Well, so here we are in our new home. Welcome to all of you who followed us over here from our former digs, and hello to you new folks who may not have known about any of us before.
In my case, the mission statement for this column is essentially the same one I had at Comic Book Resources– talk about Cool Stuff. The difference is that here it can be pretty much anything I think is cool, not just comics.
Those of you that recall the previous incarnation of this weekly thing of mine will probably smirk and say I wasn’t all that bound by the restriction before, and that’s a fair point. But now I’m not bound by it at ALL. So I can finally do the columns I never got around to because there was no way to shoehorn a comics connection into them. This is one of those.
See, I’m a Sherlock Holmes guy. I’ve been a Holmes guy ever since I was eight years old, in fact, so it’s almost neck-and-neck with my comics fandom in terms of this particular hobby’s tenure. When I was a kid I started with the Educator Classics version and then vacuumed up everything I could find in the school library about Holmes and crime detection.
And even in the third grade I landed on the confluence of dates. Sherlock Holmes was in London in 1888, the time of the Whitechapel murders. Why didn’t he catch Jack the Ripper? Did Scotland Yard even ASK him?
The obvious answer to that, of course, is that the Ripper was real and Sherlock Holmes was not. But considering that when I was a sprout I was not entirely clear on that difference (there was a time when I thought Holmes was real, and the Whitechapel Ripper was just a character in a horror story by Robert Bloch) it still was a question that ate at me. Later, when I was older, I read up on the actual history of the Ripper. And even then it was an idea I kept coming back to. The champion of Victorian law and order against the ultimate symbol of Victorian anarchy and evil. It’s irresistible.
Turns out it was irresistible to a lot of other people too, and several of them have written stories and even made movies to answer that question.
The first Holmes/Ripper pastiche dates back to 1907, and was published in what may be the first ever ‘fanzine,’ as we know the term today. Aus den Geheimakten des Welt-Detektivs — “The Secret Files of the King of Detectives” — was a magazine featuring a series of unauthorized Sherlock Holmes tales published in Germany, and #18 of those was the story of how Holmes took down the Ripper.
Fearing legal reprisals from Conan Doyle, the series didn’t last all that long and when it was marketed in France and Belgium, the feature was rewritten so the lead morphed into “Harry Dickson, the American Sherlock Holmes,” one of the lesser Holmes ripoff characters (see also Solar Pons, Jules De Grandin, et al.) Believe it or not, it took until 2014 for this particular story to be translated into English, but it’s now possible to get it from Joseph Lovece as part of his Dime Novel series of reprint volumes.
Then there’s a long dry spell, largely because the Conan Doyle estate was touchy about letting people do Holmes pastiches. There were very few ‘authorized’ Holmes efforts other than William Baring-Gould’s biography of Sherlock Holmes in 1962, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, and in that book he does spend a chapter on Holmes’ efforts to stop the Whitechapel murders.
Although the book itself is great fun, frankly the parts dealing with Jack the Ripper are a letdown. Baring-Gould treats it almost as a joke, and the solution– both the identity of the killer and the means by which we arrive there– is hugely unsatisfying. Moreover, Baring-Gould drafts a minor character from the Canon to serve as the Ripper without laying any groundwork for it at all. But the rest of the book’s pretty good.
The good news is that as the years go on, these stories get better and better. Part of it is that more and more records were made public regarding the actual Whitechapel Ripper case as years passed, so more material existed that the pastiche writers could work with. Another factor is that there’s a certain competition involved; if you’re going to do a story about Sherlock Holmes going up against Jack the Ripper, you have to do it better than the previous writers did it, or what’s the point?
All of which is preamble to the fact that the first one of these that I’d judge as being really good came a couple of years later, in 1965. This time it was a movie: A Study In Terror, a fun confection of a film very much in the spirit of the then-current Hammer horror series (though it’s not actually a Hammer.)
