Posts Tagged ‘Doctor Watson’

August favourites #8: Sherlock Holmes

August 8, 2018

Sherlock Holmes has become a legend over the years; I think Conan Doyle was sharp enough to realise in his own real, and Holmes’ imaginary lifetime. Obviously we know that the great popularity of the stories in Victorian and Edwardian England was sufficient for the writer to bring his hero back from his supposed watery grave in the Reichenbach falls, but I think the friendship, companionship and partnership between Holmes and Watson goes even deeper than the sleuthing. In his imaginary retirement bee-keeping on the Sussex Downs, Holmes’ reputation endures, and he goes on to serve his country in the immediate run-up to the Great War, in the very last story (chronologically speaking), which has a far chillier atmosphere than crime-laden Victorian London. Holmes’ final patriotic act as the shadows darken over Europe is the outwitting of the German master-spy Von Bork in the story His Last Bow, which I think is a real masterpiece.

Advertisements

The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories Part 1

July 14, 2016

51L5bqa127L._AC_US160_It’s beginning to make me cross, now: you would expect that someone who’s not English, not British, who doesn’t speak British English, who’s not familiar with nineteenth century English history, and who wanted to write a story set in Victorian London would at least pass a draft of it to someone who was more familiar with those places and times and say, “Please would you read this for me and tell me if I’ve made any glaring errors?” So, why the hell don’t they? Why does so much downright tosh end up in print?

Rant over; let’s take a slightly more considered look at this volume, which is by no means as awful as the last one I reviewed the other week. By and large, a lot more attention is paid in these stories to accuracy in the Victorian language register, as well as details of the setting being more carefully considered, and so the whole is rather more convincing. We also do see Holmes engaged in a decent amount of detective work. This book is, however, also marred by small but annoying proof-reading errors. There’s more sense of real interplay between Holmes and Watson, although still a number of writers seem to think Watson is Holmes’ assistant, in the sense of office-boy or runaround, which jars a lot. Occasionally I did find myself thinking, “How did an editor let this through?”

But there are some yarns that are very good, convincing throughout, in Conan Doyle’s original vein. About half of them are good reads, and I’ll mention specifically The Song of the Mudlark, The Tale of the Forty Thieves, The Strange Missive of Germaine Wilkes, The Aspen Papers, The King of Diamonds, and The Seventh Stain: this last one is probably the best in the collection. And here’s the crux of things, which I’ve slowly arrived at in my reading of the pastiches: it’s not enough just to really enjoy the original stories: you need to be able to do several things well. First and foremost, you need a decent plot, the one thing that Conan Doyle doesn’t give you. There needs to be a decent (and appropriate) crime or mystery – something sensational, twentieth-century therefore out-of-place won’t do. Plenty of types of crime don’t appear in the original stories, which were written for a family magazine. Holmes needs to investigate the scene of the crime properly, find clues, make deductions, come up with a theory which he doesn’t fully share with his readers, and finally solve the problem in a convincing and satisfying manner: no sudden deus ex machina will do.

Conan Doyle gives a writer the rest, if s/he will but take a little care: there’s a ready-made, long-standing detective and colleague and their relationship, which a writer can develop and extend quite effectively if they understand it; there’s a setting – Victorian London – which works perfectly well if you can reproduce it accurately, and goodness knows, there’s enough information out there to help – and there’s a more general narrative style and structure for the genre, which most detective stories seem to use…

A writer who has actually read the stories of the canon should know that London does not have ‘tenements’, nor houses with thatched roofs in the city centre, that Jews in nineteenth century would not have spoken Hebrew together (!), that ‘bars’ were not open at all hours of the night… I could go on, but there really is no excuse for this sort of ineptitude, or for an editor letting it through. People may write such tosh out of a supposed love of the original stories, but I’m disappointed when I end up reading it. If you think I’m too much of a purist, too bad: like many Holmes fans, I grew up from an early age with the originals, and have always wanted more, but they do have to be (nearly) as good! I’m really not sure whether I’ll be bothering with the other three books in this series…

The staircase (continued): Character

January 24, 2016

This is the next level in terms of depth of engagement with a text: there are various questions to consider. Is a character convincing (if the writer is writing a realist novel)? If it’s a fantasy, then the criteria may be rather different, but somewhere along the line issues of plausibility or credibility come in to play as necessary to convince us to stay with a particular text. We need to be interested in a character’s progress and development – hence the popularity of the bildungsroman, for example. That’s what keeps us interested in Jane Eyre, in Villette, in some of Somerset Maugham‘s novels, to name a few.

