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Cypser, Darlene. * The Consulting Detective Trilogy, Part I: University. Morrison, CO: Foolscap and Quill, 2012.

“Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.”

When I was a kid, I loved reading in the car. So much so, in fact, that twice I missed my school bus stop because I was too engrossed in a book to notice. Now that I’m an adult, however, that’s changed. Not because I get motion sickness, or anything like that, but because I need to see what’s going on, and offer my helpful observations to the driver.**  On a recent trip back from the Gulf Coast, however, it was a wonder we made it home in one piece, because I was far too distracted to play co-pilot.

Distracted by this book.

In fact, once I pulled it up on my Kindle, during spring break, I was torn between the desire to “make it last” and the need to “readitallrightnow.” To achieve the former, I tried reading only when conditions were absolutely perfect–e.g., when everyone was in bed and I had the living room to myself with a bottle of real Coke. But then came the car trip home, and all self-discipline was lost. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you if you navigated over to your favorite bookseller right now and bought a copy, leaving me hanging in the blogosphere. But, since you’re polite enough to stay….

Darlene Cypser begins this first volume of her Consulting Detective Trilogy  right where she left off with its prequel, The Crack in the Lens.  At the conclusion of that book, Sherlock Holmes, still not recovered from the illness which almost took his life,*** struggles downstairs to his father’s study in an effort to salvage his opportunity to attend university. This scene is repeated in University, after which we follow Sherlock in his efforts to regain his mental and physical health in time to start his studies with the new term. Living as we do in an age where modern medicine both helps us diagnose, treat, and cure disease much faster than at any other time in history, it’s interesting to realize how long recuperation could last a century ago. However, his lungs are not Sherlock’s greatest problem. The events of November and December still haunt him, and it takes only his mother’s careless disclosure, a glimpse of the moor or a fencing bout into the shade of the outbuildings to throw him back into what his loyal manservant, Jonathan, calls an “attack” (and what we would call PTSD). Fearful of his father’s reaction should he find his son mentally compromised, Sherlock forces his way through these episodes until, by the time he leaves for Cambridge University’s Sidney Sussex College,† he believes he has them conquered.

Sherlock begins his college career uneventfully enough, settling with Jonathan into what seem to be very nice quarters, playing “the game” by observing his fellow students in chapel, and studying the mathematics his father has prescribed. He’s not overly thrilled with the subject, finding all of the memorization boring, but he wants out of Yorkshire, and becoming the engineer his father wishes seems as good a way as any. He doesn’t really mesh with the other young men at his college, and his reaction to their innocent questions about his illness puts them off even further. Still, things seem to be going well for him until, one day in November, he leaves the lecture hall and walks into a snowstorm.

There are some struggles that are never really over. Whether they have their roots in events, our own peculiar demons, or some unholy combination of the two, we are destined to fight and refight these battles throughout our lives. The ghosts of 1871 revisit Sherlock with a vengeance, taking him on a terrifying, dangerous journey through his unresolved guilt and grief, his only hope of recovery lying in the meager treatments available at the time. He doesn’t fight alone. Mycroft, the alienist Dr. George Mackenzie, university staff such as Senior Tutor Rev. John Clowe, Victor Trevor and his prescient father; and, most of all, Jonathan Beckwith, provide him with invaluable support. Still, in the end, it is Sherlock Holmes himself who discovers the one antidote which will keep his mind from “tearing itself to pieces.”††

It’s not what you think, people! Ok, not exactly what you think.

Perhaps in no small measure to Dr. Watson’s own efforts, we often come to see Sherlock Holmes as someone not quite human.††† He’s almost like a Victorian superhero–smarter than everyone else, able to bend pokers straight again with skinny arms and no exercise, defeating all comers with his expertise in fencing, single-stick fighting and baritsu. There’s the whole not-eating-or-sleeping thing, described by a man who needs humbugs on a stake-out. In his efforts to chronicle the detective’s exploits and (let’s be honest) sell stories, Holmes’ admiring Boswell sacrifices a bit of his flatmate’s humanity in the telling.

