Category Archives: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”

I’m not sure how many quotes off this mug I can mine for posts; the one at the bottom about footprints doesn’t seem to lend itself to writing. But “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” applies to writing, science, politics, life.

It’s hard not to accept an “obvious” fact that everyone knows is true. It’s easy to resist facts that contradict that obvious truth or to embrace someone who insists that in spite of all evidence, the “obvious” fact you want to believe (white people are naturally superior! A woman’s place is in the home!) is true. Even science can get mangled. The Victorian scientists Cynthia Russett describes in Sexual Science thought their analysis of why women were the weaker, dumber sex was totally objective. Spoiler: it wasn’t; they were blinded by taking women’s inferiority as a given.

In writing, the “obvious fact” can trip us up in multiple ways. For example, our perception of how people behave. Suppose a writer assumes that any female character really wants marriage and a family more than anything, so her career is just an unimportant stop-gap until The One comes along. That’s going to lead to some implausible female characterization. Or if a writer believes a woman who has sex before marriage is a slut, and his writing reflects that judgment. Or that every senior citizen just sits and watches TV all day. Or believes the countless stereotypes about disabled people.

Another way the obvious can trip us up is if we assume that the obvious, formula resolution to a story is the only one possible. Or the only one your audience will accept; I’ve read multiple accounts over the years of writers being told some variation of “Well, I’m not a sexist/homophobe myself, but lots of the audience will put down the book if you show your female lead is happy without a man/one of your lead characters is gay.” Or that you can’t do X because nobody’s done X before. An article in Romance Writers of America’s newsletter some years back pointed out that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander broke a shit-ton of rules. Time-travel romance before that was a subgenre. Protagonist is already married when she falls for the male lead. Said lead is a younger man, much less experienced sexually. Yet it was a smash hit.

For another example, consider TEMPER by Nicky Drayden. A fantasy set in an alt.Africa untouched by Europe (apparently India has staked out a foothold), the premise is that twin births are the norm, with the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Cardinal Virtues divided up between each set of twins (though not exactly matching Western Christianity’s version. Doubt is one of the sins, for instance, and vainglory and temper substitute for pride and wrath). Society looks down on “lesser” twins with the larger number of vices; Auben, a rarity with six out of seven and one virtue, has to deal with that on top of being a poor inner city kid.

Unfortunately that’s the least of Auben’s problems. It turns out the imbalance between him and his sibling Kasim is caused by/causes them to become avatars of Icy Blue and Grace, the Lucifer/God analogs. Kasim doesn’t find being pushed to be really, really good much fun; Auben finds himself driven to shapeshift into a beast and kill.

This is familiar stuff in some ways (although the setting makes it feel different) but none of it plays out the way I expected. And given how long I’ve been reading, I’m hard to surprise. This ranges from how Drayden handles the good/evil dynamic to the disgruntled scientists with their own agenda; secularists in a religious culture, they’re PO’d to have hard evidence Grace and Icy Blue are real.

Of course it’s possible to be original and completely awful — I’ve seen that a few times — but that wasn’t an issue here. Outside of one confusing scene (I kept waiting for the explanation, but it didn’t come) this was first-rate.

#SFWApro. Mug design by the Philosopher’s Guild, cover illustration by Thea Harvey, all rights remain with current holders.

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Delivering on the hook: A Study in Honor

Claire O’Dell’s A STUDY IN HONOR shows the pros and cons of a story having a strong hook. If this hadn’t been billed as “gay female black Watson and Holmes in near future setting” I probably wouldn’t have paid it any attention. But the price of hooking me is that I not only judge the novel on its merits but as a Holmes and Watson variant.

The same problem crops up in Silver Age DC, where it was routine to design a grabber cover, then write the story to fit. Sometimes (as in the Gil Kane cover here) it worked; sometimes the strain to work the hook into the story was obvious. I’ve also seen it in nonfiction articles, like one that starts off somewhere in the Iowa cornfields … and then jumps to a nearby office where the interview is taking place. The cornfields added nothing except some color and some wordage.