This is also the next level of analysis: we can consider not only the individual characters, but also the relationships between them, and whether we find their interactions convincing. We may encounter such things as the development of romance, feuding, issues of loyalty and betrayal, exploration of friendships… We will also have our own response to specific characters – we may like or dislike them, want certain things for them in terms of the plot development: they take on lives of their own, independent of the author, even though they are the creations of that author. This can lead to us disliking the ending of a novel because it does not turn out the way we think it should have done…

For an illustration, I turn to two of my favourite characters, Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The relationship between them is quite sketchy, as are their individual characters in general. But there is a relationship, starting off from an engineered encounter, introductions and their negotiating the terms on which they will share rooms. As the stories progress, we see through small details the trust that develops between them, the things they like and dislike in each other, the differences between them. Watson is twice married in the stories, and moves out of 221b Baker Street; he has a medical practice of his own at one point, and yet what we might find rather unconvincing is the ease with which his long-suffering wife allows him to join Holmes on any and every caper when he is asked… Holmes’ response is very touching on the couple of occasions where he realises he has overstepped the mark, and exposed his loyal friend to too great a danger. Though the detective stories are the most important thing, as readers we are glad to meet the pair again, in some familiar surroundings, but about to embark on a new adventure. Incidentally, this is probably why I do not like the new modern takes on Holmes, but that’s another matter.

Looking at a couple of more serious examples, from a novel I loved to teach – To Kill A Mockingbird – we can see how skilfully Harper Lee uses her characters in the book. We have the complex relationship between brother and sister, parent and child relationship between them and their single parent father, and then more generally the whole range of relationships between adults and children is put under the microscope: Dill’s sad and fantasised relationship with his father, the strange relationship between Boo and Arthur Radley, Boo’s protectiveness towards the children, Mayella’s appalling relationship with her father which is shockingly laid bare at the trial…

Because we are people too, we can live vicariously through the characters of a novel, and this seems to me why the characters are the make or break element in the success of a book: if there’s no-one who speaks to us, to interest us, to grab our attention and have us interested in their fate – imaginary though it is – why would we bother?

Anthony Horowitz: Moriarty

October 24, 2014

9781409109471Sometimes I feel like a traitor, reading Sherlock Holmes stories that are not part of the official canon, but then Horowitz does have the imprimatur of the Conan Doyle estate. But do I need an excuse? First, a warning: if you intend to read this book, there may be details mentioned in this post that you don’t want to know, so read with caution…

First of all, I must confess to feeling a little deceived, in that Holmes is not really in this book, except for an additional short story at the end which is a sort of coda to the main story. There are gaps of time in the canon, a number of years which elapse after the Reichenbach falls episode in The Final Problem, and Holmes’ reappearance in The Empty House; perhaps I had naively imagined Horowitz treating us to some of Holmes’ adventures during that hiatus. Certainly there are lots of promising possibilities. And, as the narrator points out, the explanations offered by Watson for Holmes’ demise are distinctly dubious. Other writers have added stories, and I have written elsewhere about The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. But, after the excellent House of Silk, Horowitz has struck out in a different direction.

The Napoleon of crime, Professor Moriarty, is engaged in a struggle to the death with a rival and interloper from the United States who wants to annex his patch: nineteenth century turf wars. We are introduced to an interesting pairing trying to make sense of various events in London: a detective from Pinkerton’s agency in the US and a London police inspector, Athelney Jones, who appears in several of Conan Doyle’s original stories, and who strives to emulate Holmes’ detective methods, either with success or failure, depending on your perspective.

The writing is good, the yarn is a decent one. It’s very definitely a twenty-first century story – far more violence and gory description than Conan Doyle would have been allowed to inflict on a Victorian magazine audience. An American narrator shifts the focus, language and style somewhat. And, because Holmes is absent, I felt that there wasn’t that much real detective work going on – Athelney Jones is a devotee, certainly, but a poor imitation of the real thing. I got a real sense of how important Watson is to the original stories, from his absence, too.

It’s Horowitz’s second foray into the field and, ultimately, although I really enjoyed it, especially the several twists at the end, I like the House of Silk rather better as a supplementary yarn because Holmes and Watson are there, and Horowitz did extend and develop their characters well. Both stories are far more daring than anything Conan Doyle wrote, but The House of Silk felt rather more immediately plausible, and therefore convincing. I shall re-read it soon, to pick up on what I’m sure I overlooked as I was being swept along by the plot. Once I have prised it back from the clutches of my daughters, who have formed a disorderly queue to get their hands on it…

%d bloggers like this: