Category Archives: Canon Works

MacBird, Bonnie. Art in the Blood. London: Harper Collins, 2015*

Dude....the characters....

Dude….the characters….

Gateway drug: a  habit-forming drug that, while not in itself addictive, may lead to the use of other, addictive, drugs.”**

Every Sherlockian remembers their first time. The first glimmer of fascination–the curiosity–the first few pages and then the moment. The rush. The binge. The constant need for more. More Sherlock Holmes.

We all know the feeling.

We all know the feeling.  (from Imgur)

My own Sherlockian “gateway drug” was pastiche–most particularly Edward Hanna’s the Whitechapel Horror and Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow,  making me especially interested in the ability of well-written Sherlockian fiction to serve, not just as a “fix” for established addicts, but as an introduction to the Canon all its own. In order to accomplish this, I believe a pastiche (we’re just going to use this word in a very general sense) must have all of the following qualities to some degree:

  • It must be well-written.
  • It must be true to the Canon (and if it’s true to widely accepted apocrypha, such as Baring-Gould’s biography, so much the better).
  • Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson need to be recognizable as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
  • It must be as accessible to the novice as it is to the long-time Sherlockian.

And, finally:

  • It must leave the reader wanting more.

Not every pastiche fits these criteria. As much as I love Simmons’ The Fifth Heart and Newman’s Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, I don’t know that I would recommend them to someone who wants to read about Sherlock Holmes for the first time, but is wary of the Canon because it’s “old.” (This happens, particularly with young people).  While both are gorgeously written, the first is not extremely canonical, while the second is like one big Easter egg basket. I’m sure you can think of other books which wouldn’t make the list…

LIKE THIS ONE

            LIKE THIS ONE!

Bonnie MacBird’s Art in the Blood, on the other hand, fills the bill perfectly.

It’s late November, 1888, and as cold and dreary inside 221B as it is outside…at least, until the fire. Not a cozy fire in the hearth, but an actual fire which, but for the intervention of firemen, could have burned 221 Baker Street to the ground.  Not that Sherlock Holmes particularly cares.  When Watson (who is now married, but was summoned by his former landlady) finds him, he is laying on the settee,

His hair awry, his face ashen with lack of sleep and sustenance, he looked, quite frankly, at death’s door. He lay shivering on the couch, clothed in a shabby purple dressing gown. An old red blanket tangled around his feet and with a quick movement, he yanked it up to cover his face.

Watson learns from Mrs. Hudson that Holmes has been this way ever since he was briefly put in jail for tampering with evidence in the Ripper case–something which shocks the doctor. He could not help his friend then, but he tries to do so now, and resolves to treat him as a patient and to sit with him until he can get him out of the dark and miserable place his much-vaunted brain has become. As Dr. Watson tells us:

I have been loath to write in detail about Holmes’s artistic nature, lest it reveal a vulnerability in him that could place him in danger. It is well known that in exchange for visionary powers, artists often suffer with extreme sensitivity and violent changeability of temperament. A philosophical crisis, or simply the boredom, of inactivity could send Holmes spinning into a paralysed gloom from which I could not retrieve him****

His ministrations are not nearly as effective as the arrival of a good case, however. Although Holmes has refused a request from Mycroft to look into something regarding “E/P,” he jumps at the chance to help a beautiful French chanteuse find her son. Ten year-old Emil does not know that Mlle. la Victoire is his mother; as far as he is concerned, he is the son of the Earl of Pellingham and his wife, daughter of an American industrialist. He is only half-right. Having lost her own child as an infant, Lady Pellingham agreed to raise Emil as her own; his mother has only been allowed to see him once a year, at Christmas, and even then under the guise of being a family friend. This year, however, she tells Holmes, she received a letter telling her that, not only will she never be allowed to see her son again, but that her life will be in danger if she disobeys–a threat underlined by a physical attack a few days later. Mycroft’s case of international art theft (with diplomatic complications) has nothing on this damsel in distress and her endangered child. Fortunately for the British Government, they turn out to be linked…and linked in such a way as to hide a dark and unimaginable conspiracy. Watson is a master at making the most wicked villains (Baron Gruner, Sarah Cushing, James Moriarty) and twisted plots (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles”) suitable for a general audience. In this case, which the author (editor?) found hidden in a collection of papers in the Wellcome Library, he tries his best, but one can’t help but think that the reason it never saw publication had not so much to do with the nobility of the participants as it did the horrific nature of the crime.

Honorine Platzer, Lautrec's

Honorine Platzer, Lautrec’s “Woman in Gloves.” Author Bonnie MacBird believes she may have been the actual Mademoiselle La Victoire.

So–does Art in the Blood work as a “gateway” pastiche? Let’s evaluate….

Art in the Blood  is exceptionally well-written. I must admit to having a weakness for prose that does all kinds of artsy things and/or features Ponderous Moral Observations. I particularly love being punched in the gut by Deep Thoughts on Human Nature. Art in the Blood is not really that kind of book, which is one of its great strengths. After all, as much as Holmes accused him of romanticizing everything, Watson actually tended to stick to the facts of his cases, rather than musing too much on the psychological makeups of villains, victims, or detectives. He focuses on the crime, the clues, and the solution–the excitement of the thing for he is, after all, a man of action. Art in the Bloodwhile it may occasionally hint at the emotional lives of its characters, is very much a mystery and an adventure, told in a highly visual, cinematic fashion. It’s very easy to imagine this story translated to a large or small screen, and I think this quality will make it appealing to a large audience.