In short, a good hook is a wonderful thing, but only if it pays off. I don’t think O’Dell delivered on hers.

In the opening, Dr. Jane Watson returns to DC from service in America’s next Civil War, triggered by the alt.right (as common with dystopian fiction, the future reflects the present). She’s burned out, stuck with a poorly fitted prosthetic and unable to squeeze a new one out of the VA bureaucracy. Her lover dumped her. Jane does landa cool apartment with eccentric Sara Holmes, but the Holmes drives Watson up the wall. After watching Jane suffer for half the book, one of her friends in the VA medical system is murdered. To her surprise, Sara takes an interest in the crime …

And that synopsis captures the reasons this didn’t work for me. When I read a Holmes and Watson story, I expect Holmes and Watson, the team supreme. I expect a mystery, with them working to solve it. I don’t expect half the book to focus on Watson’s personal issues, with no mystery and almost no Holmes. O’Dell says she wanted to make Watson more than just Holmes’ sidekick, and if she’d been writing Doyle’s Holmes and Watson that might have worked. But she’s writing two people who are merely claiming the mantle, so I’m less forgiving.

Then there’s the first meeting between Holmes and Watson. As usual, Sara knows everything about Watson, instantly … so she Googles Jane. No, I’m sorry, that’s just not Holmes. Sure, Holmes would use computers (he does on Elementary) but a first encounter where pretty much anyone can get the same information is pointless (I expect any Holmes to do something Google can only dream of).

If O’Dell hadn’t made her heroes Holmes and Watson, I don’t know I’d have liked the book anyway. It’s not quite my thing, and O’Dell’s writing style is really stiff. But without the hook that failed, it would have stood a better chance.

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Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself

So the Holmes mug I picked up a while ago is covered with quotes from the Great Detective. So I thought where they seemed relevant or interesting, I’d take an occasional post to discuss them. This time, it’s “mediocrity know nothing higher than itself. Talent instantly recognizes genius.”

When I was younger and doing community theater, I’d look at every role I might conceivably have been cast in and think how I’d do it. I could usually see how to do it better. Or so I thought. But sometimes I’d see a performance so good I’d realize no, I couldn’t have done it that way. Couldn’t come close. Not necessarily genius-level performance, but definitely very good. Definitely better than me.

Humbling, but this is part of the process for improving our craft. As Fred Clark points out in looking at Kirk Cameron’s career, if you can’t see that other people are better, if you can’t imagine a higher level of craft to shoot for, you can’t get there. The same applies to writing.

In a parallel to the Dunning-Kruger effect (where the less you know, the more you overestimate how much you know), mediocrity doesn’t see quality. Recognizing genius, or at least quality, is essential to talent, or even competence. If you don’t imagine “better” is possible, it’s hard to achieve. Or if you’re already convinced you’re absolutely awesome!!!!, like that one author who bragged about his amazing strong woman protagonist. Or Scott Bergstrom, who bragged about how his book The Crueltywould show all the other Y/A authors how to do it (Bergstrom’s book at least got decent reviews). Or pretty much anyone who announces their book transcends the genre.

Surprisingly I’ve had less problem with this as a writer than as an amateur actor. My parents were both into theatre so I was involved in amateur theatrics  from childhood. By contrast, I was reading for years before I decided to try writing. I already knew there were better writers than me. Like many writers, I tried copying HP Lovecraft; it’s not as easy as I imagined. Heck, it’s impossible; Lovecraft’s prose is overwrought and purple but Lovecraft could make it work. I couldn’t (I’ve had much better success with reworking Lovecraftian ideas).

Of course, we can be inspired by mediocrity too. Lots of writers have told stories of seeing something crappy in print and deciding “Well if that can get published, I should be able to do it!” I don’t think there’s a contradiction.

