by Steve Steinbock
Sherlock Holmes was, according to the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London (located at 221B Baker Street, of course) “by all accounts born on 6th January 1854, and for more than a century his name has been known in every country of the world.” And so, as we do each January, we celebrate his birthday with a series of reviews of Holmes pastiches and other books directly inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We have eight works of Sherlockiana. The Great Detective himself only appears in four of the books. Conan Doyle is a character in three of the books. Happy 165th Birthday, Sherlock Holmes.
**** Laurie R. King, Island of the Mad, Bantam, $28.00. Mary Russell is approached by her best friend from her Oxford years, whose beloved aunt is missing. For years, Lady Vivian Beaconsfield had been in and out of mental institutions, most recently in London’s Bethlem Hospital, popularly known as “Bedlam.” Russell goes undercover as a patient at Bedlam, and then clues lead her and her husband Sherlock Holmes to Venice, Italy, with its magic canals as well as Mussolini’s fascist Militia roaming the alleyways. While Russell’s stay at—and escape from—Bedlam requires a large dose of willing suspension, the scenes in Venice (more than half the book) are magical, made even more enjoyable by the significant role played by American songwriter Cole Porter.
**** Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse, Mycroft and Sherlock, Titan Books, $25.99. It’s 1872, and Mycroft Holmes is the assistant to the British Secretary of State in the War Office. In hope that it will have a humanizing effect on his arrogantly precocious eighteen-year-old brother, he puts Sherlock to work as a tutor at an orphanage. The Opium Wars are by now long past. But the devastating effects of the opium trade are still scarring the British public, irrespective of race and class, and a new, powerful form of acetylated opiate is being synthesized. Mycroft’s encounter with a beautiful Chinese woman at an apothecary, a series of murders in London’s Chinese community, and the death of one of Sherlock’s eleven-year-old students from opium overdose lead the Holmes brothers and their entourage on a crusade.
*** Leonard Goldberg, A Study in Treason, Minotaur, $25.99. In the spring of 1914, as Europe is about to enter the Great War, the original copy of a treaty between England and France is stolen from a country estate. All clues point to a stable boy. But to Joanna Blalock—daughter of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler—the clues don’t add up. Narrated by John Watson, Jr., and featuring the original Dr. Watson as well as Inspector Lestrade, the style is in keeping with the original canon. But the plot is not satisfying, and the solution will make fair-play mystery fans cry foul as it breaks a rule that S.S. Van Dine once said “no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of.”
*** Gordon McAlpine, Holmes Entangled, Seventh Street Books, $13.95. In 1928, Sherlock Holmes has retired from detecting, and lives incognito as a Cambridge physics professor. A man arrives in his office—Arthur Conan Doyle, an author of historical romances and essays about spiritualism—claiming to have learned the detective’s identity from an alternate version of the prime minister from a parallel universe whom he met at a séance. I’ve enjoyed the metafictional worlds of McAlpine’s Hammett Unwritten and The Woman with the Blue Pencil. While the premise of this book is enticing, with its nuggets of literature, spiritualism, and quantum mechanics, Holmes Entangled was missing something. It didn’t feel like a Sherlock Holmes story. The narration—admittedly told from Holmes’s point of view rather than that of Dr. Watson—is missing the flavor of the canon, with Holmes speaking in a tone that doesn’t feel entirely Sherlockian. What is exceptional is the framing story, about the Argentine librarian who discovered the manuscript. A librarian named J.L. Borges, whose English-language debut was in this very magazine (the August 1948 issue of EQMM), the short story “The Garden of Forking Paths.”
**** Bradley Harper, A Knife in the Fog, Seventh Street Books, $15.95. Sherlock Holmes has faced Jack the Ripper many times, including in Ellery Queen’s A Study in Terror (1966). Bradley Harper’s debut novel presents an account of how Arthur Conan Doyle might have helped solved the Ripper murders. After the publication of his first Sherlock Holmes novel, Conan Doyle is asked by the former prime minister to help in the Whitechapel murder investigations. Conan Doyle is joined by his medical-school mentor Joseph Bell, and they are assisted by a writer with intimate knowledge of London’s East End and the plight of women, Margaret Harkness. Harkness is a historical figure, the real-life cousin to author Beatrix Potter, known for her explorations of poverty and women’s labor. The story also includes an appearance by Mark Twain.
**** Margalit Fox, Conan Doyle for the Defense, Kensington, $26.00. The creator of Sherlock Holmes participated in more than one investigation himself. His investigation leading to the pardoning of George Edalji in 1907 is well documented. But the case of Oscar Slater, a Jewish immigrant and petty criminal accused of the bludgeoning murder of an eighty-three-year-old Glasgow spinster, is more complicated and perhaps lesser known. Conan Doyle’s investigation and his 1912 book about the case demonstrate that the author was capable of the same rational acuity as that of his fictional creation. Conan Doyle for the Defense is a thoroughly engaging work of true crime as well as a survey of Victorian anti-Semitism, Arthur Conan Doyle’s diagnostic imagination, and the rise of scientific methods in criminology.
*** Lawrence Osborne, Only to Sleep, Hogarth (Penguin Random House), $26.00. Lawrence Osborne is the third author to have been commissioned by the Raymond Chandler estate to write a novel about P.I. Philip Marlowe. Only to Sleep is set primarily in Mexico in the 1980s, with Marlowe in his seventies, walking with a cane, living in Baja California. An insurance company hires him to look into the death of a client known for living the high life despite a series of unsuccessful business ventures. The book is fine as a novel about an aging P.I. But the Marlowe in this novel is not the same as the character Chandler created. The book also lacks Chandler’s style, his frequent use of witty, on-target similes, and it’s missing one other character central to Chandler’s Marlowe—the city of Los Angeles.
**** Colin Cotterill, Don’t Eat Me, Soho Crime, $26.95. In this latest book in a series set in 1980s Laos, Dr. Siri Paiboun has relinquished his title as National Coroner for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. He and his best friend, former politburo member Civilai, decide to make a movie (using a contraband movie camera left over from the filming of The Deer Hunter). But before they are able to film a single scene, the skeleton of a young woman is discovered, posed at the base of a public monument. The woman’s body appears to have been eaten by small animals. The story involves illegal trafficking of various types, some marvelous plot twists, and Cotterill’s droll wit.
We’ll wrap up this Jury Box with a rundown of a few other new and notable titles. For the Sake of the Game, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie Klinger (Pegasus Crime, $25.95) is a collection of fourteen stories inspired by the Sherlock Holmes canon, contributed by a diverse group of notable authors including Rhys Bowen, Reed Farrel Coleman, and F. Paul Wilson. William Kotzwinkle scripted a short graphic novel for the book, and Peter S. Beagle wrote a poem called “Dr. Watson’s Song.” A Baker Street Wedding (Minotaur, $26.99) is Michael Robertson’s sixth book about Reggie and Nigel Heath, two modern-day brothers whose law office, at 221B Baker Street, frequently receives letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes. Gigi Pandian has written five novels in her award-winning series about globetrotting historian Jaya Jones. The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories (Henery Press, $15.95) collects nine locked-room stories about Jaya and her world. Each of the stories tackles a method from John Dickson Carr’s famous “Locked Room Lecture.” The book includes introductions by Laurie R. King and Carr historian Douglas G. Greene.
Copyright © 2018 Steve Steinbock