The Revenant of Thraxton Hall- Vaughn Entwistle

 

 

 

 

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall

“As I previously stated, madam, I am not with the police.  If you believe a murder has taken place–“

“No Mr. Doyle,” the woman hastened to explain. “That is my problem.  I need you to solve a murder…that has not yet taken place.”

Source: Review copy from publisher

Publisher:  Titan Books

Publication Date: March 28, 2014

1894—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has committed murder most foul, and feels not the least regret.  With the death of Sherlock Holmes, his body washed away in the waters below Reichenbach Falls, Doyle is finally free to write the fiction he wants, stories of substance to be remembered beyond his lifetime—stories with greater depth than the trivial “Penny Dreadfuls” the public clamors for.  Yet Holmes’ devoted fans will have none of that, and their erstwhile adoration has turned to indignation at the demise of Britain’s most famous consulting detective.  Doyle’s relief at being free of Holmes’ shadow turns to dismay when he finds himself the object of the public scorn.

At the very same time Doyle is finding London less than conducive to his health—both physical and mental—he receives a summons from an anonymous woman with an unusual affliction and a penchant for melodrama.  She wants to enlist his help in solving a murder—her own as it stands—a murder that will take place two weeks hence.  The mysterious woman claims to be a renowned medium, utilizing her clairvoyance to pull aside the veil of life and glimpse what lies beyond.  Unfortunately for her, what lies beyond is death by murder.  Yet to her mind there is some hope of avoiding that fate, a hope maintained because of the one face she sees clearly in her visions—the face of Arthur Conan Doyle.

At first Doyle is skeptical, but after witnessing a performance of Daniel Dunglas Hume’s astounding levitation and “feats of psychic wonder” with his good friend and confidante, the irreverent and debauched Oscar Wilde, he begins to wonder.  Shortly thereafter, his fate is sealed when he receives a summons to appear as a prospective member of the Society for Psychical Research at Thraxton Hall, the matriarch of which is one Hope Thraxton, a young medium with an unusual affliction…

Vaughn Entwistle’s The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is first in a series of novels known as The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chronicling the exploits of Doyle as he examines um…well…the paranormal.  It’s a mystery blending historical reality and paranormal fantasy as Conan Doyle explores the world of 19th century Spiritualism, a subculture populated either by paranormal charlatans or characters finely attuned to what lies beyond the mortal coil .

Before reading The Revenant of Thraxton Hall I was only vaguely aware of Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism and most unaware of the Society for Psychical Research, a group that astonished me by its mere existence.  Skepticism is apparently much more a part of my nature than I thought, and so it was that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief while reading this novel.  Accepting that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was somewhat of a sleuth in real life is really quite easy.  Accepting that he was a sucker for the pseudo-science of Spiritualism is not.  However, one should not argue with history, so let’s agree for the moment that Doyle was as fallible as the rest of us and go on from there.

What I found while reading The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is that while Entwistle has come up with an intriguing idea, his execution of the storyline was rather uneven.  While doing an excellent job of incorporating historical characters of the SFPR into this tale of paranormal intrigue, there were times where the background, the characters, or the situation, were rather stereotyped.

An example would be the setting.  Thraxton Hall is a formerly stately manor fallen to disrepair (if only to provide a suitably creepy setting for the novel) in which the characters find themselves conveniently trapped for the majority of the novel due to a raging storm and its isolated locale.  It’s the house on haunted hill without the hill, a setting particularly suited to ghost stories, mysteries, and almost every Scooby-Doo episode.  Honestly, I’m beginning to wonder if there are any English estates that don’t harbor a multitude of secret doors and passages to sepulchral crypts.  And yet it is par for the course with regards the supernatural, a manor reminiscent of Hell House or Shirley Jackson’s Hill House.

As to the characters, they represent a mélange of the eclectic and cliché, from Madam Zhozhovsky, renowned Russian émigré (possibly of Barnsley in Yorkshire) and noted palm-reader/medium/charlatan, to Lord Webb, a rather compelling mesmerist (and stuffed shirt) whose motives are not altogether forthright. Then there’s Mrs. Kragan, the crotchety head housekeeper with her own motives, and Greaves, a blind butler who knows the ins and outs of Thraxton Hall like the back of his hand—by  necessity. There’s Frank Podmore, skeptic (and historical figure) obsessed with unmasking the frauds he believes to infest the society, especially with regards Daniel Dunglas Hume, “the greatest psychic medium in the world!” another historical figure whose affinity for levitation borders on the absurd.  There’s Hope Thraxton, heir to Thraxton Hall, a talented medium and heiress who suffers an unusual affliction that necessitates her living in continual darkness and that may eventually lead to dementia—if it already hasn’t.  An amusing nod to the Sherlock canon resides in the character of “The Count”, a European aristocrat who sports a three-quarter mask reminiscent of certain Bohemian King for much the same purpose.