As for the book’s original characters–these are both generally necessary in a pastiche–and potential disasters.  However much an author loves Sherlock Holmes and (or) Dr. Watson, the temptation to either pay too much attention to one’s own character, or even to live through him or her, is a strong one. Ms. MacBird brings in several major original characters, all of whom are well-drawn, but only one is a real scene-stealer. Still, the grandson of the famous Vidocq is so amusingly full of himself that it’s easy to forgive him, and to allow him his Big Moment when it finally comes.

What about its Canonicity?  While I have gradually become less of a stickler over the past five years, many Sherlockians don’t appreciate much departure from the Doylean world and, honestly, when you’re trying to introduce your friend, partner, or child (in the case of this book, a “child” being no younger than thirteen) to Sherlock Holmes, it’s natural to want to use stories which don’t involve the Great Detective in space, or a robot Watson. I am happy to report, therefore, that Art in the Blood is quite canonical.  I couldn’t find any real issues with its relationship to 221B.  Mary does go on an extended visit to see her mother, and we know from The Sign of Four that her mother was actually dead…but as her own husband claims such a visit in “The Five Orange Pips,” it becomes strangely all the more accurate for its Watsonian nature. As for the other details, Art in the Blood  is meticulously researched. People and places are where the book says they are, when it says they are, and if the reader wants to know more (as you should), there is a list of annotations and research notes online at http://www.macbird.com/aitb/notes/. At the same time, the narrative doesn’t get bogged down with period details, always a danger with historical accounts. There is a teeny bit of “as you know” explication when Sherlock tells Watson about his relatives, the Vernets, but one gets the impression that life with Sherlock Holmes was probably filled with such moments.

“Am I boring you, Watson?”

An unreliable Watson and a pedantic Sherlock Holmes?  You can probably infer from that that I believe that Ms. MacBird keeps our heroes in character, and yes–she does. While connoisseurs of the Watson voice may not hear him, precisely, the author does a creditable job of…um, transcribing his work. She also refers to their well-known foibles in creative ways–without just using quotes from the Canon.  Therefore, we know that Watson is still a ladies’ man, not because anyone mentions “three continents,” but because he both claims to the reader that he has never seen shapely legs displayed in a cancan…but really hopes that will change. His humorous asides and sensitivities (such as his hurt when Holmes puts Mlle. la Victoire up in his old room) remind me a little bit of Nigel Bruce–in a good way–but he’s consistently the brave, loyal, intelligent physician who’s been missing the excitement of his former life. Holmes is the man of logic and determination, working hard to keep the lid on those “hidden fires” of his own past and current affections. Some may find his obvious–but never blatant attraction to Mlle. la Victoire anti-canonical, but really, it isn’t. Depending on how one reads The Sign of the Four, Holmes may well have been attracted to Mary Morstan before Watson made his own feelings obvious. Their client is every bit as clever (possibly more so) than the much-admired Irene Adler, and her method of both attracting Holmes’ attention and making sure he’s as good as everyone says impresses him. Holmes’ concern for children, as evidenced in his work with the Baker Street Irregulars and his concern for the young Lord Saltire in “The Adventure of the Priory School,” shines through in this book, particularly in one touching instance involving Beeton’s Christmas Annual. While not everyone enjoys glimpses into Holmes’ psyche, some of us do, and Ms. MacBird deftly supplies both sorts of reader, by providing small hints about the Great Detective’s past, while never going much further than that.

No Freud in this one.

No Freud in this one.

Often when reading pastiche, I get the feeling that I’m reading a story written by a Sherlockian for a Sherlockian.  We have our own lingo, our own inside jokes, our knowledge of obscure Canonical disputes, a long list of quotes–and we enjoy trotting them out for each other. This is all fine, of course (see what I did there? Huh? Huh?), but when it comes to making new convert…er, introducing people to the canonical Sherlock Holmes, stories featuring buckets of acronyms, Easter egg references to the third episode of the Ronald Howard series, and quotes from Gillette’s play are probably not the best way to go about it. If you want your best friend to win the Mycroft one day, you have to start with books which make our heroes both real–and accessible. I guarantee you that your friends and family will be able to read Art in the Blood without texting you questions–and they will find it compelling and suspenseful enough to be honest when you ask them if they’ve read it. When they next venture into the Canon–which they may well do–they will find the heroes they just met (although you may have to explain the whole Victorian flashback thing). And they’ll wonder about all of those cases in Watson’s dispatch box, because, well, they need more.

Ms. MacBird leaves Holmes and Watson in a good place (this isn’t a spoiler, as we know they live long past 1888. Long past.) but, while there is no hint of a new hitherto-unknown case in the offing, that door isn’t particularly closed, either.  The book begins with a bored Sherlock Holmes, but ends with a bored Watson?

Well, in Baker Street, there’s only one sure cure for boredom….

Put that gun away!

Put that gun away!

Art in the Blood is currently available in all formats in the United Kingdom, and will be released in the United States on October 6, 2015. It is available for pre-order. Otto Penzler is also offering a very limited edition (of a canonical 60 books only) featuring original illustrations, annotations, a foreword by Leslie Klinger, and deluxe paper and binding with marbled endpapers. it is a little pricey, but would make a wonderful special occasion gift for your favorite Sherlockian. See http://www.mysteriousbookshop.com/products/bonnie-macbird-art-in-the-blood-limited-edition for more details.

