I picked up this book without knowing anything about it except that it was a collection of short Sherlock Holmes stories by various writers, many of whom I know from writing Doctor Who spinoff fiction. The main reason I got it, actually, was to compare it to Tales of the Great Detectives, the forthcoming Sherlock-Holmes-in-a-city-at-the-end-of-time short story anthology I’ve contributed to, which is edited by Phil Purser-Hallard, who writes the first story here.
In fact, it’s a closer comparison than it might appear, even though the Holmeses in Tales of the Great Detectives are explicitly not the “real” Sherlock Holmes while these are all ostensibly the same character, because almost every story in this collection is, to a greater or lesser extent, in some way about combining Holmes and Watson with a science fictional or fantastic idea.
This ranges from, at one end, stories with the merest hint of the otherworldly — predictions coming true, unexplained coincidences — to, at the other, The Sleep of Reason by Lou Anders, which uses a framing device to provide an in-continuity explanation for what is, for the most part, a story of a gay American Holmes-alike having adventures on Mars with a gender-flipped John Carter.
Occasionally this comes a little too close to steampunk or dull pseudo-Gothic for my taste, but for the most part the writers in this collection steer close to Holmes’ original millieu, with most of the stories having a physically possible — if not always plausible — resolution.
The best, by far, is the opening story, Purser-Hallard’s The Adventure of the Professor’s Bequest. This is a story about Moriarty, which normally raises huge warning flags for me, as unless you’re doing something like Kim Newman’s The Hound of the D’urbervilles it’s almost impossible to do a story about Moriarty that works, and time and again Holmes adaptations and stories by authors other than Doyle have had Moriarty as some kind of supervillain, thinking the character is fascinating in some way rather than just an excuse to kill Holmes off in one of Doyle’s weaker stories.
But Phil uses Moriarty in a way that I’ve not seen the character used before — this is a story that could only have been written for the character of Moriarty, and one which ties together a science fiction idea that has been one of those themes that Phil comes back to over and again (and one I’ve written about myself a few times) with the real science of the late 19th century, but in a way that’s creepily horrific precisely because of the Victorian setting.
The interesting thing is that while there has clearly been some attempt at coordination between the writers here, and they’re clearly writing the same versions of Holmes and Watson rather than each having their own interpretations (several stories mention Watson being a spiritualist and a member of the Golden Dawn, for example), they’re all written as “Watson”, and so you can see the stylistic differences in each writer come out as they all aim for, and slightly miss, Doyle’s voice.
It’s very odd that everyone can write perfectly-characterised Holmes and Watson dialogue, but very few people can get the prose style in which “Watson” wrote, but it remains true. The stories by Purser-Hallard and Andrew Lane come closest, both having the authentic smack of Doyle to them, but the rest are all subtly different from each other, so even while we are reading the stories as being connected, it’s hard to read them as being narrated by the same person.
This is a minor quibble, though, as is the fact that in some cases stray Americanisms and modernisms make it into dialogue supposedly spoken by 19th century English people.
Overall, the collection is a surprisingly good one, with only a few stories straying too far into the realm of the fantastic for my taste (The Strange Case of the Displaced Detective and The Girl Who Paid For Silence, being respectively a time-travel story and a ghost story, feel more like mash-ups than attempts to expand the limits of the Holmes sub-genre, though I admit the distinction is a fine one). All the stories show a clear love for the original work, and a respect not only for Doyle’s characters and the details of their fictional biographies, but for the shape of the typical Doyle story, a shape that is very different from the typical mystery story, and far more anecdotal, while being far less concerned with playing fair with the reader — some of Doyle’s stories depend for their resolution on things like physical resemblances between two characters, where the other characters can see the resemblance but it’s never mentioned in the text. Nothing here goes anything like that far, but like Doyle they’re far less interested in giving the reader a crossword puzzle to solve than in building up a sense of atmosphere.
I don’t normally recommend Holmes stories written by people other than Doyle, as I think that the idea rather misses the point — the original stories were as good as they were because of the author, not because of some Platonic ideal of the Holmes character — but this book is one of the few exceptions. The worst I can say about any story in it is that it’s not to my taste — but even so, I didn’t find myself skipping any of them, or annoyed at having read any — and the best handful of stories (Purser-Hallard’s, Lane’s, Nick Campbell’s and Philip Marsh’s especially) are ones I shall be returning to in the future.