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Campbell, J. R. and Charles Prepolec, Editors. Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes. Calgary: Edge SF&F Publishing, 2011.

'Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season

 

When I was a kid, I loved to read ghost stories. I checked the same books out of the library, time and time again. Many times, they were older and worn, or had cartoonish covers, but there were a few with covers so scary that at night, I hid them at the bottom of my book pile, safely contained by the weight of a dozen other, more innocuous books.*

You know, just to be safe.

Gaslight Arcanum is, actually, the third anthology in a series edited by Campbell and Prepolec, its predecessors being Gaslight Grimoire (2008) and Gaslight Grotesque (2010). I hope to review each of them eventually. I chose Arcanum, however, both because it is the most recent, and–unleashing my inner nine year-old–because it has the absolute creepiest cover….

See?

See?

Nor is this (with one exception) a reprint anthology. Nothing wrong with those, but in Arcanum, Campbell and Prepolec have brought together a collection of new stories by very talented and respected writers. Some stories may be familiar to you, as they have since been reprinted elsewhere, but here they mark their débuts. Let’s venture down this dark, dusty hallway and meet them, shall we?**

The editors start out on a high note with Stephen Volk’s “The Comfort of the Seine,” a Sherlock Holmes “origins” story which is juuuusssst plausible enough that some readers may make it a part of their personal head canons. It begins with the “if you’re reading this I must be dead” trope, but then immediately leaps into much more original territory. Here the reader sees Sherlock Holmes as an intense twenty year-old student with scientific leanings, accompanying a group of classmates to Paris to explore that city’s art scene. Despite his relationship to Vernet, the young Sherlock is not all that interested in art, but who doesn’t want to leave his books for Paris? Besides, his friends need him–or rather, his fluency in French. While his classmates roam the galleries, he roams the city, becoming infatuated with a young flower-seller. When she turns up missing–and then dead–he is completely shattered. It takes C. Auguste Dupin to show him the way out of his overwhelming grief.*** And if you’re currently thinking, “well, that sounds predictable,” you would be wrong.  I truly cannot say enough good things about this story–the dark opulence of the author’s style, its characterizations, its evocation of mid 19th-century France, and most particularly Volk’s Dupin, a man who cross-crosses the edges of genius and madness so adroitly that you’ll change your mind about him more than once before the story is over. “Comfort” is not precisely a horror story in the way that its companions are, but it is both suspenseful and sad–and of all of these, I think, the most likely to haunt you when Arcanum goes back to your bookshelf.

Christopher Fowler’s “The Adventure of Lucifer’s Footprints” is a more traditional tale. It’s in Watson’s voice and recounts a strange case the detective and his Boswell investigated in Devon in February of 1888. They’re there at the urgent behest of Lucy Woodham, who with her father, Crimean war hero General Sir Henry Woodham, has recently moved to the family’s run-down ancestral home, Belstowe Grange. Belstowe Downs is an isolated spot, and its villagers swear that Satan himself sends a pack of lost souls to carry off area wrong-doers–sinners such as Woodham’s groom, attacked and killed during a storm, his body found surrounded by hoofprints which seem to have appeared out of nowhere. The solution–at least as Watson sees it–puts a rift between himself and his skeptical friend which he fears will never completely heal. “Footprints” is a very competent tale which uses several favorite Conan Doyle tropes. It’s a little clipped, style-wise, and Holmes and Watson don’t engage in their usual banter. Its main difficulty, however, most likely lies in the fact that it immediately follows Volk’s tour de force. Readers should still find it entertaining.

I will confess to at first being a bit put out with “The Deadly Sin of Sherlock Holmes.” Despite my desire to be less dogmatic about AU stories, there are a very few Canon facts about which I find it difficult to be flexible, and when I saw this adventure is set in May of 1891, well, I was just not having it.† It turns out, however, that author Tom English has a very good reason for placing his story so close to the fatal event at Reichenbach (which, of course, I cannot reveal). “Deadly Sin” is  a creepy tale about a Codex which inspires its readers to murder, and is shot through with witty exchanges between Holmes, Watson, and their clients–a group of monks who’ve travelled to London from Rome. The Canon references fly fast and furious, and in the end, even the Hiatus is accounted for–after a fashion.

William Meikle is the well-known author of hundreds (Really! Hundreds!) of stories in the supernatural and science fiction genres–and he’s a great fan of what is typically known as “pulp.” In “The Color that Came to Chiswick,” he sets Holmes and Watson up against a lethal green substance found in a brewery vat. It’s so hard so say more without spoiling the whole thing, but this particular adventure would probably be Holmes’ own favorite as it involves science–and caustic chemicals.

