January is a time for new beginnings. This book experienced a rebirth of sorts late last year, going from a well-received self-published story to a revised and expanded edition with the Holmesian publisher, MX, complete with a gorgeous new cover. The first edition cover features a view of the sea at either sunrise or sunset. It’s pretty, but not exactly evocative of the word “horror” (although, come to think of it, the contrast does bring to mind Holmes’ particular view of beautiful scenery).* The new cover, done in rich browns, looks like the negative of a sepia photograph, and is fittingly ominous without being over-the-top. The lettering is lovely, calling to mind age, sand, and…dust?
The contents, however, are ultimately what matters, and Mr. Ruffle manages to fit quite a bit into 265 pages. So much content, in fact, that in the interest of brevity, I’m dividing this review into two parts: “The Lyme Regis Horror,” and the other, shorter stories.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror” begins, not surprisingly, with a provenance story. You know how people who are not you are always finding exciting things in their old houses? Instead of mouldy utility bills and smelly polyester, Mr. Ruffle found the literary Holy Grail in the walls of his Lyme Regis home: a Watson manuscript. Although his attempts to authenticate it remain inconclusive, he’s nice enough to share it with us.
Like most stories Watson thought best to hide in dispatch boxes or walls, this one has sensational elements. And, like most of his tales, it starts quietly enough, with Watson boring Holmes with cricket, worries about the morocco case, an invitation from an old school friend/teammate and, finally, the doctor convincing his friend to accompany him on a brief holiday to Lyme Regis. Watson, of course, is eager for sea air, good friends, and relaxation. Holmes is tempted by an exhibition on paleontologist and Dean of Westminster, William Buckland; fossil-hunting, and his favorite pet project, using local dialect to connect people in the southern sea-faring regions of Britain to Phoenician traders.** As they get off the train at Axminster, neither has any idea his world is about to be emotionally and spiritually upended.
Watson is shaken first, when the landlady of their boarding house turns out to be the very image of his late wife, Mary. Beatrice Heidler, widowed by the Boer War, is focused on her teenaged son, Nathaniel, and has never considered remarriage. The attraction between the two is instant, however. Their courtship is realistically tentative, and we get to see why Watson is such an appealing suitor.***
Holmes, of course, has other interests. Despite his professed enthusiasm for ancient worlds, he must be harboring some fears of ennui, because once Watson’s friend Dr. Jacobs mentions “most curious events,” he’s on it like a pitbull and won’t let go until Jacobs describes them and “omits no detail.” The events (without details) are these:
- A mysterious schooner appears during a storm (some believe it brought the storm with it). There’s no evidence of a crew and by the morning it has vanished, leaving behind three boxes of earth. These are later claimed by a Count Orlana, who is staying at Haye Manor. Said manor belongs to Sir Peter Rattenbury, an expert in Eastern Europe, currently away in Italy.
- The “Black Dog of Lyme” has been seen recently, both in its traditional haunt of Haye Lane, and throughout Lyme Regis.
- 18 year-old Rose Hannington, patient of another area doctor, has recently died of a wasting illness, possibly an exotic anaemia, yet has been seen, apparently quite solid, in the cemetery and near her family home.
Within 36 hours, Dr. Jacobs calls on our friends to examine a body on the beach, Rose’s cousin Elizabeth takes ill, and we are off to the races.
Holmes and Watson may not know what’s going on, but by this time, the reader certainly does (if you don’t, consider this a spoiler warning). The only mystery left is whether or not Ruffle can put his own twist on a match-up which has been done countless times in the pastiche universe.
I was dubious, I’ll admit. And vampires don’t particularly scare me, so I wondered how Ruffle would keep me in the story. The answer lies in his ability to put across the challenge this villain poses to the heroes’ views of the world and the evil it contains. This is not someone to turn over to the police, to send away to Australia, pardon de facto, or deliver to Divine Justice through shipwreck. This is Moriarty redux, with the disturbing difference that they can’t have been the only men in 500 hundred years to have taken him to the ledge.
“The Lyme Regis Horror” begins sedately enough. Ruffle knows Holmes and Watson very well; canon devotees will find plenty of insider references and familiar-sounding (though not verbatim) phrases. The Watsonian voice is decently done and witty; Ruffle stays in his narrator’s head the entire time. Holmes is mellower than he is often portrayed, particularly when he quickly catches on to Watson’s fascination with Mrs. Heidler; perhaps his experience with Watson’s first (second? twelfth?) marriage has assured him that he will not be displaced. He also seems to know more about Jane Austen than one would suspect of a man who sneers at softer emotions. On another interesting note, Holmes (using his impossible/improbable line of reasoning) is convinced early on that the culprit is supernatural, while the two physicians take some convincing. I never felt, however, that either Holmes or Watson was veering out of character.
One of Ruffle’s great strengths is his ear for dialogue; it rarely rings false, and is often quite funny such as when Watson informs Mrs. Jacobs that his writing is not for children, or the Inspector advises everyone not to “quibble with small details.” If a little too much time is spent delineating incidents in local history which don’t relate to the plot, it can be forgiven; Watson does like travel guides.
When it’s time to bring the suspense, Ruffle delivers as well. The atmosphere changes perceptibly when Sarah Jacobs opens the door to the Count. The following confrontation is electrifying, and reminds the reader that Holmes is truly master of the “and the horse you came in on” speech. The feeling of dread continues as Holmes, Watson, and Jacobs ready themselves for battle; they don’t know whether or not they’re coming back, and neither do we. In fact, as they walk towards the manor in dark of early morning, Ruffle’s description is so skillful, the chills are palpable.
Ruffle’s ability as a writer is, finally, evident in his deceptively simple denouement. In it, he takes up a thread I had thought dangling and superfluous, using it to pull the physical and emotional parts of the story together. I won’t divulge any more except to say that, as a writer, I admired the skill with which he accomplished this, and found myself thinking about it all day.
As a writer, reader, and reviewer, I have learned not to disparage self-published work. Sure, Mr. Ruffle is now working with an accepted publisher; remember, however, he first published “Horror” on his own. It’s a perfect example of how one should never be afraid to take a chance on an unknown. You’ll often be glad you did.
*Holmes famously said, “…the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” (COPP)
**It may sound silly. However, the ancient Greek geographer Strabo mentions that the Phoenicians traded in tin brought from Britain.
***He tells her “the laundry can take care of itself.” Who doesn’t love a man like that?
Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. You can buy it in a Kindle version, but not for Nook. It can also be purchased directly from MX Publishing, or from independent bookstores, such as The Poisoned Pen.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5