Tag Archives: history

Ten Questions with Alistair Duncan

“I know what you’re saying, Holmes. I just don’t think the agony columns are the proper place in which to communicate with my readers.”

Alistair Duncan is well-known in Sherlockian circles for his non-fiction work. Beginning with an analysis of Holmes (and some other characters) both in the canon and on-screen in Eliminate the Impossible (London: MX 2008) continuing through Close to Holmes; The Norwood Author; and An Entirely New Country, Mr. Duncan continues to produce books that examine both Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle in the context of their environments. Mr. Duncan is also very active in the movement to preserve Undershaw, home of the Doyle family from 1897-1907, and where The Hound of the Baskervilles was written and Holmes’ return from the Great Hiatus was recorded. I asked him a few questions about his books, life as a writer, and his views on Undershaw….

Many writers who are drawn to Sherlock Holmes start writing pastiche. Why did you choose the non-fiction route?

I suppose I like to research and analyse facts and I have quite an analytical mind. This kind of mind lends itself towards non-fiction. For me it is like solving a mystery; you have to gather the facts, decide what is relevant, put it all together and arrive at a conclusion that pleases people. In some ways it is tougher than fiction as you have to work with facts; you cannot invent things to get yourself out of a hole.

Which of your books has been the most fun to write, and why?

The last two have been equally fun to write. The Norwood Author was fun because I knew I was breaking new ground and uncovering information that had not been widely seen (if seen at all). An Entirely New Country was fun for very similar reasons but also because it is part of a much bigger battle – that to save Undershaw.

You’ve said in your blog that you don’t like Sherlock Holmes pastiches with a supernatural theme. Do you have any favorite themes? Pastiche books/stories? Any favorite authors? And why these?

I don’t have any favourite pastiche authors as I don’t read that many. I also don’t have any favourite books for much the same reason. As for themes, I want pastiche stories that stick to Conan Doyle’s world. No fairies, no demons, no “Holmes is a wizard” and no interaction with characters from other stories (particularly those of other authors). In my opinion Holmes’s world is quite clearly defined and you should operate within it. However I accept that other people enjoy works that depart from the canonical world.

Which do you enjoy more, research or writing, and why?

Both; boring and concise answer I know but true.

“Remember that rather impertinent reviewer, Watson? Well, I don’t think he’ll be troubling you anymore.”

In your blog, you’re very open about the joys and tribulations of being a published author. What has surprised you (or not)? What do you enjoy about being published the most? What do you find more frustrating?

Being published undoubtedly gives kudos. Your opinion, if your book is a success, tends to carry more weight than those of other people (even when it should not). However the flip side of the coin is that people tend to be more ready to attack you and sometimes do so in a nasty way. The internet has made this more possible and people can often be vicious as they know they can be anonymous. It is cowardly but one of the things you have to face.

The most frustrating aspect is that if someone does decide to have a go at you it is not wise to respond. I have occasionally slipped and taken someone on but whether you are right or wrong it tends to do more harm than good to you as an author. So having to bite your tongue can be very frustrating.

Have you found blogging and social media to be helpful to you as a writer? Do you prefer one over the other, and why?

They are both helpful and help you to maintain a public presence even during those times when you are not working on anything. Twitter is a personal favourite as it is very easy to reach large numbers of people very quickly. The blog is a place where I can put a lot more information; so the two are used in tandem. I use Twitter to drive people to my blog where I expand on subjects of interest.

 Currently, the fate of Arthur Conan Doyle’s home, Undershaw is the subject of fierce debate. Why do you believe Undershaw is worth preserving?

Where to start? Well it is the only home that is currently vacant and largely as he left it (with the exception of an extension). So much of significance took place during the time that he owned it. I would go into details but then you would not need to buy my book.

Rather than repeat myself I would encourage people to visit my blog:

http://alistaird221b.blogspot.co.uk/p/undershaw-my-view.html

(Blogger’s note: You will, indeed, find plenty of information on Mr. Duncan’s blog, both on his views of the UPT’s mission, and on current UPT efforts. Also, if you’re at all interested in Doyle’s life, or in Undershaw, I do encourage you to buy An Entirely New Country; proceeds from each sale go to fund the UPT’s efforts–plus, it’s just a very interesting book!)

Should the Undershaw Preservation Trust’s efforts be successful, what challenges will they face, and what support will they need?

Well first you must understand that while I support the UPT I am not a member of it and am therefore not privy to its decisions and strategy. The UPT is only trying to overturn the planning consent. If that is successful the UPT has achieved its aim. In the event the house ends up back on the market, the challenge will be to find someone with both the money and the desire to restore it to its former glory.

You’ve recently finished editing Phil Growick’s book, The Secret Journal of Dr. Watson for MX Publishing. Did you enjoy editing? What was it like to edit another writer’s work?

I’ve edited before but never on that scale. The editing had two sides to it. The first was simply to look for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. The second aspect was to ensure that it was canonically accurate. Fortunately Phil was not overprotective of anything that he had written and he typically followed my advice (although he did not do so without the occasional question – which was good). As a result we have managed to produce something that is already getting some nice praise.

Editing someone else’s work is challenging because you have to remember that it is their book and not yours; if you don’t like the plot, characters or pace, you can advise but nothing more. So it has the potential to be frustrating at times especially if you invest too much of yourself in it.

