The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Treasure hunt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a young lady comes to Sherlock Holmes for advice, what at first seems like an intriguing mystery soon turns into a tale of murderous revenge. Mary Morstan’s father disappeared some years ago, just after he had returned from colonial service. He had been in the Andaman Islands, one of the officers charged with guarding the prisoners held there. A few years after his disappearance, Miss Morstan received a large pearl in the mail, and every year for the six years since then, she has received another. Now she has been contacted by a man who claims to know what happened to her father and says he wishes to right the wrong that has been done to her. He has asked her to come to his house where he will tell her the tale. Holmes is happy to accompany her because he is bored and seeking distraction from the cocaine bottle. Watson is happy to go along because he is falling in love…

The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light, – sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed.

Thaddeus Sholto tells them an astonishing story of hidden treasure and takes them to visit his brother Bartholomew. But when they reach Bartholomew’s house they find him dead, in a locked room. Holmes will soon solve the mystery and the companions will set off on a thrilling manhunt through London and down the Thames.

Like most of the long stories, this one takes the form of the first half being about Holmes solving the puzzle and tracking the criminal, and then the second half takes the reader back to learn the story behind the crime. In terms of the actual puzzle, this one is rather weak with not much opportunity for the Great Detective to show off his genius for deduction. He does however get to show us his mastery of disguise and his intimate knowledge of London’s murkier areas.

The story has a few other aspects, though, that I enjoy more than the basic mystery. The back story takes us to the time of the Indian Uprising of 1857, to the Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh where many fled seeking refuge from the fighting. Here we are told a story of fabulous treasure, greed and murder, oaths of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Back in London, while the solving of the mystery is a little too easy, it leads to a manhunt in the company of the loveable dog Toby with the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of street urchins Holmes sometimes employs to help him find people who don’t want to be found, and the whole thing culminates in a thrilling chase as Holmes and Watson get on the trail of their suspect.

Last but not least, this is the story in which Dr Watson finally loses his heart for real. When I was a child reading these stories for the first time, my admiration was all for Holmes and his brilliant reasoning skills. But over the years my loyalty has shifted, as I came to realise that all the warmth and humanity in the stories comes from Watson. He’s a soppy old buffer who is manly enough to wear his heart on his sleeve and has always been susceptible to the fairer sex. But when he meets Miss Morstan, it’s the work of only a few hours for him to know that she is his soulmate. The course of true love has to go over a few bumps, though, before he can hope for his happy ending and there’s no guarantee he will win her hand in the final outcome.

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

Anyone who has read my blog will know I’m a devoted fan of Conan Doyle’s story-telling. He is fluent and easy, writing in a relaxed style that tends to hide the skilfulness of his technique. He shifts effortlessly between deadly peril and sweet romance, and the friendship between Holmes and Watson is beautifully done. Watson’s wholehearted admiration and love for his friend are there for all the world to see, but Holmes’ appreciation of Watson seems colder, until something happens – Watson is put in danger, or Holmes inadvertently hurts his sensitive feelings – when we see the mask slip, and are allowed to glimpse the strong affection that exists behind the great man’s unemotional exterior.

Mystery, thrills, romance, friendship and a lovely dog – really, what more could you want? If you haven’t read the Holmes and Watson stories yet, I envy you…

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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.

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The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A thrilling adventure yarn…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The story begins when Holmes receives a message in cipher from one of his contacts within the Moriarty organisation. Unfortunately they don’t have the key to the cipher but after some lovely banter between Holmes and Watson and some brilliant deductions on the part of the great man, they solve it, to discover it warns of danger to someone called Douglas and mentions Birlstone Manor. Just at that moment, Inspector MacDonald turns up to seek Holmes’ aid in the baffling murder of John Douglas of – you’ve guessed it! – Birlstone Manor. And the game’s afoot…

Like all bar one of the long stories, this one takes the format of a deduction of the crime followed by a journey into the past to learn what led to it. In this case, John Douglas had lived in America for most of his life and the gun that killed him was of American make. Holmes does a nifty bit of investigating, involving a moat and drawbridge, an umbrella, a curious mark on the victim’s arm, and a dumbbell; and promptly gets to the truth, though not before driving poor MacDonald almost apoplectic with frustration first.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder. McMurdo’s personal bravado and intelligence soon allow him to become a valued member of the gang. But this doesn’t sit well with the father of the woman he has fallen in love with, Ettie Shafter. Gradually, it is revealed how this earlier story links to the later murder at Birlstone Manor, and it is a dark story indeed, especially since it is based largely on real events of the time. The tale finishes back in Baker Street, where we learn the final fate of some of the characters we have come to know.

