Wednesday, 28 October 2015

'The Beekeeper's Apprentice' by Laurie R. King (1994)

Synopsis: The Beekeeper's Apprentice is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche novel and is the first book in the Mary Russell series. The year is 1915. Mary Russell is a 15 year old Jewish-American, proto-feminist and genius and is also fascinated with Old Testament theology. Having been recently orphaned, Mary has moved to a house in the Sussex Downs and is living with her spiteful aunt and guardian. One day Mary then almost literally stumbles across the great detective Sherlock Holmes while out on a walk. Holmes is now studying bees and is semi-retired (as he will still take on the odd case every now and again). Impressed with Mary's intelligence, Holmes decides to take Mary on as his apprentice. He then allows her to assist him in a few odd cases over the years whenever Mary comes home from Oxford university. When the daughter of an American senator is then kidnapped in Wales, Holmes and Russell go investigating and find signs of a master criminal at work. Although they manage to rescue the child, attempts are then made on not only their lives but the lives of John Watson and Mycroft Holmes. It seems that the criminal is out to kill Holmes and everyone he loves...

I really, really wanted to adore this book. I want to enjoy every single book that I read of course but I especially wanted to love this one: partly because it's generally considered to be one of the better Sherlock Holmes pastiches out there but mostly because it was highly recommended to me by a couple of blogger friends and now they'll going to be disappointed when they read this and find out that I didn't much care for it.

Before I'll get onto why this book didn't work out for me I'll just make it clear that I certainly didn't hate it. It has a very intriguing premise and there were definitely some parts of the book that I found interesting and enjoyable (e.g. the Wales section). The prose itself is lovely and there's some genuinely funny banter between Holmes and Mary. But unfortunately I just couldn't get past King's treatment of John Watson. He's barely in this book and Mary condescendingly dismisses him as a kind-hearted but bumbling old fool, which Holmes doesn't even attempt to defend. But what was even more frustrating than either of these things was that at one point Holmes forgot - forgot! - to warn Watson that his life was in danger! I'll be in my grave before I'll believe that Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes could be capable of that!

In the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, Watson is portrayed as being a very efficient doctor and soldier and although not a genius is still intelligent in his own right. He even managed to solve a subplot in The Hound of the Baskervilles all by himself! And it's clear that Holmes loves and respects Watson very much and that Watson is important to him. Yes, there are times where Holmes clearly thinks Watson is being slow on the uptake but nevertheless he does often praise Watson for his intelligence and resourcefulness. I can't help but wonder if King based her book's Watson on Nigel Bruce's Watson from the Basil Rathbone films rather than the Watson of the canon. Either way it's certainly made me even more grateful for Jude Law and Martin Freeman's excellent portrayals of Watson.

To the people who recommended this book to me, I'm sorry, I did enjoy some aspects of this book but ultimately I just couldn't get past the characterisations of Watson and Holmes in this one and I doubt I'll be continuing with the rest of the series. Also, another reason for that is because I know that Mary and Holmes eventually become lovers and marry. The age gap between Holmes and Mary is 38 years! Which makes Holmes almost old enough to be Mary's grandfather! I've come across May-December romances in novels before and haven't minded them (Jane EyreRebecca, etc) but this is just too extreme for my liking.

Rating: 2/5

Friday, 16 October 2015

'The House of Silk' by Anthony Horowitz (2011)

Synopsis: The House of Silk is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche novel and was sanctioned by Arthur Conan Doyle's estate. The novel begins with a brief preface from Dr. John Watson, in which he explains that Sherlock Holmes is now dead and that The House of Silk is an account of an adventure that happened many years before when Holmes was still alive. However Watson has also left his family strict instructions for his manuscript to be stored in a bank vault for 100 years, as the story contains huge political and societal revelations that Watson doesn't believe the world is yet ready for. The book then flashes back to November 1890. London is in the grip of a merciless winter but Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are both enjoying some tea beside their cosy fire in Baker Street. The two of them are then suddenly interrupted by an agitated gentlemen turning up unannounced. The man is an art dealer called Edmund Carstairs and for the past several weeks he's been stalked by a scar-faced man with piercing eyes. Carstairs believes that this man is an Irish-American gangster who has followed him all the way from Boston. Intrigued, Holmes decides to investigate this and is assisted by Watson and the Baker Street Irregulars. It's then that Holmes is drawn into a second mystery surrounding the House of Silk...

Regular readers of this blog should already know that I've read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon (the four novels and fifty-six short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle) and have seen several different Holmesian adaptations. My favourite adaptation is the BBC's Sherlock which is closely followed by Disney's The Great Mouse Detective. This non-canonical work by Anthony Horowitz might not be perfect or on a par with those adaptations but it's still a brilliant effort.

I was a pretty big fan of Horowitz's Alex Rider series when I was in my early teens but I still felt a fair amount of scepticism as to whether this book of his would be able to do Arthur Conan Doyle's characters any real justice. But it did! Horowitz imitates John Watson's narrative voice astonishingly well and nails Holmes and Watson's characters! If someone were to give me two random samples of Arthur Conan Doyle and Horowitz's writing and then ask me to say which author wrote what I honestly think I'd find it hard to tell the difference. Another thing that I loved about this book were all of its references to the canon. Previous adventures are referred to and there's an American gangster element to the story. Conan Doyle seemed to be fascinated with the new world so this is very much in keeping with the canon. Horowitz even has some of the Americans talking in Conan Doyle-esque slang! :D Secondary characters from the canon make appearances in this book as well. Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars all show up in this story and even Mary Morstan makes a brief appearance. There are a couple of other familiar faces in this story as well but I won't reveal who they are because I don't want to spoil everything.

