Category Archives: Holmes and Sex

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

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

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

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

Distracted by this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

††”The Man With the Twisted Lip”

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

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

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

Cypser, Darlene. The Crack in the Lens. Morrison, CO: 2010.

Yes, Watson, We Were Shocked, Too

As one reads through the canon, it’s easy to believe, along with Watson, that Sherlock Holmes is “an isolated phenomenon,” that he simply sprang forth a wholly-formed adult from…well, somewhere. And even after we’ve gone to the Diogenes and met Mycroft in “The Greek Interpreter,”* and learned the few facts Holmes provides about his family and youth, we really don’t know that much more about them. “My ancestors were country squires,” he says, “who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class.” To spice things up a bit, he then tells Watson that his grandmother was a sister of the French artist, Vernet,** and that, “art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” And that’s pretty much all Watson ever tells us, thereby whetting the imaginations of pastiche writers everywhere.

Because, of course, Sherlock Holmes didn’t just appear one day. He has a family, a childhood, an adolescence, all three of which have inspired plenty of creative speculations in both film and print. In today’s book, The Crack in the Lens, Darlene Cypser takes her turn, taking us back to the year 1871, when Sherlock, then 17, faces two critical events which force him to learn hard lessons about the darker side of human nature, loss, and resilience.

Of course he has no idea what’s coming. He’s just returned to his native Yorkshire with his parents, Squire Siger*** and his wife, from a two-year sojourn among his maternal relatives in the south of France, where they travelled in hopes of improving Sherlock’s delicate health. He has a tendency towards serious lung problems and, to his ex-cavalry officer father’s consternation, has been labelled “delicate” by the family physician. Despite this, he’s an active, intelligent young man, who can’t wait to take his horse and dog out for a ride on the moors around the manor house to explore his old childhood haunts, like an old stone hut. But the Holmes family is in transition, now. Sherlock’s oldest brother, Sherrinford✝ is about to be married and is taking on many of the duties that will one day be his as squire, while Mycroft is living and working in London as a government accountant. The squire is in the process of hiring a tutor in hopes of preparing Sherlock to gain admittance to university, where, he hopes, his youngest son will study engineering and find gainful employment in the rapidly expanding British Empire. This won’t be the only change in Sherlock’s life this year; on this, his first ride out onto the springtime moors, he encounters Violet Rushdale, the daughter of one of the Holmes’ tenant farmers.

The North Yorkshire Moors. Much More Interesting Than Mathematics.

She’s shot a hare, and her hands bear evidence of hard work, which makes no sense to him, as his father’s tenant farmers tend to be fairly prosperous. She claims that poor harvests have caused everyone hardship, but he doesn’t quite believe her. From Sherrinford, who took care of manor business while the squire was away, he learns that Violet’s mother died of cholera a couple of years before, and her father took to drink in response. Godfrey Rushdale is now barely functional, and it’s fallen to Violet to try to keep their lives together. When Sherlock visits the now-ruined farm himself, he learns that she’s done so by gathering herbs for some village women, and selling off livestock and family belongings–now in short supply. He helps her take some furniture to town, and to get a good price for the Rushdale wagon, thus beginning a friendship which deepens as weeks pass.

He is, in fact, much more interested in Violet than he is in the Greek, Latin, mathematics and astronomy lessons presented by his new tutor, James Moriarty (who has this strange, oscillating tic). Still in his twenties, Moriarty has already gained academic acclaim for his papers on the binomial theorem and asteroidal dynamics. Sherlock wonders why the professor resigned his chair at Westgate University, apparently giving up on a promising career to become a tutor.  He has an almost instant, intuitive distrust of the man, which he can’t explain; Moriarty seems nice enough, and works hard to curry favor with the family. When Sherlock begins to suspect Moriarty of subtly cruel manipulations, such as making it impossible for him to finish his work, then complaining to the Squire that he is lazy–or worse, altering the work itself– no one believes him. For his part, Moriarty  wonders why, exactly, Sherlock is so eager to have his afternoons free, why he wants to go out riding on the moors so often.

