Book Review: Encounters of Sherlock Holmes

Encounters-HolmesWhenever I post a review about a book or, as in this case, an anthology of short stories that deals with beloved characters or settings, I like to remind those who read these reviews that I am an incredibly harsh critic when it comes to those characters with whom I’m intimately familiar and whose exploits have delighted and/or inspired me over the years.  When it comes to the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson, this is most certainly the situation in which I find myself.  I absolutely love the original tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I have read a number of his successors over the years.  Some writers hit the nail perfectly on the head and capture the tone of Conan Doyle perfectly.  A select few should probably have their writing tools taken away from them and used against them in other creative ways.  Most fall somewhere in the middle in that they entertain, but they’re missing that certain something that made Holmes one of the most popular characters of all time.  Regardless of how close to the mark the story comes, I try to give nearly any incarnation I come across at least a chance to prove itself worthy of the original creator.  It’s that legendary appeal that  keeps me coming back to his exploits time and again.

And so it is that I return to the world of Sherlock Holmes once more – and yet, also decidedly not the world as his creator might have intended in some instances – in this anthology collection of short stories edited by George Mann.  I’m predisposed to have a higher opinion of this because I already like Mann’s work.  His Newbury and Hobbes stories are excellent Victorian era steampunk tales, and I’ve recently added his Ghosts of Manhattan to my list of must-reads for those who want to see what his take on a Roaring Twenties pulp style novel would be like.  In addition to editing chores, he pens one of the tales within.

The wonderful thing about an anthology is that it’s a chance to test out the works or writing styles of authors you’re unfamiliar with or to drop in on a favorite whose novels you’re already collecting.  You get a mixed bag.  For the harsh critic of Holmes as I am, this is a test to see just how close to the Conan Doyle style these writers can come, or in some cases, how far away they can step out of creator’s shadow and still make it work.  I admit to a strong bias if a tale isn’t immediately written in first person perspective from the POV of Dr. Watson.  Without that, it’s just not Holmes in my humble estimation.  And there are a few such tales to be had in this volume.  They’re not bad, they’re just not “right” for Holmes.  Likewise, I’m more forgiving of even the most bizarre stories that his writer would never tell if the writer is willing to present Holmes and Watson perfectly in character.  You wouldn’t think that would be so difficult, but two currently airing series on television have managed to botch it up beyond all reckoning, and that’s easily the best reason to keep coming back to the literary arts.

On the flip side, there are a lot of lines that Holmes’ creator never would have thought to pursue in his day that I find myself remarkably open to reading as I am a fan of big mess of a crossover known as the Wold-Newton Universe.  Some of these stories fit right in.  Need a sequel to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds?  It’s in here.  Need a good character crossover?  Perhaps Holmes should face off against A.J. Raffles, the gentleman thief?  He does, and he also crosses paths with Frankenstein’s monster, Dr. Jekyll, and more.  As much of a traditionalist as I can be most times, it’s sometimes hard to deny the appeal of fan wank when it’s done well.  Did I think it was done well?  Honestly, it’s hit and miss as most short story anthologies are.  When it misses, it’s not so bad that I can’t shake it off.  When it hits, it hits VERY well.  And I think regardless of the reader’s tastes, every reader will find this to be true to some extent.  Realistically, these things are put together specifically to appeal to different readership styles within a given genre, and the scattershot approach is what helps to make such missteps more forgivable.  Some things work better in theory than in execution, other things are really a lot of fun to see unfold.  And the nice thing about short stories is that if you don’t find one appealing, you just move on to the next without a serious investment of time.  For myself, I did spend a lot of time grinning like a monkey as I plowed through story after story.  Even if a story felt “wrong” to me, I still enjoyed seeing many of the ideas unfold.  Such things are easier to work with when presented by writers who are masters of their craft.  Others, as I say, matched Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tone and style perfectly.  Either way, it felt like a series of discoveries, many of which will likely stay with me for a long time to come.  Such is the appeal of Sherlock Holmes.

Encounters of Sherlock Holmes is available from Titan Books on February 19.  If you love the character of Holmes enough to understand why he should never be referred to by his first name alone, I recommend it.  If not, you should probably read through the original stories to get your bearings, and then pick this one up just on account.  You’ll be glad you did.