 Emmy-award winning writer and producer Bonnie MacBird worked as a feature film development executive for Universal and has written for both stage and screen, including the screenplay for TRON (hence the marked visual quality of her writing in Art in the Blood).  A talented painter, she also teaches a course on screenwriter and is in demand as a speaker. She is on both FaceBook and Twitter, and you can learn more about her and her work at her website, www.macbird.com.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5–“This is a wonderful book that gets it right.”

Canon Rating: 5 out of 5–“Watson? Is that you?”

Footnotes:  

*This review is taken from an ARC (advanced reading copy) from Harper Collins, London. It will also have a U.S. edition.

**Google definition

***Just in case you were wondering, Watson tells us that “…my friend threw considerable light on the case, something that proved most unwelcome among certain individuals at the highest levels of government.”–and then proceeds to say that all of this has to remain secret.  It will turn up in “the history books,” he writes.  Well, Watson, it hasn’t, and we know you’re still out there, so it’s time to tell us what you know!

****This theory linking genius and insanity has been around for awhile, and during Watson’s time was put forth by Cesare Lombroso, in The Man of Genius. While this book first appeared in 1889, a year after the events in Art in the Blood take place, Lombroso had published articles on the subject throughout this period as well. He was also responsible for the concept of “atavism,” or  “throwbacks,” which is mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles and “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” so we know that both Holmes and Watson were acquainted with his work.

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Filed under BonnieMacBird, Canon Works, Characters, Introductory Pastiche, Pastiche

Reading the Canon Online

"You realize this doesn't happen in the books, don't you, Holmes?"

“You realize this doesn’t happen in the books, don’t you, Holmes?”

Books are wonderful things. They can teach us, inspire us, make us happy, sad, or very, very…aggravated. They take us to places we could never travel in real life, either because we lack the means–or because they do not actually exist. Books are a bridge to the countless people who have gone before us–and our own connection to the descendants we can only imagine. Through print, we reach out with ideas, stories, emotions, in hopes that, with the reader as our collaborator, we can create something meaningful.  Yes, books are wonderful things.

But dang, can they be expensive!

Face it, most of us can’t just stop and buy a book just because we need or wish to read it. Landlords frown at that sort of devil-may-care spending. Nor can we count on our local library to have the book we want when we want it.* Fortunately, however, many beneficent folks around the internet realize this, and have digitized hundreds of works no longer bound by copyright. So if you’ve been prevented from reading the original Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, here’s where you can find them online:

Stories:

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes–http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1661/1661-h/1661-h.htm

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes–http://www.gutenberg.org/files/834/834-h/834-h.htm

The Return of Sherlock Holmes–http://www.gutenberg.org/files/108/108-h/1tm08-h.htm

His Last Bow–sherlock-holm.es/stories/pdf/a4/1-sided/lstb.pdf

The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes--http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/c00012.html

Novels:

A Study in Scarlet–http://www.gutenberg.org/files/244/244-h/244-h.htm

The Sign of [the] Four–http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2097

The Hound of the Baskervilles–http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2852

The Valley of Fear–http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3289

If you notice, all but one of these links is from Project Gutenberg, and if you notice further, Project Gutenberg has a “Donate” button; if you have the means and feel so inclined, I’m sure they would be appreciative.

Howard Marion Crawford and Ronald Howard

I knew I should have brought a book….

Footnotes:

*Or we may have fines. Lots and lots of fines. Thanks, son.

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Filed under Administrative, Canon Works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

And…We’re Back

Don't faint, or anything.

Don’t faint, or anything.

Well, it hasn’t been three years, although it certainly seems like it. Jaime Mahoney (of Better Holmes and Gardens fame) and I have finally finished our book! When we first came up with the idea, in February of 2012, we had no idea how large an undertaking it would be, but finally, last week, we delivered all 580 pages, plus illustrations, to our publisher, Wessex Press.*

And none too soon. The Clean Police are here.

And none too soon. The Clean Police are here.

It was, excepting the occasional day of frustration and panic, a wonderfully rewarding experience in which I learned how little sleep I actually require, and the kids learned that clothing can, in fact, be reworn. For weeks. I also discovered what a remarkably patient, supportive, and tolerant husband I have, and how thankful I am that his job provides work clothes.

One of the most excellent benefits of writing this book is that, while conducting research, I had the opportunity to read or sample dozens of wonderful Sherlockian or Sherlock Holmes-related books. Through them, I gained a much greater appreciation of how incredibly broad our niche can be, and of what it means to be a “well-read Sherlockian.” There is so much great stuff out there, guys!!!! 

And I cannot wait to share it with you.

A Note on Policy:

I first conceived of this blog as a place to review pastiche, and that’s still going to be its primary focus.  However, be prepared for a good deal more non-fiction and Doyleana in the coming year. I have several series I need to catch up on, and there were some review requests which came in during the little hiatus that I will try to fill, although I have no idea when those reviews will appear. If you have a book which you would like me to review, feel free to send a request, via comment, but at this time, I am not really sure that I can promise to meet a particular time frame. Also, please be aware that a review is not a promotional service. Every reviewer walks a tightrope between being fair to the writer and honest with the reader, and in the end, our loyalties must lie with the latter. If you request a review from me, and I feel that, for whatever reason, the book will not appeal to most Sherlock Holmes fans, either due to quality or content, I will not run a piece on it.

