Friday, March 09, 2012

An Air That Kills

Hello, readers, and welcome back to another special crossover-edition of At the Scene of the Crime! It was not long ago that I participated in a podcast hosted by Bill of Traditional Mysteries, where the topic of discussion was Sherlock Holmes. At one point, fellow blogger John Norris brought up the book The Breath of God, a novel by Guy Adams starring none other than Sherlock Holmes. I wasn’t in the room when the book was initially mentioned (there was a doorbell), but I later mentioned it and commented that it seemed far more like a supernatural novel. Any sane person would stay away, right?

Well, that ought to give you some insight into my character, because a great idea struck me: John had mentioned owning the book and I remembered picking it up at my local independent bookstore. The book sounded a lot like a supernatural novel, but was it really an ingenious impossible crime mystery in disguise? There was only one way to find out, and I managed to convince John (with a minimum of Chinese Water Torture) to join me for the ride. My one-year anniversary was coming up and besides, I like to support the local store when I can. So back to the store I marched at the first opportunity (that Tuesday, as it happens) and I walked out with The Breath of God in my bag.

So what was this book? A supernatural story that pilfers Holmes to sell more copies? An impossible crime with supernatural overtones? A mystery into which supernatural elements are integrated? There was a positive-sounding quote from Christopher Fowler on the cover, and yet that didn’t set me quite at ease… There was only one way to find out what I had gotten myself into…

John, thanks a lot for joining me today!

***

My pleasure, Patrick.  I'll solve one mystery for you: that quote from Fowler. It was a blurb written for Adams' first book The World House a horror novel in the Clive Barker vein that sounds like a video game put on paper based on the reviews I've read.  I'm not sure Fowler has read Adam's Holmes rip-off -- or rather his Hodgson rip-off -- but that quote ought to at least have been attributed to the right book.  As for what The Breath of God is categorically -- it's hard to pin down.  I don't think, however, that it is a Holmes book at all even though Sherlock and Dr. Watson appear in it.  Holmes disappears for more than three quarters of the story. This is more of a homage to the Edwardian occult detective characters Adams borrowed from Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson.  He knows those stories very well and captures the essence of their supernatural fascinations better than he does the Holmesian detective story tropes.

What utterly surprised me is that Thomas Carnacki seems to be the main character of the book.  Clearly, Adams is a big fan of Hodgson's tales.  On the other hand he abuses and mistreats poor John Silence. What happens to Silence in the finale was just plain cruel. I wonder if he dislikes Blackwood's character intensely?

***

Our story begins with the death of one Hilary de Montfort. His corpse was found in completely unmarked snow, his bones completely crushed as if he’d fallen from a great height. But a few things make that theory impossible— a witness saw him alive mere moments before he was murdered and swears that nobody approached him. Furthermore, there are no tall buildings in that part of town. So how could he have been killed without anyone leaving footprints? It’s as though the very air had crushed him (i.e. the titular “breath of God”).
Yeah, it was kinda like this, but minus the footprints

It sounds like a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself, but before he can investigate properly, Dr. John Silence turns up, telling Holmes a genuinely-eerie story that sounds like a Victorian version of The Exorcist. Apparently, Holmes’ name is on the lips of the spirit world, and the scene where Dr. Silence is confronted with spirits in everyone’s body is actually very well-done. And yet… the supernatural overtones are never quite consistent. The second death that occurs in this book is a perfect example of how Grand Guignol does not inspire horror in and of itself, yet Guy Adams seems to operate under that assumption, which just makes for “weirdness”.

I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as you are in the realm of occult detectives—I’ve never read a Dr. Silence or Thomas Carnacki story in my life. (Oddly enough, Thomas Carnacki reappears—sort of—in The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, another Holmes-inspired book that I read at about the same time as this one.) And yet I agree with you that Adams doesn't seem to like Dr. Silence; the poor guy really doesn't get his due at the finale. I did enjoy the Carnacki character a lot, and I find it very amusing that even nowadays, the best possible weapon against ghosts is something blessed by a Catholic priest (in this case, it manages to be the blood of Christ!). The Catholic Church may be under fire in today’s media, but you never see a Baptist being called to exorcise demons! (Well, we’ve had 2000 years of experience hunting vampires and demons. Everyone knows who the real pros are.)