Ms. Cypser’s Holmes, however, is extremely relatable. Unlike other writers who take on the project of exploring Sherlock Holmes’ unrecorded youth, she doesn’t bring in unusual characters or spectacular adventures. Sherlock’s dilemmas are, instead, familiar to all of us. He wonders how to reconcile his skills and interests with the courses and careers available to him. He has difficulty making friends and runs afoul of a student known for his ability to destroy reputations with a few well-placed rumors.  He tangles with authority, both academic and familial, building the confidence he needs to make that final, necessary break. In the second half of the book, he begins to try his hand at detective work, but his “cases” are such as one might expect to find in a university setting; not a stolen jewel or secret weapon among them. Most importantly, however, he grapples with the puzzle of his own mind. Without asking for a show of hands, I imagine that quite of few of us have come to realize the uncomfortable truth that, due to trauma, biology, or a nasty concoction of both, our minds can venture into places we would never willingly go. And while psychology was still in its infancy some 140 years ago, you’ll likely find Sherlock’s attempts to regain control of his mental health very familiar–and will come to see how they may have continued to affect him in as an adult. None of this is spelled out for the reader. Instead, Ms. Cypser skillfully and subtly takes the events of Sherlock’s university career and, just as she did in The Crack in the Lens, leaves it for the reader to deduce how they helped to create the detective of Baker Street. Some, such as the experimental medication Dr. Mackenzie prescribes to help Sherlock through an especially difficult time, are obvious. Others are less so.

Which is great, because, like its predecessor, University stands up well to re-reading. As a matter of fact, the reading upon which I am basing this review is my fourth–since April.  University is impressively well-researched and documented; several characters are based on actual people, and there is an essay on sources in the back of the book. When it comes time for Holmes to spend time with Victor Trevor and his father at Donnithorpe–a crucial event which Watson records as “The Gloria Scott”–canon and book are expertly combined. Ms. Cypser’s own prose is plain and workman-like. She will likely never be accused of waxing rhapsodic about moss-covered brick walls.‡ Still, Holmes’ world is vividly drawn and compelling; once you enter, you won’t want to leave. Occasionally, I found myself wishing for a little more detail. When Sherlock goes home for the Christmas holidays during his first year at school, for instance, I had to wonder what the local young women thought of him. Was he desirable, as the son of a Squire with at least a few prospects in life? Had the rumors of his relationship with Violet Rushdale and his subsequent illness damaged any cachet he might have had with them? Does he have to avoid them? Were there awkward encounters? Wouldn’t Mrs. Holmes, with her social instincts and lack of perception, push both Sherlock and Mycroft to come away from the punch bowl and mingle? Ms. Cypser does briefly address Sherlock’s (and Mycroft’s) views of women in two instances, and I am sure the question will figure in future volumes, but I felt there was a missed opportunity here. What I loved most about University, however, was the suspense. Although I enjoyed The Crack in the Lens immensely, there were times when I wondered why a particular scene was included and, for me, this slowed down the story.  University presents no such problems. Every scene has an ultimate purpose, and nothing is wasted. I was pulled in from the first, and had no desire to resurface. During one particularly suspenseful chapter (there are several), I found myself beginning to worry about Sherlock–then realized with a start that *spoiler alert* the very existence of the canon meant that he would be able to fight his way through. My advice? Forget chores, ignore the laundry, order takeout for dinner and just settle in for the ride. You’ll miss it when it’s over.

Have you read either The Crack in the Lens or University? Got a comment or question to share? First commenter wins their choice of either book–plus a copy of one of several books for which the authors have designated profits to go to the Undershaw Preservation Trust’s efforts to save Arthur Conan Doyle’s home. A list of these books will be provided for you with your notification e-mail.

The Consulting Detective Trilogy, Part I: University is available at all major online booksellers, and a large number of brick-and-mortar shops. For a comprehensive list, see http://www.foolscap-quill.com/booksellers.html. It can also be had in e-book format. Both of Ms. Cypser’s Sherlock Holmes books have Facebook fan pages. Other information is available at http://www.foolscap-quill.com/.

