Category Archives: Four-star reviews

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

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

He wants you to say "the novels."

He wants you to say “the novels.”

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

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 Rogues Gallery  is a collection of two short stories and three novellas, all featuring the (as-yet) unpublished mystery writer, Jefferson Cody and his larger-than-life Sherlockian brother-in-law,  Professor Sebastian McCabe.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

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

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

Not these Avengers.

Not these Avengers.

These Avengers.

These Avengers.

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

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

Nyah.

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

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

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

Toby

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

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

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

Star Rating: 5/4

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

Footnotes:

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

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

***”The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”

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

Reviewer’s Note:

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

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

Lane, Andrew. Stone Cold (Young Sherlock series). London: Macmillan, 2014

It's not London, but he may learn to like it.

It’s not London, but he may learn to like it.

As my last book review post was dedicated to Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes series, I thought it only fitting that my first after the break would take up with his newest offering. Currently, Mr. Lane is on a schedule of one new book per year, at least in the UK; the US releases are a little slower and more irregular. If you wish to purchase the entire series, or buy the latest books for the young reader in your life, I highly recommend you use Amazon.uk (or a similar site). There is a bump in the price due to the exchange rate, and you will need to allow about 10 days for delivery (in the Midwest, anyway), but I have found the UK site a valuable resource for the impatient.

When I pre-ordered the book, some months ago, the cover art was not available. I have to admit, when I opened the box last week, I laughed. The covers for this series (both US and UK) are definitely a study in marketing. Let’s review them, shall we?

First, the earliest US covers for Death Cloud  and Rebel Fire (Red Leech in the UK):

rebel-fire cover

Death-Cloud bieber cover

I am going to assume that these covers are interesting to the pre-teen male demographic (later note: I was wrong–see below). The colors, titles, and the model’s pose and expression suggest some drama, and probably not kissing.* At the same time, however, he  greatly resembles a certain floppy-haired pop star getting a lot of young girls’ attention when these stories were published, leading me to suspect that the publisher was not above stooping to the tactic of using “Bieber Fever” as a marketing ploy.†   To further entice the young reader, notice that Macmillan has included the fencing silhouette in the lower right hand corner. A smaller version of this figure appears in the UK versions of these books, and while we can deduce from the Canon (and learn from the books themselves) that he is holding a foil, the immediate impression is, I think, Harry Potter-esque–a clever (if inaccurate) play for fans of that series.  It’s sadly revealing to note that the name “Sherlock Holmes” does not command attention; it’s tucked down at the bottom of the cover. Apparently Macmillan does not believe that American pre-teens either know about or appreciate the Great Detective.

In the UK, Macmillan seems to have figured that it need only mention Sherlock Holmes and make a subtle visual appeal to  Harry Potter fans to make sales, to wit:

rebel fire coverred leech

Of course, I covered this in the last review, but as a mother I have grown used to repeating myself, so I will do so again. Note that in the US version (the book’s second cover, replacing the Bieber edition), the story title is featured much more prominently than “Sherlock Holmes,” and has been renamed Rebel Fire, which will have more resonance with an American audience. The UK version sticks with the Canonical title Red Leech. Both editions go with Potter-y covers, the long-coated, shagy-haired silhouette resembling some illustrations of that series, the pistol suggesting a wand unless one looks closely, and the watch recalling Hermione Granger’s “time turner.” These covers seem aimed at a slightly younger, unisex audience.

Now let’s skip ahead to the current crop of covers. This is what had me so amused:

Young Sherlock cold fire andrew lane cover

I dunno….”One Direction” Sherlock, maybe? The covers have all been redone, like so:young-sherlock-holmes-black-ice-978144720511101

Young Sherlock death cloud cover
Young Sherlock Snake bite

As you can see from this sample, the colors are now both darker and more vivid (there are yellow and red-based covers for other stories, but they also have this jewel-tone). Sherlock Holmes has gone from a fairly normal, non-threatening adolescent, or a small silhouette (that figure has completely vanished) to an older, more action-oriented figure with a darker, even dangerous vibe. He bears absolutely no resemblance to a younger Cumberbatch, but one suspects that the publisher is trying to tap into the BBC show’s extreme popularity. If you doubt this, note that the “Holmes” has mysteriously gone missing.  It will be interesting to see if Macmillan’s US division follows a similar route.

Thank you for indulging me. You can all wake up now.

Thank you for indulging me. You can all wake up now.

Of course, what’s really important about a book isn’t what’s on the covers, but what’s between them. On to the review.

Despite his new look, Sherlock Holmes has not become a twenty year-old necromancer-assassin. To start with, he’s only sixteen. When Stone Cold opens, he is at a concert with his brother, Mycroft, and his violin teacher/minder/secret agent/friend, Rufus Stone.** The artist is violinist Pablo Sarasate, here at the beginning of his career. For those of you interested in writing pastiche, it’s worth noting what Lane does here in dealing with a “Real Historical Personage.” First, he gets the general details right: Sarasate was 26 in 1870 (after March anyway), he played a Stradivarius, and he had already debuted in London. The music selection is accurate as well. But then, Lane essentially makes a bet. At this point, everything that the reader could check quickly–or is likely to retain as fact–is accurate.  However, a brief online search of British papers reveals that, as far as can be determined, Sarasate did not perform in London in 1870; The Era reveals that, for at least part of the year, he was, in fact, on an American tour. Lane wants to use Sarasate; he’s mentioned as a musician Holmes admires in the Canon, and he’s a way of showing the reader how Holmes develops his own musical talents. It is, however, often difficult to know what a real person was doing on any given day in history–and, while Lane seems willing to bet that most people are probably not going to fact-check this scene, he also knows that someone might.††  And, quite rightly, he does not wish to present as historical fact something which cannot be verified. So, he plays it safe by being vague. We’re given neither a date nor a venue for the concert, and there’s likely no way to know for sure that the man did not play a single show in London that year. It’s a useful example for the would-be pasticheur: be sure of your facts, and if you must “fudge,” be plausible, and never dishonest, about it.

Mycroft doesn’t care about Sarasate at all, however, either as a character, or a musician. He prefers marches, and is quite uncomfortable in the smallish seats. His purpose for bringing Sherlock to the concert is to find some neutral ground on which they can discuss his (Mycroft’s) plans for his (Sherlock’s) future. Over the past few years, his little brother has led a remarkably adventurous life, and has even proven useful to Mycroft on occasion. However, the elder Holmes, always practical, is still determined to fit his brother out for a position in banking or the civil service.

Seriously, Mycroft. Let's rethink this one.

Seriously, Mycroft. For the sake of the British taxpayer and stockholder, let’s rethink this one.

With a view towards this less-than-exhilarating goal, then, he has arranged for Sherlock to be professionally tutored, to bring him up to speed before he enters university. Sherlock would prefer Cambridge–it’s closer to his family and he would like to be there when his father eventually returns from his post in India.‡‡ Mycroft, however, suffered an unenjoyable stint at Oxford, and so is sending his brother there, to be tutored in logic and mathematics by an old friend and professor, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.***

So. Here we have another “Real Historical Personage,” because, of course, Dodgson is better know as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, “The Jabberwocky,”  and other works.  I have to admit I was a little concerned, because it seemed that Dodgson was set to play a major role in the story, which can be tricky. In the end, however, he plays only a very small part, teaching Sherlock some mathematics and logic skills (which, of course, figure into the plot) and introducing him to photography.***

Given that this is 1870, and photography, while not ubiquitous, had progressed to the point that it is fairly easy to find examples of formal portraits (and even, thanks to the Civil War, battlefield photos) from the era, it seemed to me that the Holmes brothers would be better acquainted with it than they were. It therefore comes across as rather artificial that Dodgson feels the need to explain it as much as he does. Still, the photography plays into the plot in two valuable ways. First, Sherlock gets to see a photo of Mycroft in his student days, with (shock!) friends–a photo which will prove significant later on. Second, Dodgson has some interesting ideas on what constitutes a good photography subject, and these earn him a round of police questioning in a body-snatching case.†††

The questioning also extends to one of Sherlock’s roommates in Mrs. Mc Crery’s boardinghouse. By this time, Sherlock is intrigued and, accompanied by his friend, Matty (who has  followed along and docked his boat in Oxford), sets out to discover who is stealing body parts from the Oxford mortuary, and why.

Lane always provides an “Author’s Note,” in which he discusses his sources, aspects of the story, and provides a glimpse of his future plans. In this book, he writes that, while he is moving Sherlock into an independent adulthood (which is, of course, natural for that age), the story is also “a return to the kind of stripped-down, pure version of the books that I managed to hit in Death Cloud– Sherlock and Matty working together to solve a crime.”****  Although the three major adult characters (besides Mycroft) in the book do offer a little in the way of mentoring, there is no one who takes on the all-encompassing role once held by Amyus Crowe, and honestly, I find the book better for it. It’s always good to see what Sherlock can do on his own–which is, by this time, a good deal.

It’s hard to get into specifics without accidentally giving away spoilers, but the plot is juuuuuuust  a tad unwieldy. Lane’s stories tend to have an element of the fantastic in them–outsized villains, international plots, that kind of thing–so the reader should expect more of the same. Still, the body snatching caper seemed overly complex and the culprit’s identity and motivations a little difficult to swallow. I found the more outlandish case, involving the Canonical Mortimer Maberley, strangely easier to accept.†††† In the end, however, Lane brings both story lines together in an absolutely electric confrontation. Whether the demands of justice are truly satisfied, however, is left to the reader to decide.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

For all my quibbles, Stone Cold ultimately holds up, both as a story and as a part of the larger series. The dialogue, as in other stories, tends to sound a bit anachronistic, which, again, I put down to Lane’s desire to take into account the age and possible reading level of his target audience. The Canon references in this book are fairly oblique. Victor Trevor makes his first appearance, but they have little interaction. I found what could be at least one example of “the most winning woman,” there is a reference to the hidden wickedness of the countryside, and several other similar passages. As long as Mortimer Maberley lives to marry, I could find no errors. The book reads quickly, holds your interest, and Lane is still doing a fine job of showing us how the young Sherlock Holmes will eventually become the man we meet in the lab at Bart’s. And if you are looking for a way to introduce the 8-12 year olds in your life to your obsession interests, I would recommend it.

Erste_begegnung

The Young Sherlock Holmes series is available both at all online booksellers and your local brick-and-mortar shop, in both print and ebook format. I need to caution you, however: the US is running about a year behind. Snake Bite is just now coming out in hardcover in the States, while and Stone Cold aren’t even on the radar (except in 3-party UK version sales). Fortunately, you can order these books directly from amazon.co.uk, and only wait about a week to 10 days for shipping. Unfortunately, you cannot buy them from the UK site in e-book form. You can learn more about the series, and Mr Lane at: http://www.youngsherlock.com, although his website is not currently up-to-date.

Star Rating: 5/4.5

For canonicity, Stone Cold earns a 5, as there are no discernible errors. For story, I give it a 4.5, as I believe the plot is not as cohesive as it could be, and as others in the series have been. Please bear in mind that, while the book is aimed at the 8-12 market (or thereabouts) there are some scenes of intense danger which may frighten or disturb sensitive children. There may be a rare instance of mild swearing.

Footnotes:

* My sons, who are currently in this series’ target audience, are not fans of kissing in books, unless it’s funny or disgusting.

†Later editions use a more Harry Potter-y jacket. However, you can still obtain the older cover, leading me to believe that MacMillan has tapped into the obsessive nature of Holmesian collecting.

‡ In a totally unscientific study, I asked my daughter, 12 1/2, and my son, 11, what they thought of each series of covers. My daughter said that she thought the “Bieber” cover meant the books were for girls, because the model was “hot.” My son had no interest in the books at all, because he thought the boy indicated that they were meant for girls. Both kids found the “Potter” covers appealing. And, interestingly, the new cover series appealed to both as well. My daughter again found the model “hot,” and my son thought it looked “cool.”  They were both more vocal in their reactions to the most recent covers than they were to the others. So, looks like a win, Macmillan.

** Spies. So versatile.

††Like some ridiculously pedantic reviewer.

‡‡ Mrs. Holmes is still terminally ill with consumption, and appears to be nearing the end. Mycroft and Sherlock have a sister, who, judging by the little we know of her, seems to be not quite right in some way. In this book, Lane tells us that she is currently enthralled with an unsuitable beau and will not listen to reason. It is interesting to speculate on whether or not he has plans for either her or for Mr. Holmes (who from earlier books we know has a mental illness), or if they have just become inconvenient and must be dealt with quickly in every story. It’s obvious that Mrs. Holmes won’t survive past 2 more books, tops.

***Ah, the old Oxford vs. Cambridge question. The Sherlockian world is evenly divided. For a nice look at both sides of the argument, see Dorothy L. Sayers’ essay, “Holmes’ College Career,” O.F. Grazebrook’s examination of the subject, “Oxford vs. Cambridge,” and Gavin Brend’s take in “Oxford or Cambridge.”  All are conveniently located in King and Klinger’s The Grand Game: A Celebration of Sherlockian Scholarship, Vol. 1

†††Dodgson was a photographer in real life, and some of the controversy surrounding him, of which most adult readers will be aware, involves his particular interest in photographing young girls. This was another reason why I was leery of his appearing in this book, but the matter, fortunately, never comes up.

‡‡‡This bothered me a bit, because post-mortem photography was common in the 19th century, both in the US and in Britain, so I am not sure that any interest in taking photos of dead bodies would stand out that much. I cannot tell, from the resources available to me, that Dodgson had a particular interest in post mortem photography, although he did take photos of skeletons; it seems that he preferred taking pictures of the living.

**** p. 305

†††† In “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” Holmes’ client, Mrs. Maberley, tells him:”I believe that my late husband, Mortimer Maberley, was one of your early clients,” to which he replies, “I remember your husband well, madam.” As Maberley is single at this time, we must assume he marries later. Given the nature of his case, it is no wonder that Holmes remembers him well.

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Filed under Andrew Lane, Children's Books, Cover Analysis, Four-star reviews, UK and US, Young Sherlock Holmes

Greenberg, Martin H., Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower. Ghosts in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes. NY: Carroll and Graf, 2006.

Holmes is losing patience with all of your vampire nonsense, client.

Ok, we all know it, so let’s repeat it together: “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”* If BBC’s Sherlock wants to get in a little canon/crap telly moment, all they have to do is show Sherlock, perched on his chair, yelling at one of those ubiquitous reality ghost-hunting programs–about dust,mirrors, how the bedclothes didn’t move naturally and five reasons why everyone should know that Derek guy is obviously a fake. As several authors in this anthology point out, Sir Arthur had the artistic integrity not to have his most famous character take on his own Spiritualist beliefs in some Dartmoor epiphany. Sherlock Holmes never sought an answer via supernatural methods. Still, the intersection of the set of mystery lovers and the set of ghost story aficionados is a large one, so it’s not surprising that, while Doyle let his detective approach the boundaries of the supernatural realm, there are other writers willing to toss him in completely. The authors and editors of Ghosts in Baker Street do not hesitate.

Anthologies are tricky to review. You want to give the reader a clear idea of what the book contains, but you face three problems. First, short stories are easy to spoil. Second, in a large anthology, you don’t have space (and the reader doesn’t have time) to cover every story in detail. Third, stories can vary widely in quality, leading to the “I bought this for one good song” experience. I thought, therefore, that I’d try grading each story in the book, on the traditional 4-point scale, then averaging the grades to score the book as a whole.***  We’ll see how it goes.

Most stories, happily, fall solidly in the “A” category. These include Gillian Linscott’s “The Adventure of the Late Orang Outang,” in which a pet’s love seems to transcend the grave, and academic rivalries prove deadly.  Those familiar with the legends surrounding King Tut’s tomb will see parallels in “Sherlock Holmes and the Mummy’s Curse,”  (H. Paul Jeffers). In this story, Watson’s old army buddy inadvertently draws the doctor and the detective into investigating whether the members of an Egyptian expedition are dropping dead due to coincidence…or a curse. We revisit a favorite Doyle theme–pacts gone wrong–as well as a phantom hound in Paula Cohen’s “The Adventure of the Dog in the Nighttime.”  Irish literary history provides the backdrop for an atmospheric tale with folkloric accents, Michael Walsh’s “The Coole Park Problem.” How did William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and even Sherlock Holmes come to reach new heights in their careers? Sir Arthur may agree that the fairy-folk were involved…you may reach a different conclusion. Finally, we get a Watson-only story, in a viscerally scary (even disturbing) tale, “Death in the East End.” Colin Bruce reveals a bit of the Watson family’s past, and the doctor himself learns one shouldn’t challenge the spirit world rashly. Each of these stories is told in decent “Watson-voice,” and contains plenty of cherished Doylean elements (breakfasts, stormy nights at 221B, deducing the client, bored Holmes). Some endings have natural explanations, while others are a little less cut-and-dried. You should find all of them enjoyable.

Two stories earn a “B.” Jon L. Breen’s “The Adventure of the Librarian’s Ghost” starts out with a creepy, interesting premise (a ghost predicts national crises by throwing out books and marking passages in blood) but totters with an easily-guessed solution, and a bit of preachiness in the end. “The Adventure of the St. Marylebone Ghoul” (Bill Crider) also has fascinating elements: allusions to the George Edalji case,† the intersection of East and West, prejudice, and nasty discussions of grave-robbing and ghouls. Unfortunately, I didn’t find part of the solution believable. It was a little too convenient, disappointing after a terrific build-up.

One story, and one story only, earned a “C.”  Carolyn Wheat’s  “A Scandal in Drury Lane, Or, the Vampire Trap,” has arguably the most gorgeous beginning in the book: an anonymous reminiscence of the Royal Theatre in Drury Lane which covers Restoration Comedy, the 18th century, and the early Regency, right up to the night of the fire which destroyed it on February 28, 1809. One gets the impression that this time, there may be no natural explanation, that we’re seeing with phantom eyes and hearing a phantom voice. The reader is ready for a haunting tale, and not just a tale of haunts.

Unfortunately, that voice is stilled once we get to 221B (never to be heard again) and the experience is jarring. The premise is interesting: Holmes is called to the Royal Theatre to investigate bad omens which mysteriously appear, and a gray ghost who disappears, both threatening the current production and an actress’ sanity. Are the manifestations man-made, or are they clues to a long-ago murder? The Society of Psychical Research even makes an appearance. In the end, however, I found several avoidable inaccuracies which soured my opinion a bit. The Royal Theatre actually burned on February 24, 1809. Sir Henry Irving could not be, as Watson refers to him, “the late Sir Henry Irving” in 1896, as he didn’t die until 1905. And it was hard for me to believe that Sherlock Holmes, a master of complex disguises who made a particular study of London streets,  was less familiar with the West End Theatre District than his flatmate. In the canon, Watson writes that “The stage lost a fine actor” when his friend took up detecting. Even if one discounts Baring-Gould’s notion that a young Holmes actually joined a theatre troupe, it seems natural to conclude he spent time backstage–and in the seats, enjoying opera and concerts. Finally, I found the explanation a little too elaborate, although you may disagree. These flaws, coupled with the complete atmospheric disconnect between the introduction and the body of the story, made it disappointing.

Ghosts in Baker Street isn’t all chills, however. At the end of the book the editors include three non-fiction essays, all of which deserve “A’s.” Caleb Carr discusses Sherlock Holmes’ relationship to the nascent science of psychology in “Some Analytical Genius, No Doubt.” While Mr. Carr’s thoughts on why Doyle shied away from psychology (related to his troubled father), are interesting, I am not sure I agree. There are people who have a constitutional preference for the “hard sciences.” They want to be able to see, touch, smell, hear, and quantify. The physical world is where they feel most at home. Others don’t mind if things get, in my husband’s words, “squishy.” They gravitate more to the arts, the social sciences and yes, psychology–although I do wonder if Holmes was more comfortable once B.F. Skinner and behaviorism rolled around.†† Still, the article is interesting, and Carr’s final thoughts on the academic trend towards deconstruction and the canon are heartening.

Barbara Roden continues the non-fiction section with “No Ghosts Need Apply?” A noted expert in both Holmes and the English ghost story, Ms. Roden provides a thorough look at the genesis of the “psychic detective” genre. She connects its popularity to both the need for authors hopping on the lucrative detective story bandwagon to “distinguish their creations from the Master in some way,”†††  and to the psychic shock of The Great War, which saw a rise in the popularity of Spiritualism and an interest in the paranormal. We get an overview of names you may remember: Abraham van Helsing, Flaxman Low, John Silence, Thomas Carnacki…and some you may not have heard of: Aylmer Vance, Norton Vyse, and Shiela Crerar, just for a start. Finally, speaking of van Helsing, Loren Estleman, author of the best-selling Sherlock Holmes v. Dracula, talks about his own introduction to the canon, his experience in the Sherlockian fiction world, and makes the salient point that when it comes to the supernatural, “if you win Holmes, you win the reader.”

All in all, Ghosts in Baker Street is a solid collection of traditional stories, with enough scares for the ghost story lover and enough logic for the armchair detective. The prior stories would be worth the price of admission. There are, however, two more pieces, and I don’t think it’s exaggerating to call them spectacular. The first is a brief story by Daniel Stashower. Told from the viewpoint of HOUN’s escaped Notting Hill murderer, “Selden” is a tale of a bright young man, loyal to the Baskerville family, who goes to war in South Africa. Seriously injured, he encounters a kindly physician–an eye specialist–who consoles the soldiers with his belief that “our fallen comrades were not really dead…but only transferred to another place.”‡ Selden doesn’t follow them, however; he goes home, a morphine addict who commits a savage crime to obtain the drugs his body craves. The rest of his story is familiar to those who have read HOUN. Stashower, however, adds one dark, breathtaking twist, allowing the little boy who clutched his sister’s hand to find honor and redemption in the end.

Finally, Loren Estleman demonstrates just what he means by “winning Holmes” in his story, “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” When a patient at St. Porphyry’s Hospital (specializing in the mentally ill) claims to be Satan, and terrible things start happening, Watson (who has been consulting there) asks his friend to look into the matter. Holmes is naturally skeptical, and challenges the man, “John Smith,” to prove his claims, particularly that of leaving the world and taking them all with him at midnight, Walpurgisnacht.‡‡ There’s something odd about the man. A strange affect, a palpable sense of menace. He knows thing about them he should  not. He oozes through the page. There is nothing I love more than a Satanic smackdown, and Holmes is no cinema priest who’s lost his faith. He may not have had any faith to begin with. But when he’s taken to the pinnacle of the temple, he knows exactly what to do.‡‡‡  In these stories, both Estleman and Stashower take on the typical supernatural pastiche form and transcend it.

Well, let’s average our grades, shall we?  With a total of 48, dividing by 13 stories, we get 3.69, or 3.7, a high B and a respectable score for any anthology. For those of you who like a little dark frisson in your detective story, Ghosts in Baker Street delivers.

Ghosts in Baker Street is, unfortunately, currently out of print, although several of the stories have been reprinted elsewhere by now, and may be familiar to some. You can find a used copy of Ghosts online fairly easily. Check Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ABE and even eBay to find the book at a reasonable price.

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

Footnotes:

*”The Sussex Vampire”

**Imagines Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock doing this. Imagines it in detail for a very, very long time….

***Yes, it is report card time at our house. How did you guess?

† This is a case in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually did a little detecting of his own. See http://www.siracd.com/life_case1.shtml for more detail.

†† “Was.” See what I did there?

†††Ghosts in Baker Street, p.202

‡ Ghosts in Baker Street, p. 140. Can you guess who that might be? I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time to adjust my mental chronology of HOUN from Baring-Gould’s date of 1888 to sometime between 1901 and its publication in 1903 (I like the idea of Holmes investigating the Ripper murders while Watson is in Dartmoor). However, some chronological experts go with the later date, so the scene with ACD is plausible.

‡‡A springtime equivalent of Halloween. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walpurgis_Night

‡‡‡ A reference to Luke 4:9.  Obviously I am not equating Christ and Sherlock Holmes. But Smith’s appeal to his intellect and his pride in the story constitute a very real temptation.

Comments Off on Greenberg, Martin H., Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower. Ghosts in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes. NY: Carroll and Graf, 2006.

Filed under Anthology (Stories by different authors), AU (Alternative Universe), Daniel Stashower, Four-star reviews, Jon Lellenberg, Martin Greenberg, Supernatural

Revill, Joe. A Case of Witchcraft. London: MX, 2011

Note: This review is for the first edition of A Case of Witchcraft. The publisher has since come out with  a new version, with some corrections and content additions. Those I am aware of do not affect my overall opinion of the book, but I do think readers will appreciate them, so try to get the second edition when you can. For more information on what was changed or added, see Mr. Revill’s blog at this link: http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/a-new-and-slightly-improved-version-of-the-novel/

Cunningsburgh, in the Shetland Isles. Possibly a model for “Cunningsborough”?

Sherlock Holmes doesn’t believe in ghosts. Or vampires. Or giant demon hounds. But that certainly doesn’t stop him from taking cases from people who do. So it is that when Emily Tollemache appears at 221B one rainy October afternoon to tell him she’s afraid her father is in danger of becoming a human sacrifice at the hands of a witch-cult in the Northern Islands of Scotland, he doesn’t dismiss her out of hand. The Reverend Tollemache, a folklore scholar who has already published a book about werewolves, had travelled there, intent on tracking down the origins of a Norse variation of the “Cinderella” story–a rather darker version, involving witches–when he disappeared. He’s in good health, and quite sane, she tells Holmes and Watson, so when he wrote that he suspected some villagers knew more than they were saying, she believed him. His housekeeper discovered him missing the morning before, and Miss Tollemache has found the local police suspiciously unhelpful. They believe he’s just fallen into the sea–it’s been known to happen–and dismiss her worries about witches out of hand.

Holmes, on the other hand, doesn’t think that foul play–at the hands of a cult, or otherwise–can be ruled out–and at four days ’til Halloween, time is of the essence. He’ll be taking on this case alone; Watson is laid up after having that jezail bullet removed from his leg. Perhaps, Holmes reasons, this is for the best. He’ll either be facing the personification of pure evil, in which case it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’ll come back in a casket…or he’ll look ridiculous wasting time on a “case” where the elderly victim accidentally doddered off a ledge. He may not have help should it be the former, but he also won’t have witnesses if it proves the latter. He packs Watson’s revolver with a stack of books on witchcraft and catches the night train to Edinburgh.*

He doesn’t remain alone for long, however. The next day, his “private” compartment (he tried to ensure it by bribing the guard) is invaded by a foppish young man who fortunately falls asleep almost immediately, giving Holmes the chance to conduct his research for a few hours in peace. When his companion awakens, he learns that, oddly enough, his fellow traveller also has an interest in the occult. In fact, the young Aleister Crowley claims to practice High Magic, and is on his way to a home he’s recently purchased in Scotland, to spend six months on a demanding, purifying ritual he hopes will enable to transcend the physical and perform miracles. He’s not in a hurry, however, and after a long discussion over fancy Turkish cigarettes, offers to accompany Holmes as a sort of magic consultant. Holmes hesitates a little. He feels disloyal to Watson, for one, and he’s loathe to subject the young man to danger, for another.  He wonders how coincidental this meeting actually was. In the end, however, he decides that two are safer than one, and is confident in his ability to rid himself of Crowley, should that prove necessary.

Aleister Crowley. Not John Watson. But he does have the “3 Continents” thing going for him.

Once they arrive on Trowley and proceed to the isolated village of Cunningsborough, Holmes and Crowley find the situation every bit as intriguing as Miss Tollemache described. It’s obvious that the old scholar believed he had found evidence of a surviving witch cult, and that he believed it would challenge, if not completely change, current scholarship on the matter. It seems equally obvious that he made contact with someone who promised to tell him much, much more, and that he was excited by the prospect. Holmes has to wonder, whether or not this enthusiasm led him into a trap.

As the detective and his assistant begin to look for evidence, however, they find themselves dismissed, if not blocked outright. Footprints are confusing. Documents have conveniently been destroyed. People greet their questions with reactions varying from silence to threats. Most, it seems, don’t believe there are witches on Trowley, and definitely don’t want that old reputation stirred up again–or so they say. The investigators get a different response, Holmes realizes, when they talk to women, such as the flirtatious girl at the chip shop, and the beautiful, freethinking school mistress, Louisa Reid. There is something strange, and something dangerous, going on in Cunningsborough,  but only Tollemache knows whether they are one and the same….

