22 August 2016

Associates of Sherlock Holmes

Image from titanbooks.com
Associates of Sherlock Holmes
Edited by George Mann
Titan Books, 23 August 2016
PB, 378pp
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by the publisher

In this collection brought together by George Mann, we have stories about, or inspired by, people mentioned in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series. I think this is an excellent idea: there are screeds of non-canonical Holmes and Watson stories, so a slightly different angle adds freshness without the need for anything too bizarre.

Inevitably some of these 'associates' (Irene Adler, Lestrade, Mycroft, Col Sebastian Moran) are more memorable than others (Clarence Barker, Billy the Page) so helpfully the authors have written a short introduction to each. That's also useful because some of the stories (not all) riff directly off the canonical ones, and, unless you've lately reread them, the details may be hazy.others. So while it wouldn't do any harm to reread, say,  The Adventure of the Creeping Man or The Adventure of the Three Gables before this book, the intros mean that's not necessary.

Most of the stories, while not narrated by Dr Watson, adopt the same straightforward approach (there is a rational solution which is discovered by logical detective work). There are though a few that bend the rules, for example by flirting with the supernatural (or, in one case, even proposing a supernatural explanation), telling a straight adventure narrative (indeed, almost SFF in one case) or simply acting as a framing device to another story with no great element of detection involved.

Stepping outside the normal Holmes-and-Watson setup also allows some games with the Sherlock universe, such as hints in a couple of stories of things that Watson wouldn't have referred to for reasons of Victorian propriety, or of fallibilities that he (as an unreliable narrator) wouldn't have admitted (one of the stories hints at his gambling addiction).  It as if all those silenced characters - including a number of women - are finally able to dish the dirt on the good Doctor. There is also scope for or fixing continuity errors (Watson's confused marital history) or outright errors (the Speckled Band itself was not, as Holmes admits, a swamp adder).

Inevitably the stories vary rather in theme and tone. I found them all enjoyable but everyone will have their own favourites:

In The River of Silence by Lyndsay Faye, we see Holmes's first meeting with Stanley Hopkins, a young Inspector who turns up in some of the later Conan Doyle stories. Faye convinces with her story told through the voice of Hopkins, and it means she doesn't have to imitate Conan Doyle's style (or, as many have, run the risk of pastiching it). In theme and overall atmosphere, though, the story - opening with a gruesome discovery and proceeding though the fogs of London to a squalid Limehouse -  is very much in keeping with the original tales, right down to the vagueness about illness ("fever") and the mental collapse of one character. It's a nice little origin story for Hopkins, a minor Conan Doyle character, which allows Faye plenty of room to develop his personality and backstory.

Pure Swank by James Lovegrove picks up the story of Clarence Barker, Sherlock Holmes's 'hated rival on the Surrey shore' who appears in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. Who is Barker, why are he and Holmes rivals - and where is Barker from? These questions are answered in ways that gives a slightly different and more cynical view of the Great Detective. In the end, you're left with a choice to which is the more reliable narrator - Watson or Barker.

Heavy Game of the Pacific Northwest isn't a crime story at all. While it features the brilliant, amoral Colonel Sebastian Moran, he's not up to some sort of caper, nor is he trying to kill Holmes - instead he is again the Great Hunter. It's nice to see this character - who only appears a few times in the canonical stories but who is portrayed so well that he seems to dominate even so - finally step out from behind the curtain.

A Dormitory Haunting by Jaine Fenn picks up the later life of Violet Hunter, the governess from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, who's now Head of a girls' school. When a mysterious figure begins to haunt the dormitory by night, she remembers Holmes' example and sets out to find the truth. This is a lovely story featuring a determined and independent woman who's not afraid to flout convention.

The Case of the Previous Tenant by Ian Edginton is a rather fantastical concoction focussed in Inspector Barnes who appears only once (in The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge) but seems to be Holmes's equal. That said I wasn't sure he was really allowed to shine in this rather fantastical tale which seems closer in theme to MR James than Conan Doyle.

Nor Hell a Fury by Cavan Scott is definitely my favourite story but then it features The Woman, Irene Adler, so how could it not be?

The Case of the Haphazard Marksman by Andrew Lane features Lansdale Pike, a gossip columnist(!) who originally appeared in The Adventure of the Three Gables. This story was another favourite of mine, I think it nicely captures something of the atmosphere of the originals, with an ingenious mystery that fully stretches both Holmes and Pike, standing in for Watson.

The Presbury Papers by Jonathan Barnes is one of those stories where the introduction helps by going over the salient points of its inspiration, The Adventure of the Creeping Man, but which goes beyond that original in implied depravity and danger. It also brings in Mycroft (as does A Family Resemblance by Simon Bucher-Jones).

William Meikle's A Flash in the Pan revives another one-off Conan Doyle character, the bruiser Shinwell Johnson. It's a slightly sulphurous tale set amongst the cheap places of evening entertainment - and shows Holmes accepting methods that he doesn't want Watson to know too much about.

The Vanishing Snake by Jeffrey Thomas continues the story of Helen Stonor from The Speckled Band, taking the chance to correct a couple of glitches with that and also advancing a new theory about what was really going on in the original. It was a rather different Holmes story and great fun.

Page Turners by Kara Dennison is a nice little story - the one featuring Billy the Page, in a thrilling adventure which comes across as just another tricky day for that resourceful lad.

Finally, Peeler by Nick Kyme features my favourite of Scotland Yard's also-rans, Inspector Lestrade himself (Lestrade also plays a supporting role in The River of Silence). The is a properly grisly story to end the book on, perhaps a little more so than feels natural a Sherlock Holmes story but it's definitely an ingenious mystery.

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