This is another great story from the hands of the master. The first half is a typical Holmes investigation, with plenty of humour and warmth to offset the grimmer aspects of the plot. Holmes’ deductive powers are in full working order, and the crime itself is nicely convoluted, with a good bit of misdirection along the way. The second half allows ACD to give full rein to his marvellous story-telling powers as he takes us deep into the darkness at the heart of the brutal Scowrer gang. His characterisation is superb, both of the rather mysterious McMurdo and of the cruel and barbaric leader of the gang, Boss McGinty. I love the short stories, but I always find the long stories more satisfying, with the extra room allowing ACD to do what he does best – spin a first-rate, thrilling adventure yarn.

Illustration from the New York Tribune – the Scowrers’ initiation ceremony

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection introduced and narrated by Stephen Fry

I listened to the story this time around, from this fabulous new audio collection from Audible. It includes all the short and long stories, set out in the traditional order. Fry gives a short introduction to each of the five books of short stories and individually to each of the long ones. The collection runs to over seventy hours, so needless to say I haven’t listened to it all yet, but will have great fun dipping in and out of it over the coming months and years.

In the intro to this one, Fry puts the book into its historical context, telling the story of the Molly Maguires, a secret society active among the immigrant Irish coalminers in Pennsylvania during the 1870s; and of the Pinkerton agent who infiltrated them, ultimately leading to their destruction. He points out how soon after the Civil War this was, and that the bosses of the Pennsylvania mines were effectively their own law and could hire people of their own choosing to enforce it. He also tells the other side of the story – the appalling working conditions and extreme poverty of the workers. He manages all this without giving any spoilers for the story to come. An excellent introduction – brief, but interesting, clear and informative.

Stephen Fry

His narration of the story itself is great! He had to compete with my favourite Holmes narrator, the wonderful Derek Jacobi, so he was going to have to work hard to convince me. And I found myself laughing sympathetically because ACD didn’t make his task an easy one. Almost every character has his accent described, usually something like “half-English, half-American” or “Chicago with a hint of Irish” or “German overlaid with the twang of the new country”. And then there are the characters who are not who they first seem, so that when their true identity is revealed, they change to their real accents. I must say Fry did brilliantly with all of them and, despite there being a pretty huge cast in this story, he managed to differentiate them all quite clearly. There are two characters with straight Irish accents, so to make them different, he made one sound Northern Irish and the other Southern, both done totally convincingly. Even Inspector MacDonald’s Aberdonian accent got a high pass mark from me. He brings out the humour and the warmth of Watson’s character, and makes the adventure parts suitably exciting without over-dramatising them. I always think you can tell when a narrator loves the material he’s reading, and Fry’s strong affection for the Holmes’ stories comes through clearly.

My love for the Jacobi recordings remains, but these are just as excellent, and the little introductions are a great addition, making this a fabulous collection which I highly recommend to all Holmes fans out there.

NB The audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR. Lucky me!

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Book 9 of 90

Echoes of Sherlock Holmes ed. Laurie R King and Leslie S Klinger

The game’s afoot…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

echoes-of-sherlock-holmesIn their introduction, the editors explain that they asked the contributors to this anthology for stories “inspired by Holmes”, and the contributors have risen to this challenge with a huge dollop of originality and imagination. There are 17 stories, some just a few pages, some more substantial. There are plenty of well known names here – Denise Mina, Anne Perry, John Connolly, et al, along with some I hadn’t come across before. I always enjoy this type of anthology as a way of being introduced to writers of whom I may have heard but not so far read – in this one, both William Kent Kreuger and Catriona McPherson fell into this category.

