Friday Frippery: Something to chew on…

The Case of the Mutton-Bone
by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

(So many of us were disappointed to discover that the weapon in The Mystery of the Yellow Room wasn’t a real mutton-bone that I felt the matter ought to be rectified. Fortunately I was able to track down this tale from our old friend Sir Arthur Donan Coyle…)

It was an early spring morning as I made my way to Baker Street in response to an urgent telegram from my old friend, Sherlock Holmes. The last wisps of fog were burning off in the pale sunshine and I felt a renewed strength of vigour as I inhaled the clean air that returns to the great city each year when winter recedes. My medical practice was also receding, however, as the annual round of winter coughs and wheezes gave way to simple summer sneezes. I was ready for an adventure and hoped that Holmes was about to provide one. Little did I know that I was soon to be plunged into a horror blacker than the darkest nightmare.

….“Ah, Watson, you’re here at last!” Holmes cried, as I was ushered into his room by the small maidservant employed by the landlady of the house, Mrs Hudson. This little scrap of humanity answered to the name of Agnes. Mrs Hudson had taken her from the orphanage where she had spent her first years. Her story was the age-old one – her mother, little more than a child herself, tempted into error by a worldly man and then abandoned when he proved unwilling to pay the price of his pleasure. Shunned by family and friends, the woman’s grasp on life became ever more tenuous until she gave her last remaining strength to this, her daughter, and died without revealing the name of the child’s only living relation, the cruel and unfeeling father. God forgive her, and all other simple, loving women who fall from grace under the blandishments of a careless seducer.

….“You have a case, Holmes?” I inquired.

….“On our very doorstep, Watson! Come! Inspector Gregory is below!”

….I followed in some astonishment as Holmes led the way down the back stairs of the house to the private quarters of Mrs Hudson. Passing swiftly through the kitchen, we proceeded through the rear door into the small backyard. There, Gregory awaited us with a pair of rather bored looking constables. As Gregory moved to one side, I suddenly saw, at the entrance to the coal bunker, a man lying sprawled on the ground, clearly dead!

….“My word, Holmes!” I cried. “What can this mean? Do you know this man?”

….“There is a certain familiarity about his features, but I do not think I have met him. Have you found anything to tell us his name, Gregory?”

….“Yes, Mr Holmes, there is a letter in his pocket, an old one from the looks of it, addressed to Mr Alfred Smith, in Fremantle in Western Australia. The contents are of little interest – here, see for yourself.”

….Holmes took the worn and yellowed leaf from his hand and passed it to me, requesting I read it aloud.

….“Dearest Alfie,” the letter began. “I have had no reply from you to my last letter, so am writing one last time in the hope that you will have a change of heart and not be so cold to the one you were once pleased to call your little coo-pigeon. If you were to send me the price of the crossing, I could join you and I know we would be happy. A little family to call your own, Alfie. Is not that what you told me you desired, when you took from me the most precious gift a woman has to offer – her innocence? Please, for the love we have shared and the sake of your soul, do this thing that I ask of you.” It was signed, “Your loving friend, and more than friend, Ada.”

….I wiped a surreptitious tear from my eye. “Why, the fellow is obviously a complete reprobate! One can’t but feel that his sordid end is a just reward!”….

Holmes was thoughtful over lunch – soup followed by pork chops. I was a little disappointed that the soup, though delicious, was vegetable: in the years when Holmes and I roomed together here, Mrs Hudson had always given us a hearty mutton broth on Thursdays. As we drank our coffee, Holmes lighted his pipe and lay back in his old wing-chair, eyes closed and fingertips pressed together. I knew better than to disturb him so caught up on the news in The Daily Telegraph – Moriarty’s Madam had won the 3.30 at Epsom, giving my bank balance a much-needed boost.

….Suddenly, “Come, Watson!” Holmes cried, striding purposefully from the room. I followed after him, rather wishing I had brought my trusty service revolver along. Down to the kitchen we went, and entered to find Mrs Hudson and young Agnes just sitting down to their own lunch. I sniffed – mutton broth? I was somewhat annoyed, but reminded myself we had serious business on hand.

….Holmes, taking in the scene in an instant, took two long strides to the table, dashed from her hand the spoon Agnes was raising to her lips, lifted her soup-plate and emptied it into the kitchen sink! Poor Agnes began to sob and I rushed over in case she should swoon. But then I noticed that Mrs Hudson had paled to a dull grayish colour and her whole body was trembling like one of her own blancmanges.

