In Bloody Murder, Julian Symons’ famous survey of the mystery genre, Symons writes that “successful comic crime stores, short or long, are rare. One turns away with a shudder from the many Holmes parodies (…)” Perhaps Julian Symons didn’t have much of a sense of humour, though something resembling one does shine through in his book from time to time. Either way, Symons does Holmesian literature – both parody and pastiche – an enormous injustice by dismissing it as he does. He doesn’t really take the time to appreciate the Holmesian literature that has been written over the years.
Symons’ caution is justified in some cases, but with such a huge output of Sherlock-related literature, you can only expect some pastiches to be less successful than others. Holmes seems to have particularly bad luck when he is brought to Canada. Ronald C. Weyman’s Sherlock Holmes: Travels in the Canadian West is one of the worst collections of Holmesian pastiches I have ever read. The mysteries are frankly laughable, and the premise is absurd: apparently, during Sherlock’s Great Hiatus (after his disappearance at the Reichenbach Falls) the detective wasn’t really in hiding… no, no, Dr. Watson and he were just in Canada, chilling with the Indi–– er…I mean, Native Americans (for we must be Politically Correct, my good Watson). No, really—he doesn’t even bother to use a fake name, he keeps introducing himself as Sherlock Holmes. But throughout this time Holmes potentially has Colonel Moran’s rifle aimed at his head from any window. Certainly not the Great Detective’s smartest move, and indeed, the entire book often reads like a fictionalised history textbook, with Watson spending too much time telling you about historical figures, customs, etc. The book is even illustrated with well-known images of Canadian history, making the whole thing that much more like a history textbook… and that much duller.
Stephen Gaspar’s The Canadian Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is far better, but still fairly uninspired. Some of the stories are blatant rip-offs of canonical stories, in particular The Prime Minister’s Papers. It is such an obvious clone of a Holmes adventure that even Watson solves the case because he substituted the names of The Second Stain with the ones they were dealing with in Canada.
Personally, I have always been most intrigued about the “untold stories” of Sherlock Holmes. What was the secret of the Giant Rat of Sumatra? What about the mysterious death of Cardinal Tosca, which the Pope himself asked Holmes to investigate? Or what about the adventure of the tired captain? Or of Colonel Warburton’s madness? These simple phrases are extremely cryptic, and conjure up all sorts of delightful ideas in your mind. What other adventures did Holmes and Watson have? Many authors have attempted to answer the question… and one of them was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s son, Adrian, who collaborated with John Dickson Carr on The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes.
|John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle|
One of the most interesting takes on the Holmes stories can be found in The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Kim Newman, a terrific short story collection which is also a novel of sorts—there’s an overarching plot throughout the book that climaxes in the final sentence. The idea, like so many, sounds simple: when Watson met Holmes, the world changed for the better. But what happened when Colonel Moran met Professor Moriarty? Here, the Colonel (perhaps jealous of the doctor’s literary success?) takes to writing his own adventures with Professor Moriarty. But this isn’t a simple retelling of a Holmes adventure from the villain’s point of view. These are entirely new adventures, with Kim Newman shamelessly borrowing events from Riders of the Purple Sage just as easily as he borrows events from The Maltese Falcon. There are too many references to count, but some of the cleverest ones involve The Phantom of the Opera, The Adventures of Tintin, and Dracula. Kim Newman seamlessly integrates these stories into Moriarty’s adventures, sometimes as a throwaway gag but more often as a central part of the story.
Another prolific Holmesian was the American author and critic Anthony Boucher (that name ought to be familiar: the Bouchercon is named after him). Boucher and Denis Green collaborated on the radio play The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Every week, Dr. Watson would tell a new story to the charismatic host Harry Bartell, spokesperson for the Petri Wine Company. (Bartell served in the army during WWII, and I personally found his replacement did not have a fraction of his charm.) One of the most delightful bits of the show was the final plug for Petri Wine, which was often introduced in a roundabout way, with Dr. Watson attempting to avoid the subject, yet Bartell always managed to somehow draw a connection to Petri Wine.
I would like to confess now that I have never read any of Laurie R. King’s continuations of the Holmes saga. I know, that means I’m a foolish mortal and what business have I writing this article? But honestly, eleven-year-old-me was horrified at the prospect of Sherlock Holmes being married to this Mary Russell character I’d never heard of. Foolish as it may sound, my opinion on the subject remains the same— I don’t want to see Sherlock Holmes married and I don’t care how much more human that makes him—I’ll have some words on the subject when I get to talking about Elementary. With so many other unread books lying around my room, I just don’t feel the need to read King’s tales—a purely personal preference that will not apply to everyone.
