Monday, March 11, 2013

Encountering Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's masterful detective, has been rather busy in the past couple of years:  Guy Ritchie has brought him (yet again) to the silver screen in the form of Robert Downey, Jr., he has been transported to present-day London in the BBC's Sherlock, and to one-up that, CBS has transplanted him to New York and given him a female Watson in Elementary.  Holmes lives on in printed media as well, most recently demonstrated by the short story collection Encounters of Sherlock Holmes, edited by George Mann.

Many Sherlock Holmes adaptations attempt to offer their audience or readers something fresh and unique; indeed, who would dare compete with Sir Doyle at his own game? The above-mentioned film and television adaptations have obvious draws. Likewise, Graham Moore's brilliant historical novel The Sherlockian gives a new perspective on the famous detective by focusing on the crime-fighting activities of Doyle himself.

So what does Encounters have to add to our picture of Holmes?

Given that it is a collection of stories by varying authors, there is not a single unifying thread, but almost all the stories can be characterized by (at least) one of the following: (1) Holmes encounters some other (quasi-)famous literary character not found in the canon; (2) the author introduces elements of the marvelous into the narrative; (3) the tale is not narrated by Holmes' typical biographer, a middle-aged Doctor Watson.

The first two of theses themes leave me rather cold. Sorry, but I don't care if Holmes encounters Sir Maurice Newbury (a fictional investigator from George Mann's The Affinity Bridge, among other novels). Call me old-fashioned, but I also maintain that the marvelous has no place in an otherwise straight-up Holmes tale. I welcome the uncanny, but want to know that at the end of the day, Holmes will give me a completely logical explanation of the singular events which have occurred, one which doesn't involve magical crystals or Frankenstein's monster.

On the other hand, the tales in Encounters that relieve Dr. Watson of his narrative duties are, for the most part, delightful.  The more modest departures from the typical narrative perspective have a much-older Watson reminiscing back on his earlier days, which is enjoyable enough. However, the four tales which truly stand out are "Mrs. Hudson at the Christmas Hotel" (Paul Magrs), "The Demon Slasher of Seven Sisters" (Cavan Scott), "The Pennyroyal Society" (Kelly Hale), and "Woman's Work" (David Barnett). In these, we get to hear directly from Mrs. Hudson, a two-bit reporter, and two third-person narrators who cast a very different light on the exploits of Holmes and Watson.

Like many collections of stories, Encounters is a mixed bag. Reading the collection cover to cover might not be for everyone, but there are certainly gems inside.

By Nathan Ilten