Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula–Loren D. Estleman

sherlockdracula

“Who is Count Dracula,” he intoned, frowning.  “As well may you ask me who is Lucifer, for the two have much in common.  Perhaps I should begin by telling you who was Count Dracula, and by this means prepare you for the odds we face in dealing with who he is.”~Abraham Van Helsing.

Over the past few years, Titan Books has published a series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches by various authors placing Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart companion Watson in a series of unique situations.  Many involve the good detective interacting with other famous characters of literary and historical fame such as the fictional Dr. Jekyll or the real life serial killer, Jack the Ripper.  Loren D. Estlemen decided to pit Holmes and Watson against one of the literary greats of the 19th century, a character whose influence on the genre of horror may even eclipse Holmes’ influence on the modern mystery.  Who could provide Holmes an opponent of the same intellectual caliber as Moriarty, and yet add a taste of gothic horror to the milieu?

Dracula—Count Dracula.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula may seem an odd addition to the mythos, yet Watson admitted on several occasions that the Sherlock Holmes case files were far from complete–some redacted due to their less than interesting nature, but others—perhaps because they would be unbelievable or distressing to the general public?

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula (a. k. a. the Adventure of the Sanguinary Count) begins with Dr. John Watson’s admission that he wrote the tale to “set the reader straight” about the events described in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Watson is somewhat miffed by the exclusion of his and Sherlock’s involvement in the investigation of the wreck of the Demeter and subsequent events leading to the Count’s demise.  Why he stored it away instead of publishing is left to the reader’s imagination.

The novel begins with the arrival of a reporter on Holmes’ doorstep, entreating him to come down to Whitby and investigate the wreck of the Russian clipper Demeter, which sailed into harbor the night before and mysteriously ran aground.  Onboard, coast guard officials discovered the crew missing, save the corpse of the captain, tied to the wheel with a crucifix in his hand.  Upon further examination, the corpse was found to be exsanguinated, bearing two fang marks upon the neck and a look of absolute horror on his face.  Sherlock (and Watson) quickly make their way to Whitby and are allowed to board the wreck.  Once he makes his rounds of the deck and hold, Sherlock discovers clues that suggest to him that each member of the crew was killed in a similar manner and then thrown overboard by a being of extraordinary strength.

At this point the investigation is suddenly halted when officials discover the ship’s log and judge it “obvious” that the first mate was deranged and responsible for the murder of the entire crew.  On the basis of his initial observations–and his own examination of the log–Holmes finds this explanation ludicrous.  Clearly there has been a cover up, but without the chance to further inspect the ship or her cargo, he realizes the adventure of the foreign schooner will most likely be unsolvable.

Flash forward a few weeks and Watson receives an unexpected guest, carrying a copy of the Westminster Gazette and a synopsis of what the paper describes as, “The Hampstead Horror.”  Apparently children have been disappearing only to reappear on the heath, shaken and confused but otherwise unharmed, except for slight injuries to the throat and tales of “The Bloofer Lady, an apparition that lures them into the shadows and steals their memories.  Holmes immediately makes the connection between the adventure of the Whitby Horror (a more apt description of the events of the Demeter) and that of the Bloofer lady and has come to ask Watson for his help resolving both cases.

Once on the heath, it is only a matter of time before they find the Bloofer lady and thwart her from claiming another victim.  After tracking her to her lair–even then Holmes has his suspicions as to what she might be–they come across another group of adventurers. This group is not set upon solving the case, but rather embarking upon what Watson might describe as, “murder most foul!”

And thus it is that the dauntless Sherlock Holmes meets the indomitable Abraham Van Helsing and his band of vampire hunters at the moment they release Lucy Westerna from the pernicious clutches of one Count Dracula, a being as near the devil as can be without taking his crown.  Watson, a man of medical science, takes their explanation ( staking her heart and cutting her head off will break the curse!) with such a grain of salt he almost chokes, and even questions Holmes’ sanity when Sherlock explains that what Van Helsing is saying is the truth.  There is a vampire loose on British soil.

Holmes is in turn surprised when his offer to help hunt down the vampire is rebuffed by Van Helsing and company.  Due to Watson’s writings, apparently Holmes has a certain ‘notoriety’ that the hunters would rather not embrace for fear of panicking the general public.  At this point Holmes decides that if he cannot help Van Helsing, perhaps Mina Harker might feel differently…

…and next thing you know, they’re chasing down locomotives, exploring Dracula’s various crypts and generally thwarting the Count’s  efforts to assimilate into British society.  So much so that Dracula finally decides to flee the country, taking Mrs. Watson along as insurance that the intrepid duo will leave him to his business.  Dracula’s choice of hostage proves ill thought out, galvanizing the detective and his biographer to become a threat rather than a nuisance, culminating in a confrontation on the deck of another clipper some time later.

Having read Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File a few years ago, I was relieved to find Loren D. Estleman’s take on the odd match up of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula greatly more satisfying.  Lately I’ve been reading the original Sherlock Holmes stories (I know, I know, what was I waiting for?) and was pleasantly surprised to find that during the course of reading Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, the author managed to capture both the voice and character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature creation.  Estleman’s Watson is very much one Doyle would recognize, and Sherlock is very much true to form, something I would imagine hard to achieve when attempting to emulate the writing style of a master of his genre. After all, Saberhagen was a master in his own right, and his attempt met with much less success.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula is also very much Watson’s story, with Sherlock as his main character and Dracula as the man (demon?) behind the curtain, much discussed but rarely seen.  However, on those few occasions, Holmes and Watson only manage to escape with their lives because the Count underestimates their tenacity–and Holmes’ intellect–or is occupied by something else.  Along the way we get a look at Holmes and his process of deductive reasoning, and a fair bit of action, whether hopping a moving train or chasing down a vampire by bloodhound, by carriage, and even steam cutter.

The one complaint I have with this novel is the one that can’t be avoided.  Sherlock’s portion of the story of Count Dracula of necessity has to end before the threat that is Dracula can be resolved, keeping the chronology of Stoker’s novel intact.  Knowing that the villain will not be vanquished by the end of the novel is somewhat unsatisfying, but necessary to the continuity of Stoker’s tale.  However, it leads to a novel which “stops short,” leaving you wanting more.  Luckily, Estleman also wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, another adventure I plan to pursue in the near future.

Rating: A

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Casino Royale–Ian Fleming

‘First of all, and he inhaled a thick lungful of Caporal,’you will be pleased with your Number Two.   She is very beautiful’-Bond frowned-‘very beautiful indeed.’  Satisfied with Bond’s reaction, Malthis continued: ‘ She has black hair, blue eyes, and splendid…er…protuberances.  Back and front,’ he added.~Rene Malthis.

Ian Fleming may not have written the first spy novel, but the genre has been dominated by his presence ever since the publication of Casino Royale in 1953.  James Bond has outlived his creator by 49 years so far, continuing to fight the enemies of Britain in the works of several “official” 007 authors such as John Gardner, Raymond Bensen, Sebastian Faulks and most recently, Jeffrey DeaverWith the advent of last year’s blockbuster Bond flick, Skyfall, it occurred to me that it was time to get back to basics, and with that in mind, re-read Casino Royale.

Reviewing a 60 year old novel about one of the world’s most recognizable pop culture icons might seem a bit redundant, but perhaps it’s time to take a look and remind everyone what originally drew people to the charming yet lethal “Mr. Bond,” and point out that the caricature he’s become (until the advent of Daniel Craig’s films) is not the man who originally endeared Fleming’s readers.

