Category Archives: MX Publishing

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 Rogues Gallery  is a collection of two short stories and three novellas, all featuring the (as-yet) unpublished mystery writer, Jefferson Cody and his larger-than-life Sherlockian brother-in-law,  Professor Sebastian McCabe.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King’s Market, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

Son, 9: “It was great!”

Son, 7: “It was awesome!”

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

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

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


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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

Symonds, Tim. Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle. London: MX, 2012

Checking through the list of old posts, I see that it’s been months since I’ve reviewed a traditional Sherlock Holmes story. This isn’t because I prefer the outré in pastiche; on the contrary, a well-written, lengthy traditional Victorian story is my very favorite. But for some reason, as much of an Everyman as Sherlock Holmes is, people delight in placing him in the most fantastic of situations with the most unusual characters….

One of Holmes’ and Watson’s more pedestrian adventures: an open-and-shut domestic.

That’s why I welcomed the opportunity to move into more Doylean territory with Tim Symonds’ new book. Taken from an old manuscript found in a Gladstone bag hidden away in a rather poorly constructed hut in the Weald of Sussex, it details, in a certain doctor’s sometimes florid language, a case upon which the foundations, not only of Western civilization, but of a long-standing friendship, stood shaking and uncertain.

They don’t see it coming, of course. No one ever does. It’s a quiet day at 221B in late May of 1904. Holmes, having been out early wandering the seedier sections of London, is nodding off over an experiment while Watson is reading one of his sea stories. They’re in such a somnolent mood that even a rabbit-seller-who-is-most-definitely-NOT-a-rabbit-seller keeping watch outside the flat inspires only a “wait and see” attitude. It takes a telegram to rouse them to action.

Holmes is not exactly thrilled with this telegram; he finds it presumptuous, and it is. The prominent poet, David Siviter, has sent it reply-paid to summon Holmes and Watson to give a talk to the Kipling League at his home in Sussex that very afternoon. Travel arrangements have been made, and the sum proffered is in the “princely” range. This last, as well as the chance to meet some influential men (including the famous artist Pevensey), for Holmes to hone his lecturing skills for retirement, and to fill an empty day, eventually trump the detective’s ego, and they’re on their way to Sussex, albeit by a more circuitous route than that provided by their host. They arrive three hours ahead of schedule and spend their time with Siviter,  touring the grounds, visiting the estate’s water-driven electrical generator at Park Mill (not operational due to children accidentally opening the sluice gates), and enjoying refreshments on the lawn.¹ Finally, the program begins, with a curiously small audience. The final two members, Sir Julius Wernher and Alfred Weit, arrive late and disheveled after Watson’s lengthy introduction and several minutes into Holmes’ presentation on deductive methods. No matter.  The lecture is a success, boding well for Holmes’ retirement income. After a visit with Pevensey (who’s just finished two commissioned paintings in a mill-attic studio) and an Ottoman-inspired meal, it’s time to head back to Baker Street. Too bad the artist will be taking a different train; Holmes could continue to discuss painting methods with him.

One of Pevensey’s paintings is done in the style of this one, The Hay Wain, by Romantic painter John Constable. Look at the dog. It’s a good dog. Remember it.

Then again, if they’d taken the same train, they wouldn’t have heard the newsboy selling the late edition of the Standard. Watson would have fallen asleep with the fat packet of banknotes in his pocket, Holmes would have nattered on to a trapped Pevensey about Constable and maybe, just maybe, a client missing her emeralds would have called the next morning and the detective and his Boswell would still be friends, because they would never have learned about the dead body they’d left behind.

But they don’t, and they do, and they have a serious row about it, pages worth. Holmes is certain that it’s murder, and that he’s being played. Watson believes very strongly that his friend is committing a sin he’s often warned against:

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. (SCAN)

But is he? Or have his nearly three decades of deduction simply honed his abilities so that he can intuit crime where others see only a drowning accident?

It’s not a spoiler to tell you Holmes is wrong; you’ll read that in the first few pages of the book. But he’s not wrong in the way Watson believes. Watson, too, is wrong. Both in the way Holmes believes…but also in another, more serious way. More on that in a moment. Let’s put a picture in to help us change gears.

It’s not this kind of fight, but it probably felt like it.

One thing I’ve seen frequently, since I’ve started reading pastiche as a reviewer and not simply as a fan, are stories with “good bones” which are hampered in the execution. The Dead Boer is one of these. The plot is ingenious; unless you’re an expert in foreign affairs,² you probably won’t foresee the denouement. The dialogue and pacing are good, and while true connoisseurs of the “Watson voice” may have some reservations, I thought Symonds’ effort was decent. There are some fantastic lines and clever ideas. Holmes is in character, and while Watson is in some ways less so, I came to believe that Symonds is actually revealing an aspect of Watson’s development that is worth considering.  I’ll admit to some doubts as I read the Foreword and Preface, but I came to appreciate the intricacies of the plot and Symonds’ insight into the Holmes and Watson friendship (again, more on that in a moment).

