Source: Review Copy
It has been many years since I have read any Sherlock Holmes pastiches, so was interested in returning to this subgenre with today’s read. In this particular pastiche we have Russell Holmes as the central sleuth oddly enough, aided by his good friend Major James Wilson and his housekeeper Mrs Fergus. As well as some name changes there has also been a shift in locations, as the cases now take place in and around late 19 century Glasgow, a location shift which I felt worked really well.
The first of the seven cases included in this collection is the, ‘The Case of the Mahjong Dragon’ and something which immediately struck me was that these stories are not written from the “Watson” character point of view, a narrative choice which took me a little while to get acclimatised to, being a reader who is used to the Watson narrative voice in the original Holmes stories and the perspective this gives on Holmes. One consequence of this narrative choice is that I think it takes longer to get under the skins of the central characters, though McEwan does tantalise the reader with various pieces of information surrounding Russell Holmes, which are woven into the stories. Russell Holmes’ first case involves the death of a museum curate, who the police believed committed suicide due to having been found out as a thief of the museum’s Chinese artefacts. His wife of course does not believe this and asks Holmes to investigate. My first reactions to this story I have to admit were not strongly positive ones. Russell and James didn’t feel quite right, with Russell oscillating between excessive politeness and rudeness. Equally unlike in the original Doyle stories there isn’t anything for the reader to solve. The cast is so small and the story so short that only one solution is viable. Whilst the language was mostly in keeping with the “Doyle era”, shall we call it, there is the odd moment where some words and phrases feel sharply out of place.
The second story in this collection, ‘The Case of the Murder at the Falls,’ suffers from the same issues. This is an inverted mystery but there is no focus on how Russell Holmes solves the case, which is a problem, given that in inverted mysteries that is the only tantalising aspect left. A vulgar tone at points also has a jarring effect and Wilson’s immediate knee jerk reaction to use violence either verbally or physically, when a witness gets recalcitrant also didn’t sit well with my expectations of a Watson character.
However, things do begin to pick up in the third story, ‘The Case of the Asylum,’ which has an atmospheric and intriguing opening. Holmes is called in by a concerned relative to Hartwood Asylum, fearing his brother in law has wrongfully incarcerated his sister. On arriving Holmes has a strange feeling he has been there before but cannot remember when. Despite this story being well written I do think McEwan tends to tell rather than show various important points of the story and once again the reader has little to solve and can only watch Holmes as he reacts to various situations and takes a melodramatic approach to rescuing his client’s sister.
Our next story, ‘The Case of the Ivory Hunting Horn,’ contains a foe for Holmes which sort of combines Irene Alder and Moriarty. Baroness Von Hochstal asks Holmes to find the man who shot her husband and stole an African ivory horn from them. Holmes achieves his objective but gets more than he bargains for and McEwan pulls off an enjoyable surprise at the end which I was not expecting. The issue of British Imperialism and the tendency to steal artefacts from other countries is a minor thread which runs through the story.
Holmes’ next case in ‘The Case of Thomas Glover,’ involves him trying to save a man from being hung for a murder he did not do and there are hints that there has been a frame up in order to attack worker agitation. Again I found this an interesting setup for a mystery, especially with the disputed use of finger printing evidence, but that the brevity of the story meant the final section of the book is more a telling of the solution rather than giving the reader the opportunity to figure things out for themselves.
A concerned jewellery workshop owner is Holmes next client in ‘The Case of the Cryptic Assassin’ and the case soon develops into a matter of national importance. Again there is some criticism of Imperial Britain, though a little heavy handed perhaps. It was also at this point that I noticed Major Wilson’s propensity for drinking alcohol at all times of the day.
A horse racing conspiracy features in the following story, ‘The Case of the Yankee Alchemists’ and once more I felt there was an intriguing setup: a corpse found concealed in a box in a cathedral, but that the limited number of pages prevented any serious investigation getting under way, leaving only room for the reader to be told of the solution which seems to come from nowhere. However, a redeeming feature of the story was the pleasantly humorous ending, as McEwan does develop a wonderfully amusing role for Mrs Fergus in this and other stories.
The final story in the collection is ‘The Case of the Criminal Mind’ and has a Jack the Ripper theme. The cast of characters is much larger this time, so much so that I wondered whether this story might have been better as a novella or novel. There is a great intriguing hook at the start of the story when someone believed to have died in a tram accident is found alive and a dead woman is found in their coffin instead. Given the complexity of the case I felt the ending was somewhat hastily wrapped up.
So all in all this was rather a mixed bag of short stories. The main thing I felt lacking in these tales was that there wasn’t really any of Holmes witty deductions. Russell Holmes once makes a deduction about a client based on their appearance, but it came across as more vulgar than clever. Russell Holmes also seems to be more a man of action rather than a detective who applies logic and ratiocination, thereby giving the stories more of a thriller quality and also meaning that the reader doesn’t get any periods of ratiocination themselves. The shortness of the stories I believe contributed to this, as given their brevity it was hard for the stories to build in such moments or periods of deduction. Whilst I grew to like Russell Holmes, I didn’t warm to the Major, whose behaviour seemed far more objectionable and antisocial than Holmes’.
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Seems an odd choice to take a set of characters in the piblic domain, rely on the familiarity of then enough to a) use the image on the cover, b) use the most famous of the names, c) have the same setup, and d) tell the same sorts of stories, but then introduce enough changes — setting, framing, characterisation — that they’re not the same thing at all. Seems like rather too uncertain an endeavour to really be any good: either tell legitimate Holmes tales without the deliberately poor obfuscation, or come up with your own Glaswegian, Victorian detective…right?
I agree with you that my own Glaswegian, Victorian detective would isolate this from the idea of a quasi Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I had the same sentiments before I published the book; so why did I? The original story was written for a set Sir Author Conan Doyle style creative writing competition, (second place), but afterwards I just couldn’t stop myself, and got caught up in the fun and added seven more stories.
The only name I used in the public domain was ‘Holmes’, however, the thinly spread obfuscation, I suspect, may (as you allude to) irate the true Sherlock Holmes fans. (Sorry.)
This has been my first venture writing fiction and do appreciate your view. (Have you read the book?). In future I will endeavour to find originality and authenticity in my writing as I continue to have fun.
Ire would be an over-reaction, but it’s possibly worth being aware that with the invocation of “Holmes” a series of expectations will inevitably follow, stirred up by a 100+ year wake trailing behind it — look at the gripes over the direction Sherlock took when it veered away from what was considered canon (personally I loved how that show turned out, beyond anything approaching sense but for sheer giddy enjoyment hard to top).
The choice of cover imagine, the setup of a doctor and an house-keeper…it all feeds in, and I suppose it seems odd to me (without having read the book) to stop three-quarters of the way towards the most famous name in detective fiction: whatever you fill that remaing 25% with, everyone will be expecting Holmes tropes regardless. I suppose you could do this as a way of deliberately subverting expectations…but, well, that’s a different book by the sounds of things.
Congrats on the second place — no mean feat — and on having enough in the way of plots and ideas to complete a book of stories; but that we could all be so creative! We come at this from different perspectives, inevitably, and I hope my grouchy, grumbly nature in no way dissuades you from your endeavours.
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