My kids love card-shopping. Not because they enjoy finding the perfect pictures and sentiments to send to their loved ones. Nah. They just want to stand there and open up the “cards with sound,” the more annoying the better. Open a card, hear a screechy, nearly unintelligible voice saying something about flatulence–what could be more wonderful?
Well, imagine opening a card and hearing the rich, silky voice of Jeremy Brett.*
Yeah. I thought so.
That’s what struck me when I started reading Paul Gilbert’s The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. I opened it, and immediately heard Brett’s Holmes speaking. Of course, I may have been primed for this by the lovely cover, but it wasn’t just that. While many pastiche authors stress about achieving an authentic “Watson voice,” Gilbert’s Holmes captures Brett’s inflections so perfectly that, really, you can’t hear anyone else.**
I realize that I’ve just lost a good percentage of my readers as they grab their wallets and migrate over to Amazon. For those of you who are staying….
The Lost Files, contrary to their name, were never lost, buried under some unused indices or decades-old issues of The Evening Standard. No, they’ve been waiting in Watson’s tin dispatch box at the venerable Cox & Co., waiting until such time as he saw fit (or was permitted) to share them with the public. Often in these instances, we get some kind of mournful reference,*** but fortunately these stories have been released at Holmes’ own suggestion, now that enough time has passed (or, for all we know, Watson needs the income).
There are seven stories in all, some of which are explicitly set shortly after Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan, but only one of which is given a specific date (1898). Gilbert deftly avoids making those distracting canon or research errors by simply not referring to canon much at all. Unfortunately, in one of the few instances, which has Holmes mentions a previous conversation regarding evil in the countryside, “Beeches” is misspelled, a mistake for which, hopefully, some editorial associate was severely punished.****
Nit-picking aside, however, each of the chapters is a full serving of pure Sherlockian comfort food. It’s all there: cold nights and warm fires, pipes and breakfasts, sleepless chain-smoking nights and presumptive notes sent to a newlywed’s home. Sometimes, Gilbert might overdo it a tad. Holmes is more routinely dismissive of new clients than I think he typically was,† meaning that Watson exclaims “Really, now, Holmes!” and “You’ve gone too far!” rather frequently. Watson, for his part, is a little on the sensitive side, and easily insulted, but for Granada fans, their interactions will be so familiar it’s as if they’ve turned on the television to find that their wishes have come true and Rebecca Eaton and Co. have discovered a secret stash of un-aired episodes.††
The Files vary in their complexity. In the first offering, “The Adventure of the Connoisseur,” for example, the reader gets a fairly straightforward mystery, which includes an apparent nod to Rathbone and Bruce’s Dressed to Kill (1947). “The Missing Don Giovanni” is another puzzle the reader may figure out before Watson, but Holmes does a nice turn of deduction with a pair of trousers and his attitude towards a stricken woman contrasts nicely with the scorn he shows his arrogant client. “The Hooded Man” is creepy, with a Doylean rumination on sin coming home to roost. “The Old Grey Horse” takes us, not to the track but a tavern, and in it Gilbert touches on some of the horrors of London poverty–conditions which Holmes no doubt saw constantly, but which tend to go unmentioned in the canon.
These stories are all quite serviceable; however, as in any anthology, certain chapters stand out. Try as I might, I cannot think of a way to discuss “The Adventure of the Conscientious Constable” without giving away the twist, but if you’re a fan of Shinwell Johnson, disguises, and the London underworld, you’ll get your fix.
The collection’s final story, “The Adventure of the Dying Gaul” takes Holmes and Watson across the channel to Rome, where they help Inspector Gialli locate a missing statue….
This is great, particularly for Gialli’s career and art lovers everywhere. However, the most important part of the story takes place on the train between Paris and Turin, in which Holmes shares with Watson the results of a disturbing chain of research and deduction that have convinced him that the events of 4th May, 1891, were not as final as they had long believed. Watson, of course, thinks his friend has come unhinged, and even wonders how much of this is due to the contents of little glass vials, but Holmes’ reasoning is impressive; it made me wish Doyle had used it himself, because if there’s anything the original stories need, it’s more Moriarty.
The Lost Files’ most interesting, and possibly most controversial story, however, is its second: “The Mystery of Avalon.” It starts out typically enough, with a slightly boring Colonel braving a wintry journey from Cornwall to London to consult Holmes regarding two murderous attacks on his wife. Col. Masterson’s ancestral home lies close to Slaughter Bridge, where, according to legend, King Arthur fought his final battle, and as a result, his family has taken the Arthurian association to extremes. During Masterson’s story, Watson notes, to his amusement, that Holmes has never read Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. After their client leaves, however the detective decides to remedy this deficit, assuring his friend that the story will only reside in his brain-attic “temporarily.” It makes a stronger impression than he anticipated, however, because a page or so later, Holmes declares to Watson:
The parallel [between Arthur's Dark Ages and their own time] is now obvious, when you consider the darkness that our regular police force is constantly stumbling around in. Not quite barbaric in method, perhaps, and yet their ignorance and ineptitude is tantamount to barbarism! Yet in their darkness shines a tiny light. The light of reasoning, logic, observation, and method. This small room and my practice is the modern, judicial realm of Logres and I, of course, the guiding light of Arthur.†††
It’s easy to dismiss this little pomposity as Watson does: an amusing display of Holmes’ overinflated ego. But keep it in mind for later.