I have also decided to revamp the “star system.”  Most of us, I think, are not static as Sherlockians; we grow and change, both in our knowledge of, and our appreciation for, certain topics. Although I don’t review it here, I am ridiculously obsessed with fanfiction, which has given me a greater appreciation of AU; I have also become more aware of some Canonical debates. At the same time, I realize that many people who read Sherlock Holmes pastiches are looking for continuations of the Canon, Watson-Voice included. Therefore, I am going to review each book with a dual star rating, like the one I used for Margaret Park Bridge’s My Dear Watson. One star will be for general content, story elements, pacing, interest, historical accuracy, etc–the quality of the story itself. The second star will be for Canonical content and accuracy (as far as I can determine). In this way, the reader who is simply looking for a good story and does not care about chronology or who Watson’s wife is will not be dissuaded by a low star rating, while the person who will have a stroke if the jackknife is not in its proper place will be warned off. I think this approach will better serve both writer and reader, as well as saving me hours of hair-pulling angst.

I will be starting off the new review season with a look at two series we’ve been following in the blog. An October-esque anthology will follow, along with a new essay collection. After that, who knows?

It will be a surprise.

It will be a surprise.

Footnote:

*I am not going to use this blog to promote the book.  Because I love you all. However, I will say that we are anticipating that it will be released in January–or (given its size) sometime in the spring.

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Filed under Administrative, AU (Alternative Universe), Canon Works

King, John R. The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls. New York: Forge, 2008.

Special Note: I initially planned to review this book in May, to coincide with the anniversary of Reichenbach, but Life intervened. This is all to your benefit, however, because in the interim, I had a lengthy conversation about it with Jamie Mahoney, better known as Better Holmes and Gardens’  “Goddess in Sepia.”  As it turns out, we have very different opinions of it. So today, you get mine, and tomorrow–a completely different perspective. After all, it’s always good to have more data!

Amazing how adding one little letter can make this sooooo much more interesting!

When someone sets out to write a book, he faces an instant set of choices, beyond the elementary* questions of character, setting, and plot. Should the book be told in past or present tense? Who should tell the story? How many points of view should it contain, and should they be limited or omniscient? First, third, or even second person? Some writers make these choices consciously, with a view towards achieving certain effects. Others let them occur organically which, when it’s right is a beautiful experience, and when it’s wrong, is a very complicated problem to fix. Either way, these initial choices determine the story’s structure, and if you’ve tried to write anything longer than…well, heck, even a grocery list has structure. It’s important.

Writing a Sherlock Holmes story? Even more structural decisions await.  Will you hand it over to Watson and let him produce a straight, Doylean pastiche, or choose another point of view, thereby allowing yourself a wider range of creative freedom, and avoiding the inevitable “Watson voice” criticism? Will you explain how the story came about–curiously, even authors who haven’t found another copy of “The Adventure of James Phillimore” feel the need to explain their book’s provenance.** Will the story unfold as it happens, or as a memoir? Will it hew strictly to canon, or will you give yourself room to play, say, with sex or vampires?***  Each choice is crucial, guiding  your readers’ expectations, and defining the latitude they will give you in terms of character details and canon fidelity. Just as well-designed foundation and framing will allow a building to stand for centuries, a judiciously chosen story structure will support nearly anything you want to do.

The question of structure ends up being paramount in today’s selection, one of the more unusual books I’ve read this year. It differs immediately from most Holmes books in that it’s not narrated by any canon character, but by Thomas Carnacki. Now I’m sure most of you know who Mr. Carnacki was, but on the off chance…

After an image search, let me just say that Holmes was able to attract much better illustrators.

Thomas Carnacki, whose adventures were chronicled by William Hope Hodgson, was a detective who specialized in scientific exploration of the supernatural. Long before Jay, Grant, everybody, and their grandmothers ventured into asylums and attics hunting ghosts with EMF detectors and digital voice recorders, Carnacki sought to help his clients determine whether or not their night-bumpings were caused by humans, or portals to Hell.† When King introduces us, however, his evening ghost story soirées are far in the future. He graduated from Cambridge in 1890 and has spent the ensuing year doing the 19th-century equivalent of backpacking around Europe, being, as he calls it, “a student of the world” (the world, at present, being Switzerland). Without a father’s bank account to draw from, however, he is now “living by my wits,” and while he probably would have approached that very pretty girl with the enticing bustle anyway, the fact that she’s carrying a basket full of food makes her even more interesting. Showing a remarkable lack of judgement, Anna Schmidt invites this strange, shabby young man with a scraggly VanDyke to accompany her for a picnic at a local attraction. You know, Reichenbach Falls. On May 4th. 1891.

To jog your memory.

So, is the coincidence-hater in you screaming right now? Well, just relax. It is, of course, a set-up. Even a bit of a double-cross, between a man who believes he’s going to kill his mortal enemy, and the daughter who believes she can save her father from his inner demons. Instead, Anna Schmidt (Moriarty, actually) and Thomas Carnacki end up rescuing someone else. They’re not really sure who he is. He can’t help them with that question, either, so they end up calling him by the name on the tailor’s label in his clothing. Harold Silence.†† It will do for now.