The standard is remarkably high, both in terms of creativity and writing. Of course, the quality is variable and my own preferences meant that I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, but well over half the stories achieved 4 or 5 star status from me, and of the rest only a couple seriously disappointed. What I liked most was that, because the focus was on inspiration rather than pastiche, each story went off in directions that surprised and often delighted me. Some have based Holmes in the present day, or had their protagonist be inspired by Holmes and attempt to use his methods. Some have looked at stories in the original canon from a different angle. Some concentrate more on aspects of Conan Doyle’s life. And some have really used the original stories as a springboard to leap off into imaginative worlds of their own. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

Holmes on the Range by John Connolly – This is the first story in the book and immediately gave me the feeling I was in for a treat. The Caxton Private Lending Library is a place where the characters of great books go when their authors die. (Isn’t that already just such a brilliant idea?) But one day, something very odd happens – although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is still very much alive, Holmes and Watson appear in the library following the events at Reichenbach Falls. They settle in quite happily and all is well, until ACD is persuaded to resurrect Holmes. What will happen when ACD dies? Will the library end up with another Holmes and Watson? Holmes sets his brilliant mind to finding a way out of this dilemma… A lovely conceit with lots of fun references to literature in general and the Holmes stories in particular, this is extremely well written and well told.

holmes rathbone

Before a Bohemian Scandal by Tasha Alexander – This tells the story of the Crown Prince of Bohemia and Irene Adler, and how she came to have the cabinet photograph that caused all the trouble. Very well told, and remains reasonably true to the spirit of the characters – Irene Adler showing all the spirit and intelligence that led Holmes to think of her as the woman.

The Spiritualist by David Morrell – It’s the latter days of ACD’s life. He has opened a spiritualist bookstore but can’t convince a disbelieving world that it is possible to communicate with the dead. One night when he can’t sleep, he is visited by the ‘ghost’ of Holmes, who takes him back through his life to try to work out why he has become so convinced of the truth of spiritualism. Very well written, and quite moving as we learn of the various tragedies in ACD’s life – his father dying in an asylum, the early death of his beloved first wife, the death of his son in WW1. A great story.

Mrs Hudson Investigates by Tony Lee and Bevis Musson – Ha! Suddenly in the midst of all these written stories a fun little graphic story appears! After Reichenbach, Mrs Hudson and Irene Adler team up to foil the nefarious plans of Moriarty’s housekeeper! The story is silly, but intentionally so, and the drawings add loads of humour. This is a nice little sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses.

mrs-hudson-investigates

Raffa by Anne Perry – This may be my favourite of all the stories, though it’s a close call. Actor Marcus St Giles is the latest TV Holmes. One day he is approached by a distraught little girl who believes him to be the real thing. She tells him that her mother has been kidnapped and begs for his help. He takes her to the police, but they think he’s pulling some kind of publicity stunt so refuse to believe him. So Marcus is forced to try to solve the case himself, with the help of his friend, the TV Watson. Great writing and quite touching in places, but with a humorous edge. The thing that makes it special is seeing Marcus’ character develop as his growing feelings of responsibility towards the little girl overcome his rather spoiled, bored attitude at the beginning of the book.

Understudy in Scarlet by Hallie Ephron – An actress is invited to, she thinks, reprise her role as Irene Adler in a remake of the earlier film that is now a cult success. But when she arrives on set she discovers she has actually been cast as Mrs Hudson and is expected to act as a mentor to the beautiful younger actress cast as Irene. Swallowing her pride, she agrees. But it’s not long before things begin to take a sinister turn… Lots of fun, well told and with plenty of Holmes’ references, but making no attempt to pastiche.

holmes-and-watson

As you can see, there’s plenty of variety in the approach the contributors have taken. Although not every story is 5-star, the standard overall is excellent, and I’m sure will please any fan of the originals as much as it pleased me. Highly recommended.

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

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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.