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

Notes:

* In the interests of full disclosure, I will tell you that the author asked me (and several others) to read her book and make comments pre-publication. Other than providing a list of typos, I contributed nothing to its content. I am reviewing the published version of the book.

**This is how I prefer to see it. My husband calls it being “an annoying control freak,”  but long drives make him irritable.

***It started out as pneumonia, but became something much more serious. Although it isn’t absolutely necessary to have read The Crack in the Lens before University, I do think it helps the reader understand Sherlock’s struggles in a more visceral way.

†Doyle tells us that Holmes attended university, but exactly which university is up for spirited debate. For a good Cambridge (and Sidney Sussex) argument, see: Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “Holmes’ College Career” in her book, Unpopular Opinions.  For Oxford, consult Nicholas Utechin’s Sherlock Holmes at Oxford. Both books are available at a reasonable price from Amazon. For a nice online write-up on the history of Sidney Sussex College, see http://www.sid.cam.ac.uk/aboutus/visitors/history.html. And, by the way, University explains exactly why we have to have this debate at all.

††”The Man With the Twisted Lip”

†††In some instances, he isn’t human at all. See Robert Lee Hall’s Exit Sherlock Holmes.

‡See Watson’s description of just such a wall in “The Retired Colourman.”

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Filed under Darlene Cypser, Five-star reviews, Foolscap and Quill, Holmes and Drugs, Holmes and Love, Holmes and Sex, Holmes as a Youth, Holmes Family, Real Historical Personages

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

Find and circle all of the women in this picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Questions with Amy Thomas

One day, while wondering how to vary blog content while still keeping with the book review theme, it dawned on me that readers tend to be interested in all aspects of book-making, not just the final product. With that in mind, I decided to ask several authors of books I’ve recently reviewed if they would like to answer some interview questions. Without exception, they all quite kindly agreed. I now plan to make this a fairly regular blog feature.

“Not that kind of book-making, Watson. Put your cheque-book away, or I shall be forced to lock it up again.”

My first interview is with Amy Thomas, Baker Street Babe and author of the recently released and well-received The Detective and the Woman (London: MX, 2012), an adventure which teams Holmes up with the Woman, Irene Adler. This is Amy’s first book, and I wanted to get her take on what it’s like to be a new author, as well as her experience writing Holmes, and her views on the enigmatic Irene Adler….

Is it true that The Detective and the Woman began as a NaNoWriMo project? Did you think of it specifically for  NaNoWriMo, or had it been percolating awhile? And, the obvious question is: how in the world did you finish?

Yes! It started as a NaNoWriMo project in 2011. I had heard of NaNoWriMo a while ago, and last year I realized that I had the time and the desire to actually take the plunge and attempt it. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it for the first few days in case I couldn’t finish, but as I got going, I became more confident that I could do it. I’m not even sure how I finished—the novel actually took me seventeen days! I spent most of my free time writing, obviously, and I found the free tools on the NaNo website really helpful because they tracked my wordcount and gave me a way to make sure I wasn’t getting behind.

Doing NaNoWriMo was also a chance for me to find the silver lining in a dark cloud, namely, the fact that I have active Crohn’s Disease, which is an autoimmune digestive disorder and major health challenge. Because of my physical limitations, I have a lot more time to devote to things like writing than I would have had if I was working full time outside the home.

As far as thinking of the content of the novel, it was a combination of ideas that had been percolating in my brain and new ideas that came during November. I was very inspired when I re-read the Holmes canon in 2010, and many things in the novel are definitely a result of those thoughts.

How did you first meet Sherlock Holmes?

I encountered Sherlock Holmes some time before the age of ten. I remember being vastly creeped out by an audiobook that had “The Speckled Band” on it, and I went on to read many of the stories. I was extremely heartbroken when Holmes “died,” but my older sister took pity on me and told me about “The Empty House,” which, if I recall correctly, greatly annoyed my mother, who wanted me to have to discover it all for myself.

Over the next few years, a friend introduced me to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King, and I became a huge fan of her Holmes series as well.

