Category Archives: Five-star reviews

Campbell, J. R. and Charles Prepolec, Editors. Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes. Calgary: Edge SF&F Publishing, 2011.

'Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season


When I was a kid, I loved to read ghost stories. I checked the same books out of the library, time and time again. Many times, they were older and worn, or had cartoonish covers, but there were a few with covers so scary that at night, I hid them at the bottom of my book pile, safely contained by the weight of a dozen other, more innocuous books.*

You know, just to be safe.

Gaslight Arcanum is, actually, the third anthology in a series edited by Campbell and Prepolec, its predecessors being Gaslight Grimoire (2008) and Gaslight Grotesque (2010). I hope to review each of them eventually. I chose Arcanum, however, both because it is the most recent, and–unleashing my inner nine year-old–because it has the absolute creepiest cover….



Nor is this (with one exception) a reprint anthology. Nothing wrong with those, but in Arcanum, Campbell and Prepolec have brought together a collection of new stories by very talented and respected writers. Some stories may be familiar to you, as they have since been reprinted elsewhere, but here they mark their débuts. Let’s venture down this dark, dusty hallway and meet them, shall we?**

The editors start out on a high note with Stephen Volk’s “The Comfort of the Seine,” a Sherlock Holmes “origins” story which is juuuusssst plausible enough that some readers may make it a part of their personal head canons. It begins with the “if you’re reading this I must be dead” trope, but then immediately leaps into much more original territory. Here the reader sees Sherlock Holmes as an intense twenty year-old student with scientific leanings, accompanying a group of classmates to Paris to explore that city’s art scene. Despite his relationship to Vernet, the young Sherlock is not all that interested in art, but who doesn’t want to leave his books for Paris? Besides, his friends need him–or rather, his fluency in French. While his classmates roam the galleries, he roams the city, becoming infatuated with a young flower-seller. When she turns up missing–and then dead–he is completely shattered. It takes C. Auguste Dupin to show him the way out of his overwhelming grief.*** And if you’re currently thinking, “well, that sounds predictable,” you would be wrong.  I truly cannot say enough good things about this story–the dark opulence of the author’s style, its characterizations, its evocation of mid 19th-century France, and most particularly Volk’s Dupin, a man who cross-crosses the edges of genius and madness so adroitly that you’ll change your mind about him more than once before the story is over. “Comfort” is not precisely a horror story in the way that its companions are, but it is both suspenseful and sad–and of all of these, I think, the most likely to haunt you when Arcanum goes back to your bookshelf.

Christopher Fowler’s “The Adventure of Lucifer’s Footprints” is a more traditional tale. It’s in Watson’s voice and recounts a strange case the detective and his Boswell investigated in Devon in February of 1888. They’re there at the urgent behest of Lucy Woodham, who with her father, Crimean war hero General Sir Henry Woodham, has recently moved to the family’s run-down ancestral home, Belstowe Grange. Belstowe Downs is an isolated spot, and its villagers swear that Satan himself sends a pack of lost souls to carry off area wrong-doers–sinners such as Woodham’s groom, attacked and killed during a storm, his body found surrounded by hoofprints which seem to have appeared out of nowhere. The solution–at least as Watson sees it–puts a rift between himself and his skeptical friend which he fears will never completely heal. “Footprints” is a very competent tale which uses several favorite Conan Doyle tropes. It’s a little clipped, style-wise, and Holmes and Watson don’t engage in their usual banter. Its main difficulty, however, most likely lies in the fact that it immediately follows Volk’s tour de force. Readers should still find it entertaining.

I will confess to at first being a bit put out with “The Deadly Sin of Sherlock Holmes.” Despite my desire to be less dogmatic about AU stories, there are a very few Canon facts about which I find it difficult to be flexible, and when I saw this adventure is set in May of 1891, well, I was just not having it.† It turns out, however, that author Tom English has a very good reason for placing his story so close to the fatal event at Reichenbach (which, of course, I cannot reveal). “Deadly Sin” is  a creepy tale about a Codex which inspires its readers to murder, and is shot through with witty exchanges between Holmes, Watson, and their clients–a group of monks who’ve travelled to London from Rome. The Canon references fly fast and furious, and in the end, even the Hiatus is accounted for–after a fashion.

William Meikle is the well-known author of hundreds (Really! Hundreds!) of stories in the supernatural and science fiction genres–and he’s a great fan of what is typically known as “pulp.” In “The Color that Came to Chiswick,” he sets Holmes and Watson up against a lethal green substance found in a brewery vat. It’s so hard so say more without spoiling the whole thing, but this particular adventure would probably be Holmes’ own favorite as it involves science–and caustic chemicals.

It did not escape from my refrigerator, I swear!

It did not escape from my refrigerator, I swear!

As I stated above, all but one of the stories in this anthology are original contributions. That exception is “From the Tree of Time,” by Fred Saberhagen, who passed away in 2007. Mr. Saberhagen was a well-known science fiction and fantasy author, and many Sherlockians are well-acquainted with his fondness for teaming the Great Detective with Count Dracula. This is a lively, tightly-written story, in which the Count remembers a time in which he served as Holmes’ own consultant in a blackmail case gone wrong. Like Lady Hilda in “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the client (whom Dracula chivalrously refuses to name) was a bit “sprightly” before her marriage, and now wishes to hide the evidence. Or maybe the body. If she could find it, that is. The two men in her study are the only ones in the world who can tell her if she stands to lose her marriage–or her freedom. The denouement is both surprising and satisfying, making “Tree” my “second favorite” in the collection.

Fred Saberhagen,  1930-2007

Fred Saberhagen,

Classic nineteenth-century horror makes another appearance in the next story. In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes tells Watson, “about that chasm. I had no serious difficulty in getting out of it, for the very simple reason that I never was in it.” But what if that weren’t exactly true?  What if he had fallen into the Aare River–and Watson wasn’t the first one on the scene? In  “The Executioner,” Lawrence C. Connolly reveals what really happened at that fatal encounter, and why Holmes need three years to sort himself out afterward. It’s a fascinating story which takes an abrupt, dark turn at the end–and as someone who likes abrupt, dark turns, I enjoyed it greatly. That being said, I didn’t really share Holmes’ doubts in the final paragraphs, but you, as better, more sensitive people, may find yourselves in agreement.

If I were to give a prize for the most horrific story in this collection, Simon Kurt Unsworth’s  “A Country Death” would win the blue ribbon, hands down. Again, it’s difficult to review a short story without giving the whole thing away, and Unsworth works so hard to hide the main facts from you that it feels wrong to provide even the slightest hint. Let’s just say that it is extremely well-written…and so disturbing that–if you wish to enjoy sweet dreams–it should not be the last thing you read before you go to bed.

Many pasticheurs like to explore what cases Sherlock Holmes may have taken on for his brother, The British Government–more familiarly known, of course, as Mycroft. In Kenneth Cockle’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game,” the detective and his Boswell find themselves in Canada, investigating what appears to be a particularly dangerous Russian move in her proxy war with Britain. It’s soon revealed as a maneuver in an actual war–between the true source of Holmes’ powers and another enemy, just as ancient and just as powerful. I actually found the first explanation very clever, but I am still a little conflicted about the origins of the proffered nemesis. Holmes is right–Watson does have his work cut out for him when he goes to lay this one before the public. Perhaps Russians would be a more plausible explanation, after all.

From the Canadian north, Holmes and Watson next travel to the darkest depths of the ocean. In “Sherlock Holmes and the Diving Bell,” by Simon Clark, Holmes summons his erstwhile flatmate with one of his cryptic telegrams: “Watson. Come at once. That which cannot be. Is.”  Or is it?  Between the horrific account of a salvage ship disaster, the weird twin sisters, and our heroes’ claustrophobic trip down to a five year-old tomb, Clark serves up an atmospheric tale with subtle Canon overtones in which Holmes’ deductive ability ultimately proves a double-edged sword.

In “The Greatest Mystery,” Paul Kane commits one of the most common of the venial Sherlockian sins–well, I hope it’s common, as I’ve done it plenty of times myself. At the the story’s conclusion, Watson recalls (fuzzily, it must be said) that, while unraveling the case of the Six Napoleons, his friend mused: “I am just contemplating the one mystery I cannot solve: Death itself.” As happens so many times (to me, at least), Watson has inserted a Granada moment into the Canon. I have to suspect that it was done purposefully, as it is a superb quote and fits the story perfectly. While most “Holmes confronts the supernatural” adventures depict the detective either finding a rational explanation for the spooky doings, or being shaken in his logical boots, not many show him using the spirit realm to his advantage. Here he does just that, as he and Watson seek the mastermind behind a series of seemingly motiveless murder-suicides.

Hint: It wasn't him.

Hint: It wasn’t him.

Tony Kane’s “The House of Blood” is unique in this collection, because it features a 21st century Sherlock Holmes. No, not either of those–this Holmes was still born circa 1854, but (as we know) he’s immortal, and he’s trying to avoid the sometimes oppressive memories of London by traveling the world…and solving crimes.†† In this episode…er, story, he’s found himself in Las Vegas, helping the police investigate a series of murders in which recent casino winners have been found dead–and drained of their blood. Vampires? Or something else? The solution is quite creative, but the best part of this entertaining offering is watching Holmes navigate modern-day Vegas–with his usual competence, and a wry sense of humor.

The final story, Kim Newman’s “The Adventure of the Six Maledictions,” I’d already read, as part of Newman’s own later collection, Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles.  A complex riff on an actual poem, J. Milton Hayes’ “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” it’s told in Colonel Sebastian Moran’s irresistible–if irreverent–voice. If Volk begins Arcanum with melancholy and (possibly) madness, Newman brings it to a breathtaking end with humor–and Moriarty’s  own special brand of psychopathology. Even if you’ve read it before, don’t skip it–with an author like Kim Newman, there’s always something new to discover. Besides, it’s funny, and once you finish, you won’t have to leave the lights on and waste electricity. The editors are thoughtful like that.

