It’s always nice when the rest of the world catches up with me. That’s kind of a jerky thing to say, even for me, but it seems to be the case every decade or so. In 1997 James Cameron made everyone a Titanic buff, a group that I was part of long before it was trendy- and when there were about nine books total about that fateful journey of a century ago. Then again, I was behind the curve on Castle, Rush, Daniel Silva and the new Battlestar Galactica. But I don’t know where to place myself in the Sherlock Holmes community. I mean, let’s face it: Sherlock Holmes was phenomenon 80 years before I was born. His popularity has risen and fallen over that time and I was born into one of those fallow periods.
It was in 1979 that my dad came home from a business meeting in Kansas City. Apparently there was a store in the airport there that sold Radio Rerun cassettes, old time radio shows from the 30s, 40s and 50s and he usually brought one home for me. It was one of the John Gielgud/Ralph Richardson Sherlock Holmes dramas from 1954 titled “The Blackmailer,” based on what has become my favorite of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, The Bruce-Partington Plans. I still have the tape, and I’m sure it’s worn pretty thin by this point, but I enjoy it as much today as I did 33 years ago. It’s a great story and very well adapted. It’s also a medium that I’m very fond of. Dramatic radio or dramatic audio. In fact, my first professional writing job was “Left Behind: The Kids Dramatic Audio.” Yeah, blame that on my dad too.
Shortly after getting the tape I found a volume of the complete A.C. Doyle Sherlock Holmes books and short stories. They gave me weeks and months of entertainment but eventually ran out. So where was a fella to go at that point?
Fortunately there were plenty more books to read. Sherlock Holmes pastiches existed in those days, but not in the volume they do now. And many of them were limited to smaller print runs and quickly disappeared from the bookstore shelves.
The first Sherlock Holmes book I read was titled Exit Sherlock Holmes, written by Robert Lee Hall (and you can still find it on the Amazon marketplace). The title might be off-putting for some people but I have to say: I enjoyed this book a lot. In fact, I reread it a few months ago and had the same reaction that I had 30 years ago: enjoyed the stuffing out of it.
There’s a couple reasons I liked it. The first is that it’s one of the few books that gets Doyle’s/Watson’s voice right. As I read it I thought that, if it weren’t for a wildly creative turn near the book’s end that Doyle couldn’t have imagined in a million years, this could have been written by Sir Arthur in 1930. The second reason is that Hall did his research and wove elements into his story that make it fit into the official canon while still turning the whole thing on it’s ear. Sherlock Holmes is exactly how we remember him yet completely different. To say more would give away key plot points and I don’t want to ruin it for someone who might be looking for an arcane piece of Sherlockian fiction.
Not long after reading Exit Sherlock Holmes I saw the movie The Seven-Percent Solution on television (the only way to see older movies in those days) and thought it was a fun little romp as well. When I found out there was a book as well I ordered it from a local bookstore. A friend gave me a copy of The West End Horror as well and reading the two made me a fan of Nicholas Meyer as well. Or maybe it was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- I don’t remember which came first.
Nick Meyer also wrote another Sherlock Holmes book called The Canary Trainer, which I enjoyed, but not as much as these two earlier books. At the time I didn’t mind Sherlock Holmes meeting historical figures like Sigmund Freud, Bram Stoker or Oscar Wilde. Nowadays I find that stuff gimmicky and don’t dig it at all. It feels a little lazy to me.
If it sounds like I like everything in a deerstalker hat, let me assure you I don’t. And that brings us to the next book: Michael Didbin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story. As I was reading this book, which is usually highly regarded, I found myself wondering why I was continuing to read a book I wasn’t enjoying. I was acutely aware, for the first time ever I believe, that the book I was reading was total rubbish. The book has made me so angry that I’m going to do something I wouldn’t normally do: I’m going to spoil it for you.
The Last Sherlock Holmes Story is not the first story that pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and it sure hasn’t been the last. As far as I’m concerned it is by far the worst. And here’s why. You ready for this?
Jack the Ripper turns out to be…. Seriously? You ready for this? Jack the Ripper turns out to be Sherlock Holmes. Even as I typed those words my mind filled with language that I have chosen not to use anymore. I hated the book before the dimwitted reveal. Making the “foremost champion of justice” the most feared serial killer in history showed a lack of respect that the character doesn’t deserve. I could tell you the hook of Exit Sherlock Holmes and you would like it better (at least I did), even as far out and fantastic as it is.
As much as I disliked The last Sherlock Holmes Story it still didn’t put me off the non-canonical stories. It’s a good thing too. There was a book on my Holmes-horizon that would give me much of the same entertainment value as the Conan Doyle stories and serve as an introduction to one of my favorite people in the world.