And of course we want to know about any future projects you have planned? Do you think you’ll ever make a foray into fiction?

I’m toying with the idea of writing a couple of short pastiche stories but you won’t see them for a while yet. I’m far weaker when it comes to fiction and will take my time over it.

Alistair Duncan’s books are available from major online retailers, as well as from the Baker Street Babes’ store, and the MX Publishing website. He is active on Twitter, and regularly updates his blog at http://alistaird221b.blogspot.com/

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Filed under Alistair Duncan, Interview, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw

Duncan, Alistair. An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw, and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. London: MX, 2011

The Conan Doyle children, Mary and Kingsley, at Undershaw, c.1900

In late 1893, Sherlock Holmes’ legions of fans received a terrible shock. Unbeknownst to them, their hero had perished at Reichenbach Falls nearly three years previously.  It took time, and the scurrilous insinuations published by Colonel James Moriarty, the Professor’s brother, to persuade his grieving Boswell to write an account of May 4, 1891, but write it he did, effectively blasting the expectations of readers who had become accustomed to following Holmes and Watson on their adventures,  to the point that many actually believed the two men to be real. Still, after a few bad moments or vacant days (for the most obsessed), those readers went back to their normal lives. There were, after all, other detectives.*

While young City men reportedly wore black armbands for someone who never lived, his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was reeling from horrible news of his own. That October, his wife Louise (affectionately known to her family as “Touie”) had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Her case was advanced, and it was terminal. Whatever future they had envisioned for themselves and their young family was now irrevocably changed. There would not be, after all, another Louise.

One common 19th century treatment sought by tubercular patients who could afford it was a move to higher altitude, in the belief that the lower air pressure would allow the heart to work more effectively and therefore help to clear the lungs.** Following this line of thought, Conan Doyle spent the next few years moving his family to Switzerland and Egypt in hopes of improving his wife’s health. While it seemed to bring results, all of the moving and living in hotels was expensive and disruptive to the couple’s children, Mary and Kinglsey. Fortunately, in 1895, a family friend and tuberculosis sufferer, Grant Allen, told Conan Doyle that Hindhead, in Surrey, was elevated enough to have a beneficial climate. Never a man to waste time, the author bought a piece of land and in October of 1897, the family moved into their new home, Undershaw.

Alistair Duncan, who has previously described Conan Doyle’s years in Norwood and traced his (and Holmes’) connections to places in London, now turns his knack for painstaking research to  Undershaw. He combines great events with small to give the reader a detailed picture of the author’s life over the next decade, one of tremendous change for him, both personally and professionally.

One of the most important events in Conan Doyle’s life, and that of his family, occurred while Undershaw was still being built. On March 15th of 1897, he met 23 year-old Jean Leckie. Although still married, he fell hard for the aspiring opera singer and began an intense platonic relationship (a courtship, really) with her that would last throughout his time at Undershaw and would ultimately be the cause of his leaving it.

Professionally, Conan Doyle still found himself tied to the man who had given him a career. Holmes may have been gone, but he was definitely not forgotten. Shortly after the family moved, the Sherlock Holmes play which had consisted solely of rumors became reality. Duncan details the negotiations, pitfalls (including a rewrite necessitated when the only copy was destroyed in a hotel fire), and the play’s ultimate success–provided that the audience could actually hear the actors. It was this project that lead Conan Doyle to write the frustrated exclamation beloved and used by pastiche writers everywhere, “You may marry or murder or do what you like with him!”*** Interestingly enough, he wasn’t quite serious about this; Duncan writes that one issue Conan Doyle particularly wanted to discuss with Gillette when they met in May of 1899 was the actor/writer’s plan to give Holmes a romantic interest. We know he did, of course, but apparently there were boundaries to the character that his creator was not willing to cross.

Never one to hide away in his study, Conan Doyle was quick to get involved in local, national, and international affairs. His concern with British politics led him to write letters, articles, and occasionally run for office. It also led him to serve in the 2nd Boer War as a medical officer. In February 1900 he sailed to South Africa, where he served as Secretary/Registrar for the Langman Military Hospital in Blomfontein. He wasn’t there long, but by the time he left, in July of that year, he had written articles, a decent portion of his definitive book on the war and, on the steam ship home, met a young journalist, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who would, although he didn’t realize it, be instrumental in bringing Sherlock Holmes up out of that chasm and making him eternal.

I have always admired people who set out to write biography. When you write fiction, you’re in charge. Of course you write what you see, what you know, what your characters tell you to write…but ultimately, your book is yours to make up as you go along. Historians have to deal with facts (or at least they should), but typically they have a multitude of events, people, and sources to work with. Don’t have the material for one angle? Choose another. Do the Boston Massacre witness accounts conflict?✝  That’s all right–you have room, and you can even make that your thesis. A biographer, however, is limited to the facts that exist about one person in particular. If the source material isn’t there, it’s just not. He can’t make up the facts. He can’t make the person into someone he wasn’t. And when the biographer chooses a limited time in his subject’s life to examine, it can be difficult to piece all of the events from that briefer period together into a cohesive whole, particularly when some years are more eventful than others.