….“Oh, Mrs Hudson, no,” Holmes said, shaking his head sorrowfully. “The first was excusable but this latter is unworthy of you. Send the girl to her room so we may talk freely.”

….Baffled, I waited till the girl had left the room and then demanded to know what Holmes had meant by it.

….“Shall I tell the story, Mrs Hudson? You must set me right if I err in any particular.” He led the old lady kindly to her accustomed chair and waited until she was settled. “A little brandy for Mrs Hudson, I think, Watson, and perhaps for us too. I fear the tale I have to tell may shock you.” I complied and finally, the three of us settled, Holmes began…

….“When I examined the dead man’s wound, I noticed small flecks of raw meat had attached themselves to his hair. A closer examination by dint of my keen olfactory sense allowed me to determine the type of meat: mutton. The wound itself could only have been caused by a blow from a heavy but blunt instrument – you know I have written a short monograph on the subject of head injuries caused by various implements and the signs were clear. I had already begun to suspect that the murderer – or perhaps I should say killer, since I believe her actions were fully justified – was none other than our own dear Mrs Hudson. And when today – Thursday, you note – we were served with vegetable soup rather than the usual mutton broth, my suspicions became a certainty.”

….I gasped and took a quick drink of brandy to steady my nerves. “But Holmes, how? And in God’s name, man, why?” Mrs Hudson had buried her head in her hands and was sobbing piteously. Holmes gently patted her knee. “Hush, Mrs Hudson, leave it to me and all will yet be well,” he said kindly.

….Turning to me, he continued. “You see, Watson, some years ago as we shared a Christmas sherry, Mrs Hudson told me that she was not a widow as we had always believed. In fact, she never married. This – reprobate, I think you called him, and a fine word it is to describe him – once told her he loved her, and with the innocence of youth Mrs Hudson – Ada – gave him all a woman has to give: her love and her trust. Having ruined her, this heartless brute then deserted her and went off to Australia. Poor Ada gave birth to their child, but it was a sickly little thing, and soon left this world for a better one.

….“Now I shall speculate as to what happened late last night. Smith had returned to England, and heard from some mutual acquaintance that Ada had got on in the world, earning back her respectability among people who knew nothing of her tragic story. To a man like him, her little property and the small wealth she has accumulated were enough of a temptation. He turned up here and demanded that Mrs Hudson give him her little all or he would reveal her past to the world, thrusting her back into shame. She refused, and he took violent hold of her, threatening to beat the money out of her if necessary. In the extreme fear and turmoil of emotions he had aroused in her, Mrs Hudson for one instant lost herself and, snatching up the nearest object – the mutton-bone for today’s broth – struck him as hard as she could on the temple. A lucky blow for her, though not for him. It killed him instantly with less pain than he deserved. And so Mrs Hudson dragged his corpse out to the yard, hoping that no-one would discover her connection to him.”

….“That’s just how it was, Mr Holmes,” Mrs Hudson said through her tears. “It’s as if you had been there and seen the whole thing! Do what you must, sir – the law can never punish me more harshly than my own conscience.”

….“Pshaw, Mrs Hudson! We shall find some way to send Inspector Gregory off on a wild goose chase, never fear. The man was a scoundrel and a blackmailer – neither the law nor your conscience should waste another moment on him. He will now face judgement from a higher power than we. But you must promise me to look after the child, Agnes. Her poor mother did not have your strength.”

….“And my poor daughter did not have hers. It shall be as you say, sir – she will be well looked after while I live and provided for on my death. God bless you, Mr Holmes, sir!”

Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

….“But, Holmes,” I asked rather plaintively, once we were again alone in his study. “Why did you throw out young Agnes’ broth?”

….“My dear fellow, it’s elementary! Mrs Hudson had to get rid of the mutton-bone; it was the only evidence against her. Making broth with it was clever enough. But I cannot feel it was right to allow the young girl to eat it.”

….I shuddered, and felt thankful after all that we had been served the vegetable soup. “As always, Holmes, you have tempered justice with mercy.” As I raised my brandy to him in salute, I contemplated my good fortune at being able to call this great man my friend.

HAVE A GREAT FRIDAY! 😀

The Mystery of Briony Lodge by David Bagchi

Say nothing of the dog…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a client turns up at Baker Street, she is accidentally shown to 221d by mistake – the room upstairs from the famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. This room is occupied by J. Yes, that J. The one from Three Men in a Boat. He’s there that day with Harris and George, to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency. And when the lovely Miss Briony Lodge appeals for his help over some mysterious letters she’s been receiving, he’s so taken with her that he decides to play along with her belief that he is Holmes and investigate the mystery himself, with the rather dubious help of his friends.

