Category Archives: Characters

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.

1 Comment

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

Andriacco, Dan. Rogues Gallery. London: MX Publishing, 2014

So. Got a question for you. Which do you prefer? Sir Arthur’s novels, or his short stories?

He wants you to say "the novels."

He wants you to say “the novels.”

The four Sherlock Holmes novels–namely, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of [the] Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear– have some wonderful moments and great dialogue; I am particularly partial to Holmes’ and Watson’s meeting in STUD. However, I have to say that I am not overly fond of Conan Doyle’s technique of starting a story quickly, then dragging it back with a lengthy flashback in the middle of the book. In my opinion, his talents were better-suited to the short story format.* Other authors find it difficult to “think short” and do better when they have more time and space to explore their characters and slowly spin out the plot. It’s relatively rare, I think, to find a writer who can pull off both forms equally well.** Dan Andriacco achieves this feat in his latest Cody-McCabe release, Rogues Gallery.

Up until now, I have only reviewed Andriacco’s Cody-McCabe novels. Rogues Gallery  is a collection of two short stories and three novellas, all featuring the (as-yet) unpublished mystery writer, Jefferson Cody and his larger-than-life Sherlockian brother-in-law,  Professor Sebastian McCabe. Once again the whole gang is here, from police chief Oscar Hummel (now courting Cody’s PA, Annaliese Pokorny) to Cody’s new bride, former reporter (now editorial director) Lynda Teal. This is a good thing, too, as Erin, a small Ohio college town with an unusually high per capita murder rate, is about to get a lot bloodier.

First up is “Art in the Blood,” a novella which takes its title from Sherlock Holmes’ declaration to Watson that “art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”***  As a college town, Erin has a small community of artists, including Cody’s sister (and Sebastian’s wife) Kate, a children’s book illustrator who has taken to working in stained glass. The Cody-McCabe clan is attending her first exhibit, part of a larger women’s art show at the Looney Ladies’ Gallery. The rest of the town also seems to be up for and evening of art, wine, and cheese platters, making for a long list of potential suspects when one attendee turns up with a corkscrew in his eye. Dr. Thurston Calder won’t be St. Benignus’ new art department head now, but was he dispatched by the competition, or someone else?

Jeff and Lynda rush from that adventure headlong into another (“The Revengers”) when, on the way to a Halloween party (for which they are dressed as The Avengers), they stop to help a mysterious figure in scrubs, waving frantically at them from the roadside.

Not these Avengers.

Not these Avengers.

These Avengers.

These Avengers.

Whoever it is apparently hasn’t heard of the Hippocratic Oath, however, because within minutes, Steed and Mrs. Peel find themselves bound on the floor of an empty house, staring at a timer set to tick away the last twenty minutes of their lives. Will they get out alive, or will the rest of their stories turn out to be past escapades, à la The Hound of  the Baskervilles?

Whichever it is, I won’t tell you. Won’t tell you who set the bomb, either.

Nyah.

Whoever the culprit was, they certainly don’t deserve a visit from Santa, but neither, it seems, does another member of Erin’s criminal class, who is just naughty enough to steal a pearl necklace from one of the town’s benefactresses. At a community Christmas Craft Show, no less. Again, both Cody and McCabe are there to take on the case, but one has to think that really, the citizens of Erin should be grateful no one dies in “Santa Crime.”

The same cannot be said of “A Cold Case,” however, and this time, it’s not an outsider who adds to the body count. No, Erin’s population drops by one when Jeff and Lynda, excited house hunters, open a chest-style freezer to find, not pre-made lasagnas, but a realtor. Apparently bludgeoned to death with a frozen salmon, Olivia Wanamaker had a bad marriage, at least one lover, and a Twitter feud with Erin’s mayor. Did one of these lead to her death? Or was her killer actually St Benignus’ unpopular provost, Ralph Pendergast?

Finally, what began with a Holmes quote, ends with a Holmes quote. “Dogs don’t make mistakes,” Holmes told Watson in “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.”  People do, however, and in the collection’s final story, Cody finds himself coming to the defense of fellow aspiring mystery writer Ashley Crutcher, who claims she shot and killed her estranged husband by accident, having mistaken him for an intruder. It sounds like yet another episode of “Snapped”–until a jewel theft is thrown into the mix. Only Ranger knows what really happened, but unfortunately, he can’t talk.

Toby

One of the enjoyable things about following a series is seeing how both the characters–and their author–develop. When I first began reviewing Mr. Andriacco’s books, I found them creative and enjoyable, but there were occasional passages which read “rough” to me, or abrupt insertions that, while they illuminated the characters, interrupted the general flow of the story. Those have vanished, and these stories go down as smoothly as Lynda’s favorite bourbon.†  Although there are some dark and eerie moments–the gory corkscrew to the eye and a masked-and-gowned figure waving in the dark, for example–Jeff Cody’s conversational and unwittingly revealing narrative style keep the overall tone light, giving the book more of a “cozy” feeling, rather than that of an excursion into the darker sides of human nature. All of the regulars make an appearance, and it’s as nice to see some of the minor characters (such as Hummel and Pokorny) experiences some changes in their lives as it is to watch the still-besotted newlyweds. One of the drawbacks to having such a close-knit cast is that it is more difficult to play hide-the-murderer. Andriacco does his best to provide a long list of potential suspects amd motives, however, so I was only able to solve one case with certainty before the denouement. Whether long or short, each story was well-plotted and read quickly. If I found “Santa Crime” a teensy bit saccharine, it could be put down to the fact that I tend to fall on the Scroogish side of the holiday spirit spectrum. A long-time Sherlockian and member of a number of Sherlockian societies, Mr. Andriacco inserts enough canonical references throughout the book to entertain the knowledgeable reader without confusing the novice. He also provides enough background to keep Rogues Gallery a stand-alone work; one can jump right in without having read its predecessors. I would definitely recommend it to fans of the modern cozy.