It did not escape from my refrigerator, I swear!

It did not escape from my refrigerator, I swear!

As I stated above, all but one of the stories in this anthology are original contributions. That exception is “From the Tree of Time,” by Fred Saberhagen, who passed away in 2007. Mr. Saberhagen was a well-known science fiction and fantasy author, and many Sherlockians are well-acquainted with his fondness for teaming the Great Detective with Count Dracula. This is a lively, tightly-written story, in which the Count remembers a time in which he served as Holmes’ own consultant in a blackmail case gone wrong. Like Lady Hilda in “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the client (whom Dracula chivalrously refuses to name) was a bit “sprightly” before her marriage, and now wishes to hide the evidence. Or maybe the body. If she could find it, that is. The two men in her study are the only ones in the world who can tell her if she stands to lose her marriage–or her freedom. The denouement is both surprising and satisfying, making “Tree” my “second favorite” in the collection.

Fred Saberhagen,  1930-2007

Fred Saberhagen,
1930-2007

Classic nineteenth-century horror makes another appearance in the next story. In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes tells Watson, “about that chasm. I had no serious difficulty in getting out of it, for the very simple reason that I never was in it.” But what if that weren’t exactly true?  What if he had fallen into the Aare River–and Watson wasn’t the first one on the scene? In  “The Executioner,” Lawrence C. Connolly reveals what really happened at that fatal encounter, and why Holmes need three years to sort himself out afterward. It’s a fascinating story which takes an abrupt, dark turn at the end–and as someone who likes abrupt, dark turns, I enjoyed it greatly. That being said, I didn’t really share Holmes’ doubts in the final paragraphs, but you, as better, more sensitive people, may find yourselves in agreement.

If I were to give a prize for the most horrific story in this collection, Simon Kurt Unsworth’s  “A Country Death” would win the blue ribbon, hands down. Again, it’s difficult to review a short story without giving the whole thing away, and Unsworth works so hard to hide the main facts from you that it feels wrong to provide even the slightest hint. Let’s just say that it is extremely well-written…and so disturbing that–if you wish to enjoy sweet dreams–it should not be the last thing you read before you go to bed.

Many pasticheurs like to explore what cases Sherlock Holmes may have taken on for his brother, The British Government–more familiarly known, of course, as Mycroft. In Kenneth Cockle’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game,” the detective and his Boswell find themselves in Canada, investigating what appears to be a particularly dangerous Russian move in her proxy war with Britain. It’s soon revealed as a maneuver in an actual war–between the true source of Holmes’ powers and another enemy, just as ancient and just as powerful. I actually found the first explanation very clever, but I am still a little conflicted about the origins of the proffered nemesis. Holmes is right–Watson does have his work cut out for him when he goes to lay this one before the public. Perhaps Russians would be a more plausible explanation, after all.

From the Canadian north, Holmes and Watson next travel to the darkest depths of the ocean. In “Sherlock Holmes and the Diving Bell,” by Simon Clark, Holmes summons his erstwhile flatmate with one of his cryptic telegrams: “Watson. Come at once. That which cannot be. Is.”  Or is it?  Between the horrific account of a salvage ship disaster, the weird twin sisters, and our heroes’ claustrophobic trip down to a five year-old tomb, Clark serves up an atmospheric tale with subtle Canon overtones in which Holmes’ deductive ability ultimately proves a double-edged sword.

In “The Greatest Mystery,” Paul Kane commits one of the most common of the venial Sherlockian sins–well, I hope it’s common, as I’ve done it plenty of times myself. At the the story’s conclusion, Watson recalls (fuzzily, it must be said) that, while unraveling the case of the Six Napoleons, his friend mused: “I am just contemplating the one mystery I cannot solve: Death itself.” As happens so many times (to me, at least), Watson has inserted a Granada moment into the Canon. I have to suspect that it was done purposefully, as it is a superb quote and fits the story perfectly. While most “Holmes confronts the supernatural” adventures depict the detective either finding a rational explanation for the spooky doings, or being shaken in his logical boots, not many show him using the spirit realm to his advantage. Here he does just that, as he and Watson seek the mastermind behind a series of seemingly motiveless murder-suicides.

Hint: It wasn't him.

Hint: It wasn’t him.