What drew you to Irene Adler as a heroine?

The Sherlock Holmes canon contains a very small quantity of feminine characters, and as an adult woman re-reading it, I found myself thinking about how I would respond to Holmes if I were a part of the stories and identifying, to some extent, with Irene Adler. I particularly enjoyed Irene’s lack of awe at his brilliance coupled with her respect for him as a man and an equal. In addition, I found her character arc in “A Scandal in Bohemia” fascinating because Holmes begins the story thinking of her as the villain and ends up regarding her as honorable, more so than his client.

Irene has been used as a heroine, a villainess, or love interest for Holmes many times. How do you think your version of Irene differs, and how did you decide on the way in which you wished to portray her?

One of the main differences between my version and others is that I wrote Irene primarily as a person, rather than as a woman. That isn’t to say she’s unfeminine. Conan Doyle emphasized aspects of her femininity, and I did as well; however, I wanted to explore her motivations and intelligence beyond her sexuality.

I imagined what would have happened if Holmes and Irene had been thrown together again after “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and I found that the level of respect they both displayed for one another by the end of the story provided a solid basis for a friendship of equal minds, albeit one that goes through several necessary trials of trust.

Irene is a bit of a blank slate in the canon, but Sherlock Holmes is not. Did you find his character hard to write? Why or why not? Did you try to mimic ACD’s version, are there other versions you used for inspiration, or did you let your imagination take over?

My story is a non-traditional pastiche in the sense that I did not seek to imitate Conan Doyle’s writing style or use Dr. Watson as a narrator. I was far more interested in exploring the psychology of Holmes and Irene and following their thought processes through a case. The canon is certainly my main influence, but Conan Doyle definitely did not approach his characters the way I did. As a result, my imagination had to take me from Holmes as he’s described by his creator to the more internal world I wanted to portray. Laurie R. King was an inspiration in this area because she provides a more internalized perspective than Conan Doyle. I did not seek to copy her portrayal, but I was inspired by her approach.

My analysis of Holmes’s character had been part of my thought processes since re-reading the stories in 2010, so when I sat down to actually pen the novel, I didn’t find him difficult to write. His actions flowed from the idea of him that I had already formed mentally.

Do you read a lot of pastiche? If so, do you have favorite authors, books/stories, or themes? 

I write book reviews for the Baker Street Babes, so I am always reading Holmes pastiches of all kinds. Laurie R. King is my favorite pastiche author, and I also think The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer is an exceptional example of the genre. Generally, I prefer books that do not try to sound exactly like Conan Doyle because it’s very difficult to do well.

You’ve written some fan fiction. Did you find this experience useful when writing The Detective and the Woman?

Definitely! Fanfiction is great writing practice because there are many accessible ways to make it available online and receive feedback from readers. One of the only major differences between a quality work of fanfiction and a pastiche is that the second has been published for profit, and fanfiction can be a wonderful way for someone who wants to write a novel to get their feet wet. The positive comments I received from readers of my fanfiction helped give me the confidence I needed to write a full-length book and offer it to be considered for publication.

You’re one of the Baker Street Babes, which is a very diverse group of young women. How did you all meet each other?

I met a few of my fellow Babes through the Baker Street Supper Club, a fansite devoted to the BBC’s Sherlock television series. Several of them were already podcasting together when they asked me to join them to help interview Laurie R. King in 2011, and they invited me to join them permanently in early 2012 as a contributor to the podcast and one of the book reviewers for the website.

What’s it like being a published author? Is it like you expected? What’s surprised you?

The publishing process happened very quickly for me, much more quickly than I had ever expected. In some ways, I feel like I’m still in shock when I see my name on the front of a published novel. One of the main surprises has been the ease of the process, all the way from finding a publisher to the book launch. I know that my experience has been atypical in many ways, but I’ve been very blessed to work with a wonderful publisher (Steve Emecz from MX Publishing) who truly understands and supports Holmes pastiche.