The answer, of course, is Violet. Sherlock finds her fascinating enough all by herself, but he also relishes the freedom and time away from his cold, demanding father, mentally absent mother and the reptilian Moriarty. One thing leads to another, with the predictable result and its predictable consequences. What could have just been a small family scandal, however, with Moriarty’s cruelty added to the mix, becomes a tragedy that threatens four lives and forces Sherlock out of childhood towards the man he will become.

In The Crack in the Lens, Ms. Cypser, long-time Sherlockian and current president of the Denver scion society, “Dr. Watson’s Neglected Patients,” has written a book which should appeal to both newbies and seasoned fans. There are plenty of nods to both canon and William S. Baring-Gould’s biography of Holmes (although she does not follow the latter slavishly), but one does not need to have either memorized to follow the plot. As a young man, Sherlock has many characteristics of the Great Detective already in place: he’s observant, for instance, and he and Mycroft play a little game of deduction which Sherrinford is not very good at. Cypser works glimpses of these traits into “slice of life” episodes, such as a visit to the Lammas Day Fair in Yorkshire, where Sherlock, serving as his sister-in-law’s escort, makes a fool of a thimblerig con and, through his kindness in discouraging some young purse-snatchers, ends up inspiring their loyalty later in the day. It’s during this trip that Sherrinford points out that his younger brother has a morbid streak–a fascination with the Newgate Calendar.✝✝ Some readers may find that these sections move a little slowly, but it’s interesting to imagine the Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street ribbing his brother about his wedding jitters, complaining about his annoying little cousin, George Challenger;  shooting grouse, teaching a dale boy to fence, looking for fossils, or working in area fields during the harvest.

This last, of course, isn’t what a country squire’s son would normally be doing. In fact, he’s sent there as a punishment for what Moriarty leads Siger Holmes to believe is laziness. One gets a sense of why Holmes doesn’t speak fondly of his parents in later life; with both father and mother too caught up in their own interests and  duties, the young Sherlock gets his only real familial affection from his brothers, and it shows in their interactions. While the scenes between Sherlock and Violet are sweet and natural, those involving either the Squire or the Professor are  unpleasantly electric, particularly as the conflict escalates. Sherlock is keenly aware that he will never be able to please his father; it doesn’t help that Moriarty is not a villain with comprehensible motives, but a different creature entirely. Each time Sherlock brings an accusation against his tutor, the reader is bound to ask, along with Mycroft, Sherrinford, and their father, “Why? Why in the world would anyone do that?” The answer, of course, is one that gradually becomes clear to Sherlock and, unfortunately, to many of us in our own lives: he does it because he can. Because some people are simply evil.

Some readers may be surprised to find that, in the final chapters, Sherlock Holmes is not the calmly cerebral person they envision from Watson’s stories. I thought that myself, the first time I read it–at least, I thought he was a little over-dramatic. Then, however, I thought back a few decades to my own adolescence. To my own very emotional reactions to events both small and traumatic, and to those of friends and classmates. It’s easy, as an adult, to forget how it felt to be dependent on parental actions and support, to not have the confidence earned through experience, or the sad yet resilient assurance that the sun will shine tomorrow, and we’d best get on with it. No one is born with this knowledge; it’s gained through living, and living much longer than 17 years. And at any rate, as his friend continually points out, Watson sees, but does not observe, and those “hidden fires” are never so secret as he imagines they are.

The Crack in the Lens is exciting and enjoyable, highly recommended for anyone who doesn’t mind extra-canonical speculation in their pastiches. And if that’s what you particularly enjoy, you’ll be pleased to know that a sequel, which follows Holmes to university, is due to be released this spring. I, for one, am looking forward to it. And I would love to know what happened to Professor Hastings.

Well, this ends our February exploration of  Sherlockian romance. There will be more later, never fear! But for now, the first to comment on this post wins a copy of The Crack in the Lens, or if you already own it, its sequel when available (most likely in March). So don’t be shy–let me know what you think!

The Crack in the Lens is available from Amazon and other major online booksellers, as either a print or e-book. For more information, including a list of sources, see www.thecrackinthelens.com

Star Rating: 4 out of 5: “Highly enjoyable; worth your time and money.”

Footnotes:

*Sherlockian convention dictates that, for brevity’s sake, each story be generally referred to by an abbreviation of its first four letters. “The Greek Interpreter,” for example, is therefore written as GREE.

**Typically, he does not tell us which Vernet. Baring-Gould picks Antoine C.H., aka Carle, 1758-1835.

***Baring-Gould got the name “Siger” from the alias Holmes uses during the Great Hiatus, “Sigerson,” which, in the Norwegian it was purported to be, means “Siger’s Son.”

✝ Baring-Gould invented Sherrinford to explain why Mycroft and Sherlock, sons of a country squire, were not actually living in the country. As the eldest, Sherrinford would inherit, and his brothers would need to find other occupations.

✝✝ This used to be a monthly record of executions in Newgate Prison. By Sherlock’s time, it was a collection of moral stories, rather dramatic, based on the misdeeds and sorry deaths of famous historical criminals, and apparently a common book in English homes.



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Filed under Darlene Cypser, Foolscap and Quill, Four-star reviews, Holmes and Love, Holmes and Sex, Holmes as a Youth, Holmes Family, Moriarty

Naslund, Sena Jeter. Sherlock in Love NY: Harper Collins, 1993.

A Violet by Any Other Name….

Whenever someone asks about my favorite books, I generally mention Amy Belding Brown’s Mr. Emerson’s Wife, a beautifully written imagining of the life of Lidian Emerson, wife of Transcendental writer Ralph Waldo. Trust me, you don’t want to read it while wearing mascara. And as soon as they hear the title, without fail, the person asks “Have you ever read Ahab’s Wife? I just loved that book!”

I haven’t read Ahab’s Wife, by today’s author, Sena Jeter Naslund, yet. But it’s a NYT Notable Book and a national bestseller, as are her novels Abundance and Four Spirits. She’s won the Harper Lee Prize, and been published in several high-profile literary magazines. I tell you this so that you’ll know that Ms. Naslund is a talented, highly regarded author.

It takes more than that to write a good book about Sherlock Holmes.

“Sherlock Holmes was dead: to begin with,” Watson tells us, echoing A Christmas Carol for a story which unfolds over the holiday week in 1922. Holmes has been dead for two years, and Watson, living at 221B again with an invalid Mrs. Hudson and her nurse, is missing him. Missing him so much, in fact, that he decides he will write the Great Detective’s biography and puts out a notice in the newspaper, seeking interviews and correspondence. He’ll need them; Naslund’s Watson is a forgetful sort.

As soon as the ad appears, however, the doctor’s life gets interesting. He receives anonymous letters urging him to quit the biography, his life depending on it. He’s stalked by a mysterious old woman in red, believes someone is breaking into the flat and slicing pages from Holmes’ commonplace books, and at least three times is visited by spirits–not the Christmas type, but of Holmes himself. Looking into the violin case on a whim, he finds a note to his friend from a mysterious “Sigerson,” bequeathing Holmes the instrument. Wiggins, now consulting psychiatrist at St Giles’, appears at 221B (Watson has trouble remembering him), searching for an escaped patient who might be in the neighborhood. During his visit, he reveals that Holmes secretly financed his education and the two corresponded. The next day, Watson meets the former Irregular the the hospital, hoping for the letters, but instead fainting with shock when an aggressive patient, “Nannerl,”* growls at him, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

Wiggins never gives him the letters. Oh, and the hospital’s therapy dog** is killed (silently) outside the office door.

Again, one must accept the premise that all those breakfasts of eggs, bacon, and  ham  have hardened 70 year-old Watson’s arteries, and he’s forgotten some of the most exciting, intriguing episodes of his life. The woman in red is as unfamiliar to him as Wiggins. He doesn’t remember seeing the violin-note before, and he can’t for the life of him remember who Sigerson was. Deciding the answers must lie in an unpublished case, he spends the remainder of the book using his old notebooks, Holmes’ journal, and, finally, the story manuscript to uncover, at last, the story of a doomed romance that unfolded right under his nose as he saw, but never observed.

