(NOTE: The following is a longer version of one of my recent newspaper columns.)
Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to become reacquainted with an old friend. A fellow I first met when I was a young boy and who became one of my most faithful companions as I was growing up. A gentleman who taught me about the importance of being observant, and of not allowing emotions to overpower logic - a skill I readily admit I have yet to master, though I continue to strive in that direction. A champion for justice who could always be counted on to provide adventure and a much-needed diversion from the tedium of day-to-day life.
I refer, of course, to the man they still call The Great Detective: Mister Sherlock Holmes.
Like many of my generation, I suppose, I first met Holmes on television. The classic movies with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his companion, Dr. Watson, were a weekly weekend mainstay on WGN-TV in Chicago in those days and I rarely missed them. Because my parents had taught me to read at an earlier age than most of my classmates it didn't take long for me to gravitate to the original Holmes novels and short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Dad had the entire Canon in a two-volume hardcover collection, and I spent many a night as a youngster falling asleep reading those stories in bed.
In terms of the original works by Doyle, it probably goes without saying that my favorite of the Holmes novels is The Hound Of The Baskervilles. It is arguably the single most famous and best loved of the tales among Holmes’ many fans, and so it was with me.
Of the many short stories Doyle wrote about Holmes, I would have to say that my favorite is "The Adventure Of The Priory School." Some fans might find this odd, because on the face of it this was not exactly one of Holmes' more remarkable or memorable cases. The reason I hold it in such high regard is because, years later, science fiction author - and devout Sherlockian - Philip José Farmer used "The Priory School" as the foundation upon which he developed his remarkable Wold Newton Mythos, which connects Holmes with a wide array of other fictional characters ranging from Tarzan, Doc Savage and The Shadow to literary classics such as Pride And Prejudice and Raintree County.
By the time I became aware of Farmer’s contributions to the Holmes legend I had already immersed myself in more than a few of the many Holmes pastiches - those tales about the Great Detective that writers others than Doyle have been spinning out for nearly a century. And in time I found that I was enjoying some of these stories even more than some of Doyle’s originals - something considered sacrilege by some Sherlockians I have known, I suppose, but it’s true all the same.
A few years back, while attending the annual PulpFest event in Ohio, I was taking part in an informal discussion with fellow fans about the Holmes stories, and the fellow who had started the conversation asked the rest of us to list our five favorite Holmes pastiches. For some of the participants this proved a difficult task, some because they had read so many of them and others because they had read few or none at all.
But for me it was a relatively simple task, because of the many Holmes pastiches I have read over the years there are five that truly do stand head and shoulders above the rest for me as an individual reader:
• Sherlock Holmes' War Of The Worlds, by Manly Wade Wellman and Wade Wellman - This one gets top billing simply because it was the very first non-Doyle Holmes tale I read as a boy, one my parents bought for me when I was about 11 or 12 years old. They knew it would appeal to me: the story places Holmes, Watson and another Doyle creation - Professor Challenger, of The Lost World - in the midst of the action of H.G. Wells’ classic Martian invasion novel. For me at the time this was the literary equivalent of the two-part episode of Batman in which The Green Hornet appeared.
• The Adventure Of The Peerless Peer, by Philip José Farmer - This slim volume is one of the most enjoyable entries in Farmer’s aforementioned Wold Newton Mythos. Holmes and Watson are sent to Africa during World War I on a special assignment for the British government - and find themselves working alongside none other than Tarzan of the Apes, who is searching for his wife Jane after she has been kidnapped by German soldiers. (The tale takes place in between two of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original novels about the jungle hero, Tarzan The Untamed and Tarzan The Terrible, a two-part storyline which centers around Tarzan’s search for Jane.)
• The West End Horror, by Nicholas Meyer - Many Holmes fans prefer Meyer’s first and better-known Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in which Holmes works with Sigmund Freud. But I’ve long considered The West End Horror to be the better tale, in no small part because of a scene in the book in which Holmes and Watson encounter author Bram Stoker and has occasion to read part of an early draft of Stoker’s famed horror novel Dracula. Watson’s response to Stoker’s work is classic.
