Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

I adore the work of French author René Reouven. He is so intelligent and his works are so delicious, often full of references to other works of literature. He also enjoys blatantly rewriting history to such an effective degree that it’s hard to figure out where history ends and where fiction begins. And – just my luck! – Reouven is himself an admirer of Sherlock Holmes!

I love Sherlock Holmes and I owe him a serious debt of gratitude. It was the Sherlock Holmes stories that introduced me to the detective novel (after which I eventually graduated to the Agatha Christie School of Mystery, which would eventually lead me to John Dickson Carr and many more!). I have always admired Holmes: he sees everything other people see, but he observes and deduces as well, with seemingly-miraculous results! And so I have read many Sherlock Holmes pastiches in my time, and last year I had the pleasure of reading Robert L. Fish’s Schlock Homes stories, which I called “single-handedly the wittiest, funniest, most wildly entertaining, and (to put it simply) the best collection of Sherlock Holmes parodies I’ve ever read”.

And today, it is with pure pleasure that I can say something very similar about René Reouven’s own Sherlockian pastiches. Les passe-temps de Sherlock Holmes (The Pastimes of Sherlock Holmes) is a collection of three stories in which Sherlock Holmes must solve mysterious cases that Dr. Watson referred to in the Canon. And each of these stories is absolutely delightful. In fact (and this is literally the only time this has ever happened) I was at times convinced I was reading a French translation of one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lost adventures... and that’s no exaggeration!

La tragédie des Addleton (The Addleton Tragedy)
“Here also I find an account of the Addleton tragedy, and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow.”
—The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez

It all starts in a most intriguing way: a frightened woman comes to 221B Baker Street, looking for help, but only Mrs. Hudson is present. The lady, Doris Addleton, finally left, but entrusted a piece of parchment to Mrs. Hudson, mumbling some cryptic words in the process. Here is the really interesting part, though: Miss Addleton didn’t want to talk with Holmes, but with Dr. Watson!

Holmes’ ego is, quite naturally, bruised, but the mysterious adventure of the golden pince-nez interrupts the case briefly. When Holmes and Watson return to the troubles of Miss Addleton, they find that a mysterious murder has taken place and the Addleton house has been burned down to the ground. And all this seems to be tied into the mystery of the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays!

Dedicated to Josephine Tey, author of the famous A Daughter of Time, René Reouven cheerfully invents history and proposes a truly original solution to the question of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The mystery, meanwhile, is truly excellent, with a villain whose identity even Dr. Watson deduces, but whose plan seems to have some curious inconsistencies, which almost end up costing Holmes dearly… In short, it’s a brilliant adventure and it is most fun indeed!

La mort subite du cardinal Tosca (The Sudden Death of Cardinal Tosca)
“In this memorable year of ’95, a curious and incongruous succession of cases had engaged his attention, ranging from his famous investigation of the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca—an inquiry which was carried out by him at the express desire of His Holiness the Pope…”
––The Adventure of Black Peter

This second adventure is dedicated to my favourite author of all-time, John Dickson Carr… and yes, the ill-fated Cardinal Tosca does die in a locked room! More specifically, it is a locked library, and the look on his face is one of absolute terror!

But there are several odd things about this death. Cardinal Tosca was a notorious anti-Semite, and yet he went to extreme pains to get into a Jewish library, where he stayed behind, locked the door, and somehow found his death. But how on earth could it have been done? Holmes is asked to investigate by His Eminence Giuseppe Sarto, now a cardinal for the last two years. And he is representing no less a figure than Pope Leo XIII!

Holmes and Watson go undercover and must deal with anti-Semetic tensions, which are all the more popular now that pseudo-scientists are declaring the entire Jewish race is inferior. And during their investigations, Watson meets no less a figure than Israel Zangwill, author of The Big Bow Mystery, who is only too glad to help the famous Dr. Watson learn his way around the Jewish community! (And in one of the most surreal moments in the canon, Zangwill admits he loves reading mysteries, especially by Wilkie Collins and… Arthur Conan Doyle!)

This is quite simply a masterpiece of a story. I usually don’t like locked-room tricks in this vein, but Reouven has invented a beautiful solution that can only work under these circumstances, in this time period with these characters. And it makes perfect sense why the Catholic Church wouldn’t want to make this case public….

La persécution spéciale (The Peculiar Persecution)
“Her visit was, I remember, extremely unwelcome to Holmes, for he was immersed at that moment in a very abstruse and complicated problem concerning a peculiar persecution to which John Vincent Harden, the well-known tobacco millionaire, had been subjected.”
—The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist

John Vincent Harden is an extremely unpleasant man. He’s extremely rich and so feels that it entitles him to walk over everyone else. But his son has fallen in with a dangerous type, one Anthony Smith, and Harden wants Holmes to investigate. Holmes agrees, but not because he wants to help Harden or even the son: just before Harden came to Holmes, Mrs. Harden visited him. And she told a very different story: every year on May 1st, for the last three years, Harden receives a package with nothing but a revolver in it…

The investigation is interesting as we see Holmes verbally duel with his opponent, Anthony Smith… but eventually verbal duelling isn’t enough to satisfy the two and a challenge is laid! How will Holmes get out of this one?
There doesn’t seem to be much of a mystery here at first glance, but when we find out what diabolical plan is at work, it is a simply extraordinary scene. And Holmes takes some time off to solve the mysterious death of French poet Gérard de Nerval, in which Mrs. Hudson plays a vital role in the solution of the mystery!


And those are the pastimes of Sherlock Holmes! Words fail me. I really cannot describe how awesome this book is. It reads just like Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, albeit translated into French. What these stories deserve is a translation by someone who is an expert in the Holmes Canon, for they are chock-full of witty references to other cases. When Holmes meets a real-life figure (such as Israel Zangwill), the moment is wonderful. The Holmes character is also very developed and we see, for instance, why Holmes can quote famous authors despite having given Watson the initial impression that his knowledge of literature was nil.

To sum up, this is a brilliant book that deserves to be given a wider audience, and it is also the first time I’ve ever been briefly fooled into thinking that Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote these. In other words, it’s a masterpiece.

1 comment:

  1. Ooooh, these look very interesting. I started my journey with the Sherlock Holmes canon as well and then graduated to Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner. In fact, the only books I collect are by these three authors. I've always thought my Holmes collection to be complete since it is so easy to get all the stories together in one or two bound volumes but I think I'll have to look into adding these to my shelf. Thanks for the review.