In An Entirely New Country, Duncan achieves this admirably, and the result is a valuable resource, or a nice introduction for anyone who has yet to read a complete biography of Arthur Conan Doyle.  We get a full view of Conan Doyle’s Undershaw years, almost as if we were his nosy next-door neighbor. He’s playing golf again–when will that Hindhead Golf Club be successful? Is that a new car? He surely is a speed-demon. Did you read about his first-class wicket against W.G. Grace? The Rifle Club’s shooting at the range over at Undershaw, perhaps you should join. Who’s that with him now–is it that woman? I wonder what Louise thinks about her. Is it true he’s writing about Sherlock Holmes again? This time, however, the nosy neighbors have plenty of photographs, a bibliography, helpful footnotes and supplemental information about the people in Conan Doyle’s life, such as Charles Frohman and George Edalji. Particularly enjoyable are Duncan’s own, often wry, observations. He looks at his subject with a clear eye. When Conan Doyle comments on a fellow medical officer’s weight (he appears to have disliked the man), for example, Duncan points out that in photographs, the gentleman looks to have had the same type build as Conan Doyle himself.  He provides interesting speculations on individuals’ feelings, motives, and events, and is careful to identify them as such.✝✝ What, for instance, did Strand editor Herbert Greenhough Smith think when he realized that Collier’s Norman Hapgood managed to get the stories he’d been angling for for years? Was it printable?  Duncan also doesn’t succumb to the biographer’s temptation to take his subject’s side in every matter. Everyone can acknowledge that it had to have been very difficult to live with the changes tuberculosis forced upon his family life, but not all of Conan Doyle’s coping strategies were beyond reproach and, as Duncan points out, some of his actions caused pain (to which he seemed oblivious) for both his immediate and extended family. Duncan is also perceptive in pointing out that, while Doyle’s marriage to Miss Leckie, after the period of mourning for his wife had been fulfilled, brought him happiness and a new beginning, it did not do the same for his children. Because life, after all, is not a story, and we don’t get an Empty House.

Don’t faint again, Watson, but Undershaw is in danger, and we’ll need more than brandy!

That being said, An Entirely New Country was written with a resurrection in mind. As most of you no doubt know, Undershaw, now the only extant home of Conan Doyle, has fallen into a state of terrible disrepair and is now in danger of being broken up into flats. The Undershaw Preservation Trust has been working tirelessly to prevent this, and to find a way to preserve Undershaw as a single dwelling. For more information on the Trust, its goals, the legal battle it faces against development, and ways in which you can support its efforts, please see http://www.saveundershaw.com/.  Alistair Duncan has also pledged that 50% of the net royalties of An Entirely New Country should go to the efforts to save Undershaw.

In my own efforts to support the UPT and fill your bookshelves, I’ll send a copy of An Entirely New Country to the first two commenters. Already have a copy? You can have your choice of one of Duncan’s other books, or an item from the UPT shop of equivalent value. An Entirely New Country is available on the Baker Street Babes and MX websites, the Save Undershaw shop (on the Trust’s website) and, of course, your usual online booksellers.

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

Notes:

*As we mentioned in the last review, Sherlock Holmes had quite a few imitators, and some predecessors. Fans could get their deduction fixes from Poe’s Dupin, Gaboriau’s Lecoq, Barr’s Eugene Valmont, Grant Allen’s Miss Cayley, and many, many others.

**First promoted by German physician Hermann Brehmer in mid-century. The family’s efforts to prolong Louise’s life were successful; however, she eventually succumbed to the disease on July 4, 1906.

***Honestly, some of us should have that embroidered on a pillow and displayed prominently in our sitting rooms.

✝Ohhhh, they do. To an insane degree.

✝✝One thing he does not speculate on is some kind of murder conspiracy or any ill-will between Conan Doyle and Bertram Fletcher Robinson. Duncan’s evidence that the men remained on good terms throughout their friendship is conclusive.

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Filed under Alistair Duncan, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, Boer War, Doyle Family, Five-star reviews, Holmes in Theatre, MX Publishing, Non-fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Spiritualism, The Great War, Undershaw

Naslund, Sena Jeter. Sherlock in Love NY: Harper Collins, 1993.

A Violet by Any Other Name….

Whenever someone asks about my favorite books, I generally mention Amy Belding Brown’s Mr. Emerson’s Wife, a beautifully written imagining of the life of Lidian Emerson, wife of Transcendental writer Ralph Waldo. Trust me, you don’t want to read it while wearing mascara. And as soon as they hear the title, without fail, the person asks “Have you ever read Ahab’s Wife? I just loved that book!”

I haven’t read Ahab’s Wife, by today’s author, Sena Jeter Naslund, yet. But it’s a NYT Notable Book and a national bestseller, as are her novels Abundance and Four Spirits. She’s won the Harper Lee Prize, and been published in several high-profile literary magazines. I tell you this so that you’ll know that Ms. Naslund is a talented, highly regarded author.

It takes more than that to write a good book about Sherlock Holmes.

“Sherlock Holmes was dead: to begin with,” Watson tells us, echoing A Christmas Carol for a story which unfolds over the holiday week in 1922. Holmes has been dead for two years, and Watson, living at 221B again with an invalid Mrs. Hudson and her nurse, is missing him. Missing him so much, in fact, that he decides he will write the Great Detective’s biography and puts out a notice in the newspaper, seeking interviews and correspondence. He’ll need them; Naslund’s Watson is a forgetful sort.

