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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Nicholas Meyer's Real Masterpiece

Best laid plans.
I had intended to re-read Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution over Christmas in anticipation of the Baker Street Journal Christmas Annual by Steven T. Doyle devoted to the book and movie that launched tidal wave of Sherlockian interest in the early 1970s. (It also set off a huge market in previously undiscovered Watson manuscripts.)
But I couldn’t make it past the "Introductory." That’s where Dr. Watson reveals that "two of the cases I penned concerning Holmes were total fabrications." This is exactly what curbed my enthusiasm for the book 41 years ago: I just couldn’t swallow the idea that "The Final Problem" and "The Adventure of the Empty House" didn’t happen.
You mean Professor Moriarty wasn’t the Napoleon of Crime but an innocent college professor? And yet Watson blackened his reputation to enhance Holmes’s?
No, thanks. That doesn’t work for me. I put the book down – and immediately picked up its sequel, The West End Horror. A few pages into it, I remembered why I have long thought of it as not only Meyer’s real masterpiece, but one of my favorite of all Sherlock Holmes pastiches.
Unlike The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The West End Horror doesn’t tamper significantly with the biographies of our two heroes as we have received them in the Canonical texts. Moreover, the novel has verisimilitude to the original in several subtler ways:
  • One of the victims leaves a dying clue – a popular plot device in Sherlock Holmes as well as in later Golden Age detective fiction.

  • Holmes fools Watson with a disguise. (Okay, I admit that’s an easy one.)

  • The agent of death, when run to ground, tells a long back-story set in a British colony (India in this case, as it was in many Canonical cases).

  • The real West End Horror of the title isn’t a person, which reminds me of all those Holmes stories were there isn’t a villain – or at least not a crime.

Another source of my enjoyment was all the real-life historical personages who had roles in the novel. Admittedly, that does tear the fabric of the Holmes universe a little bit because Watson always disguised the real people in his accounts. Still, it was fun to see George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Gilbert & Sullivan, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, and Bram Stoker as true-to-life actors in this little drama.
Whether you agree with me on this or are in the majority who loved The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, I’m sure you’ll love Scott Monty and Burt Wolder’s interview with Meyer on the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast. Check it out here. And, of course, the BSJ Christmas Annual was equally delightful.


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