"Not seeing any vampires, Watson."

“Still not seeing any vampires, Watson.”

As we have discussed here before, a good many Sherlockians are not in favor of pitting Holmes against the supernatural. Not even Conan Doyle, who loved a good “creeper” would go that far. Others have no problem watching him face the uncanny in all of its many forms. If that’s you–or if you think you’re ready to take the plunge, I can’t recommend Gaslight Arcanum highly enough. Each story is well-written, respectful of the Canon, and there is enough variety in subject matter and style that you are bound to find several stories you’ll particularly enjoy. Our agency may rest “flat-footed upon the ground,” but it’s ok to stand on your tiptoes every once in awhile.


Gaslight Arcanum is available through all online booksellers and may also be found in your local brick-and-mortar shop. 


Star Rating: 5 —“This is a wonderful book that gets it right”

As far as canonicity goes, those of you looking for traditional cases narrated by Dr. Watson may not see a horror anthology as Canonical in any way. That being said, with the exception of the Granada quote, which I fully believe was intentional, I could find no evidence of Canonical carelessness.



*Books about horses, for example. Or written by Judy Blume. If Judy Blume had written a book about ghost horses, I would have reached Nirvana.

**You first.

***Well, I say “Dupin.”  You’ll see.

†I may have screeched in the margins a bit.

†† Child of the ’70’s that I am, I totally thought of this:

Cue sad music.

Cue sad music.

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Filed under Anthology (Stories by different authors), AU (Alternative Universe), Five-star reviews, Holmes out of his Element, Pastiche, Supernatural

Veld, Robert. The Strand Magazine and Sherlock Holmes: The Two Fixed Points in a Changing Age. Indianapolis: Wessex Press (Gasogene), 2012


HOUN broadsheet, advertising story in Strand

The Man, the Magazine, the Legend.


In the nearly three years that I’ve been a Sherlockian, I’ve heard quite a few people explain, “I’m a Sherlockian, not a Doylean” when questions regarding Watson’s literary agent come up in conversation. To be honest, I don’t think I can claim to be a Doylean either; I have yet to read The White Company or Micah Clarke, for example, although I’m sure I will someday, simply from a sense of obligation. My loyalties and affections remain firmly with the Great Detective.* Still, the aim of this blog is to create as many “well-read Sherlockians” as possible, and I firmly believe that the more we know about the world our heroes inhabit, the better we can come to know them–and that includes learning about the publishing phenomenon that introduced them to the world. I know that some of you are thinking about skipping this review altogether; you don’t want to see “how the sausage is made.” But, really, you can look at this book in one of two ways: a history of how a young, not-that-successful doctor and two men who were at the top of the British publishing game created a literary sensation…or the account of how a talented literary agent was able to find the perfect medium for a physician’s tales of the adventures he shared with his uniquely brilliant best friend. Take your pick!

Yes, he knows which one you've chosen.

Yes, he knows which one you’ve chosen.

Many fans of Sherlock Holmes enjoy doing research, which they then present on their blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, or submit to their local society’s journal. The most ambitious and confident aim for ASH’s Serpentine Muse,  the BSI’s Baker Street Journal,  or the SHSL’s Journal.** Robert Veld thought he was just putting together a little piece on the Strand for The Sydney Passengers’ Log. Instead, he wound up with an entire book analyzing the deep, and mutually beneficial relationship between Sherlock Holmes and The Strand Magazine.

Herbert Greenhough Smith, co-founder and editor of The Strand Magazine

Herbert Greenhough Smith, co-founder and editor of The Strand Magazine

The Strand Magazine (we’ll start calling it The Strand now, for simplicity’s sake) was the brainchild of Herbert Greenhough Smith, at that time working as an editor at another literary magazine, The Temple Bar. Greenhough Smith saw room in the British market for a magazine specializing in the best stories and articles from the foreign press, translated for English-speakers–a kind of up-market Readers’ Digest.***  After fulfilling his professional obligation by suggesting this idea to Temple Bar publisher George Bentley (and being refused), he shopped it to a competitor, George Newnes. They agreed on particulars in August of 1890, and The Strand was on the newstands by December 10th.

This may seem incredibly fast, particularly given the 19th century technology involved. George Newnes, however, had never sat on a good idea in his life. Nine years before, as a furniture salesman with no publishing experience whatsoever, Newnes had a flash of inspiration: he wanted to create a paper which contained the best of all the popular British papers. It would be affordable, wholesome, and easy to read while commuting on the train. He would call it Tit-Bits.

Unfortunately, no one else seemed to think his brainchild had any future; he couldn’t obtain any financial backers. Undeterred, Newnes opened a vegetarian restaurant in a Manchester cellar. He ran out of food the very first day, and soon built a successful business which he sold  at a profit just a few months later to fund his dream. A genius at promotion with an instinct for what everyday people liked to read, he was able, within a year’s time, to create a paper with sales running into the tens of thousands. It had to give him tremendous satisfaction to be able to refuse a purchase offer from one of the companies which had initially refused to fund him.†

Sir George Newnes in more prosperous times. (From Ray Wilcockson's "Altamarkings" blog).

Sir George Newnes in more prosperous times. (From Ray Wilcockson’s “Altamarkings” blog).

With tested, mature talent behind it, The Strand met with even greater success. Although it was originally intended to showcase foreign talent, Greenhough Smith’s practice of not letting authors hang on for months waiting for a verdict, coupled with premium pay, meant that British writers soon made it one of their favorite targets. The list of authors featured during The Strand’s sixty years contains some of the most talented names of the time (or any time, for that matter): Kipling, Wodehouse,Wells, Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Wallace, Simenon, and even Churchill. Yes, that Churchill.

Of course, Greenhough Smith waded through plenty of other submissions, not all of them reaching the level of quality that his magazine was known for. Sadly, we have no idea what sort of unagented slush he had to plough through every day, but it was bad enough that when he opened a packet from A.P. Watt, containing a couple of stories from a relatively new writer (one Arthur Conan Doyle, MD) he was immediately struck by their obvious quality:††

Good story writers were scarce [Greenhough Smith remembered], and here to an editor, jaded with wading through reams of impossible stuff, comes a gift from Heaven, a godsend in the shape of a story that brought a gleam of happiness into the despairing life of this weary editor.†††

From here, Veld traces the decades-long relationship between Sherlock Holmes and The Strand in great detail, as well as the complicated dealings Conan Doyle himself had with the detective. It’s conventional wisdom, for example, that Sir Arthur believed Holmes was keeping him from achieving his true destiny as a writer of great historical romances.‡ While this is true, it’s also just a part of the story. Sherlockians sometimes point out how various canon stories share similar plots. Now this is doubtless because, criminals tending to the unoriginal, Holmes simply ran into similar cases in his practice…or it could be because it’s difficult for a writer to come up with new and unusual puzzles over the course of forty years; the brain, like Mycroft, tends to have its rails and runs on them. Veld shows us a bit of Arthur’s creative process, his frustrations, and the way he was inspired by friends like Bertram Fletcher Robinson and Greenhough Smith who, for all that he tended towards the antisocial, became more to his star author than just the man with the red pencil. And while the detective and his Boswell eventually retired and the doctor and his editor inevitably passed on, The Strand  and Sherlock Holmes continued their symbiotic dance until the magazine folded in 1950, the damage wrought by war and competition too much for it to sustain. In his concluding chapter, Veld takes the time to describe these last twenty years, which closed, rather touchingly, with an expert rendering of 221B by Ernest Short in The Strand’s final issue.

From Smithsonian Magazine. Mr. Short's depiction of 221B was THE illustration until it was replaced in our imaginations by Russell Stutler's in 1995.

From Smithsonian Magazine. Mr. Short’s depiction of 221B was THE illustration until it was replaced in our imaginations by Russell Stutler’s in 1995.

Writing straight history (as opposed to the type in which the author allows herself some imaginative reconstruction) is a definite skill; it’s hard to pull off without burying the audience in a sandstorm of dry, academic prose. Veld takes what many might find heavy going–the history of a magazine–and makes it fascinating without resorting to gossipy stories and speculation. He stays focussed, not veering into interesting tidbits about, say,  Conan Doyle’s psychometric investigation of fellow Strand author, Agatha Christie’s disappearance.‡‡  The Strand Magazine and Sherlock Holmes  is impeccably researched, with detailed footnotes and a complete bibliography. Yet it’s compactly written: the text covers only ninety-five pages, an even hundred with end matter. Basically, Veld does such an excellent job that I first assumed he had to be a professional writer of some sort, but he’s not–this is his first book. And while it may have taken him eight years, and required an apology of sorts to his wife and daughters, we can only hope it’s not his last. I recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in literary history, Conan Doyle, or the newsstand Watson passed everyday on his way home to Baker Street.


The Strand Magazine & Sherlock Holmes: The Two Fixed Points in a Changing Age is available for order from Wessex Press (  As far as I know, Mr. Veld does not have a public blog or author’s page at this time.

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



*Seriously. I don’t care what he does. Watson has nothing on me, people.

**If you’d like to find a scion society in your area, start here:

If you want more information about what it takes to publish a Sherlockian paper somewhere other than your own blog, Alistair Duncan offers some tips here:

***Which, in case you were wondering, is an American magazine founded in 1922.

†We might refer to this as his Pretty Woman moment: “Big mistake. HUGE!”

††Alexander Pollock Watt, like someone else we know, created his own occupation: he was the world’s very first literary agent, beginning to represent clueless authors in 1875. Conan Doyle hired him after he completed The White Company. Although by this time he had published “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of Four,” several other non-Holmes stories, and a novel, Micah Clarke, he was having trouble reaching the markets to which he aspired, and believed that he was being shorted on the business side of things by publishers such as Ward, Lock and Co. Which, most likely, he was.  Conan Doyle stayed with A.P. Watt for quite some time; although he once dropped him to handle his writing affairs on his own, he soon went back. The publishing world has always been a scary place.

