Special Note: I initially planned to review this book in May, to coincide with the anniversary of Reichenbach, but Life intervened. This is all to your benefit, however, because in the interim, I had a lengthy conversation about it with Jamie Mahoney, better known as Better Holmes and Gardens’ “Goddess in Sepia.” As it turns out, we have very different opinions of it. So today, you get mine, and tomorrow–a completely different perspective. After all, it’s always good to have more data!
Amazing how adding one little letter can make this sooooo much more interesting!
When someone sets out to write a book, he faces an instant set of choices, beyond the elementary* questions of character, setting, and plot. Should the book be told in past or present tense? Who should tell the story? How many points of view should it contain, and should they be limited or omniscient? First, third, or even second person? Some writers make these choices consciously, with a view towards achieving certain effects. Others let them occur organically which, when it’s right is a beautiful experience, and when it’s wrong, is a very complicated problem to fix. Either way, these initial choices determine the story’s structure, and if you’ve tried to write anything longer than…well, heck, even a grocery list has structure. It’s important.
Writing a Sherlock Holmes story? Even more structural decisions await. Will you hand it over to Watson and let him produce a straight, Doylean pastiche, or choose another point of view, thereby allowing yourself a wider range of creative freedom, and avoiding the inevitable “Watson voice” criticism? Will you explain how the story came about–curiously, even authors who haven’t found another copy of “The Adventure of James Phillimore” feel the need to explain their book’s provenance.** Will the story unfold as it happens, or as a memoir? Will it hew strictly to canon, or will you give yourself room to play, say, with sex or vampires?*** Each choice is crucial, guiding your readers’ expectations, and defining the latitude they will give you in terms of character details and canon fidelity. Just as well-designed foundation and framing will allow a building to stand for centuries, a judiciously chosen story structure will support nearly anything you want to do.
The question of structure ends up being paramount in today’s selection, one of the more unusual books I’ve read this year. It differs immediately from most Holmes books in that it’s not narrated by any canon character, but by Thomas Carnacki. Now I’m sure most of you know who Mr. Carnacki was, but on the off chance…
After an image search, let me just say that Holmes was able to attract much better illustrators.
Thomas Carnacki, whose adventures were chronicled by William Hope Hodgson, was a detective who specialized in scientific exploration of the supernatural. Long before Jay, Grant, everybody, and their grandmothers ventured into asylums and attics hunting ghosts with EMF detectors and digital voice recorders, Carnacki sought to help his clients determine whether or not their night-bumpings were caused by humans, or portals to Hell.† When King introduces us, however, his evening ghost story soirées are far in the future. He graduated from Cambridge in 1890 and has spent the ensuing year doing the 19th-century equivalent of backpacking around Europe, being, as he calls it, “a student of the world” (the world, at present, being Switzerland). Without a father’s bank account to draw from, however, he is now “living by my wits,” and while he probably would have approached that very pretty girl with the enticing bustle anyway, the fact that she’s carrying a basket full of food makes her even more interesting. Showing a remarkable lack of judgement, Anna Schmidt invites this strange, shabby young man with a scraggly VanDyke to accompany her for a picnic at a local attraction. You know, Reichenbach Falls. On May 4th. 1891.
To jog your memory.
So, is the coincidence-hater in you screaming right now? Well, just relax. It is, of course, a set-up. Even a bit of a double-cross, between a man who believes he’s going to kill his mortal enemy, and the daughter who believes she can save her father from his inner demons. Instead, Anna Schmidt (Moriarty, actually) and Thomas Carnacki end up rescuing someone else. They’re not really sure who he is. He can’t help them with that question, either, so they end up calling him by the name on the tailor’s label in his clothing. Harold Silence.†† It will do for now.
Obviously, when you’ve just been battling for your life, have fallen over a cliff into the water, hit your head (and everything else) and can’t remember who you are, you’d like a few days to regroup. Unfortunately, there isn’t time. There won’t be any time at all until Chapter 33, and then the three of them only get half an hour. If you like non-stop action, King has written your book. Within minutes of the get-out-of-wet-clothes and small deductions scene, our heroes are being pursued, a relentless ordeal that begins with a carriage chase and continues until they cram, in some impossible fashion, into a single sleeping berth on a train to Paris. The intervening chapters include, in no particular order:
- Almost falling into a crevasse
- Almost getting smashed by ice
- Being tortured in an asylum
- Hiding in a crematorium furnace
- Near strangulation
- More fights
And that, dear readers, is just the first third of the book. Once Silence and Co. get to Paris, for the final third, more chases, stabbings, punctured lungs, stabbings, exorcisms and dismemberment await.
Yes, I said “exorcisms.” Obviously, when Thomas Carnacki is involved, one must expect the supernatural–in this case, possession–so if this is not a trope you enjoy, it’s all right to move along. I admit, when I did my initial “flip-through,” I was less than thrilled.†††† After I read the Carnacki stories and followed the entire plot through, however, I could play along to some degree. When I told my husband about this bit, he found it interesting, so I’m guessing it depends on the reader. In the end, the supernatural element meshes fairly well with the rest of the story, is appropriately chilling, and makes nicely subtle references to aspects of Carnacki’s future, his use of electricity and pentacles in particular.
Mr. King does several things well in this book, in fact. Most of his characters are three-dimensional and interesting. The dialogue is realistic. With one exception, the plot moves quickly. Although I have a hard time visualizing action sequences, those of you who don’t will have plenty to work with. As the story is for the most part extra-canonical, there weren’t a lot of references to check, and those few were accurate. He even gets in a nice little canonical joke, so if you think you see a major error, wait for it….‡ King has a nice prose style, and occasionally you even get real gems, such as this passage, which occurs as Harold Silence and his rescuers take refuge in a shepherd’s barrow and he tells them that in the morning, they will part company “‘as if none of this ever happened'” :
The irony of these words strikes me. My whole life never happened. I’ve lived only these last hours, all of it at the verge of death.‡‡
Here is another favorite, describing “Silence’s” thoughts as he begins to realize that he’s actually Sherlock Holmes, but with only a vague understanding of what that might mean:
How strange I am, to care about these things. Ashes and the composition of soil and the variations in bootblack… While other men filled their minds with planetary declinations and the properties of comets, I do idiot auguries in ash.‡‡‡
He’s just as insightful and poetic in the opening pages of the second third of the book, in which he describes Moriarty’s development, although certain events mean he eventually gets to avoid exploring its more complex aspects. King’s best moments come when he stops rushing his characters around and actually looks at them for a minute. When that happens, we realize, for instance, the significance of one of Silence’s seeming out-of-character moments, when he demands that Carnacki let go of him and self-sacrificingly fall into a crevasse. This is not Sherlock Holmes, who only days ago told his nemesis he was willing to give all to achieve the greater good. It is, however, Sherlock Holmes stripped down to only the most basic of human instincts. What’s even better is that King doesn’t spell this out for us. He assumes we’re smart enough to grasp it on our own.
Mutually assured destruction? Not a problem.
In the best of all possible worlds, my review would end here. Remember all of the blathering at the beginning about structure, however? There was a point to that. The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls suffers from structural problems.
First, King takes the well-worn path of establishing some sort of provenance for this story. Instead of coming from the ruins of Cox & Co., it’s a memoir, which Hodgson, Carnacki’s biographer, encouraged him to record and send to Dr. Watson in 1911. Why 1911? Carnacki’s stories first began appearing in 1910, so perhaps that played a part in setting the date. Holmes is retired, of course, but still has some very active times ahead of him. It seems odd that Carnacki, in his note to Watson, doesn’t allude to this in some fashion. It’s almost as if he thinks Holmes has died.
Oh well, that’s petty. The real problem lies in the fact that, while Carnacki starts telling the story in first person, as one would expect in a memoir, by Chapter 2 we’re in Silence’s head. In Chapter 8, we venture into Anna’s point of view. This is fine. You know, in a novel that doesn’t purport to be a man’s memoirs. As gifted as Carnacki is, he’s not a mind-reader, and he simply cannot be in these people’s heads–one for a reason that will be clear by the end of the book, and the other because that person would never permit it. Notice that, in the canon, Watson is always Watson. If he goes to bed and misses things, he misses them. If he’s out in Dartmoor, he has no idea what’s going on in London. Never does he take on another’s voice or thoughts. When an author chooses a point of view, he is obligated to take on its restrictions. An editor would have done Shadow a world of good if she had taken out Carnacki’s prefatory note. Of course, then we would still have to contend with the odd fact that some sections of the story are told in present tense, and others in past, with no discernable (at least to me) narrative or artistic reason for the switches. These changes occur on a chapter-by-chapter basis, so they’re not so obvious as to be disconcerting, but they are curious.
If you’ve noticed, I’ve thus far avoided discussing the second third of the book. This is because it is Shadow’s most problematic section. Somehow, some way, Thomas Carnacki got hold of Moriarty’s unpublished memoirs (which, like most fictional memoirs, read rather more like a novel). With no explanation as to how this occurred, he simply inserts them in the middle. Are they interesting? Yes. Do they contribute to the larger plot? Yes. But while King is at pains to provide a provenance for the book as a whole, he doesn’t think we need to know exactly where these pages came from. The result is a very clumsy, lengthy digression. One could argue that it’s actually intended as an homage to Doyle, who frequently allows Watson to interrupt his own narrative flow with long letters, reminiscences, and trips to Utah. I would counter that while this is probably the case, such editorial indulgences didn’t help Watson, and they’re less acceptable in the 21st century. To compound the crime, at the very end, we’re led to believe that these memoirs have somehow become a long origins story Anna’s been telling Carnacki and Silence as they take the overnight train to Paris. Father’s memoir or daughter’s memories? Can’t be both. Choose.