One of the reasons Sherlock Holmes  has captivated the public imagination for so long is that we know just enough–but not too much–about him. As beloved as Kay Scarpetta or Harry Bosch may be to their fans, they’re not all that intriguing. We like them because we know them. When it comes to Holmes and Watson, however, what we don’t  know inspires fascination, and captivates all sorts of fans. After all, when you have strong characters who, at the same time, care to reveal little of their pasts and inner workings, you’re free to imagine what you will. My Holmes isn’t, exactly, your Holmes. When it comes to 221B, we see what we need to see and, many times, we’re looking into a mirror.

This is what makes pastiche and Sherlockian fiction so varied and so interesting. It’s also why some people don’t want to read it, ever. It can be uncomfortable to see your character in someone else’s revealing light.

A Case of Witchcraft is, in essence, two books. The shortest book tells the story of what happened to the Reverend Tollemache, and how Holmes and Crowley fight to save another from the same fate. Revill tells it well, with plenty of detective work (Blotters!  Footprints! Secret societies!), false leads, and a suspenseful, disturbing conclusion. You may think, at a certain point in the book, that “there’s nothing to see here,” but you couldn’t be more wrong.

The bulk of the book, however, is a series of conversations. Sometimes they’re about folklore, sometimes they’re about politics or philosophy or youthful mores, but what they’re really about is Sherlock Holmes. Like most Victorian gentlemen, the Great Detective is not forthcoming when it comes to his personal views on sex or religion, or his experience of the same, which is why we often feel compelled to discuss them. Revill’s Holmes, however, is in a confessional mood. Perhaps it’s the freedom afforded by being far away from London, among people he will most likely never see again. Perhaps it’s the hashish–there seems to be a lot of it up North. I suspect, really, that some of it comes from his exhilaration at being with two people, at least, whose thinking isn’t bound by strict convention. Occasionally when an author pairs Holmes up with someone other than Watson, the latter is disparaged, either overtly or implicitly. Revill doesn’t do this. Instead, we see that Holmes–normally on the antisocial side, unlike his clubbable friend–really enjoys getting to discuss his research and thoughts with receptive and non-judgmental listeners. 

“Women were like that, he found: even female clients, like Miss Tollemache,generally dressed in their smartest clothes when they called on him.” (p.176-77)

At this point, I do feel obligated to alert readers that A Case of Witchcraft, while not explicit, and not outside my review guidelines, does broach some adult subject matter in an honest (but not graphic) fashion. Some of you may find this offensive, and others may find it a bit uncomfortable, so be warned that this is not a book for everyone.

I’ll admit that my view of Holmes on both controversial topics is much more traditional. I  tend to go with the “lapsed Catholic” view, or to place him with other men of science of the time, such as Charles Peirce, who believed that if science and religion were not immediately reconciled, it was only because we didn’t yet know enough of one or the other.** As to the other, well, I think it’s pretty clear that I have no problem with Holmes and romance, if it’s done well.  That being said, I enjoyed reading Joe Revill’s very well-reasoned portrayal of a different Holmesian perspective. It’s a common line of thought, not off-base for a progressive thinker in 1899, and I found it intellectually challenging.

The lengthy conversations in this “shadow book” can take away from the larger plot, however. The fact that they’re often couched in larger discussions of ancient (mostly Norse) folklore mean that the reader often finds herself reading several pages of digressions. I didn’t mind this much; in fact, it reawakened my interest in folklore and made me pull a book out of the TBR pile.*** Mr. Revill knows his stuff, and integrates it well. There are no “As you know, Bob” moments, and Holmes would need to know or at least review a lot of this information to do his job; it’s part of the tedium of detective work. The fact that he finds it interesting jibes well with what we know of his all-encompassing curiosity and his interest in ancient Britain.† Still, some readers may find these portions a distraction.†† I was more frustrated, myself, by occasional sinister portents  that ultimately went nowhere, as well as by the fact that, as concerned as Emily Tollemache was  about her father, she did not accompany Holmes to actually find him.

If you’re looking for a straight Watson-written pastiche that sounds like something Doyle sold to The Strand,  then I will say that A Case of Witchcraft is not the book for you. But if you enjoy adventures in which the most adventurous aspect is the foray into its protagonist’s mind, then you’ll want it on your bookshelf.

A Case of Witchcraft: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available directly from MX Publishing, and your usual online booksellers, both in paper and e-book format. It is now in its second editon. You can find Joe Revill’s very interesting blog at http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com.

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

So…do you have any thoughts on Holmes and religion? Or Holmes and sex, for that matter? Leave a comment below; first commenter receives a copy of the 2nd edition of A Case of Witchcraft. I will say that the comments should focus only on those topics as they pertain to Holmesian subjects, and should not be explicit, profane, or insulting. There are plenty of online forums to discuss personal views on religion and/or mores; this isn’t one of them and comments will not be approved if they are contentious or disrespectful.

*He also discusses some final matters with Watson in an interesting, perhaps revealing, paragraph.

**I find it indicative of just how real  Holmes and Watson are to devotees that they care so much about their religious views, particularly if they are religious themselves. I don’t think Sherlockians need to have Holmes validate their beliefs; rather I have the sneaking suspicion that they’re concerned about his eternal destination.

***Albion’s Seed, for example. Had it for years, hadn’t even cracked the binding; that thing is a door-stopper.

†See “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” (DEVI) for an example of what Holmes does in his off-hours. Also see the blog post below for the real reason Holmes was tempted to go to the, um, meeting to which Miss Reid invites him. It’s wonderfully in character.

††Mr. Revill acknowledges this. In the second edition, he helps the reader along with a change in chapter titles. Read about it here: http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/a-new-and-slightly-improved-version-of-the-novel/.

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Filed under Four-star reviews, Holmes and Drugs, Holmes and Religion, Holmes and Sex, Joe Revill, MX Publishing, Real Historical Personages, Supernatural

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Jeff.

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

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

Touchy academic is touchy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch your back.

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

†  “You can imagine the Christmas dinners.”

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

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

‡ “The Copper Beeches” (COPP)

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

Bridges, Margaret Park. My Dear Watson. London: MX, 2011*

Find and circle all of the women in this picture.

My Dear Watson will go down in blog history as “the book that sparked a marital spat on the way to church.”**  And really, it’s no wonder, because the story itself is based on a controversial premise: What if Sherlock Holmes were really a woman?

That is, a woman masquerading as a man. As you no doubt know, there are plenty of historical precedents for this.*** These women decided to live as men for varied motives: to obtain an education, to find a military spouse, to work in traditionally male occupations (such as “pirate”), or because they were what we would refer to today as “transgender.” Lucy Holmes’ choice is made first out of necessity, and then out of a desire to fulfill what she sees as her life’s mission: to seek out and combat evil in all its forms.

This is not a choice she makes lightly. Until the age of fourteen, Lucy Holmes was just an awkward, bookish girl with an insatiable curiosity and an aptitude for everything that has nothing to do with practical homemaking.  Her much older brother Mycroft is away at school, and she’s left alone with her parents: a meek, religious mother and a father who loves horses almost as much as he loves other women. Young Lucy is unaware of this predilection, however, until the night her mother accidentally falls downstairs after catching her father with yet another mistress. Shocked and shattered, Lucy accuses her father of murder, and flees to Mycroft’s rooms in Oxford. In order to stay there undetected, she cuts her hair and dresses as a boy. She’s able to live secretly in Christ Church college for nearly a year before she’s discovered and evicted. By that time, however, she’s managed to garner  herself quite a scientific education, and the trauma of her experience has convinced her that, not only does she wish to avoid the subservient life of women like her mother, she also wants to root out wickedness. And the only way to engage that enemy on its own field, she firmly believes, is as a man.

And it works for her. Obviously it works quite well, because as the novel begins, it’s 1903, she’s on the cusp of her 50th birthday, and has an active, prosperous career behind her. She’s not immune, however, to the traditional midlife meditations, however, and these take on a special urgency when Constance Moriarty bursts into 221B.

Yes, Moriarty.  A name that’s never a coincidence in the Sherlockian world.✝  The Napoleon of Crime, it seems, did not leave this world without issue, and his red-headed actress daughter now believes he never left this world at all. She’s received a sort of ransom note claiming he’s alive, and she wants to hire Sherlock Holmes to find him. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Holmes to realize there’s much more to this shocker than is readily apparent, and the murder of a young Irregular confirms her suspicions. It’s not long before she’s fighting for life as she’s known it for thirty-five years, and Watson is in hot pursuit of (yet another) bride. Ms. Bridges sets the adventure against the backdrop of Shakespearean tragedy (Macbeth), and by the time the final scene is played, each of the main characters’ lives is shattered by their fatal flaws.

Watson: Scoping out Mrs. Watson #4
Holmes: Wants everyone to leave so she can “unbind”

Because we all have them, don’t we? Those crevasses in our characters which threaten at times to swallow us the way Constance Moriarty claims the Swiss Alps swallowed her father. These flaws, or quirks, or struggles generally lie dormant until we’re forced to confront them by some catalyst.  For fans of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, My Dear Watson is just such a catalyst. It’s a very well-written book which still challenges one to explore his or her own views of canonicity and world-building. These opinions (and they are only that, for all we may fervently espouse them as doctrine) will naturally vary reader by reader. Here, then, are mine.

First, of course, is the issue of Lucy Holmes. For some, this will be an instant deal-breaker, and that’s fine.✝✝ I will confess that “gender-bending” is not really my thing. I like Holmes and Watson as men. However, pastiche is a playground, and I decided up front that Lucy Holmes would not be an issue for me. What matters, in the end, is whether or not the story is a good one, and whether or not it’s well-told.

For me, the problems started at page one. There in the first paragraph, Ms. Holmes states that she has not been “an experienced writer of anything more substantial than mountains of hastily scribbled research notes.” Of course (and I’ll be honest–I had to check), she was still to write “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier”(assuming she wrote it long after it occurred in 1903) and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” (1907) but this statement still leaves the monographs unaccounted for, as well as the magazine article Watson disparages in A Study in Scarlet, “The Book of Life.”  Other canonical problems follow, and unfortunately, they’re the kind that make Holmes’ ability to pass as a woman while living intimately with her physician friend seem implausible. Ms. Holmes claims, for example, that she cared for her own medical needs, and that she never went to the baths. “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” (Baring-Gould date, 1902) would indicate otherwise.

Of course most pastiches contain some canonical error or other, and I’m certainly not well-versed enough to catch them all.✝✝✝   My Dear Watson  also posed some believability problems for me. It was hard to accept that Lucy could remain hidden in college rooms for any length of time at all, even if she were dressing as a boy. The chemistry equipment Mycroft provided her would alert others to her presence if nothing else. The fact that Dr. Watson and Holmes are such close friends raises more plausibility concerns. The man’s a physician. A physician who knows and likes women. And while he may not seem to enjoy doctoring all that much, he proudly claims, in The Sign of Four, “an experience of women over many nations and three continents.” He’s been married, for the purposes of this book, three times. Because this site should be suitable for all ages, let’s just say that there are aspects of female life it would be nearly impossible to hide from an experienced male roommate, much less a female housekeeper, for so many years. In the book, Watson notices that his friend has no need to shave after two days. Surely, after all of their trips together, he would have noticed this before. Likewise, Holmes’ drug use, which is alluded to in the book, would have, on occasion, put her in positions in which she would not have full control over herself, making discovery more likely. Couple this with a physician’s knowledge of female anatomy (not just the obvious parts), and it’s difficult to believe that Watson has never figured it out. The author tries to salvage this with what amounts to his ability to see and not observe, but physicians do observe others’ physical characteristics, and I can’t imagine why, once his curiosity was piqued, he would not investigate.