††† Veld, p.18

‡ Of the Sir Walter Scott variety, not the Bertrice Small sort.

‡‡Seriously. You can find it in Andrew Lycett’s biography, p. 448 (paperback edition), and a whole chapter on it in Daniel Stashower’s biography, Teller of Tales, pp. 41-26 (paperback).

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Filed under Five-star reviews, Uncategorized

Davies, David Stuart. The Veiled Detective. London: Titan, 2009*

Where’s Watson?

I was very fortunate, in my first few months of Sherlockian fascination, to light upon some excellent pastiches. I do not doubt that they served to plunge me deeper into obsession than I otherwise might have gone. Although Doyle’s original stories and novels bear up well under repeated readings, with nuances that–as with all the best literature–appear and change with the reader’s own experience, Holmesian fiction allows writers to explore aspects of 221B of which Doyle afforded us only the barest glimpse.  We get to ask, “What was it like?” “What if?” And, thanks to Watson’s notorious lack of attention to the proper details (ladies’ dresses lovingly described, dates mangled beyond recognition), we also can speculate as to what really happened.

The Veiled Detective tackles each of these questions–most particularly the last. It was perhaps the second or third pastiche I ever read, and while I’ve heard many people (rightly) list Mr. Davies’ The Tangled Skein and The Shadow of the Rat among their favorites, hardly anyone seems to recognize The Veiled Detective when I bring it up. This review will, I hope, remedy the situation.

The book starts off with a shock. To the reader. It’s Afghanistan, it’s Maiwand, and here’s British Army surgeon, John Walker, emerging from his tent, exhausted and traumatized by all of the…

Yes. I said “Walker.”

Even at that early stage of my acquaintance with Holmes’ Boswell, I read that–and no doubt re-read it–with a sense of indignation. “That’s not his name. Honestly, people, get it right, it’s….” You get the picture.

But I read on, and guess what? That is his name. Or was, and it’s the name his Captain calls him when he rouses him from the drunken stupor he’s lying in, under the dead tree which gives him refuge from the dying men he can no longer face. Brandy is the best medicine for guilt, he thinks, but it also turns out to be the liquid road to court martial, and—

That’s right.  Court martial. Drunk on duty. No jezail bullet, anywhere. Three months in a Kandahar gaol, no enteric fever. Drummed out. No army pension. Still no kith nor kin in England, though. Absolutely nothing at all.

Look at it this way: At least we now know why no one can find Watson or Murray in the lists of soldiers at Maiwand. Mystery solved!

No worries about Holmes, though. Holmes is the same. He’s younger,  living on Montague  Street, trying to make a go of the whole “consulting detective” thing. Here he is, foiling a safe-cracking team by tricking them into hiring him as a “lookout.” Alert them to the police, alert the police to them–just semantics, in the end. Scotland Yard doesn’t pay, unfortunately, nor is he getting the challenges his mind requires, but at least he’s got enough for the cocaine bottle. He suggests to Lestrade that the criminals he’s bringing in are just minor operatives in a larger enterprise, but Lestrade doesn’t believe him. He believes him even less when Holmes says  he suspects someone is toying with him, testing him, targeting him in particular. It makes the detective’s work more interesting, however, and he’s excited to (finally!) find the occasional case which stretches his skills. The letter-writer takes snuff and wears a large ring, he tells his client. He is a much better cracksman than one might think.

Moriarty appreciates that skill, and the note. In return, he gives Holmes a new flat, complete with landlady and flatmate.

Alone on the steamship Orontes,** John Walker finds his court-martial has made the papers and everyone seems to know who he is and what he has done. They treat him accordingly. He contemplates going overboard more than once, and is only saved by the appearance of the well-dressed, sympathetic Alexander Reed, who confides to Walker that he, too, was once in the exact same position, but now has a happy, prosperous life. This, and (again) brandy, is all it takes for Walker to unburden himself to the former Captain for hours in the ship’s bar, and by the time the Orontes  docks, the doctor hopes his confidante might help him secure employment. Reed does occasional “recruiting;”  there just might be a special position for Walker within his firm.

Reed’s boss agrees. He’s been looking for a man like Walker, so he offers him a simple proposition: take the job, stay alive.

So it is that Walker, cloaked in a new name and heroic backstory, finds himself at the Criterion Bar, meeting an old Bart’s colleague, Stamford, who will be able to pay off his most recent gambling debts after he introduces Walker/Watson to the odd duck who beats corpses and devises tests for haemoglobin in the lab. The man should be looking for lodgings instead, seeing as his Montague street landlord has unaccountably evicted him.*** Holmes’ situation is desperate enough that he’s happy to take the rooms Stamford suggested, with the wounded veteran the suddenly handy Stamford just happened to run into; after all, the man has normal bachelor vices and is all right with the violin, as long as it isn’t played badly. Now he has a nice set of rooms, a sounding-board, and Watson…well, Watson has someone fascinating to observe and follow around on cases and write about….

In detailed reports, which he posts regularly to Professor James Moriarty, in consideration of which he receives £100 per month, and his heartbeat.†

The lonely genius Moriarty, for his part, now has both a worthy opponent and someone in the enemy camp. With the right jerks on the strings, he can even make Watson perform acts of sabotage and (further) betrayal if necessary. It’s the perfect arrangement, really. What could possibly go wrong?

And so, Stamford has the wherewithal to gamble another day….

As you can see, David Stuart Davies has taken the stories we know so well and turned them, displaying them from another, slightly skewed, angle. Or is it?  Davies presents theses “true” versions of Watson’s stories†† so tightly that I really couldn’t find any holes. If anything, The Veiled Detective answers the question of how some of the most confusing problems with Watson’s writings came about. During SIGN, for instance, the doctor admits that 

..many of the details of this case escaped me, as most of my thoughts were full of Mary. The published version of this investigation…had perhaps more inaccurate passages and invented moments than nearly any other bearing my name.

Other stories, Watson says, were embellished to make them longer and more interesting. All that Alkali plains drama, for instance. Another, in particular, was changed to protect Holmes from prosecution for something rather more complex than breaking and entering. The detective’s willingness to overstep the law in search of justice, we find, was always a part of his makeup.

Davies does a wonderful job of reimagining Holmes’ and Watson’s adventures in this slightly bent world, but he does an even more masterful job with the people in it. Moriarty, Moran, Reed, and the redoubtable Scoular (with whom Holmes actually has the brilliant exchange Watson gives Moriarty in FINA) are fascinating, in the way of all poisonous snakes. You won’t be able to look away. Minor characters, such as Mrs. Hudson (who is not exactly as you remember her), Mary, Stamford, and Lestrade are handled with depth, sensitivity, and occasional humor, yet are not permitted to clutter the stage.

As for Holmes and Watson themselves…. Where Doyle only allows hints of their inner lives to show through, Davies pokes at these hidden fires, making them blaze brilliantly through the grate. The Veiled Detective is written as an omniscient third-person/Walker’s journal combination, which allows the author to compensate for the doctor’s narrative deficiencies, and the fact that he cannot be in two places at once. Watson is the loyal, responsible, emotional romantic we love from canon, albeit a little more perceptive and less admiring than he portrays himself in the stories. For example, while he is still quick to take offense at some of Holmes’ more condescending pronouncements, he is eventually able to see the intent behind them, and to take his share of the blame in their disagreements. Unfortunately, the same virtues which make him the most faithful friend in literature also lead him to a moment of moral failure which ultimately so compromises him that he cannot even live under his own name. Yet where a weaker man (say, Reed) might throw up his hands and exclaim, “All right, then I’ll go to Hell!”††† Walker never allows his circumstances to change his core decency. If, at the end of the book, he feels transformed, the reader knows that he’s really just been refined.

Readers who love a glimpse of the younger Sherlock Holmes will appreciate Davies’ portrayal. In his late twenties, Holmes is on the threshold, just coming into his own. He’s not always aware of how he appears or sounds to others. He goes to extremes in his efforts to achieve total self-control. While he’s confident in his deductive powers, almost to the point of arrogance, he’s actually a man who makes snap character judgments and lets those judgments steer his actions–again, to extremes. In Davies’ retelling of STUD, for instance, Holmes doesn’t yet have the experience to see how Jefferson Hope’s bitterness has led him into madness. As a result, the young detective allows his sense of right and mission to weight the scales of justice in way which (although he swears to Watson he will eventually be easy with it) he will never do again. In fact, he’ll do the exact opposite, more than once. Another snap judgment, however, this one on the character of the apparently uninjured “invalided” Army doctor standing before him amidst the test tubes, leads him to a friend who, indeed, “sticks closer than a brother.” ‡

As I flip back through my notes and my now-completely inked-up copy of this book, checking to see if there’s something I’ve missed, I’m struck again by how layered this story is, and how much more I got out of a second reading than I did the first. It takes skill to take a conceit that changes a familiar, much-loved world–“what if John Watson were not who he claimed to be?”–and then to use that statement, with all that logically follows, to illuminate that world instead. You need to lift the veil and take a look.

So, have I convinced you? Or not? First commenter wins a copy! 

The Veiled Detective is available both online (print and e-book) and in traditional bricks-and-mortar bookshops. David Stuart Davies is a well-known and well-respected Holmesian who has written several well-received novels featuring the Great Detective, as well as a play (“Sherlock Holmes: The Last Act”), and two books on Jeremy Brett and the Granada Holmes series, Bending the Willow and Starring Sherlock Holmes. I could not find an author’s website for him, but he is on Twitter.

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


* This version of The Veiled Detective  is part of Titan Books’ growing collection, “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” which is happily reprinting some of the better pastiche/Sherlockian fiction out there. Veiled was previously published in 2004.

**Of course, we all know that at this point in time, the Orontes was serving as a troopship, but Walker, being cashiered, would not be sailing on one of those, so the ship’s purpose is transformed. Others may question Holmes and Watson meeting in March in this book, when tradition (and a Plaque) have them meeting in January of 1881. STUD dates from March of that year, however, and since it was their first case together, the March date is not an unreasonable assumption. The only problem date I found was that the Battle of Maiwand is said to have occurred on June 27, 1880, when it actually took place on July 27th of that year. Because Davies’ other details are so scrupulously handled, I have to wonder if this is just a typographical error.

