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Sherlock Holmes Pastiches and Tributes

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Books reviewed in this article:
Ted Riccardi, The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
Michael Moorcock, The Mystery of the Texas Twister

CD reviewed in this article:
The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra

Film reviewed in this article:
They Might Be Giants


Sherlock Holmes is a mythic figure, so ingrained in the public consciousness that people have never stopped wanting to revisit him in new adventures. Pastiches abound, and some writers, like Nicholas Meyer (The Seven Per-Cent Solution) and Laurie R. King (The Beekeeper's Apprentice), have been able to base a considerable portion of their careers on Holmes novels. Even modern masters, whose paths you would think would never cross Holmes', like Stephen King ("The Doctor's Case" in Nightmares and Dreamscapes) and Neil Gaiman (the multi-award-winning "A Study in Emerald" from Shadows Over Baker Street), have attempted it in the short form.

These offerings are generally divided into two areas: the tribute and the discovery. A tribute, ideally, puts a new spin on the characters and this includes parody and crossover (Holmes meets Jack the Ripper, Cthulhu, etc.). The discovery merely purports to be a newly-found addition to the canon, whether written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or by John H. Watson, M.D., himself.

The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes hails from the "discovery" camp and, in fact, is an attempt to fill a major gap in the Holmes timeline: the years from 1891, when Holmes and Professor Moriarty fell to their presumed deaths from the Reichenbach Falls (see "The Final Problem" from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes), to 1894, when Holmes resurfaced after spending the intervening years in the Orient (as detailed in "The Empty House" from The Return of Sherlock Holmes). Author Ted Riccardi explains in "A Further Note" at the back (all quotes from the author are taken from this source) how he came into possession of these manuscripts, almost lending a level of realism to the proceedings.

Unfortunately, there are several flaws in the execution of this Oriental Casebook. One drawback is that the narration must, through necessity, be split between Holmes' own relation of the events and Watson's subsequent summary of them. Holmes, being an extreme character, is best taken in small portions, and this format leads to something akin to an overdose. For the same reason, Watson's participation is lessened through his absence from these events. The balance of personalities is in this way toppled, leaving the one with which we readers are meant to identify almost entirely out of the picture.

But my main problem with these stories is their length. Depending on the format, the original Doyle stories average from ten to twenty pages each. Riccardi's average around thirty, with two coming in at over 50. "The Case of the Viceroy's Assistant" begins the collection well (after a Preface from Dr. Watson that reiterates The Story So Far for those unfamiliar with the details mentioned in the abovementioned stories), but "The Case of Hodgson's Ghost" collapses under its own weight. It is overburdened with detail that makes it a struggle to get through, leaving little room for interest in the actual plotline. Its sister-in-length, "An Envoy to Lhasa," is notable only for this quote: "According to some philologians, charlatan is the only word that comes into English from the Mongolian." "The Case of Anton Furer" was complete and satisfactory in its first ten pages; there was no need to continue for twenty more pages of the title character's history, except to tie this story into the Oriental theme. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made this kind of digression mistake once -- in A Study in Scarlet -- but never did it again.

Such logorrhea bogs the tales down while the author simultaneously claims that it is out of his hands. Referring to the "fifty-odd tales," contained in a trunk, that he has only "begun to publish" (he is all but promising more installments from this time period), he states, "Doyle never edited them for consistency. I, too, have refrained from [editing] them beyond the minimum necessary for editorial accuracy." If brevity is the soul of wit, Ted Riccardi must be a drag at parties.

Also included in this Oriental Casebook is the tale of "The Giant Rat of Sumatra," the sensationally-titled case most famously omitted from the original canon. Much has been made of the case referred to in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" (from The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes) with references contained (according to a keyword search on Amazon.com) in works from novels to memoirs to histories. It appears that, in its basic form, the phrase "giant rat" is incomplete without the subsequent prepositional phrase tacked on (more on this later). Such a buildup, it seems, can only result in disappointment; there is simply no way that it can live up to its legend in our imaginations. Plus, based on the previous stories, I had little reason to believe that this one would be considerably better. In this one instance, I was in for a surprise.

In relating this adventure featuring a Rodent of Unusual Size which Holmes repeatedly stated was "a story for which the world is not yet prepared," Riccardi approaches it creatively and with an eye for perpetuity. Told in "Holmes' usual laconic and terse [prose]," there are indeed shocking events taking place here that nineteenth-century folks would have been appalled by and that even this twenty-first century reviewer was surprised to find taking place in this fictional world that is usually quite tame. Its shorter length adds to the enjoyment. A discussion of criminal types leads to the telling of another shorter -- and all the better for it -- Oriental case: that of "Murder in the Thieves' Bazaar." It is a nice respite from the overly complex tales in the Casebook as it is a simply case of "What really happened." That Holmes' theory turns out to be mostly incorrect is unimportant as enough of it is to let an innocent man go free. No long travels and descriptions of surroundings are necessary to make this a top-rate mystery and a surprising highlight in a mostly mediocre collection.

