Category Archives: Traditional

Gilbert, Paul D. The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. London: Robert Hale, 2007

My kids love card-shopping. Not because they enjoy finding the perfect pictures and sentiments to send to their loved ones. Nah. They just want to stand there and open up the “cards with sound,” the more annoying the better. Open a card, hear a screechy, nearly unintelligible voice saying something about flatulence–what could be more wonderful?

Well, imagine opening a card and hearing the rich, silky voice of Jeremy Brett.*

Yeah. I thought so.

That’s what struck me when I started reading Paul Gilbert’s The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes.  I opened it, and immediately heard Brett’s Holmes speaking. Of course, I may have been primed for this by the lovely cover, but it wasn’t just that. While many pastiche authors stress about achieving an authentic “Watson voice,” Gilbert’s Holmes captures Brett’s inflections so perfectly that, really, you can’t hear anyone else.**

See the lovely cover. And the lovely chocolate. And the lovely caffeine in handy beverage form. Ignore the not-so-lovely car keys and post-its.

I realize that I’ve just lost a good percentage of my readers as they grab their wallets and migrate over to Amazon. For those of you who are staying….

The Lost Files, contrary to their name, were never lost, buried under some unused indices or decades-old issues of The Evening Standard. No, they’ve been waiting in Watson’s tin dispatch box at the venerable Cox & Co., waiting until such time as he saw fit (or was permitted) to share them with the public. Often in these instances, we get some kind of mournful reference,*** but fortunately these stories have been released at Holmes’ own suggestion, now that enough time has passed (or, for all we know, Watson needs the income).

There are seven stories in all, some of which are explicitly set shortly after Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan, but only one of which is given a specific date (1898).  Gilbert deftly avoids making those distracting canon or research errors by simply not referring to canon much at all. Unfortunately, in one of the few instances, which has Holmes mentions a previous conversation regarding evil in the countryside, “Beeches” is misspelled, a mistake for which, hopefully, some editorial associate was severely punished.****

Nit-picking aside, however, each of the chapters is a full serving of pure Sherlockian comfort food. It’s all there: cold nights and warm fires, pipes and breakfasts, sleepless chain-smoking nights and presumptive notes sent to a newlywed’s home.  Sometimes, Gilbert might overdo it a tad. Holmes is more routinely dismissive of new clients than I think he typically was,†  meaning that Watson exclaims “Really, now, Holmes!” and “You’ve gone too far!” rather frequently. Watson, for his part, is a little on the sensitive side, and easily insulted, but for Granada fans, their interactions will be so familiar it’s as if they’ve turned on the television to find that their wishes have come true and Rebecca Eaton and Co. have discovered a secret stash of un-aired episodes.††

The Files vary in their complexity. In the first offering, “The Adventure of the Connoisseur,” for example, the reader gets a fairly straightforward mystery, which includes an apparent nod to Rathbone and Bruce’s Dressed to Kill (1947). “The Missing Don Giovanni” is another puzzle the reader may figure out before Watson, but Holmes does a nice turn of deduction with a pair of trousers and his attitude towards a stricken woman contrasts nicely with the scorn he shows his arrogant client. “The Hooded Man” is creepy, with a Doylean rumination on sin coming home to roost. “The Old Grey Horse” takes us, not to the track but a tavern, and in it Gilbert touches on some of the horrors of London poverty–conditions which Holmes no doubt saw constantly, but which tend to go unmentioned in the canon.

These stories are all quite serviceable; however, as in any anthology, certain chapters stand out. Try as I might, I cannot think of a way to discuss “The Adventure of the Conscientious Constable” without giving away the twist, but if you’re a fan of Shinwell Johnson, disguises, and the London underworld, you’ll get your fix.

Fine, upstanding citizens of the Empire’s greatest city.

The collection’s final story, “The Adventure of the Dying Gaul” takes Holmes and Watson across the channel to Rome, where they help Inspector Gialli locate a missing statue….

Which is, actually, a real statue. See–here it is!

This is great, particularly for Gialli’s career and art lovers everywhere. However, the most important part of the story takes place on the train between Paris and Turin, in which Holmes shares with Watson the results of a disturbing chain of research and deduction that have convinced him that the events of 4th May, 1891, were not as final as they had long believed. Watson, of course, thinks his friend has come unhinged, and even wonders how much of this is due to the contents of little glass vials, but Holmes’ reasoning is impressive; it made me wish Doyle had used it himself, because if there’s anything the original stories need, it’s more Moriarty.