***Well, 12 sovereigns may have been involved. And if he hadn’t taken them, I’m sure he could have been otherwise persuaded.

†Sound familiar, BBC Sherlock fans?  I swear, when I saw Mycroft in the warehouse scene, offering John money to spy on Sherlock, I was as sure as anyone that he was Moriarty, and that Moffatt and Gattiss were referencing this book. I may have squealed some.

†† Primarily “A Study in Scarlet,” and “The Final Problem,” although others, such as “The Sign of the Four” and “The Greek Interpreter” are alluded to.

†††Free book if you can tell me where that quote comes from, and its context. (“Now we’ll see who reads the footnotes!” she cackles.)

‡Proverbs 18:24. It applies very well in this instance, actually.


Filed under AU (Alternative Universe), David Stuart Davies, Five-star reviews, Moriarty, Titan reprints

Ruffle, David. Sherlock Holmes and the Missing Snowman. London: MX, 2012

Well, it’s October, the time of year when many of us are thinking about jack o’lanterns, hay rides, bonfires, ghosts, goblins, and….snowmen?*

I know, I know, I’m not ready for snow yet, either. But that was before I got the marvelous opportunity to review David Ruffle’s new children’s book, pre-publication. A prolific writer, Mr. Ruffle now has six published books featuring Holmes and Watson to his credit, and is finishing up the seventh. Most of his books are intended for older readers; Sherlock Holmes and the Missing Snowman, however, is meant for a younger audience–much younger.

If you think about it, as ubiquitous as Sherlock Holmes is in our culture, it’s rare to find him in children’s books. When we do see him, he’s often doing a cameo (as in the Basil of Baker Street series), or in “disguise” as a dog, a muppet, or a 12-year-old detective operating out of the family garage. A picture book featuring Holmes and Watson in their human, canonical form is, therefore, a truly welcome development!

You may have actually read The Missing Snowman before, in its original form: the short story “Henrietta’s Problem.” First written in response to a Christmas story challenge, and then appearing as a chapter in Ruffle’s novella and short-story collection, Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror, the little piece garnered enough consistent praise that the author thought it might make a good children’s book.

King’s Market, London

The story is a simple one. Holmes and Watson are lounging about at 221B, one day near Christmas. They’ve been kept in by a two-day snowstorm (and, presumably, no cases), and Watson’s eager to go out for a walk. Holmes isn’t having it; perhaps it’s fortunate that their discussion is interrupted by the doorbell.

This is not your typical Baker Street supplicant, however. Their prospective client is Henrietta Fortescue, a five year-old girl who’s lost someone important. After spending the beginning of her short life in a hotter climate, she was thrilled to see snow for the first time, and built a large snowman, just as she’d seen in books–only to find him gone now that the sun’s come out.

Possibly a bit testy because Holmes won’t go out, or because his war wound is acting up, Watson informs Henrietta that Sherlock Holmes is a busy man of affairs, and is about to remind everyone of the impact heat has on frozen things, when his friend interrupts him and agrees to take the little girl’s case. What follows is a simple, touching story that reminds us that, no matter what he wants others to think, the Great Detective is much more than a logical machine.

When I heard that Mr. Ruffle was going to publish “Henrietta’s Problem” as a children’s book, I figured he’d just cut the text into smaller chunks, take out some words and be done with it.**  Instead, he’s re-written the story to a child’s level, without losing any of its original charm. In fact, after reading back through the original, I actually think that this simpler version is the best. Mr. Ruffle has a gift for expressing emotion without a lot of verbal clutter, and it’s used here to great effect. The Missing Snowman reads out loud extremely well (more on this in a minute), and Lyme Regis artist Rikey Austin’s soft, nostalgic illustrations, done in a light, wintry palette, add to its gentle mood.

Of course, we all know of children’s books–picture books in particular–which adults love, but children find boring. Having been blessed with three little people myself, I thought I’d give The Missing Snowman a field test. My kids are 10, 9, and 7–the first two a little older than Ruffle’s target audience, but since they still enjoy being read to, I figured they’d do in a pinch, so we snuggled up on the couch before bedtime. Here are their reactions:

Daughter, 10: “Sherlock Holmes is like a mysterious character. He likes kids and talks to them so they can understand things.”

Son, 9: “It was great!”

Son, 7: “It was awesome!”

My kids can be squirrely; they are not at all “the sitting-down type.” Their preferred reading material usually involves fantastic adventures or very broad humor. In other words, I was concerned. The Missing Snowman, however, kept their attention. They understood what Holmes does to solve Henrietta’s problem, and why he gives his young client the explanation he does at the end of the story. They especially appreciated the bits of humor; everyone agreed that the bit in which Holmes interrupts Watson before he mentions m-e-l-t-i-n-g was their favorite.

My kids are young. To them, the holidays are still magical, and it’s fun to try to create special memories for them. As a parent, however, I’m very conscious that a lot of what’s out there glorifies the material aspects of this time of year. Someone is always “saving Christmas,” which pretty much means “making sure there are presents.” There isn’t much about giving, and if there is, it involves…presents. In The Missing Snowman, Holmes, who was never a father, still knows how important it is to preserve a little girl’s sense of wonder, to let her keep her childhood just a bit longer. Henrietta, for her part, learns to show gratitude by giving up something which has meaning for her. In keeping with canon, there’s no emphasis on religion; the book is appealing whatever your views on the subject. For children, the book is about kindness. However, in its gentle way, Sherlock Holmes and the Missing Snowman also reminds us adults that what may seem trivial to an adult is essential to a child and that, to modify Holmes’ advice to Henrietta, “Your children will not be with you for very long. Enjoy them while they are here.”

Sherlock Holmes and the Missing Snowman has an official release date of November 28, 2012. It will be available in either print or e-book form, and can be had from your favorite online bookseller, or directly from the MX Publishing site. I plan to do a giveaway from my Facebook page once the book is released, so be on the lookout! David Ruffle is on Facebook, and keeps a regular blog at

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


*Unless you’re my kids. Then you’re thinking about candy. Legend has it that in the next neighborhood over, they give out full-size chocolate bars.

**We won’t talk about how silly this is.


Filed under Children's Books, David Ruffle, Five-star reviews, Holidays, Holmes and Children, MX Publishing

Crowe, Michael J., ed. Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes: The Origin of Sherlockian Studies. Indianapolis: Gasogene Books, 2011.

Msgr. Ronald Knox (2/17/88-8/24/57) was a prolific author whose other work included detective fiction, religious works, satire, and a translation of the Vulgate.

When I look at my Sherlockian bookshelf, that sacred space in the “dining” room, upon which all are forbidden to place toys, Pokemon cards, MTG decks, Lovecraft volumes or–horrors! cups–I see several books I will never be clever enough to review. There’s the one with Sherlock Holmes and chess, another one with logic,¹ and yet another on Victorian detective novels and the “nature of evidence” which is not, as I assumed, about police procedure.² At some point, I will order Umberto Eco and Thomas Sebeok’s book, The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce (Advances in Semiotics) because I used to work with Peirce’s writings, but I wont be able to get beyond names I know in the acknowledgements and appreciating the hard work it took to make all of those equations and diagrams.³ Today’s review book fits into this category as well, and not only because it’s smart. Instead, I find it daunting because it’s written by Msgr. Ronald Knox.⁴ As I tried to explain to my husband, being asked to review something by Ronald Knox feels akin to being asked to review, oh, I dunno….The Gospel According to John (God, post-33 AD). In the immortal words of gobsmacked people on Twitter, “I can’t even.” But I can tell you all about it, and that’s better.

If you’ve been a Holmes fan for very long at all, you’re undoubtedly aware of “The Game.” Players work under the (true) assumption that Holmes, Watson, and Co. are real people,⁵ and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was simply Dr. Watson’s literary agent. They then use whatever information they can gather from the canon to divine all sorts of facts about such mysteries as Holmes’ childhood, Watson’s love life (and vice versa), or the true identity of Irene Adler *koff!*Lillie Langtry*koff!*. They puzzle out chronologies, actual places, true crimes…whatever strikes their fancy, and it’s all fine as long as one can produce the evidence. That Dr. Watson was, for whatever reason, not the most detail-oriented of Boswells meshes perfectly with what seems to have been, from the beginning, a detail-oriented fandom.

According to editor Michael J. Crowe’s excellent introductory essay, Knox began playing The Game very early, when he and his three older brothers  actually wrote to Sir Arthur  pointing out some problems with the bicycle tire deductions in “The Adventure of the Priory School.” His seminal Holmesian⁶ work, however, is the essay, “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,”  written to fulfill Oxford’s requirement that its dons read papers of their own composition to their colleges’ undergraduate societies. Originally meant as a satirical look at contemporary developments in Biblical scholarship and their impact on religious teachings, the paper proved very popular among both theological and secular groups and was eventually published several times, first in the 1912 Oxford Blue Book. It is this essay scholars consider the foundation of The Game and all of the Holmesian/Sherlockian scholarship that came after, making Ronald Knox the founder, in 1911, of the world we’ve now enjoyed for a century.

Crowe tells us Knox wrote “Studies” at a time in which he and others were struggling with the direction Biblical textual criticism was heading. What had seemed a fresh, intellectual, even scientific approach some thirty years ago had led to a widespread questioning of essential doctrine which many, including Knox, found disturbing. If, like me, you are of a religious bent, you’ll find this section of the introduction fascinating. Nothing changes. Old soldiers give way to new, but the battles are the same.

