Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Reader is Warned

There’s an old saying that the third time’s the charm. Having read two of Donald Thomas’ Sherlock Holmes continuations (The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice from the Crypt), I was hoping that this saying would apply to the third of these collections, The Execution of Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

My previous two Donald Thomas reviews went through each individual story, giving a brief plot summary and my opinion of the story in question, but I don’t much relish the prospect of doing the same with this book. So instead, I’ll go over the general premise of the book and just what has gone wrong.

It begins as a sequel to The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. More accurately, Donald Thomas first retells the story of Charles Augustus Milverton all over again, which I found baffling. In the first book of this series, The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes, Thomas had established that Dr. Watson had largely fictionalised the Milverton escapade and that the case truly involved the death of Charles Augustus Howell, going on to write one of my favourite pastiches of all-time. It formed an ingenious prequel to The Final Problem and was a terrific story in its own right. But all that is forgotten in this book – the Canon’s status quo has been restored, and a lot of time is wasted recycling scenes we have already seen.

It doesn’t help that the story is a bad one. It reads more like an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, specifically the second-season episode The Trial, in which Batman’s rogues’ gallery put him on a trial before Judge Joker. In this book, Holmes’ gallery of escaped villains (Milverton’s brother, the culprits of the Greek Interpreter, Prof. Moriarty’s brother, etc.) join forces, kidnap Holmes, and put him on a mock trial before sentencing him to death. Holmes escapes in a way that is interesting and has elements of ingenuity, but which just seems like a fundamentally un-Holmesian situation, something that James Bond would more readily come across.

Actually, come to think of it, Holmes barely seems like himself throughout these stories. There’s only a pair of truly Holmesian stories in this collection, and even they come with some sort of caveat. The Case of the Peasenhall Murder concerns itself with the murder of Rose Harsent, a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Holmes argues that there is no case against the accused man, and smashes an eyewitness testimony in grand form… and then the story abruptly stops, without proposing any sort of alternate solution for Harsent’s death. It seems so very unusual for a Holmes story to end without a sort of solution. The Case of the Phantom Chambermaid is a much more satisfying story about a hotel chambermaid accused of impropriety, supposedly having been seen to enter a guest’s hotel room. The plot at work is a very ingenious one, but it has no basis in a historical case as far as I can tell, and that goes entirely against the series’ established pattern.

The other stories are mediocre at best, with the final one being a positive nightmare. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, berates Watson in the final story as follows:

‘Congratulations, my dear fellow,’ he said sardonically. ‘Your inability to follow the simplest instructions is, happily, something I might have depended upon. You have very nearly ruined everything.’

This came as a shock to me. For is this the same Sherlock Holmes who depended on Watson following his instructions faithfully when confronted with The Adventure of the Illustrious Client or The Adventure of the Dying Detective or The Hound of the Baskervilles? Watson has been a marvellous narrator and an intelligent fellow thus far in the series, but it seems like he’s gone right back to being the Nigel Bruce-style bumbler, slipping over vital clues as though they were banana peels.

Although my recommendations for Donald Thomas’ The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of the Crypt still stand, I cannot help but feel that The Execution of Sherlock Holmes is a massive disappointment. It recycles far too much material from the Canon without adding its own imprint to it. Too much time is devoted to simply retelling scenes from the Canon we have already seen, and the cases that these lead up to feel more like James Bond adventures than Sherlock Holmes mysteries. And Holmes and Watson both feel like very different people.

Ironically, it seems that the only promise the book has delivered is that of its title: it well and truly executed the Sherlock Holmes chronology that I had come to know and admire in the two previous books in favour of a sub-par thriller.

1 comment:

  1. My knowledge of Donald Thomas' Sherlockian output is fairly minimal - an anthology of his first three efforts sits as yet unread on my shelf, but I had picked up a copy of "The Execution of Sherlock Holmes" and perused it, and must say I was rather disappointed in what I saw. I'm glad I was not the only one. I will still look into Thomas' others though since you gave them nothing but high praise.

    On a side-note, I believe this book referred to Holmes as William Sherlock Scott Holmes at one point, something for the life of me I cannot understand. That name popped up in 1976's "Sherlock Holmes in New York" and "His Last Vow." I have no idea where this came from - Thomas taking some more creative liberty perhaps?