Holmes and the Indelicate Widow – new fiction

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

I still squeak with delight about this: I’ve written a Sherlock Holmes short story.

Holmes and the Indelicate Widow, will be published in The Encounters of Sherlock Holmes, edited by George Mann and published by Titan Books in February 2013. Other authors in the collection include Paul Magrs, James Lovegrove, Mark Hodder and Kelly Hale.



I’ve always been a fan of Sherlockian fiction. I find it delightful that there is so much of it, and that it is a whole world where people – fans – play with the tropes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Sherlock is the most extreme example, with dizzingly fast nods to the canon that swirl around as fast as Dave Arnold’s eastern-European inspired score. And within the web of references, any genre, style and viewpoint is permitted. I’ve read books of the stuff – there’s some reviews on here.

So when George Mann asked me if I had any ideas for a Sherlock short story the main issue was not just blurting out a dozen pitches in a big excited mess. Instead I pitched three, and Holmes and the Indelicate Widow was the one I was asked to write. Holmes investigates strange goings-on with the Necropolis Railway, bringing both him and Watson face-to-face with the Victorian way of death.

I used to go past the Brookwood Cemetery when I used the Waterloo line into south London. I’d walk past the remaining facade of the Necropolis Railway’s buildings hard by Waterloo station. The idea – that bodies would be transported to their final resting places by train – is so wonderfully Victorian. It combines that period’s ability to apply industrial concepts to human needs, along with the fetishised middle-class ideas about respectability and conspicuous displays of status.

I read several books for research, especially ones around how London dealt – or didn’t deal – with its dead. I suspect I get quick service in a Pizza Express near the British Museum now due to sitting there reading such grim material when staying in London for work. I also read a proper railway history book, of the kind that my father would be proud to see me going through. There were three classes of funeral service available, matching the three classes of railway travel.

For some reason, the Necropolis Railway never flourished, never made the returns it had promised the London and South West Railway it would make and, when its London station was bombed in World World 2, it never ran again. All that is left is the facade on the street and its faded promise of a discrete service.

To find out what Holmes – the rational scientist – and Watson – the emotive doctor – make of the Necropolis, you can buy The Encounters of Sherlock Holmes from all sorts of places.

The West End Horror

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I am, of course, looking forward to the next series of Sherlock. Bizarrely, I’ve not seen the current big screen adaptations. I think I might be so far down the rabbit hole of non-canonical Holmes that I’ll never return.

The West End Horror
Nicholas Meyer
(Coronet, 1977 edition)

Meyer is considered one of the better non-ACD Holmes writers, in part because The Seven Percent Solution brings makes explicit Holmes’s drug addiction. And in part because he nails Watson’s voice.

The West End Horror is a check list of late Victorian theatre. George Bernard Shaw hires Holmes to solve a murder in the West End. Then a chorus girl at the D’Oyley Cart is killed, bringing in Gilbert & Sullivan. Oh, and there’s Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and Ellen Terry as well.

The overall plot is enjoyable, with some horrifying scenes played out with just the right sense of Watson holding back whilst trying to be as honest as possible. But that checklist is the problem – whereas the use of Freud in The Seven Percent Solution is integral to the plot, this reads like name-checking. Of course, the London theatrical world was – and is – small. A murder investigation will connect to some of the most famous people of that time. But it feels more fannish than previously, as if the desire to have Holmes meet X is greater than the desire to write a good Holmes story.

Still, it’s an enjoyable one, and worth getting for any Holmes fan.

My Sherlock Holmes

Friday, 15 October 2010

Ah, Sherlock.

No, wait, not Moffat and Gatiss’s modernisation (although that was brilliant). The Victorian/Edwardian original.

My Sherlock Holmes: Untold Stories of the Great Detective
ed. Michael Kurland
(St Martin’s Minotaur, 2003)

This collection of short stories uses any narrator except Watson as its selling point. There are stories as told by the first and second Mrs Watson, by Mrs Hudson, by Irene Adler, by Captain Moran and, of course, by Moriarty.

First, a point of pedantry. I know the book is American but any Americanisms by English characters really pops me back out of the story. So “diapers” instead of “nappies” (in a bit told by Doctor Mortimore from Hound of the Baskervilles). And “underclassmen” instead of “undergraduates” in a story set during Holmes’ time at Cambridge. The writers and readers of this book can cope with obscure stuff like gasogene lamps so using the right English isn’t too great an ask.

Onto the stories themselves. Despite not being narrated by Watson, a lot stick with a broadly similar voice as if Watson has become the generic template for ‘cod-Victorian’. I’m picking out the ones that stood out for me (for good or bad reasons).

Mycroft’s Great Game, by Gary Lovisi, attempts to tell the story leading up to Holmes and Moriarty’s confrontation at the Reichball Falls from the point of view of Mycroft. There were several flaws with this. The typos (“undo” instead of “undue” etc) should have been picked up in the editing or proof-reading. The repetative elements, in which Mycroft repeatedly tells us the same thing, are more annoying. A short story is one form where words shouldn’t be wasted. Unless it was an attempt to suggest Mycroft was a bore? By filling in scenes into an existing, canonical story, though, it read too like bad fanfiction.

The Adventure of the Celestial Snows, by George Alec Effinger, is more egregious though. It has Fu Manchu in the Forbidden City yet was still a struggle to read. Far too much of the story was taken up with exposition from one of the characters about Fu Manchu, and far too little was shown.

There are two epistolary stories side by side, Cabaret aux Assassins by Cara Black and A Study in Orange by Peter Tremayne. The former is an enjoyable romp through Paris, as told by Irene Adler. The latter again suffers from poor proof-reading: the italicised letter from Colonal Moran is embedded in a story written by Watson but after the letter concludes and Watson restarts, the italics continue…

Mrs Hudson Reminises, by Linda Robertson, is one of the more radical in form, using the magazine interview format to tell the story of how Holmes helped Mr Hudson. This one is a delight, with a clearly different voice covering familiar ground.

Years Ago in a Different Place, by Michael Kurland, is the only story to really blast away the ghost of Watson though. Moriarty tells how he first came to know Holmes back in Cambridge. He also issues legal threats at anyone repeating Watson’s libels against his person. This story really creates a distinctive voice for the Professor as well as a neat, plausible early case for Holmes.

Overall, this was a really mixed collection but worth it for fans of non-canonical Sherlock.

The Revenge of Moriarty

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Revenge of Moriarty
John Gardner
(Pan, 1975)

There are many ways to write Sherlockian fiction, as my shelves groaning with non-ACD books attest (and I have barely made a dent in the full array). Some stick with Watson’s voice. Some go for Holmes’ view on events. Some narrate it from the point of view of another character (e.g. the cabman in A Hansom for Holmes, or a housemaid in Erasing Sherlock). Gardner’s conceit is that the story is constructed from a combination of the decoded diaries of Professor Moriarty and accounts by the non-canonical Inspector Crow. Revenge is actually the sequel to The Return of Moriarty but as this was a charity shop find I wasn’t overly worried about reading it first.

There are also several ways to review non-ACD Holmes stories. If purporting to be by Watson, you tend to look at the plausibility of the narrator’s voice. You might read it with an eye to how the puzzle reveal fits with ACD’s. You might just look at how in or out of character the canonical characters are.

Or you might just read it and think “but this is a bit rubbish, and sexist to boot”.

The plot is not overly bad, and certainly no more slight than a lot of novels. Moriarty is a character I think of as a cipher anyway. Unlike Colonal Moran or Irene Adler, I’ve never seen Moriarty as more than a plot device, there to be Holmes’ foil. He’s more interesting in his absence. Gardner twists and squeezes and generally contorts Moriarty until he fits better with the idea of a, well, a Bond villain. His Moriarty is no thin but terrifying Professor of mathematics turned to crime, but a virile man of action who disguises himself as his older, dead, brother.

I mention Bond because Gardner also wrote various Bond novels after Fleming’s death. I can see why. Gardner’s characters see women as Fleming’s did: good for sex, or for ensnaring enemies using sex, for having babies and not a lot else. That’s what you expect in Bond. It’s not what you expect in Sherlockian fiction. Holmes’s marital advice to Crow – and who would go to Holmes for advice on women? – is to put his foot down, put his wife in her place and get her to start putting out again.

Of course, women aren’t a strong feature in ACD’s Sherlock Holmes stories. They are housekeepers, or ladies with problems that need solving. Even when Watson is married, his wife (or wives) is secondary to the batchelor life of Holmes. However, the women that appear – including Irene Adler – are not treated with contempt. Watson, the normal narrator, is a gentleman. Holmes may be dismissive, but he is not disparaging. In The Revenge of Moriarty, the narration seems to have an even lower view of women than the characters do.

That made this novel unpleasant enough in tone that, even if I thought the plot was cracking and the characters entertaining, I’d not recommend it to anyone.

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