Offering yet another take on the legend (and that famous "rat" story) are the Firesign Theatre and their comedy album The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra. In it, Hemlock Stones and his "patient doctor and biographer," Flotsam (at least I think that's his name, Stones never seems to get it right, or care to) take on the case of Violet Dudley and the Frigate Matilda.

The Firesign Theatre are famous for being the only comedy group whose main medium was the audio recording. This format allowed them to layer jokes upon jokes (often with self-referential ties from album to album), with extra "throwaway" material for the truly attentive. Their early albums How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All? and Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers are classics of the form, standing up to literally dozens of plays. And the more familiar you are with the popular culture of the era, the more jokes you'll get. On Two Places alone, their humor spans from radio detective shows to Ulysses, with visits from W.C. Fields and President Chester Alan Arthur along the way.

Sumatra begins as a solid Holmes radio parody, with Stones relating a story that becomes acted out behind him, while Flotsam transcribes the events entirely wrongly. As in a lot Firesign work, particularly their mid-period albums, this merely acts as a framework on which to pile wordplays (the initials of client Violet Dudley are a particular favorite), one-liners, and recurring jokes (like Stones' fascination at snorting "cocoa powder"); many are successful, but several fall flat. Again, though, like the best of Firesign, the album rewards repeated listens, as the numerous familiar layers fall away to reveal hidden secrets missed the first dozen times through. A disappointment to be sure, but the "four or five crazee guys" had already done the premier mystery parody, "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger" on side two of Two Places.

More successful, but for different reasons, is Michael Moorcock's novella -- available as of this writing only with the purchase of the premiere issue of the new Argosy magazine -- The Mystery of the Texas Twister. Starring his Holmesian "metatemporal investigator" Seaton Begg and his companion, Dr. "Taffy" Sinclair, it is a strange little piece that plays with history but adds modern political satire for good measure. (Begg and Sinclair's previous tale, "The Case of the Nazi Canary," was published in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.)

While on the search for their nemesis, Count Zodiac, the Albino, Begg and Sinclair come into contact with the president of Texas, "The King" George Washington Putz, and his public spokesman and right-hand man, Dick Shiner. The story involves the prevention of Zodiac's creation of the internal combustion engine while Begg and Sinclair escape death in increasingly complicated ways, one of them hearkening to Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." At least, I think that was the story. I got pretty confused while reading it, what with all the references to other stories and characters in Moorcock's "multiverse." Had I been more familiar with the author's work beforehand, I feel sure I would have followed it better.

Moorcock has the style down, though, and the illustrations by Jon Foster are reminiscent of the famous drawings of Sidney Paget from Holmes' days in The Strand. All in all, it's a solid pulper with lots of witty repartee and plenty of action to keep the pace moving. Moorcock must be the master of the alternate-history detective story. No matter that I wasn't always in step with the characters; I enjoyed myself every step of the way, which is more than I can say about Riccardi's work.

More cleverness takes place in the often-overlooked film They Might Be Giants. Probably most famous for being the inspiration for the name of the popular college-rock duo -- and its own title inspired by the line from Don Quixote -- this film stars George C. Scott as mental patient Justin Playfair, who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes, dragging his attending physician -- Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward), of course -- out in search for the fiendish Professor Moriarty.

The actual plot is incidental (Dr. Watson is examining "Holmes" because his brother wants him declared insane, thus giving the brother control of his finances), what makes They Might Be Giants work are the two lead performances. Scott and Woodward have surprisingly good chemistry together, and this is one of the few chances fans will have to see the former in a sympathetic role, known as he is for his more overbearing portrayals in films like Patton, Dr. Strangelove, and even Anatomy of a Murder or The Hustler.

The film seems to lose its way about halfway in, when it realizes that there is only so far you can go with a crazy man who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes (Without a Clue had similar troubles), but manages to coast the rest of the way on its charm. The scene in the grocery store is particularly successful at eliciting the expected results, despite its obvious pandering to that end, and the somewhat confusing denouement still inspires discussions on the Internet.

No doubt Sherlock Holmes will continue to be the subject of more literary, audio, and even cinematic offerings for years to come, so we've no need to fear his disappearance any time soon. Personally, I prefer the old standards myself, but I'm always interested in a new voice's interpretation of a mythic character. These offering show just in how many ways he can be approached. Holmes is in our public consciousness now; we all own him, so why not have a little fun with him?

© 2004 by Craig Clarke and The Green Man Review

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