Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sherlock Holmes in Fresh Fiction: Two Baker Street Gems

There are four major sources of literary common ground that I've watched people build from, for friendships or long conversations. The two classics are the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare; the third links two or even three generations through J. R. R. Tolkien; and the fourth, peculiar to a subgroup but ardently dissected and repeated, is the stories of Sherlock Holmes.

The more I think about what goes into an American or European mystery, the more I see the Holmes stories as a pattern that's still in use, or still being inverted, depending on the feel of the tale. And there have been many take-offs from the classic stories of Holmes and Watson and the Baker Street Irregulars. Laurie R. King writes one of the better known series today, featuring a late-in-life wife of the great detective -- a woman partner in detection, sometimes ahead of her husband's perceptions, sometimes rapidly catching up, and always close in some fashion.

But because the original Arthur Conan Doyle tales are so well known and so identifiable, it's challenging to write "continuations."

Even Holmes-related humor writing can fall flat, easily.

So I was very pleased to find two new Sherlock books this year that engrossed me and gave me moments of thinking, "Yes, this sounds almost right -- and I'll keep reading!" (In my opinion, "almost right" is the closest anyone can get to Doyle's voice. So far, anyway.)

The first, BASKERVILLE: THE MYSTERIOUS TALE OF SHERLOCK'S RETURN by John O'Connell, is a particularly clever because it's not in the voice of either Holmes or Dr. Watson, but rather that of Bertram Fletcher Robinson -- a man who meets the author "Dr Arthur Conan Doyle" while waiting to board a steamship, to sail from Cape Town, South Africa, back to England. Robinson is headed "home" to become managing editor of the Daily Express. At that time, Holmes was known world-wide to have died while in pursuit of his arch enemy -- yet Doyle on shipboard reveals to Robinson that the great detective has merely retired. And of course, one might return to work, not caring for retirement's pace, yes? By the time the two reach Southampton, they have a bond as writers. And Robinson embraces a chance to work with the famous Doyle in creating, together, a new Holmes tale.

What I didn't realize until the end of the book, when I found the Afterword, is that this fiction is based on recorded events. There was indeed a potential co-author named Robinson, and there has been a steady thud of rumors that "The Hound of the Baskervilles" might have been his work in the main. At least, some of the names in it belong to Robinson's life and location. Much controversy erupted and continues.

For me, as a Sherlock Holmes fan, the true pleasure was in following O'Connell's sideways entrance into this detection epic. I enjoyed the book, and found it surprisingly close to that Baker Street life that I've explored so often through the original Sherlock Holmes books.

Second, I welcome a collection edited by the prodigious Loren D. Estleman: SONS OF MORIARTY AND MORE STORIES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Some of the six stories and one novella collected here will be familiar to modern Baker Street fans -- such as "The Case of the Double-Bogey Man: by Robert L. Fish, featuring his entertaining buffoon Mr Schlock Homes and his sidekick Watney (and brother Criscroft!). Others, although published earlier, hadn't crossed my own path: I liked the tale by John Lutz, "The Infernal Machine," and the Solar Pons story from August Derleth, "The Adventure of the Frightened Baronet." Estleman's own novella, "Sons of Moriarty," incorporates an admirable twist.

The other authors with material in this collection are Anne Perry, Al Sarrantonio, and Lenore Carroll -- whose "Before the Adventures" struck me as so enjoyable that I rambled online, seeking her other work. SONS OF MORIARTY is going on my "read it again" shelf -- and with the weather changing so rapidly, I look forward to long evenings in which to indulge that comforting journey to Holmes's world once again.

[A note to collectors: BASKERVILLE by O'Connell is the same book that was released in 2011 in the UK under the title The Baskerville Legacy.]

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