Obviously, when you’ve just been battling for your life, have fallen over a cliff into the water, hit your head (and everything else) and can’t remember who you are, you’d like a few days to regroup. Unfortunately, there isn’t time. There won’t be any time at all until Chapter 33, and then the three of them only get half an hour. If you like non-stop action, King has written your book. Within minutes of the get-out-of-wet-clothes and small deductions scene, our heroes are being pursued, a relentless ordeal that begins with a carriage chase and continues until they cram, in some impossible fashion, into a single sleeping berth on a train to Paris. The intervening chapters include, in no particular order:

  • Fights
  • Avalanches
  • Almost falling into a crevasse
  • Almost getting smashed by ice
  • Being tortured in an asylum
  • Hiding in a crematorium furnace
  • Poisonings
  • Near strangulation
  • More fights
  • Gunplay
  • Electrocutions

And that, dear readers, is just the first third of the book.  Once Silence and Co. get to Paris, for the final third, more chases, stabbings, punctured lungs, stabbings, exorcisms and dismemberment await.

Yes, I said “exorcisms.” Obviously, when Thomas Carnacki is involved, one must expect the supernatural–in this case, possession–so if this is not a trope you enjoy, it’s all right to move along.  I admit, when I did my initial “flip-through,” I was less than thrilled.†††† After I read the Carnacki stories and followed the entire plot through, however, I could play along to some degree. When I told my husband about this bit, he found it interesting, so I’m guessing it depends on the reader. In the end, the supernatural element meshes fairly well with the rest of the story, is appropriately chilling, and makes nicely subtle references to aspects of Carnacki’s future, his use of electricity and pentacles in particular.

Mr. King does several things well in this book, in fact. Most of his characters are three-dimensional and interesting. The dialogue is realistic. With one exception, the plot moves quickly. Although I have a hard time visualizing action sequences, those of you who don’t will have plenty to work with. As the story  is for the most part extra-canonical, there weren’t a lot of references to check, and those few were accurate. He even gets in a nice little canonical joke, so if you think you see a major error, wait for it….‡ King has a nice prose style, and occasionally you even get real gems, such as this passage, which occurs as Harold Silence and his rescuers take refuge in a shepherd’s barrow and he tells them that in the morning, they will part company “‘as if none of this ever happened'” :

The irony of these words strikes me. My whole life never happened. I’ve lived only these last hours, all of it at the verge of death.‡‡

Here is another favorite, describing “Silence’s” thoughts as he begins to realize that he’s actually Sherlock Holmes, but with only a vague understanding of what that might mean:

How strange I am, to care about these things. Ashes and the composition of soil and the variations in bootblack… While other men filled their minds with planetary declinations and the properties of comets, I do idiot auguries in ash.‡‡‡

He’s just as insightful and poetic in the opening pages of the second third of the book, in which he describes Moriarty’s development, although certain events mean he eventually gets to avoid exploring its more complex aspects. King’s best moments come when he stops rushing his characters around and actually looks at them for a minute. When that happens, we realize, for instance, the significance of one of Silence’s seeming out-of-character moments, when he demands that Carnacki let go of him and self-sacrificingly fall into a crevasse. This is not Sherlock Holmes, who only days ago told his nemesis he was willing to give all to achieve the greater good. It is, however, Sherlock Holmes stripped down to only the most basic of human instincts. What’s even better is that King doesn’t  spell this out for us. He assumes we’re smart enough to grasp it on our own.

Mutually assured destruction? Not a problem.

In the best of all possible worlds, my review would end here. Remember all of the blathering at the beginning about structure, however? There was a point to that. The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls  suffers from structural problems.

First, King takes the well-worn path of establishing some sort of provenance for this story. Instead of coming from the ruins of Cox & Co., it’s a memoir, which Hodgson, Carnacki’s biographer, encouraged him to record and send to Dr. Watson in 1911. Why 1911? Carnacki’s stories first began appearing in 1910, so perhaps that played a part in setting the date. Holmes is retired, of course, but still has some very active times ahead of him. It seems odd that Carnacki, in his note to Watson, doesn’t allude to this in some fashion. It’s almost as if he thinks Holmes has died.

Oh well, that’s petty. The real problem lies in the fact that, while Carnacki starts telling the story in first person, as one would expect in a memoir, by Chapter 2 we’re  in Silence’s head. In Chapter 8, we venture into Anna’s point of view. This is fine. You know, in a novel that doesn’t purport to be a man’s memoirs. As gifted as Carnacki is, he’s not a mind-reader, and he simply cannot be in these people’s heads–one for a reason that will be clear by the end of the book, and the other because that person would never permit it. Notice that, in the canon, Watson is always Watson. If he goes to bed and misses things, he misses them. If he’s out in Dartmoor, he has no idea what’s going on in London. Never does he take on another’s voice or thoughts. When an author chooses a point of view, he is obligated to take on its restrictions. An editor would have done Shadow a world of good if she had taken out Carnacki’s prefatory note. Of course, then we would still have to contend with the odd fact that some sections of the story are told in present tense, and others in past, with no discernable (at least to me) narrative or artistic reason for the switches. These changes occur on a chapter-by-chapter basis, so they’re not so obvious as to be disconcerting, but they are curious.