This is more of a Holmes movie than a Ripper movie, and the script takes several liberties with the historical fact. The names of the dead women are real enough, but the timeline’s all screwed up and there are a lot of key events left out. But it works very well as a Sherlock Holmes story; a piece of fiction, that is. It’s got great atmosphere and a wonderful sense of momentum. The cast acquits themselves well and John Neville as Holmes, in particular, is brilliant. As Sherlock on film goes, A Study In Terror is very much in the old-school Rathbone-Bruce tradition, but done really well. (I mention this because some Holmesians get huffy about Nigel Bruce’s version of Dr. Watson– usually they are Jeremy Brett-Edward Hardwicke purists– but I’m not one of them.)
This also resulted in one of the rarest and oddest of Holmes collectibles. This was back in the day when most major studio pictures got some sort of licensed tie-in novel, and somehow this time they lured Frederic Dannay into writing it.
You probably know Mr. Dannay better under his pen name… Ellery Queen.
It was originally published in the States as just another junk paperback and then later Gollancz did it as a hardcover in Britain, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper. Both are highly sought-after and fetch high prices on the collector market– a good copy of the British hardcover edition in the jacket goes easily for over a hundred dollars.
The interesting part of this, at least to me, is that only part of the book, the modern part that serves as a framing piece for the ‘lost manuscript’ Ellery finds of Dr. Watson’s, is a genuine Ellery Queen story by Fred Dannay. The Sherlock Holmes part of the book was done by pulp-fiction workhorse Paul Fairman, a name I happen to recognize because he wrote Aquaman: Scourge of the Sea. That was the first book I ever bought with my own money.
Fairman went on to write a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea paperback I am ridiculously sentimental about. He also wrote a bunch of SF potboilers under the pen name “Ivar Jorgensen,” which is probably how most readers know him. To me Fairman’s involvement is just as cool as Ellery Queen’s, but I’m probably not typical in feeling that way.
But anyway. For Holmesian types such as myself, 1974 was a watershed year: that was when Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per Cent Solution made the best-seller lists and stayed there for over forty weeks, from September of ’74 all the way through to June of ’75. Publishers are notoriously conservative but they didn’t need a house to fall on them, and neither did the Conan Doyle Estate. For the next couple of years the market was flooded with similarly “lost” Sherlock Holmes stories finally allowed to see the light of day, and it was inevitable that in the course of this revival someone would once again land on the idea of Sherlock versus the Ripper. In fact, there were several someones that did so.
In 1978, Michael Dibdin gave us The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, which pits an increasingly disturbed Sherlock Holmes against a Jack the Ripper that Holmes is certain is really the psychotic Professor Moriarty.
This one may actually be my favorite of all the Holmes/Ripper contests just for its sheer daring ambition. It is the only Ripper pastiche featuring Sherlock Holmes that accounts for all the known historical facts surrounding the Ripper killings and explains many of the things about the case that have baffled crime historians. It’s also the most persuasive in its solution to the actual identity of the Ripper, a tightly reasoned argument that fails only to convince because the named killer is a fictional person. All those things and it manages to still, in its blasphemous way, honor the traditional Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson as we know them while at the same time taking the very concept of who Sherlock Holmes is as a character to the furthest possible limit. It is just a remarkable book.
Another equally remarkable but very different take on the idea is Arthur Byron Cover’s An East Wind Coming. This novel, from 1979, is more of an allegorical fantasy, with an immortal Sherlock Holmes trying to track down a murderer in the utopian Golden City of Godlike Men. No one is referred to by name, but instead as the role they inhabit: Holmes is simply the Consulting Detective, Watson is the Good Doctor, and so on. It’s weird and creepy and hard to get into (especially if, like I did, you pick it up expecting basically a Holmes story with a science-fiction spin.) But it’s a good book and worth a mention here.
But more people remember this version of the conflict that came out that same year– in fact I think it might be the most famous version of the Holmes/Ripper story anyone’s ever done. Murder By Decree was a big-budget studio release produced and directed by Bob Clark. Yeah, the same guy that did the Porky’s movies and A Christmas Story. You never can tell who’s going to turn out to be a Baker Street Irregular; these days there’s a certain WTF? attitude about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writing a novel about Mycroft Holmes but I don’t think that’s as weird as the Porky’s guy giving us this terrific, fog-shrouded Victorian mystery back in ’79.