Now, if only poor Jeff could get a book deal.

Rogues Gallery is available at some bricks-and-mortar stores, but is best obtained from your favorite online bookseller (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million) or directly from the MX site (www.mxpublishing.com, or http://www.mxpublishing.co.uk). As of this writing, it is not available as an ebook, but that should change. You can learn more about Dan Andriacco, his writing, and other Sherlockian tidbits at his website, bakerstreetbeat.blogspot.com.

Star Rating: 5/4

For canonicity, Rogues Gallery earns a 5, with 4 stars for being “well worth your time and money.”

Footnotes:

*I say this not having read his other novels–although I have read a lot of his horror shorts, his true crime articles, his autobiographical works and his spiritualist writing. At some point, I need to venture into his historical novels, the Lost World and its related works. So–have you read any of ACD’s other novels, and if so, how do you think they compare to his Holmesian books?

**Of course, perhaps everyone else can, and I just blab too much. There is that.

***”The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”

†Or so I have been told.  I can’t say for certain, as nothing alcoholic has ever gone down smoothly for me.

Reviewer’s Note:

In the interests of full disclosure, I will say that I read “The Revengers” in draft form. However, as I was working on A Curious Collection of Dates at the time, my brain was total mush, and I do not believe I offered comments of any real value. In fact, by the time I began reviewing the book, I had  forgotten who the actual culprit was.

3 Comments

Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), Dan Andriacco, Four-star reviews, Holidays, Holmes-related fiction, Jeff Cody and Sebastian McCabe, MX Publishing, Original Character

Observations: Characterization in Your Pastiche

The challenge of creation...

The challenge of creation…

Part 3: Characterization

I love writers’ magazines and writers’ manuals. Nothing makes you feel more virtuous about not writing than picking up The Writer or a book by Donald Maass and telling yourself that you’re engaging in professional development.* And one of the staples of such books and periodicals (which you should read whilst curled up in a comfortable chair) is characterization–specifically, how to pull it off believably. Fiction writers devote huge amounts of time, index cards, notebook pages, and computer memory to make up people as real as their Aunt Nelly.** Authors of Sherlockian fiction don’t have to fuss with that, though, do they? After all, Conan Doyle has already done the heavy lifting, character-wise. All the pasticheur has to do is think up a decent plot, bring out the cast, wind them up, and let them go. Right?

Wrong.

Fortunately, it seems that most writers understand this. Occasionally, however, I’ll be reading along and all of a sudden, Holmes, Watson, or possibly even Lestrade does something so out of character that the story comes to a screeching halt. At this point, the pen comes out and does some shrieking in the margins, and I’m thereafter alert to any tiny deviation or error on the author’s part. Some readers don’t even bother to finish such a book. As an author, you don’t want either reaction, so here are some suggestions which I hope can help you avoid them.

 Maude! Watson would never say that word!  I'm telling Mother!

Maude! Watson would never say that word! I’m telling Mother!

Staying in Character

Let me say, right up front, that I am not talking about fan fiction here, although plenty of reviewers on those sites complain about characters being “OOC.”*** The thing about fan fiction is that it’s not for profit, so if you want to write about an incredibly emotive Holmes and a flinty Watson, it’s fine; you and your followers will have a great time and no harm done. But, if you’re writing for the larger market and hoping to get some royalties out of it, this may not be the best strategy. Not to disparage anyone’s artistic vision, but the truth is, most people who buy a Sherlock Holmes book do so with the strong expectation that they are going to read about the characters they already know and love. They are not going to permit you a lot of play.

This brings us back to research. It’s tempting to think that you already know all there is to know about the world of 221B, but it’s probably a mistake. Pretend, for a few days, that you’ve just met these people. Comb through the stories and pull out every fact and observation you can. Analyze speech patterns: the characters sound different, but why? How can you duplicate this yourself? What are their habits? How do they approach their daily lives?  Try your hand at a little deduction: What do their thoughts and actions reveal about their inner workings? Their pasts? You may come up with a new revelation, but even if you don’t, that’s all right (some might say it’s preferable). The point of this is to truly understand your characters (for you are making them yours by writing about them), so that you can render them real and recognizable on the page. When fiction writers draw up those long character sheets with spaces for “favorite food,” “traumatic school memories” and “zodiac sign,” chances are good that all of that information won’t make it into the book, but the exercise itself ensures that once those people hit the page, they’re individuals. For example,  we will never know everything there is to know about any person–not even those closest to us–but everything they’ve experienced is there, somewhere, and we’re seeing it constantly. The same is true of the fictional world. The trick with Sherlockian fiction, of course, is to keep your facts straight, and not go too far beyond the boundaries already set by Watson’s literary agent. That’s okay, though–he only created the most alive characters in English literature. You’re in good hands.