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Tuesday ’Tec! A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Love, cruelty, murder and revenge…

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a study in scarlet 3

 

The first story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published, A Study in Scarlet introduces us to his two most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John H Watson. So it’s a must for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

 

A Study in Scarlet

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Returning to London after being wounded in the war in Afghanistan, Watson soon finds that living in hotels is stretching his army pension to breaking point, so when he hears through a friend of a man who is looking for someone to share a set of rooms, he jumps at the chance. Holmes has some rather strange habits, like beating corpses with sticks to see if they bruise, for example, but otherwise he seems like a decent enough fellow. Watson notices that he has a steady stream of rather odd callers – everyone from police inspectors to pedlars. Out of politeness, Watson doesn’t ask what his new friend’s line of business is, though he wonders. One day, Watson reads an article that Holmes has marked in the newspaper – an article on the Science of Deduction and Analysis in which the writer claims that it is possible to tell a man’s profession from observation alone…

By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs – by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.

Watson scoffs at the article, with one of those turns of phrase that delight all of us who love him – “What ineffable twaddle!” he cries, only to be stunned when Holmes reveals himself as the author. But he’s even more stunned when a few minutes later Holmes proves that he can indeed tell the occupation of a man who arrives to deliver a message, from Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard. Now Watson learns that Holmes works as a “consulting detective” and Gregson wants his help with a strange and brutal case of murder. A man has been found dead in an empty house, in a blood-bespattered room, although there is no wound on his body. Holmes and Watson arrive at the scene, and Watson is shocked by what he sees…

On his rigid face there stood an expression of horror, and as it seemed to me, of hatred, such as I have never seen upon human features… I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment, which looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.

a study in scarlet 5

And so, the game’s afoot…

* * * * * * *

Like all of the long stories other than The Hound of the Baskervilles, this one is divided into two parts – Holmes’ investigation of the crime narrated by Watson, and a section giving the background to the crime, told in this case in the third-person. The motive for this crime originated in the newly-founded Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City in the 1850s, and the Mormons are portrayed in a distinctly unattractive light, especially on the questions of polygamy and violent coercion of anyone who strayed from the rules of the religion; so over the years the book has apparently been considered offensive in some quarters. The history of the Mormons is a subject about which I know nothing, so can’t make any judgements on the accuracy or otherwise of Conan Doyle’s depiction of them (though wikipedia tells me Conan Doyle himself admitted to a degree of exaggeration). But I can make judgements on the book’s enjoyability as a rollicking good story, and it passes with flying colours! Love, cruelty, murder and revenge – perfect!

There’s something about Conan Doyle’s writing that makes it perfect for the adventure yarn and if I could describe it accurately then everyone would be able to do it (and there wouldn’t be so many bad Holmes’ pastiches in the world). His language isn’t particularly poetic, but there’s an elegance in it and a strength, a lovely use of vocabulary, and a naturalness – it gives a sense of someone telling a story aloud around a fire on a dark night, as of course his stories often would have been. He has the ability to bring any scene to vivid life, whether it’s a blood-soaked room of horror, or the arid desert landscape crossed by the Mormons on the way to their new home…

Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance. It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many adventurers. Here and there are scattered white objects that glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men.

The Mormon Trek to Utah
The Mormon Trek to Utah

In this first Holmes story Conan Doyle establishes his two characters, and it’s surprising how little they change really over time. Watson’s character as the loyal friend and brave lieutenant to his brilliant colleague is exactly as he remains throughout the series. There are some things that don’t quite gel with the later Holmes – the idea that he reads detective fiction, for example, and his own description of himself as lazy, with almost Mycroftian tendencies to let the investigation come to him. But these are minor, and the passage about detective fiction is there to allow Conan Doyle to tip his hat to Poe’s Dupin – though with his usual modesty Holmes doesn’t think much of his predecessor…

“Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial.”

Ah, my dear Holmes! Those of us who have read all your adventures avidly again and again can’t help remembering that this is a trick you will play on poor Watson yourself in the future… but much more entertainingly than Dupin ever did!