• Sherlock Holmes In New York, by D.R. Benson - This book is actually a novelization of a TV movie that aired on NBC-TV in the mid 1970s, in which Holmes (portrayed by Roger Moore of 007 fame) and Watson (Patrick Macnee, John Steed of TV's The Avengers) travels to America to battle his old foe Professor Moriarity, played with great relish by John Huston). I remember watching the movie when it originally aired and finding it to be a great deal of fun; it took nearly 30 years of searching in used bookstores in several states before I finally got my hands on the book version, but it was well worth the search.
• The Case Of The Murdered President, by Edmund Aubrey - Of all the Holmes pastiches I have read over the years, this is both one of the most fascinating and one of the most unusual. Pre-dating by several decades the conceit of the recent popular TV series Sherlock and Elementary (both of which I have enjoyed greatly), Aubrey places Holmes and Watson in contemporary times and has them travel to America in what ultimately proves to be an ill-fated attempt to solve the Crime of the Century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (The book was also published under the alternate title Sherlock Holmes In Dallas.)
A sixth book I would have included on my list if I'd had the opportunity to have read it at the time (I didn't pick it up until a short time after that year's PulpFest) would have been Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook, an anthology of short stories published by Moonstone Books in which Holmes is teamed with a variety of other popular literary characters, such as Arsene Lupin, Sexton Blake, Dr. Thorndyke and (again) Professor Challenger; as well as historical figures such as Lawrence of Arabia, Harry Houdini and Calamity Jane. Obviously the crossover aspect of the collection appealed to me from the get-go, given my love for the Wellman and Farmer titles listed above; another draw for me was the fact that three of the contributing writers - Win Scott Eckert, Ron Fortier and Matthew Baugh - are friends of mine; and a fourth, Joe Gentile, published two anthologies that I (along with Win, Ron and Matthew) have contributed to in recent years: The Green Hornet: Still At Large, and The Avenger: Dark Heart Of The Crucible. The book has gotten some VERY positive reviews on Amazon and is well worth seeking out.
Other Holmes pastiches I’ve enjoyed and re-read several times include Young Sherlock Holmes, Alan Arnold’s novelization of the popular film from the 1980s; Ten Years Beyond Baker Street by Cay Van Ash, in which the Great Detective matches wits with the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu; and two novels that have come out in just the past couple of years: Guy Adams’ The Army Of Dr. Moreau, another Holmes-related spin-off from an H.G. Wells novel; and Cry For Thunder by the aforementioned Joe Gentile, in which a Victorian-era mystery originally investigated by Holmes is revisited a century later by investigative reporter Carl Kolchak of The Night Stalker fame.
Although a much different type of book than any of those discussed above, another title I would heartily recommended to fellow Holmes fans is James O’Brien’s The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking The Case With Science And Forensics, published in 2013 by Oxford Press. Anyone who has ever been a fan of the various CSI television series or have had an interest in the use of forensics to combat crime will be intrigued by this examination of how much modern real-world police scientists owe to Doyle’s original tales of the Great Detective.
O’Brien explains Holmes’ pioneering use of so many of the techniques that are taken for granted today. Holmes, for example, was making use of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis long before those practices were actually being used by Scotland Yard and other law enforcement agencies. The author even includes details how techniques first appearing in the Holmes stories were later put to use in such real-life investigations as the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping and the hunt for the infamous Zodiac Killer.
Whether you’re a fan of Holmes or today’s popular TV police dramas, or simply interested in science or real-life police techniques, this is a book you will not only enjoy but also learn a great deal from. I’d even go so far to suggest that it should probably be required reading for those training for careers in the law enforcement community.
(Copyright 2016 by John Allen Small)
Posted by John Allen Small. Posted In : Pop Culture