If you’ve noticed, I’ve thus far avoided discussing the second third of the book. This is because it is Shadow’s  most problematic section. Somehow, some way, Thomas Carnacki got hold of Moriarty’s unpublished memoirs (which, like most fictional memoirs, read rather more like a novel). With no explanation as to how this occurred, he simply inserts them in the middle. Are they interesting? Yes. Do they contribute to the larger plot? Yes. But while King is at pains to provide a provenance for the book as a whole, he doesn’t think we need to know exactly where these pages came from. The result is a very clumsy, lengthy digression. One could argue that it’s actually intended as an homage to Doyle, who frequently allows Watson to interrupt his own narrative flow with long letters, reminiscences, and trips to Utah. I would counter that while this is probably the case, such editorial indulgences didn’t help Watson, and they’re less acceptable in the 21st century. To compound the crime, at the very end, we’re led to believe that these memoirs have somehow become a long origins story Anna’s been telling Carnacki and Silence as they take the overnight train to Paris. Father’s memoir or daughter’s memories? Can’t be both. Choose.

Whichever they are, they’re King’s attempt to explain why Moriarty ends up at the Falls. In the beginning, he’s no criminal genius, just a brilliant man trying to find a place in the world he experiences like no one else.§  He can, in fact, sense when a life has reached its turning point, and resolves to use this ability for good. In his first attempt at doing so, he rescues a beautiful prostitute, Susanna, who turns out to be a fellow mathematical genius and becomes his wife. Unfortunately, she is also a Mary Sue. Don’t get me wrong–I really loved her idea of applying mathematics to the sociology of crime (her university thesis). But I had a horrible time accepting that somehow she would be permitted to pursue studies at Cambridge’s Jesus College–which didn’t admit women, much less pregnant ones until the late 1970’s–no matter who her husband was. Nor did I think Cambridge would allow her to teach afterwards. Anna’s zippy riverbank birth, which occurs as the result of a deductive experiment, was also ludicrous. I know, I know, I’m quibbling over small things like historical fact when this is a book which contains an exorcism machine, but such casual, convenient manipulations can damage an otherwise interesting plot point.

This leads us back to the main narrative, and a larger, more damaging example of the very same flaw. I could spell it out for you, but I think it would be more interesting to let you find it instead, in this climactic moment of a scene between Silence and Carnacki. They’re looking at Silence’s track marks:

“Opium”

“More likely, cocaine. These are recent scars. If I were an opium addict, I would not be able to think clearly now that I have been without the stuff for two days. No, I must be addicted to a less-invasive poison.”

“But a poison, all the same.”

“True enough.”

“So, then, who is Harold Silence?” I pressed. “A cocaine addict–perhaps a drug dealer, whose hands are burned with whatever caustic chemicals he uses to prepare his wares, whose hands are burned from the guns he has shot to defend his criminal empire?”

“Perhaps,” Silence said quietly.

“Perhaps? What other explanation could there be for these scars?”

Silence took awhile to respond. “The evidence tells what I have done, but not why I have done it. I’ve shot cocaine in my veins–but why? An addict? A drug lord? I’ve shot guns–but why? To oppose the law, or to uphold it?”

I laughed grimly. “The cocaine-addicted crime fighter–yes. A very plausible explanation. And I suppose this madman trying to kill you is a criminal you have brought to justice rather than a rival drug lord–or even a police officer trying to bring you in.”§§

I’ll give you a minute.

When I was a student teacher, one of my classes was remedial government for seniors. I would wager that with one exception, none of these really enjoyable but slightly disengaged kids could find the Netherlands on a map. But every last single one of them knew that pot was legal there. If I could locate them all today, they would tell me instantly what is wrong with this passage. You could drink it from a bottle. You could put it in your hair. You could give it to your child. You could buy it over the pharmacy counter and shoot it up in private when the gears of your mind threatened to overwhelm you. All of this I verified online and in a book about London crime in about ten minutes, seven of which were redundant. Thus, what could have been a powerful scene  crumbles because author and editor chose the punchline over historical fact. The difference between this and demons? I don’t see King as creating an alternate universe (AU) here, in which cocaine is illegal; there’s been no set-up for this, or for AU at all. Instead, we have our real world, in which supernatural elements are exposed. Just inserting a ghost in a story, for example, doesn’t mean that cars can fly. If you want the latter, you have to introduce it in a rational way. Just as Susanna went to Jesus College because the author thought it would be cool, regardless of whether or not it was possible, cocaine is suddenly illegal in the 1890’s because the irony was irresistible.

The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls is a like a do-it-yourself bookshelf from a big box store displaying your collection of first editions. It looks nice on the box. That veneer could be oak if you squint. That screw went in, even if the holes didn’t match up. An edge is peeling, but if you turn it to the wall…. Yes, it leans a little, but just put the heavy books on the bottom. John R. King’s look at Holmes post-Fall has so many good points: action, characterization, dialogue, insight, originality, some beautiful writing and–if it’s your thing–spookiness. But he’s arranged these treasures on a structure that can’t hold them or display them properly. So go on and examine them, but it’s best not to look around too closely.

The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls  is available in hardcover and on the Kindle from Amazon, and on the Nook (only) from Barnes and Noble. You can also find it new or used from Powell’s, and used from ABE Books.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5  “Flawed but worth a look”

Footnotes:

*Haha, look it’s that word!

**Seriously, does any other group feel so compelled, or is it just us?

***Or sex with vampires? This has happened. And not just in fanfiction.

† In preparation for this review, I actually read his stories. They are really fairly decent, and divided equally between natural and supernatural explanations. In general, they are very atmospheric, and have a creepy-as-heck setup, while the impact of the denouement varies. You can find them all here: http://www.forgottenfutures.com/game/ff4/carnacki.htm

††No, you silly people, it’s not “Calvin Klein.”  “Silence,” by the way, probably is a nod to John Silence, Algernon Blackwood’s 1908 detective.

