Watching the Detective: “The Encounters of Sherlock Holmes”

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sherlock book coverI have to confess. I love all the 21st-century re-inventions of Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t want to, as I consider myself a true book lover who has often stood on my “don’t mess with the classics” soapbox of guarding the works of authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from the likes of today’s literary graffiti artists. Unfortunately, the characterizations have been just so much fun — Guy Ritchie’s dark and high-speed gothic movies, BBC’s perfectly-cast and eloquently written modern day retellings and even Johnny Lee Miller’s edgy and slightly touched Holmes-meet- New York portrayal.

Now add to this list of  “The Encounters of Sherlock Holmes,” which I wholeheartedly recommend.

Edited by George Mann (Titan Books), this collection features well-selected stories about the master sleuth, his closest companion (were Holmes to admit it) Dr. John Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Inspector Lustrate and many new characters (including some cameos from classic literature).

This volume includes work by Mark Hodder, Mags L. Halliday, Cavan Scott, Nick Kyme, Paul Magrs, Stuart Douglas, Eric Brown, Richard Dinnick, Kelly Hale, Steve Lockley, Mark Wright, David Barnett and James Lovegrove, as well as by Mann himself. All contributors are appropriately from, or based in the United Kingdom, with the exception of Hale who’s works like “Erasing Sherlock Holmes” and the Doctor Who novel “Grimm Reality” give her true British “cred.”

I don’t want to venture too far into the details, because the journey through the mystery for Holmes and his cohorts is as vital as the mystery’s conclusion, but true standouts in this collection include Nick Kyme’s “Post-Modern Prometheus,” “Mann’s own “The Case of the Night Crawler” and  “The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador.”

In “Post-Modern Prometheus,” Kyme ventures beyond Holmes’s capacity for reason, and ventures into a familiar supernatural horror story, creating an unexpected mash-up of characters that stays surprising until the end.

George Mann

George Mann

Eric Brown’s “Tragic Case of the Martian Ambassador” is similar to Mann’s story in that steampunk aficionados will eat it up, but it follows more of the classic turn-of-the-century science fiction ala (coincidentally enough) H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The story addresses some tricky cultural relations as Holmes is called to investigate the suspicious death of a Martian ambassador 10 years after the alien species came to live among humans on Earth. This “Alien Nation” situation with a “War of the Worlds” air took me by surprise in the sense of Holmes’ “solution” to how he handled the mystery’s conclusion. But, I’ll say no more about that.

Calling any collection of writings by various authors “inconsistent” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because holding every author to the same style would miss the point of variety altogether. I did have my favorite stories, however, and a couple in which I found myself less interested due to the lack of that distinctly Holmes “aha” moment.

There were some surprises, though. I found Paul Magrs’ entry, “Mrs. Hudson at the Christmas Hotel,” for example, to be a light story of Holmes’ savvy landlady on a romp with her malformed sister, it’s tone grew increasingly darker, eventually ending with a threat — or promise — of a further related tale.

The only real flaws I found with the book draw from my own personal wannabe sleuthing (or rather my O.C.D.) were the common compilation woes of one or two hidden typos that tend to get under my skin the way a slightly mislaid tie on an otherwise perfectly tailored suit would. I’m sure I’ve made a few of those myself.

This shouldn’t stop Holmes fans, both old and new, from finding this a page-turning and riveting read, which it certainly is.

What all the contributors of this volume have done brilliantly, however, is continue Doyle’s legacy of seeing Holmes through the eyes of others, mostly Watson, keeping the sleuth himself always a bit of a mystery.

Mann’s collection, and its contributing authors take the reader as close to the workings of Holmes’ mind as you can without actually being him.

Although the long-suffering Watson himself has referred to him as in this collection as “cold” or “inhuman,” he called him, upon his “death” in Doyle’s original series, “the wisest man I’ve ever known.”

To me the mind of Sherlock Holmes is like the mouth of a volcano. You are both fascinated by and afraid of what’s in there, and you want to get as near to the edge as possible to watch it work. But do you really want to dive in there?

After reading this compilation, I’m almost tempted to try.

Homework time:

I stated in my review I am unashamed to admit I love the recent reinventions of Sherlock Holmes an the newfound interest in the character, but with any re-discovered classic, I have to urge every fan of Robert, Benedict and Johnny Lee  (and often in my case Jude, Martin and Lucy…but mostly Martin) to give the original source a look, as Doyle’s “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” is as exciting and intriguing as any modern classic.

Also, here are a couple of suggestions for further reading:

• “The Crimes of Dr. Watson: An Interactive Sherlock Holmes Mystery” Edited with an introduction by Duane Swierczynski. (Quirk Books).  This interactive is a chance for a hands-on Sherlock Holmes experience that invites to reader to “help” Watson in solving a century-old mystery complete with ticket stubs, personal correspondence and the removable pieces of evidence. Yes, the solution is tucked away at the end, but try to solve this on your own first. That’s 90 percent of the fun. No peeking.

• “Holmes on The Range” by Steve Hockensmith. (St. Martin’s Minotaur). This is mystery writer Hockensmith’s first book in his mystery series placing a pair of ranch hands in the Holmes and Watson roles, narrated, of course, by Big Red.  Set in the 1890s, Holmes fanatic, Old Red, stumbles upon a real-life murder mystery and takes it upon himself, and his brother, Big Red, to crack the case.  This mystery/western mash-up may not seem like a likely pairing, but Hockensmith’s keen talent for non-conventional mysteries (including zombie mystery “Cadaver In Chief”) has created a fan-favorite series with these Old West sleuths.

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