Be he ever so divergent, there’s no place like Holmes

As I know we have some Holmes fans reading and writing posts here, I thought I’d post this week about two Holmes novels that bend the canon in different ways, but both of which work for me.

I read Robert Lee Hall’s Exit Sherlock Holmes back in college, when it first came out. I reread it last year and I still like it. It opens with the author describing how his grandmother’s will revealed she was the goddaughter of Watson’s second wife, Violet (Hunter, from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches). Upon her passing he inherited the contents of Watson’s legendary safety deposit box, the one containing all the cases the world wasn’t ready to hear. And this one, he admits, would have made Watson sound like a lunatic, but Hall believes it’s true.

Cut to Watson in hospital in 1930, polishing off the manuscript, then we jump into the tale itself, starting in 1903. Holmes reveals to Watson that Moriarty, his “evil counterpart,” lives. To work against him, Holmes is officially retiring to Sussex to keep bees; unofficially he’s going into hiding, to operate in the shadows. Watson can’t go with him, but Holmes has left Mrs. Hudson with instructions for ways Watson can help.

“Evil counterpart” turns out to be more literal than Watson expects. When Holmes summons Watson again, it turns out be Professor Moriarty and he’s Holmes’ exact double. That’s only part of the strangeness: what is the mysterious mad scientist lair Holmes has built in the basement at 221 Baker Street? Why did he make up a brother Mycroft and hire an actor to play him? Who is Sherlock Holmes, really? With the help of Wiggins, the grown-up Irregular turned stage actor, Watson sets out to answer the questions and stop whatever dark game Moriarty is playing.

This is very fun book, obviously written by a fan; who else would tackle questions such as Holmes’ relationship to Irene Adler or bothering to identify Watson’s wife? There are also little details I appreciate such as Holmes smoking his favorite pipe (an oily black clay one) in one scene. The only real drawbacks are that the big reveal strained credulity in a couple of ways and that Wiggins gets to make most of the deductions; I’d much sooner have had Watson do more. Neither issue is a deal-breaker for me. Regrettably Hall never published any more of the stories from the box.

A Study In Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro puts a fresh spin on the concept of a modern-day Holmes. Unlike Elementary and Sherlock the original canon still exists and it’s all true. The Basil Rathbone films exist. That’s because our crime-solving heroes are 21st century descendants of Holmes and Watson, named Charlotte and Jamie respectively.

We open this Y/A novel with Jamie miserable that he’s been shipped from England to a U.S. private school on a rugby scholarship — but on the plus side, he knows Charlotte is also a student there. There are lots of Holmes and Watsons and they don’t automatically hang out together or solve crimes (though Charlotte’s been trained from birth to be a Sherlock-class logician and observer) but Jamie can’t helping hoping he and Charlotte will become the latest chapter in the joint family legend.

Even before they meet, Jamie defends Charlotte’s honor when a dickhead fellow student brags about banging her. It turns out later that the guy raped Charlotte while she was strung out on oxycodone. Then the guy turns up dead, making Jamie and Charlotte prime suspects; more murders follow, all patterned after John Watson’s stories (e.g., choking someone with a blue diamond down their throat, a la Blue Carbuncle). Inevitably, Holmes and Watson have to crack the case themselves.

This was fun, but it has larger weaknesses than Hall’s novel. When we learn Charlotte’s backstory, some of it makes her out to be less an anti-hero than the kind of high-functioning sociopath Cumberpatch’s Holmes keeps claiming to be. Her drug problems are way more serious than her ancestor’s (Holmes was a recreational user, Charlotte’s a hard-core addict) and everyone seems to write this off as “Well, she’s a Holmes, what do you expect?” She’s a teenager; someone should be organizing an intervention or rehab or something!

And I was really disappointed in the second book in the series, The Last of August. The mystery (involving the Moriarty clan, who have some personal issues with Charlotte) takes second place to the big question of whether Jamie/Charlotte are to be friends or lovers (Charlotte votes fo friends, Jamie does not). The trouble is, this is framed entirely in terms of whether they should have sex or not, which is not the same thing. And given Charlotte’s a rape survivor, focusing on Jamie’s hurt feelings about her reluctance to make love doesn’t work for me. For that matter Charlotte’s own POV doesn’t bring up the rape; Cavallaro made that part of her backstory but she doesn’t handle it well.

So it may be a while before I get to V3 in the series. But I still liked the first one.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jordi Penalva (t) and Dan Funderburgh.

3 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Haven’t read those; but, I am partial to Kim Newman’s Hound of the D’Urbevilles, from a few years ago. It features Moriarty and Col. Sebastian Moran as consulting criminals; the evil counterparts to Holmes and Watson. Good stuff in there

    Mention of Wiggins makes me think of Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley, in Without a Clue, where Holmes if a fiction concocted by Watson, to do detective work, without potentially jeopardizing his burgeoning medical practice. So, he hires a down and out actor to portray the character he created. Fun, fun movie, that still feels faithful to Holmes.

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