If Sherlock Holmes ever gets bored with his bee hives out there on the Sussex Downs and decides to pick up one of the many new adventures in which “he” is featured (let’s not flatter ourselves; he probably won’t), chances are, he won’t recognize himself. After all, since the very first pastiche appeared (J. M. Barrie’s in 1893), Holmes and (sometimes) Watson have been to Mars, Moscow, and Minnesota. They’ve battled vampires, Cthulhu, and the Phantom of the Opera, and in one exploit even encountered a Time Lord. The good doctor may have “an experience of women that extends over many nations and three separate continents,”* but when all is tabulated, his friend may have him beat. After so many adventures exotic, chaotic or erotic, even the easily bored Detective probably yearns for the familiar. His many fans are no different. Fortunately, BSI member Barbara Roden’s short story collection, The Thames Horror, contains four stories sure to appeal to fans of both the traditional and the outré, all told in an impeccable Watson voice.
Of course, Watson never hesitates to include a little supernatural frisson when the story warranted, even if his friend is a scoffer. Ms. Roden does the same, beginning with the gorgeously titled “The Things That Shall Come Upon Them.” We begin, as we often do, with Holmes going through his pile of newspapers and sharing his discoveries with his friend. He observes, with a mixture of vanity and irritation that, since Watson began chronicling his adventures for the public, a plethora of similar detectives, all followed by their own faithful Boswells, have appeared. There’s Max Carrados, Martin Hewitt (whose “doings..appear with almost monotonous regularity”) and myriad others, including the fantastically named Flaxman Low, who specializes in cases “beyond the understanding of mere mortals.”** Holmes must have gotten used to the spiritualist talk of Watson’s agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, because he admits that Low may not be “quite the charlatan he might seem.” A good thing, too, because when Holmes and Watson board the train to investigate some disturbing incidents at Lufford Abbey, they find themselves sharing a compartment–and a case–with Low himself. It seems that while Holmes’ client, Mrs. Fitzgerald, believes these events have a natural explanation, her husband is not so sure. To their credit, the two detectives don’t waste time arguing over whose approach is best. They investigate together, and let the results speak for themselves. Is Lufford Abbey haunted by a spirit conjured by the late black magic expert, Julian Karswell, or simply a little more open to treasure hunters than it should be? In the end, everyone finds the results satisfactory. See if you agree.
The supernatural thread continues with the remarkable “Of the Origin of the Hound of the Baskervilles.” You may believe that, with all of the film and print versions of HOUN available, there is nothing more to be said on the matter of the vicious glowing dog and its owner’s schemes. You would be wrong, just as Holmes was, every time he told Watson he had no talent for dissimulation. For it seems that, all this time, what we thought we knew about the Hound was only illusion, and in his final days, Watson is driven to explain what really happened. What follows turns everything you thought you knew about the Baskerville curse on its head, and even if you get the twist early on, you’re still in for a rich, atmospheric tale that has to be the truth.
After all that running about on the moors, you might be in the mood for something calmer. Ms. Roden supplies this Holmesian equivalent of chamomile tea in “The Adventure of the Suspect Servant.” Here, she presents one of those tantalizing cases which never made it to print–the little matter Holmes handled for Mrs. Cecil Forrester.*** A cautionary tale of vice’s unintended consequence, it gives Holmes the opportunity to exercise both his deductive skills and his compassion.
The final story, “The Thames Horror,” is my favorite. Derived from actual unsolved cases of the period, it takes Holmes and Watson into the dirty London underbelly they’re used to, and far darker recesses of human nature they’ve yet to encounter. In June of 1889, Scotland Yard Inspector Alex MacDonald prevails upon Sherlock Holmes to help him discover who has been dropping brown paper packages† containing surgically mutilated body parts into the Thames. Fortunately for the Yard, this killer is neither as public or prolific as Jack the Ripper, who terrorized the city the previous autumn. He seems to be content with one victim per year, so London has been spared the panic and unrest that surrounded those crimes. That could end as soon as some clever journalist connects the dots, however, so a quick solution is essential. Using both traditional methods and the new profiling theories put forth by Police Surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond, Holmes and his comrades track the killer to his deceptively quiet office. I’ll go no further, for fear of spoilers, but if you enjoy shocking moments, you won’t be disappointed.
No matter how you like your Holmes, The Thames Horror has what you’re craving. Ms. Roden seamlessly combines pastiche and canon detail, and her Holmes and Watson remain in character throughout. Those of you who avoid pastiche for fear of the unexpected goofy moment or emotional outburst need not worry. The one exception may be Watson’s retelling of HOUN, but it could be argued that Holmes is eminently reasonable throughout, and typically fearless. It’s the situation itself which is shocking and irrational. Each story has its own atmosphere. “The Things That Shall Come Upon Them” is a creepy puzzle with some moments of dry humor, while “Baskerville” is almost unrelievedly tense. “The Adventure of the Suspect Servant” provides a change of pace; it’s a charming domestic piece which ends with everything right in the world. “The Thames Horror” combines accurate historical and forensic detail with the action, urgency, and melancholy that, for me, marks a truly wonderful pastiche.
Another common complaint of readers who stick strictly to canon is that “no one can tell a Holmes story like Watson.” And that’s true. I would argue that there are writers who can do just as well using their own voices, but I realize that most of you won’t believe me. Unfortunately, Watson seems to be busy enough that he’s left writing behind, and many books purporting to be from his pen patently are not. Ms. Roden, however, has a marvelous “Watson voice,” avoiding all the clutter that frequently crops up when someone tries to imitate 19th century writing. Although she avoids the popular “provenance” story, one has to believe that the author pulled these tales directly from the tin dispatch box.
Many people think it must be easy to write pastiche. After all, someone’s already done the hard part for you; they’ve created the characters, done the world-building, even found an appealing style. All you have to do is throw in a plot they haven’t thought of (and in Conan Doyle’s case, he’s done a lot of that footwork as well). But it isn’t that simple. Writing pastiche is a bit like walking through someone else’s house blindfolded; it’s awfully easy to stub your toe and break something valuable. With The Thames Horror, Barbara Roden successfully navigates 221B Baker Street, with a five-star result.
The first three stories in The Thames Horror have all previously appeared in other anthologies, while “The Thames Horror is original to this collection. The book is available as an e-book only. You can purchase it for Kindle on Amazon, or in electronic format (suitable for your Nook or Kobo) directly from the publisher, Calabash Press (ash-tree.bc.ca/calabash).
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 “This is a wonderful book that gets it right.”
*From “The Sign of Four.” It seems reasonable to assume from the canon that Watson had at least two wives, possibly three. One researcher, Brad Keefauver, claims to have found evidence of six!
**Created by Hesketh V. Hesketh-Prichard (1876-1922), a friend of Conan Doyle’s, Flaxman Low is the world’s first psychic detective.
*** Mary Morstan served as the Forresters’ governess, and it’s probable Watson held back on this one to protect the privacy of his wife’s friend and former employer.
†Tied up with string, and also mohair boot laces and Venetian blind cord.