Basil_rathbone_nigel_bruce

A great story from a master storyteller, with added interest in seeing how the Holmes phenomenon began. One to read again and again and…

 

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Book 15
Book 15

Sherlock Holmes: The Dark Mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

sherlock holmes the dark mysteriesVampires, hounds and lunatics…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This pocket-sized little book is published by the Collector’s Library and contains some of the darkest of the Holmes stories. There is an interesting introduction by David Stuart Davies, himself a writer of crime and ghost stories, and an authority on Holmes. Apparently he has also written six Holmes novels himself. He reminds us of Conan Doyle’s interest in things not of this world as a great advocate of Spiritualism, and has selected stories that show Conan Doyle’s flair for going close to the edge of the supernatural, though in the Holmes stories the solution is always ultimately based in the rational world.

The book kicks off with the long story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably the most popular of all the Holmes tales. This is Conan Doyle’s writing at its finest, a thrilling tale with a dramatic setting amidst the mists and mires of Dartmoor, and a terrifying climax as Holmes and Watson finally face the hound that has been the curse of the Baskerville family for generations.

Hound drawing

Then there are seven of the short stories, all either with an element of the supernatural or with particularly dark and brutal storylines:

The Sussex Vampire – when a woman is found apparently sucking blood from her own baby and will give no explanation, her frantic husband applies to Holmes for help. What Holmes discovers reveals a very human darkness at the heart of this family, perhaps more frightening than had the woman truly been a vampire.

The Creeping Man – An elderly man who has fallen in love with a young woman starts exhibiting strange and frightening behaviour and seems to have acquired almost superhuman strength and agility. I must admit this is probably my least favourite of all the Holmes stories because it’s so far-fetched. That’s because the scientific explanation seems so ridiculous. However Davies points out that there were experiments of this nature going on in real life at the time, so the story probably seemed much more credible to contemporary readers.

The Veiled Lodger – there’s no detection in this one, as Holmes is simply the recipient of the secret behind the tragedy that befell the lodger of the title. Mrs Ronder and her husband were circus folk, lion-tamers… until it all went horribly and gruesomely wrong. Betrayal, brutality and cowardice are at the heart of this story – and it’s one example of Conan Doyle’s tendency to have Holmes leave punishment of wickedness to a higher power.

veiled lodger

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place – a Gothic tale of crypts and corpses, greed and deception, this has definite elements of the horror story about it. The credibility might be a bit over-stretched but Conan Doyle’s writing just about carries it off.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax – Lady Frances Carfax is alone and friendless, a perfect victim for any unscrupulous conman who wants to get hold of her property. Definitely a horror story this one, with a burial scene of Poe-like terror. And a very nice bit of detection too.

The Devil’s Foot – one evening, a man leaves his two brothers and his sister happily playing cards together. The next morning, the two men are stark, raving mad and the woman is dead, with a look of utter terror etched on her face. When I first read Holmes at around the age of ten, this story frightened the bejabers out of me, and I still find it the most truly horrifying of them all. The image of those grinning mad men being carted off to the asylum lives in my nightmares, and the scene where Holmes and Watson come close to losing their own senses is both scary and moving, as one of the rare occasions when Holmes reveals his deep affection for loyal old Watson.

The_Adventure_of_the_Devil's_Foot_03

The Cardboard Box – the last story in the book is another that planted itself firmly in my mind from first reading and refused to go away. A woman receives a box in the mail and when she opens it, she finds it contains two freshly cut human ears – but not from the same body! Betrayal and brutality again, combined with the demon drink, are the cause of this horror. But, just as a little piece of advice, if you ever want to send body parts through the post, make sure you have the right address…

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The book itself is rather gorgeous. It’s only just over 4” by 6” so the pages are tiny, which explains why there are over 450 of them. The font is pretty small too, but very clear, and some of the original illustrations are included. Beneath the rather lovely sleeve, the cover itself is of dark red cloth with the title on the spine in gilt, and is beautifully tactile. With the finishing touches of gilt edged pages and a red ribbon bookmark, this would make a perfect gift, especially for someone just being introduced to the Holmes stories. Though even although I know the stories so well and have at least three copies of the full adventures, I still found this a little delight and enjoyed reading the stories grouped in this way. A most pleasing little volume.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collector’s Library.