††††Understatement of the Year

‡Yes, I felt stupid.

‡‡ King, p. 55

‡‡‡ King, p. 247

§I don’t want to give you more block quotes, but the passages in which King describes this are insightful and contain some evocative writing.

§§ King, p.76.

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Filed under Crossovers, Holmes out of his Element, John R King, Moriarty, Reichenbach, Supernatural, The Final Problem, Three-star reviews

Thomas, Amy. The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes. London: MX, 2012

“Sorry, old man, can’t do that stake-out with you tonight. I’ve got to bring up my word count for NaNoWriMo.”

If you’re a writer, and I know some of you are, you’ve probably heard of “NaNoWriMo,”* the annual event that encourages you to make November the month you write your novel–or at least 50,000 words of it. Have you ever done it? I have, twice. This is how it went:

1. Determine I will do it. This time.

2. Sign up.

3. Write about 1,000 words per day in current WIP (work in progress). For, like, two days.

4. Evening out.

5. Sick kid.

6. Intense FB debate about…something.

7. Veteran’s Day

8. Who am I kidding?

And that’s it for another year. Do you know what Amy Thomas** did for NaNoWriMo 2011?

1. Wrote a book.

This alone is a praiseworthy achievement. But then, she…

2. Published it.

The Detective and the Woman is that book.

Now, I can hear what some of you are saying. “Holmes and Irene again! He wasn’t in love with her! He just kept her photo to remind him to be humble/for a paperweight/to hide the morocco case in the drawer from Watson!”  Relax! Although I myself have no problem with Holmesian hookups, I have to admit I was dubious as well, mainly because I am not a fan of Miss Adler, particularly as she is often portrayed. Still, I was curious, and that curiosity was rewarded.

If you remember, Irene Adler was the woman who outwitted Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”  At the end of this story, she keeps her indiscreet photograph of the King of Bohemia, marries her barrister, Godfrey Norton, and manages to tweak The Great Detective at his doorstep. Watson writes of Mrs. Adler-Norton, “To Sherlock Holmes, she was always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.” He then rushes on to explain to us that Holmes was not, in fact, in love with her, just…impressed.***

Ms. Thomas begins her book some three years after this event, as Irene stares down at the body of her husband, who’s just died of a heart attack. She isn’t sorry he’s gone. The congenial, popular man she’d stood with in the church of St. Monica turned out to be a controlling, abusive husband who’d married her primarily so he could use her fortune to maintain his newly-inherited Yorkshire estate. Her dreams of a bucolic life away from the constant demands of performance and society dissolved into a horror of physical and mental cruelty at the hands of a sociopath who convinced everyone else that he was an adoring spouse. Fortunately, Godfrey Norton didn’t expect to die young; Irene’s money was never made a part of his estate. As she manufactures tears for the physician and servants and plays the part of the grieving widow, she waits for her solicitor, James Barnett, to legally disentangle her bank account. That done, she resumes her singing career and heads to the States for a tour; in the end, it’s what she knows best. She will never again, she resolves, trust her fate to a man.

Clearly, Ms. Adler does not know how to pick ’em.

It’s during a performance in Orlando, Florida, that she notices someone strikingly familiar in the audience, and she’s not surprised to find him waiting for her in her dressing room afterwards. Perhaps she should be; after all, he’s supposed to be dead, but instead of fainting, she offers him (bad) coffee, and they trade stories.

Holmes isn’t there just to catch up, however. Mycroft, apparently more than happy to make use of his younger brother’s suddenly free schedule, has sent him to find Irene on the basis of a threatening letter which found its way into his hands through oddly coincidental circumstances.  The letter, which Holmes was instructed not to open until he reached Florida–possibly because Mycroft thought he would balk at another meeting with The Woman–seems to indicate that Irene is the target of a (possibly international) plot. Or is she?

After her experiences with the King of Bohemia, Godfrey Norton, any number of men in her past, and even Sherlock Holmes, Irene is not in a trusting mood. Holmes’ difficulties with women are well-documented.✝ Still, they’re able to put their doubts about one another aside (sometimes with difficulty) in the interests of solving the case. Their efforts lead them into both the highest echelons and lowest dregs of Floridian society, requiring quite a few costume changes, acting skills and outright subterfuge. Irene finds this last often difficult–particularly when it is directed at her. The plot has so many twists and turns that it’s actually hard to tell you much more than this without venturing into Spoilerville. Just remember, nothing is what it seems. Unless it is. When Mycroft’s involved, you never know.

It isn’t hard to write a Sherlock Holmes’ pastiche; people churn them out all the time. What’s hard is to write a good one. To achieve this, the writer must successfully address three factors: setting, character, and plot. Let’s break it down, shall we?

Many would argue that one of the reasons Sherlock Holmes has stayed popular for over a century is that his gas-lit, Victorian-on-the-cusp-of-Edwardian London carries a mystery, familiarity and poignancy that still fascinates. However, like many of us, Ms. Thomas couldn’t just spend months in London to soak up the atmosphere and get all the buildings right. So she wisely chose to set her story in the Ft. Myers area of which she has intimate knowledge. She does a good job of integrating its history and prominent people into the book. I was worried, for instance, when Thomas Edison made an appearance (the Edisons wintered in Ft. Myers). But he blended in quite well, and there was no magical invention to serve as deus ex machina in the final moments of the adventure.✝✝  I particularly liked how Ms. Thomas describes Holmes’ view of his new surroundings:

He had always been affected by atmospheres. The hubbub of London was like a steady hum that called to him and told him secrets about its inner workings. Florida was different, almost silent, save for the growl of the animals that prowled the night-time. He couldn’t feel a pulse…underneath the beating sun, and the lack of bearings unsettled him. (p.42)

At the same time, she avoids the temptation of having every other scene scream, “Look! Sherlock Holmes is in America!” No quirky characters, no allusions to Disney, no gratuitous mentions of US politics, no funny dialects. We do find out Irene doesn’t like the Coca-Cola Edison has delivered in; I felt a bit sorry for her.