For every point I admired about the book, however, there was another that had me pulling out my hair. Some were “new novelist mistakes:” starting the book a trifle too soon, for example, or including scenes (such as Siviter’s “ghost” story) which, while interesting, did little to advance the plot.³ Physical description abounds, in keeping with Watson’s writing style.  We learn what everyone is wearing, items they own, interior decorations, etc., with a large amount of historical detail. These elements set the time and place and are interesting,⁴ but too much begins to seem like clutter. This is, however, a matter of personal taste, and I realize that quite of few of you will enjoy it. Too, in Watson’s defense, his extreme eye for detail becomes useful towards the end of the book.

More problematic for me, however, were the author’s strange deviations from canon. I know, I know, we’ve had this discussion before. Still, while writers may have valid reasons for ignoring or distorting canon details to fit their plots, I had a difficult time seeing how this scenario applied here. For example, Watson tells us that David Siviter is the author of Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas.  Of course, that book was written by Col. Sebastian Moran. When one learns that (spoiler!) Moran and Siviter are not the same person, it’s hard to understand why this widely-known canon fact was changed.

In a similar fashion, during his talk to the Kipling League, Holmes discusses voodoo in relation to The Hound of the Baskervilles. “What?” you rightly ask. Actually, voodoo, and the book Holmes mentions, appear in “Wisteria Lodge,” while spectral hounds are a staple of the folklore of the British Isles and are unrelated to voodoo in that context. In another example, Watson reminds Holmes of the time they hunted Sir Grimesby Roylott through the Balkans, right after mentioning “The Speckled Band,” which, as you recall, features Dr. Grimesby Roylott, and no Balkans. Because the two are mentioned in the same passage, I realize the tweaking is intentional, but do not understand the intention behind it; what is meant to be clever ends up being distracting.

But perhaps my sense of humor is lacking.⁵ I found it harder to accept some other points. Some deal with Watson’s personal history. He mentions serving in the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers when he was wounded, for example, when he was in fact serving with the Berkshires at Maiwand (having been sent to them from the 5th for some reason). He recuperates in Peshawar, rather than London, and seems to have been in no condition to then serve with the Russians combatting Sufis and conducting medical research as he claims in this book. Nor does the time frame work (as ridiculous as it may sound to talk about Watson and time frames). He doesn’t seem to have had enough time to recuperate and work again in the weeks between the time the Orontes docks (in November of 1880) and the day he meets with Stamford in the Criterion bar, then follows him to Bart’s.⁶  Apparently, too, upon leaving Afghanistan, Watson was also offered his pick of the Amir’s armory (for what, he doesn’t say), though he still prefers his service revolver. Now this could happen; there are plenty of times during his partnership with Holmes when Watson has space and time to have his own adventures, and this could make a nice story. It’s hard for me, however, to see it happening directly after Maiwand.

One can (and many probably will) put this down to “canon-itis.”⁷ In the end, however, it was Holmes’ and Watson’s discussion of Watson’s Codex which was the most problematic.

The Codex (Symonds’ invention) is a published study Watson did of the influence of temperature on rigor mortis.⁸  It actually won him a prize (the Karolinska Institute’s Order of Merit for Comparative Pathology and 1,000 kroner). He carries it with him everywhere, much as I would, were I ever to publish a book. Honestly, it’s fun to think of Watson pursuing his profession in a scientific way, and his numbers play into the solution of part of the mystery. That being said, it strained my credulity to hear him explain to Holmes how the process worked. Think about it. When Watson meets Holmes, he’s in a laboratory at St. Bart’s and has just developed a test for detecting hemoglobin. He’s known to beat corpses to study the formation of post-mortem bruises, and he tests the effects of poisons, possibly on himself. At this point, he’s nearly twenty-seven, and at the time of The Dead Boer, he’s fifty. Surely during that time, if not before, it occurred to him to study rigor mortis in a scientific fashion, time of death being crucial in many murder investigations. Nor did it make any sense to me that Watson would need to explain to Sherlock Holmes, a chemist, how to convert degrees centigrade to fahrenheit. Granted, this may have been a gimmick to educate the reader (I never remember how it works), but as the reader has no access to the Codex, she can take Watson’s statements on temperature for granted and the story can move on, no math necessary.

Let’s shift gears again, shall we?

Of course, a reader who knows very little about Holmes and Watson will let all of this pass. Unfortunately, most of Symonds’ readers will have a strong Sherlockian background, and these details may frustrate them as much as they did me. Still, what stands out most about The Dead Boer at Scotney Castle is the interesting way Symonds portrays John Watson.

The book actually begins with Watson discussing how the case destroyed his friendship with Holmes. Later, he posits that Holmes is so humiliated by his failure that he just can’t face being around his old friend any more. This is a little disingenuous on his part. He’s seen Holmes at his best and worst–and as far as he knows, this is an ordinary failure. As for the word getting out, he’s already told us Holmes has forbidden him to publish this case, going so far as to pre-empt any attempt to do so by contacting the editors of The Strand. After this, not even Collier’s will touch it.⁹ This, in the end, is what really matters.