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Adventure of the Dancing Men

Cracking the code…

 

Since spring is almost upon us (that falls decidedly into the category of wishful thinking…), the fretful porpentine has gone into hibernation for a while to recover from the horrors of the winter. So, as well as the approaching return of Transwarp Tuesday!, it’s time for a new series. Don your deerstalker, take a swig from the bottle of hooch in your desk drawer, polish off your little grey cells, and join me for the first…

Tuesday Tec

The Adventure of the Dancing Men

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes is busily showing off his deductive powers to Watson when they are interrupted by the arrival of a new client, Mr Hilton Cubitt. He tells them that there have been strange doings afoot at his manor house in Norfolk – mysterious pictures of dancing matchstick men have been appearing, first in letters sent to his wife, and now scrawled on doors and buildings around the grounds. Mr Cubitt is a good, old-fashioned Englishman, who would never be discombobulated by such childishness. But his wife Elsie is plainly terrified. She is American, and on the day before their marriage following a whirlwind romance, she extracted a promise from Mr Cubitt that he would never question her about her past. So our upright friend has come to Holmes for help to solve the mystery of the dancing men…

Dancing Men 1

Holmes bent over this grotesque frieze for some minutes, and then suddenly sprang to his feet with an exclamation of surprise and dismay. His face was haggard with anxiety.

The Dancing Men (1984)

This may well be the story that really inspired my love of crime fiction, and quite probably influenced me to prefer clues and mysteries to mavericks and gore. It’s one of the many stories in which Holmes actually fails pretty dismally and I fear I can’t let him off the hook very easily – had he sent a telegram when he discovered the truth, all may have been well. However, the story would have been considerably duller and Conan Doyle never made the error of saving an innocent victim or two at the expense of telling an exciting yarn. Holmes, having failed to prevent the crime, sets himself grimly to solve the mystery and get vengeance for his client – a common feature of the stories. For Conan Doyle, it is always more important that the villain should get his just desserts, whether at human or divine hand, than that the crime should be prevented.

“I guess the very best case I can make for myself is the absolute naked truth.”

“It is my duty to warn you that it will be used against you,” cried the inspector, with the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law.

 

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 2

I love pretty much all of the Holmes stories. They were variable, especially in terms of plotting, but Conan Doyle was such a master storyteller that he could make even the flimsiest plot enjoyable. In this one, the plot is good, but the main emphasis is less on the story or on finding clues than on the breaking of the code and, for me, that’s what makes it such a joy. Watson plays completely fair – we get all the messages at the same time as Holmes does, and the solution makes complete sense. So the reader can either read the story straight through, or do what I did (when I was about 11) and spend hours trying to break the code before reading the solution, Sadly, I now know the story too well to repeat that bit of fun, but there was a time when I was actually able to use the code to write my own secret messages!

So once you’ve read the story (click here) and memorised the code here’s a little bonus message just for you.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 3

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a Poirot!
It’s a Poirot!

* * * * *

(NB The Little Grey Cells rating will measure the mystery element of a story. To get 5 cells and thus become a Poirot, the story must have a proper mystery and clues, and a solution that it’s possible for the reader to get to before the detective.)

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

Bravo, Mr Horowitz! Encore! Encore!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It was as if the world were ending here in a perpetual apocalypse of thundering water and spray rising like steam, the birds frightened away and the sun blocked out. The walls that enclosed this raging deluge were jagged and harsh and old as Rip van Winkle.

moriartyIt is the year 1891, just after Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have fought their final battle at Reichenbach Falls. Our narrator is Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton man, in Europe on the trail of a criminal mastermind, one Clarence Devereux, who he believes is responsible for killing one of his colleagues. Devereux has decided to extend his operations beyond his native America and has come to London, and Chase believes he has been in contact with Professor Moriarty, so on hearing of Moriarty’s death he has rushed to Switzerland to discover whether he can find any clue to Devereux’s whereabouts. Here he meets Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, also over to investigate the happenings at the Reichenbach Falls and they quickly form an alliance to hunt Devereux down and to stop the wave of violent crime sweeping through London.

Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls - by Sidney Paget
Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls – by Sidney Paget

I enjoyed Horowitz’s first foray into the Holmesian world, The House of Silk, very much, feeling he got Watson’s voice more nearly than any other faux-Holmes I had read. But this one is truly outstanding – one of the best books I’ve read all year by a wide margin. When I saw that it was set during the period when Holmes was ‘dead’ and that Watson wasn’t to be the narrator, I was disappointed, but not for long. It’s a brilliantly clever device that allows Horowitz to work firmly within Holmes’ world but without the pitfalls of characterisation or tone that so often beset ‘continuation’ novels. I won’t tell you more about the plot, because almost anything I say could be a potential spoiler. I’ll merely say it’s fantastic – Horowitz played me like a fish with intellectual challenges and made me laugh at my own stupefaction. It’s fast-moving and complicated, but not in the way that makes the reader feel lost – Horowitz keeps us on top of the story all the way through – or at least we think we are!

It was formed of brick walls and vaulted ceilings with arches, dozens of them arranged opposite each other in two lines. Steel girders had been fixed in place above our heads with hooks suspended on the ends of rusting chains. The floor consisted of cobblestones, centuries old and heavily worn, with tramlines swerving and criss-crossing each other on their way into the bowels of the earth. Everything was gaslit, the lamps throwing a luminescent haze that hung suspended in mid-air, like a winter’s fog.

Photo: Museum of London
Photo: Museum of London

Chase is a great character who rapidly takes on the role of Watson to Athelney Jones’ Holmes. Jones, as Holmes geeks may recall, was the detective who appeared in The Sign of the Four, and has developed a complex about Watson’s unflattering portrait of him in that story. So he has devoted himself to mastering all of Holmes’ techniques, meaning that we get a lovely pastiche of Holmes within the story, which stops us missing the Master too much. And Chase writes just as wonderfully as Watson, so that side’s covered too. The story easily stands on its own – it’s not necessary to be a Holmes geek to follow it, but there are loads of references to the original stories which add immensely to the fun if you are. For example, we finally learn all about the mystery of the parsley in the butter…

Anthony Horowitz
Anthony Horowitz

There’s constant excitement, terrifying peril, touches of horror, brilliant descriptions of London and enough humour to keep the tone light. The writing is superb, totally within character and as good as Conan Doyle’s own. The tone feels completely right for a Holmes book and the world of the book is absolutely the one in which Holmes lived and worked. And the only word I can find for the climax is awesome! So clever I read the last part of the book with a huge grin on my face, out of sheer pleasure and admiration. And then metaphorically rose to my feet and offered Mr Horowitz a well-deserved standing ovation…

You won’t be surprised to learn that I think you should read this. It’s a very special thing for Holmes fans, but it’s a great historical crime thriller in its own right too. Magnificent!

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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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Sherlock Holmes: Further Collection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – BBC Audio

Masters at work…

pipepipe pipe pipe pipe

 

sherlock holmes further collection

Master actor, Carleton Hobbs, plays master detective, Sherlock Homes, created by master storyteller, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Bliss!

This collection of twelve short stories, adapted into half-hour radio plays and recorded in the 1950s and 60s, captures the true spirit of the Sherlock Holmes tales. Unlike many dramatisations over the years, these stick rigidly to the original tales and are the better for it. Carleton Hobbs is a superbly sardonic Holmes and is ably assisted by the excellent Norman Shelley, playing a bluff and genial Watson. The two work seamlessly together and are supported by a cast of fine actors and actresses, often reappearing as different characters.