As soon as the ad appears, however, the doctor’s life gets interesting. He receives anonymous letters urging him to quit the biography, his life depending on it. He’s stalked by a mysterious old woman in red, believes someone is breaking into the flat and slicing pages from Holmes’ commonplace books, and at least three times is visited by spirits–not the Christmas type, but of Holmes himself. Looking into the violin case on a whim, he finds a note to his friend from a mysterious “Sigerson,” bequeathing Holmes the instrument. Wiggins, now consulting psychiatrist at St Giles’, appears at 221B (Watson has trouble remembering him), searching for an escaped patient who might be in the neighborhood. During his visit, he reveals that Holmes secretly financed his education and the two corresponded. The next day, Watson meets the former Irregular the the hospital, hoping for the letters, but instead fainting with shock when an aggressive patient, “Nannerl,”* growls at him, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

Wiggins never gives him the letters. Oh, and the hospital’s therapy dog** is killed (silently) outside the office door.

Again, one must accept the premise that all those breakfasts of eggs, bacon, and  ham  have hardened 70 year-old Watson’s arteries, and he’s forgotten some of the most exciting, intriguing episodes of his life. The woman in red is as unfamiliar to him as Wiggins. He doesn’t remember seeing the violin-note before, and he can’t for the life of him remember who Sigerson was. Deciding the answers must lie in an unpublished case, he spends the remainder of the book using his old notebooks, Holmes’ journal, and, finally, the story manuscript to uncover, at last, the story of a doomed romance that unfolded right under his nose as he saw, but never observed.

In most reviews, I’d leave off here and move on to the critique, so as to avoid spoilers. However, after some thought, I’ve decided these are necessary to explain why, in the end, Sherlock in Love receives the rating it does. Here, then, briefly,  the rest of the story:

After a shady musician asks him to determine whether or not a violin is a Guarnerius, Holmes meets Victor Sigerson, violinist for the traveling Munich Opera Orchestra. Holmes is transfixed by the man’s playing  (behavior Watson oddly finds remarkable), and intrigued by the fact that Sigerson seems to be fascinated by him. After a sort of pas de deux, involving games of snooker, Black Magic, waltzing and (for Watson) interminable violin lessons, Holmes confirms his suspicions that the orphaned “Victor” is actually “Violet” by hiding in a wardrobe and watching her disrobe, keeping the whole thing a secret from his best friend.

From his 1922 vantage point, Watson sees his friend fall in love, wonders why nothing came of it and then remembers–of course–Sigerson died, drowning in Lake Starnberg, handcuffed to King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Holmes and Watson were part of this case, retained by Ludwig’s chief equerry, Richard Hornig, to help the monarch escape a ministerial plot to have him declared insane and deposed (thereby saving Bavaria’s finances). At first reluctant to take on the case, Holmes only does so when urged by Lestrade (here unaccountably taking the place of Mycroft) and informed that Sigerson is there, embroiled in this volatile situation. The adventure unfurls, with secret meetings, three castles, kidnapping, coach chases, coach wrecks,  dungeons, lock picking, angry peasants, handcuffs and the aforementioned drowning, which leaves Holmes “morose,” yet “strangely settled.” Watson comes to the end of his manuscript to find the mysterious woman in red at his door.

Irene Adler is still beautiful, and she adds more to the story. Sigerson, it seems, did not drown after all; Irene finds her,  bedraggled and alive, while walking in the area, where she is conveniently staying with the King of Bohemia. Over time, she gets to know Violet, who tells her all manner of useful information about Sherlock Holmes, even as her obsession with him pitches her into madness. Eventually, Irene marries Godfrey Norton, and Violet Sigerson voluntarily commits herself to St. Giles, where she has good and bad days until Watson’s advertisement appears. Fearing Violet could harm Watson, Irene sends those anonymous letters, but it’s lock-picking Violet/Nannerl who does the flat-breaking and page-cutting.

And now,  just like another Christmas Eve spirit, she appears at the door, to give Watson the rest of the story, the reason why. And it’s quite simple. Violet is Sherlock’s half-sister, the child of his mother’s affair, sent to live with distant relatives and eventually ending up in Munich. She figured it out slightly before he did, and while the attraction was mutual, they determined nothing should come of it.*** She then took the opportunity to fake her own death when Ludwig II killed himself, hoping to spare Holmes the pain of an unfulfilled romance, or to keep the both of them from doing something they shouldn’t. She destroyed the commonplace books, killed the dog, and frightened Watson to preserve Holmes’ privacy, but has now decided that she wants her brother’s friend to tell her story, to “make her live.”

I have a bad habit, when reading, of skipping to the ending about half-way through, so I knew this was coming. The first time I read it, I needed brain bleach. The second time, I was calmer, more prepared, but this little twist still makes Sherlock in Love one of the worst Sherlock-in-love-stories I have ever read. In the end, I think, it comes down to a lack of respect for the character. Most people write Sherlockian pastiche because they love something about Conan Doyle’s work, whether it’s the puzzles, the gaslight, the friendship, or the personalities. And when they write, almost without exception, they write with a certain amount of respect, even affection. When Conan Doyle told William Gillette he could do whatever he liked with Sherlock Holmes, I doubt incest, even the thwarted kind, ever crossed his mind.