So begins this mash-up pastiche of two of my favourite bookish delights of all time. When I was offered a copy of this my first impulse was to shudder violently and issue a haughty thanks but no thanks – regulars will know nothing is more guaranteed to make me froth at the mouth than people messing with my literary idols. However something made me glance at the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon. The first line made me laugh out loud…

“To Montmorency she is always the woman.”

One good line doesn’t necessarily mean the whole thing will be good though, so I read on…

“Young men such as ourselves, with active minds (naturally I excuse you from this generalisation, George) and active bodies (forgive me, Harris, I don’t mean you, of course) do not need rest. Rest for us is the mere counterfeit of death. There will be time enough for rest when the Grim Reaper taps us on the shoulder and asks to see our ticket.”

This is followed by a delightfully silly argument between the three men on the subject of how many servants a knight of yore would have had as he went off to “try his valour against all manner of foe”

By now I was sold! And I’m happy to say that the entire book lives up to the promise of these first few pages. Bagchi clearly knows the originals inside out and loves them, and he replicates J.’s voice with impressive accuracy and warm affection. Holmes himself is an off-page presence, but there are zillions of references to the stories and it’s great fun trying to spot them all. I’m pretty sure Bagchi must also be a Wodehouse fan, because there are occasional touches of his kind of humour in there too.

The plot is a mash-up of several of the Holmes stories combined with a trip down the Thames to some of the places that appear in Three Men in a Boat. If I have a criticism, it’s that occasionally Bagchi veers too close to the original – such as in J.’s musings on the mysterious workings of the British railway system. But for the vast majority he achieves that difficult balance of staying true to the source while stamping his own originality on top, and the story all hangs together very well.

It’s mostly told by J. in the first person, but it turns out that by coincidence Holmes has sent Watson to follow a chap who happens to be involved in the mystery too (being deliberately vague here). So, in the manner of The Hound of the Baskervilles, we get to read Watson’s reports to Holmes along with extracts from his personal journal, and Bagchi has totally nailed Watson’s style too.

My dear Holmes,
Today’s proceedings have been as full of incident as we could have wished or feared. I only hope that my pen can do justice to the high drama of the day.

Deliciously, even the chapter headings match the style of the originals. Here’s Chapter 2, a J. chapter…

Of the power of female beauty upon the male brain—A decorated ceiling—On the supernatural abilities of dogs—The railway guide a threat to public morality—On the glorious freedom of God’s special creation, the locomotive—Harris has an idea—The moral degeneracy of the downstream man.

David Bagchi

It’s 155 pages – long enough to be satisfying without reaching the point of outstaying its welcome. I’ve said snootily in past rips of dreadful pastiches and follow-on novels that writers shouldn’t set themselves up for comparison with the greats unless the quality of their own writing is up to standard. Bagchi’s is – there are bits which, if taken out of context, I’m sure would fool most of us into thinking they had genuinely been penned by either Jerome or Conan Doyle. I enjoyed every minute of the couple of hours it took me to read, laughing out loud many times along the way. Highly recommended – a better cure for the blues than cocaine, liver pills or clumps on the side of the head…

Oh, and, Mr Bagchi… I think there’s plenty of room for a sequel…

NB This book was provided for review by the author.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Mrs Hudson and the Malabar Rose (Mrs Hudson 2) by Martin Davies

The other mastermind in 221b…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

mrs hudson and the malabar roseTwo clients turn up at Sherlock Holmes’ rooms in 221b Baker Street – a woman whose son-in-law has gone missing, and a representative of the Home Office who is concerned for the safety of the Malabar Rose, a priceless ruby gifted to the Queen with the condition that it is put on public display. Rather dismissively, Holmes brushes off the woman, suggesting her daughter’s husband has merely left her and will no doubt show up soon. He then turns his attention to ensuring the security of the ruby. Fortunately, Mrs Hudson doesn’t share his lack of concern regarding the missing man and decides to undertake her own investigation, with the help of her servant, our narrator, young Flotsam. As the two cases proceed, it gradually appears that there may be some links between them…

Well, I have to say that, despite all my anti-Holmes-pastiche prejudices and against all expectation, I thoroughly enjoyed this romp! It’s very well written with a good plot, and the Victorian world as seen through the eyes of Flottie is believably depicted. It’s a slightly cosier London than the one the original Holmes inhabited, but that works fine with the gentle humour in the book and the friendliness and support of the little community that surrounds Mrs Hudson and Flottie.