One of the most famous Holmesian pastiches is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer, often cited as one of the best Holmes pastiche of all-time. I agree, with some minor reservations about plot structure. But overall, this is a wildly entertaining story that really brings something original to the table. Watson admits to his readers that he has lied to them, making up some of Holmes’ adventures for financial purposes. But his greatest forgery—one that was never suspected—was his faking of Holmes’ death in The Final Problem. For you see, it turns out that Moriarty was simply a harmless professor— Moriarty the criminal was simply a product of Holmes’ cocaine-fuelled nightmares, where Holmes cast the poor man as a criminal mastermind and began to harass him! In order to cure Holmes, Watson takes him to Vienna where he meets up with none other than Sigmund Freud, who helps to clean him up. Then, the real adventure begins—and from that point on, the story becomes a bit more routine and predictable for me, although it’s still a terrifically entertaining book.
It’s also worth mentioning that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself tried his hand at a Holmes parody! How Watson Learned the Trick is a delightful short story in which Watson tries his hand at deduction, using Holmes’ behaviours and deducing several things about them. Holmes is delighted, but as he reveals, each of Watson’s deductions was quite wrong, although it was based in nothing but sound logic. “But go on, Watson, go on!” Holmes encourages his companion at the story’s conclusion. “It's a very superficial trick, and no doubt you will soon acquire it.”
But for every splendid British television show, it seems that there has to be a derivative American version. (I’m pretty sure it’s one of the laws of physics.) And the American answer to Sherlock is entitled Elementary. It uses almost the same idea at its core—Sherlock Holmes in modern day—except the big, ultra-special twist is it’s set in New York. Oh, and Watson is now a woman, played by Lucy Liu. This generated a lot of controversy, but it’s not a new idea—Rex Stout wrote a delightful essay entitled Watson Was a Woman in which he proposed this very thing. But ironically, the show failed to live up to its hype. It was neither extraordinarily good nor extraordinarily bad. It simply… exists. Johnny Lee Miller is decent enough as Holmes, but Lucy Liu is downright bland as Watson, and sometimes it’s only too obvious that she’s reciting her script. Apart from acting, though, Elementary makes one fatal blunder: it tries to be too different from Holmes. He has ridiculously fake tattoos now, because that’s bad-ass. He’s got a temper problem, because that’s bad-ass. What singles out the show is that when it introduces Holmes’ signature violin, instead of playing it, Holmes sets fire to it: a fitting metaphor for what this show should be…
See, this for me is the biggest mistake Elementary makes: it tries to make Holmes fit into the mould of the modern, angst-ridden, “human” detective. It doesn’t work. Holmes is a genius: get over it. It’s the point of his character—without his genius, he’s not Holmes. I know we’re supposed to have very human detectives who let us know just how fallible they are, but no matter how good such a character is, it’s not Sherlock Holmes. He is practically infallible, he’s almost always right. Well, not always (see Irene Adler), but the batting average is really high. This is what Sherlock gets right: Holmes isn’t an outcast because of temper tantrums, daddy issues, women and drugs; he’s an outcast because he’s got a brain, knows how to use it, and thinks that makes him superior to mere people. And slowly but surely, Watson helps to humanize him. In Sherlock’s “Baskerville” episode, Holmes is terrified when confronted with a problem he doubts he can solve with his intellect— the Holmes we see in Elementary would break down crying if he broke a nail.
There are so many other things I could discuss, such as a brilliant essay by Catholic priest Ronald Knox, in which he analyzes the Holmes stories using the methods of Biblical scholars. (The curious can find it in his collection Essays in Satire, and the essay speaks far louder than any summary I can give you.) Or I could talk to you about Guy Adams’ The Breath of God, which is far more interested in Thomas Carnacki than in Sherlock Holmes. Or I could digress into a discussion of other Holmes films, ranging from The Strange Case of Civilization as we Know It (where John Cleese plays Holmes) to Young Sherlock Holmes. But honestly, many of these deserve an article of their own, for both good and bad reasons. Many times in this article I’ve been regrettably brief. If I wrote everything that came to mind, we’d be here for a good 40 more pages at least. I hope that I have proved my central point: despite the reservations of Julian Symons, Sherlockiana is not going to die down any time soon. People today are just as fascinated by Holmes and his untold adventures as they were a hundred years ago. It’s as diverse a field as it is wide; some entries are good and others are downright ugly. Some simply descend into the bizarre, while others are well-constructed mysteries. And every once in a while, someone comes along and recaptures the magic that made Holmes the success he was in the first place. This last group of stories is the hardest to find, but they are also the most fun to read.