Category Archives: Real Historical Personages

Observations: Characterization in Your Pastiche

The challenge of creation...

The challenge of creation…

Part 3: Characterization

I love writers’ magazines and writers’ manuals. Nothing makes you feel more virtuous about not writing than picking up The Writer or a book by Donald Maass and telling yourself that you’re engaging in professional development.* And one of the staples of such books and periodicals (which you should read whilst curled up in a comfortable chair) is characterization–specifically, how to pull it off believably. Fiction writers devote huge amounts of time, index cards, notebook pages, and computer memory to make up people as real as their Aunt Nelly.** Authors of Sherlockian fiction don’t have to fuss with that, though, do they? After all, Conan Doyle has already done the heavy lifting, character-wise. All the pasticheur has to do is think up a decent plot, bring out the cast, wind them up, and let them go. Right?

Wrong.

Fortunately, it seems that most writers understand this. Occasionally, however, I’ll be reading along and all of a sudden, Holmes, Watson, or possibly even Lestrade does something so out of character that the story comes to a screeching halt. At this point, the pen comes out and does some shrieking in the margins, and I’m thereafter alert to any tiny deviation or error on the author’s part. Some readers don’t even bother to finish such a book. As an author, you don’t want either reaction, so here are some suggestions which I hope can help you avoid them.

 Maude! Watson would never say that word!  I'm telling Mother!

Maude! Watson would never say that word! I’m telling Mother!

Staying in Character

Let me say, right up front, that I am not talking about fan fiction here, although plenty of reviewers on those sites complain about characters being “OOC.”*** The thing about fan fiction is that it’s not for profit, so if you want to write about an incredibly emotive Holmes and a flinty Watson, it’s fine; you and your followers will have a great time and no harm done. But, if you’re writing for the larger market and hoping to get some royalties out of it, this may not be the best strategy. Not to disparage anyone’s artistic vision, but the truth is, most people who buy a Sherlock Holmes book do so with the strong expectation that they are going to read about the characters they already know and love. They are not going to permit you a lot of play.

This brings us back to research. It’s tempting to think that you already know all there is to know about the world of 221B, but it’s probably a mistake. Pretend, for a few days, that you’ve just met these people. Comb through the stories and pull out every fact and observation you can. Analyze speech patterns: the characters sound different, but why? How can you duplicate this yourself? What are their habits? How do they approach their daily lives?  Try your hand at a little deduction: What do their thoughts and actions reveal about their inner workings? Their pasts? You may come up with a new revelation, but even if you don’t, that’s all right (some might say it’s preferable). The point of this is to truly understand your characters (for you are making them yours by writing about them), so that you can render them real and recognizable on the page. When fiction writers draw up those long character sheets with spaces for “favorite food,” “traumatic school memories” and “zodiac sign,” chances are good that all of that information won’t make it into the book, but the exercise itself ensures that once those people hit the page, they’re individuals. For example,  we will never know everything there is to know about any person–not even those closest to us–but everything they’ve experienced is there, somewhere, and we’re seeing it constantly. The same is true of the fictional world. The trick with Sherlockian fiction, of course, is to keep your facts straight, and not go too far beyond the boundaries already set by Watson’s literary agent. That’s okay, though–he only created the most alive characters in English literature. You’re in good hands.

That’s all writerly theory. I love writerly theory. But, concretely, what does it mean? Are there things you can never do with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson?

Well, I hate to say “never,” because if you’re a good enough writer, and you can make the reader really, truly believe it, you may be able to make our boys do anything. But, that being said, here’s a short list. Guard rail, challenge–make of it what you will:

  • Watson is a ladies’ man, but he’s a gentleman, always.
  • Holmes is not a ladies’ man. It’s perfectly possible to hook him up with someone, but he’s not believable as a skirt-chaser or as someone who is promiscuous in any way.
  • Holmes is, most of the time, tightly controlled and devoted to the life of the mind. We know that there’s something underneath that logical exterior, but that’s the whole point–it’s underneath. He is not going to have the overt emotional expressions of a teen-aged girl.†  A tremendous number of Sherlockians live for a glimpse of those “hidden fires.” Use this to your advantage.
  • Watson is a smart man–he’s a doctor, after all. But he is not, for the most part, going to be smarter than Holmes on a regular basis. He seems to be ok with this, so while it’s all right to give him the occasional burst of brilliance, he probably shouldn’t run the investigation, nor make Holmes look stupid.
  • Neither Holmes nor Watson are evil criminal masterminds or serial killers. Nor are they “dirty” cops. They are decent men on the side of Justice.
  • Watson is more into the creature comforts of life, and while Canon Holmes is not necessarily as ascetic as, say, BBC’s Sherlock, he’s also not as concerned with substantial  regular meals and sleep as is his friend. It is disconcerting to see a version of Holmes agree, seemingly without irony, that a good meal aids his thought processes.
  • Whatever you do, don’t alter a character solely to further the plot or the dialogue at hand. You may need to put out a violin-centered clue, but please don’t suddenly make Holmes a musical dolt so that you can do so.

