack of interest in details. Not only did Watson's wound migrate from his shoulder to his leg (with one additional reference to an unspecified limb), but the stories' internal chronology forces attentive readers to conclude that Watson's 1888 marriage to Mary Morstan (The Sign of the Four) was actually the second of three: References to his wife both pre- and postdate Mary's death,  which occurred sometime between 1891 and 1894. It's actually easier to go with the gay scenario, which situates all the inconsistencies within the context of a fundamentally honest fellow trying to stand by a big, fat lie in the face of ever-increasing scrutiny.

Holmes' cold use of his lover to determine whether Drebber was suffocated during an act of oral rape is another sticking point (if you will) for fans who'd rather not believe that the man who worried about Watson facing a venomous snake in The Speckled Band (which by Watson's reckoning took place two years after he and Holmes met) would be willing to half asphyxiate him to prove a point. To which I can only say, back to Doyle:

"[He's] a little too scientific for my tastes," warns Stamford. "It approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine him giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness."

Sharp lad: As late as The Devil's Foot, which takes place in 1897, Holmes tests a mind-altering, plant-based poison on his dear friend and himself, condemning them both to the bad trip of all time. Sure, Holmes apologizes profusely after the fact, but does "I'm sorry" really cover a trip to Miltonian  hell? And not for nothing, but this is how the "platonic" pals wind up: "I dashed from my chair," writes Watson, "threw my arms round Holmes and together we lurched through the door, and an instant afterwards had thrown ourselves down upon the grass plot and were lying side by side, conscious only of the glorious sunshine which was bursting its way through the hellish cloud of terror which had girt us in." Not that there's anything gay about a sensual guy nap after two longtime companions have taken a mind-bending journey to the center of their minds.

The Other Traveller, the legendary Olympia Press' gay-oriented companion to its Traveller's Companion line, published several other Townsend novels, including polymorphously perverse science fiction tale The Scorpius Equation (in the future, fretting about gay couples will be so 3000 years ago and marriage will be a utopian group grope in which the right balance of gay, straight and bisexual partners guarantees fulfillment of everyone's sexual and emotional needs) and Run, Little Leather Boy (both 1971).