And of course we all want to know about your future writing plans…

Right now I’m working on a sequel to The Detective and The Woman, which is based on a tantalizing quote from the Holmes canon about a man who goes into his house to retrieve his umbrella and disappears forever.*

“Oh, c’mon Holmes! It’s not fair that Miss Adler gets to know what happened to James Phillimore and I don’t!”

*Raise your hand if the James Phillimore story is your favorite of the “tin dispatch box” cases!  *raises hand*

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

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Filed under Amy Thomas, Baker Street Babes, Interview

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

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

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

1. Determine I will do it. This time.

2. Sign up.

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

4. Evening out.

5. Sick kid.

6. Intense FB debate about…something.

7. Veteran’s Day

8. Who am I kidding?

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

1. Wrote a book.

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

2. Published it.

The Detective and the Woman is that book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*National Novel Writing Month

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

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

✝Particularly in fan fiction.

✝✝Don’t laugh. People do this.

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

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

Andriacco, Dan. No Police Like Holmes. London: MX, 2011

Sherlock Holmes has a sense of humor. Of course he does. He even trots it out on occasion, such as when he slips the Mazarin Stone into Lord Cantlemere’s pocket, or finds the ridiculous in a client’s situation. One might argue that once, he even laughed at himself, when Watson scored “a distinct touch” on his friend’s vanity in “The Valley of Fear.” But, in general, Sherlock Holmes takes himself very, very seriously, so we do, too.

Watson didn’t really find this amusing.

Thomas Jefferson Cody, public relations director for the Cincinnati-area* St. Benignus College, and the actual hero of Dan Andriacco’s new mystery series,**  also takes himself rather seriously.  Unfortunately for him, however, readers probably won’t.  And who can blame them? The recently-single Cody is neurotic, envious, a bit of a nag, slightly judgemental, and a trifle immature. He’s easily annoyed by others’ foibles, is sure his (as yet unpublished) detective novels are better than those  of his (published) brother-in-law, has a wandering eye, and  checks his ex-girlfriend’s  relationship status on Facebook regularly.

In other words, he’s a lot like us and, because he’s so relatable, he’s funny.

Jeff Cody lives in the shadow of his flamboyant, more successful brother-in-law,*** Sebastian McCabe–literally, since he has an apartment in the carriage house on the man’s property. However, it’s this association which catapults Jeff’s life from covering campus events, media relations, and handling his difficult boss into a weekend of mystery, danger, and (maybe) romance.

Sebastian McCabe, in addition to holding an endowed chair and being a successful author, is an avid Sherlockian, and he’s used his influence and powerful persuasive skills to convince wealthy businessman Woolcott Chalmers to donate his sizable collection of Sherlockiana to St. Benignus’ library. This is no mean acquisition: the Chalmers Collection includes a copy of Beetons’ 1887 Christmas Annual, 100 manuscript pages of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Bertram Fletcher-Robinson’s personal first edition of HOUN, inscribed by Sir Arthur himself. To celebrate this amazing coup, McCabe organizes a weekend colloquium, to give Sherlockians a chance to hear speakers, mingle, visit the dealers’ room, view the collection in its new home

…and steal…

…and murder….

When the collection’s crown jewels are stolen before the conference has a chance to begin, and a prominent Cincinnati attorney (and Sherlockian collector) is killed not twenty-four hours later, some colloquium attendees find the mystery irresistible. So do McCabe, Cody, and Cody’s ex-girlfriend, reporter Lynda Teal, although their motivations are a little more personal. McCabe, after all, brought the collection to the college in the first place, and Cody needs to end the public relations nightmare as soon as possible. And then there’s the troubling fact that, as far as he knows, Lynda was the last person to see the dead man alive.