The Lost Files’  most interesting, and possibly most controversial story, however, is its second: “The Mystery of Avalon.” It starts out typically enough, with a slightly boring Colonel braving a wintry journey from Cornwall to London to consult Holmes regarding two murderous attacks on his wife. Col. Masterson’s ancestral home lies close to Slaughter Bridge, where, according to legend, King Arthur fought his final battle, and as a result, his family has taken the Arthurian association to  extremes. During Masterson’s story, Watson notes, to his amusement, that Holmes has never read Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. After their client leaves, however the detective decides to remedy this deficit, assuring his friend that the story will only reside in his brain-attic “temporarily.” It makes a stronger impression than he anticipated, however, because a page or so later, Holmes declares to Watson:

The parallel [between Arthur’s Dark Ages and their own time] is now obvious, when you consider the darkness that our regular police force is constantly stumbling around in. Not quite barbaric in method, perhaps, and yet their ignorance and ineptitude is tantamount to barbarism! Yet in their darkness shines a tiny light. The light of reasoning, logic, observation, and method. This small room and my practice is the modern, judicial realm of Logres and I, of course, the guiding light of Arthur.†††

It’s easy to dismiss this little pomposity as Watson does: an amusing display of Holmes’ overinflated ego. But keep it in mind for later.

At this point, I feel I must warn you: EVERYTHING YOU READ AFTER THIS PARAGRAPH MAY BE A SPOILER!  I am not kidding. So, if you don’t want to know what happens in the story, now is the time to leave. For your convenience, I will tell you that The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes is now available on Kindle, receives 4 1/2 stars, and if you like a strong, traditional Holmes, or are a Granada fan, you will thoroughly enjoy it. Now go.

Run, Gentle Reader, while I keep the Spoilers from escaping!

Holmes and Watson arrive in Cornwall to take care of what seems to be a standard (for them) case with a hint of the outré.  Holmes has already begun his investigation by inquiring into Alice Masterson’s background, and a telegram is waiting for them upon their arrival. Typically, a wire means suspicions confirmed and a happy detective. This one, however, has a remarkable effect upon Holmes and he retreats to his room, telling the footman they’ll be leaving for London in the morning, and leaving Watson to deal with their client as best he can. When Watson, after enduring yet another strange outburst–this time from the Colonel– goes up later to check on his friend, Holmes, obviously under emotional duress, asks if,  “Perhaps it has occurred to you this [my] supposed abhorrence of both female kind and the idea of close attachment, is nothing less than a fear of the same.”

Pretty much no, says Watson. And then it dawns on him.

Just that little bit of self-disclosure, along with a bitter condemnation of the woman who is now Alice Masterson, seems to give Holmes new strength, and he decides to continue with the case after all, under the condition that the Colonel never learn he’s hired another of his wife’s dupes.

In the end, the array of lies spread out to view in this sordid episode is astounding. Watson’s agreement to conceal Holmes’ conflict of interest is perhaps the most benign, although upon reflection it, too, contributes to the tragic ending. In the end, we’re in the carriage with a dark, silent Holmes, a sweating, anxious client, and an oblivious Watson, on our way to fetch the Colonel’s faithless wife and bring her back home.

No one is going back to Avalon.

Later, Watson wonders if Holmes had known what Alice Masterson’s fate would be. How the Colonel would avoid the gallows. He loves his friend, and so he cannot credit it. It is not the same thing as when Holmes had pardoned James Ryder, just a few months before, or when he and Watson together will serve as judge and jury for Captain Crocker years later. No, it is not at all the same.

This is a dark, disturbing little story. No doubt it will put off many readers who prefer to see Holmes as, first and foremost, a creature of logic who is able to consistently rise above any of the passions, should he feel them at all. Others, like myself, who are quite willing to let him have his “hidden fires,” may balk at the idea that, not only was he unable to rise above his own pain to forgive the woman who damaged him, he was also able to allow a fellow victim to proceed to his own destruction without a word. Avalon, if you remember, was destroyed (in part) by adultery, as Guinevere cuckolded an adoring husband with his best friend. In at least one version of this story, Arthur, pressured to execute his wife for treason as required by law, begins the process with the desperate hope that Lancelot will come to save her (which he does). The pain is deep, but love and forgiveness between the three are there as well, elevating their story above the tawdry. Centuries later, in this Avalon, evil begets only pain and more evil, and when this Arthur has the chance to illuminate the darkness, he does not. While his friend looks the other way, we are forced to consider how even the best and wisest parts of us live together with our demons.

