Book Review: Encounters of Sherlock Holmes
Edited by George Mann
Published by Titan Books, 2013
A pastiche of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, this anthology actually includes stories from a few different genres. Don’t panic! The contributors clearly know their Holmes and they know their history; even if they are not all Doyle purists or single minded devotees of Steampunk. If you are also an eclectic who enjoys a good mystery and who can approach the anthology with an open mind, then you are in for a good read, practically cover to cover.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created his legacy when he put pen to paper and came up with the eccentric investigative genius that was Sherlock Holmes. The detective’s many adventures are read by school children, academics and enthusiasts to this day. You can glory in the original stories or explore new worlds as written by the legions of Doyle devotees who have followed in his footsteps. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who has a bad word to say about Sherlock Holmes. Even people who don’t read mysteries have read his adventures. His brilliant, scientific mind paved the way for the (again legions) of police procedurals on TV today. Which is kind of crazy since Doyle always struck me as the sort of man Holmes would have wanted to smack upside the head.
Doyle was a fan of psychics and psychic phenomena in general. Strange, considering that he was a doctor, an avid traveler and a man who fought hard in defense of people he felt had suffered from injustice. This sounds like a man who would have been invested in scientific inquiry and a search for the truth. Unfortunately his truth appears to have included fairies, trance writing and other assorted bullshit. Doyle loved a good spiritualist. Loved ‘em.
This interest in the supernatural became much more pronounced as he got older and sadly tarnished his otherwise impeccable reputation as a man and an artist. He even went so far as to get into publicized debates with Harry Houdini (now there’s a man who emulated the best characteristics of Sherlock Holmes, I highly recommend his biography The Secret Life of Houdini) on the practicality of having your very own Victorian Miss Cleo.
Funny thing, that. Houdini actually devoted quite a bit of time to debunking spiritualists, who he considered to be little better than scam artists and it is a sad irony to imagine Doyle ending up as a victim to the kind of shady undertakings he would have endeavored to save others from.
No matter; you don’t need to love the man to enjoy the author (case in point, I despise Orson Scott Card and Brett Easton Ellis, but am wild for their books). It’s safe to say that the contributors for Encounters of Sherlock Holmes hold Doyle’s work in high esteem. This is particularly true of George Mann, the editor who compiled this piece. Mann is no slouch; he didn’t pick unknown authors for his ode to Holmes. Instead he looked for established writers, some with dozens of published works to their credit and got them to dive head first into this anthology.
On the whole, the shorts are well written, well plotted and have excellent character development. Of course it is inevitable that some stories will outshine their peers and personal preferences will probably come down more to a matter of taste in genre than writing style. Cavan Scott’s The Demon Slasher of Seven Sisters springs immediately to mind: “Henrietta Stead was many things to many people … To Sherlock Holmes, however, she was always the woman; the woman who nearly bludgeoned him to death that is.”
Note to self: start carrying a brick in your purse.
The majority of the stories are told from Watson’s perspective and the authors take liberties with his character to the point that, if taken altogether, he comes off as having a severe personality disorder; running the gamut from shrewish wife to long suffering caretaker. No matter how you prefer your Watson served up (sexy like Jude Law or snuggly like Bilbo Baggins) there really is something for everyone in this anthology.
You get straightforward mystery, pathos, Steampunk and supernatural elements. Even Frankenstein makes an appearance. Yes, at first this is as jarring as it sounds, especially if you are a Doyle purist, but I suggest you approach the story with an open mind. It left me wishing for more. Stupid short stories, why can’t you all be as fulfilling as novels?! Anywho. Blending monsters into familiar classical tales is all the rage these days. If Abraham Lincoln can fight zombies, why can’t Holmes and Watson take on a “Post Modern Prometheus?”
You know, it isn’t easy for contemporary authors to write in the Victorian style and still remain engaging. I cannot be the only English Lit major who could not keep her eyes open while reading Jane Eyre (am I the only person with lady bits who did not moon over Mister Rochester and instead wished he had kept a team of ninja in his attic instead of a crazy wife?). Few people can write in such a dated style while remaining relevant to modern tastes. Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell comes immediately to mind and it was Clarke’s monumental talent that I was frequently reminded of while reading Encounters of Sherlock Holmes.
Don’t get me wrong, the anthology has its faults. The schizophrenic swings between genres are not going to be to everyone’s liking. Personally, I had more of an issue with the occasional use of heavy handed social messaging. Dear writers, there are ways to convey your agenda seamlessly in the context of your story. Doing so can provide depth which will set you apart from others who just write mystery for the sake of mystery (which is fun to read but tends to be less fulfilling, as it won’t carry the same level of emotional investment for the reader). Or you can set yourself apart with your heavy handed moralizing and just opt to leave the reader feeling like they’ve been beaten about the neck and shoulders. Trust me, the latter is no bueno. Thankfully these thematic problems are few and far between.
Final consensus: if you are a fan of mysteries, Steampunk, Holmes or the Victorian era and are not rigid in your reading tastes, this is a neat little anthology and definitely worth a look.
The Loss of Chapter Twenty-One by Mark Hodder
Reminded me of Doyle’s involvement with Roger Casement; unfortunately weighed down by social message.
Sherlock Holmes and the Indelicate Widow by Mags L. Halliday
A concise mystery that I predict will leave someone, somewhere, wanting a paper maché coffin. That someone might be moi.
The Demon Slasher of Seven Sisters by Cavan Scott
One of the few stories not told from Watson’s perspective. My personal favorite (but I am a sucker for a plucky heroine).
The Post-Modern Prometheus by Nick Kyme
Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! More horror than mystery.
Mrs. Hudson at the Christmas Hotel by Paul Magrs
A baffling but adorable Murder She Wrote type mystery with paranormal undertones.
The Case of the Night Crawler by George Mann
A salty bit of Steampunk; Mann should have started the anthology with this piece. I understand why he may have been reluctant to do so, but it would have been a great way to alert the reader to the varying genres contained within
The Adventure of the Locked Carriage by Stuart Douglas
Classic Holmes; reminded me of an episode of Cold Case though.
The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador by Eric Brown
Science fiction, as the title implies, plus a cameo by H.G. Wells.
The Adventure of the Swaddled Railwayman by Richard Dinnick
Standard mystery with some Steampunkish flavor to it.
The Pennyroyal Society by Kelly Hale
One of the few mysteries not narrated by Watson (who comes off a bit dickish). Not everyone will appreciate the historical accuracy or the social message; but it was right up my alley
The Persian Slipper by Steve Lockley
Simple, short, mystery and one of the few that doesn’t take place on a train
The Property of a Thief by Mark Wright
A.J. Raffles and his unfortunately named partner in crime, Bunny. Where there is a new Holmes anthology, there is often a Raffles cameo and this is no exception.
Woman’s Work by David Barnett
Absolutely hysterical and beautifully written; Mrs. Hudson handles her business!
The Fallen Financier by James Lovegrove
Wrapping up with a man who knows his classic Holmes (and who gives me prose envy).