Sherlockian pastiche plots are difficult because they generally require a mystery to be successful–and that mystery has to stay a mystery for most of the book. Authors vary in their ability to pull this one off. I’ve admitted before that I am not the best armchair detective; I’m along for the ride. But Ms. Thomas does an excellent job of parceling out information on a need-to-know basis. Even though the reader spends half of the adventure in Holmes’ head, the detective remains secretive, and even when I was fairly sure I had it all figured out, I still had one surprise coming. There were moments in which I felt my credulity strained, but within a few pages, Ms. Thomas addressed those lengthy marginal notes, reducing them to ballpoint bluster. In the end, however, the reader has to accept that the elaborate plot was necessary for the villain to achieve his ends, and that Holmes would be willing, so early in the Hiatus, to blow his cover. I can accept that the culprit would want to exercise that level of control over his plot, and the author does address the latter issue, but these are two instances in which you may need to play along. You won’t feel bad about doing so.

Finally, of course, there are the characters. Irene Adler is a polarizing character to many, and the idea of her having any sort of relationship with Sherlock Holmes even more so. I was very happy with the way Ms. Thomas portrays The Woman. Here, she’s not a vixen, not a thief, and not, thankfully, a Mary Sue. At one point, Holmes describes her as a “nor’easter,” but I think that just reflects his limited experience. She’s a regular woman emerging from an experience that challenged her every notion of who she is; most readers will be able to identify with her reactions and concerns. Her greatest strength is her ability to keep her head in trying circumstances. This is useful, not only when someone is holding a gun to the head of the woman next to you, but also when Sherlock Holmes is trying to explain why he didn’t tell you a rather important aspect of his plan–one that concerned you. Forced once more into trying circumstances due to others’ machinations, Irene Adler finds herself acting as Watson. She does a fair job, but in the end, it’s not a role she relishes.

I liked Amy Thomas’ Sherlock Holmes as well. Holmes is always a tricky character; everyone seems to have a different view of him. This detective is, perhaps, a bit softer than others, but not by much. He’s not a misogynist at all, just a regular man bewildered by women’s more emotional reactions to life.In one priceless scene, for example, he thinks about how one of Watson’s bad moods could be easily short-circuited with ale and a pork pie, and doubts that would work with his new partner. He finds Irene a useful companion, someone intelligent to bounce ideas off of, but he’s not sure how far he can trust her, or of her ability to fulfill the assignments he gives her. In his other aspects–his facility with costumes, his faculty for working for days without rest, his quick reasoning and ability to sacrifice others’ interests to solve a case–he is the Holmes we all recognize. I did feel that, so soon after Reichenbach, there might have been a little more exploration of his thoughts and feelings on that split-second decision and all of its ramifications.He misses Watson, compares him (generally favorably) to Irene, but there’s less of this than one might think. And, as I mentioned before, he didn’t seem nearly as concerned about others learning his identity as might be expected. It could be argued, however, that Holmes’ ability to bury disturbing feelings under the weight of logic kept him sane during the Hiatus, and helped him become the Great Detective, so these are only minor caveats.

Speaking of which…. Because this is, after all, The Detective and the Woman, I must address the inevitable question: do they? Well, they don’t go off to Montenegro and have Nero Wolfe, if that’s what you’re asking, and Irene doesn’t show up later in Montpellier for, um, coal-tar derivatives.✝✝✝  But when they part–she to Sussex, and he to Tibet, they part as friends. If that’s enough for you, stop there. If, like me, you want the full misty-eyed experience, read on a little further.

NaNoWriMo encourages writers to just pour their guts out onto paper, without thought for plot, coherence, character development–the niceties of writing. I don’t think Amy Thomas took that advice. In The Detective and the Woman, she takes on one of the most challenging themes in Sherlockian pastiche and handles it deftly. It’s an excellent first book and not, hopefully, her last.

I’d like to know your thoughts on this book, Irene Adler, Sherlock in America, or the Great Hiatus. Leave your comments below. Second commenter gets a copy of The Detective and the Woman or another book in my stash.

The Detective and the Woman is available through traditional online sites. It is also available from the Baker Street Babes’ shop; purchasing it there will help the Babes continue to add much-needed bandwidth for their popular podcasts.

Star Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5  “Well worth your time and money.”

*National Novel Writing Month

**Yes, that Amy Thomas, of Baker Street Babes fame!

***He afterwards calls her “the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.” Practitioners of  The Game have a field day with this one.

✝Particularly in fan fiction.

✝✝Don’t laugh. People do this.

✝✝✝For the first, see Baring-Gould. For the second, see Laurie King.

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Filed under Amy Thomas, Baker Street Babes, Four-star reviews, Holmes and Love, Holmes out of his Element, MX Publishing, Real Historical Personages, The Final Problem