There is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the portrayal of both Holmes and Watson, each with their well-known traits slightly exaggerated. Holmes, it transpires, is perhaps not quite the great mastermind we thought, or at least not the only one in the household. As Mrs Hudson’s genius reveals itself, each of her discoveries is met by a knowing nod from Holmes as if to say he knew all along… but the reader isn’t so sure! Watson seems to have upped his alcohol intake quite a lot, along with his buffoonery and his susceptibility to a finely-turned ankle. Normally, these things would have me frothing at the mouth and possibly even gnashing my teeth but, partly because Holmes and Watson aren’t the central characters in the book, and partly because the mockery is done with warm affection for the originals, somehow it all works.

Martin Davies
Martin Davies

Flottie herself is a great character. A young orphan, Mrs Hudson took her in at a point when Flottie had been heading towards crime in order to survive. Flottie’s gratitude and admiration for her benefactor make both characters very likeable. I was particularly impressed by the way Davies handles Flottie’s ‘voice’. Although she is a 14-year-old uneducated maidservant at the time of the case, Davies quickly lets the reader know that Flottie is in fact telling the story in retrospect from when she is much older. In the intervening years, Mrs Hudson set her on the path to a good education and a successful career. This allows her to speak with an educated voice and a good vocabulary – no faux Cockney maid talk! It also means she can be more insightful and humorous about events than would sound realistic from the mouth of a 14-year-old.

The plot takes us into the world of theatre with conjurers, exotic dancers, and elaborate trickery, and it all takes place around Christmas so we get some mouthwatering descriptions of the kind of Christmas fare Mrs Hudson whips up for her lodgers when she’s not out detecting. The mystery is not so much whodunit as how was it done – or, in the case of the potential theft of the ruby, how will it be done and how can it be prevented. There are enough nods to the original stories to satisfy Holmes geeks, but catching these references isn’t necessary to enjoying this story on its own account. All in all, excellent writing, a strong plot, some likeable characters and plenty of humour – I’ll certainly be reading more in this series. Most enjoyable!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canelo.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle – Part 3

Chapter 3

 

(If you missed Part 1 and want to catch up, click here. And for Part 2, click here.)

 

The Dancing Men (1984)

Lady McFan looked a little surprised at Houses’ request for chocolate cake but, with true Highland hospitality, she bustled off to the kitchen to speak to the cook.

“Chocolate cake, Houses?” I was baffled. “Are you peckish? Personally, after that meal of cullen skink, venison served with clapshot, and cranachan to finish, I can’t imagine being hungry again for a week!”

Houses merely smiled wolfishly and shook his head.

“You have all the same information as I, Witless. Surely you can see what’s happening here?”

“Well, Houses, applying your own famous precept that having eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, I do have a theory,” I said, rather proudly. “I suspect the culprits are the fairies at the bottom of the garden!”

cottingley fairies(The Cottingley Fairies)

Houses gazed at me for a long moment with what I could almost have mistaken for pity, and squeezed my shoulder gently.

“Well, you shall know all in time, my dear fellow. Meantime why not take a seat and write a description of the brilliance of my methods?”

I muttered indistinctly, fighting a sudden urge to use some improper language. Thank heavens my fine old English breeding stood me in good stead and enabled me to resist! I removed some books and a cat from an armchair and sat down. Not sharing my delicacy, the cat swore profusely.

Lady McFan returned bearing a huge chocolate cake on a silver salver. “Will this do, Mr Houses?” she inquired.

“Admirably, madam!”

Houses suddenly began to behave as if in the grip of madness. Had I not known he’d been staying clear of the opium dens for some weeks, I might even have suspected an onslaught of the midnight munchies. He took a slice of cake and began to chomp at it, while pacing furiously to and fro in front of the bookshelves. Back and forth he went, taking slice after slice and devouring them as if he were a fashion-plate model with bulimia! Crumbs sprayed disgustingly from his mouth and from the crumbling cake in his hands, leaving a trail over the room’s ancient tartan carpet. I was heartily ashamed of my friend and remonstrated severely, but he brushed me off with an incomprehensible and messy mumble. Lady McFan meantime contemplated the swift disappearance of her chocolate cake with a dismay that bordered on hysteria.

last slice

Finally, when the cake was almost gone, Houses ceased his restless pacing.

