Reading this Sherlock Holmes pastiche has perhaps inevitably made me reflect on my history with Sherlock Holmes pastiches.
I’m pretty sure that my first exposure to the works of Arthur Conan Doyle was The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), probably when I was about 10 years old — I have a strong memory of the relief that surged through me when the bullet striking the hound shows that it’s very much a creature of flesh and blood — but I don’t remember then diving straight into the Holmes canon with gay abandon. Had the classic detection bug bitten me that early, I’d have first read Agatha Christie in 1992 rather than 1999 and things might have turned out very differently. However, I do distinctly remember being told by one of my teachers how other authors had also written Sherlock Holmes stories (which seemed somehow off to me at the time) and how most of these weren’t very good and probably weren’t worth reading.
So, whenever I did get round to reading more about Baker Street’s most famous resident (sorry, Raphael Ravenscroft) it was with a firm purpose in mind: Conan Doyle or GTFO. In what would fast become a recurring motif in my life, however, there were so many books to read that, honestly, I don’t think I returned to Holmes until the kiln of the Orion Crime Masterworks series did its work in remaking the clay of my mind, along the way introducing me to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). From here I got the collection of all the stories — that wonderful orange Penguin boxset, now sadly lost in too many house moves — and had the delight of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893), which contains some true classics of the form, and while A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890) don’t really hang around too long to be exactly unenjoyable — though I was thoroughly unprepared for the tonal shift of the middle section of ASiS — the fact remains that, post-Baskerville, things get rather uneven. Some of the later stories are simply divine — ‘…Charles Augustus Milverton’ (1904), ‘…Dying Detective’ (1913), ‘…Sussex Vampire’ (1924), etc — but too many to list here show an author at odds with his creation and legacy.
And so…no more Sherlock Holmes.
But, the Crime Masterworks had also introduced me to John Dickson Carr who [WARNING, WARNING — UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE DECADE INCOMING] I thought was quite good, and who just so happened to have written a set of Holmes pastiches with Doyle’s youngest son Adrian in the 1950s. And so the unstoppable force of my Carrian devotion and the immovable object of No Non-Doyle Holmes were on a collision course, and only after much reading about what a huge fan of Doyle’s Carr was, and how Carr’s writing an apparently highly-regarded biography of Doyle led to the invitation to add to the Holmes canon, did Carr win and thus banish the Non-Doyle rule, thus forever resolving that philosophical quandary.
The collection I bought contained the six Carr/Doyle collaborations as well as the six stories Adrian wrote without Carr, and I had to admit that while they weren’t necessarily better than the best Arthur Conan Doyle stories, the best of them certainly weren’t worse than the worst. And to cut a long story short, the gates were opened and many an author’s take on Holmes was suddenly up for consideration — to date I’ve read pastiches by Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, Caleb Carr, David Stuart Davies, Colin Dexter, Reginald Hill, Ed Hoch, Anthony Horowitz, Laurie R. King, Michael Kurland, Anna Waterhouse, and more, and they’ve pretty much run Doyle’s gamut of quality from the magnificent to the painfully, depressingly awful. Where for a good many years the notion of a ‘newly-discovered’ story was anathema to me, I’m now at the point where — with Holmes at least, other applications pending — your pastiche gets as much consideration as any original character.
Which brings us to Death at the Diogenes Club (2017) by Anna Elliott and Charles Veley, the latest addition to my ranks.
See, in my appraisal of the Holmes pastiche, I’d broadly suggest that the best of them have a reason for utilising that universe beyond simply “Wahey! I’ve put Sherlock Holmes in one of my stories!” — the three books by Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse explore the mystery of how Mycroft became a Diogenese Club-based shut-in, Moriarty (2014) by Horowitz looks at the immediate response by the criminal classes following the — SPOILERS, I GUESS? — death of Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, and the strongest entries in King’s Mary Russell series throw new light upon the internal life of Holmes and his retirement. The, er, un-best of the pastiches are a story of dubious quality which defame the abilities of the World’s Greatest Detective by being either preposterously simple yet taking him an age to solve, or by being simply too dull for Holmes to have ever involved himself with in the first place.
A lot of the worst of them seem only to have seen the light of day because the name ‘Sherlock Holmes’ automatically guarantees you an audience. It’s almost like the detective was called Deets Boedecker and no-one was interested, so they did a search-and-replace, chucked in a reference to the Irregulars/Moriarty/the Woman, have Mycroft turn up, or mention Watson’s string of dead wives (or, if you’re really unlucky, they cram in all five) and then some commissioning editor somewhere suddenly couldn’t buy it fast enough. The World’s Greatest Detective has had his hand put into a tremendous amount of shit, the poor bugger.
Now, Death at the Diogenes Club isn’t shit, but I venture to suggest that the only reason Holmes is in it is that without him it’s just a blandly uninspired Victorian ‘thriller’ with very little to make it stand out. The use of Holmes is justified to the extent of ‘Sherlock Holmes has a daughter! Can you imagine?!‘ — it reminds me of those early-2000s Saturday Night Live sketches where the idea is the joke, so there’s no punchline to build towards — and most of the time he’s off the page because Lily has learned a lot of his methods already and is a tomboyish independent young woman who can protect herself in the Victorian slums. Now, I’d read the hell outta that if there was any attempt to make it stand on its own, but instead we have a few copy-and-paste scenes with Holmes and Watson doing some chemical analysis or relating the details of an autopsy respectively so that we can advance the plot…and that’s about it.
This is so plain and uninspiring that I wouldn’t even say there was any pecuniary motivation behind hitching it to the Holmes wagon. I honestly just think that the prospect of writing a late-Victorian young female sleuth automatically came with Sherlock Holmes attached because of how thoroughly he sits astride that era of crime fiction; it didn’t seem to occur to the authors to have a world without Holmes. And the shame is that the might be an interesting riff here — see how Steven Hockensmith has translated Holmes to the Old West in a genuinely interesting way by having two cow-hand brothers end up as detectives because one of them is obsessed with the Holmes stories appearing in the Strand. Has anyone done that anywhere else? Couldn’t we just have a young woman inspired by Doyle’s tales, teach herself the rudimentary observation skills that Lily James has here and then, y’know, go about sleuthin’? Sure, there’d be a difficulty with her getting access to crime scenes or being taken seriously by the men she encounters — something touched on here and immediately glossed over because she’s The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes — but isn’t that, like, more interesting to write?
Oh, god, I do hope her mother isn’t Irene Adler.
Anyway, I don’t really know what to say about Death at the Diogenes Club. It’s bland. It involves some stolen weapons and a big international conspiracy…or does it? And there’s a policeman who used to be a crook who has rejoined his former gang…or has he? There are chases and all the usual Victorian entanglements. Someone is blackmailed. It’s staggeringly difficult to care, because the people aren’t anyone, the stakes don’t make any sense, and the futile attempts to introduce tension by things like someone discovering a bomb in their bag are undone by the simple expedient of Holmes being on hand and great at everything.
What it doesn’t do is deliver on the promised impossible crime element that motivated me to pick it up to begin with. The back cover says that Lucy (I realise I’ve been calling her Lily this whole time, that’s how little impact she makes) and Holmes must “solve a mysterious locked-room murder” and the Amazon synopsis says that “the body is found in a locked room” but neither of these things are true: the impossible event here concerns a ghostly manifestation which is minor and badly explained (it’s only explained once, despite happening twice in different circumstances which would make quite a difference to its workings…and I don’t know if the reason for it is ever actually given). I’m not going to hold an inability to fulfil my expectations around such an element against it, but it would be nice if the descriptions of the book actually tallied with its contents Pretty sure there’s got to be some sort of expectation on that front.
Oh! I’ve just remembered that there’s also a poisoning by cyanide gas without any means of delivery. I forget the solution to that, though. And the motivation.
I now entirely understand the attitude struck by that teacher in warning me off the Holmes pastiches, because the majority of them have nothing to add and do not show or use the character at anything close to even vague competency. This docile, band, dulled presence in the background of someone else’s even more bland story is certainly not the legacy Doyle would have wanted for Holmes, no matter how much creator came to resent character by the end. To be the forebear of such colourless fare wouldn’t feature high on anyone’s list of hopes, and I might now have to give it a little while before I jump back into the Holmes pastiche just to preserve the memory of the world and its character when done so well.
Here’s hoping Horowitz or Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse have something cooking, hey?
Further Adventures in Self-Publishing page can be found here.