Lest we forget, this is a novel taken from the paranormal casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and yet it is in him that we find the least flamboyant character.  He’s dismissive of his fictional sleuth, yet envious of Sherlock’s analytical abilities.  He’s duty bound by the conventions of the 19th century, conflicted by his physical attraction to young Hope Thraxton and the guilt of such thoughts in the face of his wife Touie’s long illness.  He also plays the role of the straight man to his eccentric friend, the bohemian Oscar Wilde.

It’s with Oscar Wilde that I as a reader found a character both ridiculous, yet delightful.  Wilde is portrayed in the novel as (I hope) a caricature, outrageously flamboyant, charming yet prissy, bombastic yet squeamish. He’s also easily bored and very, very bohemian, in affectation if not reality. Wilde is a compelling sidekick, a marvelous friend to Conan Doyle, and frankly a lot of fun, but there are moments when his overbearing personality rises to extreme proportions.  Then again, I suspect such was true of the man upon which this caricature is based.   Finally, we have the eponymous Revenant of Thraxton Hall, an entity that may or may not be influencing the behavior of several characters and a specter to whom I’ll let the reader introduce themselves.

As for the situation, Conan Doyle’s investigation into Hope Thraxton’s murderous vision was dealt with in a generally appealing manner, yet there were times when it felt as though he was making leaps of logic rather than working from the observable facts.  There’s also an aside, a “locked room murder” mystery within the mystery that for the life of me HAS NO MOTIVE.  A character is killed for no discernible reason whatsoever (and believe me, I searched the text several times for a motive), leaving me as the reader distracted by a puzzle with no solution.  There’s a how, when and where, but no why?*  The plot tended to meander rather than evolve and there were times when Doyle seemed to stumble to conclusion rather than solve the mystery.  However, there is a scene near the end of the novel involving a telegram and a train that makes up for most of the meandering in one fell (redemptive and clever) swoop.

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall was a delightful idea, combining Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism with his natural talent for mysteries, yet this idea was unevenly executed.  I suspect that’s more the result of this being a debut or inexperience rather than any lack of ability and that with a sophomore novel, the writing will even out.  Even though The Revenant of Thraxton Hall wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, I would heartily recommend it to die-hard fans of Conan Doyle.

Vaughn Entwistle maintains a website (and blog) at www.vaughnentwistle.com and has a sequel, The Dead Assassin, to be published in June of 2015.  Based on the description, and being one of those die-hard fans, I suspect I’ll be checking it out.

 

 

*If you discover the motive behind the locked room murder, please leave a note in the comments.  It would be much appreciated.

 

Who Thinks Evil–Michael Kurland

 

 

 

 

WhoThinksEvil“We need, we must have something–someone–different. Someone acquainted within the unseen worlds of mendacity, deceit, treachery, and falsehood that lurk in the corners of the realm.  Someone who can travel about freely in the underworld of the illegal and illicit, and who is trusted by these men who trust no one.”

“You need,” suggested Moriarty, “a criminal to deal with other criminals.”

“Exactly!” said the Duke, thumping a thick forefinger on the arm of his chair.

“So you’ve sent for me,” said Moriarty.

Source: Review copy from publisher.

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: March 7, 2014

The year is 1890, two years since “Saucy Jack” preyed on the prostitutes of London’s East End, yet he’s still very much on the mind of many a streetwalker as they go about their illicit business.  From the dimly lit streets of Whitechapel to the bedrooms of posh “gentlemen’s clubs”, horror at the Ripper’s crimes and anger at the inability of the Metropolitan Police to bring him to heel are still fresh.  When a prostitute at one of London’s more fashionable bawdy houses is murdered in a manner reminiscent of the Ripper, the forces of Scotland Yard and agents of the Queen herself are gathered to both quell rumours of his reappearance and catch the perpetrator on the sly—before the cauldron that is public opinion boils over into violence.  Complicating their surreptitious investigation is the identity of their prime suspect, the last known patron of the victim—namely one Albert Victor—Crown Prince and heir to the throne of England.  Further complicating matters—his sudden disappearance and the inability of both his minders and the police to find him.  Victoria’s men have their work cut out for them—either prove the heir apparent’s innocence or bring him to justice without jeopardizing the royal succession.

