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.

Death at the Priory

Thursday, 28 October 2010

There are gaps in my to be read bookshelf. Gaps.

Not on the pulp shelf, true, but on the non-fiction and ‘proper fiction’ shelves.

Death at the Priory
James Ruddick
(Atlantic, 2001)

The Charles Bravo case is one of several notorious Victorian crimes. In 1876, Bravo took three agonised days to die of antimony poisoning. The police couldn’t find any conclusive evidence, and the coroner’s inquest returned an open verdict. Bravo himself never suggested who might have poisoned him. His wife’s companion, Mrs Cox, suggested he had commited suicide, but no-one doing that would use antimony.

Many books have been written speculating on who did it. This 2001 book by journalist James Ruddick introduces the facts of the case, works through the common theories and produces its own.

Ruddick uses the investigative skills of a journalist (the proper ones, not modern churnalism) to go back to the primary sources. He goes further, in fact, and tracks down living relatives of the key protagonists. This produces new evidence such as letters about wills which changes the standard theories about the case. If someone knew they were due to inherit a vast estate, would they still kill Bravo for threatening their financial state?

As with the Road Hill House murder*, the Bravo case intrigues as it demonstrates the passionate turmoil behind the surface veneer of an upper class Victorian household. Florence Bravo, Charles’ wife, had been married before to an alcoholoic then had an affair with a much older man before deciding she wanted respectability again. She died two years after Charles’ death, of alcohol poisoning.

The contemporary press reported the Bravo inquest verbatim, fuelling a desire for every sensationalist detail. When the inquest was due to sit on a bank holiday the crowds who showed to watch were so great the coroner had to postpone it for the day.

Ruddick covers the details concisely and puts forward a convincing case for his solution, based on the new primary material he uncovered. But some of the familial history is hearsay, so needs to be taken cautiously. Given how many people the case ruined (both in social standing and in physical health), the descendents are unlikely to be unbiased.

Still, the return to primary sources and the determination to find new evidence makes this book a good example of investigative journalism as well as a smart traipse through a true crime.

*I’m shocked to discover I’ve not reviewed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher here but suffice to say I loved it.

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 Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures

Thursday, 1 July 2010

I got this from the Foyles at the Royal Festival Hall, after a disappointing trip to les bouquinistes of Waterloo Bridge. The cover was damaged and they knocked the price down before I could even ask them to. I do miss the old Foyles haphazardness, but they’re still a very fine bookshop.

The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures
Edited by Mike Ashley
(Robinson Publishing, 2009)

A collection of Holmesian short fiction is nearly always more rewarding, page per page, than a novel. It’s the natural form for it, and enables writers to more easily echo the style of Watson and the slight plotting of his agent, Arthur Conan Doyle. Even Hound of the Baskervilles was originally published in serial form.

Firstly, this collection really is mammoth: it has 26 stories in it, plus an introduction, an appendix and a framing device. That’s nearly half as many short stories as the entire canon (56, discounting the novels). The framing device is a lovely conceit: it dismisses Watson’s famous trunk of case notes – it’s gone missing – and instead credits the various writers as uncovering cases during their research on other topics. This allows for the variation in Watson’s voice as narrator by not pretending they were written by Watson himself.

Some stories work more effectively than others. I’ve never treated Holmesian stories as Golden Era detective stories. Unlike Campion or Wimsey, Holmes deduces by having more knowledge than the narrator or reader. I don’t expect to solve the case ahead of him.

So a story like ‘The Darlington Substitution Scandal’, where I can work out the whole plot from the initial scenes, is disappointing. It also contained a massive plot error: when writing a locked room mystery, someone shouldn’t be able to visit the room as part of the investigation when the person with the only key is away.

‘The Adventure of the Bulgarian Diplomat’ disappoints in its writing style, which is odd given the leeway the framing device sets up. However, using “the lugubrious butler” and “the butler withdrew, lugubriously” within a couple of sentences is just poor cod-Victoriana.

Others are much more enjoyable, rattling along and throwing in every cliché of Victorian London and Holmesian fiction. Watson never leaves 221B without his trusty service revolver. ‘The Enigma of the Warwickshire Vortex’ is a particularly fun one, capturing Watson’s reaction to seeing cinematographs for the first time as well as throwing Holmes into New York.

One of the joys of a large collection of Holmesian short fiction is that, if one story disappoints, there’s another following hard on its heels that may be more enjoyable. So I rattled through this, reading a couple of stories a night. It’s a great starting point for anyone wanting to move into the non-canonical fiction.


Thursday, 12 May 2005

Despite no longer being required to read Victoriana, as my own venture into the genre is off to bed, I have added reading.victoriana as a genre tag. I seem to have read three in the last few weeks alone…

Victoriana is, obviously, distinct from reading.C19th which is genuine Victorian fiction.

A Metropolitan Murder

Saturday, 10 April 2004

A Metropolitan Murder
Lee Jackson
( heinemann, 2004)

Told in the present tense, this is a novel about a murder on the Metropolitan railway, the first underground railway in the world. A while back a friend did a checklist of 35 things you must including if writing a piece of Victoriana. I have marked in bold all the ones this novel ticks:

1. Whores.
2. Fenians.
3. Urchins.
4. Social deprivation.
5. Incompetent policemen.
6. Brutal murders on the darkened streets of the capital.
7. Cockney cut-throats who don’t care about anything except money.
8. Comment on sexual inequality.
9. Comment on class division.

10. Comment on British imperialism.
11. Scene set in a music-hall.
12. Scene set on a period railway station.
13. At least one evil right-wing wife-beating aristocrat. (this has an evil left-wing middle-class type instead)
14. At least one handlebar moustache, often attached to evil right-wing wife-beating aristocrat.
15. At least one fascinating-but-true fact about Victorian life not previously used by a work of fiction set in the era.
16. At least one in-joke referring to another work of fiction set in the era. (can it be coincidence that the body is discovered at Baker Street station?)
17. Cameo appearance from man in deerstalker hat who’s clearly not Sherlock Holmes. (see above)
18. Cameo appearance from random character who just happens to be called Moriarty.
19. Cameo appearance from well-known eighteenth-century artist/ writer/ inventor.
20. Closet homosexuality.
21. Bodies in the Thames. (actually, this one is undercut but the expectation is there)
22. Fog.
23. Various derogatory terms for “Jew” no longer in common usage.
24. A pocket watch, probably stolen and possibly inscribed with the initials of a murder victim.
25. Attempted rape or kidnapping of heroine by burly East-End thugs (if rape, then bound to be interrupted by policeman’s whistle).
26. Someone who’s spent time in Africa.
27. Someone who shoots tigers.
28. Good-natured but subserviant maid who can supply important information.
29. Drunken Irish navvies.

30. One brief reference to the current Prime Minister, in order to ground the story in actual historical events.
31. Several people modelled on British character actors
32. The line ‘Queen Victoria, Gawd bless ‘er’.
33. Gin.
34. Slang.
35. More whores.

I’m never convinced about present tense in crime fiction. The idea, one suspects, is to increase the tension but for me it does little because I am always immediately aware of it as a device. This novel also seems uncertain about narration, with multiple characters getting their moment of third person glory. I actually felt this distracted from the notion of the novel as a crime thriller. The reader is given too much infomation whilst at the same time the lack of focus allows the tension to drift away: it’s very hard to care about any of these characters as none are given enough time to become emotionally engaging.

In terms of the use of the tube (hello, Annie!) it is enjoyable although I thought the first tube lines were cut and cover whilst this seems to suggest the first extension of the Metropolitan was dug out as if by miners*. It’s possible they had already started using the shield method by then but I’d need to check. However, the description of the passengers and their behaviour will strike a cord with anyone familiar with the rules of tube travel. And the fact that, even in its first year of operation, the underground was subject to delays, poor lighting and cancellations raises a chuckle.

*tangently madly: in a flashback episode of Buffy with a caption “London, 1865″, Dru has a vision of a ‘cave in’ down the ‘mine’ which causes much hilarity to British fans. I’ve long argued that she meant the tube, since there were collapses whilst the Metropolitan was being built in…1864/5.

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