Thursday, 10 September 2009

Sherlock Holmes vs Derren Brown

(Have been meaning to write a Holmes pastiche for some time, and last night's Derren Brown broadcast gave a perfect opportunity. The deductions are my own, and may yet prove to be spectacularly inaccurate. Forgive the leaden prose (an imitation of Conan-Doyle), the obvious incongruities of eras, and the fact that I've rushed this off in an hour after work.)

In the years following my marriage, my growing medical practice kept me from pursuing the intimate friendship which I shared with Mr Sherlock Holmes as often as I would have liked. Holmes, however, never lost time in summoning me if there was a case in which he required my assistance, or which presented features of peculiar interest. He was often engaged in several matters at any given time, and it was my good fortune to accompany him when two cases of notoriety coincided. The first is far too sensational, given its illustrious protagonists, to be placed before the public. The second was but punctuation to the larger matter at hand, but it demonstrated the remarkable powers of my friend to disengage himself from one weighty problem to consider another, and his remarkable quickness of thought and deed. He never reached higher than when pitched against an adversary with faculties similar to his own.
We were seated in the Baker Street rooms which I had once shared with him, taking some of Mrs Hudson's excellent ham and eggs to recuperate from an energetic afternoon. The page-boy brought in a tray, and presented Holmes with a telegram.

"Hulloa! Watson, it seems our brief respite is to be interrupted with another demand upon our time. I have here a missive from a Mrs McGhee, saying only 'Must consult with you at once, have an urgent matter of the most extraordinary kind'."

"Sounds promising." said I.

"Indeed, though I hope the distraction is brief. Hark! If I am not much mistaken that is her step upon the stair."

Our flustered correspondent was shown to an armchair. Holmes had a gift with the fairer sex, though he seldom saw fit to use it, and immediately put our client at her ease.

"Watson, fetch this lady some brandy, it is a cold day and the fast drive from the theatre has taken its toll."

"Good gracious! How did you know I had come from the theatre?" said out astonished client.

"Simplicity itself. Though you are not made up for the stage, there is a mark on the underside of your right sleeve which could only be left by inadvertent contact with the rim of a pot of grease-paint. Clearly you reached over it in a hurry before leaving the dressing room. But you are not here to discuss such trifles."

"No, sir. My husband is a proud man, and he is in a pretty mess, though he won't admit it. Without your help he will walk proudly to his own humiliation. He is a conjurer of some repute, and I his assistant. He has foolishly challenged in public one of his peers, that he could explain any trick his rival would care to perform. Last night there was performed a marvellous trick which my husband is at a loss to explain, yet he is billed all over the metropolis to go before the public tomorrow to explain how it was done. He is a beaten man! I beg you, please help him."

"Can you describe to me the trick?" said Holmes, offhandedly. To one who knew him as I did, he clearly had no interest in the plight of this unfortunate woman.

"I can do better than that, Mr Holmes." With that, she produced from her bag one of the modern moving picture books which were so popular at that time. "Here is the performance itself. I must have seen it a hundred times, but it is as nonsense to me."

I cannot, alas, do justice to the performance on these pages, but I refer my readers to the moving picture archives, where the performance we saw is recorded. Out client's rival claimed to be able to predict the results of a lottery draw, and gave his performance simultaneously with the draw taking place. He had some small white balls on a stand next to the screen, on which his prediction lay hidden, and both he and the stand were visible throughout, yet he went nowhere near them until he revealed that he had predicted correctly. During the recorded performance, Holmes lost his offhandedness and watched the pictures with intense interest.

"Capital! This is a most singular case." said Holmes.

"Can you help my husband?"

"Indeed, but I will do no more than help. His rival is more skilled than he, but not so much that we cannot see through his smoke-screen at once." Holmes then reached for his telegraph pad, scribbled off two notes, and rang for the page-boy.

"Madam, this note is for your husband. It gives him a nudge in the right direction, and if he cannot piece together the remainder himself then he deserves his humiliation." The other note he handed to the boy, who showed our grateful client to the door on his way to the telegraph office. He then sat in silent meditation, from which I well knew it was folly to rouse him.
That evening, while Holmes and I were indulging in a smoke, a gentleman was introduced into the study. He was a tall man, dressed in a frock-coat of a remarkable purple hue, and he clutched the summons which Holmes he sent him. He and Holmes stared at each other for a moment, as might gladiators eying their opponents in combat.

"Have a seat, Brown. May I congratulate you on your recent escapades." Our guest nodded his thanks. "I fear you may may yet win your wager with your rival, though had you staked against me you would not be so fortunate. Let me tell you how your trick was done, and do you tell me if I go wrong.

"The key facts in this are as follows: One, there are two cameras, yet the further of the two is seen only at the beginning. Suggestive, but not conclusive. Two, the closer camera is constantly moving a little at random. Three, you stand extremely still and silent for some seconds during the draw itself, yet are for the rest of the time most particularly agitated. Four, your narration of the broadcast, while excellent, is not quite exactly in time with the image.

"From these facts, and with a little knowledge of the tricks of the moving picture trade, the solution is obvious. The wide camera shows that there are no other objects near you at the beginning of the trick, yet there is no such revelation after it. After this shot, an accomplice moves in extra equipment. I have no doubt that the more distant camera will be used to show this addition taking place. You provide yourself with a screen showing the lottery broadcast at the right time, and it is placed so that it is almost behind the screen which we can see. Thus, you can look at your private screen while appearing to look at ours. The image on our screen is several seconds behind, but you appear to give a narrative based on what we see; it was in fact a narrative on what you saw several seconds previously, hence the imperfection of timing.

"The screen we see is clearly real, because at the beginning we can see your reflection in it. Yet the image it shows, at least for some of the trick, is a plain blue or green screen, which your engineers can use to overlay a moving image of the lottery. One notes that there are no primary colours in the shot which might interfere with such a process, which I believe is called 'super-imposition', save the fire-exit sign. The reflection on the floor is outside the picture.

"You stand still as you see the numbers being announced, a few seconds before we do. Your engineers freeze this shot, but continue to impose the moving image onto this still of you watching it. That the camera appears to have been jittering throughout your meretricious broadcast serves to disguise your unnatural stillness, and could easily have been achieved not by a tremulous photographer, but added on by your engineers. Behind this frozen image you are free to move to the stand, and set balls with the correct numbers upon it with ease, without fear of your amazed audience seeing you move. Having done so, you resume the exact pose which you held before, the image is unfrozen - just before we see the last lottery ball being selected, but just after you did - and you can triumphantly reveal your success.

"Do I have it about right?"

It was clear from the thunderous expression on our guest's face that he had.

"May I compliment you on a splendidly executed illusion, and note that your task of providing it is far more difficult than mine of seeing through it." said Holmes.

On that, our guest bowed, and passed silently from the room.

"Come, Watson, place your revolver in your pocket. We have more dangerous matters to attend to tonight."


WordplayGuild said...

Addendum: it is my hope that the indications of camera trickery are misdirections from another, cleverer method which is more in keeping with DB's style. If he has gone to all the trouble of deliberately looking like a camera trick without it being one, then I will be lost in admiration. This point, however, has no place in a Holmes pastiche.

We'll find out tonight how he did it...

WordplayGuild said...

Well, strangely enough I didn't think of dragging a bunch of credulous neanderthals from the street and taking an average of their doodles.