Meanwhile, the one man (Sherlock Holmes aside) capable of unravelling the various threads of this royal plot is languishing in the deepest cells of Newgate Prison, himself the victim of an elaborate frame-job.  Who else but Professor James Moriarty, a.k.a. the “Napoleon of Crime’, would have the contacts and resources within the criminal underworld, not to mention the criminal insight, to stop this fiendish scheme?  With the enthusiastic help of American journalist Benjamin Barnett, Moriarty’s diminutive majordomo Mummer Tolliver and the rather reluctant help of the brothers Holmes, Moriarty must solve the murder, clear the name of the heir to the throne and thereby provide his own salvation.

Michael Kurland wrote the first of his Moriarty novels, The Infernal Device in 1978, going on to write three sequels, the last published in 2006.  Since then, the Napoleon of Crime has been on hiatus, at least until the publication of Who Thinks Evil earlier this year.  Previously only attainable in e-book format, the entire series is now becoming available as Titan Books reissues the series for those eager to add Moriarty’s tales to their collection of Holmesian novels.

As a fan of the Holmes mythos but not having read Kurland’s earlier novels, I found myself looking forward to seeing the world as Moriarty does, and as a result was far from disappointed with this unique spin on the Consulting Detective’s nemesis.  Instead of the one dimensional epitome of evil one thinks of upon hearing the name “Moriarty”, Kurland has created a well-rounded villain, both nuanced and with depth of character.  Professor James Moriarty is not evil for evil’s sake, but rather a practitioner of a certain “pragmatic” evil. Moriarty’s crimes are revealed as selfishly altruistic—necessary to fund his scientific endeavors and therefore essential to the betterment of mankind.  Perhaps selfishly altruistic is not the right phrase—narcissistically altruistic?  Either way, the practice of science can be expensive and Moriarty is more pragmatic than malicious in his affairs.

James Moriarty is an unusual character, having evolved over the years from a minor (yet consequential) character in the Holmes canon to a legend towering above lesser literary villains.  Kurland treats Moriarty as a misunderstood genius and flips the relationship between Moriarty and Holmes and their relative claims to brilliance on its head.  In Who Thinks Evil, Holmes is not so much Moriarty’s equal but a decidedly lesser intellect— almost “Lestrade- like.”

Whereas inspector Lestrade traditionally plays an inept counterpoint to Holmes obvious aptitude for affairs deductive, in this tale Holmes himself acts the comic foil.  Sherlock may indeed be the world’s foremost “Consulting Detective”, but Moriarty is the “Napoleon of Crime,” and by far the superior intellect. Kurland amuses the reader time and again as we watch Holmes’ bumbling efforts to “unmask” Moriarty’s villainy.  One scene in particular demonstrates Moriarty’s easy intellectual superiority and involves the delivery of tea and cookies for Holmes to enjoy whilst the consulting detective “surreptitiously” surveils Moriarty from a bush.  Sherlock’s scientific method of observation is so much more finely honed in Moriarty and this, combined with both an eidetic memory and startlingly high I. Q. makes Holmes a simpleton by comparison.  Yet Moriarty respects Holmes even though he can be (and is) a great nuisance to Moriarty’s affairs.  Given every chance to remove the meddlesome Holmes from the equation, Moriarty proves his malicious nature more myth than fact.

Just as Holmes needs a biographer in the form of Dr. John Watson, Kurland provides Moriarty his own chronicler in Benjamin Barnett, another man of letters and associate by way of gratitude for the help Moriarty afforded him years earlier.  He’s clearly Moriarty’s stand in for Watson and a capable sleuth in his own right.  Together with Mummer Tolliver, they act as Moriarty’s proxy in the hunt for the murderer of London’s prostitutes while he focuses his time on foiling the plot to undermine the monarchy.

Overall an excellent novel, there are a few quibbles to be had with Who Thinks Evil, the first of which is whether or not this is actually a mystery or more properly—a thriller.  To me, the hallmark of a good mystery is how the author handles the Reveal—that moment when everything comes together and we as readers know exactly whodunit.  Once you have the Reveal, there’s no longer a mystery, hence the earlier the Reveal, the less the novel is a mystery and the more a thriller.  Alex Grecian’s The Yard is a good example of this.  We as readers know within a couple of chapters who the killer is—mystery solved, as it were.  Granted, the protagonist(s) don’t solve the mystery until much later in the novel, but there’s no mystery left for the reader.  At that point the novel becomes a thriller, and if handled properly, it’s not too much of a letdown to know the identity of the culprit before the protagonist does.  I myself enjoy a good mystery, preferring to figure things out for myself or be surprised at the end of the novel rather than knowing too much too soon.  In other words, I like some mystery in my mystery.

Who Thinks Evil relinquishes the pretense of being a mystery about halfway through, once the antagonist(s) are introduced and we start seeing things from their viewpoint.  From then on, it’s a straight line to thriller and the suspense no longer lies in whodunit, but rather how Moriarty and company will resolve the situation.  Thankfully, Kurland adeptly makes the transition from mystery to thriller, leaving the reader satisfied without feeling ripped off by the early reveal.

