Three new novels about Sherlock Holmes
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 10:08 PM
Next to Mickey Mouse and Batman, he may have the world's most identifiable silhouette: deerstalker cap on head, pipe in mouth. Heck, ditch the hat and give him a nicotine patch, as in the terrific and updated BBC series, and Sherlock Holmes is still instantly recognizable. Agatha Christie sold an awful lot of books, but you don't see hordes of women wielding knitting needles descending on English villages to pretend that Miss Marple really exists (because that would just be silly). But Holmes fans are a breed apart. This winter, three new mysteries offer them a chance to pick up the magnifying glass once again. Certain conventions must be observed: Someone will say, "Elementary," and someone else will say "The game's afoot!"
1. The Sherlockian (Twelve, $24.99), by Graham Moore, opens with a man plotting murder near Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. It's 1893, and Arthur Conan Doyle is determined to rid himself of the man plaguing his life: Sherlock Holmes. But the main action of Moore's first novel takes place eight years later; it has to do with "the last great mystery of Arthur Conan Doyle" - a missing journal covering the months just before he unexpectedly resurrected Holmes after sending his creation plummeting to his death over those falls. Flash forward to 2010: A man who claims to have found that lost journal is murdered at the annual Sherlock Holmes convention of the Baker Street Irregulars. The word "Elementary" is scrawled in blood at the scene. Who plans a murder like this? "Someone who's read way too many mysteries," an observer notes. The newest Irregular, Harold White, who wore his deerstalker to his college graduation and his first job interview, is determined to crack the case. A pretty reporter volunteers as Harold's Watson. (Moore, the son of Susan Sher, Michelle Obama's chief of staff, based "The Sherlockian" on the death of Holmes scholar Richard Lancelyn Green, who was found strangled in 2004 after claiming to have located papers missing from Conan Doyle's estate.)
The novel jumps between Harold's investigation and one in 1901, when Conan Doyle tries to solve the murder of a young woman with a three-headed crow tattooed on her leg. Bram Stoker, unable to interest the masses in "some bloodsucking count from the Continent," gets drafted as his reluctant Watson. The wrap-up is too abrupt, and the answer to the Edwardian mystery is deflating. But Moore's affection for the genre and his good-natured self-awareness ground what might otherwise have been a preposterous setup.
2. If "The Sherlockian" is determined to be a bestseller, Baker Street Irregular (Arkham, $39.95), by Jon Lellenberg, is equally forceful about avoiding mainstream conventions. It's 1933, and lawyer K.W. "Woody" Hazelbaker is hired to unwind the varied business interests of a gangster named Owney Madden, who's looking to get out of town before Prohibition is repealed. Working for Madden turns out to be the making of young Hazelbaker, who has a taste for P.G. Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes stories and is drafted into the newly founded Baker Street Irregulars.
With the rise of Hitler, Hazelbaker and the rest of the Irregulars find themselves longing to do something to help Great Britain, at which point Woody finds out that working for a crime boss has given him certain useful skills for dealing with both bureaucracy and international espionage. Lellenberg, who has edited collections of Holmes stories, is a Baker Street Irregular himself, and he knows his stuff. There are three-page speeches about Horatio at the Bridge, and the plot doesn't kick into gear until page 160. But the book offers a wealth of information for the obsessive Holmes fan and a satisfyingly noir ending.
3. In Steve Hockensmith's World's Greatest Sleuth! (Minotaur, $24.99), McClure's magazine commemorates the death of Sherlock Holmes with a competition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Cowboy sleuths Otto "Big Red" and Gustav "Old Red" Amlingmeyer have been drafted into this detective contest. "My brother handles the deducifying in our little partnership, while recapitulations, banter, and walloping people are usually left to me," Otto explains. Gustav, a Holmes disciple, agrees reluctantly. That's before he sees the matching set of red and white chaps, vests and Stetsons the brothers are expected to wear in public. The contest turns serious when its designer is found face down, smothered in the Mammoth Cheese of Canada. There are probably critics made of sterner stuff who can resist dramatis personae that include "The Bearded Man," "The Other Other Bearded Man" and "Another Other Other Bearded Man," but I am not one of them. "World's Greatest Sleuth!" is a hoot.
Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor.