Category Archives: Four-star reviews

The Lyme Regis Horror, Part 2

My last review was devoted to Ruffle’s novella, “Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror.” However, his book contains plenty more. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Sherlock Holmes asleep/paget

Watson must be talking about cricket again….

Watson is to cricket as George Will is to baseball. For him, the sport is the embodiment of everything that is good about the British Empire: “honour, an inherent sense of duty and fair play,” as he declares in “Horror.” So when famed Australian batsman Victor Trumper shows up at 221B, asking Holmes to look into a kidnapping threat, he’s both shocked and eager to help. “The Trumper Affiar” (previously published as an e-pub on Amazon) is a solid story, written along more traditional lines than “Horror.” Ruffle provides accurate historical details, both in the setting and characters (actual cricket players), and his end notes are a nice touch for history aficionados. Holmes and Watson are also nicely in character and we’re treated to some nice running jokes as Watson continually bores the Great Detective (and occasionally the reader) with lengthy explications of cricket matches, and Holmes finds that the doctor’s novelistic touches have given him some unexpected anonymity. The story is not as atmospheric as “Horror,” but Ruffle performs a very nice sleight-of-hand in concealing the villain, the denouement is darker for its realism, and the ending is quite poignant.

Victor Trumper, safe and sound

Ruffle takes us back to the supernatural in “The Mystery of Loch Ness” and “The Runes Affair.”  In the former, a gruesome death forces the reader to apply Holmes’ famous maxim, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In “The Runes Affair,” three highly nervous paranormal researchers ask Holmes to help them fend off what seems to be an evil author’s attempt to exact vengeance for poor reviews and rejection slips through supernatural means. Holmes and Watson take on the case to assuage the mens’ fears and meet with unexpected results; one has to wonder whether they might have been manipulated into unwittingly carrying out revenge themselves.

Other stories have a supernatural bent as well. Set in more modern times (the 1930’s and the recent past, respectively), “Forever 1895” and “A Lyme Ghost Story” suggest that Holmes dislikes partiers and inappropriate over night guests, but has a soft spot for pastiche writers. “Timeless in Lyme” is not about phantoms…at least from one perspective.  In each of these pieces, Ruffle mixes past and present with the deft touch essential for a satisfying ghost tale.

Christmas is another favorite topic. In “Christmas at Baker Street,” Holmes explains to Watson the very best reasons for refusing a knighthood. He exposes even more of his heart in the incredibly charming “Henrietta’s Problem,” giving credence to Jeremy Brett’s view that “Holmes loved children.” My personal favorite in this collection, however, is “Christmas with Holmes,” which has an aging Holmes and Watson spending the holiday together in Sussex in 1916.  The end scene is beautiful and while I realized, upon a third reading, that it could have a darker interpretation, I’ll go with my first, sad-but-fitting one. Ruffle ends the book with a lovely poem dedicated to his son, Duncan.

So, my final conclusion? Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror is a well-written collection with “the charm of variety,” deserving of a place on your bookshelf or in your e-reader. I look forward to reading more of Ruffle’s work.

Sherlock Holmes and The Lyme Regis Horror is available from major online booksellers, and is offered on Kindle. “The Trumper Affair” is available as a solo work on Kindle as well. You can also buy the book directly from MX Publishing, or from independent bookstores such as Poisoned Pen.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

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Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), David Ruffle, Four-star reviews, Holidays, Supernatural, Traditional, Uncategorized

Ruffle, David. Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror. (Expanded 2nd ed.) London: MX Publishing, 2011.