The second quibble I had with Who Thinks Evil revolves around the climax of the novel.  In the moment when Moriarty’s plans have all come together and the trap is set, something happens that makes a shambles of his meticulous preparations.  An unforeseen turn of events demonstrates that all the planning in the world is subject to the vagaries of fate.  It’s more outrageous fortune than meticulous schemes that foil the conspirators, and not so much a matter of giant intellect as having a girl who’s handy with a hatpin.

However, these are mere quibbles that don’t ever rise to the level of complaint. All in all, Michael Kurland has demonstrated a unique perspective with regards to the accepted mythos of Sherlock Holmes and enlightened us as readers to the misunderstood brilliance that is Professor James Moriarty.

B+

 

The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes–George Mann

TheCasebookofNewburyandHobbes

Source: Review Copy

Publisher:  Titan Books

Publication Date:  September 24, 2013

I was first introduced to the World of Steampunk a few years ago when I happened upon a copy of Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman A wonderful read, it’s the story of a young man named Orphan living in a Steampunk Victorian England and trying to track down “the Bookman”, a terrorist responsible for the death of his paramour.  My interest stoked by this delightful tale, I then took a chance on the works of Stephen Hunt, who, with The Court of the Air deserves (as far as I’m concerned) the title of King of Steampunk.  However, if Hunt is the reigning King, then George Mann may very well be known as the Crown Prince.  From The Affinity Bridge to The Executioner’s Heart, Mann has created an alternate Victorian England populated by characters heroic and sinister—and sometimes both—and created an investigative duo whose exploits rival those of a 221B Baker Street’s consulting detective and his trusty biographer.

Over the course of four novels, Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes have combatted foes both technological and occult, serving as agents of the crown to protect and foster the interests of her majesty, Queen Victoria.  They’re not alone in their endeavors, at times enlisting the help of, at other times being seconded to, Sir Charles Bainbridge, chief inspector of Scotland Yard.  Yet we’ve never heard Newbury’s (or Hobbes for that matter) origin story, and The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is Mann’s way of fleshing out their back story during the periods not chronicled by the novels.  It also reveals a ghost of the past in the person of Templeton Black, Newbury’s former assistant, and introduces the future in Peter Rutherford, a member of the British Secret Service who will go on to create his own legacy.

The collection consists of 15 eclectic stories, so let’s run down the list:

  • The Dark Path –Wherein Newbury and his former assistant Templeton Black discover the virtues of smoking and an old witch discovers the perils of over-enthusiastic horticulture.
  • The Hambleton Affair –Wherein Newbury relates his account of the disappearance of an old school mate’s wife and his discovery of the extent a man may go to to preserve his marriage.
  • The Shattered Teacup –Wherein Newbury and Bainbridge investigate the suspicious death of Lord Carruthers and discover the fowl truth of the matter.
  • What Lies Beneath –Wherein Newbury takes a constitutional at the home of an English “gentleman” and discovers the gentleman is anything but.
  • The Lady Killer –Wherein Newbury meets his match in the form of the lovely Irene Adler Lady Arkwell and discovers that while women are the fairer sex, this particular lady is not willing to play fair.
  • The Case of the Night Crawler –Wherein Newbury and Hobbes enlist the help of a certain consulting detective’s biographer to hunt down a mechanical creature bent on revenge.
  • The Sacrificial Pawn –Wherein Sir Charles Bainbridge finds himself an unwitting participant in Newbury’s game of chance with a cult by the name of The Cabal of the Horned Beast.
  • Christmas Spirits –Wherein Newbury finds himself unintentionally re-enacting a popular Dickens’ tale on Christmas Eve while in an opium daze and discovering that not all spirits bring redemption.
  • Strangers from the Sea Wherein Newbury comes across a long-lost note from a colleague, and the prescient warning contained within while reminiscing about a not so merry trip to the beach.
  • The Only Gift Worth Giving –Wherein Sir Charles lends a hand to Newbury and reinvigorates his spirit with a challenge.
  • A Rum Affair –Wherein Newbury and Hobbes discover that punch can be spiked with much more than rum.
  • A Night, Remembered –Wherein Peter Rutherford makes introductions to both the reader and Maurice and discovers the most disturbing truth behind the sinking of the S.S. Titanic.
  • The Maharajah’s Star –Wherein Rutherford meets Professor Angelchrist and discovers that the Maharajah’s Star is more dream than reality.
  • The Albino’s Shadow Wherein Rutherford consults with Ms. Veronica Hobbes in his efforts to hunt down one of the most wanted men in the Empire, a peculiarly pale criminal mastermind by the name of “Mr. Zenith.”  Little does he know, Zenith is just as interested to meeting him.
  • Old Friends –Wherein Angelchrist relates the events leading to his association with Newbury and Hobbes and Rutherford brings a smile to an old man’s face.

According to the author’s notes, each of these stories can be found in other venues, but this is the first time they’ve been compiled into a comprehensive collection.   Overall, it’s an excellent addition to Mann’s Steampunk universe, filling in some of the details of Newbury’s past and looking forward to the future of his “Ghost” series of roaring twenties novels, set in a Steampunk inspired New York.  Stand out stories include his Sherlock homage, The Case of the Night Crawler and his tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, Strangers from the Sea.  My personal favourite is The Shattered Teacup, which brings to mind the best of both Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.  It’s a fun murder mystery with obvious Steampunk influence in the clockwork owl that proves essential to solving the case.  The only story that falls flat (for me, at least) is What Lies Beneath, but honestly, that owes more to my distaste for epistolary writing than anything Mann did with the story.

The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is a seamless blend of Victorian detective story sprinkled with Steampunk elements and a dash of the occult.  Mann seamlessly captures the flavour of Victorian mystery fiction usually identified with Arthur Conan Doyle while adding his own flourishes to it.  It’s a great addition to the universe of Newbury and Hobbes mysteries, fleshing out the series for those fans that want to see a bit more.  An added bonus is the inclusion of several new characters, from Templeton Black to Peter Rutherford, and of course, an arch nemesis for Newbury in the form of Lady Arkwell.  However, if you haven’t been a follower of Newbury and Hobbes from the start, this may not be the book for you.  Simple solution for those who are unfamiliar—get yourselves to a bookstore and catch up on the series before delving into this wonderful back story of Newbury and Hobbes, agents of the crown and occult detectives.

B

Christmas Fear and Christmas Cheer

So, it’s that time of year again, in which bloggers either do a post on their favourite novels/short stories of the past year or spend some time looking at seasonally topical reads.  The season being Christmas, I’ve been mulling over some suggestions for you this past week.  Unfortunately, mulling isn’t writing, and I’ve found myself feeling like Clark Kent must every time Lois Lane scoops him.

In my case, the character of Lois Lane is played by one Michaela Gray, a.k.a. “The Bookaneerover at GeekPlanetOnline .  Hop on over and check out her article before I give you my list of Christmas themed reads.  I’ll wait.

And…we’re back.  At the risk of being redundant, here’s my list of Christmas tales you should check out.

1.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas CarolThe obvious choice on any Christmas themed list, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his one night journey to redemption after a little rough handling by the spirits of Past, Present and Future.   Universally loved and a book that hasn’t really left the collective consciousness since its publication back in 1843. Now that’s a story with legs.

Beyond the cheery message that no one is beyond redemption, what I find kind of neat about Dickens’ work is that it’s totally a horror novel.  Think about it for a second.  Some poor (well, rich) old geezer tormented by a host of spirits in the dead of night in a drafty old English mansion.  That’s practically a Richard Matheson novel!. A Christmas Carol is truly a classic and deserves top billing on any Christmas themed list.

2.  I Am Scrooge (A Zombie Story for Christmas) by Adam Roberts

ZombieScroogeIt’s to my eternal shame (okay, maybe not eternal–how about transitory?) that Adam Roberts’ re-imagining of Dickens tale has sat on my shelf low this past year without being read.  It’s especially puzzling considering my continued interest in funny zombie novels.  The idea of the three ghosts teaming up with old Ebenezer to combat a hungry horde of shambling zombies and by happenstance save the world is definitely appealing to anyone with an interest in the walking dead.  I’m not sure it will have as happy an ending as the original, but I am sure there’ll be a meal somewhere along the way.  Although I doubt there’s a lot of meat on Tiny Tim, or Scrooge for that matter.

3.  Naughty:  Nine Tales of Christmas Crime by Steve Hockensmith

NaughtySteven Hockensmith is a wonderful mystery writer who’s turned his attention to Christmas themed mysteries on several (at least nine) occasions.  If you’re a fan of the genre and looking for something with a Christmas(y) feel to it, then Naughty is the book for you.  My favourite tale involves the kidnapping of a certain man in a red suit by members of the KGB and Mrs. Klaus efforts to effect his rescue.  Poisoned fruitcake, devious secret santas, and an introduction to Hannah Fox, a character I hope to meet some day in her own novel, all make this a novel that any mystery lover should invest in.  Do yourself a favour and pick it up as either an ebook or print version.  Steve is a master of both mystery and witty dialogue and I’ve had a long history of not being disappointed with his writing.

Speaking of short stories, Arthur Conan Doyle was known for writing a Christmas tale or two involving everyone’s favorite Victorian detective, Sherlock Holmes.  Honourable mention goes to The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle in which Sherlock shows considerable restraint with regards to a criminal whom he encounters at Christmas.  George Mann has also made an effort to write a series of Christmas themed stories with regards to his wonderful Newbury and Hobbes series of Steampunk detective novels, all of which can be obtained if you pick up a copy of The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes.  Try reading Christmas Spirits if you’d like a unique take on A Christmas Carol involving a detective on an opium bender during the holidays.

I’m sure there are many more Christmas themed tales that I’m omitting in the course of this holiday post.  If you’ve got a tale or novel to add to the mix, please feel free to enlighten me in the comments, and in the meantime, enjoy yourself a merry little Christmas.

 


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

Sherlock Holmes: The Army of Dr. Moreau–Guy Adams

“Science is a fluid thing, Doctor. Like mercury spilled on the laboratory table, it chases away with itself.  Often, it is quite beyond us to restrain or capture it.”~Sherlock Holmes

Within the first several pages, it becomes obvious that Guy Adams in going to have a little irreverent fun with the legend that is Sherlock Holmes. Whether it’s John Watson describing himself as “The Crime Doctor” (a wink to the 1988 movie, Without a Clue), his blending of H.G. Wells’ tale of Edward Pendrick’s visit to The Island of Doctor Moreau, or a nod to his own World House novels in the form of explorer and big game hunter Roger Carruthers, Adams has mashed together works by two literary greats of the 19th century and come out with a winner.

When citizens of London start turning up mauled by a variety of creatures that simply do not exist on her majesty’s island nation, Mycroft Holmes (he who is the government) turns to his brother Sherlock and offers him a chance  to serve Queen and country and solve a seemingly impossible crime. Mycroft knows the story of Edward Pendrick and Dr. Moreau (once in his employ) and fears that Moreau is either not as dead as was formerly believed, or that someone has resurrected his work as a vivisectionist, hoping to create a race of super beasts for their own nefarious purposes.  Sherlock finds himself intrigued, and before you know it, the game is afoot!

The Army of Dr. Moreau is a rollicking good ride, as Holmes and Watson take to the cities sewers, tracing the path of a local gang leader whose description sounds suspiciously canine.  They also meet with a group of Mycroft’s extraordinary gentlemen, from Professor George Edward Challenger (recently of Doyle’s The Lost World) to Professor Lindenbrook (of Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth) who have been tasked to assist in ways scientific and medical, and of course, Adams own creation, who will later become pivotal to the events of The World House and The World House: Restoration (two must read books if you decide you like Guy Adams). 

The novel does falter somewhat in the latter third, as Adams strays from the traditional Holmesian mystery to a straight up action novel, yet there is enough of Holmes’ and Watson essential nature to carry it to the finish.  What starts out as a charming change of viewpoint (Holmes takes the reins as narrator when Watson becomes unavailable) becomes somewhat frenetic late in the novel, as every chapter is told from a different point of view.  It does feel a bit rushed, and I wonder if his story could have benefitted from another fifty or so pages, perhaps expanding the role of Mycroft and his extraordinary gentlemen in the hunt for whomever has recreated Moreau’s madness in the slums of Victorian London.  However, it doesn’t distract significantly from what is a thoroughly fun, although pulpy, pastiche.

Home from the Range–An interview with Steve Hockensmith

A few weeks ago I learned that Steve Hockensmith, one of my favourite writers of both mysteries and zombie fiction (yes, odd combo, I know) had released his latest novel, Cadaver In Chief.  However, it hadn’t popped up on Amazon.ca yet, (one of the curses of being America’s neglected big sister), so he was kind enough to provide a copy for me to review.  During the course of our chat, I passive aggressively (yes, that is the Canadian way) suggested maybe–you know–if I was brave enough–I’d ask him for an interview.

Unlike that redhead at work I keep mentioning to co-workers in the hopes that she might notice, Steve took the hint and ran with it.  So, free book AND an interview!    No redhead of course, unless you count the Amlingmeyer brothers…

Okay, awkward introduction aside, I give you…an interview with Steve Hockensmith, writer of the Holmes on the Range series, numerous mystery anthologies and both the prequel and sequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

Every hero or villain has an origin story, whether it’s Peter Parker and his radioactive spider or James Moriarty and his superior mind. Or, perhaps the Amlingmeyer brothers and their unfortunate experience with a flash flood. What’s you’re origin story? How did you come to decide to be a writer?

I’d like to say I developed superhuman storytelling abilities after being bitten by a radioactive writer, but my origin’s not nearly so exciting. I’ve just always been into stories and escapism. As a kid, I loved DC Comics, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Avengers (the TV show), old movies, new movies, good movies, bad movies and books books books. I was geeky when geeky wasn’t cool, to misquote Barbara Mandrell. (Geeks love obscure pop culture references, y’know.) After college, I thought briefly about moving to L.A. to try to break into TV as a writer, but everything I’d heard about “the industry” made me think I’d hate it. Plus, I was chickenshit. So I decided to tell stories in the way that seemed right for me — in a quiet room, alone, following my instincts instead of notes from suits — and after a decade of that I managed to get a novel published. As origin stories go it’s no “Rocketed to Earth from the doomed planet Krypton…,” but what can I say? That’s how it happened.

Why mysteries?

Because I suck at science fiction. When I first got serious about writing, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write. My favorite novelist was (and is) Kurt Vonnegut, but I don’t think you can just say, “I love that guy. I’ll do what he did.” Ain’t gonna work. So I figured it’d be best to start small, with short stories, and slowly feel my way to whatever it is I wanted to say. I focused on science fiction because I’d read a lot of it as a kid and there were several paying markets — Asimov’s, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in particular. After three or four years of effort, I managed to sell one story to Analog and bupkis to the others. And I couldn’t even get mad at anybody for overlooking my genius because I clearly didn’t have any genius…for science fiction. The stories simply weren’t that good, and I knew it. Then, just as I was about to give up, I was bitten by a radioactive writer, and everything changed. Really! I finally got around to reading The Big Sleep, and that opened up a whole new world for me. My strengths as a writer, I think, are voice and humor and attention to the seemingly mundane details of everyday life. And that’s not what SF’s all about, so it simply wasn’t a good fit for me. Mysteries, on the other hand….

Which brings us to the Holmes on the Range series. How does one come up with the idea of a couple of cowpokes travelling around the west emulating the deducifying style of a certain Sherlock Holmes?

Ten years ago, I decided to write a Sherlock Holmes story for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. (They have an annual Holmes tribute issue.) But I didn’t want to do a pastiche. (A) My ego’s too big for that, and (B) I know in my heart of hearts that I probably couldn’t pull one off anyway. So I had to come up with a way to tell a Holmes story that wasn’t about Holmes. Well, how do you do that? My solution: tell a story about someone who reads about Holmes and how that changes his or her life. And when I thought about the original Holmes tales and when they first appeared, I realized that America was still a pretty wild place at the time. The frontier days and Indian wars were barely behind us, and there were still cow towns and outlaws and bounty hunters and hanging judges and all that. And cowboys, of course. Say…what would they make of a guy like Holmes? Once I asked myself that, it all fell into place quickly, and I wrote the first Holmes on the Range story. Thank god Ellery Queen bought it, or who knows where I would’ve ended up?

Speaking of the Amlingmeyer brothers, I love the dynamic between Gustav and Otto.  Every great detective seems to need a sidekick, whether it’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin or Sherlock and Watson.  Yet Otto doesn’t necessarily seem so much a sidekick as a mutual partner.  Is Otto as much a sleuth as his brother?

Thanks for noticing that! I think because Otto’s such a goofball, some readers don’t pick up on the fact that he’s really a pretty smart, resourceful guy. He’s definitely not a sidekick in the way that S.S. Van Dine is Philo Vance’s sidekick or Capt. Hastings is Hercule Poirot’s sidekick. Van Dine and Hastings are utterly passive observers. They exist solely to provide a window onto the story. Otto isn’t just the narrator, he’s one of the heroes. He helps push the plot forward. Watson rarely did that, actually. Otto’s closer to someone else you mention: Archie Goodwin. I don’t think I’d read any Rex Stout before I wrote the first Holmes on the Range story, but Archie and Otto are definitely two of a kind. Nero Wolfe and Old Red might be the geniuses, but they’d never put any puzzles together if their right-hand guys weren’t out there gathering up all the pieces.

World’s Greatest Sleuth! takes place during the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 and features several walk throughs of the event during the course of their murder investigation.  The same novel features a pair of relatively obscure fictional detectives (King Brady and Eugene Valmont) whose heyday of popularity was the early twentieth century.  How much research goes into a Hockensmith novel?