That’s all writerly theory. I love writerly theory. But, concretely, what does it mean? Are there things you can never do with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson?

Well, I hate to say “never,” because if you’re a good enough writer, and you can make the reader really, truly believe it, you may be able to make our boys do anything. But, that being said, here’s a short list. Guard rail, challenge–make of it what you will:

  • Watson is a ladies’ man, but he’s a gentleman, always.
  • Holmes is not a ladies’ man. It’s perfectly possible to hook him up with someone, but he’s not believable as a skirt-chaser or as someone who is promiscuous in any way.
  • Holmes is, most of the time, tightly controlled and devoted to the life of the mind. We know that there’s something underneath that logical exterior, but that’s the whole point–it’s underneath. He is not going to have the overt emotional expressions of a teen-aged girl.†  A tremendous number of Sherlockians live for a glimpse of those “hidden fires.” Use this to your advantage.
  • Watson is a smart man–he’s a doctor, after all. But he is not, for the most part, going to be smarter than Holmes on a regular basis. He seems to be ok with this, so while it’s all right to give him the occasional burst of brilliance, he probably shouldn’t run the investigation, nor make Holmes look stupid.
  • Neither Holmes nor Watson are evil criminal masterminds or serial killers. Nor are they “dirty” cops. They are decent men on the side of Justice.
  • Watson is more into the creature comforts of life, and while Canon Holmes is not necessarily as ascetic as, say, BBC’s Sherlock, he’s also not as concerned with substantial  regular meals and sleep as is his friend. It is disconcerting to see a version of Holmes agree, seemingly without irony, that a good meal aids his thought processes.
  • Whatever you do, don’t alter a character solely to further the plot or the dialogue at hand. You may need to put out a violin-centered clue, but please don’t suddenly make Holmes a musical dolt so that you can do so.

I’m sure as you read this, you thought of successful books which flouted at least some of these stipulations. M. J. Trow’s Inspector Lestrade series portrays both Holmes and Watson as being less-than-heroic, and Michael Kurland’s Moriarty books feature the detective as drug-addled nitwit. Michael Dibdin’s controversial Sherlock Holmes is…wellllll, let’s say he’s not on the side of the angels. And of course there’s always the film Without a Clue, in which Watson is the brains of the operation. So, marry, murder, whatever you like, but do your homework and remember that the onus is on you, the author, to make it believable. Remember that the best lie is surrounded by truths.

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

Real Historical Personages

These characters are also prefab, in a fashion, and they appear frequently in Sherlockian fiction, sometimes as bit players, and other times as major actors. Some show up more often than others: various Churchills, Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward VII (before and after coronation), Jack the Ripper, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells, Houdini, Dracula, and the Titanic make regular appearances. Using real people as characters can either enhance your story, or prove an annoying distraction. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Be accurate. Make sure that this person was alive and in the area at the time he or she encounters your characters. Readers will often know more about these people than you think. Holmes is not going to meet George Washington, unless it’s during a seance or stepping out of a time machine. Oh dear. Please forget I said that.
  • Treat the historical person with some respect. I recently finished a book in which a very prominent individual–who was most certainly not a serial killer–was put forth (to the reader) as a possible….serial killer. Part of the suspense came from wondering if the author would actually pull that trigger. Unless you have evidence–real evidence–this seems unwise. Best to simply let your Real Historical Personage appear as him or herself, without drastic fictionalization.
  • Make the historical person three-dimensional. Teddy Roosevelt needs to have a reason to interact with Holmes beyond providing a history lesson to your readers.  Likewise, social justice is great, and Victorian living conditions and attitudes could be appalling, but that Real Person should not preach and leave. If they stood on a soap box on a daily basis in life then, by all means, let them have a bit of a say, but don’t use them to heavily underline A Message. Nor should they appear just to highlight another’s character trait. Is Holmes in favor of women’s suffrage in 1897? I dunno; give it your best shot, but don’t have Millicent Fawcett pop up with a pamphlet just to make the point that he’s a free-thinking man or a card-carrying member of the patriarchy.
  • Finally, limit your list, particularly if your Real Historical Personages are walk-ons. Don’t use them constantly as chronological props (Look, Holmes! It’s Lily Langtry! Walking past Rudyard Kipling! It’s 1897!). It’s perfectly legitimate to expect Holmes in particular to encounter some of the famous people of his time, either through his work or through Mycroft, and in some settings (such as the theatre) there will be more than one. Still, name-dropping for its own sake gets annoying, particularly when you’re dealing with a man who seems to disdain fame, power, and wealth on a philosophical level. And those chance sightings of famous people as children (“That 10 year-old clog dancer will be a remarkable actor one day, Watson, mark my words!”)?  Weave it into the plot, or just say no.

Original Characters

Chances are good that you won’t be using only canonical or historical characters in your story. You’ll add a few of your own. Oddly enough, for all of the space dedicated here to keeping Holmes and Watson recognizable, I’ve found that in most commercial Sherlockian fiction, authors do a decent job writing them in character. No, in general, the weakest characters are those created from scratch. Writer, this need not be so.