Byron: The “Anti-Holmes”

That, however, is not the only problem. The lack of respect also shows up in the rather careless treatment of canonical detail.   Watson and Holmes, apparently, meet in 1886, not, as most experts agree, in 1881.  We all know where Holmes got his violin, and Watson never referred to Irene Adler as “The Woman in Red,”**** although he believes he did.  Far more egregious is the way Naslund puts Inspector Lestrade in Mycroft’s place. It’s Lestrade who refers Hornig to Holmes, and who persuades Holmes and Watson that taking on what seems to them a distasteful errand in service of a dissolute ruler is in the best interests of the British Empire, which hopes to avoid a united Germany as long as possible. Lestrade was never “the British governement,” and it would have taken no time at all to put in the right character. Even a famous quote is mangled. By having Holmes say “Once you have eliminated all the possibilities, then what remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth,” Naslund effectively makes him ridiculous. Because once you have eliminated all the possibilities, you are left with nothing at all.

And speaking of character, Holmes and Watson don’t always stay in theirs.  We’re asked to believe unbelievable things, such as Watson not remembering the significance of the name “Sigerson,” or even mentioning its connection to the Hiatus. And while Watson prefers writing to doctoring, it’s ridiculous to suppose that he wouldn’t notice certain physiological tells in “Victor,” or that he would agree to examine a patient with his eyes closed. For his part, Holmes is awfully emotional when begging Watson to go up to Victor’s rooms in his stead, and while he suspects the violinist’s true gender early on, he’s devious enough to have gotten confirmation without resorting to voyeurism.  Victor/Violet verges upon being a Mary Sue: although she’s not beautiful, she’s talented, smart, good at everything from snooker to dancing to magic to deductions, and acceptably socially conscious. The fact that she physically attacks Watson and kills a dog doesn’t jibe with the rest of her character as Naslund paints her. True, she loses her mind and chooses a ridiculous way to solve her romantic dilemmas, but  she’s miraculously functional at the end of the book.

Which brings up a more serious problem: implausibility. One of the big rules of writing, and romantic fiction in particular, is  that problems shouldn’t be the kind easily solved if the characters had a conversation. There was never any real reason for Watson not to know Victor Sigerson was actually a woman. If Holmes chose to protect her secret at first so she could remain employed, he didn’t need to do so after she “died”; even the half-sister bit would have been a reasonable revelation, if the romantic feelings were left out. If he didn’t trust Watson early in their relationship, he certainly did after 34 years.  Of course, Watson knowing this secret would effectively get rid of a good portion of the mystery, and render the story slightly less outré. We’re also expected to believe that, in the two years since Holmes’ death, Watson has never, not once, considered looking at that  journal, when he knows where it is. Even if he felt some compunction about invading his friend’s privacy, loneliness and simple curiosity would have got the better of him. Why would Holmes hide the fact that he’s paying for Wiggins’ education, except that it serves the plot? Violet and her unsavory cousin Klaus are professional musicians who also have the time to run a traveling magic show, which again is to no purpose except that it gives Violet a reason to know how to pick locks and effect underwater escapes. And, while it’s common for actual historical figures to appear in pastiches, we’re treated to Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst; Sir Leslie Stephen, young Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Thoby; and seven year-old Albert Einstein–for reasons which in no way advance the plot. Finally, Violet’s reason for faking her death–to give Holmes “peace,” makes no sense. He seems to have achieved it before going to Bavaria, and while he loses some equilibrium,  it’s apparent that she’s the one with the greater problem. His later correspondence with Wiggins suggests that he ultimately knew what had happened and, while he kept tabs on his sister, did not choose to contact her again. Even had Violet not been his sister, one gets the impression that Holmes dodged a destructive bullet, and knew it.

So, did I think this book completely without merit? Of course not. Ms. Naslund is an excellent stylist, able to evoke emotions and create vivid descriptions. She seamlessly interweaves Holmes’ and Watson’s mission to Bavaria with the known facts of Ludwig II’s life and death; in this instance, the historical cameos are apt and accurate. She has Holmes pull off some nice deductions, and his interview with Richard Hornig is very much in character. Her Watson is cranky, but after awhile, I got to like him that way. Her descriptions of his life without Holmes are poignant. I have to ask myself, if I were not a Holmes devotee, would I feel differently? The answer: probably not. The incest angle is hard to accept no matter who the characters and, coupled with plot contrivances and gaps in logic, ends up striking the fatal blow.

Sherlock in Love is available on Amazon.com and other major booksellers, as well as at independents such as The Poisoned Pen.

Star Rating: 2 out of 5, “Hit or miss, mostly miss. Only for the ‘completist.'”

*The escaped patient of the night before. She makes little excursions regularly.

**This is surely an anachronism. Although seeing-eye dogs were first used in Germany during WWI, and their use quickly spread, the idea of a dedicated therapy animal doesn’t seem to have sprung up until one was used in the Mayo Clinic in the 1940’s, again with war veterans.

***Watson is actually in the room, half-asleep, when this conversation occurs.

****It’s possible that the author mixed up the titles and thought “A Study in Scarlet” referred to Irene’s story (“A Scandal in Bohemia”).

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Filed under Holmes and Love, Holmes and Sex, Holmes and Watson Friendship, Holmes Family, Real Historical Personages, Sena Jeter Naslund, Two-star Reviews

Walters, Charlotte Anne. Barefoot on Baker Street. London: MX Publishing, 2011

Happy Valentine’s Day, Sherlockians!

When I first thought of doing this blog, I planned on reviewing books based on a monthly theme–reviewing only Watson books in July, for example. With the rapid influx of new pastiche, I’ve had to scrap this plan just to keep up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have the occasional theme month. And since it’s February, what better theme to use than…romance?

I know, I know, a few of you are about to navigate away. Not everyone likes the idea of giving Sherlock Holmes a love life.  But ever since Doyle told William Gillette that he could “marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him,” writers have been taking him at his word and producing quite a lot of Holmesian hook-ups. So many, in fact, that it was hard to choose among them, and I’ve had to leave three of my favorites for another day.  This February, we’ll look at a relatively new work, an older one by an established writer and, finally, a book with a March sequel.

Workhouse Scene; No Wonder Red Wanted Out

Barefoot in Baker Street, Walters wants the reader to know, is not a Sherlock Holmes novel. Rather, it is a novel in which Sherlock Holmes appears. The story actually belongs to Red, a young woman fighting to rise above her workhouse origins. Red is not another Watson, recounting a Holmes adventure through her own eyes; she’s got a lot more to say in this first-person memoir than that.

We never know what Red’s mother named her. She doesn’t know, herself. Like many young couples, her parents come to London seeking opportunities denied them in their rural county and, like many, fail to find them. Red’s father dies in a railway accident, leaving her mother  to take refuge in the massive, infamous Whitechapel-Spitalfields Union Workhouse. There, she dies giving birth, leaving her daughter to a hardscrabble childhood in which she’s named for her hair.

Walters doesn’t shrink from painting the realities of workhouse existence. Because the novel is written as an older woman’s memoir, some details are less graphic than they might have been, but they’re no less horrific. A highly intelligent but strong-willed, emotional child, Red is too volatile to stay in an orphanage; thrown out into the East End streets, she returns to the workhouse.  There she endures rudimentary education, religious and domestic training, and works at pulling apart tar rope until bits of oakum are permanently embedded in her skin. Life at the Union Workhouse is physically brutal, disease-laden and humiliating but, as Red points out, the fact that she has never known any other world  makes it easier for her to survive the harsh conditions which defeat many workhouse denizens. She is strong and able to fend for herself, which she does ruthlessly one night after Union’s schoolmaster rapes her. After killing the manager who tries to block her escape, she grabs the master’s money and flees, taking with her Jude, a young boy she once saved from a beating, who is her only friend in the world.

Unable to return to the workhouse and running out of stolen money, Red and Jude do what many street children did out of necessity and affiliate themselves with a gang–in this case, the Dean Street Gang, led by one Wiggins.  Yes, that Wiggins, and it’s through his “moonlighting” as a Baker Street Irregular that teen-aged Red first comes into contact with Sherlock Holmes. He makes a definite impression, one she doesn’t forget as she’s pulled even further into the London underworld of prostitution, thieving, gambling and alcoholism. Her intelligence and physical strength serve her well, and she carves out a successful, if legally precarious, life for herself and Jude. It’s only a matter of time before she falls into the crosshairs of the Napoleon of Crime, a pivotal moment which changes her life forever.

For the past two weeks, I’ve debated what to do at this point of the review. A summary should, well, be a summary and give you, the prospective reader, an idea of the book’s major plot points.  It should not, however, contain spoilers, and if I go very much further, spoilers will appear one after another, like dominos in reverse. So let me just echo Walters’ description: Barefoot on Baker Street is the story of a woman’s life, and on her journey, Red reaches some very familiar female landmarks. While our lives may not be quite as adventurous or involve plots to, well, rule the world, most of us have encountered the horrible boyfriend, the passionate fling and, hopefully, the stable, mature relationship. Never content with life as it is, and despite tremendous loss, Red continues to grow throughout the novel until one day the savage little girl from the workhouse is only a memory.

Barefoot on Baker Street is Charlotte Anne Walters’ first novel, and the seven years’ of work she devoted to it have had impressive results.* The first half of the book shifts seamlessly back and forth between Red’s early days and her life in Moriarty’s household.** The memoir format makes for quite of bit of  “telling” in place of “showing,”  at least in the first few chapters, but the dramatic flow of events minimize the impact and keep the reader’s attention. Many of the confrontational scenes–and the romantic ones–are electric, although I did find a couple to be slightly overwrought. As everyone seems to collectively lose their minds directly after Moran is arrested in a retelling of “The Empty House,” for example, I found myself wanting to  reach through the pages, shake a few people (Watson, I’m looking at you), and tell them all to calm down.

