Sherlock Holmes in America

When reading anything about Sherlock Holmes, it’s probably of benefit to know the reviewer’s mindset in regards to a character with so many interpretations. I consider myself a Sherlockian, which is to say I am a bit of a purist who knows the original canon, though I readily acknowledge there are some who live and breathe this stuff far better than I. I believe placing the Great Detective in any time that is not his own defeats the entire point of what makes him work and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding on the part of any writer who tries it. I believe having him face off against anything legitimately supernatural is fun from time to time as an exercise in fan fiction, but it goes against the very nature of who the character is supposed to be. And I can’t even think about the stories from Laurie R. King without seeing red. I’m pleased beyond words that one of her tales didn’t end up here.

For the dyed-in-the-wool Sherlockian like myself, this book is an interesting diversion in small doses, but it can’t help but be a bit disappointing by its very nature. For those of moderate interest and/or for those who can readily accept the likes of Sherlock or Elementary on TV, this will probably be a far better collection to consider. I had fun with this set, but it’s hard not to see the warts because I do know the originals so well. I also acknowledge that there’s no beating the classic version, so I grade collections like this on a curve.

The nature of a short story collection is that writing styles will vary, and different authors will appeal to different readers. On the whole, the writers presented here largely understand and respect the original tales from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The problem with pastiche, however, is that sometimes writers will lean perhaps too heavily on the source material. You wouldn’t think that’d be a problem, would you? Let me explain. Pastiche is, by any other name, fan fiction written reverentially in the style of the original. When it works, the elements of what makes the original tick are there on the surface, and the result is a satisfying read. But because the writer can’t help but fall short of the mark simply because no one can think the way the original author does, it can sometimes seem empty or contrived. The more understanding one has for the Holmes canon, the more one can see where the limits of pastiche are.

Here, the limits are two-fold.

The first is the theme itself. As pointed out in the introduction, ACD had a respect for the American people and way of life, which he extended to his creation. There are Americans all through the original canon, up to and including Holmes’ first case (much to the never-ending annoyance of the Mormon community). The theme of bringing Holmes to the States is, therefore, a natural one. However, most of these stories lean heavily on the trope of letting Holmes meet the other famous personalities of the day. If you’re predisposed to enjoying that sort of thing, this isn’t a problem. I rather enjoy it too, but I always think back to the classic Scooby-Doo cartoons. When you’re done laughing, bear with me, and this should make sense. The originals had the gang solving their own mysteries, then the later ones had them teaming up with the likes of the Harlem Globetrotters, Don Knotts, or Batman. The formula of the original is there, but something’s fundamentally “off” about it all the same. Such can be directly applied here. And because many of the stories here do rely on this formula, the case itself plays second fiddle to the mash-up. Most of the stories here are hit and miss precisely because of this formula.

The second problem comes from those instances where the story will lean on one of the original cases, such as tying off loose ends from “A Study in Scarlet.” Again, not a bad idea for fan fiction, but not exactly the sort of thing that pushes the idea of original storytelling. The limitation here is that readers not completely familiar with the classic canon will be lost, which can be easily corrected by simply enjoying the originals. Suggestion: Audible offers the complete set for one credit as The Heirloom Collection. If you don’t have it, get it and revel in the awesomeness.  (EDIT: There’s a newer complete set narrated by Stephen Fry as well, so now you have a choice).

The good news is that since these are stories about America, we don’t have to push through yet another pastiche of Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper. That was the entire appeal for me, to avoid that very setup. Seriously, there are more of these now than there are original Holmes stories. We get it. Change the record already.

What this collection does exhibit on the whole is an understanding of character, which is why most people read pastiches in the first place. By and large, Holmes and Watson are treated with respect. No collection will ever be perfect as interpretation will vary writer to writer and reader to reader, but it’s hard to complain about the offerings here in that regard beyond a handful of eyebrow-raising moments that may or may not be noticed by anyone not steeped in those original tales.

Graeme Malcolm is a highly credible narrator. I still claim Simon Vance to be the go-to narrator for all things Sherlock Holmes (again, see The Heirloom Collection), but Malcolm’s voice lends well for pastiche. He comes across a bit crusty at times, and it fits with the Victorian sensibility of what these authors are working to achieve. If anything, he’s a high tide that raises all boats here.

3 stars