First, of course, you should give your original characters the same treatment you did those from canon. Here, you can relax a bit and let your imagination have more rein. Get to know these people really well, so they’re not just a cardboard audience for Holmes’ revelations. You probably don’t have to imagine favorite colors for every walk-on part (and most of the time, you’re advised to keep your character list small), but the more alive your original characters are, the more real the world of your book will be. Your goal is to make the reader believe that your story really happened–that Watson just didn’t get around to recording it. You want her to make it part of her “headcanon,”and to devoutly wish it were true. You want him to wonder, just for a moment, if that quote is from canon…or from your book. You cannot achieve this if your own characters aren’t as living as Doyle’s.

This leads us to two common character issues: the self-insert character, and the “Mary Sue/Gary Stu.” It can be argued that most of our original characters carry something of ourselves in them, some more than others. Just don’t make it obvious. Your main original character doesn’t have to share your appearance, birthday, occupation, and every one of your personality traits. I particularly advise this if your character is going to be a romantic interest. Don’t kid yourself into believing that people won’t know. They will. They won’t see themselves as the horribly murdered victims or criminals you’ve made them, but they’ll immediately recognize you in that scene. For the sake of your own sanity and self respect, mix it up a little.

"An inhuman noise broke from Holmes as he seized me--er, Agnes--in a desperate clinch...."

“An inhuman noise broke from Holmes as he seized me–er, Agnes–in a desperate clinch….”

The other frequent character issue–and one to which readers are very sensitive–is the “Mary Sue.” This is the main character (or, for our purposes, the main original character) who is flawless. She’s tough, she’s tender, she’s brilliant, she’s talented, she’s kind, she’s beautiful, she’s athletic, she loves children and puppies and kitties and sings even more beautifully than she plays piano and if she had three wishes all of them would be for world peace. She even has a tattoo, because she has street cred. If she has any flaw, it’s that she’s too feisty, or too liberated for her time. Mary Sue inspires instant feelings of love and desire in whichever character you’ve designed her for. He wants to protect her, all the while she’s throwing knives at ninjas and saving his skin. There are a lot of Mary Sues in Sherlockian pastiche, and even more who come dangerously close. It’s so tempting, I know, because you love your original character, and want the reader to love her (or him–the less common male version is known as a Gary or Marty Stu) as much as you do. The trouble is, adult readers tend to not be fond of this type. Your original character often serves as the reader stand-in, and they want to be able to identify with him or her, which they really can’t do if this person is perfect. Instead of rooting for him or her, they find themselves vaguely resentful, the way one might feel towards the goody-goody kid in school who excelled at everything. They nurture hostile thoughts and wouldn’t care if one of those expertly thrown knives were a boomerang. It may be petty, but there you are. Do all you can to create, not a paragon, but a flesh-and-blood human being with fears, faults, and failures, some of which are not at all adorable. Fiction feeds on conflict and imperfection; provide some in your characters.

One final note on the Original Character: try not to fall in love. This is very, very hard to do, but it is probably essential if you are writing a novel which purports to be about Sherlock Holmes. The thing is, when people buy your book because it has “Sherlock Holmes” somewhere on the cover, they expect him to play a major role, not be a bit player in your character’s story. I can’t be the only one who finds herself flipping past pages and pages of Original Character scenes in such books to find the five pages on which the Great Detective appears.†† Eventually, it’s difficult not to lose interest in such series entirely, not because they’re badly written, but because one feels cheated. This is not to say that you can’t write a book about your characters in which Holmes, Watson, or other Doylean people appear; obviously, you can. Just don’t market on the strength of their names; it’s not playing fair.

Well, there you have it: some thoughts on characterization in pastiche. This was, so far, the hardest post for me to write, simply because I’m well aware that it’s possibly the most subjective. So I’d like to know what you think–or, rather, what you like or dislike in a pastiche character. And if you write Sherlockian fiction, how do you deal with issues in characterization? Leave your views in the comments!

Footnotes:

*And you are, but after several months of this, let’s be real….. By the way, Donald Maass’ books are excellent, inspiring you to close them and get some work done, the best kind of writing manual.

**Sometimes, in fact, they are  Aunt Nelly, but all authors hold to the belief that people won’t recognize themselves on the printed page, or at least won’t take family to court.

*** “OOC” is fan fiction parlance for “Out Of Character.”

†Unless, of course, you re-imagine him as a teen-aged girl, but even then….  “Hidden fires” refers to   Holmes’ emotional reaction at finding that it is Selden, the convict, who has fallen prey to the Hound (of the Baskervilles) and not Sir Henry. His relief is extreme, and Watson is a little shocked.

†† Or I may be, and am a horrible person.

9 Comments

Filed under Characters, Holmes-related ficiton, Original Character, Pastiche, Real Historical Personages, Writing

Andriacco, Dan. Holmes Sweet Holmes. London: MX Publishing, 2012

“And that’s just the advance, Holmes!”

Everyone loves a series. Publishers love them because they typically mean millions of insatiable fans will be waiting with their fingers hovering over the “pre-order” button as soon as a new book is announced. Authors love them because a good one leads to a multi-book deal* and some job security, at least until that contract has been fulfilled. Most of all, readers love them because…well, we just can’t get enough, can we?

