Tag Archives: #watsonvoice

And…We’re Back

Don't faint, or anything.

Don’t faint, or anything.

Well, it hasn’t been three years, although it certainly seems like it. Jaime Mahoney (of Better Holmes and Gardens fame) and I have finally finished our book! When we first came up with the idea, in February of 2012, we had no idea how large an undertaking it would be, but finally, last week, we delivered all 580 pages, plus illustrations, to our publisher, Wessex Press.*

And none too soon. The Clean Police are here.

And none too soon. The Clean Police are here.

It was, excepting the occasional day of frustration and panic, a wonderfully rewarding experience in which I learned how little sleep I actually require, and the kids learned that clothing can, in fact, be reworn. For weeks. I also discovered what a remarkably patient, supportive, and tolerant husband I have, and how thankful I am that his job provides work clothes.

One of the most excellent benefits of writing this book is that, while conducting research, I had the opportunity to read or sample dozens of wonderful Sherlockian or Sherlock Holmes-related books. Through them, I gained a much greater appreciation of how incredibly broad our niche can be, and of what it means to be a “well-read Sherlockian.” There is so much great stuff out there, guys!!!! 

And I cannot wait to share it with you.

A Note on Policy:

I first conceived of this blog as a place to review pastiche, and that’s still going to be its primary focus.  However, be prepared for a good deal more non-fiction and Doyleana in the coming year. I have several series I need to catch up on, and there were some review requests which came in during the little hiatus that I will try to fill, although I have no idea when those reviews will appear. If you have a book which you would like me to review, feel free to send a request, via comment, but at this time, I am not really sure that I can promise to meet a particular time frame. Also, please be aware that a review is not a promotional service. Every reviewer walks a tightrope between being fair to the writer and honest with the reader, and in the end, our loyalties must lie with the latter. If you request a review from me, and I feel that, for whatever reason, the book will not appeal to most Sherlock Holmes fans, either due to quality or content, I will not run a piece on it.

I have also decided to revamp the “star system.”  Most of us, I think, are not static as Sherlockians; we grow and change, both in our knowledge of, and our appreciation for, certain topics. Although I don’t review it here, I am ridiculously obsessed with fanfiction, which has given me a greater appreciation of AU; I have also become more aware of some Canonical debates. At the same time, I realize that many people who read Sherlock Holmes pastiches are looking for continuations of the Canon, Watson-Voice included. Therefore, I am going to review each book with a dual star rating, like the one I used for Margaret Park Bridge’s My Dear Watson. One star will be for general content, story elements, pacing, interest, historical accuracy, etc–the quality of the story itself. The second star will be for Canonical content and accuracy (as far as I can determine). In this way, the reader who is simply looking for a good story and does not care about chronology or who Watson’s wife is will not be dissuaded by a low star rating, while the person who will have a stroke if the jackknife is not in its proper place will be warned off. I think this approach will better serve both writer and reader, as well as saving me hours of hair-pulling angst.

I will be starting off the new review season with a look at two series we’ve been following in the blog. An October-esque anthology will follow, along with a new essay collection. After that, who knows?

It will be a surprise.

It will be a surprise.

Footnote:

*I am not going to use this blog to promote the book.  Because I love you all. However, I will say that we are anticipating that it will be released in January–or (given its size) sometime in the spring.

3 Comments

Filed under Administrative, AU (Alternative Universe), Canon Works

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”).

2 Comments

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

Ruffle, David. Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror. (Expanded 2nd ed.) London: MX Publishing, 2011.