This is a wonderful Sherlock Holmes movie– it owes more to the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce tradition than any other (the Granada version with Jeremy Brett was still a couple of years away, so the Rathbone Holmes was the primary conception of the character for most people) but it’s very much its own thing. James Mason is charming and humorous as Watson, the comedy relief of the duo, certainly, but never a buffoon. And Christopher Plummer as Holmes brings a compassion and heart to his portrayal that is, I think, largely unequaled in any depiction of Sherlock Holmes ever done for the movies. He is still brilliant and analytical and logical, but Plummer takes that as a given and instead shows us a Holmes that is also deeply concerned for the victims of crime and passionate about finding justice. It’s a tour de force from Christopher Plummer and Mason’s Watson is the perfect counterpoint.
That alone is reason enough to check out the movie but as it happens it’s also one of the most historically accurate of these stories. Clark manages to get in not only the facts of the Ripper killings but also the underlying social unrest in London at the time, in particular the rise of the radical movement and the police riots overseen by Sir Charles Warren. This is because Murder By Decree was in large part inspired by Stephen Knight’s book, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. Clark is very candid about this on the DVD commentary– he was hugely impressed by Knight’s book and is using the Sherlock Holmes character to play out Knight’s infamous theory that the Ripper killings were an elaborate cover-up to hide an illegitimate heir to the throne conceived between the Prince of Wales and a Whitechapel whore. Knight’s theory has been largely discredited in the years since then, but it was the favorite for quite a while– there have been several books and even movies based on it besides Murder By Decree, though those do not feature Sherlock Holmes. This movie is the best of that lot as well, though, as far as I’m concerned.
In 1993 we got Edward Hanna’s journalistic and largely uninspired novel The Whitechapel Horrors.
It’s not a bad book, but it just doesn’t do much for me. It is much more about the Ripper history than it is any kind of Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and reads not so much like a Holmes adventure as an episode of Law and Order: Whitechapel. It’s told in the third person, which just feels off; I have never cared for the third person narrative when it’s a book about Sherlock Holmes, even if Dr. Watson is not present. And when he is present, as in Mr. Hanna’s book, then it just becomes hugely grating. And the anticlimax of the ending is maddening as well. In fairness I have to add that many people liked this book a lot and it was reviewed fairly well when it came out, but I just don’t much like it. Your mileage may vary.
As far as I’m concerned, though, much better are the two books from Carole Nelson Douglas, Chapel Noir and Castle Rouge. These two came out in 2001 and 2002 respectively, as part of her ongoing series of novels about Irene Adler, the femme fatale of Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal In Bohemia.”
My only caveat here is that they are mostly Irene Adler books, and not really all that focused on Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper. Moreover, they come fairly late in the series — there are eight of the Irene Adler novels in all, and these are numbers five and six. It’s a great series and I recommend all eight of the books, but I’m really only mentioning it here because otherwise someone would accuse me of leaving it out.
At this point Holmes and the Ripper has essentially become a Sherlockian subgenre of its own, novels about a clash between the two are coming out pretty regularly by this time. Even I can’t keep up with everything: researching this column led me to discover that there is an original radio play done for the BBC by none other than Brian Clemens, the creator of John Steed and Emma Peel. He was also the co-writer of the Ray Harryhausen classic The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (or, as we say in this household, the “real” Sinbad) and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, among others. And he’s also the man behind The Persuaders and Harry Rule. Basically if it was a cool crime show on British TV any time between 1960 and 1983 or thereabouts, there’s a good chance Brian Clemens worked on it.
Holmes and the Ripper is another one based on the Stephen Knight Final Solution book, so there’s probably considerable overlap with Murder By Decree. But it’s Clemens so it’s definitely on the shopping list now.
And it goes on and on. There’s The Ripper Legacy, by David Stuart Davies, Whitechapel: the Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes by Bernard Schaeffer, and when you start to count the direct-to-Kindle self-published eBook folks, it becomes impossible to keep up. There’s even a video game.
There are so many versions of the story now that I’m not even going to try to list them all. But I did want to call your attention to one of them that is, I think, the only one to successfully thread the needle.