And why is that? Think about the series you love best. Why do you like them? Do I adore Preston and Child’s “Pendergast” series because I am drawn to vaguely insane plotlines involving weird mutant creatures who crave the human thyroid, mad younger brothers who grind famous gems into dust, or zombies?  Are the bleakest, most depressing aspects of LA the reason I turn time and again to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch?  Am I truly anxious to have Sherlock Holmes solve yet another crime on the Titanic?**

The answer to these, and many similar questions is “no, not really.” At least, not when you put it like that. But I’ll happily devour these and several other series, simply because I love the characters.

It’s common to distinguish between genre and literary fiction by saying the first emphasizes plot, while the other gives greater weight to character. While there is a bit of truth to this, I think we can all agree that it’s simplistic–and argue that the best series succeed, not because of plot (although we like plot, don’t lose plot), but because of their characters. Any book can have a car chase; not any book can have a Pendergast  car chase. Any (and apparently all) cop novels can have a tortured, military veteran detective with a messed-up personal life…but only one of those is Harry Bosch. And how many amateur sleuths are crawling through the British Isles on any given day? Still, there is only one “consulting detective” in the world.*** In the end, it’s the author’s ability to create characters we love, characters who grow, yet are still relatable, who seem as familiar to us as, well, family† that keep us coming back to a series.

Which was why I was so glad to catch up with Jefferson Cody again.

Several months have passed since Cody worked with his flamboyant brother-in-law, Prof. Sebastian McCabe, to solve the mystery of who killed prominent Sherlockian collector Woollcott  Chalmers. It would be nice to report that his role in that adventure catapulted him to at least twenty minutes of fame, earned him a book contract for his hard-boiled Max Cutter mysteries, and forever enshrined him as a hero in the heart of his no-longer-ex girlfriend, Lynda Teal.

Poor Jeff.

Although he’s working on an account of the Chalmers incident, it’s not finished, and he’s just received another form rejection for Max Cutter As for the “No Police Like Holmes” murder, all it’s earned him is (or will be) an uncomfortable appearance in a courtroom, and the ire of St. Benignus ‘ Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Ralph Pendergast.†† As for the lovely Lynda…they’ve been dating…awkwardly; as her FaceBook status says, “It’s complicated.”

Facebook. Hah! Jefferson Cody is about to learn what “complicated” really is.

Touchy academic is touchy.

The book starts off with a bang–or rather, a ringing phone. In an effort to shore up the college’s popular culture program, its head, Sebastian McCabe, has invited a famous actor-director-producer, Peter Gerard, to speak at the campus. McCabe and Gerard have known each other since their days at Indiana University, and Gerard is more than happy to make an appearance to help his friend–and to donate $25,000 to the popular culture program. Unfortunately, his efforts are cut short. During a small, private dinner the night before he’s to give his speech, Gerard is called to the phone, and never comes back. The dinner attendees (which include McCabe, Cody, Pendergast, and other college notables) find him dead, his head bashed in–with the only untended door locked.

Or was it? Or is he? Is Gerard’s death related to Sherlockian displeasure with his daring hit movie, “221B Bourbon Street,” which moves Sherlock Holmes from Victorian London to Roaring Twenties New Orleans? And makes him a sax player? With…a goatee? Or could it have to do with the $10 million life insurance policy his strapped partner has taken out on his creative wunderkind?  How about the beautiful young assistant? Or the seemingly loyal wife? Or was Peter Gerard’s death merely a distraction, while the killer pursued other ends? Speaking of distractions–will McCabe and Cody keep their jobs? Why has Lynda been summoned to syndicate headquarters? What does Willie Nelson have to do with all of this? And just who is the woman in Jeff’s shower? Mr. Andriacco answers all of these questions in a tightly-wound story.

I was proud of myself for picking out the killer in Andriacco’s first novel. And may I say, I am now two for two!  Still, even when I thought I was oh, so clever, I had several moments of serious doubt. With No Police Like Holmes,  I ended up with two serious suspects, one of which I really liked, and the other one. This left me in suspense until almost the very end, on tenterhooks lest the character I was fond of be led away in handcuffs. For Holmes Sweet Holmes,  Andriacco also leads us to two (actually three) persons of interest, but the difference this time was, I didn’t like either of my two picks at all, making the denouement quite satisfying.

Which leads us to what I appreciate most about Mr. Andriacco’s writing: his characters. This is, of course, a blog specializing in Sherlock Holmes-related writing, so naturally, most of the books will feature the actual Holmes and Watson. We know them rather well. So well, that I think it’s fair to say that, although we love books in which those characters are treated with depth and sensitivity, we will be tolerant of more wooden portrayals, as long as they don’t overstep the mental boundaries we’ve created for them. An author like Andriacco, writing about his own characters, doesn’t have that luxury. He can’t rely upon us to fill in any blanks with our headcanons; his people have to live on their own, immediately–and they do.