And comparing ourselves to the best can be crippling too. Veteran mystery writer Lawrence Block in one of his old Writer’s Digest columns wrote about authors who define “great writing” as “whatever I can’t do.” For example, the successful action author who feels inadequate because he doesn’t have sensitive, complex characters, the talented wordsmith who berates their inability to write suspense, etc., etc. I’ve had attacks of that sometimes, but I’ve learned to ignore them, focus on what I do well, and keep going. Comparing ourselves to others is bad if it cripples our self-confidence; as Samuel Johnson said, anyone who works as a writer must have the wit of a courtier, the assurance of a duke and the guts of a burglar.

A little humility doesn’t hurt though.

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Sherlock Holmes, tea and schedules

Back at Mysticon I saw a mug from the Philosophers Guild covered with Sherlock Holmes quotes (my favorite is “Mediocrity acknowledges nothing higher than itself. True talent always recognizes genius.”). I didn’t have space in my luggage, but I finally got around to ordering it a couple of weeks ago. It now alternates with my usual German porcelain stein as my tea mug of choice.

In other (and completely unrelated) news, I’m finding the last 90 minutes of the day becoming frustrating. It’s probably the lowest point of my work day so I’ve been using it for low-intensity stuff such as proofreading and email. But if I don’t have any of that to do, I often find it difficult to switch to something more creative. Particularly if Plushie’s been in my lap a lot. I’m not sure if it’s the way I have to sit to manage him and a computer or the feeling that I’ve had no personal space all day, but my brain wears out.

I could take the time off and resume work in the evening, but a lot can depend on TYG’s schedule, whether she wants to chat, and whether the dogs are really fidgety. So I prefer to avoid evening work.

But perhaps I need to change that. I’ll give it some thought.

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Creating a world we’d want to live in

Back when I was at Mysticon in February I talked to one of the attendees who said he didn’t care for Game of Thrones (I don’t either). He commented that the world of GoT was a horrible place, a world he wouldn’t want to live in. Then he added that nobody seems to create worlds we’d want to live in any more. I don’t think I agree on that last part, though he does have a point — there do seem to be more grimdark settings out there than there used to be.

Lots of successful writers are famous for creating worlds we’d love to visit. For many modern readers, part of the appeal of Sherlock Holmes is the Victorian setting, with hansom cabs, gas lighting, railways and old-fashioned manners. Wonderland, Oz, Middle Earth and Narnia have enchanted millions of readers. Conan’s Hyborian place looks like it would be great to live in, at least if you were a rogue such as Conan (“want to live in” any world usually comes with a clause about “if you had a better life than a scullery maid or a serf.”). Not necessarily safe worlds or consistently happy worlds, but worlds that somehow seem … fun. I’m not sure anyone thinks that about GoT. It’s the difference between a world that looks exciting or entertaining and one where even for the rich and powerful life is nasty, brutish and short.

I think there are still lots of worlds around that look fun to live in. While RS Belcher’s Golgotha is a creepy place, it’s so gloriously bizarre, I must admit I’d love to visit, at least. Whispers Beyond the Veil‘s 19th century tourist town appeals to me too. And there have always been specfic worlds one wouldn’t want to live in — H.G. Well’s dystopias, Lovecraft’s mythos.

For some fans, the problem is politics. Writer Brad Torgerson, for example, has complained that instead of books where the brawny barbarian or the daring space explorer is the hero, specfic has sold out to the social justice warriors and gives us books that are lectures on colonialism, racism or sexism. As noted at the link, I disagree. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books are rousing adventures, but they’re also about colonialism and the way England exploits its dragons as beasts rather than intelligent creatures. City of Blades is about colonialism and empire but it’s also a great story.

It may reflect that we’re less optimistic about the future than we used to be. One article I read while working on Now and Then We Time Travel found SF films set in the future had become increasingly bleak as we moved from the 1950s to the 1980s. Or consider the limited series Marvels and its sequel tracks the Marvel Universe from the sunny optimism of 1960s superheroing to the bleaker tone of the Bronze Age and the 1980s.