The Harbor and the Cobb

January is a time for new beginnings. This book experienced a rebirth of sorts late last year, going from a well-received self-published story to a revised and expanded edition with the Holmesian publisher, MX, complete with a gorgeous new cover. The first edition cover features a view of the sea at either sunrise or sunset. It’s  pretty, but not exactly evocative of the word “horror” (although, come to think of it, the contrast does bring to mind Holmes’ particular view of beautiful scenery).* The new cover, done in rich browns, looks like the negative of a sepia photograph, and is fittingly ominous without being over-the-top. The lettering is lovely, calling to mind age, sand, and…dust?
The contents, however, are ultimately what matters, and Mr. Ruffle manages to fit quite a bit into 265 pages. So much content, in fact, that in the interest of brevity, I’m dividing this review into two parts:  “The Lyme Regis Horror,” and the other, shorter stories.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror” begins, not surprisingly, with a provenance story. You know how people who are not you are always finding exciting things in their old houses? Instead of mouldy utility bills and smelly polyester, Mr. Ruffle found the literary Holy Grail in the walls of his Lyme Regis home: a Watson manuscript.  Although his attempts to authenticate it remain inconclusive, he’s nice enough to share it with us.
Like most stories Watson thought best to hide in dispatch boxes or walls,  this one has sensational elements. And, like most of his tales, it starts quietly enough, with Watson boring Holmes with cricket, worries about the morocco case, an invitation from an old school friend/teammate and, finally, the doctor convincing his friend to accompany him on a brief holiday to Lyme Regis. Watson, of course, is eager for sea air, good friends, and relaxation. Holmes is tempted by an exhibition on paleontologist and Dean of Westminster, William Buckland; fossil-hunting, and his favorite pet project, using local dialect to connect people in the southern sea-faring regions of Britain to Phoenician traders.**  As they get off the train at Axminster, neither has any idea his world is about to be emotionally and spiritually upended.
Watson is shaken first, when the landlady of their boarding house turns out to be the very image of his late wife, Mary. Beatrice Heidler, widowed by the Boer War, is focused on her teenaged son, Nathaniel, and has never considered  remarriage. The attraction between the two is instant, however. Their courtship is realistically tentative, and we get to see why Watson is such an appealing suitor.***
Holmes, of course, has other interests. Despite his professed enthusiasm for ancient worlds, he must be harboring some fears of ennui, because once Watson’s friend Dr. Jacobs mentions “most curious events,” he’s on it like a pitbull and won’t let go until Jacobs describes them and “omits no detail.” The events (without  details) are these:
  • A mysterious schooner appears during a storm (some believe it brought the storm with it). There’s no evidence of a crew and by the morning it has vanished, leaving behind three boxes of earth. These are later claimed by a Count Orlana, who is staying at Haye Manor. Said manor belongs to Sir Peter Rattenbury, an expert in Eastern Europe, currently away in Italy.
  • The “Black Dog of Lyme” has been seen recently, both in its traditional haunt of Haye Lane, and throughout Lyme Regis.
  • 18 year-old Rose Hannington, patient of another area doctor, has recently died of a wasting illness, possibly an exotic anaemia, yet has been seen, apparently quite solid, in the cemetery and near her family home.
Within 36 hours, Dr. Jacobs calls on our friends to examine a body on the beach, Rose’s cousin Elizabeth takes ill,  and we are off to the races.
Holmes and Watson may not know what’s going on, but by this time, the reader certainly does (if you don’t, consider this a spoiler warning). The only mystery left is whether or not Ruffle can put his own twist on a match-up which has been done countless times in the pastiche universe.
I was dubious, I’ll admit.  And vampires don’t particularly scare me, so I wondered how Ruffle would keep me in the story. The answer lies in his ability to put across the challenge this villain poses to the heroes’ views of the world and the evil it contains. This is not someone to turn over to the police, to send away to Australia, pardon de facto, or deliver to Divine Justice through shipwreck. This is Moriarty redux, with the disturbing difference that they can’t have been the only men in 500 hundred years to have taken him to the ledge.
“The Lyme Regis Horror” begins sedately enough.  Ruffle knows Holmes and Watson very well; canon devotees will find plenty of insider references and familiar-sounding (though not verbatim) phrases. The Watsonian voice is decently done and witty; Ruffle stays in his narrator’s head the entire time. Holmes is mellower than he is often portrayed, particularly when he quickly catches on to Watson’s fascination with Mrs. Heidler; perhaps his experience with Watson’s first (second? twelfth?) marriage has assured him that he will not be displaced. He also seems to know more about Jane Austen than one would suspect of a man who sneers at softer emotions. On another interesting note, Holmes (using his impossible/improbable line of reasoning) is convinced early on that the culprit is supernatural, while the two physicians take some convincing. I never felt, however, that either Holmes or Watson was veering out of character.
One of Ruffle’s great strengths is his ear for dialogue; it rarely rings false, and is often quite funny such as when   Watson informs Mrs. Jacobs that his writing is not for children, or the Inspector advises everyone not to “quibble with small details.”  If a little too much time is spent delineating incidents in local history which don’t relate to the plot, it can be forgiven; Watson does like travel guides.
When it’s time to bring the suspense, Ruffle delivers as well. The atmosphere changes perceptibly when Sarah Jacobs opens the door to the Count. The following confrontation is electrifying, and reminds the reader that Holmes is truly master of the “and the horse you came in on” speech. The feeling of dread continues as Holmes, Watson, and Jacobs ready themselves for battle; they don’t know whether or not they’re coming back, and neither do we. In fact, as they walk towards the manor in dark of early morning, Ruffle’s description is so skillful, the chills are palpable.
Ruffle’s ability as a writer is, finally, evident in his deceptively simple denouement. In it, he takes up a thread I had thought dangling and superfluous, using it to pull the physical and emotional parts of the story together. I won’t divulge any more except to say that, as a writer, I admired the skill with which he accomplished this, and found myself thinking about it all day.
As a writer, reader, and reviewer, I have learned not to disparage self-published work. Sure, Mr. Ruffle is now working with an accepted publisher;  remember, however, he first published “Horror” on his own. It’s a perfect example of how one should never be afraid to take a chance on an unknown. You’ll often be glad you did.
*Holmes famously said, “…the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” (COPP)
**It may sound silly. However, the ancient Greek geographer Strabo mentions that the Phoenicians traded in tin brought from Britain.
***He tells her “the laundry can take care of itself.” Who doesn’t love a man like that?
Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. You can buy it in a Kindle version, but not for Nook.  It can also be purchased directly from MX Publishing, or from independent bookstores, such as The Poisoned Pen.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5