Tony Kane’s “The House of Blood” is unique in this collection, because it features a 21st century Sherlock Holmes. No, not either of those–this Holmes was still born circa 1854, but (as we know) he’s immortal, and he’s trying to avoid the sometimes oppressive memories of London by traveling the world…and solving crimes.†† In this episode…er, story, he’s found himself in Las Vegas, helping the police investigate a series of murders in which recent casino winners have been found dead–and drained of their blood. Vampires? Or something else? The solution is quite creative, but the best part of this entertaining offering is watching Holmes navigate modern-day Vegas–with his usual competence, and a wry sense of humor.

The final story, Kim Newman’s “The Adventure of the Six Maledictions,” I’d already read, as part of Newman’s own later collection, Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles.  A complex riff on an actual poem, J. Milton Hayes’ “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” it’s told in Colonel Sebastian Moran’s irresistible–if irreverent–voice. If Volk begins Arcanum with melancholy and (possibly) madness, Newman brings it to a breathtaking end with humor–and Moriarty’s  own special brand of psychopathology. Even if you’ve read it before, don’t skip it–with an author like Kim Newman, there’s always something new to discover. Besides, it’s funny, and once you finish, you won’t have to leave the lights on and waste electricity. The editors are thoughtful like that.

"Not seeing any vampires, Watson."

“Still not seeing any vampires, Watson.”

As we have discussed here before, a good many Sherlockians are not in favor of pitting Holmes against the supernatural. Not even Conan Doyle, who loved a good “creeper” would go that far. Others have no problem watching him face the uncanny in all of its many forms. If that’s you–or if you think you’re ready to take the plunge, I can’t recommend Gaslight Arcanum highly enough. Each story is well-written, respectful of the Canon, and there is enough variety in subject matter and style that you are bound to find several stories you’ll particularly enjoy. Our agency may rest “flat-footed upon the ground,” but it’s ok to stand on your tiptoes every once in awhile.

 

Gaslight Arcanum is available through all online booksellers and may also be found in your local brick-and-mortar shop. 

 

Star Rating: 5 —“This is a wonderful book that gets it right”

As far as canonicity goes, those of you looking for traditional cases narrated by Dr. Watson may not see a horror anthology as Canonical in any way. That being said, with the exception of the Granada quote, which I fully believe was intentional, I could find no evidence of Canonical carelessness.

 

Footnotes:

*Books about horses, for example. Or written by Judy Blume. If Judy Blume had written a book about ghost horses, I would have reached Nirvana.

**You first.

***Well, I say “Dupin.”  You’ll see.

†I may have screeched in the margins a bit.

†† Child of the ’70’s that I am, I totally thought of this:

Cue sad music.

Cue sad music.

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Filed under Anthology (Stories by different authors), AU (Alternative Universe), Five-star reviews, Holmes out of his Element, Pastiche, Supernatural

Greenberg, Martin H., Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower. Ghosts in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes. NY: Carroll and Graf, 2006.

Holmes is losing patience with all of your vampire nonsense, client.

Ok, we all know it, so let’s repeat it together: “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”* If BBC’s Sherlock wants to get in a little canon/crap telly moment, all they have to do is show Sherlock, perched on his chair, yelling at one of those ubiquitous reality ghost-hunting programs–about dust,mirrors, how the bedclothes didn’t move naturally and five reasons why everyone should know that Derek guy is obviously a fake. As several authors in this anthology point out, Sir Arthur had the artistic integrity not to have his most famous character take on his own Spiritualist beliefs in some Dartmoor epiphany. Sherlock Holmes never sought an answer via supernatural methods. Still, the intersection of the set of mystery lovers and the set of ghost story aficionados is a large one, so it’s not surprising that, while Doyle let his detective approach the boundaries of the supernatural realm, there are other writers willing to toss him in completely. The authors and editors of Ghosts in Baker Street do not hesitate.

Anthologies are tricky to review. You want to give the reader a clear idea of what the book contains, but you face three problems. First, short stories are easy to spoil. Second, in a large anthology, you don’t have space (and the reader doesn’t have time) to cover every story in detail. Third, stories can vary widely in quality, leading to the “I bought this for one good song” experience. I thought, therefore, that I’d try grading each story in the book, on the traditional 4-point scale, then averaging the grades to score the book as a whole.***  We’ll see how it goes.