Knox’s views eventually led him to Roman Catholicism. But at this point, the figuring-out stage, he attacked those serious questions with wit. After all, what better way to point out the flaws in your opponents’ approaches than to make them ridiculous? And applying textual criticism to popular detective fiction–how much sillier can you get? Thus we are treated to “proto” and “deutero” Watson, the eleven “distinct parts” of a Sherlock Holmes tale, and questions of chronology, legitimacy, and influence. There are Greek words. There is a “true Holmes.” There is a death and a questionable return. Even without knowing which scholars Knox skewers so relentlessly, I could feel the flames under the spit. And should one choose to look at the piece as simply an exercise in The Game, well…. Here is one (marvellous) example for your perusal:

Although the Study in Scarlet is, in a certain sense, the type and ideal of a Holmes story, it is also to some extent a primitive type, of which elements were later discarded. The Exegesis κατα τον ϕευγοντα⁷ is told for the most part, not in the words of the criminal, but as a separate story in the mouth of the narrator; it also occupies a disproportionate amount of the total space. This shows directly the influence of Gaboriau: his Detective’s Dilemma is one volume, containing an account of the tracing of the crime back to its author, who is of course a duke; the second volume, the Detective’s Triumph, is almost entirely a retailing of the duke’s family history, dating back to the Revolution, and we only rejoin LeCoq, the detective, in the last chapter. Of course, this method of telling the story was found long and cumbrous, but the French school has not yet seen through it….⁸

Yes, the entire essay is like this. You’ll learn why Knox believes Watson’s stories vary so much in quality, what Holmes has in common with Socrates, and the role of the Greek chorus in the canon. The bowler hat is examined in great detail, much as a certain “hard felt hat” was in BLUE. Holmes’ humanity is considered, as are his methods. He would be gratified to know that LeCoq is always depicted as his inferior. “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” is at once so tongue-in-cheek and so serious that it’s mesmerizing, and it’s easy to see how others were inspired to apply these same methods to their own investigations.

“Studies” is the longest piece in the book, but it’s not the only one. Next we have Knox’s “Introduction,” written for The Best Detective Stories of the Year 1928, in which he delineates the ten “specialized rules” for this genre. As he writes:

And the detective author, alone among authors, cannot even in this libertine age afford to break the rules. The moderns will attempt to write poetry without rhyme or metre, novels without plot, prose without sense; they may be right or wrong, but such liberties must not be taken in the field of which we are speaking. You cannot write a Gertrude Stein detective story.”⁹

After discussing the analytical nature of the genre and its need to provide answers, he then posits it as a game in which the author must play fairly. This means, among other things, no twins, no ghosts, and no secret passages unless they have a reason to be there. As for chemistry, technology, medicine, etc., he reminds readers of Dr. Thorndyke, who requires readers “to go through a long science lecture at the end of the story in order to understand how clever the mystery was.” * It’s a very witty examination; his observations ring just as true today as they did in 1928. Fortunately, however, writers are clever (or readers tolerant) enough that his prediction that the genre’s possibilities will be exhausted has not yet come to pass.

“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose….” Apparently you can write “a Gertrude Stein detective story.”

The third essay is entitled “The Mathematics of Mrs Watson.” The title is a bit misleading: this is a double book review, rather than an investigation of just how many women Watson met at the altar. Knox reviews works by two prominent colleagues in canon: H.W. (Harold Wilmerding) Bell’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, Fact or Fiction, by Thomas Blakeney. All right, he doesn’t so much review them as he combs them for inaccurate details and errors in reasoning. I must say that, after reading this, I didn’t feel like such a pedant. Are his conclusions correct? Definitely, in the whole number-of-pearls question. As to the others? You can judge–or dispute. After all, as Knox quotes faux-scholar Sauwosch, “Watson has this genius, that, however deeply we probe his work, he always has fresh inconsistencies to reveal, which will be the basis of fresh theories.”**

If you’re going to argue, be sure to choose your “disputatious” pipe.

“Studies in the Literature” is a remarkable effort. But I have to say that the next essay in the book is my favorite, for three reasons. It’s incredibly clever; it takes everything you think you know and turns it on its head; and, finally, it takes a theory I once dismissed out of hand and convinces me that it may well be true. Thanks to Granada, myriad pastiches, and now, BBC Sherlock, we’re accustomed to think of Mycroft Holmes as a brilliant spymaster, but nonetheless a decent man who cares (advantage or no) for his younger brother. Knox doesn’t disabuse us of this. Not…exactly. But what if everything you thought you knew about Mycroft were slightly, well, skewed? And what if the evidence for this could be found in the canon itself? If “Studies” introduced The Game, “The Mystery of Mycroft” shows us how it can be played by a true master, without even a hint of the ridiculous. To share is to spoil in this instance, but after reading this, I felt both a strong desire for jam, and awe at the fictional possibilities waiting behind this particular curtain.

I felt like this, actually. (from Baker Street Bijou)

Msgr. Knox was a prolific author who tried his hand at detective fiction, including Holmesian pastiche. The collection ends with a story which appeared in the February, 1947 issue of The Strand with the descriptive title “The Apocryphal Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the First Class Carriage.” It’s very short, and doesn’t contain every element listed in “Studies,” but it has an excellent “Watson voice,” and no one ventures the slightest bit out of character. Holmes solves the problem quickly, but early on, Knox presents a tell which, if you catch it (as I did), will pretty much give you the whole story. Believing in fair play as he did, I have to believe the good monsignor provided this intentionally.

Up until now, I’ve only briefly referred to Professor Crowe’s “Introduction,” but it’s an essential and fascinating part of the book. Rather than providing a straight biography, Dr. Crowe shows how Knox’s life and theology are interwoven with his forays into the Holmesian world and, further, how the seeds he unwittingly planted in 1911 came to full flower (by 1934) and continue to propagate, even now. Chances are excellent that, if Ronald Knox hadn’t written “Studies,” or hadn’t written it in such a brilliant, meaningful way, everything we love about Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t exist. Or, rather, it would, but perhaps only to a very small group of enthusiasts–like, say, the current fans of Carnacki the Ghost Hunter.*** Whether or not you care for The Game, its infinite possibilities keep the Great Detective and his Boswell as active as any royal jelly ever could.  It’s painful, then, to read that Knox observed, “it is so depressing that my one permanent achievement is to have started a bad joke.”† For one thing, given Knox’s influence as a priest and scholar, that’s probably not true. And even if it were, so what? Most of us probably think, at some point, that we should be doing something with a little more gravitas. We’re aware that the jobs we work at every day are not going to make us any more than cogs in the great machine of life and we’ll be forgotten, just as we’ve forgotten the names of our great-great grandparents and must therefore pay a subscription to learn them. But while we’re here, we can enlighten and, better yet, lighten the burdens, of those around us, using the talents we’re given. So a flower arrangement will wither, but while it flourishes, it cheers or comforts or makes one feel loved. A batch of cookies does the same. The person whose gas cap you replaced at a stop light will always remember you, your red ball cap, and your old Ford truck. And the men and women who must get up and spend their days serving coffee or looking for IEDs, teaching preschool or performing CPR, delivering TPS reports or mopping floors–if those people can go home and rest their minds awhile in 1895 or one of its many versions, and afterwards feel able to go out the next day and do it all again cheerfully…. Well, then, that isn’t a joke. It isn’t a joke at all.

It’s the best kind of legacy.

Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes: The Origin of Sherlockian Studies  is currently only available from Wessex Press (of which Gasogene is an imprint). Follow this link to order:

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


¹These are: Raymond Smullyan’s The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes (Dover Recreational Math, 2012) and Colin Bruce’s Conned Again, Watson: Cautionary Tales of Math, Logic, and Probability (Basic Books, 2002). Both are available on Amazon for you geniuses out there.

²Lawrence Frank, Victorian Detective Fiction and the Nature of Evidence: The Scientific Investigations of Poe, Dickens, and Doyle (Macmillan/Palgrave, 2003). According to the back blurb, the book “engages in a form of intellectual paleontology, tracing the genealogy of a genre through a model based on the Origin of Species read as a form of postmodern historiography,” and  “investigates [detective fiction] as a genre promoting a secular worldview in a time of competing visions of the universe and human situation.” Which is a fascinating, multi-disciplinary approach…but be warned, it’s a trifle jargon-heavy.

³Tons. Those little symbols slide everywhere.

⁴Not to be confused with the shinigami, Ronald Knox, of Kuroshitsuji manga tales. Which I learned about in an image search.

⁵There is also a very strong (accurate) belief that Holmes, Watson (and often Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson) are still alive, Baring-Gould, Mitch Cullin and other presumptious writers notwithstanding. The reason for this belief is typically that none of these obviously prominent individuals have had an obituary in the Times (London), so they must be with us yet. And really, if an obituary showed up tomorrow, would you believe it? Not after EMPT I wouldn’t.

⁶Although nowadays people often use “Holmesian” to mean canon Holmes, and “Sherlockian” to refer to the BBC version, I try to hew to the traditional meanings: “Sherlockian” is an American enthusiast, while “Holmesian” designates the British variety.

⁷This is story element nine, “the criminal’s confession.” The Greek words, translated, mean “at the fleeing” and should have accurate diacritical marks, only I couldn’t figure out how to do that on WordPress.

⁸ See p. 42. Knox is, of course, referring to the whole Mormon digression in STUD. For a look at how this aspect of the story is still bemusing readers, see:

⁹ “Introduction,” pp 62-3

*”Introduction,” p.65

**”The Mathematics of Mrs. Watson,” p. 83.

***Not to disparage him unduly. The guy is creepy as heck. And we’ll be discussing him shortly.

†Introduction, p.28


Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), Five-star reviews, Gasogene Books, Michael J. Crowe, Msgr. Ronald Knox, Non-fiction, Satire, Sherlockian Beginnings, Sherlockian Studies, The Game

Cypser, Darlene. * The Consulting Detective Trilogy, Part I: University. Morrison, CO: Foolscap and Quill, 2012.

“Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.”