Guaranteed protection against ghosts for 2000 years.
***

I've thought the same about the Catholic tools used in doing battle with demons. There is, however, a rich literature about rabbis both creating supernatural beings (The Golem) and fighting demons (The Dybbuk) and the supernatural figures in the work of Sholem Alecheim and Isaac Bashevis Singer frequently so the Jewish faith also has some literary merit in the realm of the weird not to mention power when it comes to ghostbusting. We just don't hear enough about it in the movies where everyone seems to get all their references these days. I guess I could mention other fictional works featuring ghosts and other worldly events set all over the globe where Catholicism has nothing to do with the supernatural (Colin Cotterill's books come to mind, all quintessentially Asian and rooted in Lao culture) but I don't want to veer away from the book we are meant to discuss.

Before we outright condemn Guy Adams I have to concede he has done some good with this book and deserves some praise. He does his best to honor the characters he borrows and he has an obvious respect for the writers who came before him. He says so in his afterword.  I think his intent was to educate the reader about the rich literature in supernatural mysteries from the past. After all, they are basically the foundation for this explosion of "paranormal" romance, supernatural adventure and the new brand of occult detectives like Jim Butcher's character Harry Dresden and to a very small degree the immensely popular Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris which to me seem less like supernatural mysteries and more like Harlequin romances with monsters.

But while he does follow the formula of presenting a mystery that has its root in supernatural occurrences (the demonically possessed child, the eerie powerful wind that everyone dubs "The Breath of God"), unfortunately the investigation part is largely left out. I recall only one incident with Holmes at the scene of one of the grotesque deaths examining evidence and looking for signs of human causes. So much happens offstage.

***

The conspicuously absent dame.
Personally, I don’t think this book is strong enough to please either the Sherlock Holmes fan or aficionados of horror fiction. The only real reason I enjoyed these latter aspects, I suspect, is because I was meeting most of these characters for the first time. (One notable exception is the appearance of the villain from M. R. James’ Casting the Runes late in the novel on the side of the heroes.) Apart from a few key moments, the supernatural atmosphere never seemed that great or consistent to me. As for the detection… I agree, not enough actually happens onstage. Holmes is absent for a large chunk of the story and those bits involve supernatural horrors and action scenes. It’s Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes movie all over again, but with more ghosts and sans Rachel Macadams.

***

Where were the women in this book?  Not one in sight.  Is modern horror becoming an all-male affair these days?  There was a bit of homoerotica in it now that I think about it. Still, the absence of women characters is very odd. Not even a maid! There was also an obsession with food and eating.  I started to make a mental scorecard anytime food was mentioned.  (I was counting the real food scenes and not the eating of stuffed hunting trophies.) Go back and page through the book.  Every ten pages or so we are told what they're eating. It wasn’t as intrusive as the usual wardrobe updates you get in contemporary books, but it was very noticeable.

***

It's really just one person with multiple personalities.
In particular, I highly disliked the ending of this book. Holmes’ reasoning is completely contradictory when he gives his solution, and everything builds up to the ending of Batman Begins, with a few minor alterations to transpose it all into Victorian times! For me, that was the great upset—not only does this book never take advantage of its potentially impossible crime, the ending is just such a let-down. Not only have we seen it done before, we’ve seen it done with a far more gripping storyline and more engaging characters. You might as well just watch the movie.

***

I saw in the ending more of an inspiration ripped from the headlines.  I could only think of that disaster in the subways of Japan several years ago. The reason the gas was released there was because an apocalyptic prophecy failed to happen so the cult members decided to make it happen with their own horrible version of mass murder.  It can't be too much of a coincidence that the ending of Adams' book also deals with an apocalypse of sorts and that the disaster takes place on Jan 1, 1901.  There was lots of talk about the dawn of a new century throughout the book.

For my tastes there is too much second hand narration of past events and little true sleuthing here. Holmes even leaves the story to do some offstage work, making an allusion to a similar exit in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and is gone for about one third of the tale, re-entering at the appropriate time to make his pronouncements in the finale. Instead of true detection with a supernatural backdrop what we get are action scenes and lots of them which are at the core of the modern horror novel.  The best being a rather well done ritual scene in which Watson, the three borrowed characters (Thomas Carnacki, Dr. Silence and Julian Karswell) join the only historical personage Aleister Crowley in some fantastic spell casting and other forms of mumbo jumbo in an effort to prevent the onslaught of "the Breath of God."

Really I can't call this a true detective novel or for that matter an occult detective novel.  What it really deserves to be called is a "shaggy dog tale" – one of those long winded jokes that end with a groan inducing pun.  It had some great scenes that in the end all turn out to be a cheat when the supernatural aspects are not only rationalized but turn out to be faked. That was more than groan inducing for me – it made me roll my eyes.