“Now, Effie, there is no more we can do this evening, so I suggest we lock this room and retire to our chambers for the night.”

“Don’t you want me to sit up with my trusty service revolver?” I asked, somewhat disappointedly.

“Would you really be willing to shoot a fairy?” responded Houses, with unanswerable logic and what I could almost have mistaken for a touch of sarcasm. We did as he said, checking that all three doors were securely fastened, and retired to bed.

We passed a quiet night, except for a brief period when the ghost of the Headless Lady began shrieking for her lost lover in the hallway. However, Tommy and Tuppence, the ferocious house cats, swiftly rounded her up and chased her into a corner, where they took turns in rolling her severed head around the floor until she promised to remain silent for the rest of the night.

The next morning, the three of us met in the hallway. Lady McFan unlocked the door of the drawing room and we entered. Her face paling, the Lady Laird gave a little scream and pointed to the side table. A brand new set of The Complete Works of Mark Twain lay there – surely the perpetrator of this madness had a streak of inhuman cruelty!

twain

Houses however paid no attention – he was busily peering at the carpet in front of the bookshelves. With a sudden cry, he leapt forward and pulled at a section of the shelving! It swung open, revealing a set of winding stairs leading up the floor above. He sprang up the steps, with Lady McFan and myself in swift pursuit. At the top of the stairs, there was a door. Houses flung it open and we entered the room. There was Wullie the Piper, with a pile of new books in his hand, about to head down the stairs to carry on with his nefarious scheme!

Houses and I wrestled with the bounder and felled him like a tree trunk being prepared for the caber-tossing competition.

Highland_Games_Caber_Toss

“You see, Effie,” Houses explained, once we had Wullie securely tied up and had set the cats to guard him, “I knew there must be another entrance to the room, so I spread some crumbs on the floor. As Wullie entered the room, the secret door in the bookshelves pushed the crumbs away, showing me where the door must be. As the illegitimate son of your father, Wullie hoped that he could drive you into an asylum or worse, and then come forward to claim the title and castle as his inheritance.”

Lady McFan looked shocked, so Houses suggested we return to the drawing room for a nice cup of tea. As we passed Wullie on the way to the stairs, Lady McFan accidentally kicked him hard on the shins, twice.

We arrived in the drawing room to find it occupied by a tall woman, whose general appearance of ethereal beauty was only a little marred by the chocolate cake crumbs on her chin. Lady McFan hastily introduced her to us as her dear cousin, Lady Fancyboots.

Lady Fancyboots walked over and embraced her cousin, saying “Happy Birthday, dear Effie! Had you forgotten?”

She handed over a parcel, which Lady McFan hastened to open. The Complete Works of Tolstoy! Poor Lady McFan was so overcome with gratitude she swooned quite away…

swooning

The End!

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle – Part 2

Chapter 2

 

(If you missed part 1 and want to catch up click here.)

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 3

“Welcome to my ancestral home, Mr Houses, and you, Dr Witless! I cannot tell you how relieved I am that you are finally here. Things have got worse since I wrote you – I’m at my wit’s end!”

We didn’t mention that we were equally relieved to discover that the Lady Laird spoke perfect English, but with a pleasant lilt that revealed her Highland origins. Ah, the benefits of a fine English education – even the most savage of peoples can be given a veneer of civilisation!

Having had supper, we were now settled in the grand drawing room of the castle, a large room with doors on three sides. Despite the generous size of the room, it was crowded – books covered every shelf and lay in tottering piles on every surface, and in heaps around the floor. It looked as if some effort had been made at an earlier period to organise them, but it was clear that the attempt had now been abandoned. Big books, little books, old books, new books, even some strange device that, on pressing a button, sprang to life and showed the page of a book on a glass slide! Some mysterious kind of telescopic instrument, I surmised.

Piles-of-books

Houses said “I deduce you are an avid reader, Lady McFan.”

“Please call me Effie, Mr Houses. Yes, indeed, I always have been since a young child.”

“Good Lord, Houses!” I cried in astonishment. “How in heaven’s name did you deduce that?”

Houses preened a little. “Oh, Witless, surely by now you know my methods. Effie here has the refined, glowing complexion and shining, intelligent eyes that only the true reader ever possesses. That, plus the piles of books.”

“How absurdly simple!” I cried, and for some reason a grimace crossed my friend’s face.

“Quite.” He turned to our client. “Now, Effie, please explain why you have asked us to come here. Very simply, if you don’t mind, since Dr Witless will be listening.”