At this point, I feel I must warn you: EVERYTHING YOU READ AFTER THIS PARAGRAPH MAY BE A SPOILER! I am not kidding. So, if you don’t want to know what happens in the story, now is the time to leave. For your convenience, I will tell you that The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes is now available on Kindle, receives 4 1/2 stars, and if you like a strong, traditional Holmes, or are a Granada fan, you will thoroughly enjoy it. Now go.
Holmes and Watson arrive in Cornwall to take care of what seems to be a standard (for them) case with a hint of the outré. Holmes has already begun his investigation by inquiring into Alice Masterson’s background, and a telegram is waiting for them upon their arrival. Typically, a wire means suspicions confirmed and a happy detective. This one, however, has a remarkable effect upon Holmes and he retreats to his room, telling the footman they’ll be leaving for London in the morning, and leaving Watson to deal with their client as best he can. When Watson, after enduring yet another strange outburst–this time from the Colonel– goes up later to check on his friend, Holmes, obviously under emotional duress, asks if, ”Perhaps it has occurred to you this [my] supposed abhorrence of both female kind and the idea of close attachment, is nothing less than a fear of the same.”
Pretty much no, says Watson. And then it dawns on him.
Just that little bit of self-disclosure, along with a bitter condemnation of the woman who is now Alice Masterson, seems to give Holmes new strength, and he decides to continue with the case after all, under the condition that the Colonel never learn he’s hired another of his wife’s dupes.
In the end, the array of lies spread out to view in this sordid episode is astounding. Watson’s agreement to conceal Holmes’ conflict of interest is perhaps the most benign, although upon reflection it, too, contributes to the tragic ending. In the end, we’re in the carriage with a dark, silent Holmes, a sweating, anxious client, and an oblivious Watson, on our way to fetch the Colonel’s faithless wife and bring her back home.
No one is going back to Avalon.
Later, Watson wonders if Holmes had known what Alice Masterson’s fate would be. How the Colonel would avoid the gallows. He loves his friend, and so he cannot credit it. It is not the same thing as when Holmes had pardoned James Ryder, just a few months before, or when he and Watson together will serve as judge and jury for Captain Crocker years later. No, it is not at all the same.
This is a dark, disturbing little story. No doubt it will put off many readers who prefer to see Holmes as, first and foremost, a creature of logic who is able to consistently rise above any of the passions, should he feel them at all. Others, like myself, who are quite willing to let him have his “hidden fires,” may balk at the idea that, not only was he unable to rise above his own pain to forgive the woman who damaged him, he was also able to allow a fellow victim to proceed to his own destruction without a word. Avalon, if you remember, was destroyed (in part) by adultery, as Guinevere cuckolded an adoring husband with his best friend. In at least one version of this story, Arthur, pressured to execute his wife for treason as required by law, begins the process with the desperate hope that Lancelot will come to save her (which he does). The pain is deep, but love and forgiveness between the three are there as well, elevating their story above the tawdry. Centuries later, in this Avalon, evil begets only pain and more evil, and when this Arthur has the chance to illuminate the darkness, he does not. While his friend looks the other way, we are forced to consider how even the best and wisest parts of us live together with our demons.
After a few days’ ruminating, I went from disliking “The Mystery of Avalon” to believing it the best story in the book. Still, many readers may find Holmes to be too far out of character for their tastes. If this describes you, never fear–The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes contains six other very traditional stories perfect for a blustery fall evening by the fireside.
The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes was once out-of-print and only available on Amazon and other sites for a ridiculous amount of money. I will never reveal what I paid for it. Within just a few months of that purchase, of course, it became available on Kindle. Learn from my mistakes, oh impetuous book lovers! Mr. Gilbert’s newest book, The Annals of Sherlock Holmes, will be released on October 31st, 2012. Mr. Gilbert is available on both Facebook and Twitter.
Star Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 “Well worth your time and money.”
*Make this happen, somebody. Please!
**Actually, Gilbert’s Watson voice is very good, too.
***To which our reaction is to cover our ears and go “LALALALALALALA!”
**** The famous passage, from “The Copper Beeches”:
“‘Do you know, Watson,’ said he, ‘that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and the impunity with which crime may be committed there.’
“‘Good heavens!’ I cried. ‘Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?’
“‘They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.’”
†You know, in real life.
††So, if you had Three Sherlockian Wishes….
††† The Lost Files, p. 44