McMurdo’s Camp

Book Review, The Strange Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Strange Return of Sherlock Holmes by Barry Grant, reviewed by James Briggs

The immense popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, alongside his loyal chronicler Dr. Watson, has now straddled a full century.  First introduced in the nineteenth—his own—to an eagerly receptive reading public in England and America, he persisted into the early twentieth, surviving a misreported death-plunge along the way; then retired to pursue his avocation of bee-keeping in Sussex Downs; then re-emerged to render heroic service to the Crown as his country skidded toward war.  At length he faded from the pages of contemporary fiction, but his hallowed name and austere presence soon began to permeate theatre, cinema, radio, television, academia, textbooks, advertising, media iconography, and virtually every channel of popular culture.

Not surprisingly, such a ubiquitous resource has drawn attention not only from devoted admirers and serious scholars, but also from legions of pasticheurs, whose in-kind pretensions have likewise spanned a century.  Today, not for the first time, we face the specter of Sherlock Holmes as an ongoing Hollywood “franchise,” much like Batman or Indiana Jones.

Doyle purists have been generously tolerant of some of these efforts, though rightly repelled by most.  The original Holmes and Watson tales were the very fount of elegant style, seamless construction, impeccable diction and Victorian propriety.  Despite elaborate attempts to recapture these ideals (or to justify their absence), very few imitations have merited serious critical attention.

Happily, another rare exception has recently found its way into print.  The Strange Return of Sherlock Holmes, by Barry Grant (Severn House Publishers, Ltd.; 183 pp., $27.95) is an amusing new work of escapist Sherlockiana, carefully crafted to appeal to a general readership, yet with more than sufficient homage to the Doyle Canon.

The title is to be taken literally.  Sherlock Holmes, sleuth hero of a hundred years ago, truly does return, in the flesh, to the early 21st century, taking up residence in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, a popular real-world destination for literary tourism.  Grant’s task is no easy one:  he must bring Holmes back in a viable manner, avoiding the far fringes of hardcore science fiction; he must gently evoke the familiar milieu of Baker Street and Victorian London; and of course he must give the resurrected Holmes a new case to solve, one replete with present-day structures, devices and vocabulary, yet still requiring the keenness and acuity of the original.  Thus, we are given three mysteries in one, and with a bonus:  a skilful narrator, one with just the right balance of discernment and naiveté . . . who also happens to be Holmes’s new roommate, recently repatriated from a stint in Afghanistan.  His name:  James Wilson.

Barry Grant faced a challenge not uncommon to the suspense novelist:  orchestrating the multiple storylines so as to keep each one prominent and forceful, yet apply enough subordination and constraint to allow the reader to focus sharply on only one at a time.  Through most of the narrative, Wilson, under Grant’s enabling hand (or is it the other way around?), manages admirably.  Occasionally, one strand is nearly lost or eclipsed by another, but then is brought back to currency and clarity in the nick of time.

Recent developments in Wilson’s life furnish both background and catalyst for the story:  An abrupt divorce; a brief sojourn in Afghanistan as a journalist covering one of the Bush wars; an almost-debilitating wound; and the start of an avowed new life in Hay-on-Wye, the international book browser’s paradise—and a locale most thoroughly integrated into the plot line.  It is here that Wilson, whiling away his idle time in a local tavern, has a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, who in turn introduces him to a strange, eccentric fellow, Mr. Cedric Coombes, who happens to be seeking a companion to share affordable lodgings.  If any of this sounds familiar—and all of it should—the reader may expect similar evocations of Doyle every few pages from start to finish—a Morocco case, a telltale pocket knife, bicycle tyre comparisons, an ill-fated dog or two, a mysterious woman whose initials are L. L.  Clumsy drop-ins have been the bane of many prominent imitators over the years, but Grant’s are subtly and artfully insinuated, never intrusive.  And, they show that the author has done his homework.

Shortly after the two take modest digs together at Cambric Cottage, their quiet community is rocked by a grisly murder, and Coombes (who by this time persistently reminds Wilson of someone . . .) is summoned to assist the local constabulary.  He solves the case, of course, not just by his innate shrewdness and acumen, but through an impressive knowledge of electronic surveillance, Internet searches, DNA evidence, the lurid subculture of cyber-sex, and even the atrocities perpetrated at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  Once the nets are fixed and the quarry is captured, “Coombes,” following the precedent of an illustrious predecessor, chooses the moral option, if not the strictly lawful one, and liberates his captive.

This mystery overarches the other two.  When his déjà vu proves too strong to subdue, the good Wilson extracts the truth:  Cedric Coombes is indeed Sherlock Holmes, living and working in present-day Wales—and acclimating remarkably well.  To bring his hero back into the 21st century, Grant creates a bit of technoculture no less plausible than any standard sci-fi artifice.  The tale is spun by the detective himself, since this is the post-Watson, post-His Last Bow era, immediately before the Great War.  Holmes is dutifully carrying out a peacekeeping mission to Germany, aimed at preventing hostilities, having been commissioned personally by the King.  But the borders are impenetrable, and Holmes finds himself in a glacier-chase on the slopes of the Jungfrau, in Switzerland, pursued by the villainous Ludwig du Dummkopf (the Germans, of course, are bent on preventing the prevention).  Holmes is overcome by an avalanche and freeze-dried instantaneously (Dummkopf is not so fortunate), luckily to be discovered intact many decades later by the intrepid Dr. Coleman, and transported by refrigerated lorry to—where else?—St. Bart’s hospital in London.  Drawing on a deft application of cryogenic and stem cell research, Coleman and company soon have the detective up and running and, with the exception of a slight limp (offset by a hyper-acuteness of the senses), none the worse for his 90-year chill.

Thus the 1914 mission obviously fails, but the mystery of the strange return of Sherlock Holmes (as he is now openly identified) is satisfyingly explained.  There is more and richer detail to be savored, including visits to familiar scenes, observations on political and cultural celebrities, and even cameo appearances, in one time warp or another, by some Canon favorites.

Grant’s text, though smooth and readable, is not without its gaffes and inconsistencies.  He occasionally erupts into high-flown poetic diction:  “We passengers sat all bathed in light like objects on display in a shop window, swaying like tulips,” or “ . . . my feet were crunching in leaves and the breeze was blowing and high overhead a small airplane was moaning through the gauzy sky.”  Lyrical, to be sure, but coming as it does in intermittent spurts, oddly out of place.  There is also the preference for truncated past tenses—leant, learnt, leapt—over the more digestible –ed forms.  The British sometimes prefer it that way, and apparently Grant does also.  At least once, Wilson calls Coombes Holmes before he should—before he knows, and before we do.  And unfortunately, Cambric Cottage appears to be equipped with the wrong kind of “mantle,” which evokes an image of a mirror suspended over a cloak.  Finally, there are the neologisms, colloquialisms and Americanisms.  The book is sprinkled with such non-Canonical terms as “collared,” “hollered,” “lightweight” (no, not a boxer), “Trouble was . . . ,” “Pretty much,” and other utterances from which Doyle himself would have fled aghast.

But these are small bumps along a pleasant road, and are easily overlooked.  It would be foolish of the Sherlock Holmes community to overlook this fine new book.  For the teeming masses, the earliest 21st century view of Holmes and Watson will be of Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr. in a breathless cinematic montage.  But pleasure readers and devout Sherlockians, from Hay-on-Wye to Barnes and Noble, may find greater satisfaction in this modest but very rewarding novel.

-James Briggs, aka little Jimmy Briggs, is a writer and a member of the  Cultural Staff of McMurdo’s Camp.

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