Casino Royale takes place in Royale-les-Eaux, a fictional resort town in France, home to the aforementioned casino.  LeChiffre, an agent of the Soviet Union (in the 2006 movie, his affiliation is updated to the Quantum network to account for the end of the Cold War) responsible for infiltrating the French labour unions to create a fifth column, has gotten himself in a bit of a mess.  As Union paymaster, he’s embezzled funds to buy a series of brothels, but after French authorities crack down on the prostitution industry, his venture falls apart.  His only hope to escape the clutches of SMERSH (essentially a Soviet assassination squad) is to replace the money, and quickly.  In a desperate bid to do just that, LeChiffre uses the last of his embezzled funds to enroll in a high stakes game of Baccarat at the Casino Royale.  If he wins, he can replace the funds.  If he loses, his life is forfeit, and the Soviet Union will have to eliminate an extremely influential (but thoroughly crooked) agent.

This is where a “00” agent by the name of James Bond factors into the equation.  Funded by the British Secret Service and utilizing both his talents and those of a local French agent by the name of Malthis, Bond is to pose as a playboy with too much money and not enough common sense, play against LeChiffre, and bankrupt him.  Assassination would be simpler and more appropriate (after all, 007 is licensed to kill), but the Brits want LeChiffre’s organization embarrassed, and thereby the Soviets.  Bond is also allotted an MI6 contact in the form of Vesper Lynd, a beautiful yet cold agent to assist in his venture.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and Bond finds LeChiffre to be a more formidable opponent than he first believed.  Between a failed bombing, being bankrupted at the tables (and thus enlisting the help of American CIA agent Felix Leiter to fund a second attempt), and later the kidnapping of Vesper and his own torture at the hands of LeChiffre, Bond proves himself to be a steely and resourceful character.

But–let’s not ruin the story for you.

Several things impressed themselves upon me during the course of reading Casino Royale, the first being a notable lack of traditionally Bond gadgets.  Bond is a more realistic character (at least in this first novel) than in the movies.  His tool bag consists mainly of his wits and a slim and easily concealed pistol.  No laser watches or jetpacks.  However, LeChiffre has several knives hidden on his person, and his car has a compartment that drops caltrops on the road at the push of a button.  His henchmen also employ hidden weapons in the form of camera bombs and a pistol cane, so the gadget precedent is set.

Nor is Bond the shallow character portrayed in the films.  Beneath a shallow exterior, Bond is revealed to be an introspective character, as evidenced in a conversation with Malthis during his convalescence.  Discussing his torture at the hands of LeChiffre, Bond confides that he sometimes wonders about the difference between himself and those he hunts.  Putting himself in LeChiffre’s shoes, he wonders if those he sees as evil see him in much the same manner.  Not quite moral relativism (Bond is notoriously patriotic and believes he is in the right), but a deep contemplation of whether the evil of the world know they are evil, and how his actions could be perceived much the same by the opposing side.

The same holds true of his attitudes and behavior towards women.  In film, Bond is reduced to a caricature of what Fleming created in Casino Royale, merely a male slut, bound and determined to bed any and every female that crosses his path.  However, Fleming sketches a much deeper character, explaining what appears to be misogynistic behavior in a more nuanced manner than you can get on the big screen:

With most women his manner was a mixture of taciturnity and passion.  The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement.  He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affair.  The conventional parabola – sentiment, the couch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in the bed, then more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears and the final bitterness was to him shameful and hypocritical.  Even more he shunned the mise en scène for each of these acts in the play – the meeting at a party, the restaurant, the taxi, his flat, her flat, then the week-end by the sea, then the flats gain, then the furtive alibi’s and the final angry farewell on some doorstep in the rain.

Basically, Bond finds women a distraction in a game where distraction cannot be allowed.

Bond is an exercise in extremes, from his cool demeanor to the passion with which he greets life.  After all, it’s a business for hard men, the type that can compartmentalize their feelings and get on with the mission.  After Vesper’s suicide and his subsequent discovery that she was a double agent, how else could he say this of the woman he loved?

“This is 007 speaking.  It’s an emergency…3030 was a double agent…Yes, dammit, I said ‘was.’  The Bitch is dead now.”

Casino Royale is a splendid example of the genre and gives real insight to a character we’ve all been exposed to over the years—but never really known.