From the writer’s perspective, does it matter if our worlds appeal? Obviously it’s not a deal breaker for readers or Hunger Games wouldn’t be a hit. Even though the resistance overthrows the Capitol and President Snow, it’s not a setting I’d like to be in, even as the hero. It’s still awesome.

But an appealing world can be a selling point. One of my writing group friends told me that she loved the setting of No One Can Slay Her and she hoped I’d do more books set in the same world. That reaction is obviously a good thing.

I think it’s also possible to have a setting that’s neutral. Pharisee County in Southern Discomfort is a pleasant enough place (when not being hit by floods or half-elf killers) but I don’t think of it as one of those small towns readers fall in love with. And that’s okay too.

Like so many other things in writing, it’s a judgment call.

#SFWApro. Cover by Raymond Swanland, all rights remain with current holder.


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Dr. Mabuse, Sherlock Holmes and Agents of SHIELD: movies and TV

THE INVISIBLE DR. MABUSE (1962) drops off in quality from Return of Dr. Mabuse — if you’re not interested in the series, it’s at the point where finding something better to watch would be a good choice. Lex Barker returns from the previous film as FBI man Joe Como, investigating strange goings on (invisible stalkers! Disappearing agents! Killer clowns!) he’s convinced are tied to Dr. Mabuse. The German police aren’t convinced, but you can guess who’s right. At stake is Enterprise X, a scientist’s invisibility formula, plus Mabuse’s power to control the minds of men (though this Mabuse relies more on tech than his strong will). It’s certainly watchable, just not great; Karin Dor (best known as Spectre’s Number Eleven in You Only Live Twice) is good as the damsel in distress. “My fight will mean death, invisible death, until all mankind trembles before me!”

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970) is an interesting but not entirely successful Holmesian experiment by Billy Wilder. Robert Stephens plays a laid-back Holmes (unfortunately he never conveys the steel that underlay Jeremy Brett’s Holmes) who agrees to help Gabrielle (Genevieve Page )investigate what’s happened to her engineer husband, despite Mycroft (Christopher Lee, the only person to play both Holmes brothers over the course of his career) warning him Stay Away. Over the course of the film, Holmes starts falling for Gabrielle and makes it clear that he does have feelings for women, they’ve just never worked out well in the past.

The core plot is great, but the opening scene — Holmes avoids an embarrassing situation by implying he and Watson (Colin Blakely) are lovers — feels tacked on and awkward. And while Watson isn’t a dummy like Nigel Bruce, he seems to be the butt of the joke in ways Bruce never was. On the plus side, this has several canon references (such as this story coming from the Charing Cross safety deposit box where Watson hid the stories he didn’t want to publish) and it tackles Holmes’ cocaine use several years before Seven Percent Solution made it the heart of the plot. Given Holmes’ complaints here that Watson’s writings completely distort his image, Without a Clue would make a good double bill. “The question is, what turned his wedding ring green, and why are there three dead canaries in his coffin?”

The first season of Agents of SHIELD I complained the cases were too mundane for a superheroic universe. Over the seasons, though, they’ve gotten increasingly fantastic yet if anything I’m less interested. This season we had them trapped in a dystopian future, desperate to return home and avert it; in the second arc, they wound up home trying to thwart the Hydra plot that brings down the doom. I’m not sure what’s missing, but I may be done with this one when it returns. “How was I to know there was an alien-invasion protocol?”

Whatever it lacked, TIMELESS has it — unfortunately it’s struggling for renewal where SHIELD has already gotten the nod. This season the villainous Rittenhouse conspiracy introduces sleeper agents into the past, ready to wait for years before the order comes to take out the target of the week; in-between missions the team, of course, has to cope with its personal dramas. The use of Lucy the historian as a kind of walking Google (if it’s a historical fact, she’ll conveniently know it) is annoying and so are some of the nexus points (Lucy improbably claims that if bluesman Robert Johnson doesn’t record his music, civil rights and all the other revolutions of the 1960s will never happen), but I’d definitely watch it if it returns. “Miss Tubman, you’re a total badass—where I come from that’s a compliment.”

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What is the point of Sherlock Holmes?

One of the panels I attended at Mysticon back in February was on Sherlock, Elementary and Holmes in general. At one point someone raised the question, just what use is Sherlock Holmes in the modern world? Given the scope of police forensic science and surveillance videos, what does he bring to the table?

I forget who responded but their reaction stuck with me: if modern police work can solve the crime, Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be on the case. You bring him in when police can’t crack the case, when the connections or the evidence are something ordinary methods won’t find — you need a genius.

This is not, actually, a new topic. Way back in 1963, detective Ellery Queen came to the same conclusion in The Player on the Other Side: there’s simply no place for a talented amateur detective in the world of modern policing. Over the course of the story, Queen naturally figures out he’s wrong. The killer is a lunatic whose non-linear thinking proves impossible for the cops to anticipate; it takes Ellery’s creative, out-of-the-box analysis to get the answers.

I think that’s generally good advice if you’re creating an exceptional, awesome protagonist. A cozy mystery can work with an ordinary crime because most cozy detectives are just regular folks, like Sarah Winston in my friend Sherry Harris’s Yard Sale series. There the challenge is to make it plausible the protagonist will crack the case (and has a good reason for investigating) when the cops don’t. For Holmes or Queen (or Nero Wolfe or Gideon Fell, etc.) the challenge is a puzzle that the cops can’t crack. This can be because the puzzle is fiendishly complicated; because the police are incompetent (usually not the best approach); or because the police have seized on a wrong theory or wrong suspect (much more plausible — it happens in real life after all).

I think this might be a useful insight beyond detective stories. Like the old rule about the hero needing a worthy antagonist, we have to give them an adventure they deserve. If an ordinary warrior can save the day, you don’t need Conan. If the Special Crimes Unit can take down the supervillain, you don’t need Superman (Superman does stop a lot of ordinary crimes and help out in minor matters, but it isn’t the focus of the story). One of the perennial challenges of comics is trying to provide heroes with challenges without simply turning every story into an apocalypse.

It doesn’t have to be exceptional power or intellect that makes the difference. Sometimes it’s just their spirit. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is neither mean nor afraid,” as Raymond Chandler put it. And there are lots of stories where the protagonist isn’t supposed to be exceptional, just an average (wo)man on the street/cop/reporter.

But if the hero is exceptional, the challenge should be too.

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Unfinished books, Superman movies, Sherlock Holmes and more: this week’s reading

WEAVE A CIRCLE ROUND by Kari Maaren captures a definite Diana Wynn Jones vibe, which is a plus for me: the mysterious stranger who moves in near protagonist Frederica comes off very much as an eccentric in the style of Jones’ mages Chrestomanci and Howl. Unfortunately, Maaren doesn’t have Jones’ flair for character: Freddy is strictly one-note (Oh I Hate My Life!) and completely friendless, so I got bored and put the book down unfinished. That said, I do like Maaren making Freddy’s stepbrother deaf without making it a big thing — that’s not something I see often.

Nor did I finish Robert M. Pirsig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE: An Inquiry into Values despite its cult status. I always find cross-country driving more an unpleasant necessity than magical so the framing sequence (Pirsig, his son and some friends taking a cross-country motorcycle trip) didn’t do much for me. A bigger problem is that Pirsig’s themes (science is just a human construct! gravity didn’t exist before Newton made it up!) feel like a dated product of the 1970s zeitgeist, though as it’s still in print obviously the themes still resonate for some people. After about 100 pages I threw in the towel.