In most reviews, I’d leave off here and move on to the critique, so as to avoid spoilers. However, after some thought, I’ve decided these are necessary to explain why, in the end, Sherlock in Love receives the rating it does. Here, then, briefly,  the rest of the story:

After a shady musician asks him to determine whether or not a violin is a Guarnerius, Holmes meets Victor Sigerson, violinist for the traveling Munich Opera Orchestra. Holmes is transfixed by the man’s playing  (behavior Watson oddly finds remarkable), and intrigued by the fact that Sigerson seems to be fascinated by him. After a sort of pas de deux, involving games of snooker, Black Magic, waltzing and (for Watson) interminable violin lessons, Holmes confirms his suspicions that the orphaned “Victor” is actually “Violet” by hiding in a wardrobe and watching her disrobe, keeping the whole thing a secret from his best friend.

From his 1922 vantage point, Watson sees his friend fall in love, wonders why nothing came of it and then remembers–of course–Sigerson died, drowning in Lake Starnberg, handcuffed to King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Holmes and Watson were part of this case, retained by Ludwig’s chief equerry, Richard Hornig, to help the monarch escape a ministerial plot to have him declared insane and deposed (thereby saving Bavaria’s finances). At first reluctant to take on the case, Holmes only does so when urged by Lestrade (here unaccountably taking the place of Mycroft) and informed that Sigerson is there, embroiled in this volatile situation. The adventure unfurls, with secret meetings, three castles, kidnapping, coach chases, coach wrecks,  dungeons, lock picking, angry peasants, handcuffs and the aforementioned drowning, which leaves Holmes “morose,” yet “strangely settled.” Watson comes to the end of his manuscript to find the mysterious woman in red at his door.

Irene Adler is still beautiful, and she adds more to the story. Sigerson, it seems, did not drown after all; Irene finds her,  bedraggled and alive, while walking in the area, where she is conveniently staying with the King of Bohemia. Over time, she gets to know Violet, who tells her all manner of useful information about Sherlock Holmes, even as her obsession with him pitches her into madness. Eventually, Irene marries Godfrey Norton, and Violet Sigerson voluntarily commits herself to St. Giles, where she has good and bad days until Watson’s advertisement appears. Fearing Violet could harm Watson, Irene sends those anonymous letters, but it’s lock-picking Violet/Nannerl who does the flat-breaking and page-cutting.

And now,  just like another Christmas Eve spirit, she appears at the door, to give Watson the rest of the story, the reason why. And it’s quite simple. Violet is Sherlock’s half-sister, the child of his mother’s affair, sent to live with distant relatives and eventually ending up in Munich. She figured it out slightly before he did, and while the attraction was mutual, they determined nothing should come of it.*** She then took the opportunity to fake her own death when Ludwig II killed himself, hoping to spare Holmes the pain of an unfulfilled romance, or to keep the both of them from doing something they shouldn’t. She destroyed the commonplace books, killed the dog, and frightened Watson to preserve Holmes’ privacy, but has now decided that she wants her brother’s friend to tell her story, to “make her live.”

I have a bad habit, when reading, of skipping to the ending about half-way through, so I knew this was coming. The first time I read it, I needed brain bleach. The second time, I was calmer, more prepared, but this little twist still makes Sherlock in Love one of the worst Sherlock-in-love-stories I have ever read. In the end, I think, it comes down to a lack of respect for the character. Most people write Sherlockian pastiche because they love something about Conan Doyle’s work, whether it’s the puzzles, the gaslight, the friendship, or the personalities. And when they write, almost without exception, they write with a certain amount of respect, even affection. When Conan Doyle told William Gillette he could do whatever he liked with Sherlock Holmes, I doubt incest, even the thwarted kind, ever crossed his mind.

Byron: The “Anti-Holmes”

That, however, is not the only problem. The lack of respect also shows up in the rather careless treatment of canonical detail.   Watson and Holmes, apparently, meet in 1886, not, as most experts agree, in 1881.  We all know where Holmes got his violin, and Watson never referred to Irene Adler as “The Woman in Red,”**** although he believes he did.  Far more egregious is the way Naslund puts Inspector Lestrade in Mycroft’s place. It’s Lestrade who refers Hornig to Holmes, and who persuades Holmes and Watson that taking on what seems to them a distasteful errand in service of a dissolute ruler is in the best interests of the British Empire, which hopes to avoid a united Germany as long as possible. Lestrade was never “the British governement,” and it would have taken no time at all to put in the right character. Even a famous quote is mangled. By having Holmes say “Once you have eliminated all the possibilities, then what remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth,” Naslund effectively makes him ridiculous. Because once you have eliminated all the possibilities, you are left with nothing at all.