When I was a kid, I loved reading in the car. So much so, in fact, that twice I missed my school bus stop because I was too engrossed in a book to notice. Now that I’m an adult, however, that’s changed. Not because I get motion sickness, or anything like that, but because I need to see what’s going on, and offer my helpful observations to the driver.**  On a recent trip back from the Gulf Coast, however, it was a wonder we made it home in one piece, because I was far too distracted to play co-pilot.

Distracted by this book.

In fact, once I pulled it up on my Kindle, during spring break, I was torn between the desire to “make it last” and the need to “readitallrightnow.” To achieve the former, I tried reading only when conditions were absolutely perfect–e.g., when everyone was in bed and I had the living room to myself with a bottle of real Coke. But then came the car trip home, and all self-discipline was lost. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you if you navigated over to your favorite bookseller right now and bought a copy, leaving me hanging in the blogosphere. But, since you’re polite enough to stay….

Darlene Cypser begins this first volume of her Consulting Detective Trilogy  right where she left off with its prequel, The Crack in the Lens.  At the conclusion of that book, Sherlock Holmes, still not recovered from the illness which almost took his life,*** struggles downstairs to his father’s study in an effort to salvage his opportunity to attend university. This scene is repeated in University, after which we follow Sherlock in his efforts to regain his mental and physical health in time to start his studies with the new term. Living as we do in an age where modern medicine both helps us diagnose, treat, and cure disease much faster than at any other time in history, it’s interesting to realize how long recuperation could last a century ago. However, his lungs are not Sherlock’s greatest problem. The events of November and December still haunt him, and it takes only his mother’s careless disclosure, a glimpse of the moor or a fencing bout into the shade of the outbuildings to throw him back into what his loyal manservant, Jonathan, calls an “attack” (and what we would call PTSD). Fearful of his father’s reaction should he find his son mentally compromised, Sherlock forces his way through these episodes until, by the time he leaves for Cambridge University’s Sidney Sussex College,† he believes he has them conquered.

Sherlock begins his college career uneventfully enough, settling with Jonathan into what seem to be very nice quarters, playing “the game” by observing his fellow students in chapel, and studying the mathematics his father has prescribed. He’s not overly thrilled with the subject, finding all of the memorization boring, but he wants out of Yorkshire, and becoming the engineer his father wishes seems as good a way as any. He doesn’t really mesh with the other young men at his college, and his reaction to their innocent questions about his illness puts them off even further. Still, things seem to be going well for him until, one day in November, he leaves the lecture hall and walks into a snowstorm.

There are some struggles that are never really over. Whether they have their roots in events, our own peculiar demons, or some unholy combination of the two, we are destined to fight and refight these battles throughout our lives. The ghosts of 1871 revisit Sherlock with a vengeance, taking him on a terrifying, dangerous journey through his unresolved guilt and grief, his only hope of recovery lying in the meager treatments available at the time. He doesn’t fight alone. Mycroft, the alienist Dr. George Mackenzie, university staff such as Senior Tutor Rev. John Clowe, Victor Trevor and his prescient father; and, most of all, Jonathan Beckwith, provide him with invaluable support. Still, in the end, it is Sherlock Holmes himself who discovers the one antidote which will keep his mind from “tearing itself to pieces.”††

It’s not what you think, people! Ok, not exactly what you think.

Perhaps in no small measure to Dr. Watson’s own efforts, we often come to see Sherlock Holmes as someone not quite human.††† He’s almost like a Victorian superhero–smarter than everyone else, able to bend pokers straight again with skinny arms and no exercise, defeating all comers with his expertise in fencing, single-stick fighting and baritsu. There’s the whole not-eating-or-sleeping thing, described by a man who needs humbugs on a stake-out. In his efforts to chronicle the detective’s exploits and (let’s be honest) sell stories, Holmes’ admiring Boswell sacrifices a bit of his flatmate’s humanity in the telling.

Ms. Cypser’s Holmes, however, is extremely relatable. Unlike other writers who take on the project of exploring Sherlock Holmes’ unrecorded youth, she doesn’t bring in unusual characters or spectacular adventures. Sherlock’s dilemmas are, instead, familiar to all of us. He wonders how to reconcile his skills and interests with the courses and careers available to him. He has difficulty making friends and runs afoul of a student known for his ability to destroy reputations with a few well-placed rumors.  He tangles with authority, both academic and familial, building the confidence he needs to make that final, necessary break. In the second half of the book, he begins to try his hand at detective work, but his “cases” are such as one might expect to find in a university setting; not a stolen jewel or secret weapon among them. Most importantly, however, he grapples with the puzzle of his own mind. Without asking for a show of hands, I imagine that quite of few of us have come to realize the uncomfortable truth that, due to trauma, biology, or a nasty concoction of both, our minds can venture into places we would never willingly go. And while psychology was still in its infancy some 140 years ago, you’ll likely find Sherlock’s attempts to regain control of his mental health very familiar–and will come to see how they may have continued to affect him in as an adult. None of this is spelled out for the reader. Instead, Ms. Cypser skillfully and subtly takes the events of Sherlock’s university career and, just as she did in The Crack in the Lens, leaves it for the reader to deduce how they helped to create the detective of Baker Street. Some, such as the experimental medication Dr. Mackenzie prescribes to help Sherlock through an especially difficult time, are obvious. Others are less so.

Which is great, because, like its predecessor, University stands up well to re-reading. As a matter of fact, the reading upon which I am basing this review is my fourth–since April.  University is impressively well-researched and documented; several characters are based on actual people, and there is an essay on sources in the back of the book. When it comes time for Holmes to spend time with Victor Trevor and his father at Donnithorpe–a crucial event which Watson records as “The Gloria Scott”–canon and book are expertly combined. Ms. Cypser’s own prose is plain and workman-like. She will likely never be accused of waxing rhapsodic about moss-covered brick walls.‡ Still, Holmes’ world is vividly drawn and compelling; once you enter, you won’t want to leave. Occasionally, I found myself wishing for a little more detail. When Sherlock goes home for the Christmas holidays during his first year at school, for instance, I had to wonder what the local young women thought of him. Was he desirable, as the son of a Squire with at least a few prospects in life? Had the rumors of his relationship with Violet Rushdale and his subsequent illness damaged any cachet he might have had with them? Does he have to avoid them? Were there awkward encounters? Wouldn’t Mrs. Holmes, with her social instincts and lack of perception, push both Sherlock and Mycroft to come away from the punch bowl and mingle? Ms. Cypser does briefly address Sherlock’s (and Mycroft’s) views of women in two instances, and I am sure the question will figure in future volumes, but I felt there was a missed opportunity here. What I loved most about University, however, was the suspense. Although I enjoyed The Crack in the Lens immensely, there were times when I wondered why a particular scene was included and, for me, this slowed down the story.  University presents no such problems. Every scene has an ultimate purpose, and nothing is wasted. I was pulled in from the first, and had no desire to resurface. During one particularly suspenseful chapter (there are several), I found myself beginning to worry about Sherlock–then realized with a start that *spoiler alert* the very existence of the canon meant that he would be able to fight his way through. My advice? Forget chores, ignore the laundry, order takeout for dinner and just settle in for the ride. You’ll miss it when it’s over.

Have you read either The Crack in the Lens or University? Got a comment or question to share? First commenter wins their choice of either book–plus a copy of one of several books for which the authors have designated profits to go to the Undershaw Preservation Trust’s efforts to save Arthur Conan Doyle’s home. A list of these books will be provided for you with your notification e-mail.

The Consulting Detective Trilogy, Part I: University is available at all major online booksellers, and a large number of brick-and-mortar shops. For a comprehensive list, see It can also be had in e-book format. Both of Ms. Cypser’s Sherlock Holmes books have Facebook fan pages. Other information is available at

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


* In the interests of full disclosure, I will tell you that the author asked me (and several others) to read her book and make comments pre-publication. Other than providing a list of typos, I contributed nothing to its content. I am reviewing the published version of the book.

**This is how I prefer to see it. My husband calls it being “an annoying control freak,”  but long drives make him irritable.

***It started out as pneumonia, but became something much more serious. Although it isn’t absolutely necessary to have read The Crack in the Lens before University, I do think it helps the reader understand Sherlock’s struggles in a more visceral way.

†Doyle tells us that Holmes attended university, but exactly which university is up for spirited debate. For a good Cambridge (and Sidney Sussex) argument, see: Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “Holmes’ College Career” in her book, Unpopular Opinions.  For Oxford, consult Nicholas Utechin’s Sherlock Holmes at Oxford. Both books are available at a reasonable price from Amazon. For a nice online write-up on the history of Sidney Sussex College, see And, by the way, University explains exactly why we have to have this debate at all.

††”The Man With the Twisted Lip”

†††In some instances, he isn’t human at all. See Robert Lee Hall’s Exit Sherlock Holmes.

‡See Watson’s description of just such a wall in “The Retired Colourman.”


Filed under Darlene Cypser, Five-star reviews, Foolscap and Quill, Holmes and Drugs, Holmes and Love, Holmes and Sex, Holmes as a Youth, Holmes Family, Real Historical Personages

Kaska, Kathleen. The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book, 2nd edition. Hurlford: LL Publications, 2012

“Really, old fellow, you need to accept that you are just not the type who can do them in ink.”

When I first started writing book reviews, lo these hardly-any-months ago, I thought it would be as simple as deciding whether or not I liked a book, babbling on about why or why not, checking off some stars, and hitting “publish.” It didn’t take me long to realize that it’s not that simple.*

Why? Because a reviewer isn’t just writing a book report. He or she is communicating with people who don’t care whether or not a reviewer liked the book, as much as they do whether or not they will like it. So I’m very aware, every time I pull up WordPress, that I owe you the information you need to make an informed decision. That way, if you don’t like Holmes/Dracula crossovers in which Holmes gets married, Watson is a puppy who dies in the end, no less than eighty Actual Historical Personages make cameos, and Mrs. Hudson is The Ripper, you’ll feel duly warned…or ecstatic.  And still I worry that I’ll get it wrong.

Not this time.