See, the issue with these pastiche efforts is always: do you do the authentic Sherlock Holmes, or do you do the authentic Ripper? Because, as tempting as the pairing seems to be, their worlds don’t overlap at all.
Many, many mystery writers have put Sherlock Holmes in Whitechapel, but Conan Doyle never would have done so. His Sherlock Holmes was a proper Victorian gentleman, a bit of a snob, and occasionally even an out-and-out racist. The notion of putting his model of rectitude into the squalor of Whitechapel to solve the murder of a bunch of disemboweled prostitutes would have probably made Doyle a little ill.
Because Whitechapel in 1888 was a horrible place, a stinking miserable shithole of poverty and disease and desperation, not the fog-shrouded maze of cobblestone streets we’ve romanticized it into over a century and change’s worth of horror stories. No matter how much baritsu Sherlock Holmes knew or how handy Dr. Watson was with his revolver, they wouldn’t have lasted half an hour on Dorset Street as it really was then. It was worth your life to venture out alone after dark, period, and never mind the Ripper. Gangs of drunken muggers would jump you for the price of a bottle of gin and they didn’t bother to threaten you first, just clubbed you to death and rolled the body for whatever was in the pockets. Even armed police were afraid to go there.
So the Holmes-centric Ripper pastiches tend to move the needle more towards traditional Victorian mysteries — like Carole Nelson Douglas or A Study In Terror— and the ones that strive for historical accuracy with the Ripper killings tend to not feel like genuine Holmes stories, like Dibdin or Hanna. Until a couple of years ago, I’d have said it was impossible to successfully manage the perfect accurate blending of the two, you’d have to go with one or the other.
Except along came Lyndsay Faye in 2009 with Dust and Shadow, and she actually managed it.
It’s one of the best Sherlock Holmes fakes I’ve run across. Everyone is in character, but even more amazing is Lyndsay Faye’s grasp of the language of the world of Sherlock Holmes. I have dabbled in Holmes pastiche myself and trust me when I tell you, the hardest part is the language of the narrative voice: the Holmes stories are told by Dr. Watson in the first person, so that’s the target, getting that voice right. Avoiding anachronism, trying to match the rhythm of Watson’s sense of narrative emphasis, even to the way the story is paragraphed and dialogue is depicted– it is very much its own thing, a part of the workload most pastiche writers tend to overlook or work around somehow. It is enormously difficult to get into Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Watson” rhythm and stay there for the course of a novel. And Ms. Faye nails it. It sounds like something Doyle would have written– and written at his best with Holmes, like The Sign of the Four or Silver Blaze, not the crappy Doyle Holmes stories that we pretend aren’t there like The Mazarin Stone or The Creeping Man.
At the same time, the history is there. The events of the Jack the Ripper case are accurately depicted, nothing is ignored or left out. The horrors of Whitechapel’s poverty and the nastiness of its typical residents are not glossed over, though there is a nice thread of redemption with a couple of characters that Holmes recruits in the course of the tale. Ms. Faye’s solution to the Ripper’s identity and the reason it is suppressed is wholly plausible (though fictional) and blessedly, has nothing to do with Stephen Knight’s various insinuations about the indiscretions committed by British nobility. I admire Dibdin’s novel the most, yes…. but without question, as a Holmes guy, Dust and Shadow is the one that I LIKE the best.
So there’s the Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper rundown. It’s a start, anyway. The hell of it is, this column is probably going to be outdated as soon as it goes up; seriously, I think there’s a new Holmes vs. Ripper novel due out on Kindle this week. But I think those listed above are the best of them. Whitechapel’s greatest hits, let’s say. And I had fun revisiting them so I could write this.
Which is always the mission statement here, having fun. Our hope is that the Atomic Junk Shop should be entertaining, a place to hang around and nerd out with like-minded folks about all sorts of things. Certainly, I’m having a lot of fun so far and I hope you all will too. Check out our other writers as well, they’ve all got chops. We plan to have something new from one of us every day of the week and we’re very pleased about how it’s shaping up so far.
Back next week with something else that I think is cool.