Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Beasts of Holmes

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Sherlock Holmes stories are the untold stories. For as long as I can remember I have been a fan of Holmes. I was very young when I read my first three adventures—I ‘m positive that two of them were The Norwood Builder and The Speckled Band, and I think the third may have been The Red-Headed League. One of the things that’s always intrigued me, though, are the references Watson makes to some of Holmes’ other adventures.

And it turns out I’m not alone in this. Many authors have tried expanding on these references, one of the most famous collections being The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes. It’s a collaboration between Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr, with the two men sharing the writing duties on the first six stories and Conan Doyle writing the final six on his own – the quality takes a nosedive after the first half, but some of the stories in the first half are absolute gems. But is it mere coincidence that some of the most fascinating references involve animals?

Think about it. There’s the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a mythical beast that sounds so awesome, I can’t resist capitalising its name (even though it appears in lowercase in the canon). There’s the affair involving the politician, the lighthouse, and the cormorant. There’s that mysterious worm unknown to science, and the sinister-sounding red leech. All of these sound like terrific ideas for Holmes stories… but unfortunately, Sir Arthur never got around to them. But the next-best thing is available in French: René Reouven’s Le Bestiaire de Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes’ Bestiary). In this book, Reouven tackles Sherlock Holmes as only he can, and he delivers four stories about various animals that are referred to throughout the canon.

Le cormorant (The Cormorant)
“I deprecate, however, in the strongest way the attempts which have been made lately to get at and to destroy these papers. The source of these outrages is known, and if they are repeated I have Mr. Holmes’s authority for saying that the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant will be given to the public. There is at least one reader who will understand.”
The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger

This is one of the most intriguing Sherlock Holmes tales I’ve come across because it takes place in a time that is rarely explored in Holmesian pastiches. This is a story set during WWI, long after Holmes’ glory days. Jack the Ripper won’t pop out of the shadows and Queen Victoria will not be celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. But if you recall, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a story in which Holmes and Watson are helping the war effort (His Last Bow). The Cormorant is set about two years later, in the thick of WWI, and Holmes and Watson are dealing with espionage. The cormorant is involved in these events, and I dare not reveal who the politician is or what the lighthouse has to do with anything.

Eventually, the investigation turns up a tragedy pulled from the history books. As usual, Reouven blends history with fiction effortlessly, and I can’t see the seams at which one ends and the other begins. The Cormorant also ends on a genuinely shocking note, with one of the most surprising villains of the entire Holmes canon, and yet one that makes perfect sense. Overall, I thought this was a good story. It isn’t quite among my favourite pastiches, but its setting and the ending make it one of the most interesting I’ve ever read.

This story also sets up the rest of the collection. After the adventure is over, Watson and Holmes have a discussion and Holmes promises to finally tell Watson about some of his most secret adventures, which all involved animals and which pitted Holmes against an evil mastermind whose name begins with the letter M – no, it’s not Moriarty. The rest of the stories, then, are told from Holmes’ point-of-view, an unusual choice for a pastiche but one that works quite well.

Le rat (The Rat)
‘“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.’
The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from a Polish man, Thadée (in Polish, Tadeusz) Bobrowski. He brings Holmes a letter from his nephew, Teodor Korzeniowski. It seems Teodor has just experienced a bizarre adventure. A sailor aboard the Highland Forest, Teodor talks about the day a black man named James Wait got onboard. It seems that Wait had a mysterious box with him, and one day Teodor took advantage of Wait’s absence to take a peek inside of the box. But before he could do so, his finger was bitten by some creature hiding inside. Then he is hit on the side of the head.

When he comes to nearly twenty four hours later, he finds out that James Wait is no longer aboard the ship. And a man named Culverton-Smith has been around inquiring after Wait, who apparently stole something from a doctor. Could it have been the creature in the box? But Teodor succumbs to a mysterious illness and he is left ashore in order to convalesce properly. There, a doctor named Voshuis cures him with an experimental method. His next step is to get in touch with Sherlock Holmes via his uncle.

This is a story in which René Reouven gets to combine his two great loves: mystery and science fiction. The mixture works surprisingly well. I suspect this is because Reouven’s love for both genres was inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – in particular, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Poison Belt. As a result, even though the events of this story are like nothing Holmes ever came across in the canon, it works for this story without any awkward stylistic shifts or anything of the sort.

This is an outstanding tale with some really sneaky references to literature, especially the work of a famous Polish-born novelist who plays a major role in the tale. (I’ve given you enough clues to figure out who it is.) It also ties the tale neatly into other stories from the canon, especially The Adventure of the Dying Detective. And as for the giant rat of Sumatra itself, it is a beast straight from hell, and the more you find out about it the more terrifying it seems, until finally Holmes has a climactic showdown with the creature.

This is, at long last, the giant rat of Sumatra that I was looking for—it’s the first time that a pastiche with this creature has satisfied me in every way. It is a terrific story and would be well-worth reading by itself. It was during this story that I suddenly realized who the evil mastermind behind everything was. Trust me, it does not spoil the reading experience for the rest of the book.

Le ver (The Worm)
“A third case worthy of note is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science.”
The Problem of Thor Bridge

Much to my surprise, I think I enjoyed this story even more than the previous one. It’s a sequel of sorts to The Hound of the Baskervilles, where Beryl Stapleton (now Beryl Garcia) returns to Holmes to ask for his advice. It seems that when she was younger, she was nearly married to Isadora Persano, a well-known journalist and an infamous duellist. After the events that Watson chronicled in The Hound of the Baskervilles, she returned home…

And then something happened: Persano received a match box in the mail with a dead worm inside of it, a worm that scientists cannot identify. And it’s made him lose his mind. He spends hours at a time staring at it with a fixed expression, refusing to say a word. And there’s a particularly bad symptom, one that worries everyone who knows Persano: he refuses to duel anybody anymore.

Holmes is on the case and solves it in grand style. The reason behind Persano’s madness is an ingenious one, and I really liked how this tale tied into the Hound of the Baskervilles, forming a sort of sequel without repeating the same plot, as well as explaining some of the story’s more shadowy elements. It also develops Holmes’ battle with that mysterious enemy, who never comes face-to-face with Holmes, but whose presence arches out and reaches him nonetheless throughout these adventures.

La sangsue (The Leech)
“As I turn over the pages, I see my notes upon the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby, the banker.”
The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez

This story deals with the horrifying death of a banker named Crosby, who was found dead apparently due to a chemical accident. His face was burned by some extremely strong acid and he died as a result. Or did he? Because there’s a very odd detail about the corpse: it has been entirely drained of blood!

Sherlock Holmes is asked to investigate by the Michigan Insurance Limited. And the investigation leads Holmes to a full out duel with the infamous murderer H. H. Holmes inside of his “Murder Castle”. It’s strange—I knew H. H. Holmes’ name and that he was a murderer, but at first I thought the Murder Castle was a fanciful invention. Only when I looked Holmes up did I realize, with a shock, that this house of horrors genuinely existed.

I must confess that I didn’t like the story as much as some of the other tales, but the scenes inside the castle are excellent and properly thrilling. The solution also has two major points of interest. The first is the way the story is tied into the rest of the stories. The second point of interest is the reason an accident was staged, which is an interesting idea!

***

Author René Reouven
And that is Sherlock Holmes’ Bestiary. It’s certainly an intriguing idea, bringing together the mysterious animals that Holmes has dealt with. Although not all of the stories are brilliant, the way they all tie into each other is terrific, and the identity of the overarching villain is too delicious for words. The author is quite obviously enjoying himself. I particularly love the tale of the giant rat of Sumatra and the adventure of the worm unknown to science. For me, these two stories rank right up there with Reouven’s explanation of the mysterious death of Cardinal Tosca.

I only wish that these stories could be translated by a Sherlockian who is more versed in the original stories than myself. These stories read like French translations of original Conan Doyle stories, and if they were translated into English by someone who really knew his stuff, I think they’d have all the merits of an original Holmes adventure. If you can speak/read French, Reouven’s work is really worth checking out.

4 comments:

  1. I usually don't read these reviews of books I will probalby never be able to read and now I know why. I have to have copy of this book! [...sigh...] Rosetta Stone is looking more and more tempting to me so I can learn French and Italian and finally be able to read all these books that will probalby never get English translations. I enjoyed Rick Boyer's THE GIANT RAT OF SUMATRA and have refused to read any other versions. But a rat from hell sounds pretty good to me.

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    1. While the rat might not be literally from hell, the place it comes from actually comes pretty close. I have a feeling you'd enjoy the whole business, but I can't say too much more without spoiling anything for the rest of the folks on list. If you really, really want to know send me an email.

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  2. Your review of this pastiche sounds really interesting. I just wish my grasp of French was greater. I don't know how I feel about the fact that Holmes is the narrator. Both of Doyle's stories in which Holmes narrates didn't turn out so well, and subsequent author's pastiches have followed suit.

    Hopefully some day these pastiches will translated into English and I'll have plenty to grab up.

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    1. I have an e-edition of this one, so in theory I could simply ring it through Google translate, but we all know just how high-quality the translator is... Looks like the only thing for this one is someone's hard work...

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