And speaking of character, Holmes and Watson don’t always stay in theirs.  We’re asked to believe unbelievable things, such as Watson not remembering the significance of the name “Sigerson,” or even mentioning its connection to the Hiatus. And while Watson prefers writing to doctoring, it’s ridiculous to suppose that he wouldn’t notice certain physiological tells in “Victor,” or that he would agree to examine a patient with his eyes closed. For his part, Holmes is awfully emotional when begging Watson to go up to Victor’s rooms in his stead, and while he suspects the violinist’s true gender early on, he’s devious enough to have gotten confirmation without resorting to voyeurism.  Victor/Violet verges upon being a Mary Sue: although she’s not beautiful, she’s talented, smart, good at everything from snooker to dancing to magic to deductions, and acceptably socially conscious. The fact that she physically attacks Watson and kills a dog doesn’t jibe with the rest of her character as Naslund paints her. True, she loses her mind and chooses a ridiculous way to solve her romantic dilemmas, but  she’s miraculously functional at the end of the book.

Which brings up a more serious problem: implausibility. One of the big rules of writing, and romantic fiction in particular, is  that problems shouldn’t be the kind easily solved if the characters had a conversation. There was never any real reason for Watson not to know Victor Sigerson was actually a woman. If Holmes chose to protect her secret at first so she could remain employed, he didn’t need to do so after she “died”; even the half-sister bit would have been a reasonable revelation, if the romantic feelings were left out. If he didn’t trust Watson early in their relationship, he certainly did after 34 years.  Of course, Watson knowing this secret would effectively get rid of a good portion of the mystery, and render the story slightly less outré. We’re also expected to believe that, in the two years since Holmes’ death, Watson has never, not once, considered looking at that  journal, when he knows where it is. Even if he felt some compunction about invading his friend’s privacy, loneliness and simple curiosity would have got the better of him. Why would Holmes hide the fact that he’s paying for Wiggins’ education, except that it serves the plot? Violet and her unsavory cousin Klaus are professional musicians who also have the time to run a traveling magic show, which again is to no purpose except that it gives Violet a reason to know how to pick locks and effect underwater escapes. And, while it’s common for actual historical figures to appear in pastiches, we’re treated to Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst; Sir Leslie Stephen, young Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Thoby; and seven year-old Albert Einstein–for reasons which in no way advance the plot. Finally, Violet’s reason for faking her death–to give Holmes “peace,” makes no sense. He seems to have achieved it before going to Bavaria, and while he loses some equilibrium,  it’s apparent that she’s the one with the greater problem. His later correspondence with Wiggins suggests that he ultimately knew what had happened and, while he kept tabs on his sister, did not choose to contact her again. Even had Violet not been his sister, one gets the impression that Holmes dodged a destructive bullet, and knew it.

So, did I think this book completely without merit? Of course not. Ms. Naslund is an excellent stylist, able to evoke emotions and create vivid descriptions. She seamlessly interweaves Holmes’ and Watson’s mission to Bavaria with the known facts of Ludwig II’s life and death; in this instance, the historical cameos are apt and accurate. She has Holmes pull off some nice deductions, and his interview with Richard Hornig is very much in character. Her Watson is cranky, but after awhile, I got to like him that way. Her descriptions of his life without Holmes are poignant. I have to ask myself, if I were not a Holmes devotee, would I feel differently? The answer: probably not. The incest angle is hard to accept no matter who the characters and, coupled with plot contrivances and gaps in logic, ends up striking the fatal blow.

Sherlock in Love is available on Amazon.com and other major booksellers, as well as at independents such as The Poisoned Pen.

Star Rating: 2 out of 5, “Hit or miss, mostly miss. Only for the ‘completist.'”

*The escaped patient of the night before. She makes little excursions regularly.

