This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply." -- Sherlock Holmes, 'The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire."
Recently I watched the 1927 film of Arthur Conan Doyle discussing Sherlock Holmes and spiritualism. I was struck by the fact that he regarded those as two completely separate topics and never the twain did meet on his watch. The Canon offers numerous stories in which the supernatural is evoked, but only to be trumped by a natural explanation.
The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams, is a theme anthology with an promising premise: Combine in one volume pastiches in which, like the original, there is a natural explanation and others in which ghosts (or some other supernatural elements) do apply. I liked the idea of not knowing in advance which stories truly venture into the supernatural realms and which don't.
Unfortunately, for my tastes, the collection isn't as strong as it could be. Some of the cases just aren't that improbable to begin with. And some of the others aren't very good pastiches, venturing almost into parody.
There are some real gems among the 29 stories, however.
- Stephen King's "Doctor Watson's Case" is already a minor classic.
- "A Study in Emerald," Neil Gaiman's unique take on the first meeting of Holmes and Watson, gives us an unforgettable Queen Victoria who isn't human.
- "The Human Mystery," by Tanith Lee, with long haunt me, and not because it's a ghost story of sorts.
- "The Other Detective" drops Dr. Watson into an alternate history in which Moriarty is the sleuth and Sherlock Holmes the villain.
- In "A Scandal in Montreal," Edward D. Hoch imagines another meeting between Holmes and Irene Adler that I prefer to many others.