Jefferson Cody is still the slightly neurotic, uptight man who is not at all thrilled with being his brother-in-law’s sidekick. You have to feel for Jeff; it’s hard to live in the sizable shadow of a family member who’s managed to achieve what you’ve long wanted for yourself. As a PR director, Cody is quite adept at diplomacy and “spin,” but, privy to his thoughts as we are, we get to see his jealousies, judgments and insecurities without the benefit of a social filter. One might be forgiven for thinking that Ms. Teal could do better than a guy who drinks caffeine-free diet cola while silently criticizing his date’s cholesterol bomb, but then we see how he silently proposes to her in nearly every interaction, how he notices everything about her, how he’s made genuine efforts to be “less directional” (read: controlling)–and how his ringtone for her is Ravel’s “Boléro.”††† This is a man in love.

Sorry, Watson, this is not a man in love.

Sebastian McCabe is still the ostentatious eccentric with the brains to back up what some might see as his pretentions. Perhaps his first turn as a detective has left him a little overconfident; in this outing, he’s more ready to perform manipulative “experiments” to check a theory or prove a point. Whether or not this is exactly wise is open to question. As in the first book, although McCabe treats his brother-in-law as a “Watson” and comes up with the ultimate solution, Cody goes sleuthing on his own, and does not do very badly. We get to know Lynda Teal a little better, as well. She’s a woman on the cusp of significant professional and personal changes; she can make a new life for herself…if she chooses. Other recurring characters also grow a little. Ralph Pendergast is the administrator you love to hate (although he seems to love his wife). Father Joe Pirelli (St. Benignus’ President) is feisty and supportive, while Erin’s Chief of Police, Oscar Hummel walks the fine line one must when dealing with brilliant amateurs, and he may have an admirer. Peter Gerard and other “special guests” are nicely fleshed out, while from motive to murder, the villain is evil. And no, I didn’t guess the motive. Not even close.

If you’ve noticed, we’ve had several “big city” versions of Holmes and Watson, lately. Sherlock and John tend to stay in London. “Elementary” will take place in New York City, and even Peter Gerard stuck with very urban New Orleans. The Great Detective, himself, however, knew that evil could dwell in the most bucolic of settings. When he told Watson that “…the lowest, vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside,”‡ he might as well have been speaking of small, picturesque college towns. My dear Sherlockian friend, if you ever have cause to visit beautiful Erin, Ohio….

Watch your back.

Holmes Sweet Holmes is available through MX publishing, the Baker Street Babes website, and your favorite online booksellers, in both print and electronic formats. Obviously, this book is already in print; however, a sequel is due shortly, and if you order through the MX or BSB sites when it appears, you’ll receive your book long before its scheduled release date.

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

Notes:

*Preferably described in PW’s charming terms as “very nice.”

**This happens more than you might imagine. You won’t find him on any passenger lists because, you know, Mycroft.

*** “Alone on the Water” fans, feel free to sob here for a moment. We’ll wait.

†  “You can imagine the Christmas dinners.”

††No relation to Aloysius X.L. Pendergast of the New Orleans Pendergasts. As far as we know.

†††Based on traditional dance music, “Boléro” is supposedly a musical representation of sex…at least, that’s the reputation it’s had since it was used as a love-making soundtrack to the 1970’s film, “10.” So, yes, Jeff, we know where your mind is.

‡ “The Copper Beeches” (COPP)

1 Comment

Filed under Dan Andriacco, Four-star reviews, Holmes in Film, Holmes-related fiction, Jeff Cody and Sebastian McCabe, MX Publishing

10 Questions with Dan Andriacco

Mild-mannered communications director (for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati) by day, mystery writer by night, Dan Andriacco discusses Sherlock Holmes, the mystery genre, and his own Sebastian McCabe/Jeff Cody series. Deftly planned puzzles solved by engaging characters, and written with a light touch, the McCabe/Cody (or Cody/McCabe) books track the adventures of two brothers-in-law  who find themselves–through absolutely no fault of their own–drawn into solving mysteries with a Sherlockian connection. Dr. Andriacco’s newest book, Holmes Sweet Holmes,  officially releases today.

No Vatican cameos here. Perhaps I should consult Dr.Dan….

How did you first meet Sherlock Holmes? 

I write about this in the first chapter of Baker Street Beat. Briefly, a boyhood friend told me about Sherlock Holmes and we used to act out the stories before I ever read them. I think I was about nine when I read The Boys’ Sherlock Holmes. I was in the seventh grade when I bought my own copy of the Doubleday Complete. My image of Holmes was set in my mind long before I saw the old Basil Rathbone movies, which was my first screen image of Holmes.

So many Sherlockians who write about Sherlock Holmes choose to write pastiche. Your mystery series, while it references different aspects of Holmes and his fans, features original characters who aren’t opening a tin dispatch box found in the rubble of Cox and Co. Why did you choose a more non-traditional route? 

From a very young age I wanted to be a mystery writer. I never said to myself that I wanted to be a Sherlock Holmes writer. But being steeped in Holmes, it was natural to me that when I started writing mystery novels my main characters would be Sherlockians as well.

Your main characters, Sebastian McCabe, Jeff Cody, and Lynda Teal are very well-drawn. Did you base any of them on actual people? 

I’ve never based any main character entirely on a real person, but I think all three of them either embody some aspect of me or of my ideal self. I would love to work magic tricks and speak five languages like Sebastian McCabe. Lynda and I share the same favorite brand of bourbon and a few other traits. I thought Jeff was a comic exaggeration of me, but my wife said, “No, you’re just like that!” None of them physically resembles anybody I know.