For a younger Watson, his friend’s appeal to loyalty would have been enough. But this is a an older man who has chaffed some under his prickly friend’s treatment, who endured the trauma of “The Dying Detective” and, of course “The Final Problem.” He’s also someone who’s been married (more than once), and who has developed his own career, as a physician and a writer. He’s his own person, and over time, his interests and goals have diverged from Holmes’. When Holmes decides that the Kipling League, comprised of some of the nation’s most rich and powerful, has something to do with that body by the pond, Watson doesn’t necessarily see evil in high places which must be defeated at all costs. He sees personal and professional ruin. Always a little more impressed by wealth and nobility than his friend, the doctor has a hard time believing that these men are even capable of crime, but the desperation which fuels his argument against investigating seems born more of fear of reprisal than a belief that his friend is wrong. Watson has something to lose.

Conversely, once Holmes realizes he’s been beaten and asks Watson to keep this one in the tin box, Watson mentally refuses. Now, he has something to gain. Although his Boswell would have us to believe otherwise in this account, Holmes hasn’t made a habit of concealing his failures and near-misses.¹⁰ It really wouldn’t hurt Watson to consign this to Cox and Co., as he had already done so many others for which the world isn’t ready. Instead of reassuring his friend, however, Watson decides that he owes his readers a true portrait of the detective, “warts and all.” He tells us he had this epiphany after viewing a portrait of Charles I; however, it seems plain that he’s loathe to lose a good story (one in which he appears the voice of reason), the attention and, presumably, the money. Watson ultimately chooses his public and his career over his friend. He then has the temerity to write the case up in a little scriptorium he fashions on Holmes’ Sussex property, working on it while he visits the detective, ostensibly in an effort to preserve their friendship. It appears that marrying yet again wasn’t Watson’s “one selfish action.”  I leave it to the reader to discover how Holmes responds, and to wonder what would have happened had he never received a certain newspaper clipping.

If you’ve stayed with me through this lengthy piece, you may be wondering whether or not I recommend this book. As I said before, it’s a very clever mystery and, once I saw (or thought I saw) what Symonds was doing with the Holmes/Watson relationship, I was in for the duration. However, the criticisms I listed earlier were a definite distraction. I don’t think I would give this book to readers not well-acquainted with Doyle, for fear of confusing them with inaccuracies.  For others, it depends (as it often does with pastiche) on your desire for canonicity. In the end, I believe that Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle is a book in which an intelligent plot and deftly rendered characters are betrayed by what seems to be too much attention to one sort of detail, and too little attention to another.

Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle is available from MX Publishing and the usual online bookselling suspects.

Star Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5, “Flawed, but worth a look.”

Special Acknowledgement: In sorting out some of the details regarding the troopship Orontes, I relied heavily on the historical and chronological knowledge of Vincent Wright, blogger at Historical Sherlock (http://historicalsherlock.blogspot.com/), as well as the superlative internet researching skills of my Twitter friend, Clare.

Footnotes:

¹I only mention this so that I can tell you that the medlar jelly served reminds Watson of “Johnston’s Fluid Beef.” Yes. It is a real thing. See it here: http://17thdivision.tripod.com/rationsoftheageofempire/id5.html

²Or, you know, cheat and look at the ending. Don’t, by the way. It’s much more interesting if you learn it the way our heroes do.

³It’s highly possible that the reason I recognize these errors is that they have been pointed out in my own writing *sticks hands in pockets, looks around, whistling.*

⁴I didn’t know there was such a thing as “poshteen,” for example. Here it is: http://maiwandday.blogspot.com/2010/11/conversions.html

⁵This has been discussed in our household.

⁶See http://www.britishmedals.us/kevin/profiles/hennigan.html. The date can also be found in “Naval and Military Intelligence” in the Times, per this link http://www.holmesian.net/forums (Note: I had to remove most of the link, because, on trying to access it 3 months later, I ran into what may have been malware. Holmesian.net is fine, however–just search for Orontes using the search feature). If you can’t get to the Times archive, Vincent Wright of the Historical Sherlock blog has helpfully posted it on my FB page. It is generally accepted that Watson met Holmes at Bart’s in January of 1881. A plaque at the hospital gives the date as January 1st. Who are we to argue with a bronze plaque?

⁷For what it’s worth, one of the easiest ways to get around this that I can think of is through using footnotes or endnotes to show the reader where you’ve changed things, or to state outright in a preface that you are writing with no intention of observing canon detail. Either of these should shut people up.

⁸I did wonder about Watson’s claim that he had trouble getting bodies in England to conduct his research. The Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed to help legitimate medical researchers in that regard, and to stop murderous entrepreneurs such as Burke and Hare.

Liberty, however. Now that’s another story. 😉

¹⁰A partial list would include: NORW, YELL, SCAN, DANC, RESI, and LADY.

Comments Off on Symonds, Tim. Sherlock Holmes and the Dead Boer at Scotney Castle. London: MX, 2012

Filed under Holmes and Watson Friendship, International relations, MX Publishing, Real Historical Personages, The Great War, Three-star reviews, Tim Symonds, Traditional

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

10 Questions with Dan Andriacco

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

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

How did you first meet Sherlock Holmes? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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