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Friday, September 12, 2014

The Sherlock Holmes Tarot: A Review

I love detailed, rich, intelligent tarot decks that, like a novel, create their own world. I am delighted by intriguingly new but integral and faithful interpretations of tarot's timeless themes. I value fine artwork that pleases my eyes. I am grateful when I can find a deck that is accompanied by a book that is well-written. The Sherlock Holmes Tarot offers all these gifts.

I am not a "Sherlockian." As a kid, I watched the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce movies on TV, and also the 1971 film "They Might be Giants," which I adore. I've read two Sherlock Holmes stories, which I liked, but not well enough to want to read more. I am not a fan of the Victorian Era. So, I can't offer a cognoscente's review. If the deck contains some violation of the Holmes universe or Victoriana, it slipped right past me, and given that I'm not religious about Holmes or the Victorian Era, I don't care. I am a fan of tarot and I can say that this is a respectable tarot deck.

Wil Kinghan's images are aesthetically pleasing and unusual. His technique is ink line work and digital painting, with photographs of friends used as models.

This technique results in images that are reminiscent of antique black-and-white photographs that have been hand-tinted with color. Kinghan's set pieces – one might almost call them dioramas – are faithful to the Victorian Era. There are high collars, high hats, cobblestones, and distant, domed roofs seen out of coal-dimmed windowpanes. But there are also some shockingly vivid colors: reds, purples, and chrome yellow, pulsing vividly. As is appropriate for a deck inspired by a criminal investigator, living in London, from the era before electricity, most cards depict dusk or night crossed with wisps of fog. Between the bright colors and the stygian atmosphere, this deck depicts a collision between neon and gaslight.

Kinghan's cards are so busy with life, they jump off the page. The Magician is Sherlock Holmes himself. He is sitting, thinking – but Kinghan infuses electric life into this seated thinker. He's about to jump up with a great insight and solve a case. The minor arcana are drawn with all the color, dynamism, and detail as the major arcana. The four of evidence – analogous to the four of wands – depicts Holmes and Watson celebrating at a pub. The scene is alive: there are chandeliers, booths with other customers, candles, bottles, curtains, and a waiter. The line of the table comes at the viewer like a Dutch angle.

Other scenes are more dynamic still. The eight of evidence (eight of wands) depicts a train, puffing smoke, hurtling into the distance over a bridge, moon overhead. Holmes, in a tall hat, is just glimpsed peeking out one of the windows. It's hard to look at this card without entering into the scene, and imaging a story to accompany the image.

The five of deduction (five of coins) depicts a woman's deathbed. That could have been a static scene. In Kinghan's hands, it is alive – no anti-pun intended. There are dramatic shadows, and Holmes assumes a posture tense with meaning as he is dragged by a beagle. The lightning-like gleam from a top hat highlights Kinghan's attention to detail.

The Sherlock Holmes Tarot is one deck for which the user will very much want, and will make extensive use of, the accompanying book. Matthews has a New York Times bestseller to his credit; he can write. Two beauties of his text are its specificity and that it does not over promise. This isn't fluffy New Age stuff about how if you focus your intention you will win the lottery. It's about more grounded, detailed, day to day stuff, with Holmes as your guide. Each card is accompanied by a quote from a Holmes story.

Matthews' interpretations of reversed cards are every bit as extensive as his comments for upright cards. Upright interpretations are called "the game," as in "The game is afoot." Reversed interpretations are dubbed "the fog," that obscuring meteorological phenomenon we associate with London.

Matthews reconfigures the minor arcana as observation (swords), evidence (wands), analysis (cups) and deduction (pentacles). The pages are Baker Street Irregulars, that is the street urchins whom Holmes employed. Pages are all too often throwaways; here they are especially good. Knights are peelers, a slang word for police officer like the more familiar "bobby." Queens are ladies, and kings are inspectors. Both major arcana and minor arcana are depicted using characters and events from the Holmes canon.

The meanings of the cards are made very clear in the book. For example, the five of pentacles depicting a woman's deathbed is explained as an event from a Holmes story that fits quite neatly with the traditional interpretation of the card. For me as a reader, this deck would have been more valuable if these meanings were made easier and quicker to grasp. I fear that I may be struggling with working out equivalences: "eyeball on card means the card is part of the observation suit and observation means swords." Since I am not a Sherlockian, I don't know all the plots the cards depict, and I would have liked reminders on the cards themselves: a small sword at the bottom of the card, for example, plus a discrete, one-word prompt like "regret" for the five of analysis (five of cups).

Second, we all know Sherlock Holmes had a problem with women, and, by extension, all that the cups suit represents. Rather than create a cups suit and have Holmes react to it, the cups suit is processed through Holmes; it is the cups suit through Holmes' limited and hyper-rational point of view. To me that's a mistake. Holmes may have been a great (if fictional) man, but he wasn't able to eliminate emotions, spirituality, the feminine, or the supernatural. Heck, I hear there is even a new tarot deck named after him. I wish the cups suit had been more traditional, and firmly, representative of that very side of life that Holmes found so challenging. 

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