You’ve also written some well-received traditional pastiches. Did writing, say, “The Peculiar Persecution of John Vincent Harden” differ from writing with your own characters? How? 

Writing a pastiche that aims to imitate the voice of the original writer is very different from finding one’s own voice. In writing “Harden,” I tried to replicate the voice of Dr. Watson that we know so well, but also the feel of the Canonical stories in a broader sense. That’s not so easy. In fact, I think many Sherlockians would agree with me that some of the Canonical stories don’t even read like Canonical stories!

Do you read much Sherlock Holmes pastiche? If not, why not. If so, do you have any favorite books, stories, authors, or themes? Any you tend to avoid? 

I don’t read a lot of pastiches these days because there are just too many to keep up with. In general, the closer a writer comes to the Watson voice and the feel of the original stories (see above) the better I like it. And yet, paradoxically, I very much enjoyed the Tracy Revels books and Amy Thomas’s The Detective and the Woman, both of which don’t fit that pattern.

And, since you’ve written traditional mysteries, and have reviewed them for the Cincinnati Post, which are some of your favorite authors and/or books? 

I’m always reading a book and it’s almost always a mystery, so it’s hard for me to name just a few. I love the writers of what’s been called the Golden Age of detective stories – Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, John Dickson Carr, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L. Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner, etc. I’ve been re-reading some of them lately. A lot of really good writers have died in the last year or two, including Stuart B. Kaminsky. I especially liked his Russian novels. Among writers still at work, I enjoy John Grisham, Elizabeth Peters, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Connelly, and Kathleen Kaska. Those are just a few.

You’ve taught classes in mystery writing. What do you think beginning writers should pay the most attention to? 

The beginning and the end. Mickey Spillane once said, “The first chapter sells this book, the last chapter sells the next one.” I think that’s great advice.

“You see, Holmes, Dr. Andriacco teaches writing, and he says absolutely nothing about ‘cutting the poetry.'”

What, for you, is the most difficult part of writing a mystery? 

Plotting drives me nuts. Sometimes I have to give up on a great idea because it’s just too unrealistic for anybody to suspend disbelief. Unfortunately, many writers don’t seem to do that. When it comes to the actual writing, the first sentence, paragraph, and page are usually the hardest for me. I think (and hope) my endings have all been rather strong. I seem to pick up momentum and write faster and maybe better at the end.

You’re a member of the Tankerville Club, the Cincinnati scion society.  What are some of the benefits people might  experience should they join a society in their area? 

It’s always good to gather with other people over a shared interest. I think it increases the pleasure of whatever that interest is. You may disagree on politics, religion, and your favorite sports with other members, but that’s trivial compared to your common love of Holmes.

And, of course, everyone wants to know about your future writing plans… 

 The world’s greatest publisher, Steve Emecz of MX Publishing, thinks that two books a year would be a good pace. I can easily do that. My third McCabe-Cody book, The 1895 Murder, is already written for Nov. 1 publication. I’ve also written a short story from Lynda’s point of view and no McCabe in sight. That will be a kind of bonus at the end of 1895.  I’m two-thirds of the way through a novella for a contest sponsored by the Wolfe Pack, the association for Nero Wolfe fans. The fourth McCabe-Cody novel will take place in London and we’re going there in October. I also know in detail what the fifth and sixth McCabe-Cody books will be and I have more general ideas for several more. I can’t wait to write them!

Dan Andriacco is the author of Sebastian McCabe/Jeff Cody mysteries No Police Like Holmes (reviewed in this blog 3/27/2012), and Holmes Sweet Holmes, released May 1, 2012. He’s also the author of a collection of essays, fiction, and plays, Baker Street Beat. One of his pastiches, “The Peculiar Persecution of John Vincent Harden,” is available separately as an e-pub. You can buy Dr. Andriacco’s books from the MX Publishing website, the Baker Street Babes online bookstore, or any major online bookseller. Dan Andriacco is active on FaceBook, Twitter, and keeps a regular blog at http://bakerstreetbeat.blogspot.com/

3 Comments

Filed under Dan Andriacco, Holmes-related fiction, Interview, Jeff Cody and Sebastian McCabe, MX Publishing, Uncategorized

Andriacco, Dan. No Police Like Holmes. London: MX, 2011

Sherlock Holmes has a sense of humor. Of course he does. He even trots it out on occasion, such as when he slips the Mazarin Stone into Lord Cantlemere’s pocket, or finds the ridiculous in a client’s situation. One might argue that once, he even laughed at himself, when Watson scored “a distinct touch” on his friend’s vanity in “The Valley of Fear.” But, in general, Sherlock Holmes takes himself very, very seriously, so we do, too.

Watson didn’t really find this amusing.

Thomas Jefferson Cody, public relations director for the Cincinnati-area* St. Benignus College, and the actual hero of Dan Andriacco’s new mystery series,**  also takes himself rather seriously.  Unfortunately for him, however, readers probably won’t.  And who can blame them? The recently-single Cody is neurotic, envious, a bit of a nag, slightly judgemental, and a trifle immature. He’s easily annoyed by others’ foibles, is sure his (as yet unpublished) detective novels are better than those  of his (published) brother-in-law, has a wandering eye, and  checks his ex-girlfriend’s  relationship status on Facebook regularly.