And that’s as far as I can go, although I’d love to tell you more. Andriacco gives readers an engaging problem and familiar characters to solve it. If you don’t see yourself in one of them, you’ll see someone you know, and that makes their foibles and triumphs that much more enjoyable. I have yet to attend a Sherlockian conference myself, but I’ve spent enough time in academia (and around geeky obsessives) to appreciate Cody’s world and his slightly jaundiced view of it. Andriacco avoids the temptation to make his two heroes “Holmes” and “Watson.”  Sure, McCabe quotes Holmes and applies his methods, but he’s as far from the aesthetic, unclubbable, moody (and really thin) Holmes as it’s possible to be, while Cody is not the hero-worshipping and completely loyal Watson. In fact, he’d be ecstatic if his attempts to use his fictional detective’s methods won out over McCabe’s. And if he did do quite a bit (ok, most) of the legwork, and ended up writing it all down, well, like Watson in HOUN, he’s the one who saw the most action, now, wasn’t he?

“Why must you always insist on wearing a deerstalker to conferences, Holmes?”

Andriacco does cram a lot of action into that Sherlockian weekend. By providing two crimes, which may or not be related, and several characters with enough plausible motivation to commit either or both, he presents the reader with a nicely tangled knot. I will say that while I did figure out the answer(s),✝ there were enough twists and turns at the end to make me doubt my intuition and fear for my favorite character. And, as with any good mystery, suspecting the ending didn’t make getting there any less entertaining.

I have to say, however, that Jeff Cody has one stylistic quirk that I found troublesome. Because he writes in first person, and does it well, the reader stays firmly inside his head. Unfortunately, that makes one privy to some thoughts that seem a bit misplaced. For instance, when,  after a harrowing experience, Lynda seeks comfort in Cody’s arms and says she needs a drink, our hero, intoxicated by the danger, her nearness, and her perfume, also sees fit to tell us about one of her favorite websites. This, and similar asides elsewhere, tends to ruin the moment. Jeff, buddy, let us keep the tension.  You can share those little details later!

If you’re like me, you read a lot of dark, serious books about dark, serious people doing dark, serious things. Possibly while listening to dark, serious songs. But it’s springtime and sometimes you just need to rip off the dark✝✝  glasses and step out into fresh air and sunshine. Of course there’s nothing at all amusing about theft and murder, but Andriacco’s characters and their lives are so very normal and untormented, his writing style so light, and his observations so witty that No Police Like Holmes is an enjoyable, palate-cleansing romp of a mystery with a little Sherlockian education thrown in. Take it with you to the park or the beach and see if you can catch the culprit first!

No Police Like Holmes is available through the Baker Street Babes website, the MX publishing site, and your regular online bookseller, in both print and e-book form.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5   “Well worth your time and money”

Footnotes:

*As someone who lives in the Midwest, I found this very appealing. Not everything in the US has to happen in LA, New York, or Boston.

**It’s billed as a “Sebastian McCabe mystery,” but Cody seems to be the primary character, and steals the show.

***Unless you call a flame-red 1959 Chevy Convertible, marching around campus in a kilt, playing bagpipes, regular use of sleight-of-hand and 19th century speech patterns understated.

✝I rarely do, in mysteries, so I felt the need to brag. Sorry.

✝✝And serious

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Filed under Dan Andriacco, Four-star reviews, Holmes-related fiction, Jeff Cody and Sebastian McCabe, MX Publishing

Cypser, Darlene. The Crack in the Lens. Morrison, CO: 2010.

Yes, Watson, We Were Shocked, Too

As one reads through the canon, it’s easy to believe, along with Watson, that Sherlock Holmes is “an isolated phenomenon,” that he simply sprang forth a wholly-formed adult from…well, somewhere. And even after we’ve gone to the Diogenes and met Mycroft in “The Greek Interpreter,”* and learned the few facts Holmes provides about his family and youth, we really don’t know that much more about them. “My ancestors were country squires,” he says, “who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class.” To spice things up a bit, he then tells Watson that his grandmother was a sister of the French artist, Vernet,** and that, “art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” And that’s pretty much all Watson ever tells us, thereby whetting the imaginations of pastiche writers everywhere.

Because, of course, Sherlock Holmes didn’t just appear one day. He has a family, a childhood, an adolescence, all three of which have inspired plenty of creative speculations in both film and print. In today’s book, The Crack in the Lens, Darlene Cypser takes her turn, taking us back to the year 1871, when Sherlock, then 17, faces two critical events which force him to learn hard lessons about the darker side of human nature, loss, and resilience.