“It’s the books, Mr Houses! The books!” And she proceeded to tell us her story. For many years, Lady McFan had been adding gradually to the collection of books she had inherited from her ancestors. She would acquire half a dozen or so, read them and add them to her shelves. But suddenly, several months ago, she noticed that the little pile of unread books seemed to be growing larger. And larger. And larger. It soon became impossible for her to read them quickly enough to shelve them before another pile would appear. Every night, she would count the books and every morning she would discover there were three or four more than the night before.

piles of books

“I don’t order them, Mr Houses, I’m sure I don’t! They just… appear! Oh, please help me! Every cupboard is full of books; I’ve had to put the horses up in a hotel so I could turn the stables into extra library space; the ghost of the Headless Lady has had to move out of the attic to make room for books, and is now wandering the Castle moaning and groaning day and night, and being downright depressing! I’ve even taken to locking all three doors to this room overnight, but still they arrive, always placed just here, on this side table. Am I mad, Mr Houses? Or can you find an explanation and put a stop to this horror?”

She sent a glance of such piteous pleading from her fine blue eyes that even the hardened heart of Houses must surely have been touched. If I weren’t a happily married man, I may well have proposed on the spot.

Houses sat back, closed his eyes and steepled his fingers. Lady McFan and I sat in breathless silence, waiting for that great brain to work its magic. Houses snored gently. I tactfully kicked his ankle. His gimlet eyes opened and pierced me like… well, like a gimlet.

Holmes

“Is there anyone else in the house overnight, Effie?” he inquired incisively.

“Only the servants, but they’ve all been with my family for generations and are members of the Clan. I trust them with my life. And Lady Fancyboots, my cousin and oldest friend, has been staying here for some months, having spent all her little inheritance on fine chocolate, and being now quite destitute, were it not for my exceeding generosity.”

“Your cousin, you say?”

“Yes, we’re the two last remaining members of the family, so have always been close, even though I inherited fabulous wealth and she only got £100 and Grannie McFan’s recipe for black bun. Some people may have been resentful, but not Lady Fancyboots! She has remained a staunch friend.”

“That portrait,” Houses indicated a full-length picture that hung above the mantel, of a fine-looking old gentleman in what I was beginning to realise must be the traditional dress for the savage natives of these wild regions.

Sean-Connery

“He is your father?”

Lady McFan assented.

“He bears a striking resemblance to Wullie the Piper, wouldn’t you agree, Witless?” remarked Houses.

Lady McFan blushed gently.

“All the clan are related to one another, Mr House. Furthermore, my father was…,” she cleared her throat delicately, “fond of Wullie’s mother, a maidservant here for many years before her death.”

A gleam had come into Houses’ eyes during this conversation, and he now rubbed his hands, chuckling. “Well, I have high hopes that we may be able to get to the root of your little trouble,” he said. “And now, could I trouble you for some chocolate cake?”

* * * * * * *

To be continued… (only one more, I promise!)

Meantime…

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

Chapter 1

.

Basil_rathbone_nigel_bruce

Dense, black, billowing fog was swirling around Baker Street when I arrived in response to an urgent request from my old friend, Sherlock Houses. The great detective had clearly had considerably more than his customary three pipes. I hastily opened a window and inquired as to the cause of my summons.

“Elementary, my dear Witless. The game’s afoot! Kindly reach down the Bradshaw and look up the time of the next train to Kirkintilloch.”

“I’m afraid there is no train to Kirkintilloch. However, there’s a canal boat service. If we leave now, we should get there by next Thursday or thereabouts.”

“Then make haste, Witless! There’s not a moment to be lost!”

Forth and Clyde Canal at Kirkintilloch (the official Canal Capital of Scotland!)
Forth and Clyde Canal at Kirkintilloch (the official Canal Capital of Scotland!)

Houses refused to say another word about the reason for our journey, declaring we should have the full story on our arrival from our client herself. Stopping only to send a brief telegram to my long-suffering wife, (a gentle, understanding woman who always did her best to appear as if she thoroughly enjoyed my frequent absences, often going so far as to telegraph Houses to ask if he needed me for anything), I packed my trusty service revolver, rubbed some embrocation into the old war wound in my leg – or was it my shoulder? Strange how I could never remember – and we hastily set off on our journey to the wilds of North England, which some of the natives still insisted on calling Scotland.