**This is surely an anachronism. Although seeing-eye dogs were first used in Germany during WWI, and their use quickly spread, the idea of a dedicated therapy animal doesn’t seem to have sprung up until one was used in the Mayo Clinic in the 1940’s, again with war veterans.

***Watson is actually in the room, half-asleep, when this conversation occurs.

****It’s possible that the author mixed up the titles and thought “A Study in Scarlet” referred to Irene’s story (“A Scandal in Bohemia”).

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Filed under Holmes and Love, Holmes and Sex, Holmes and Watson Friendship, Holmes Family, Real Historical Personages, Sena Jeter Naslund, Two-star Reviews

Walters, Charlotte Anne. Barefoot on Baker Street. London: MX Publishing, 2011

Happy Valentine’s Day, Sherlockians!

When I first thought of doing this blog, I planned on reviewing books based on a monthly theme–reviewing only Watson books in July, for example. With the rapid influx of new pastiche, I’ve had to scrap this plan just to keep up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have the occasional theme month. And since it’s February, what better theme to use than…romance?

I know, I know, a few of you are about to navigate away. Not everyone likes the idea of giving Sherlock Holmes a love life.  But ever since Doyle told William Gillette that he could “marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him,” writers have been taking him at his word and producing quite a lot of Holmesian hook-ups. So many, in fact, that it was hard to choose among them, and I’ve had to leave three of my favorites for another day.  This February, we’ll look at a relatively new work, an older one by an established writer and, finally, a book with a March sequel.

Workhouse Scene; No Wonder Red Wanted Out

Barefoot in Baker Street, Walters wants the reader to know, is not a Sherlock Holmes novel. Rather, it is a novel in which Sherlock Holmes appears. The story actually belongs to Red, a young woman fighting to rise above her workhouse origins. Red is not another Watson, recounting a Holmes adventure through her own eyes; she’s got a lot more to say in this first-person memoir than that.

We never know what Red’s mother named her. She doesn’t know, herself. Like many young couples, her parents come to London seeking opportunities denied them in their rural county and, like many, fail to find them. Red’s father dies in a railway accident, leaving her mother  to take refuge in the massive, infamous Whitechapel-Spitalfields Union Workhouse. There, she dies giving birth, leaving her daughter to a hardscrabble childhood in which she’s named for her hair.

Walters doesn’t shrink from painting the realities of workhouse existence. Because the novel is written as an older woman’s memoir, some details are less graphic than they might have been, but they’re no less horrific. A highly intelligent but strong-willed, emotional child, Red is too volatile to stay in an orphanage; thrown out into the East End streets, she returns to the workhouse.  There she endures rudimentary education, religious and domestic training, and works at pulling apart tar rope until bits of oakum are permanently embedded in her skin. Life at the Union Workhouse is physically brutal, disease-laden and humiliating but, as Red points out, the fact that she has never known any other world  makes it easier for her to survive the harsh conditions which defeat many workhouse denizens. She is strong and able to fend for herself, which she does ruthlessly one night after Union’s schoolmaster rapes her. After killing the manager who tries to block her escape, she grabs the master’s money and flees, taking with her Jude, a young boy she once saved from a beating, who is her only friend in the world.

Unable to return to the workhouse and running out of stolen money, Red and Jude do what many street children did out of necessity and affiliate themselves with a gang–in this case, the Dean Street Gang, led by one Wiggins.  Yes, that Wiggins, and it’s through his “moonlighting” as a Baker Street Irregular that teen-aged Red first comes into contact with Sherlock Holmes. He makes a definite impression, one she doesn’t forget as she’s pulled even further into the London underworld of prostitution, thieving, gambling and alcoholism. Her intelligence and physical strength serve her well, and she carves out a successful, if legally precarious, life for herself and Jude. It’s only a matter of time before she falls into the crosshairs of the Napoleon of Crime, a pivotal moment which changes her life forever.

For the past two weeks, I’ve debated what to do at this point of the review. A summary should, well, be a summary and give you, the prospective reader, an idea of the book’s major plot points.  It should not, however, contain spoilers, and if I go very much further, spoilers will appear one after another, like dominos in reverse. So let me just echo Walters’ description: Barefoot on Baker Street is the story of a woman’s life, and on her journey, Red reaches some very familiar female landmarks. While our lives may not be quite as adventurous or involve plots to, well, rule the world, most of us have encountered the horrible boyfriend, the passionate fling and, hopefully, the stable, mature relationship. Never content with life as it is, and despite tremendous loss, Red continues to grow throughout the novel until one day the savage little girl from the workhouse is only a memory.