One could argue, however, that this Watson is a bit of a…well, isn’t the famous appellation “Boobus britannicus”? Basically, this is the Watson who likes jam.‡  Although he is very funny at times, he’s really out of character, and it’s hard to believe that even a man who needs romance is able to pursue another woman so ardently when his last wife (and their miscarried infant) is barely cold in the grave. Likewise, when cocaine poisoning forces Holmes to revisit her previous experience with withdrawal, Watson leaves her with a French couple who are basically strangers so he can pursue the mystery back in London. Holmes doesn’t send him; it’s his idea, and one which seems completely antithetical to his character. The French couple–a retired concert violinist and his wife, who have lost their only child–seem to have no real purpose in the story except to serve as Holmes’ caretakers in Watson’s stead, to make sure he doesn’t undress his raving friend. There’s an amusing bit with a motorcar, a sweet bit with a violin, and they take in one of the culprit’s victims in the end, but I kept waiting for them to prove untrustworthy, and found them superfluous when they did not. Other secondary characters, such as Constance Moriarty’s lover, Geoffrey Wickham, are well-drawn and interesting.

And Holmes? After a slightly rough start with the young Lucy, Ms. Bridge’s Sherlock Holmes is just what one might expect: she’s impatient, clever, forthright, and has a sharp tongue. There are the familiar canonical phrases, with just enough variation to make them original. However, Lucy Holmes has a depth and capacity for self-examination that I didn’t foresee. Although she’s read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she chose her path for more personal than political reasons, and her consequences have been personal as well.  Middle age has become, inevitably, a time of uncomfortable reflection, and all she knew in her thirties no longer seems as certain. She has that typically feminine moment of seeing her mother in the mirror, the bitterly common dilemma that the one she loves doesn’t know she’s alive, and the universally human realization that, in making her choices, she may well have rendered their alternatives impossible. For the best of all possible reasons, she’s built her life on a fundamental deception; her attempts to grapple with this decision and its fallout are truly poignant.

This brings us back to that argument in the car. My husband, who is not a Sherlockian, argued that, if the story is good, canon shouldn’t matter. I had more difficulty reconciling a very well-written story full of depth and insight with the plausibility problems, some of which contradict canon. As I told my spouse, when a group of people call the works of their favorite author “The Canon,” they’re sending a not-so-subtle message.

Where to put the emphasis? That was my problem. Conan Doyle had the answer. His “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” has to be one of the goofier Holmes stories. In it, an aging professor hoping to impress his young fiancée injects himself with ape serum and ends up becoming ape-like himself. No, really. But behind the implausible scenario is a touching glimpse of the unpleasant realities of aging. Making Sherlock Holmes a woman seems outlandish, but in playing “what if,” Ms. Bridges is able to make us think about issues ranging from “the thin line between good and evil,” to what it really meant for  the Great Detective to push aside “the softer emotions.” There is gain, and there is loss, and who’s to say which is greater in the end?

My Dear Watson  is available from your usual online suspects, as well as the MX Publishing site and the Baker Street Babes’ online bookstore. Ms. Bridges also writes popular children’s books. You can learn more about her, and her books, at http://www.margaretparkbridges.com/.  I’m curious about your views on this book,  canonicity, gender-bending, etc. Be the first commenter and win a copy of My Dear Watson, or the upcoming anthology currently being prepared in support of the Undershaw Preservation Trust.

Star Rating: For the first time ever, I’ve decided to give a book a “dual” star rating. If you highly value canonicity, My Dear Watson rates 3 1/2 stars out of 5, or “Flawed, but still worth your while.” If you give greater weight to story, My Dear Watson rates 4 out of 5, “Well worth your time and money.”

Footnotes:

*My Dear Watson has a very interesting history. It was, in fact, published in Japan in 1992, after it impressed judges in an international competition for unpublished mystery authors (an experience you can read about here: http://www.margaretparkbridges.com/writing-backwards/). New York publishers, however, are notoriously hard to please, so the book languished almost two decades before finding a new home at MX.

**It devolved into something like this. Brett: “You’re too sensitive.”  Leah: “You won’t ever let me score a point.” Ultimate outcome: stalemate, as usual.

***Examples include: Billy Tipton, James Barry, Albert Cashier, James Gray, and pirate Anne Bonny. If you do a web search for these (and others), you’ll find that most of them are fairly easy to “see through.” Several, however, are not.

✝Unless, say, it’s your last name. And if it is–how cool!

✝✝ Let’s say it together, shall we? “It’s all fine.”

✝✝✝ In fact, a couple of items I initially believed were errors proved, upon inspection, to be correct, or open to interpretation.

‡See http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=210 ; “Boobus britannicus”  was Edmund L. Pearson’s description of Watson in 1932.
 

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Filed under AU (Alternative Universe), Four-star reviews, Genderbend, Holmes and Love, Holmes and Watson Friendship, Margaret Park Bridges, Moriarty, MX Publishing, Real Historical Personages

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

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

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

1. Determine I will do it. This time.

2. Sign up.

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

4. Evening out.

5. Sick kid.

6. Intense FB debate about…something.

7. Veteran’s Day

8. Who am I kidding?

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

1. Wrote a book.

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

2. Published it.

The Detective and the Woman is that book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*National Novel Writing Month

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

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

✝Particularly in fan fiction.

✝✝Don’t laugh. People do this.

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

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