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Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), David Ruffle, Four-star reviews, MX Publishing, Supernatural

Hanna, Edward B. The Whitechapel Horrors. London: Titan Books, 2010. (Originally published by Carroll and Graf, New York, 1992)

I thought it would be fitting to start with the first pastiche I ever read, back when it came out in 1992. I remember barreling through it then, and each time I’ve read it, I’ve come away with a new appreciation of how Hanna, an award-winning journalist and member of the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), was able to conflate fact and fiction.

The story begins, as many pastiches do, with an explanation of its existence. Cox and Company, as well as the tin dispatch box, are long gone. However, in the director’s safe at Claridge’s, a leather portfolio (initialed “J.W.”) keeps company with a bottle of ancient Armagnac. At least it did until recently. The director, one Ronald Jones, decided to actually open it as part of his first day on the job. There, along with a letter tracing its provenance to one John Hamish Watson, M.D., via Mr. Elwyn Anstruther and Dr. Ian Anstruther, he finds a collection of notes, which Dr. Watson wished to keep from publication until 2000, or 50 years after his death, whichever came first (obviously, Watson anticipated a long life; was it the royal jelly?). At any rate, Watson died in 1929, leaving Mr. Jones free to give his shocking story to the world.

After this explanation, Hanna does something that it is hard to get away with twenty years later: he eases the reader into the story. Rather than starting at the crime scene, bang in the middle of the action, we get to accompany Holmes and Watson to Simpson’s after they’ve seen a theater production of Jekyll and Hyde. During this chapter, Hanna takes the time to introduce the pair to any novices who might be reading. We get a snapshot of their physical characteristics, friendship, habits (the cigarette case makes an appearance), eccentricities, and, of course, Holmes’ ability to deduce all manner of information about people simply by observing a few details. When they get back to Baker Street that night, however, they have visitors, namely DI (Detective Inspector) Abberline and Sergeant Thicke. It is September 1, 1888.

Abberline and Thicke are, of course, real people, as is the victim, Polly Nichols, lying cold on the slab in the mortuary on Montague Street. If you’re looking for some of your favorite canon characters, you won’t be disappointed. Mrs. Hudson is there, as is Shinwell Jackson and the Irregulars. Lestrade and Mary Morstan are mentioned, and Mycroft is pivotal. However, the Ripper was, unfortunately, a real person, and Hanna never shies away from using real people as characters, taking Holmes and Watson to historical places, or involving them in actual events. Along with the morgue, Holmes and Watson visit a salon hosted by Oscar Wilde, various government offices, and interact with the Prince of Wales, Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Charles Warren, the Rev. and Mrs. Samuel Barnett, and the young George Bernard Shaw, among others. Of the lengthy list, only the Shaw meeting seemed to me to be a little self-indulgent, particularly as it leads to a discussion of London dialects (of course you know where that’s going). And it must be noted, Hanna occasionally has a character say something which turns out to be anachronistic, as when Holmes quotes Oscar Wilde, from a play which was not written until 1893. Discrepancies such as this (Watson reading from a two-day old paper, for example) are dutifully noted in the copious and invaluable end matter, but while some of it may be essential to the plot, other bits seem to be just authorial hijinks, and could have been left out.