Whichever they are, they’re King’s attempt to explain why Moriarty ends up at the Falls. In the beginning, he’s no criminal genius, just a brilliant man trying to find a place in the world he experiences like no one else.§ He can, in fact, sense when a life has reached its turning point, and resolves to use this ability for good. In his first attempt at doing so, he rescues a beautiful prostitute, Susanna, who turns out to be a fellow mathematical genius and becomes his wife. Unfortunately, she is also a Mary Sue. Don’t get me wrong–I really loved her idea of applying mathematics to the sociology of crime (her university thesis). But I had a horrible time accepting that somehow she would be permitted to pursue studies at Cambridge’s Jesus College–which didn’t admit women, much less pregnant ones until the late 1970’s–no matter who her husband was. Nor did I think Cambridge would allow her to teach afterwards. Anna’s zippy riverbank birth, which occurs as the result of a deductive experiment, was also ludicrous. I know, I know, I’m quibbling over small things like historical fact when this is a book which contains an exorcism machine, but such casual, convenient manipulations can damage an otherwise interesting plot point.
This leads us back to the main narrative, and a larger, more damaging example of the very same flaw. I could spell it out for you, but I think it would be more interesting to let you find it instead, in this climactic moment of a scene between Silence and Carnacki. They’re looking at Silence’s track marks:
“More likely, cocaine. These are recent scars. If I were an opium addict, I would not be able to think clearly now that I have been without the stuff for two days. No, I must be addicted to a less-invasive poison.”
“But a poison, all the same.”
“So, then, who is Harold Silence?” I pressed. “A cocaine addict–perhaps a drug dealer, whose hands are burned with whatever caustic chemicals he uses to prepare his wares, whose hands are burned from the guns he has shot to defend his criminal empire?”
“Perhaps,” Silence said quietly.
“Perhaps? What other explanation could there be for these scars?”
Silence took awhile to respond. “The evidence tells what I have done, but not why I have done it. I’ve shot cocaine in my veins–but why? An addict? A drug lord? I’ve shot guns–but why? To oppose the law, or to uphold it?”
I laughed grimly. “The cocaine-addicted crime fighter–yes. A very plausible explanation. And I suppose this madman trying to kill you is a criminal you have brought to justice rather than a rival drug lord–or even a police officer trying to bring you in.”§§
I’ll give you a minute.
When I was a student teacher, one of my classes was remedial government for seniors. I would wager that with one exception, none of these really enjoyable but slightly disengaged kids could find the Netherlands on a map. But every last single one of them knew that pot was legal there. If I could locate them all today, they would tell me instantly what is wrong with this passage. You could drink it from a bottle. You could put it in your hair. You could give it to your child. You could buy it over the pharmacy counter and shoot it up in private when the gears of your mind threatened to overwhelm you. All of this I verified online and in a book about London crime in about ten minutes, seven of which were redundant. Thus, what could have been a powerful scene crumbles because author and editor chose the punchline over historical fact. The difference between this and demons? I don’t see King as creating an alternate universe (AU) here, in which cocaine is illegal; there’s been no set-up for this, or for AU at all. Instead, we have our real world, in which supernatural elements are exposed. Just inserting a ghost in a story, for example, doesn’t mean that cars can fly. If you want the latter, you have to introduce it in a rational way. Just as Susanna went to Jesus College because the author thought it would be cool, regardless of whether or not it was possible, cocaine is suddenly illegal in the 1890’s because the irony was irresistible.
The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls is a like a do-it-yourself bookshelf from a big box store displaying your collection of first editions. It looks nice on the box. That veneer could be oak if you squint. That screw went in, even if the holes didn’t match up. An edge is peeling, but if you turn it to the wall…. Yes, it leans a little, but just put the heavy books on the bottom. John R. King’s look at Holmes post-Fall has so many good points: action, characterization, dialogue, insight, originality, some beautiful writing and–if it’s your thing–spookiness. But he’s arranged these treasures on a structure that can’t hold them or display them properly. So go on and examine them, but it’s best not to look around too closely.
The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls is available in hardcover and on the Kindle from Amazon, and on the Nook (only) from Barnes and Noble. You can also find it new or used from Powell’s, and used from ABE Books.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5 “Flawed but worth a look”
*Haha, look it’s that word!
**Seriously, does any other group feel so compelled, or is it just us?
***Or sex with vampires? This has happened. And not just in fanfiction.
† In preparation for this review, I actually read his stories. They are really fairly decent, and divided equally between natural and supernatural explanations. In general, they are very atmospheric, and have a creepy-as-heck setup, while the impact of the denouement varies. You can find them all here: http://www.forgottenfutures.com/game/ff4/carnacki.htm
††No, you silly people, it’s not “Calvin Klein.” “Silence,” by the way, probably is a nod to John Silence, Algernon Blackwood’s 1908 detective.
††††Understatement of the Year
‡Yes, I felt stupid.
‡‡ King, p. 55
‡‡‡ King, p. 247
§I don’t want to give you more block quotes, but the passages in which King describes this are insightful and contain some evocative writing.
§§ King, p.76.