I haven't even talked about the plot of this book yet. Well, that was extremely impressive too. The story doesn't have too much action but is still very thrilling, suspenseful and well-paced. There are a lot of twists and turns in the story as well. Yes, there were some things that I saw coming but then there were also some things that I didn't manage to predict. The book also features two seemingly-unconnected cases and Horowitz does a brilliant job in bringing the two of them together and then in tying them up.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, but not to everyone. Although I wouldn't say that a knowledge of the canon is absolutely essential I really can't imagine a newcomer to the Sherlock Holmes stories being able to appreciate it as much as a die-hard fan. Then there's the House of Silk itself because in the end it turns out that its members were doing something very, very evil. To give Horowitz some credit he does handle the subject matter with sensitivity. He doesn't dwell on it or go into any great detail about it (if he had then that would have significantly lowered my opinion of the book). And Horowitz did kind of need to come up with a horrible thing for the members to be doing in order for Watson's decision to shelve the story for so long make any sense. But it's still something that leaves me unable to recommend the book to younger readers.

The House of Silk is a brilliant effort and I was hugely impressed with it. Horowitz captures Watson's voice, the characters and the atmosphere of Victorian London. The plot is thrilling and there are lovely references to the canon. There's even a very interesting essay from Horowitz at the end where he talks about how he came to write his book and the 10 rules he set himself in order to capture the original stories' authenticity. I'll definitely be reading Horowitz's follow-up book Moriarty at some point.

Oh and just before I wrap this up I thought I'd provide a link because I'm sure it will be of interest to my readers: Mark Gatiss is a big fan of this book and reviewed it very favourably in a magazine which you can read here.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, 2 October 2015

'The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes' by Arthur Conan Doyle (1927)

Synopsis: The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes is the ninth and final book in the Sherlock Holmes canon. The book was published in July 1927 and is a collection of twelve short stories that were sporadically published between October 1921 and April 1927. The twelve stories in this book are The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, The Adventure of the Three Gables, The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, The Problem of Thor Bridge, The Adventure of the Creeping Man, The Adventure of the Lion's Mane, The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger, The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place and The Adventure of the Retired Colourman.

I can finally say that I've read all of the four novels and fifty-six short stories of the Sherlock Holmes canon in less than 12 months! :) I'd already read most of the various Sherlock Holmes stories before but never in their published order. I'm quite proud of myself for finishing all of the stories especially since the canon was on both my bucket list and my Classics Club list.

Sadly though, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes just isn't a very good book. It's probably the weakest in the entire canon. Most of its stories are extremely far-fetched and uninspiring with the absolute nadir for me being The Creeping Man. This story starts off promisingly enough but then has a shockingly terrible ending that's like something out of a crappy sci-fi movie! There are also a couple of stories where Holmes and Watson's dialogue felt very off :S With this book I could just feel Arthur Conan Doyle's boredom and lack of interest in what he was writing and I had a hard time concentrating on the stories, which is something that I've never experienced with the earlier short stories.

The only things that partly redeemed The Casebook for me were some of the exchanges between Holmes and Watson and the few good stories that were in it. I enjoyed The Problem of Thor Bridge and, unlike some readers out there, I actually quite liked the two stories in this book that were narrated by Holmes himself because I found them refreshing. In The Lion's Mane we get to learn more about the place where Holmes has moved to on the Sussex Downs and The Blanched Soldier has a lovely, happy ending. I also love Holmes' complaint about Watson's selfishness in choosing to marry Mary Morstan in that story :D

Despite my disappointment with this last book, it was a delightful experience to revisit the Sherlock Holmes canon again. If anyone reading this post hasn't already read Arthur Conan Doyle's stories then I would strongly recommend that you do. The vast majority of the stories feature brilliant mysteries, are highly atmospheric, and have wonderfully memorable characters. They're also full of suspense and adventure and are often very funny. I know that there are some fantastic adaptations out there but Arthur Conan Doyle's stories have so much to offer! If I had to pick a favourite Sherlock Holmes story then I think it would be The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was the first Sherlock Holmes story that I read and is still by far my favourite out of the novels. It has a fantastic gothic atmosphere and, unlike the other Sherlock Holmes novels, doesn't feature any lengthy, tedious flashbacks. My favourite of the short stories - and this is harder because there are more of them and overall I like them better than the novels - would probably be The Copper Beeches. It has a fantastic gothic atmosphere as well and features the wonderful character Violet Hunter. I long for the day when the BBC's Sherlock finally adapts this story! Other short stories that I especially loved were The Red-Headed League, The Musgrave Ritual, The Reigate Squire, Charles Augustus Milverton, The Bruce Partington Plans and The Devil's Foot.

Even though I've finally finished reading Arthur Conan Doyle's stories I wouldn't exactly say that my time with Sherlock Holmes is over. I'll always have the option of re-reading the stories some day, I'm hoping to finally start watching the ITV Granada adaptation later in the year, there's an upcoming Christmas special of the BBC's Sherlock, and there are a few pastiche stories that I want to look into: The House of Silk and Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz, A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman, and The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King. In fact I've already reserved copies of The House of Silk and The Beekeeper's Apprentice from the library. And I also want to start reading more stories about other famous literary detectives now too: Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Father Brown and C. Auguste Dupin.

Rating: 2.5/5 for this book, 5/5 for the whole canon.