When it comes to Sherlockian and historical chronology, however, Hanna works hard to keep things straight. One of the problems with Holmes involving himself in the Ripper case is, of course, that HOUN* occurs smack in the middle of it, at least according to the Baring-Gould, Folsom, and Thomson chronologies. This is convenient, as it explains why Holmes stays in London and sends Watson to Devon, but inconvenient as they have to split their attention between a diabolical serial-killer and a demonic hound. Hanna does a wonderful job of accommodating both cases, and explaining the situation to the reader with minimal distraction. One has to think that, as Holmes manages to get himself into a dire situation and has the stuffing beaten out of him, he had cause to regret sending Watson off to Baskerville Hall.

Hanna follows the Ripper timeline scrupulously, and includes forensic evidence, some accurate (a letter, a painted message, a broken window), some manufactured (cigarette ends) and some altered (Holmes gets his own kidney delivery). By the end of October, Holmes is pretty sure where all of this evidence is leading; the only question is, what to do about it? The remainder of the book–over one-third–deals with this dilemma, and now Hanna does some of his best work. He is a sedately elegant writer, and it’s here, when he shows his characters grappling with all sides of a painful, untenable, unimaginable situation–and the solution they ultimately choose–that he truly shines. The first several pages of chapter 25, as well chapters 26 and 27 (both of which occur post-Hiatus) have bleakly poetic moments, well-eclipsing any prior silly mentions of Convent Garden flower girls. Throughout the book, Hanna does a wonderful job of depicting the Holmes-Watson relationship, both positives and negatives; however, in these last chapters, we see again how, as much as Holmes values Watson, there are always aspects of his life to which the Doctor will be perpetually denied access.

As you might have guessed, I love The Whitechapel Horrors and believe it well worth your time. The only real flaw that kept gnawing at me was the fact that Watson does not tell the story. This is, of course, not necessary for a good Sherlockian novel. In fact, if an author fears he or she cannot capture Watson’s voice, it’s better not to try. However, by presenting the story as a product of Watson’s notes, he should have told the story solely from Watson’s point-of-view, whether in first or limited third person–a problem, as Watson is not present for some key parts of the investigation. Instead, Hanna uses a near-omniscient third: we’re in Watson’s head, Holmes’, and even, briefly, those of other characters–and canon-Watson doesn’t really speculate in that fashion. In a more quibbling vein, Hanna indulges a bit in the “as you know, Bob” method of imparting information. Characters lecture each other on the living conditions of Whitechapel, prostitute behavior, and other topics that, logically, they should already be familiar with. The details are generally fascinating and occasionally Hanna gets away with it, but quite a few examples are glaring, and a little annoying. In other instances, we’re told what a character is feeling, when a writer as capable as Hanna should be able to demonstrate this through action or dialogue, rather than spelling it out for the reader. At least once, there is an unwitting anachronism, as when Aide-de-Camp Burton-Fitzherbert uses “party” as a verb, but that’s something an editor should have caught.

It’s always a reviewer’s duty to point out such flaws, but in the case of The Whitechapel Horrors, the specks are minor, and almost invisible in the scope of the story. The Whitechapel Horrors was the first pastiche I ever read, and I’m so grateful it was.

Notes and Purchasing Information:

Edward Hanna died on January 6, 2008, which makes this posting date a little more significant; however, you can still view his webpage at  http://www.members.authorsguild.net/ebhanna/

*In this blog, I’ll be using the standard abbreviations for the Conan Doyle stories and novels. It’s easy–just use the first four letters of each title (excluding articles). HOUN, therefore, is The Hound of the Baskervilles,  STUD is “A Study in Scarlet,” and so on.

The Whitechapel Horrors was reprinted by Titan Press (although you can still find copies of the first edition online). It’s available for Kindle and Nook and on major bookseller websites. You can also order it from independent bookstores, such as:

http://poisonedpen.com/web-store

and

http://www.mysteriousbookshop.com/ (where the author’s name is misspelled as “Hannah”).

For more information on Jack the Ripper, try:

Curtis, L. and L. Perry Curtis, Jr. Jack the Ripper and the London Press. Yale University Press, 2001

Evans, Stewart P. and Donald Rumbelow. Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010

Evans, Stewart P. and Keith Skinner. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion: An Illustrated Encyclopedia.  Skyhorse Publishing, 2009.

Star Rating:  4 1/2 out of 5

Blogs are more fun when people comment!  Leave yours below! In honor of this first post, I’ll give the first commenter to whom I am not married a copy of The Whitechapel Horrors. Already own it? How about a Baker Street Babes’ 221B Mine mug, for you or someone special?

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Filed under Edward B Hanna, Four-star reviews, Holmes and Watson Friendship, Jack the Ripper, Real Historical Personages