I’m sure as you read this, you thought of successful books which flouted at least some of these stipulations. M. J. Trow’s Inspector Lestrade series portrays both Holmes and Watson as being less-than-heroic, and Michael Kurland’s Moriarty books feature the detective as drug-addled nitwit. Michael Dibdin’s controversial Sherlock Holmes is…wellllll, let’s say he’s not on the side of the angels. And of course there’s always the film Without a Clue, in which Watson is the brains of the operation. So, marry, murder, whatever you like, but do your homework and remember that the onus is on you, the author, to make it believable. Remember that the best lie is surrounded by truths.

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

Real Historical Personages

These characters are also prefab, in a fashion, and they appear frequently in Sherlockian fiction, sometimes as bit players, and other times as major actors. Some show up more often than others: various Churchills, Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward VII (before and after coronation), Jack the Ripper, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells, Houdini, Dracula, and the Titanic make regular appearances. Using real people as characters can either enhance your story, or prove an annoying distraction. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Be accurate. Make sure that this person was alive and in the area at the time he or she encounters your characters. Readers will often know more about these people than you think. Holmes is not going to meet George Washington, unless it’s during a seance or stepping out of a time machine. Oh dear. Please forget I said that.
  • Treat the historical person with some respect. I recently finished a book in which a very prominent individual–who was most certainly not a serial killer–was put forth (to the reader) as a possible….serial killer. Part of the suspense came from wondering if the author would actually pull that trigger. Unless you have evidence–real evidence–this seems unwise. Best to simply let your Real Historical Personage appear as him or herself, without drastic fictionalization.
  • Make the historical person three-dimensional. Teddy Roosevelt needs to have a reason to interact with Holmes beyond providing a history lesson to your readers.  Likewise, social justice is great, and Victorian living conditions and attitudes could be appalling, but that Real Person should not preach and leave. If they stood on a soap box on a daily basis in life then, by all means, let them have a bit of a say, but don’t use them to heavily underline A Message. Nor should they appear just to highlight another’s character trait. Is Holmes in favor of women’s suffrage in 1897? I dunno; give it your best shot, but don’t have Millicent Fawcett pop up with a pamphlet just to make the point that he’s a free-thinking man or a card-carrying member of the patriarchy.
  • Finally, limit your list, particularly if your Real Historical Personages are walk-ons. Don’t use them constantly as chronological props (Look, Holmes! It’s Lily Langtry! Walking past Rudyard Kipling! It’s 1897!). It’s perfectly legitimate to expect Holmes in particular to encounter some of the famous people of his time, either through his work or through Mycroft, and in some settings (such as the theatre) there will be more than one. Still, name-dropping for its own sake gets annoying, particularly when you’re dealing with a man who seems to disdain fame, power, and wealth on a philosophical level. And those chance sightings of famous people as children (“That 10 year-old clog dancer will be a remarkable actor one day, Watson, mark my words!”)?  Weave it into the plot, or just say no.

Original Characters

Chances are good that you won’t be using only canonical or historical characters in your story. You’ll add a few of your own. Oddly enough, for all of the space dedicated here to keeping Holmes and Watson recognizable, I’ve found that in most commercial Sherlockian fiction, authors do a decent job writing them in character. No, in general, the weakest characters are those created from scratch. Writer, this need not be so.

First, of course, you should give your original characters the same treatment you did those from canon. Here, you can relax a bit and let your imagination have more rein. Get to know these people really well, so they’re not just a cardboard audience for Holmes’ revelations. You probably don’t have to imagine favorite colors for every walk-on part (and most of the time, you’re advised to keep your character list small), but the more alive your original characters are, the more real the world of your book will be. Your goal is to make the reader believe that your story really happened–that Watson just didn’t get around to recording it. You want her to make it part of her “headcanon,”and to devoutly wish it were true. You want him to wonder, just for a moment, if that quote is from canon…or from your book. You cannot achieve this if your own characters aren’t as living as Doyle’s.

This leads us to two common character issues: the self-insert character, and the “Mary Sue/Gary Stu.” It can be argued that most of our original characters carry something of ourselves in them, some more than others. Just don’t make it obvious. Your main original character doesn’t have to share your appearance, birthday, occupation, and every one of your personality traits. I particularly advise this if your character is going to be a romantic interest. Don’t kid yourself into believing that people won’t know. They will. They won’t see themselves as the horribly murdered victims or criminals you’ve made them, but they’ll immediately recognize you in that scene. For the sake of your own sanity and self respect, mix it up a little.

"An inhuman noise broke from Holmes as he seized me--er, Agnes--in a desperate clinch...."

“An inhuman noise broke from Holmes as he seized me–er, Agnes–in a desperate clinch….”

The other frequent character issue–and one to which readers are very sensitive–is the “Mary Sue.” This is the main character (or, for our purposes, the main original character) who is flawless. She’s tough, she’s tender, she’s brilliant, she’s talented, she’s kind, she’s beautiful, she’s athletic, she loves children and puppies and kitties and sings even more beautifully than she plays piano and if she had three wishes all of them would be for world peace. She even has a tattoo, because she has street cred. If she has any flaw, it’s that she’s too feisty, or too liberated for her time. Mary Sue inspires instant feelings of love and desire in whichever character you’ve designed her for. He wants to protect her, all the while she’s throwing knives at ninjas and saving his skin. There are a lot of Mary Sues in Sherlockian pastiche, and even more who come dangerously close. It’s so tempting, I know, because you love your original character, and want the reader to love her (or him–the less common male version is known as a Gary or Marty Stu) as much as you do. The trouble is, adult readers tend to not be fond of this type. Your original character often serves as the reader stand-in, and they want to be able to identify with him or her, which they really can’t do if this person is perfect. Instead of rooting for him or her, they find themselves vaguely resentful, the way one might feel towards the goody-goody kid in school who excelled at everything. They nurture hostile thoughts and wouldn’t care if one of those expertly thrown knives were a boomerang. It may be petty, but there you are. Do all you can to create, not a paragon, but a flesh-and-blood human being with fears, faults, and failures, some of which are not at all adorable. Fiction feeds on conflict and imperfection; provide some in your characters.

One final note on the Original Character: try not to fall in love. This is very, very hard to do, but it is probably essential if you are writing a novel which purports to be about Sherlock Holmes. The thing is, when people buy your book because it has “Sherlock Holmes” somewhere on the cover, they expect him to play a major role, not be a bit player in your character’s story. I can’t be the only one who finds herself flipping past pages and pages of Original Character scenes in such books to find the five pages on which the Great Detective appears.†† Eventually, it’s difficult not to lose interest in such series entirely, not because they’re badly written, but because one feels cheated. This is not to say that you can’t write a book about your characters in which Holmes, Watson, or other Doylean people appear; obviously, you can. Just don’t market on the strength of their names; it’s not playing fair.

Well, there you have it: some thoughts on characterization in pastiche. This was, so far, the hardest post for me to write, simply because I’m well aware that it’s possibly the most subjective. So I’d like to know what you think–or, rather, what you like or dislike in a pastiche character. And if you write Sherlockian fiction, how do you deal with issues in characterization? Leave your views in the comments!

Footnotes:

*And you are, but after several months of this, let’s be real….. By the way, Donald Maass’ books are excellent, inspiring you to close them and get some work done, the best kind of writing manual.

**Sometimes, in fact, they are  Aunt Nelly, but all authors hold to the belief that people won’t recognize themselves on the printed page, or at least won’t take family to court.

*** “OOC” is fan fiction parlance for “Out Of Character.”

†Unless, of course, you re-imagine him as a teen-aged girl, but even then….  “Hidden fires” refers to   Holmes’ emotional reaction at finding that it is Selden, the convict, who has fallen prey to the Hound (of the Baskervilles) and not Sir Henry. His relief is extreme, and Watson is a little shocked.

†† Or I may be, and am a horrible person.

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Filed under Characters, Holmes-related ficiton, Original Character, Pastiche, Real Historical Personages, Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

† From “The Retired Colourman.”

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

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

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

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

Find and circle all of the women in this picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Determine I will do it. This time.

2. Sign up.

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

4. Evening out.

5. Sick kid.

6. Intense FB debate about…something.

7. Veteran’s Day

8. Who am I kidding?

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

1. Wrote a book.

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

2. Published it.

The Detective and the Woman is that book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*National Novel Writing Month

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

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

✝Particularly in fan fiction.

✝✝Don’t laugh. People do this.

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

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