Most stories, happily, fall solidly in the “A” category. These include Gillian Linscott’s “The Adventure of the Late Orang Outang,” in which a pet’s love seems to transcend the grave, and academic rivalries prove deadly.  Those familiar with the legends surrounding King Tut’s tomb will see parallels in “Sherlock Holmes and the Mummy’s Curse,”  (H. Paul Jeffers). In this story, Watson’s old army buddy inadvertently draws the doctor and the detective into investigating whether the members of an Egyptian expedition are dropping dead due to coincidence…or a curse. We revisit a favorite Doyle theme–pacts gone wrong–as well as a phantom hound in Paula Cohen’s “The Adventure of the Dog in the Nighttime.”  Irish literary history provides the backdrop for an atmospheric tale with folkloric accents, Michael Walsh’s “The Coole Park Problem.” How did William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and even Sherlock Holmes come to reach new heights in their careers? Sir Arthur may agree that the fairy-folk were involved…you may reach a different conclusion. Finally, we get a Watson-only story, in a viscerally scary (even disturbing) tale, “Death in the East End.” Colin Bruce reveals a bit of the Watson family’s past, and the doctor himself learns one shouldn’t challenge the spirit world rashly. Each of these stories is told in decent “Watson-voice,” and contains plenty of cherished Doylean elements (breakfasts, stormy nights at 221B, deducing the client, bored Holmes). Some endings have natural explanations, while others are a little less cut-and-dried. You should find all of them enjoyable.

Two stories earn a “B.” Jon L. Breen’s “The Adventure of the Librarian’s Ghost” starts out with a creepy, interesting premise (a ghost predicts national crises by throwing out books and marking passages in blood) but totters with an easily-guessed solution, and a bit of preachiness in the end. “The Adventure of the St. Marylebone Ghoul” (Bill Crider) also has fascinating elements: allusions to the George Edalji case,† the intersection of East and West, prejudice, and nasty discussions of grave-robbing and ghouls. Unfortunately, I didn’t find part of the solution believable. It was a little too convenient, disappointing after a terrific build-up.

One story, and one story only, earned a “C.”  Carolyn Wheat’s  “A Scandal in Drury Lane, Or, the Vampire Trap,” has arguably the most gorgeous beginning in the book: an anonymous reminiscence of the Royal Theatre in Drury Lane which covers Restoration Comedy, the 18th century, and the early Regency, right up to the night of the fire which destroyed it on February 28, 1809. One gets the impression that this time, there may be no natural explanation, that we’re seeing with phantom eyes and hearing a phantom voice. The reader is ready for a haunting tale, and not just a tale of haunts.

Unfortunately, that voice is stilled once we get to 221B (never to be heard again) and the experience is jarring. The premise is interesting: Holmes is called to the Royal Theatre to investigate bad omens which mysteriously appear, and a gray ghost who disappears, both threatening the current production and an actress’ sanity. Are the manifestations man-made, or are they clues to a long-ago murder? The Society of Psychical Research even makes an appearance. In the end, however, I found several avoidable inaccuracies which soured my opinion a bit. The Royal Theatre actually burned on February 24, 1809. Sir Henry Irving could not be, as Watson refers to him, “the late Sir Henry Irving” in 1896, as he didn’t die until 1905. And it was hard for me to believe that Sherlock Holmes, a master of complex disguises who made a particular study of London streets,  was less familiar with the West End Theatre District than his flatmate. In the canon, Watson writes that “The stage lost a fine actor” when his friend took up detecting. Even if one discounts Baring-Gould’s notion that a young Holmes actually joined a theatre troupe, it seems natural to conclude he spent time backstage–and in the seats, enjoying opera and concerts. Finally, I found the explanation a little too elaborate, although you may disagree. These flaws, coupled with the complete atmospheric disconnect between the introduction and the body of the story, made it disappointing.

Ghosts in Baker Street isn’t all chills, however. At the end of the book the editors include three non-fiction essays, all of which deserve “A’s.” Caleb Carr discusses Sherlock Holmes’ relationship to the nascent science of psychology in “Some Analytical Genius, No Doubt.” While Mr. Carr’s thoughts on why Doyle shied away from psychology (related to his troubled father), are interesting, I am not sure I agree. There are people who have a constitutional preference for the “hard sciences.” They want to be able to see, touch, smell, hear, and quantify. The physical world is where they feel most at home. Others don’t mind if things get, in my husband’s words, “squishy.” They gravitate more to the arts, the social sciences and yes, psychology–although I do wonder if Holmes was more comfortable once B.F. Skinner and behaviorism rolled around.†† Still, the article is interesting, and Carr’s final thoughts on the academic trend towards deconstruction and the canon are heartening.