Of course he has no idea what’s coming. He’s just returned to his native Yorkshire with his parents, Squire Siger*** and his wife, from a two-year sojourn among his maternal relatives in the south of France, where they travelled in hopes of improving Sherlock’s delicate health. He has a tendency towards serious lung problems and, to his ex-cavalry officer father’s consternation, has been labelled “delicate” by the family physician. Despite this, he’s an active, intelligent young man, who can’t wait to take his horse and dog out for a ride on the moors around the manor house to explore his old childhood haunts, like an old stone hut. But the Holmes family is in transition, now. Sherlock’s oldest brother, Sherrinford✝ is about to be married and is taking on many of the duties that will one day be his as squire, while Mycroft is living and working in London as a government accountant. The squire is in the process of hiring a tutor in hopes of preparing Sherlock to gain admittance to university, where, he hopes, his youngest son will study engineering and find gainful employment in the rapidly expanding British Empire. This won’t be the only change in Sherlock’s life this year; on this, his first ride out onto the springtime moors, he encounters Violet Rushdale, the daughter of one of the Holmes’ tenant farmers.

The North Yorkshire Moors. Much More Interesting Than Mathematics.

She’s shot a hare, and her hands bear evidence of hard work, which makes no sense to him, as his father’s tenant farmers tend to be fairly prosperous. She claims that poor harvests have caused everyone hardship, but he doesn’t quite believe her. From Sherrinford, who took care of manor business while the squire was away, he learns that Violet’s mother died of cholera a couple of years before, and her father took to drink in response. Godfrey Rushdale is now barely functional, and it’s fallen to Violet to try to keep their lives together. When Sherlock visits the now-ruined farm himself, he learns that she’s done so by gathering herbs for some village women, and selling off livestock and family belongings–now in short supply. He helps her take some furniture to town, and to get a good price for the Rushdale wagon, thus beginning a friendship which deepens as weeks pass.

He is, in fact, much more interested in Violet than he is in the Greek, Latin, mathematics and astronomy lessons presented by his new tutor, James Moriarty (who has this strange, oscillating tic). Still in his twenties, Moriarty has already gained academic acclaim for his papers on the binomial theorem and asteroidal dynamics. Sherlock wonders why the professor resigned his chair at Westgate University, apparently giving up on a promising career to become a tutor.  He has an almost instant, intuitive distrust of the man, which he can’t explain; Moriarty seems nice enough, and works hard to curry favor with the family. When Sherlock begins to suspect Moriarty of subtly cruel manipulations, such as making it impossible for him to finish his work, then complaining to the Squire that he is lazy–or worse, altering the work itself– no one believes him. For his part, Moriarty  wonders why, exactly, Sherlock is so eager to have his afternoons free, why he wants to go out riding on the moors so often.

The answer, of course, is Violet. Sherlock finds her fascinating enough all by herself, but he also relishes the freedom and time away from his cold, demanding father, mentally absent mother and the reptilian Moriarty. One thing leads to another, with the predictable result and its predictable consequences. What could have just been a small family scandal, however, with Moriarty’s cruelty added to the mix, becomes a tragedy that threatens four lives and forces Sherlock out of childhood towards the man he will become.

In The Crack in the Lens, Ms. Cypser, long-time Sherlockian and current president of the Denver scion society, “Dr. Watson’s Neglected Patients,” has written a book which should appeal to both newbies and seasoned fans. There are plenty of nods to both canon and William S. Baring-Gould’s biography of Holmes (although she does not follow the latter slavishly), but one does not need to have either memorized to follow the plot. As a young man, Sherlock has many characteristics of the Great Detective already in place: he’s observant, for instance, and he and Mycroft play a little game of deduction which Sherrinford is not very good at. Cypser works glimpses of these traits into “slice of life” episodes, such as a visit to the Lammas Day Fair in Yorkshire, where Sherlock, serving as his sister-in-law’s escort, makes a fool of a thimblerig con and, through his kindness in discouraging some young purse-snatchers, ends up inspiring their loyalty later in the day. It’s during this trip that Sherrinford points out that his younger brother has a morbid streak–a fascination with the Newgate Calendar.✝✝ Some readers may find that these sections move a little slowly, but it’s interesting to imagine the Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street ribbing his brother about his wedding jitters, complaining about his annoying little cousin, George Challenger;  shooting grouse, teaching a dale boy to fence, looking for fossils, or working in area fields during the harvest.