It’s common for main characters in first novels to be “Mary Sues,” perfect in every way, even their (minimal) flaws somehow adorable. Fiction, romantic fiction in particular, also suffers from a preponderance of feisty heroines, to the point that they’ve become a stereotype. Walters avoids both of these pitfalls. Red is a fully realized woman, more flawed than not, who must do some difficult emotional work to mature. Because she’s so vividly alive, she avoids one of the fates that commonly befall new pastiche characters; the reader cares about her, and doesn’t skip through her story just to get to more Holmes and Watson. The other major characters are similarly well-drawn, Moriarty and Holmes in particular. Walters has an interesting and, I think, believable take on how both men think, and the mental and emotional challenges they face. Watson is less clearly envisioned and sometimes seems out of character, but not fatally so, while Mycroft is treated with care and complexity. As supporting characters, Sebastian Moran, Jude, and Ronald (a new brother for Watson) fill their roles adequately.

Canon devotees need not worry. While Walters does introduce romance and her own characters into Sherlock Holmes’ world, she’s done her research and takes great care with the Doylean universe. Some scenes, such as Holmes’ return from the Great Hiatus, are rendered practically word-for-word, with endnotes. Other stories, such as “The Sign of the Four,” are deftly woven in. “The Blue Carbuncle” gets a bit of a retelling but,  frankly, I like Red’s version a little better (James Ryder, such a sniveller….). Walters also does a decent job with historical detail. One error did recur; although brassiere-like undergarments did exist in the late 19th century, they were very uncommon and the corset was the rule; Red would never refer to a “bra.”

Again, I realize that some of you like your pastiche canon-straight. But if you’re adventurous, and open to allowing the Great Detective a little love, you’ll find Barefoot on Baker Street an exciting, engrossing adventure.  Want to leave your own opinion? First comment wins a copy of this week’s book, or your choice of David Ruffle’s Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror, or a BSB coffee mug–any one of them a perfect Valentine’s Day gift!

*Walters says she is currently working on a screenplay for Barefoot (which is quite visual and would lend itself well to the screen), and has several other books in the mental percolation stage.

** When I first bought Barefoot, I was so eager to read it, I did so on my phone. This was a mistake. While the shift in time periods during the first part of the book are very obvious in the printed copy, they’re not as distinct on a phone.  I was very confused. In a new edition, separation marks might be useful.

For more information about workhouses and the role they played in Victorian society, see: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/

Barefoot on Baker Street is available from MX publishing, major online booksellers (for US readers) and in Waterstone’s and other brick-and-mortar stores in the UK. You can also purchase it from the Baker Street Babes’ Bookshop, here: http://www.bakerstreetbabesbookshop.com/category/Sherlock+Holmes+-+Female+Writers; profits go to support the BSB podcast (which, incidentally, interviewed Charlotte Walters for Episode 10).

Star Rating: 4 out 5  (“Highly enjoyable. Worth your time and money.”)

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Filed under Charlotte Anne Walters, Four-star reviews, Holmes and Love, Holmes and Sex, Holmes and Watson Friendship, Moriarty, MX Publishing, Original Character

Hanna, Edward B. The Whitechapel Horrors. London: Titan Books, 2010. (Originally published by Carroll and Graf, New York, 1992)

I thought it would be fitting to start with the first pastiche I ever read, back when it came out in 1992. I remember barreling through it then, and each time I’ve read it, I’ve come away with a new appreciation of how Hanna, an award-winning journalist and member of the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), was able to conflate fact and fiction.

The story begins, as many pastiches do, with an explanation of its existence. Cox and Company, as well as the tin dispatch box, are long gone. However, in the director’s safe at Claridge’s, a leather portfolio (initialed “J.W.”) keeps company with a bottle of ancient Armagnac. At least it did until recently. The director, one Ronald Jones, decided to actually open it as part of his first day on the job. There, along with a letter tracing its provenance to one John Hamish Watson, M.D., via Mr. Elwyn Anstruther and Dr. Ian Anstruther, he finds a collection of notes, which Dr. Watson wished to keep from publication until 2000, or 50 years after his death, whichever came first (obviously, Watson anticipated a long life; was it the royal jelly?). At any rate, Watson died in 1929, leaving Mr. Jones free to give his shocking story to the world.

After this explanation, Hanna does something that it is hard to get away with twenty years later: he eases the reader into the story. Rather than starting at the crime scene, bang in the middle of the action, we get to accompany Holmes and Watson to Simpson’s after they’ve seen a theater production of Jekyll and Hyde. During this chapter, Hanna takes the time to introduce the pair to any novices who might be reading. We get a snapshot of their physical characteristics, friendship, habits (the cigarette case makes an appearance), eccentricities, and, of course, Holmes’ ability to deduce all manner of information about people simply by observing a few details. When they get back to Baker Street that night, however, they have visitors, namely DI (Detective Inspector) Abberline and Sergeant Thicke. It is September 1, 1888.

Abberline and Thicke are, of course, real people, as is the victim, Polly Nichols, lying cold on the slab in the mortuary on Montague Street. If you’re looking for some of your favorite canon characters, you won’t be disappointed. Mrs. Hudson is there, as is Shinwell Jackson and the Irregulars. Lestrade and Mary Morstan are mentioned, and Mycroft is pivotal. However, the Ripper was, unfortunately, a real person, and Hanna never shies away from using real people as characters, taking Holmes and Watson to historical places, or involving them in actual events. Along with the morgue, Holmes and Watson visit a salon hosted by Oscar Wilde, various government offices, and interact with the Prince of Wales, Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Charles Warren, the Rev. and Mrs. Samuel Barnett, and the young George Bernard Shaw, among others. Of the lengthy list, only the Shaw meeting seemed to me to be a little self-indulgent, particularly as it leads to a discussion of London dialects (of course you know where that’s going). And it must be noted, Hanna occasionally has a character say something which turns out to be anachronistic, as when Holmes quotes Oscar Wilde, from a play which was not written until 1893. Discrepancies such as this (Watson reading from a two-day old paper, for example) are dutifully noted in the copious and invaluable end matter, but while some of it may be essential to the plot, other bits seem to be just authorial hijinks, and could have been left out.

