The Canary Trainer (1993)

     by Nicholas Meyer

As a quick note before I get started, Nicholas Meyer is a Big Name. Not only has he written a lot of other novels, including a number of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but he's a prolific writer of screenplays and movie director as well and pops up in various properties all over the media landscape. He's Oscar- and Emmy-nominated and is still publishing and writing for the screen today. So he comes a little more highly recommended than some of the struggling indie writers in the Phantom landscape.

 

And yet, many fans of the Phantom story really aren't fond of this book. It's a Sherlock Holmes story, first and foremost, so it's above all other things a mystery and spends the majority of its time with Sherlock and Watson, with the Phantom appearing as a villain of the week, so in a sense it's not "for" Phantom story fans as much as it is for Sherlock fans. The structure lends itself less to exploring Leroux's novel of class lines and Gothic tragedy and more to appreciating clever investigation and a complex mystery, but overall it's a nice satisfying little novel and worth an hour or two, with excellent dialogue, good prose, and decent research.

 

The Foreword:

The foreword is the classic Holmes conceit of the story being related through Dr. Watson, Holmes' personal biographer/assistant; it is removed yet another step, being a story Holmes told to Watson which Meyer then recovered and edited. This also matches up nicely with Leroux's novel, which is a novel written by Leroux from the accounts of the Persian, edited by whomever the hell has a typewriter. Despite the fact that they has nothing to do with the Phantom story, Meyer's excuses for the loose ends and mildly unfinished nature of the narrative are highly entertaining and faithful to the Sherlock Holmes canon, which frequently leaves such loose ends lying around and then cheerfully blames it on Watson's shoddy archiving. I was also introduced to the phrase agony columns, which I had to look up and learned that it's an old-fashioned way of referring to advice columns that deal with reader problems, like Dear Abby.

 

Chapter 1:

For the purposes of this story, Holmes is running around incognito after faking his own death, and auditions for the violin section of the Paris Opera House's orchestra (he is famously skilled as a violin-player, after all, much like someone else we know). His adopted name is Sigerson and he pretends to be Scandinavian, a cute nod toward Christine's Scandinavian violin-player father and one of many little nuggets of reference scattered throughout the text.

 

The novel is set in the year 1890, which is a little under a decade later than the events in Leroux's original piece; Meyer includes a very polite note in his acknowledgments section at the back of the book saying that he realized he had moved the story forward ten years to make the time periods overlap a bit more smoothly, and that he hoped no one was put out by this. Which tells us both that he did a little research and he cared about it, which makes me care more about him as an author. Thanks, man.

 

The novel abounds with self-referential material and oblique nods both to Leroux and to Doyle, keeping references to either canon in reserve so that virtually every page has something to notice if you're familiar with the source material, and also frequently gives Holmes features that we saw in Leroux's Erik (for example, his disdain for popular opera of the time period, which he thinks is simple and unremarkable). When Holmes auditions for the opera house orchestra, he is harangued by a man who hides behind a screen and bellows in rage whenever he hears an untoward note, which is hilarious when you assume it's the Phantom somehow getting final say in auditions, but even more hilarious once you find out that it's actually Leroux himself. Yes, our grand old author appears in the text as musical director of the opera, despite the fact that the real Leroux was a lawyer, a journalist, and a writer; descriptions of him are accurate from what biographical information I can dig up, so Meyer has obviously done his homework.

 

Chapter 2:

Meyer's version of the opera house is incredibly menacing. While he gives the standard five-cellar depth for the basements, the descriptions are so well-crafted and mentally stimulating as to give the impression of much greater depth and darkness. It really has a Stygian quality that helps increase the suspense.

 

Another interesting detail thrown in seemingly at random is the inclusion of the Impressionist painter Degas in the story, seen frequently sketching in the audience and at cast parties. Degas did live in Paris at precisely the same time the story is set and that many of his paintings and drawings of dancing girls were likely drawn from the opera house company; he's only a minor plot device here, but it's nice to see him. Oddly enough, he will reappear in several other later adaptations, too, so Meyer is being a trendsetter here.

 

For simplicity's sake, Meyer has fused La Sorelli, the dance mistress, and La Carlotta, the premiere soprano, into one character (Carlotta Sorelli, or La Sorelli). It's nice to see Sorelli get a shout-out and elevated importance, and I guess that's one way to fix Leroux sort of dropping her out of existence in the second half of his novel.