Barbara Roden continues the non-fiction section with “No Ghosts Need Apply?” A noted expert in both Holmes and the English ghost story, Ms. Roden provides a thorough look at the genesis of the “psychic detective” genre. She connects its popularity to both the need for authors hopping on the lucrative detective story bandwagon to “distinguish their creations from the Master in some way,”†††  and to the psychic shock of The Great War, which saw a rise in the popularity of Spiritualism and an interest in the paranormal. We get an overview of names you may remember: Abraham van Helsing, Flaxman Low, John Silence, Thomas Carnacki…and some you may not have heard of: Aylmer Vance, Norton Vyse, and Shiela Crerar, just for a start. Finally, speaking of van Helsing, Loren Estleman, author of the best-selling Sherlock Holmes v. Dracula, talks about his own introduction to the canon, his experience in the Sherlockian fiction world, and makes the salient point that when it comes to the supernatural, “if you win Holmes, you win the reader.”

All in all, Ghosts in Baker Street is a solid collection of traditional stories, with enough scares for the ghost story lover and enough logic for the armchair detective. The prior stories would be worth the price of admission. There are, however, two more pieces, and I don’t think it’s exaggerating to call them spectacular. The first is a brief story by Daniel Stashower. Told from the viewpoint of HOUN’s escaped Notting Hill murderer, “Selden” is a tale of a bright young man, loyal to the Baskerville family, who goes to war in South Africa. Seriously injured, he encounters a kindly physician–an eye specialist–who consoles the soldiers with his belief that “our fallen comrades were not really dead…but only transferred to another place.”‡ Selden doesn’t follow them, however; he goes home, a morphine addict who commits a savage crime to obtain the drugs his body craves. The rest of his story is familiar to those who have read HOUN. Stashower, however, adds one dark, breathtaking twist, allowing the little boy who clutched his sister’s hand to find honor and redemption in the end.

Finally, Loren Estleman demonstrates just what he means by “winning Holmes” in his story, “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” When a patient at St. Porphyry’s Hospital (specializing in the mentally ill) claims to be Satan, and terrible things start happening, Watson (who has been consulting there) asks his friend to look into the matter. Holmes is naturally skeptical, and challenges the man, “John Smith,” to prove his claims, particularly that of leaving the world and taking them all with him at midnight, Walpurgisnacht.‡‡ There’s something odd about the man. A strange affect, a palpable sense of menace. He knows thing about them he should  not. He oozes through the page. There is nothing I love more than a Satanic smackdown, and Holmes is no cinema priest who’s lost his faith. He may not have had any faith to begin with. But when he’s taken to the pinnacle of the temple, he knows exactly what to do.‡‡‡  In these stories, both Estleman and Stashower take on the typical supernatural pastiche form and transcend it.

Well, let’s average our grades, shall we?  With a total of 48, dividing by 13 stories, we get 3.69, or 3.7, a high B and a respectable score for any anthology. For those of you who like a little dark frisson in your detective story, Ghosts in Baker Street delivers.

Ghosts in Baker Street is, unfortunately, currently out of print, although several of the stories have been reprinted elsewhere by now, and may be familiar to some. You can find a used copy of Ghosts online fairly easily. Check Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ABE and even eBay to find the book at a reasonable price.

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

Footnotes:

*”The Sussex Vampire”

**Imagines Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock doing this. Imagines it in detail for a very, very long time….

***Yes, it is report card time at our house. How did you guess?

† This is a case in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually did a little detecting of his own. See http://www.siracd.com/life_case1.shtml for more detail.

†† “Was.” See what I did there?

†††Ghosts in Baker Street, p.202

‡ Ghosts in Baker Street, p. 140. Can you guess who that might be? I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time to adjust my mental chronology of HOUN from Baring-Gould’s date of 1888 to sometime between 1901 and its publication in 1903 (I like the idea of Holmes investigating the Ripper murders while Watson is in Dartmoor). However, some chronological experts go with the later date, so the scene with ACD is plausible.

‡‡A springtime equivalent of Halloween. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walpurgis_Night

‡‡‡ A reference to Luke 4:9.  Obviously I am not equating Christ and Sherlock Holmes. But Smith’s appeal to his intellect and his pride in the story constitute a very real temptation.

Comments Off on Greenberg, Martin H., Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower. Ghosts in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes. NY: Carroll and Graf, 2006.

Filed under Anthology (Stories by different authors), AU (Alternative Universe), Daniel Stashower, Four-star reviews, Jon Lellenberg, Martin Greenberg, Supernatural

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