In other words, he’s a lot like us and, because he’s so relatable, he’s funny.

Jeff Cody lives in the shadow of his flamboyant, more successful brother-in-law,*** Sebastian McCabe–literally, since he has an apartment in the carriage house on the man’s property. However, it’s this association which catapults Jeff’s life from covering campus events, media relations, and handling his difficult boss into a weekend of mystery, danger, and (maybe) romance.

Sebastian McCabe, in addition to holding an endowed chair and being a successful author, is an avid Sherlockian, and he’s used his influence and powerful persuasive skills to convince wealthy businessman Woolcott Chalmers to donate his sizable collection of Sherlockiana to St. Benignus’ library. This is no mean acquisition: the Chalmers Collection includes a copy of Beetons’ 1887 Christmas Annual, 100 manuscript pages of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Bertram Fletcher-Robinson’s personal first edition of HOUN, inscribed by Sir Arthur himself. To celebrate this amazing coup, McCabe organizes a weekend colloquium, to give Sherlockians a chance to hear speakers, mingle, visit the dealers’ room, view the collection in its new home

…and steal…

…and murder….

When the collection’s crown jewels are stolen before the conference has a chance to begin, and a prominent Cincinnati attorney (and Sherlockian collector) is killed not twenty-four hours later, some colloquium attendees find the mystery irresistible. So do McCabe, Cody, and Cody’s ex-girlfriend, reporter Lynda Teal, although their motivations are a little more personal. McCabe, after all, brought the collection to the college in the first place, and Cody needs to end the public relations nightmare as soon as possible. And then there’s the troubling fact that, as far as he knows, Lynda was the last person to see the dead man alive.

And that’s as far as I can go, although I’d love to tell you more. Andriacco gives readers an engaging problem and familiar characters to solve it. If you don’t see yourself in one of them, you’ll see someone you know, and that makes their foibles and triumphs that much more enjoyable. I have yet to attend a Sherlockian conference myself, but I’ve spent enough time in academia (and around geeky obsessives) to appreciate Cody’s world and his slightly jaundiced view of it. Andriacco avoids the temptation to make his two heroes “Holmes” and “Watson.”  Sure, McCabe quotes Holmes and applies his methods, but he’s as far from the aesthetic, unclubbable, moody (and really thin) Holmes as it’s possible to be, while Cody is not the hero-worshipping and completely loyal Watson. In fact, he’d be ecstatic if his attempts to use his fictional detective’s methods won out over McCabe’s. And if he did do quite a bit (ok, most) of the legwork, and ended up writing it all down, well, like Watson in HOUN, he’s the one who saw the most action, now, wasn’t he?

“Why must you always insist on wearing a deerstalker to conferences, Holmes?”

Andriacco does cram a lot of action into that Sherlockian weekend. By providing two crimes, which may or not be related, and several characters with enough plausible motivation to commit either or both, he presents the reader with a nicely tangled knot. I will say that while I did figure out the answer(s),✝ there were enough twists and turns at the end to make me doubt my intuition and fear for my favorite character. And, as with any good mystery, suspecting the ending didn’t make getting there any less entertaining.

I have to say, however, that Jeff Cody has one stylistic quirk that I found troublesome. Because he writes in first person, and does it well, the reader stays firmly inside his head. Unfortunately, that makes one privy to some thoughts that seem a bit misplaced. For instance, when,  after a harrowing experience, Lynda seeks comfort in Cody’s arms and says she needs a drink, our hero, intoxicated by the danger, her nearness, and her perfume, also sees fit to tell us about one of her favorite websites. This, and similar asides elsewhere, tends to ruin the moment. Jeff, buddy, let us keep the tension.  You can share those little details later!

If you’re like me, you read a lot of dark, serious books about dark, serious people doing dark, serious things. Possibly while listening to dark, serious songs. But it’s springtime and sometimes you just need to rip off the dark✝✝  glasses and step out into fresh air and sunshine. Of course there’s nothing at all amusing about theft and murder, but Andriacco’s characters and their lives are so very normal and untormented, his writing style so light, and his observations so witty that No Police Like Holmes is an enjoyable, palate-cleansing romp of a mystery with a little Sherlockian education thrown in. Take it with you to the park or the beach and see if you can catch the culprit first!

No Police Like Holmes is available through the Baker Street Babes website, the MX publishing site, and your regular online bookseller, in both print and e-book form.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5   “Well worth your time and money”

Footnotes:

*As someone who lives in the Midwest, I found this very appealing. Not everything in the US has to happen in LA, New York, or Boston.

**It’s billed as a “Sebastian McCabe mystery,” but Cody seems to be the primary character, and steals the show.

***Unless you call a flame-red 1959 Chevy Convertible, marching around campus in a kilt, playing bagpipes, regular use of sleight-of-hand and 19th century speech patterns understated.

✝I rarely do, in mysteries, so I felt the need to brag. Sorry.

✝✝And serious

1 Comment

Filed under Dan Andriacco, Four-star reviews, Holmes-related fiction, Jeff Cody and Sebastian McCabe, MX Publishing