 

Holmes fans may remember Irene Adler, an unstoppably cunning criminal and celebrated opera singer who is also one of the only people to ever defeat Holmes without being caught. Meyer takes advantage of her opera background to haul her into the story, mostly as a pretext for getting Holmes involved in the mystery. Amusingly, apparently Meyer wanted her to sing Carmen enough to blithely contradict her canon establishment as a contralto by saying that the press calls her a contralto but she's really a mezzo-soprano, so shut up, she can sing this because I said so. Adler takes over for Emma Calvé, a famous real-life singer of the time period, which makes this book also one of the first to start naming real opera stars as parts of the story.

 

Chapter 3:

Adler smilingly tells Holmes that she is Christine's friend as there can be no real rivalry between a mezzo and a coloratura, no matter what the rumors say. The roles Christine is associated with in the original book - Marguerite from Gounod's Faust, Juliet from his Romeo et Juliette, the Queen of the Night from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte - are definitely high lyric or coloratura roles, making it unlikely if not impossible that the two women would ever be in competition for the same roles. Also, after Bischoff's blithe and inadvertent description of Christine singing notes inaudible to the human ear, Meyer sounds like a veritable god of musical knowledge.

 

Christine and Raoul apparently already have a pre-existing relationship at the beginning of the novel, much as they seem to in the 1925 Julian/Chaney film; there isn't much information on it, so it's hard to tell what kind of relationship this is, exactly, but it's nice to see hints toward genuine love and fondness between them to .

 

Another departure from the text is the inclusion of the fact that Joseph Buquet, the Phantom's first victim, is apparently in love with Christine, which is... kind of weird, honestly, but at least gives us a more concrete motive for the Phantom's murder of him and allows Raoul to be more dynamic by physically defending her from him. It also starts a trend in later adaptations of giving Buquet a "reason" for his murder, usually that he's gross or harassing the girls/Christine or a criminal in some other way; although it doesn't seem like it necessarily here, in most of those later works, it's a way to try to increase sympathy for the Phantom by making Buquet "deserve" his death and therefore the audience not judge the Phantom so harshly for killing him.

 

Holmes, as I said above, gets dragged into the mystery by Adler, who charges him to take care of Christine for her. As pretenses go it's a bit flimsy, but I am in love with the idea of super spy badass Adler worrying about precious puff Christine and getting her obnoxious super detective friend to take care of her in case of danger, so I don't mind.

 

Chapter 4:

Meyer uses his invented musical director character to make ruthless fun of the original author of the Phantom story. He describes Leroux as "a man who, given the choice between boring himself or boring others, had unhesitatingly adopted the latter course." I feel like the original Leroux would probably have been amused.

 

Raoul continues to be more action-oriented and far less naive than his original portrayal; not only is he prone to violence when he thinks he's defending Christine's honor or person, but he has fewer illusions about what could be going on and his jealousy is less a product of an immature sense of entitlement than a realistic realization that she has many admirers and many choices for lovers. Raoul does not play as large a role in this version as most, as Holmes takes over much of the narration, but when he does appear he is a solid, appealing character, one that the reader has little problem accepting as Christine's choice.

 

Chapter 5:

Raoul's character development continues; he's already an experienced sailor and naval officer and he handles his jealousy over Christine in a mature, reasonable fashion, with much less moping and shouting than in the original novel. An interlude in which he gets drunk with Holmes solidifies him further, making him a much more human and consequently much more relatable character.

 

The title of the novel is a reference to Holmes' nickname for the Phantom, to whom he refers as "the canary trainer" because he is Christine's teacher and she sings "lovelier than any canary", in Raoul's words. Which is just a clever way for Meyer to have titled his book The Phantom of the Opera without actually titling it The Phantom of the Opera, so well done there. This does have a side effect of dehumanizing and trivializing Christine, which I don't love, and sadly it becomes clear as we get further into the book that she isn't among the best developed characters and has lost her original novel's role as protagonist and active force. (Which isn't surprising, because we're in a Holmes pastiche, which means Holmes usually takes those things over, but I'm still sad.)

 

Chapter 6:

The scratched, ominously child-like writing of Erik's instructions in the original novel is replaced here by elegant script, which is part of a general move on Meyer's part to make the Phantom more of a refined gentleman type, probably so that he can be a foil and nemesis to Holmes himself.

 

Unlike the managers of the original novel, who believed the Phantom to be somewhere between mortal and supernatural but nevertheless didn't give full credit to his reputed powers, Meyer's managers believe in his ghostly nature unequivocally. Ironically, this is one of the few versions of the Phantom story that turns out to have little to no supernatural content whatsoever.