After a few days’ ruminating, I went from disliking “The Mystery of Avalon” to believing it the best story in the book. Still, many readers may find Holmes to be too far out of character for their tastes. If this describes you, never fear–The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes contains six other very traditional stories perfect for a blustery fall evening by the fireside.

The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes was once out-of-print and only available on Amazon and other sites for a ridiculous amount of money. I will never reveal what I paid for it. Within just a few months of that purchase, of course, it became available on Kindle. Learn from my mistakes, oh impetuous book lovers! Mr. Gilbert’s newest book, The Annals of Sherlock Holmes, will be released on October 31st, 2012. Mr. Gilbert is available on both Facebook and Twitter.

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

Footnotes:

*Make this happen, somebody. Please!

**Actually, Gilbert’s Watson voice is very good, too.

***To which our reaction is to cover our ears and go “LALALALALALALA!”

**** The famous passage, from “The Copper Beeches”:

“‘Do you know, Watson,’ said he, ‘that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and the impunity with which crime may be committed there.’

“‘Good heavens!’ I cried. ‘Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?’

“‘They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.'”

†You know, in real life.

††So, if you had Three Sherlockian Wishes….

††† The Lost Files,  p. 44

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Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), Paul D Gilbert, Traditional, Uncategorized

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.

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

Roden, Barbara. The Thames Horror. Ashcroft, B.C.:Calabash Press, 2011

Bees, Boring? Perish the Thought!

If Sherlock Holmes ever gets bored with his bee hives out there on the Sussex Downs and decides to pick up one of the many new adventures in which “he” is featured (let’s not flatter ourselves; he probably won’t), chances are, he won’t recognize himself.  After all, since the very first pastiche appeared (J. M. Barrie’s in 1893), Holmes and (sometimes) Watson have been to Mars, Moscow, and Minnesota. They’ve battled vampires, Cthulhu, and the Phantom of the Opera, and in one exploit even encountered a Time Lord.  The good doctor may have “an experience of women that extends over many nations and three separate continents,”* but when all is tabulated, his friend may have him beat.  After so many adventures exotic, chaotic or erotic, even the easily bored Detective probably yearns for the familiar. His many fans are no different. Fortunately, BSI member Barbara Roden’s short story collection, The Thames Horror, contains four stories sure to appeal to fans of both the traditional and the outré, all told in an impeccable Watson voice.

Dr. John Watson: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

Of course, Watson never hesitates to include a little supernatural frisson when the story warranted, even if his friend is a scoffer. Ms. Roden does the same, beginning with the gorgeously titled “The Things That Shall Come Upon Them.” We begin, as we often do, with Holmes going through his pile of newspapers and sharing his discoveries with his friend. He observes, with a mixture of vanity and irritation that, since Watson began chronicling his adventures for the public, a plethora of similar detectives, all followed by their own faithful Boswells, have appeared. There’s Max Carrados, Martin Hewitt (whose “doings..appear with almost monotonous regularity”) and myriad others, including the fantastically named Flaxman Low, who specializes in cases “beyond the understanding of mere mortals.”** Holmes must have gotten used to the spiritualist talk of Watson’s agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, because he admits that Low may not be “quite the charlatan he might seem.” A good thing, too, because when Holmes and Watson board the train to investigate some disturbing incidents at Lufford Abbey, they find themselves sharing a compartment–and a case–with Low himself. It seems that while Holmes’ client, Mrs. Fitzgerald, believes these events have a natural explanation, her husband is not so sure.  To their credit, the two detectives don’t waste time arguing over whose approach is best. They investigate together, and let the results speak for themselves. Is Lufford Abbey haunted by a spirit conjured by the late black magic expert, Julian Karswell, or simply a little more open to treasure hunters than it should be? In the end, everyone finds the results satisfactory. See if you agree.

The supernatural thread continues with the remarkable “Of the Origin of the Hound of the Baskervilles.” You may believe that, with all of the film and print versions of HOUN available, there is nothing more to be said on the matter of the vicious glowing dog and its owner’s schemes. You would be wrong, just as Holmes was, every time he told Watson he had no talent for dissimulation. For it seems that, all this time, what we thought we knew about the Hound was only illusion, and in his final days, Watson is driven to explain what really happened. What follows turns everything you thought you knew about the Baskerville curse on its head, and even if you get the twist early on, you’re still in for a rich, atmospheric tale that has to be the truth.