Seven of these stories are from the final section of the Holmes’ collection, The Casebook. Written at a time when Conan Doyle had lost his enthusiasm for Holmes, but couldn’t resist the enormous fees he was being offered for more episodes, these are often considered weaker than the earlier works – but in the hands of Hobbs, Shelley et al they reveal themselves to be little masterpieces. The other five episodes are randomly selected from across the whole collected works. Watch out for A Case of Identity – the performance of the actress playing our put-upon heroine, Mary Sutherland, is a little gem. Unfortunately, no cast lists are provided in this collection so I had no idea who she was while listening, but a fellow reviewer later informed me she is none other than Ysanne Churchman, perhaps better known as Grace Archer!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his moustache
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his pet moustache

A brief introduction to each story is provided by Nick Utechin, a former editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal. His enthusiasm for the stories shines through as he sets the scene for the episode to come.

There is a warning on the box that the sound quality is variable, particularly on the last two discs. The Cardboard Box and The Naval Treaty do suffer quite a bit from quality issues but not badly enough to spoil the enjoyment they provide. Otherwise the quality is remarkably good considering the age of the recordings. The box also tells us that 4 of the stories were missing from the BBC archives and were provided by a Holmes enthusiast – the box doesn’t specify but I’m guessing these are the four with the poorer sound quality on the last two discs. A measure of quality loss is a small price to pay for the recovery of these lost little treasures.

The test of an audio-CD for me is will I listen to it more than once. For this collection, the answer is a resounding yes. Highly recommended.

Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley
Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley

The stories are: The Copper Beeches, Thor Bridge, The Three Garridebs,
The Sussex Vampire, The Three Gables, The Retired Colourman,
The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Crooked Man, The Cardboard Box,
A Case of Identity, The Naval Treaty
and The Noble Bachelor.

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. These are also available as an Audible download.

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read by Derek Jacobi

the adventures of sherlock holmesThe definitive reading…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As a huge fan of Holmes and Watson, it’s always a great pleasure to me to try out a new version of the stories. In this set, Derek Jacobi gives such wonderful readings that I think this will become the definitive audio version. These twelve unabridged stories give over 11 hours of enormous listening pleasure. The Adventures were the earliest Holmes short stories, of course, written when Conan Doyle was still enthusiastic for the character he later tried to kill off. Some of the best are here: The Red-Headed League, The Five Orange Pips, The Speckled Band.

If you are already a Holmesian, Jacobi’s readings will refresh the stories for you. Without in any way acting them out, he manages to subtly alter his voice and accent for each character thus bringing them individually to life. His Watson is as bluff and genial as we imagine, Holmes is quick and incisive and the rest of the huge cast of these stories are given individual characters as much by the reading as by Conan Doyle’s words.

Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi

If you have never read the stories and this is your first experience, I envy you! This combination of the master storyteller and the wonderful narration is a joy. Excitement, humour, horror and fear all await you…Highly recommended.

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. It is available as either a disc set or an Audible download in the UK, but appears to be available only as an Audible download in the US.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link

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 Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read by Derek Jacobi

SHBaskervilles.inddThe dog that DID bark in the night…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

AudioGo production – running time 6hrs 25 mins

While I love the Sherlock Holmes short stories, I have always felt the long stories were greatly superior. Conan Doyle took the opportunity afforded by greater space and time to devise plots that allowed him to show his masterly skill for telling thrilling adventure stories to their best advantage.

Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi
And for me, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best of them all. It has everything: a dramatic setting, a family curse, an evil villain and best of all the terrifying and possibly supernatural hound itself. This is also the story that concentrates most on Watson, the human side of the partnership. We see his doggedness, his loyalty, his courage and, in this story more than the others, we also see his intelligence. It’s just possible that I prefer Watson to Holmes…

Derek Jacobi’s reading is superb on this AudioGo production. I can’t imagine anyone ever doing it better. His Watson is bluff and warm-hearted, his Holmes is incisive and each of the other characters is given a distinctive voice. Without spoiling the plot (because I so hope there are some lucky people out there who’re coming to this story for the first time), when the book reaches its terrifying climax, the sheer horror that Jacobi gets into his voice deserves any acting accolades available. Spine-shivering, hair-raising, marvellous stuff – very highly recommended.

Hound drawing

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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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