 

As a side note, I found it interesting the the Phantom is referred to as the Ghost throughout ("ghost" is the literal translation of the French fantôme, but the word is usually translated to its etymologically closer English counterpart rather than the more accurate one). You have to wonder if that was intentional, since the Lloyd Webber musical was very popular by this time and they might have wanted to make it clear that this was not related to that property, or if it's just a call-out to Leroux's phrasing.

 

Chapter 7:

Oddly enough, Christine knows that her Angel and the Phantom are one and the same; most versions of Christine distinguish between the two, seeing no connection between the friendly, enlightening Angel and the terrifying and elusive Phantom. Of course, one explanation for this is one of the major changes to the text: Christine is repeatedly treated as unintelligent and useless by the other characters, who constantly refer to her intellect in unflattering terms. She isn't "innocent"; she's "simple-minded". (And no, they don't really talk about whether she actually has some sort of developmental disability or not, presumably because then they would have to feel bad for being assholes about it.) Holmes' allusions to sexuality appear to go right over her head, which is used as more proof that she's not very bright, although let me tell you, bro, women who pretend not to notice you said something sexual are often not doing that because they didn't understand you so much as because they want to avoid dealing with you being inappropriate.

 

Holmes does suggest that Christine's shocking naiveté might be a sort of maladaptive psychological coping mechanism, allowing her to regress or refuse to engage when things that might upset her come up by simply refusing to understand them. Which is a common coping mechanism in victims of abuse, but the book stops short of going into why she might be reacting this way or to what, so it's a letdown again. Especially because Holmes apparently can't help himself and keeps referring to her mental capacity with descriptors like "feeble" anyway.

 

Chapter 8:

 

A brief detour from Christine's peril comes when Adler is nearly killed by the Phantom. This is a ploy from Meyer to keep Holmes' involvement immediate, of course, but it also neatly illustrates the Phantom's all-consuming obsession with Christine; Adler was targeted because of he was jealous of her close friendship with the girl. (Perhaps Adler and Christine are the real love story here. She's certainly the only one who seems to care about her beyond "stupid girl menaced by prowler".) Meyer's Phantom lacks the original's burning need to prove himself and to gain acceptance from a world that rejected him, so he makes up for that by being that much more fixated on the young opera singer.

 

Chapter 9:

There are a lot of references to Greek mythology in this book, beginning in this chapter with Holmes' comparison of the Phantom to the Minotaur of Crete, trapped forever in his lightless labyrinth; Holmes even states that he will follow Theseus's example, and marks his trail with a ball of yarn when he descends to explore the catacombs.

The Phantom is (and even Holmes admits it) all the more devilishly clever than any opponent he has had to date, including Moriarty;. He attributes this to the Phantom's insanity, which makes him unpredictable. This is not the most sensitive-to-disability-and-mental-illness book ever written.

 

As earlier noted, La Sorelli is a combination character for purposes of this novel; Meyer gives her a markedly Italian speech pattern, interesting in light of the original Carlotta's Spanish origins (Sorelli, however, was Italian, or so we assume from her name). I have to assume that this is an influence, possibly unconscious, from the Lloyd Webber musical, in which she is also portrayed as an Italian diva.

 

The chandelier falls here, apparently expressly to kill Madame Giry's replacement but without any warning from the Phantom, which cuts the tension but heightens the shock of the event.

 

Chapter 10:

Like Bischoff, Meyer sensationalizes the chandelier's impact, raising the death toll from 1 to 27. A greater sense of urgency is generated, though Meyer does not take Bischoff's cue and describe the carnage for shock value and horror purposes.

 

More Greek mythology makes its appearance when Christine informs Holmes that the Phantom's name is "Nobody"; as she doesn't speak English very well (or French? the novel is more interested in making her sound clueless than explaining itself), she has no idea what the word means, but Holmes recognizes this as an allusion to the Odyssey, in which Odysseus prevents the Cyclops he has wounded from pursuing him by giving his name as "Nobody" so that the giant is unable to explain who hurt him. Aside from the fact that the Phantom has read Homer, which reinforces his more gentlemanly image, the difference between the two references is telling; Holmes sees the Phantom as the Minotaur, a murderous monster lurking in a frightening maze, while he sees himself as a clever, undefeated hero, using cunning to make his way.

