Sherlock Holmes against the Irrational

Yesterday I received in the mail the latest Faction Paradox novel, Philip Purser-Hallard’s Of the City of the Saved….. The novel takes place in the City of the Saved, essentially a secular heaven after the Big Crunch where humanity in all of its forms, from Homo habilis to post-human intelligences that bear no physical relation to Homo sapiens coexist in peace and immortality. Imagine my surprise when, not more than twenty pages in, Sherlock Holmes appears.

To say I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan would be a minor understatement. One of the first short stories I wrote, when I was eight years-old, was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It was written in pencil, handwritten, on six ruled notebook pages. It’s not especially good. How many copies of the Canon do I own? I couldn’t count. Annotated editions. Illustrated editions. Odds-and-ends. To say nothing of the pastiches, ranging from Nick Meyer’s to Federation Holmes, a book combining Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes, to several collections of short stories, some themed, some not. To say nothing of the various and sundry literary crossovers with the the sage of Baker Street.

Van Helsing put me in the frame of mind–if Van Helsing can battle Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, at the same time, what of Sherlock Holmes? Pit Holmes, the rational thinking machine, against the supernatural, the irrational, and what will come of it?

I never would have thought of Dracula as a Holmes foe, and then a friend of mine handed me Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File. I wanted to gag about two-thirds of the way through the book–there’s a revelation Saberhagen makes about Holmes’ family lineage that just smacked me across the face as being so wrong that I could barely finish the book. But then I chanced across an old copy of Loren D. Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, and I wondered why after this book anyone else needed to attempt the pairing because I thought Estleman hit everything right.

The two Dracula novels are interesting and somewhat unusual by Holmesian standards. Estleman hews very closely to the story of Dracula as written by Bram Stoker, and almost all the major characters from Dracula make an appearance in the novel. The story is rigged in such a way that the events Estleman describes could have taken place, merely offstage, in Stoker’s original. An interesting novel, out of print for many years, but republished a few years ago by iBooks, along with its sequel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, a reworking of the Jekyll and Hyde story with Holmes investigating the murder of Sir Danvers Carew.

Fred Saberhagen made a cottage industry out of Dracula, having written about a dozen novels of the sanguinary count. His second Dracula novel, The Holmes-Dracula File, details the first encounter between Holmes and the Count, and is a sequel to Saberhagen’s first Dracula novel, The Dracula Tapes, which retells Bram Stoker’s story from Dracula’s perspective. Saberhagen altered the ending of Bram Stoker’s novel to justify Dracula’s survival and made Dracula a hero, and in The Holmes-Dracula File he has Holmes and Dracula scurrying about London in an effort to prevent an outbreak of Bubonic plague. Saberhagen isn’t the greatest writer–he never captured Watson’s voice–and his technique of having alternating chapters written by Watson and Dracula doesn’t quite work–the two parallel stories fall out of sync very early on so later events in the novel don’t match up from the two perspectives. Also, at the end of the novel Saberhagen makes a bizarre claim as to Holmes’ parentage, a claim that some Holmesians may well find offensive and made me want to gag.

Saberhagen later followed up The Holmes-Dracula File with Seance for a Vampire, another Holmes/Dracula novel. This book involves more vampires and Rasputin. I thought it was interesting, and not quite as jarring to my Holmesian sensibilities as was Holmes-Dracula File. In general I’m a fan of the series, but the two books that work the least well for me are the two Sherlock Holmes crossovers, because I think Saberhagen “broke the toys” in those two books.

When I first read Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera I thought this novel provided perfect fodder for a Holmesian crossover connection. Nick Meyer’s The Canary Trainer wasn’t it, however. But then I discovered Sam Siciliano’s The Angel of the Opera, and despite having a non-Watson narrator, I was riveted. This book was simply perfect for what I wanted, and one Holmesian pastiche that I do recommend whole-heartedly. Angel of the Opera is narrated by Holmes’ cousin, a Doctor Henry Vernet, and is about their adventure in the Parisian Opera House which is being terrorized by a mysterious Phantom. Despite the warnings of the introduction (that the portrayal of Holmes is going to be very different than what Doyle gave us), I found this to be a very enjoyable book, certainly much more so than Nicholas Meyer’s similar The Canary Trainer. Angel requires no previous knowledge of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, a claim Canary Trainer cannot make. The writing is very polished and made for a quick, effortless read. This book may be a little difficult to find except at libraries, but I think it’s worth the hunt.

Sherlock Holmes’ War of the Worlds by Manly Wade Wellman I despised. I mean, really, Holmes and Mrs. Hudson lovers? What sacrilege!

While I’d love to see a Holmes vs. Raffles novel, I’m not sure that such a story would do Raffles justice–it would be inevitable that the gentleman thief would lose out to Holmes’ superior intellect the moment the agrieved client came to Holmes for help. In the interim, John Kendrick Bang’s R. Holmes & Co. sort of fits the bill. It’s not an easy book to take seriously, but as Bangs was one of the leading humorists of his time, in the first decade of the twentieth century, I think that�s allowable.

The difference in each example is that the unsatisfactory novel, in my opinion, altered the source material of one or the other too much from the norm. In The Holmes-Dracula File we need to ignore the ending of Bram Stoker’s novel. In The Canary Trainer we have a Holmes that isn’t really wanting to be Holmes, to put away his life as a consulting detective and play violin just because he can. But in the novels I found successful, the pairing kept the essence of both creations, weaving Sherlock Holmes into the fabric of the Bram Stoker or Gaston Leroux original. Wellman’s book wasn’t successful because the Martian invasion isn’t Holmes’ natural environment–Holmes cares not whether the Earth goes round the sun, so what interest would Martians hold for him? And the Holmes/Raffles pairing wouldn’t allow the characters to be truly equals, and Raffles would be diminished as a result.

Dracula, Doctor Henry Jeckyl–these are characters that stand outside the very realms of reason to which Holmes alluded in “The Sussex Vampire.” Someone like A.J. Raffles would be much closer to the rational world that Holmes inhabits. The Phantom of the Opera falls somewhere in between. If there’s a point in my ramblings here, it’s this: Holmes is a fundamentally rational character dealing with problems and people that fall within a generally accepted human norm. Putting Holmes against characters that fall outside those norms, and Holmes becomes a character working outside of his environment. It all falls to the skill of a particular author in rendering a view of the irrational character–like Dracula–that can peacefully coexist with the rational Holmes.

2 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes against the Irrational

  1. Are you aware of the anthology "Shadows Over Baker Street," a collection of Lovecraft/Holmes pastiches?

    One of them, Neil Gaiman’s entertaining and creepy "A Study in Emerald," is available online through his website.

  2. I’ve read a fair few Holmesian books in my own time, but there’s one I’ve had for about 15 years now without reading: Cay Van Ash’s Ten Years Beyond Baker Street, which pits Holmes against Fu Manchu. I keep thinking I should read some Fu Manchu before getting into it, but never get around to getting any Fu Manchu. Have you read that one yet, Allyn?

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