Kathleen Kaska’s The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book is that rare book which really delivers on the promise “something for everyone.”   Originally published in 2000, it’s been revised, updated, and provided with a more attractive cover and vastly more legible layout.

Ms. Kaska divides the book into two parts. First, of course, come the actual quizzes and bits of trivia. Here, the author’s twenty-five years as a teacher come into play.  Unlike some quiz masters, whose primary aim is to pick the most esoteric bits of information imaginable in order to stump as many people as possible and impress us all with their cleverness, she chooses questions that lead you through the major points of the story–checking both your eye for detail, and your comprehension. And like any good teacher, she uses different types of questions, probably to weed out those of us who are experts in the art of “using the test to take a test.”  There are multiple choice questions**, true/false, and then, the bane of all who have not studied–short answer.  Each story gets ten questions, and each novel receives thirty. Ms. Kaska also covers Holmes in television (updated for Sherlock), movies, radio, pastiche, and includes a special section on Arthur Conan Doyle. My favorite quizzes, however, are those built around quotes. Readers are asked to identify the sources for opening lines, coded messages, and Holmes’ views on everything from religion to women. Most revealing are the two quizzes in which we must guess whom the Great Detective and his Boswell are describing. Holmes’ quiz, 15 questions, takes up one page, front and back, including the introduction; Watson’s, on the other hand, is 3/4 of a page longer, presumably because he is incapable of  cutting “the poetry.”† Finally, for those who don’t feel sufficiently challenged, there are five crossword puzzles. I would advise copying them before you start working…or at least that you use a pencil. The answers? They’re all in the back, in the second section. You get full explanations, and don’t forget to keep score because, at the end of each chapter, you can use your tally to determine your rank, from “Deductive Genius” to “Moriarty’s Victim.”

“Come now, Holmes, you can’t be a “Deductive Genius” every time.”

Come for the quizzes and puzzles–stay for the information! At the beginning of each chapter, and at the start of each quiz, Ms. Kaska provides well-written background material, both on the story/subject matter, and occasionally on what may have inspired it. Before trying our hand at “The Five Orange Pips,” for example, we learn that it may have been inspired by a terrible incident in New Orleans in  which eleven Italians were hung by a mob in the throes of anti-Mafia hysteria. The trivia included in each section is also well-chosen. You may already know one or two, but chances are excellent you won’t have heard them all. One of my favorites involves the Cairo police.†† Finally, after you’ve either emerged triumphant or gone over the Falls, you can look through the useful appendices (covering chronologies, “lists,” and scion societies, among other topics), a brief reading list, and a shopping list–er, bibliography.

The day you opened a book (or turned on the television) and woke up to find yourself on Baker Street, you entered a world where, sure, people discuss the “big” questions–the origin of human evil, the nature of true justice, how much Canon matters, and what happened during the Great Hiatus. However, it’s also a place where  they care very deeply about which hand Holmes used to write that letter to Watson, the fate of dogs in the Canon, why a Stradivarius could be bought so cheaply, and whether it was April or October. Quotes fly fast and furious between friends like secret handshakes, and virtually every scion society meeting includes a quiz. We care about the philosophy but, let’s face it, we’re in love with trifles. We cannot make too much of them.  Which is why I can say, with certainty, that The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book  will definitely fill up that gap on your second shelf.

The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book  is available from major online booksellers, and can also be purchased in e-format for both Kindle and Nook. Kathleen Kaska is also the author of two other trivia/quiz books (Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie), as well as a mystery series set in the 1950’s featuring reporter/amateur sleuth Sydney Lockhart. Her next book, published by the Univ. of Florida Press, is a nonfiction work on Robert Porter Allen’s efforts to save the whooping crane from extinction. You can catch up with her on

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


*One reason for that being that I cannot figure out how to make actual “stars.”

**All of the choices are plausible, too. Unlike, say, those on the tests the really hot student teacher gave us in sophomore World History, back before you were born.

† From “The Retired Colourman.”

†† Nope. Not telling. You’ll have to look it up.

Comments Off on Kaska, Kathleen. The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book, 2nd edition. Hurlford: LL Publications, 2012

Filed under Five-star reviews, Holmes in Film, Kathleen Kaska, Non-fiction, Real Historical Personages

Duncan, Alistair. An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw, and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. London: MX, 2011

The Conan Doyle children, Mary and Kingsley, at Undershaw, c.1900

In late 1893, Sherlock Holmes’ legions of fans received a terrible shock. Unbeknownst to them, their hero had perished at Reichenbach Falls nearly three years previously.  It took time, and the scurrilous insinuations published by Colonel James Moriarty, the Professor’s brother, to persuade his grieving Boswell to write an account of May 4, 1891, but write it he did, effectively blasting the expectations of readers who had become accustomed to following Holmes and Watson on their adventures,  to the point that many actually believed the two men to be real. Still, after a few bad moments or vacant days (for the most obsessed), those readers went back to their normal lives. There were, after all, other detectives.*

While young City men reportedly wore black armbands for someone who never lived, his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was reeling from horrible news of his own. That October, his wife Louise (affectionately known to her family as “Touie”) had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Her case was advanced, and it was terminal. Whatever future they had envisioned for themselves and their young family was now irrevocably changed. There would not be, after all, another Louise.

One common 19th century treatment sought by tubercular patients who could afford it was a move to higher altitude, in the belief that the lower air pressure would allow the heart to work more effectively and therefore help to clear the lungs.** Following this line of thought, Conan Doyle spent the next few years moving his family to Switzerland and Egypt in hopes of improving his wife’s health. While it seemed to bring results, all of the moving and living in hotels was expensive and disruptive to the couple’s children, Mary and Kinglsey. Fortunately, in 1895, a family friend and tuberculosis sufferer, Grant Allen, told Conan Doyle that Hindhead, in Surrey, was elevated enough to have a beneficial climate. Never a man to waste time, the author bought a piece of land and in October of 1897, the family moved into their new home, Undershaw.

Alistair Duncan, who has previously described Conan Doyle’s years in Norwood and traced his (and Holmes’) connections to places in London, now turns his knack for painstaking research to  Undershaw. He combines great events with small to give the reader a detailed picture of the author’s life over the next decade, one of tremendous change for him, both personally and professionally.

One of the most important events in Conan Doyle’s life, and that of his family, occurred while Undershaw was still being built. On March 15th of 1897, he met 23 year-old Jean Leckie. Although still married, he fell hard for the aspiring opera singer and began an intense platonic relationship (a courtship, really) with her that would last throughout his time at Undershaw and would ultimately be the cause of his leaving it.

Professionally, Conan Doyle still found himself tied to the man who had given him a career. Holmes may have been gone, but he was definitely not forgotten. Shortly after the family moved, the Sherlock Holmes play which had consisted solely of rumors became reality. Duncan details the negotiations, pitfalls (including a rewrite necessitated when the only copy was destroyed in a hotel fire), and the play’s ultimate success–provided that the audience could actually hear the actors. It was this project that lead Conan Doyle to write the frustrated exclamation beloved and used by pastiche writers everywhere, “You may marry or murder or do what you like with him!”*** Interestingly enough, he wasn’t quite serious about this; Duncan writes that one issue Conan Doyle particularly wanted to discuss with Gillette when they met in May of 1899 was the actor/writer’s plan to give Holmes a romantic interest. We know he did, of course, but apparently there were boundaries to the character that his creator was not willing to cross.

Never one to hide away in his study, Conan Doyle was quick to get involved in local, national, and international affairs. His concern with British politics led him to write letters, articles, and occasionally run for office. It also led him to serve in the 2nd Boer War as a medical officer. In February 1900 he sailed to South Africa, where he served as Secretary/Registrar for the Langman Military Hospital in Blomfontein. He wasn’t there long, but by the time he left, in July of that year, he had written articles, a decent portion of his definitive book on the war and, on the steam ship home, met a young journalist, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who would, although he didn’t realize it, be instrumental in bringing Sherlock Holmes up out of that chasm and making him eternal.

I have always admired people who set out to write biography. When you write fiction, you’re in charge. Of course you write what you see, what you know, what your characters tell you to write…but ultimately, your book is yours to make up as you go along. Historians have to deal with facts (or at least they should), but typically they have a multitude of events, people, and sources to work with. Don’t have the material for one angle? Choose another. Do the Boston Massacre witness accounts conflict?✝  That’s all right–you have room, and you can even make that your thesis. A biographer, however, is limited to the facts that exist about one person in particular. If the source material isn’t there, it’s just not. He can’t make up the facts. He can’t make the person into someone he wasn’t. And when the biographer chooses a limited time in his subject’s life to examine, it can be difficult to piece all of the events from that briefer period together into a cohesive whole, particularly when some years are more eventful than others.

In An Entirely New Country, Duncan achieves this admirably, and the result is a valuable resource, or a nice introduction for anyone who has yet to read a complete biography of Arthur Conan Doyle.  We get a full view of Conan Doyle’s Undershaw years, almost as if we were his nosy next-door neighbor. He’s playing golf again–when will that Hindhead Golf Club be successful? Is that a new car? He surely is a speed-demon. Did you read about his first-class wicket against W.G. Grace? The Rifle Club’s shooting at the range over at Undershaw, perhaps you should join. Who’s that with him now–is it that woman? I wonder what Louise thinks about her. Is it true he’s writing about Sherlock Holmes again? This time, however, the nosy neighbors have plenty of photographs, a bibliography, helpful footnotes and supplemental information about the people in Conan Doyle’s life, such as Charles Frohman and George Edalji. Particularly enjoyable are Duncan’s own, often wry, observations. He looks at his subject with a clear eye. When Conan Doyle comments on a fellow medical officer’s weight (he appears to have disliked the man), for example, Duncan points out that in photographs, the gentleman looks to have had the same type build as Conan Doyle himself.  He provides interesting speculations on individuals’ feelings, motives, and events, and is careful to identify them as such.✝✝ What, for instance, did Strand editor Herbert Greenhough Smith think when he realized that Collier’s Norman Hapgood managed to get the stories he’d been angling for for years? Was it printable?  Duncan also doesn’t succumb to the biographer’s temptation to take his subject’s side in every matter. Everyone can acknowledge that it had to have been very difficult to live with the changes tuberculosis forced upon his family life, but not all of Conan Doyle’s coping strategies were beyond reproach and, as Duncan points out, some of his actions caused pain (to which he seemed oblivious) for both his immediate and extended family. Duncan is also perceptive in pointing out that, while Doyle’s marriage to Miss Leckie, after the period of mourning for his wife had been fulfilled, brought him happiness and a new beginning, it did not do the same for his children. Because life, after all, is not a story, and we don’t get an Empty House.

Don’t faint again, Watson, but Undershaw is in danger, and we’ll need more than brandy!

That being said, An Entirely New Country was written with a resurrection in mind. As most of you no doubt know, Undershaw, now the only extant home of Conan Doyle, has fallen into a state of terrible disrepair and is now in danger of being broken up into flats. The Undershaw Preservation Trust has been working tirelessly to prevent this, and to find a way to preserve Undershaw as a single dwelling. For more information on the Trust, its goals, the legal battle it faces against development, and ways in which you can support its efforts, please see  Alistair Duncan has also pledged that 50% of the net royalties of An Entirely New Country should go to the efforts to save Undershaw.

In my own efforts to support the UPT and fill your bookshelves, I’ll send a copy of An Entirely New Country to the first two commenters. Already have a copy? You can have your choice of one of Duncan’s other books, or an item from the UPT shop of equivalent value. An Entirely New Country is available on the Baker Street Babes and MX websites, the Save Undershaw shop (on the Trust’s website) and, of course, your usual online booksellers.

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


*As we mentioned in the last review, Sherlock Holmes had quite a few imitators, and some predecessors. Fans could get their deduction fixes from Poe’s Dupin, Gaboriau’s Lecoq, Barr’s Eugene Valmont, Grant Allen’s Miss Cayley, and many, many others.

**First promoted by German physician Hermann Brehmer in mid-century. The family’s efforts to prolong Louise’s life were successful; however, she eventually succumbed to the disease on July 4, 1906.

***Honestly, some of us should have that embroidered on a pillow and displayed prominently in our sitting rooms.

✝Ohhhh, they do. To an insane degree.

✝✝One thing he does not speculate on is some kind of murder conspiracy or any ill-will between Conan Doyle and Bertram Fletcher Robinson. Duncan’s evidence that the men remained on good terms throughout their friendship is conclusive.


Filed under Alistair Duncan, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, Boer War, Doyle Family, Five-star reviews, Holmes in Theatre, MX Publishing, Non-fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Spiritualism, The Great War, Undershaw

Roden, Barbara. The Thames Horror. Ashcroft, B.C.:Calabash Press, 2011

Bees, Boring? Perish the Thought!

If Sherlock Holmes ever gets bored with his bee hives out there on the Sussex Downs and decides to pick up one of the many new adventures in which “he” is featured (let’s not flatter ourselves; he probably won’t), chances are, he won’t recognize himself.  After all, since the very first pastiche appeared (J. M. Barrie’s in 1893), Holmes and (sometimes) Watson have been to Mars, Moscow, and Minnesota. They’ve battled vampires, Cthulhu, and the Phantom of the Opera, and in one exploit even encountered a Time Lord.  The good doctor may have “an experience of women that extends over many nations and three separate continents,”* but when all is tabulated, his friend may have him beat.  After so many adventures exotic, chaotic or erotic, even the easily bored Detective probably yearns for the familiar. His many fans are no different. Fortunately, BSI member Barbara Roden’s short story collection, The Thames Horror, contains four stories sure to appeal to fans of both the traditional and the outré, all told in an impeccable Watson voice.

Dr. John Watson: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

Of course, Watson never hesitates to include a little supernatural frisson when the story warranted, even if his friend is a scoffer. Ms. Roden does the same, beginning with the gorgeously titled “The Things That Shall Come Upon Them.” We begin, as we often do, with Holmes going through his pile of newspapers and sharing his discoveries with his friend. He observes, with a mixture of vanity and irritation that, since Watson began chronicling his adventures for the public, a plethora of similar detectives, all followed by their own faithful Boswells, have appeared. There’s Max Carrados, Martin Hewitt (whose “doings..appear with almost monotonous regularity”) and myriad others, including the fantastically named Flaxman Low, who specializes in cases “beyond the understanding of mere mortals.”** Holmes must have gotten used to the spiritualist talk of Watson’s agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, because he admits that Low may not be “quite the charlatan he might seem.” A good thing, too, because when Holmes and Watson board the train to investigate some disturbing incidents at Lufford Abbey, they find themselves sharing a compartment–and a case–with Low himself. It seems that while Holmes’ client, Mrs. Fitzgerald, believes these events have a natural explanation, her husband is not so sure.  To their credit, the two detectives don’t waste time arguing over whose approach is best. They investigate together, and let the results speak for themselves. Is Lufford Abbey haunted by a spirit conjured by the late black magic expert, Julian Karswell, or simply a little more open to treasure hunters than it should be? In the end, everyone finds the results satisfactory. See if you agree.

The supernatural thread continues with the remarkable “Of the Origin of the Hound of the Baskervilles.” You may believe that, with all of the film and print versions of HOUN available, there is nothing more to be said on the matter of the vicious glowing dog and its owner’s schemes. You would be wrong, just as Holmes was, every time he told Watson he had no talent for dissimulation. For it seems that, all this time, what we thought we knew about the Hound was only illusion, and in his final days, Watson is driven to explain what really happened. What follows turns everything you thought you knew about the Baskerville curse on its head, and even if you get the twist early on, you’re still in for a rich, atmospheric tale that has to be the truth.

After all that running about on the moors, you might be in the mood for something calmer.  Ms. Roden supplies this  Holmesian equivalent of chamomile tea in “The Adventure of the Suspect Servant.” Here, she presents one of those tantalizing cases which never made it to print–the little matter Holmes handled for Mrs. Cecil Forrester.*** A cautionary tale of vice’s unintended consequence, it gives Holmes the opportunity to exercise both his deductive skills and his compassion.

The final story, “The Thames Horror,” is my favorite. Derived from actual unsolved cases of the period, it takes Holmes and Watson into the dirty London underbelly they’re used to, and far darker recesses of human nature they’ve yet to encounter. In June of 1889,  Scotland Yard Inspector Alex MacDonald prevails upon Sherlock Holmes to help him discover who has been dropping brown paper packages† containing surgically mutilated body parts into the Thames. Fortunately for the Yard, this killer is neither as public or prolific as Jack the Ripper, who terrorized the city the previous autumn. He seems to be content with one victim per year, so London has been spared the panic and unrest that surrounded those crimes. That could end as soon as some clever journalist connects the dots, however, so a quick solution is essential. Using both traditional methods and the new profiling theories put forth by Police Surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond, Holmes and his comrades track the killer to his deceptively quiet office. I’ll go no further, for fear of spoilers, but if you enjoy shocking moments, you won’t be disappointed.

No matter how you like your Holmes, The Thames Horror has what you’re craving. Ms. Roden seamlessly combines pastiche and canon detail, and her Holmes and Watson remain in character throughout. Those of you who avoid pastiche for fear of the unexpected goofy moment or emotional outburst need not worry. The one exception may be Watson’s retelling of HOUN, but it could be argued that Holmes is eminently reasonable throughout, and typically fearless. It’s the situation itself which is shocking and irrational. Each story has its own atmosphere. “The Things That Shall Come Upon Them” is a creepy puzzle with some moments of dry humor, while “Baskerville” is almost unrelievedly tense. “The Adventure of the Suspect Servant” provides a change of pace; it’s a charming domestic piece which ends with everything right in the world. “The Thames Horror” combines accurate historical and forensic detail with the action, urgency, and melancholy that, for me, marks a truly wonderful pastiche.

Another common complaint of readers who stick strictly to canon is that “no one can tell a Holmes story like Watson.” And that’s true. I would argue that there are writers who can do just as well using their own voices, but I realize that most of you won’t believe me. Unfortunately, Watson seems to be busy enough that he’s left writing behind, and many books purporting to be from his pen patently are not. Ms. Roden, however, has a marvelous “Watson voice,” avoiding all the clutter that frequently crops up when someone tries to imitate 19th century writing. Although she avoids the popular “provenance” story, one has to believe that the author pulled these tales directly from the tin dispatch box.

Many people think it must be easy to write pastiche. After all, someone’s already done the hard part for you; they’ve created the characters, done the world-building, even found an appealing style.  All you have to do is throw in a plot they haven’t thought of (and in Conan Doyle’s case, he’s done a lot of that footwork as well). But it isn’t that simple. Writing pastiche is a bit like walking through someone else’s house blindfolded; it’s awfully easy to stub your toe and break something valuable. With The Thames Horror, Barbara Roden successfully navigates 221B Baker Street, with a five-star result.

The first three stories in The Thames Horror have all previously appeared in other anthologies, while “The Thames Horror is original to this collection.  The book is available as an e-book only. You can purchase it for Kindle on Amazon, or in electronic format (suitable for your Nook or Kobo) directly from the publisher, Calabash Press (

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


*From “The Sign of Four.” It seems reasonable to assume from the canon that Watson had at least two wives, possibly three. One researcher, Brad Keefauver, claims to have found evidence of six!

**Created by Hesketh V. Hesketh-Prichard (1876-1922), a friend of Conan Doyle’s, Flaxman Low is  the world’s first psychic detective.

*** Mary Morstan served as the Forresters’ governess, and it’s probable Watson held back on this one to protect the privacy of his wife’s friend and former employer.

†Tied up with string, and also mohair boot laces and Venetian blind cord.


Filed under Barbara Roden, Calabash Press, Collection (Stories by the same author), Crossovers, Five-star reviews, Holmes out of his Element, Supernatural, Traditional