 

One of the most marked deviations from the original story is the extension of the Phantom's influence outside the opera house itself. The opera house blueprints are removed or destroyed from their archives in the city, and Holmes eventually deduces that the Phantom has the run of the city via the sewer system (the descriptive variety indicates that Meyer spent not inconsiderable time researching this, as well). In the original novel, we rarely saw him outside the opera house except for at the graveyard in Perros-Guirec, which he had clearly followed Christine to, and his wistful desire to have a normal life where he could go walking on Sundays indicated that he didn't get out in public much.

 

Chapter 11:

Continuing the Greek mythology theme, Holmes upgrades the Phantom, now comparing him to Daedalus rather than the Minotaur, the genius maze-builder and architect rather than just the monster that lived in it. Holmes discovers that the Phantom was the chief assistant to the architect who built the opera house, who was buried in a collapse during building and whose body was never recovered (no! Garnier, we hardly knew ye!); the fact that he is the assistant rather than the architect himself prompts Holmes to replace him yet again, this time as Daedalus's son Icarus, who has hidden successfully for years but who now in his passion for the young soprano flies too close to the sun. It's starting to get a little tortuous at this point, honestly, but at least the themes are nice.

 

This is one of the very first novel adaptations in which the Phantom's disfigurement is caused by some calamity and is not an inborn deformity. While the implications of trauma and sudden isolation make the prospect of a severe mental break or meltdown more reasonable for the Phantom, the themes of craving acceptance, the callousness of mankind, and the capriciousness of God and/or nature are conspicuously absent as a result. Of course, this is a Sherlock Holmes mystery, so Meyer doesn't care about the themes as much as he does about the mystery, and getting to find out about some past disaster is more interesting to someone investigating than a congenital condition that probably doesn't leave a record.

 

Meyer still doesn't let the Greek mythology rest there, either; the Phantom, when still living with the rest of humanity in his pre-disfigurement architectural employment, went by the name of Orpheus, the man who descended into the underworld in search of his true love (and, not incidentally, the greatest musician of Greek mythology). Of ourse, Orpheus lost his wife in the end because he didn't obey the instructions given to him by the king of the underworld, and the Phantom will, of course, "lose" Christine by the end of the story.

 

Christine displays more dissociative behavior as Holmes presses her about the chandelier incident; despite the very real evidence, she continues to attempt to insist that the Phantom had nothing to do with it and meant no harm. Holmes' pressure finally forces her to capitulate and admit that the Phantom is a danger, and further pushing finally forces her into agreeing to betray him; the admission and betrayal effectively destroy her, as Holmes forces her to face reality and leave her coping mechanisms behind, as well as betray someone she still considers a friend. Frankly, the fact that Adler didn't appear and beat the man with her umbrella is a major oversight in this part of the book, since no matter what we think of Christine's mental competence, a man is bullying and terrorizing her into doing something she doesn't want to do and the lack of people pointing it out is aggravating

 

You might notice that I haven't mentioned Raoul in a several chapters; that's because he isn't in them. He takes an extended leave of absence from the action of the novel until the rescue attempt at the end. Meyer's version of the novel is focused on the Phantom almost exclusively, with Christine as the victim and all other characters, including Raoul, peripheral.

 

Chapter 12:

The action pauses for a moment so that Philippe (hi, Philippe!) can present to the reader in no uncertain terms how very different the worlds of a Vicomte and a chorus girl really were in this time period, and how a real emotional attachment between the two that might lead to a marriage would have been extremely frowned upon and stigmatized. I don't love the continuing implication of "Christine doesn't realize this because she's kind of dim", but I do appreciate the explanation for the reader, since it introduces some of the class line divisions of the original novel and helps highlight the seriousness of Raoul's and Christine's feelings for one another.

 

Chapter 13:

Meyer stops here to talk about masks and their prevalence in the world of opera in general, which is a nice theme. A great number of operas have masks and secret identities as major themes or plot points, including such contemporary to the story pieces as Strauss' Die Fledermaus ("The Bat"), in which a man and wife accidentally seduce each other at a masked ball while thinking that they are strangers; Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, both of which feature masks used to disguise characters so that they canswitch places and disguise their intentions; and Verdi's Un ballo in maschera ("A Masked Ball"), in which the entire cast is masked and assassinations are carried out in secret. The mask is a time-honored tradition in opera and may be one of the chief reasons the Phantom chose the opera as the most comfortable place for him to live out his solitary life. We actually see this idea played on a little in the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, in which the Phantom's mask is literally borrowed from the opera house's costume department.

