Tag Archives: True crime

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

Bees, Boring? Perish the Thought!

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

Dr. John Watson: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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