* * * * * * *

A week later, we stumbled weakly off the canal boat at our destination. It had been a long and tiring journey, during which Houses had enlivened the atmosphere with impromptu, unsolicited violin concerts, fascinating monologues on how to identify 600 different kinds of tobacco ash (which unfortunately, since the canal boat was a No Smoking zone, sent several of the passengers into a tooth-gnashing frenzy) and a little target practice with his revolver, inadvertently causing the boat to leak heavily and list to starboard. As always, Houses had made himself extremely popular, and the passengers and crew raised a hearty and prolonged cheer as we disembarked.

Kirkintilloch was a quaint old town built near the site of a Roman fort and looking as if it hadn’t changed much over the intervening centuries. The street names had a poetic ring that conjured up visions of rural loveliness – Cowgate, Industry Street, Gallowhill Road.

Cowgate, Kirkintilloch
Cowgate, Kirkintilloch

Our client lived outside the town, so we hailed a cab and Houses told the driver to make all speed to Culcreuch Castle, the home of our client.

“Lives may depend on it, man! Don’t spare the horse!”

“Och, hoots, dinna ye fash yersel’, sir! The castle’s been there sin’ the days that the auld chieftain o’ the Clan McFan caught the first haggis, an’ it’ll still be staunin’ when we’re a’ deid! Ay, it’s a sorry place noo, tho’, ye ken. They say that strange things happen there in the nicht – gey strange! An’ the puir Lady Laird is at her wit’s end wi’ it a’. Happen ye’ll be the gents she’s sent for frae doon Lunnon way?”

“I have no idea what you’re attempting to say, my good fellow. Drive on!”

We had a long winding journey of it, uphill most of the way, and dusk was falling over the rolling Campsie hills when we finally caught sight of the castle, nestling amongst the trees by the side of a picturesque lake. It was a beautiful setting, its air of peace and tranquillity belying the horror that was beginning to clutch at my heart.

Culcreuch Castle - once upon a time home to the Chief of my own clan...
Culcreuch Castle – once upon a time home to the Chief of my own clan…

We came to a halt at the massive oaken doors, held open by an elderly man in a rather strange looking multi-coloured skirt. Perhaps there was to be a fancy dress-ball that evening, I speculated.

A horrible wailing, screeching sound suddenly caused us to clutch each other in momentary terror. Quickly recovering our stiff upper lips and manly demeanours, Houses and I pulled out our revolvers and prepared to deal with supernatural hounds, or possibly ghoulies and ghosties and lang-leggedy beasties, which the indispensable Bradshaw had informed us frequented these heathen parts.

“’Tis only Wullie the Piper, sir, tae let us ken that supper is ready,” the elderly man cried incomprehensibly.

wullie the piper

Another skirted man appeared round the side of the castle, wrestling with a horrible 5-legged beast, from which the ghastly sounds were emanating. At that moment, with a final scream of mournful agony, the creature seemed to breathe its last. It was a chilling start to our adventure…

 

* * * * * * *

To be continued… maybe…

(This story was suggested by my old mate, Lady Fancifull. So blame her!)

The Annals of Sherlock Holmes by Paul D Gilbert

Good plotting marred by inelegant writing…

😦 😦

the annals of sherlock holmesThis book is made up of three short novellas and my initial impressions were favourable. The first episode sets out to tell the story of one of the most intriguing of Watson’s references in the original tales; that of the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant. In the second, he explains the mysterious reference to the parsley in the butter dish. The final story gives us an opportunity to meet up again with Mrs Watson’s employer in The Sign of Four, Mrs Cecil Forrester.

I found the plotting gave the authentic flavour of a Watson narration and the author doesn’t tamper too much with the Holmesian world we all know – no female assistants, for instance, thank goodness. However, there were some real problems with these stories as far as I’m concerned. The over-emphasis on Holmes’ and Watson’s smoking habits really grated after a while. Nearly every paragraph includes a reference to one or other (or both) of them lighting up a pipe, cigarette or cigar. But that paled into insignificance beside their constant cognac swilling. Cognac? I got so irritated by that that I checked and confirmed that never, not once, did they drink cognac in the original. And yet here they’re knocking the stuff back at a rate that would suggest serious addiction issues! Also Holmes and Watson rarely speak to each other without squabbling and Holmes is so excessively nasty to Watson throughout that I couldn’t help but wonder where the friendship had gone.

I can just about forgive these kinds of variations however if all else is good. What I find harder to forgive, in both the author and possibly even more in the editor, are the grammatical howlers that litter this book. Conan Doyle’s elegance in use of language is one of the most attractive things about the originals and any pastiche must at least pass the ‘writes well’ test. Phrases such as

“…somebody within the household felt that it was important enough to secrete from within the bedroom of their matriarch”

and

“It was only the absolute stillness of the night that rendered the subtle sound which was barely perceptible.”

are not only clunky and inelegant, they are just plain wrong.

So for the plotting and sticking within the spirit of the originals, two stars. But the poor quality of the writing means that I will not be looking out for any of the author’s other books, I’m afraid.

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Ten Years Beyond Baker Street by Cay Van Ash

ten years beyondThe best of the Holmes pastiches?

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

I was recommended to read this book by a fellow Amazon reviewer after I suggested that, in The House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz had caught the most authentic Watsonian voice of all the pastiches I had read. Having now read it, I agree that this book, although not in fact narrated by Watson, catches the tone of the original canon very well.

A blending of the Holmes and Fu Manchu worlds, we see Holmes called in to help Dr Petrie track down his missing friend Nayland Smith, presumably abducted by the fiendish Fu Manchu for purposes unknown. Although Fu Manchu does make an appearance, as does Watson briefly, the book mainly follows Holmes and Petrie as they hunt down their adversary through the wilds of Wales. Petrie’s observations of the great man at work are slightly more critical than those of the ever-faithful Watson, but he comes to admire him just as much.

Fu Manchu
Fu Manchu as played by Christopher Lee

The characterisation is excellent as are the descriptive passages, particularly of the Welsh landscape and people. There are some excellent action sequences, such as when Holmes and Petrie are in danger of being trapped in an abandoned mine, and the climax is suitably thrilling. However I did feel the book dragged in places where for long periods of time nothing much really happened. Also being more of an action thriller rather than a mystery novel, there weren’t many opportunities for Holmes to use his brilliant deductive skills. The semi-naked dancing and slave girls(!) jarred as out of place in a Holmes story, but I assume this is a carry-over from the Fu Manchu novels, which I haven’t read (nor indeed did this book inspire me to remedy that).

Sherlock Holmes as palyed by...er...Christopher Lee
Sherlock Holmes as played by…er…Christopher Lee

Overall though, this is a very strong entry in the world of Holmes’ pastiches – a shame that it’s out of print, but if you can get hold of a used copy, then recommended. I’m still looking for one that gets Watson’s voice, the plotting, the fine writing and crucially the Holmes/Watson relationship just right though (and with NO love interest or female assistants for Holmes!). Any suggestions?

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The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

The House of SilkThe authentic Watsonian voice…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Of all the Holmes pastiches I have read (and there have been many), Horowitz has, I believe, achieved the most authentic Watsonian voice. For most of the time, it is possible to believe the book was written by Conan Doyle, the master storyteller, himself. All the regular characters are there – Inspector Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, brother Mycroft – and as a Holmes fanatic, I wasn’t conscious of any of those jarring inconsistencies that mar many a Holmes tribute. The plot is complex and well written, and we see Holmes both as the calculating thinker and as the man of action. The Holmes/Watson relationship is very faithfully portrayed.

Anthony Horowitz (www.telegraph.co.uk)
Anthony Horowitz
(www.telegraph.co.uk)

However, I felt that sometimes Horowitz allowed the tone to stray quite far from the originals. For example, Watson’s concern for the contrast of rich and poor, his reflections on the street urchins, smacked more of Dickens than Conan Doyle. Suddenly the Baker Street Irregulars are no longer the cheeky, street-smart gang of old; now they are to be pitied for their poverty and the harshness of their lives. All true, of course, but not in keeping with the originals. I also felt that the main strand of the plot was well outside the bounds that Conan Doyle would have set and as a result in the latter stages it got more difficult to forget that this was not the genuine article.

In the Kindle version, there is included a very interesting essay by Horowitz where he describes how he came to write the book (he was invited to write it by the estate of Conan Doyle – the first time they have issued such an invitation) and lays out the ten rules he set himself, before beginning to write, to try to ensure an authentic flavour. He admits that he broke one or two of the rules along the way and I feel that was a pity – had he managed to stay within them I believe the end result would have been as close to perfect as any homage could be.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, which I am sure would only bother other Holmes pedants like myself, I think this is a very good read, well written, well plotted and full of interest. The best faux-Holmes I have read, I would recommend this to existing fans and newcomers alike.

Basil Rathbone - the best Holmes of all. Don't you agree?
Basil Rathbone – the best Holmes of all.
Don’t you agree?

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