The Harbor and the Cobb

January is a time for new beginnings. This book experienced a rebirth of sorts late last year, going from a well-received self-published story to a revised and expanded edition with the Holmesian publisher, MX, complete with a gorgeous new cover. The first edition cover features a view of the sea at either sunrise or sunset. It’s  pretty, but not exactly evocative of the word “horror” (although, come to think of it, the contrast does bring to mind Holmes’ particular view of beautiful scenery).* The new cover, done in rich browns, looks like the negative of a sepia photograph, and is fittingly ominous without being over-the-top. The lettering is lovely, calling to mind age, sand, and…dust?
The contents, however, are ultimately what matters, and Mr. Ruffle manages to fit quite a bit into 265 pages. So much content, in fact, that in the interest of brevity, I’m dividing this review into two parts:  “The Lyme Regis Horror,” and the other, shorter stories.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror” begins, not surprisingly, with a provenance story. You know how people who are not you are always finding exciting things in their old houses? Instead of mouldy utility bills and smelly polyester, Mr. Ruffle found the literary Holy Grail in the walls of his Lyme Regis home: a Watson manuscript.  Although his attempts to authenticate it remain inconclusive, he’s nice enough to share it with us.
Like most stories Watson thought best to hide in dispatch boxes or walls,  this one has sensational elements. And, like most of his tales, it starts quietly enough, with Watson boring Holmes with cricket, worries about the morocco case, an invitation from an old school friend/teammate and, finally, the doctor convincing his friend to accompany him on a brief holiday to Lyme Regis. Watson, of course, is eager for sea air, good friends, and relaxation. Holmes is tempted by an exhibition on paleontologist and Dean of Westminster, William Buckland; fossil-hunting, and his favorite pet project, using local dialect to connect people in the southern sea-faring regions of Britain to Phoenician traders.**  As they get off the train at Axminster, neither has any idea his world is about to be emotionally and spiritually upended.
Watson is shaken first, when the landlady of their boarding house turns out to be the very image of his late wife, Mary. Beatrice Heidler, widowed by the Boer War, is focused on her teenaged son, Nathaniel, and has never considered  remarriage. The attraction between the two is instant, however. Their courtship is realistically tentative, and we get to see why Watson is such an appealing suitor.***
Holmes, of course, has other interests. Despite his professed enthusiasm for ancient worlds, he must be harboring some fears of ennui, because once Watson’s friend Dr. Jacobs mentions “most curious events,” he’s on it like a pitbull and won’t let go until Jacobs describes them and “omits no detail.” The events (without  details) are these:
  • A mysterious schooner appears during a storm (some believe it brought the storm with it). There’s no evidence of a crew and by the morning it has vanished, leaving behind three boxes of earth. These are later claimed by a Count Orlana, who is staying at Haye Manor. Said manor belongs to Sir Peter Rattenbury, an expert in Eastern Europe, currently away in Italy.
  • The “Black Dog of Lyme” has been seen recently, both in its traditional haunt of Haye Lane, and throughout Lyme Regis.
  • 18 year-old Rose Hannington, patient of another area doctor, has recently died of a wasting illness, possibly an exotic anaemia, yet has been seen, apparently quite solid, in the cemetery and near her family home.
Within 36 hours, Dr. Jacobs calls on our friends to examine a body on the beach, Rose’s cousin Elizabeth takes ill,  and we are off to the races.
Holmes and Watson may not know what’s going on, but by this time, the reader certainly does (if you don’t, consider this a spoiler warning). The only mystery left is whether or not Ruffle can put his own twist on a match-up which has been done countless times in the pastiche universe.
I was dubious, I’ll admit.  And vampires don’t particularly scare me, so I wondered how Ruffle would keep me in the story. The answer lies in his ability to put across the challenge this villain poses to the heroes’ views of the world and the evil it contains. This is not someone to turn over to the police, to send away to Australia, pardon de facto, or deliver to Divine Justice through shipwreck. This is Moriarty redux, with the disturbing difference that they can’t have been the only men in 500 hundred years to have taken him to the ledge.
“The Lyme Regis Horror” begins sedately enough.  Ruffle knows Holmes and Watson very well; canon devotees will find plenty of insider references and familiar-sounding (though not verbatim) phrases. The Watsonian voice is decently done and witty; Ruffle stays in his narrator’s head the entire time. Holmes is mellower than he is often portrayed, particularly when he quickly catches on to Watson’s fascination with Mrs. Heidler; perhaps his experience with Watson’s first (second? twelfth?) marriage has assured him that he will not be displaced. He also seems to know more about Jane Austen than one would suspect of a man who sneers at softer emotions. On another interesting note, Holmes (using his impossible/improbable line of reasoning) is convinced early on that the culprit is supernatural, while the two physicians take some convincing. I never felt, however, that either Holmes or Watson was veering out of character.
One of Ruffle’s great strengths is his ear for dialogue; it rarely rings false, and is often quite funny such as when   Watson informs Mrs. Jacobs that his writing is not for children, or the Inspector advises everyone not to “quibble with small details.”  If a little too much time is spent delineating incidents in local history which don’t relate to the plot, it can be forgiven; Watson does like travel guides.
When it’s time to bring the suspense, Ruffle delivers as well. The atmosphere changes perceptibly when Sarah Jacobs opens the door to the Count. The following confrontation is electrifying, and reminds the reader that Holmes is truly master of the “and the horse you came in on” speech. The feeling of dread continues as Holmes, Watson, and Jacobs ready themselves for battle; they don’t know whether or not they’re coming back, and neither do we. In fact, as they walk towards the manor in dark of early morning, Ruffle’s description is so skillful, the chills are palpable.
Ruffle’s ability as a writer is, finally, evident in his deceptively simple denouement. In it, he takes up a thread I had thought dangling and superfluous, using it to pull the physical and emotional parts of the story together. I won’t divulge any more except to say that, as a writer, I admired the skill with which he accomplished this, and found myself thinking about it all day.
As a writer, reader, and reviewer, I have learned not to disparage self-published work. Sure, Mr. Ruffle is now working with an accepted publisher;  remember, however, he first published “Horror” on his own. It’s a perfect example of how one should never be afraid to take a chance on an unknown. You’ll often be glad you did.
*Holmes famously said, “…the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” (COPP)
**It may sound silly. However, the ancient Greek geographer Strabo mentions that the Phoenicians traded in tin brought from Britain.
***He tells her “the laundry can take care of itself.” Who doesn’t love a man like that?
Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. You can buy it in a Kindle version, but not for Nook.  It can also be purchased directly from MX Publishing, or from independent bookstores, such as The Poisoned Pen.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5

1 Comment

Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), David Ruffle, Four-star reviews, MX Publishing, Supernatural