When it comes to Sherlockian and historical chronology, however, Hanna works hard to keep things straight. One of the problems with Holmes involving himself in the Ripper case is, of course, that HOUN* occurs smack in the middle of it, at least according to the Baring-Gould, Folsom, and Thomson chronologies. This is convenient, as it explains why Holmes stays in London and sends Watson to Devon, but inconvenient as they have to split their attention between a diabolical serial-killer and a demonic hound. Hanna does a wonderful job of accommodating both cases, and explaining the situation to the reader with minimal distraction. One has to think that, as Holmes manages to get himself into a dire situation and has the stuffing beaten out of him, he had cause to regret sending Watson off to Baskerville Hall.

Hanna follows the Ripper timeline scrupulously, and includes forensic evidence, some accurate (a letter, a painted message, a broken window), some manufactured (cigarette ends) and some altered (Holmes gets his own kidney delivery). By the end of October, Holmes is pretty sure where all of this evidence is leading; the only question is, what to do about it? The remainder of the book–over one-third–deals with this dilemma, and now Hanna does some of his best work. He is a sedately elegant writer, and it’s here, when he shows his characters grappling with all sides of a painful, untenable, unimaginable situation–and the solution they ultimately choose–that he truly shines. The first several pages of chapter 25, as well chapters 26 and 27 (both of which occur post-Hiatus) have bleakly poetic moments, well-eclipsing any prior silly mentions of Convent Garden flower girls. Throughout the book, Hanna does a wonderful job of depicting the Holmes-Watson relationship, both positives and negatives; however, in these last chapters, we see again how, as much as Holmes values Watson, there are always aspects of his life to which the Doctor will be perpetually denied access.

As you might have guessed, I love The Whitechapel Horrors and believe it well worth your time. The only real flaw that kept gnawing at me was the fact that Watson does not tell the story. This is, of course, not necessary for a good Sherlockian novel. In fact, if an author fears he or she cannot capture Watson’s voice, it’s better not to try. However, by presenting the story as a product of Watson’s notes, he should have told the story solely from Watson’s point-of-view, whether in first or limited third person–a problem, as Watson is not present for some key parts of the investigation. Instead, Hanna uses a near-omniscient third: we’re in Watson’s head, Holmes’, and even, briefly, those of other characters–and canon-Watson doesn’t really speculate in that fashion. In a more quibbling vein, Hanna indulges a bit in the “as you know, Bob” method of imparting information. Characters lecture each other on the living conditions of Whitechapel, prostitute behavior, and other topics that, logically, they should already be familiar with. The details are generally fascinating and occasionally Hanna gets away with it, but quite a few examples are glaring, and a little annoying. In other instances, we’re told what a character is feeling, when a writer as capable as Hanna should be able to demonstrate this through action or dialogue, rather than spelling it out for the reader. At least once, there is an unwitting anachronism, as when Aide-de-Camp Burton-Fitzherbert uses “party” as a verb, but that’s something an editor should have caught.

It’s always a reviewer’s duty to point out such flaws, but in the case of The Whitechapel Horrors, the specks are minor, and almost invisible in the scope of the story. The Whitechapel Horrors was the first pastiche I ever read, and I’m so grateful it was.

Notes and Purchasing Information:

Edward Hanna died on January 6, 2008, which makes this posting date a little more significant; however, you can still view his webpage at  http://www.members.authorsguild.net/ebhanna/

*In this blog, I’ll be using the standard abbreviations for the Conan Doyle stories and novels. It’s easy–just use the first four letters of each title (excluding articles). HOUN, therefore, is The Hound of the Baskervilles,  STUD is “A Study in Scarlet,” and so on.

The Whitechapel Horrors was reprinted by Titan Press (although you can still find copies of the first edition online). It’s available for Kindle and Nook and on major bookseller websites. You can also order it from independent bookstores, such as:

http://poisonedpen.com/web-store

and

http://www.mysteriousbookshop.com/ (where the author’s name is misspelled as “Hannah”).

For more information on Jack the Ripper, try:

Curtis, L. and L. Perry Curtis, Jr. Jack the Ripper and the London Press. Yale University Press, 2001

Evans, Stewart P. and Donald Rumbelow. Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010

Evans, Stewart P. and Keith Skinner. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion: An Illustrated Encyclopedia.  Skyhorse Publishing, 2009.

Star Rating:  4 1/2 out of 5

Blogs are more fun when people comment!  Leave yours below! In honor of this first post, I’ll give the first commenter to whom I am not married a copy of The Whitechapel Horrors. Already own it? How about a Baker Street Babes’ 221B Mine mug, for you or someone special?

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Filed under Edward B Hanna, Four-star reviews, Holmes and Watson Friendship, Jack the Ripper, Real Historical Personages