 

Chapter 14:

The finale of the novel, obviously tweaked to suit Meyer's musical tastes, features first a medley of Fausts by different composers, a concept which plays with the many aliases of the Phantom as well as with the story of the man who made a deal with the Devil and the different interpretations of it over time, and secondly the terrified aria from Carmen in which the singer believes she may be killed by her jealous lover, a perfect choice for Christine. (But... didn't we literally just go over the fact that Christine is a coloratura soprano and she probably can't sing Carmen? The role of Carmen is a low powerhouse of a mezzo role. It has a B3 in it, more than once! You're going to hurt her!)

 

Not one to pass up the opportunity for some more Greek mythology, Meyer immediately compares the Phantom's abduction of Christine to Hades' kidnapping of Persephone. That is one of the major comparative Greek myths for the Phantom story, but at this point even I, an avowed mythology buff, am getting kinda tired.

 

Chapter 16:

The Phantom is given a name in keeping with his distinctly un-supernatural and investigatable origins: Edouard LaFosse. Edouard means "guardian of the mists", while LaFosse means "ravine" or "pit"; a pretty good name for the Phantom, from an etymological standpoint.

 

There are some weird details here: for example, the Phantom's torture chamber contains the iron tree of the original, but it seems to serve no purpose, as he simply uses the chamber to drown his victims (thus rendering the option for suicide both useless and impossible). Holmes and Raoul actually end up using the tree to escape, which is neat in an inversion of its original purpose kind of a way, but... again, why is it there?

 

At its core, this is a fundamentally different story from Leroux's original. There is no love story, no redemption tale (man, have you noticed how the Phantom seems to never get that redemption he did in the original in any of these earlier adaptations?), and no real examination of him as a representative of the societal ills of class warfare and ableism. Of course, this is a Sherlock Holmes tale and for one of those it's done pretty well, but it doesn't do as good a job as one might hope of actually fusing the two story types together. We could have had a novel in which the Phantom represents profound social stigma and maltreatment and Holmes gets to brilliantly stop him from doing terrible things to people. They're not mutually exclusive.

 

In keeping with the half-examined mental illness issues in this book, Meyer introduces a split personality or mental block (exactly what is going on is not explained so choose your own adventure, I guess) for Edouard here. When he wears his mask, his beautiful voice comes through unscathed, but when it is removed he finds himself unable to speak and prone to violent fits and seizures. Only when he is able to put a mask on - an attempt is made to relate this to Christine mentally "masking" the unpleasant truths in her life - and temporarily "forget" his condition is he able to behave normally and keep a calm equilibrium. Hideousness is linked to voicelessness and disenfranchisement; only when masked is he able to mentally equate himself with humanity as opposed to monstrousness, which is within a stone's throw of being profound if it had just gone a step further and pointed out that it's society that others people with disabilities and disenfranchises them unless they can hide them and function "normally".

 

In the end, the Phantom's death is a happenstance, pure chance that saves Holmes from disaster; he dies in an accidental cave-in. In a sense, Meyer's Phantom is ultimately undefeated, never outwitted by Holmes' ingenuity or his celebrated martial arts. If Meyer's Phantom doesn't achieve redemption, he also never suffers defeat.

 

Chapter 17:

 

The "magical", irresistibly beautiful and impressive voice of the Phantom is the one supernatural element of Meyer's decidedly earthy Phantom; however, it pales in comparison to the one discrepancy in the novel's carefully constructed system. The Phantom, in his ranting and raving before his death, claims that his mother forbade him ever to speak without his mask; however, if (as Holmes has deduced) the Phantom is really Edouard LaFosse, disfigured from an accident, he would have had no disfigurement as a child, so why would his mother want him to wear a mask? Was he in some other way unattractive or terrifying to her? Did he remind her of someone? Is he deluded and this never happened? Is he possessed by some sort of spirit and channeling its memories instead? Holmes just shrugs and says that perhaps he was wrong and the Phantom was someone else other than LaFosse. The reader is left to ponder whether the Phantom really was some other person, some further unsolved mystery, and whether there was actually some supernatural force at play after all, one that the highly rational Holmes could not confront or defeat.

In the end, I feel like this book is reasonably decent. It does well with what it sets out to do, it's well-written and researched, and its most majorly obnoxious sin is removing Christine as the protagonist, which was pretty much a given from the format of Holmes pastiche. I don't love it, but it's still a pretty decent time.

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