After picking up a cheap copy of SUPERMAN VS. HOLLYWOOD: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen I figured I’d reread it. Nothing changed my opinion from the first read — Rossen is carelessly sloppy when he writes about the comics (comics Superman became a TV reporter well before Mario Puzo wrote that into his script for the first Reeve film), but much better writing about script problems, backstage feuds and some of the bizarre ideas floating around for what eventually became Superman Returns (Lex Luthor as a Man in Black who’s secret Kryptonian, for instance). Worth the reread

THE FINAL ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES are a collection of Holmesian apocrypha that editor Peter Haining argues belong in the Canon. “The Man With the Watches” and “The Lost Special,” for example, are non-Holmes mysteries that however include an unnamed Famous Investigator offering solutions to the mysteries that turn out to be wrong. No question the investigator sounds like Holmes, though I was gobsmacked to learn some Sherlockians credit Holmes with writing them too (for various reasons I think that’s dead wrong). The mysteries of “Uncle Jeremy’s Household” and “Sasassa Valley,” on the other hand, are early Doyle stories Haining argues prefigure Holmes, but I find that a stretch. In-between we get several parodies of Holmes by Doyle, the one-act play “The Crown Diamond” (later reworked into The Mazarin Stone), and some of Doyle’s own thoughts about his creation. Good stuff.

THE COMPLETE BOOK OF FASHION HISTORY by Jana Sedlakova is a very slight book that skims through centuries of fashion at a whirlwind pace (for recent decades I’m very conscious of the details skipped over). An adequate intro to the topic, but too slight to be much use.

LIFE: The First Fifty Years, 1936-1980 is a lavishly illustrated (of course) look at the once legendary photomagazine, showcasing dozens of covers, prize photos, Great Events of the Years and some commentary about the magazines own growth and eventual decline (though the photos from when it went semiannual and monthly are actually better — probably just because they have fewer images fighting for space in the collection. An interesting time capsule and a reminder how awesome really great photography is.

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A mad genius, an aging Holmes and the baddest cat that ever walked the Earth! Movies

Criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse was introduced in print in the 1920s in Norbert Jacques’ Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. As my friend Ross got me the most recent of the many Mabuse movies for Christmas, I figured I’d rewatch them starting with Fritz Lang’s DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER: The Great Gambler, a Picture for Our Times (1922). Here Mabuse (pronounced like “a boozer,” not “abuse”) runs a brilliant criminal enterprise (we see a major caper involving stock fraud in the first few scenes) but his real passion is “gambling with men’s lives, with their faiths.” Which is to say, he amuses himself ruining their lives in games of chance (his hypnotic ability guarantees a win) even though he doesn’t need their money. When he encounters Countess Dusy Told, he realizes she’s as detached from humanity as he is (though less evil) and destroys her husband (forces him to cheat) so he can claim her for his own. This is so melodramatic I’m not sure it would work away from the silent screen, but work it does. “I think it’s safe for you to let room 321 to someone else now.”

As was the custom back then, Fritz Lang finished the story in DR MABUSE INFERNO: A Game of People of Our Time (1922) which aired the night after the first. Here Mabuse proves himself surprisingly human as his passion for Dusy starts to crack him. At the same time, he brilliantly anticipates any move by the movie’s nominal hero, the prosecutor von Wenk; as a former lover of Mabuse gloats, nobody can stop the great mastermind except himself. In many ways Mabuse is a forerunner of Blofeld or the Kingpin, a man who controls everything from behind the scenes and crushes all his foes. With Rudolph Klein Rogge as Mabuse, this is well wroth catching, even at 4.5 hours.  “I want to be a giant, a titan, who churns laws and gods like withered leaves!”

