Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Book Review - Eve Titus's Basil of Baker Street

Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus
Published by: Whittlesey House/ McGraw Hill
Publication Date: 1958
Format: Hardcover, 96 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
Out of Print

Basil is a mouse with one great ambition, to be the best detective for mice that ever was, much like his idol, Sherlock Holmes, is to humans. Basil has learned his trade at the very feet of this great detective, even if that detective is unaware of this. In fact Basil, with his trusty assistant, Doctor David Q. Dawson, has set up his headquarters in the basement of 221B Baker Street. Their first big case that rocks the Holmestead is the disappearance of the Proudfoot twins. They never returned home from school and their parents are sure something is amiss. Observing the area in which they were last seen Basil deduces that three men kidnapped the twin girls and that they need to be patient because there is surely a ransom note to come. Sure enough the note is delivered as expected and by carefully observing the bearer of the note Holmes is sure he can find the twins before they must meet the demands of these deplorable villains, which is giving them the vacancy of the Holmestead so they can have their criminal enterprise in the center of London! Basil would never stoop to allowing crime a foothold in Sherlock Holmes's house! By consulting maps and train timetables he thinks he has located where the twins have been taken, to the Northwest of England near the sea. Disguising themselves as sailors, Basil and Dawson set forth to rescue the twins and stop villainy from getting a grip in Baker Street!

There are books that elicit the nostalgia response in you very easily. Usually it's books that you read as a child that forever imprinted on you. Going back to them when you are an adult makes you remember what it was like to be that young innocent reader picking up that book for the first time. You feel safe and happy and the world is right just for those few minutes that you are once more lost in the story and things like bills and taxes don't exist for you yet. Unless of course it's one of those books that traumatized you forever, like The Witches or A Wrinkle in Time, but that's a story for another day. I view this as the Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas effect. Every Christmas when the music of Paul Williams plays over the river near Frogtown Hollow the world is set to rights. Ma and Emmet's troubles are just as real as yours and mine but everything comes out right with a song. I had this feeling while reading Basil of Baker Street. That warm inner glow that everything would turn out right. While it is very odd to have nostalgia for a book I've never read, there's something about the writing that made me feel this way. Also, technically, it doesn't hurt being a fan of the movie based on this series of books... Eve Titus has created a memorable story for children that doesn't feel as if you are being talked down to, I'm looking at you L. Frank Baum. This is just an endearing story that celebrates literature.

It is this celebration of Sherlock Holmes that pervades the whole book. This book was obviously not written to cash in on the Sherlock Holmes name but to bridge the divide between children and adult literature. In her dedication to Arthur Conan Doyle's son Adrian at the beginning of the book Eve Titus states the hope that this story will lead children one day to the great detective himself. I think that this is a very realistic goal. The book not only revels in it's love of Sherlock, but it pays homage to him in the most wonderful ways. The respect Eve Titus holds for the Holmes canon can be seen in the loving care she has taken to mimic the writing style of "Watson" with Dawson. Having immersed myself in Conan Doyle's work I can see on every single page how Eve Titus is spot on in her interpretation. Little details popping out left and right, like Paganini! Oh how the Paganini made me smile. I'm sure you could even hunt down the exact sections of certain stories that Basil and Dawson are observing from their hiding place within 221B. Even the solving of the kidnapping of the Proudfoot twins with the typewriter comes from the short story "A Case of Identity." But never does the story feel derivative. It is a reinterpretation, with mice, of the greatest literary detective ever.

But if Eve Titus is a fan of Sherlock Holmes, his true number one fan is Basil himself. I love how Basil doesn't just study Holmes's methods so that he can reproduce his sleuthing abilities for his fellow mice. Basil studies the man himself. He is literally trying to become Sherlock Holmes for mice kind. Basil even moves his entire community into the basement of 221B Baker Street to be closer to his idol, thus forming the wonderfully named "Holmestead." Above his fireplace he even has a shrine to Holmes with items he has picked up from the apartments above, from scraps of paper with writing on in, to various discarded violin strings. As we see in this story Basil has finally acquired a full set of strings for the violin he has carved. Sadly his playing abilities aren't yet up to the real Holmes. Then there is the clothing! He has had a clever mouse tailor outfit him in a replica of Holmes's own clothes. While at this point you may be thinking that Basil seems more of a stalker than a sleuth, yet never does the narrative cross the line from cute into creepy. This is because Basil is able to utilize what he has learned to solve cases. He is using his love of Holmes to make himself a better mouse and to provide a service to his fellow creatures. When he dresses himself and Dawson up as little sailors to track down the nefarious three, well, it's just plain adorable. Plus in removing him from the shadow of 221B it shows his abilities and removes any taint of being a copycat, though he would smirk at my turn of phrase.

What also makes it so distinctly unique and sets it apart from Sherlock Holmes is that it remains distinctly mousy in tone. It's little touches here and there about their paws and cheese that remind you and make the book so endearing and so individual. Couple that with Dawson describing them sneaking aboard trains and carriages to save their weary paws, and it's just delightful. But the one thing in the whole book that I think really brings home that we a reading a book about mice, not men, is that their number one nemesis isn't Moriarty, but owls. In the epic rescue of the twins from the abandoned barn at the end of the book the crime solving duo is almost derailed by a dangerous owl. Luckily it wasn't a full sized owl, because obviously even though they are being attacked and their very lives are in danger Basil takes the time to notice that the owl is only nine inches in height and therefore more easy to be repelled. As he notes, if it had been a full sized owl, well, there would have been no hope for them! It's details like this that raise the story up, but also, in an oblique way educate the children who read it. If there's anything I hate more then "teaching moments" I don't know what it would be. But through the narrative Eve Titus not only shows the young readers that owls are the natural predators of mice, but she reinforces "stranger danger" in a logical way with an interesting crime. Because obviously if the moral of the story is just a natural part of the story and not being forced on you with blunt blows to the head it will stick with you longer.

While Eve Titus deserves all the kudos there are to give for creating this wonderful little tale, as an artist I have to give props to the illustrator, Paul Gladone. My whole life well-drawn books have called to me, but it was Garth Williams and his illustrating of Charlotte's Web that made me fall in love with anthropomorphized animal drawings. Well, Charlotte's Web and his tale of three kittens and their mittens which was part of his book Three Bedtime Stories. Paul Gladone's drawings are reminiscent of Williams but are just adorable and unique in their own way and shame on any publisher that had the nerve to hire some other artist to do a new cover! What I love is that they are so distinctly mice, unlike the overly cartoony look from the movie, this somehow makes the story more real. Not to mention the mouse equivalent of Mrs. Hudson and her keys, or the little pipe Basil smokes, or they way Basil listens attentively at the base of the chair supporting the great Sherlock Holmes. What is so wonderful about Gladone's style is that it has such detail but retains a freshness and vibrancy, a looseness that makes the illustrations live. Most likely this is due to the fact that he extensively observed animals in real life, drawing everything from the humble dormouse to the neighbor's cat. Whatever way you look at it, the text and the illustrations fit together hand in glove and need each other to bring Basil of Baker Street to the next plateau of children's books.


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