Barefoot on Baker Street is Charlotte Anne Walters’ first novel, and the seven years’ of work she devoted to it have had impressive results.* The first half of the book shifts seamlessly back and forth between Red’s early days and her life in Moriarty’s household.** The memoir format makes for quite of bit of  “telling” in place of “showing,”  at least in the first few chapters, but the dramatic flow of events minimize the impact and keep the reader’s attention. Many of the confrontational scenes–and the romantic ones–are electric, although I did find a couple to be slightly overwrought. As everyone seems to collectively lose their minds directly after Moran is arrested in a retelling of “The Empty House,” for example, I found myself wanting to  reach through the pages, shake a few people (Watson, I’m looking at you), and tell them all to calm down.

It’s common for main characters in first novels to be “Mary Sues,” perfect in every way, even their (minimal) flaws somehow adorable. Fiction, romantic fiction in particular, also suffers from a preponderance of feisty heroines, to the point that they’ve become a stereotype. Walters avoids both of these pitfalls. Red is a fully realized woman, more flawed than not, who must do some difficult emotional work to mature. Because she’s so vividly alive, she avoids one of the fates that commonly befall new pastiche characters; the reader cares about her, and doesn’t skip through her story just to get to more Holmes and Watson. The other major characters are similarly well-drawn, Moriarty and Holmes in particular. Walters has an interesting and, I think, believable take on how both men think, and the mental and emotional challenges they face. Watson is less clearly envisioned and sometimes seems out of character, but not fatally so, while Mycroft is treated with care and complexity. As supporting characters, Sebastian Moran, Jude, and Ronald (a new brother for Watson) fill their roles adequately.

Canon devotees need not worry. While Walters does introduce romance and her own characters into Sherlock Holmes’ world, she’s done her research and takes great care with the Doylean universe. Some scenes, such as Holmes’ return from the Great Hiatus, are rendered practically word-for-word, with endnotes. Other stories, such as “The Sign of the Four,” are deftly woven in. “The Blue Carbuncle” gets a bit of a retelling but,  frankly, I like Red’s version a little better (James Ryder, such a sniveller….). Walters also does a decent job with historical detail. One error did recur; although brassiere-like undergarments did exist in the late 19th century, they were very uncommon and the corset was the rule; Red would never refer to a “bra.”

Again, I realize that some of you like your pastiche canon-straight. But if you’re adventurous, and open to allowing the Great Detective a little love, you’ll find Barefoot on Baker Street an exciting, engrossing adventure.  Want to leave your own opinion? First comment wins a copy of this week’s book, or your choice of David Ruffle’s Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror, or a BSB coffee mug–any one of them a perfect Valentine’s Day gift!

*Walters says she is currently working on a screenplay for Barefoot (which is quite visual and would lend itself well to the screen), and has several other books in the mental percolation stage.

** When I first bought Barefoot, I was so eager to read it, I did so on my phone. This was a mistake. While the shift in time periods during the first part of the book are very obvious in the printed copy, they’re not as distinct on a phone.  I was very confused. In a new edition, separation marks might be useful.

For more information about workhouses and the role they played in Victorian society, see: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/

Barefoot on Baker Street is available from MX publishing, major online booksellers (for US readers) and in Waterstone’s and other brick-and-mortar stores in the UK. You can also purchase it from the Baker Street Babes’ Bookshop, here: http://www.bakerstreetbabesbookshop.com/category/Sherlock+Holmes+-+Female+Writers; profits go to support the BSB podcast (which, incidentally, interviewed Charlotte Walters for Episode 10).

Star Rating: 4 out 5  (“Highly enjoyable. Worth your time and money.”)

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Filed under Charlotte Anne Walters, Four-star reviews, Holmes and Love, Holmes and Sex, Holmes and Watson Friendship, Moriarty, MX Publishing, Original Character