This last, of course, isn’t what a country squire’s son would normally be doing. In fact, he’s sent there as a punishment for what Moriarty leads Siger Holmes to believe is laziness. One gets a sense of why Holmes doesn’t speak fondly of his parents in later life; with both father and mother too caught up in their own interests and  duties, the young Sherlock gets his only real familial affection from his brothers, and it shows in their interactions. While the scenes between Sherlock and Violet are sweet and natural, those involving either the Squire or the Professor are  unpleasantly electric, particularly as the conflict escalates. Sherlock is keenly aware that he will never be able to please his father; it doesn’t help that Moriarty is not a villain with comprehensible motives, but a different creature entirely. Each time Sherlock brings an accusation against his tutor, the reader is bound to ask, along with Mycroft, Sherrinford, and their father, “Why? Why in the world would anyone do that?” The answer, of course, is one that gradually becomes clear to Sherlock and, unfortunately, to many of us in our own lives: he does it because he can. Because some people are simply evil.

Some readers may be surprised to find that, in the final chapters, Sherlock Holmes is not the calmly cerebral person they envision from Watson’s stories. I thought that myself, the first time I read it–at least, I thought he was a little over-dramatic. Then, however, I thought back a few decades to my own adolescence. To my own very emotional reactions to events both small and traumatic, and to those of friends and classmates. It’s easy, as an adult, to forget how it felt to be dependent on parental actions and support, to not have the confidence earned through experience, or the sad yet resilient assurance that the sun will shine tomorrow, and we’d best get on with it. No one is born with this knowledge; it’s gained through living, and living much longer than 17 years. And at any rate, as his friend continually points out, Watson sees, but does not observe, and those “hidden fires” are never so secret as he imagines they are.

The Crack in the Lens is exciting and enjoyable, highly recommended for anyone who doesn’t mind extra-canonical speculation in their pastiches. And if that’s what you particularly enjoy, you’ll be pleased to know that a sequel, which follows Holmes to university, is due to be released this spring. I, for one, am looking forward to it. And I would love to know what happened to Professor Hastings.

Well, this ends our February exploration of  Sherlockian romance. There will be more later, never fear! But for now, the first to comment on this post wins a copy of The Crack in the Lens, or if you already own it, its sequel when available (most likely in March). So don’t be shy–let me know what you think!

The Crack in the Lens is available from Amazon and other major online booksellers, as either a print or e-book. For more information, including a list of sources, see www.thecrackinthelens.com

Star Rating: 4 out of 5: “Highly enjoyable; worth your time and money.”

Footnotes:

*Sherlockian convention dictates that, for brevity’s sake, each story be generally referred to by an abbreviation of its first four letters. “The Greek Interpreter,” for example, is therefore written as GREE.

**Typically, he does not tell us which Vernet. Baring-Gould picks Antoine C.H., aka Carle, 1758-1835.

***Baring-Gould got the name “Siger” from the alias Holmes uses during the Great Hiatus, “Sigerson,” which, in the Norwegian it was purported to be, means “Siger’s Son.”

✝ Baring-Gould invented Sherrinford to explain why Mycroft and Sherlock, sons of a country squire, were not actually living in the country. As the eldest, Sherrinford would inherit, and his brothers would need to find other occupations.

✝✝ This used to be a monthly record of executions in Newgate Prison. By Sherlock’s time, it was a collection of moral stories, rather dramatic, based on the misdeeds and sorry deaths of famous historical criminals, and apparently a common book in English homes.



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Filed under Darlene Cypser, Foolscap and Quill, Four-star reviews, Holmes and Love, Holmes and Sex, Holmes as a Youth, Holmes Family, Moriarty

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