After all that running about on the moors, you might be in the mood for something calmer.  Ms. Roden supplies this  Holmesian equivalent of chamomile tea in “The Adventure of the Suspect Servant.” Here, she presents one of those tantalizing cases which never made it to print–the little matter Holmes handled for Mrs. Cecil Forrester.*** A cautionary tale of vice’s unintended consequence, it gives Holmes the opportunity to exercise both his deductive skills and his compassion.

The final story, “The Thames Horror,” is my favorite. Derived from actual unsolved cases of the period, it takes Holmes and Watson into the dirty London underbelly they’re used to, and far darker recesses of human nature they’ve yet to encounter. In June of 1889,  Scotland Yard Inspector Alex MacDonald prevails upon Sherlock Holmes to help him discover who has been dropping brown paper packages† containing surgically mutilated body parts into the Thames. Fortunately for the Yard, this killer is neither as public or prolific as Jack the Ripper, who terrorized the city the previous autumn. He seems to be content with one victim per year, so London has been spared the panic and unrest that surrounded those crimes. That could end as soon as some clever journalist connects the dots, however, so a quick solution is essential. Using both traditional methods and the new profiling theories put forth by Police Surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond, Holmes and his comrades track the killer to his deceptively quiet office. I’ll go no further, for fear of spoilers, but if you enjoy shocking moments, you won’t be disappointed.

No matter how you like your Holmes, The Thames Horror has what you’re craving. Ms. Roden seamlessly combines pastiche and canon detail, and her Holmes and Watson remain in character throughout. Those of you who avoid pastiche for fear of the unexpected goofy moment or emotional outburst need not worry. The one exception may be Watson’s retelling of HOUN, but it could be argued that Holmes is eminently reasonable throughout, and typically fearless. It’s the situation itself which is shocking and irrational. Each story has its own atmosphere. “The Things That Shall Come Upon Them” is a creepy puzzle with some moments of dry humor, while “Baskerville” is almost unrelievedly tense. “The Adventure of the Suspect Servant” provides a change of pace; it’s a charming domestic piece which ends with everything right in the world. “The Thames Horror” combines accurate historical and forensic detail with the action, urgency, and melancholy that, for me, marks a truly wonderful pastiche.

Another common complaint of readers who stick strictly to canon is that “no one can tell a Holmes story like Watson.” And that’s true. I would argue that there are writers who can do just as well using their own voices, but I realize that most of you won’t believe me. Unfortunately, Watson seems to be busy enough that he’s left writing behind, and many books purporting to be from his pen patently are not. Ms. Roden, however, has a marvelous “Watson voice,” avoiding all the clutter that frequently crops up when someone tries to imitate 19th century writing. Although she avoids the popular “provenance” story, one has to believe that the author pulled these tales directly from the tin dispatch box.

Many people think it must be easy to write pastiche. After all, someone’s already done the hard part for you; they’ve created the characters, done the world-building, even found an appealing style.  All you have to do is throw in a plot they haven’t thought of (and in Conan Doyle’s case, he’s done a lot of that footwork as well). But it isn’t that simple. Writing pastiche is a bit like walking through someone else’s house blindfolded; it’s awfully easy to stub your toe and break something valuable. With The Thames Horror, Barbara Roden successfully navigates 221B Baker Street, with a five-star result.

The first three stories in The Thames Horror have all previously appeared in other anthologies, while “The Thames Horror is original to this collection.  The book is available as an e-book only. You can purchase it for Kindle on Amazon, or in electronic format (suitable for your Nook or Kobo) directly from the publisher, Calabash Press (ash-tree.bc.ca/calabash).

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

Footnotes:

*From “The Sign of Four.” It seems reasonable to assume from the canon that Watson had at least two wives, possibly three. One researcher, Brad Keefauver, claims to have found evidence of six!

**Created by Hesketh V. Hesketh-Prichard (1876-1922), a friend of Conan Doyle’s, Flaxman Low is  the world’s first psychic detective.

*** Mary Morstan served as the Forresters’ governess, and it’s probable Watson held back on this one to protect the privacy of his wife’s friend and former employer.

†Tied up with string, and also mohair boot laces and Venetian blind cord.

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Filed under Barbara Roden, Calabash Press, Collection (Stories by the same author), Crossovers, Five-star reviews, Holmes out of his Element, Supernatural, Traditional

The Lyme Regis Horror, Part 2

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

Sherlock Holmes asleep/paget

Watson must be talking about cricket again….

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

Victor Trumper, safe and sound

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

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

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

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

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

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

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