***

My reaction to the text hidden in spoilers.
I like to see my “supernatural” horrors explained rationally, though sometimes it can be highly effective when an author decides not to completely explain this apparition… But this ending is just a muddle-headed mess. I was never quite sure what the solution was, until I asked the author through his website.  Here is the explanation as far as I can make it out. How did the first victim die? Why, it was the Breath of God that killed de Montfort! (Really? After Holmes said it couldn’t possibly be that powerful? Okay…) But wait! Holmes was able to stand up to the force at the end of the book! Surely that must mean it was not real, right? Well, no… Holmes didn’t believe in it so it couldn’t affect him…. Really? So the Breath of God (we are talking about the same God here, right, the all-powerful, omnipotent one?) cannot affect someone who doesn’t believe in it?

***

You mean to tell me that Guy Adams really believes that about God killing de Montfort?  He's a big joker, you know.  I looked over his website and most of his replies to his fans are flippant.  As I understand the book the Breath of God is man-made. It's the gas.  Maybe I missed something.  I understand his intended theme about belief in the supernatural vs. skepticism and doubt. I don't think however it fits that first murder.  Interestingly, I recently watched a movie adaptation of Fritz Leiber's book Gather, Darkness called Burn, Witch, Burn!  The idea of belief in witchcraft in order to enhance its power is addressed much more intelligently and coherently in that movie adaptation than what Adams attempts to do in his book.

***

Overall, The Breath of God reads like the wrong type of Conan Doyle story. Neither Holmes nor Watson ever seemed to me like reasonable approximations. The writing style is fairly dull and purposely old-fashioned, and stuffed with anachronisms, especially in the dialogue. But never does it seem like Conan Doyle’s own writing. The author acknowledges this at the end, saying that he wrote it, not Conan Doyle. While I admire the idea for the approach (why poorly mimic a style if you can write far better in your own?) the results hardly justify them in this case.

Patrick's Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

Overall, out of four stars, I give The Breath of God 2. It’s far from the worst Holmes pastiche I’ve ever read, but it’s also nowhere near the best. If, like me, you don’t know much about Dr. Silence or Thomas Carnacki coming into the book, you’ll probably enjoy these aspects the most because you’re seeing them for the first time. But even then, there’s only enough material here to enjoy one reading. I don’t see myself re-reading this book any day. For my money, readers are far better off checking out Kim Newman’s The Hound of the d’Urbervilles, which also (sort of) features Thomas Carnacki in the story The Greek Invertebrate.

***

I suggest everyone read the Carnacki short stories and at least two of the John Silence stories ()"A Psychical Invasion" the very first tale and the exceptional "Ancient Sorceries") to see how a real Victorian occult detective tale is handled.  Margery Lawrence's stories about Dr. Mile Pennoyer in Number Seven Queer Street and Master of Shadows are also excellent examples of this type and owe an awful lot to both William Hope Hodgson and Algernon Blackwood. Both Hodgson's and Blackwood's stories are easily found on websites devoted to Victorian supernatural literature.  Two of the best are Literary Gothic (http://www.litgothic.com/Authors/authors.html) and Gaslight (http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/gaslight/).  Both have several stories available as either e-texts or PDF files.

This was fun.  Thanks again for the invite. Wish it had been on a better book.

7 comments:

  1. Great crossover review, guys, and thanks for reminding me, once again, why I tend to avoid Holmesian pastiches. This one sounds even worse than the one in which Holmes tangles with Count Dracula and equally horrible as the book that has him battling a fleet of Martian warships. Poor, poor Holmes.

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  2. Don't even know Holmes was in this book. But if it gets people to track down CARNACKI, THE GHOST FINDER or the stories of M.R. James or JOHN SILENCE then I'm glad it was published.

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  3. Very interesting--though I still can't decide if I want to read this. [g] Just note, please, that Jim Butcher's detective is Harry DRESDEN.

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  4. The original CARNACKI stories are available in a new reprint from WORDSWORTH editions.

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  5. What on earth did I write instead of Dresden? (turning deep crimson) Must have been a typing error due to too much wine that night. Looks like Patrick fixed it already. Thanks.

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  6. Thank you so much John and Patrick!

    I was planning to buy this book and now I don't have to. ;)

    Lin.

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  7. @Lin
    Well, we've done our duty! ;)

    @John
    Yeah, I did correct it. I didn't catch it, but it was "Devlin" you originally wrote.

    @Sextonblake
    Thanks for the tip!

    @TomCat
    The apocryphal Holmes stories rarely match up to the originals... and this is a case in point.

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