I had high hopes for Ian McKellan’s MR. HOLMES (2015), portraying the Great Detective in the 1940s as he finds himself sliding closer to death and worse, losing the sharpness of his wits. From there we join Holmes in his flashback booth as he remembers the case that convinced him to quit, and a visit to Japan after Hiroshima. Unfortunately the narrative (which I think is meant to dramatize Holmes looking over the failures of his life) doesn’t hold together (there’s really no point to the Japan trip) and while I don’t require absolute fidelity to the Canon in a film, the script is very un-Holmes (declaring he despises imagination, for instance — Doyle’s Holmes considered it a vital tool of his trade) and doesn’t offer any compensation. With Laura Linney as Holmes’ housekeeper and Nicholas Rowe (Young Sherlock Holmes) as a screen Sherlock. “The money was to arrange for the headstones your husband would not allow.”

Jim Brown is SLAUGHTER (1972), ex-Green Beret and “the baddest cat that ever walked the earth” seeking vengeance on on mobster Rip Torn for murdering Slaughter’s parents, a quest that happily requires Brown to do the nasty with Torn’s blonde mistress Stella Stevens. This isn’t as well structured as Shaft or Pam Grier’s Coffy, as witness we never really learn what deep secret Brown’s dad had to be killed to hide (admittedly if I liked the movie better I wouldn’t mind) and the revenge plotline wraps up a bit too conveniently. With Cameron Mitchell as The Man. “Be careful Dominic, your lack of patience is what brought him here.”

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Holmes flying solo: The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (#SFWApro)

The oddest thing about the final Sherlock Holmes book from Arthur Conan Doyle is the decision to have Holmes narrate two of the stories, The Blanched Soldier and The Lion’s Mane. I don’t know if Doyle was experimenting, bored or what — and I do give him credit for changing the formula — but it was a bad call.

First off, I wonder, as other have, why Holmes would even bother. He’s always mocked Watson for turning abstract exercises in deduction into sensational literature (though I suspect he enjoyed them more than he admits), so why would he attempt to write one rather than a scholarly work on How To Do it? The intro to Blanched Soldier implies Holmes was responding to Watson’s double-dog dare to surpass the good doctor, but I don’t buy it — Holmes has ego, but I can’t see him taking the bait. Or conceding that yeah, you do have to write it the way Watson does so people will read it.

And both stories are weak. They suffer from Holmes having to talk to us directly, from the lack of Watson’s style and persepective (they do feel different from the way Doyle-as-Watson writes), from just being bland. Blanched Soldier suffers more from an unconvincing, coincidental happy ending. It’s an odd departure from Doyle’s willingness to give good people tragic fates, as in Valley of Fear. Some Holmesians argue that the stories aren’t written by Holmes or even true (it’s an assumption of fandom that yes, Holmes was real) — perhaps Doyle (who in fan canon serves as Watson’s literary agent) trying his hand at a story.

Despite those poor stories, and several others (The Creeping Man for instance), there’s some good stuff in this book. The Three Garridebs reworks the scheme of The Redheaded League very effectively, and demonstrates how much Holmes genuinely loves his friend. The Problem of Thor Bridge is a good story with a striking scene where Holmes stares down the arrogant American millionaire  Neil Gibson. The Illustrious Client is mediocre, but the scene at the end, where the bad guy has been scarred by a vial of sulphuric acid to the face, is intense and powerful.

And I really love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s introduction (photo is from the official Arthur Conan Doyle website, all rights to it remain with current holder). In it, Doyle admits that he’s been ambivalent about Holmes for much of his career, writing in response to public demand but always worrying that turning out Holmes stories would interfere with his other literary efforts. Looking back, he realizes Holmes didn’t stop him from working at what Doyle thought of as better fiction, nor from his long late-in-life crusade in favor of spiritualism (the Professor Challenger novel The Land of Mist is a long pro-spiritualist polemic, regrettably unreadable). It’s nice to know that even though Doyle isn’t thrilled that his name is tied with Holmes rather than his other work, he’s at peace with Holmes.

Although this ends the Canon, many writers, filmmakers and TV series would continue the legend of the World’s Greatest Detective. I anticipate looking at some of them in 2018.

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