Probably too much. Not that I do research-based info dumps the way some writers do. I think I’m pretty good at smoothly integrating the background material into the narrative. But sometimes with research I don’t know when to stop. I’m a geek, remember. Research is fun! So fun I’m always tempted to blow an extra week or two on it when it’s probably time to start writing. For four of my five Holmes on the Range novels and both my Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novels I spent at least a month on research before I started outlining the plot. I always began with the nugget of an idea — usually just a location and a general situation — then I’d let history guide me where it would. The exception is The Crack in the Lens. I went out of my way to make that one research-light. And it worked. Mostly. I probably spent two weeks on research instead of four or five. That’s one thing I’ll miss if I decide to continue the Holmes on the Range series as an indie thing. When I was getting nice advances, I could afford to spend the time on research. If I’m doing the books for myself, no dough until they start selling, it’s going to be harder to justify so many days at the library.

Personally, I think the Holmes on the Range series would be well suited to television, much as say, the Murdoch Mysteries.  Have you ever talked with anyone about adapting them?

Yeah, there was talk, once upon a time. And I suppose there’s still a remote chance it’ll happen. It’s pretty unlikely, though, which is too bad. I agree with you: It could be a really fun TV show. Maybe if I’d started writing the series in 1964, that would’ve happened. But anything Western-ish is a tough sell these days. The genre’s seen as old-fashioned and it’s expensive and it’s rarely done well anymore. But hey — keep hope alive. Longmire seems to be doing well, Hell on Wheels got picked up for a second season, and Sherlock Holmes and mystery shows have never been more popular. So lightning could strike. Pray for rain.

One thing I’ve noticed over the course of your career is that the hallmark of any Hockensmith novel isn’t so much the storyline (although they are great), but rather the witty dialogue, whether it’s banter between the brothers Amlingmeyer or that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy as they fend off the affections of various undead dandies.  Does the banter come naturally?

Why thank you, sir! I do think dialogue is a strength of mine, and it’s one of the things I enjoy writing the most. Nothing stops me dead faster than trying to capture the look of someone’s house or clothes or face. Descriptive writing is torture for me. Maybe that’s because of all the hours and hours I spent as a kid watching old movies on TV. When I’m writing a book, it’s as though one of those films is playing in my head and I’m just trying to transcribe it. So the dialogue and action is relatively easy. Finding words to describe the heroine’s hairdo — that’s hard. It might also go back to the moment when I really embraced the mystery genre, though I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at the time. A few years before I read The Big Sleep, when I was still in college, I was lucky enough to stumble across the Thin Man movies in the local library. Man, I watched those things over and over and over. I still pull them out every year or so and watch them again. Not all of them are great movies, yet I always get immense satisfaction from watching Nick and Nora do what they do. Ooo! I just remembered! I had the same reaction to the Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirot movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, too. So if you break down the DNA of the Holmes on the Range books, it’s less Western and Arthur Conan Doyle than you might assume at first glance. Those are in there, but the books wouldn’t be what they are without Shadow of the Thin Man and Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun, too. And to return (finally) to your original question: Those are all films with wonderful, witty dialogue. Coincidence? I think not!

Speaking of Dawn of the Dreadfuls and its counterpart, Dreadfully Ever After, how is it that you went from cowboy mysteries of the old West to Elizabethan debutants fighting undead hordes with crazy ninja skills? Did Quirk Books approach you regarding a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?  How did that relationship come about?

Long story short (or as short as I can make it): Word got out that Quirk Books needed someone to write another PPZ book and my editor at Minotaur gave my agent a heads up (god bless him) and she threw my hat in the ring and I managed to get the gig. I think what won over Jason Rekulak, my editor at Quirk, was that I’d written funny historicals that mashed unlikely genres together. He also seemed to appreciate that I made no attempt whatsoever to copy Jane Austen’s style. Who could pull that off? If you tried to fake the feel of a mashup book I think you’d end up with something like Shock Treatment — the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show no one watches or remembers anymore. You can’t set out to be a wacky cult favorite. You just have to tell your story in whatever style you think works best. So that’s what I did.

Since the release of Dreadfully Ever After and World’s Greatest Sleuth!, you seem to have gone the route of self-publishing and ebooks.  Is it an easier medium to work in?

Yes and no. The lull in books from traditional publishers wasn’t entirely of my choosing. To be honest, it’s been a crappy couple years. I’ve had several projects blow up on the launch pad. It’s been a combination of bad luck and lack of direction on my part. I’ve done waaaaaaaaay too much ping-ponging around trying to figure out what to do with myself. The ebooks have been gratifying in that they’re finished and they’re available and I think they’re great. Man alive, I love the print editions of Cadaver in Chief and Naughty! The designer I used, Rick Forgus, is a genius. Those books look beautiful. I’m very, very proud of them. On the other hand, marketing an indie book remains a chore and, frankly, a mystery to me. I was saying to my wife the other day, “I know how to write books. I just don’t know how to sell them.” Unfortunately, if you don’t have that second skill, there are going to be times when the first one doesn’t seem to mean much.

Anything you miss about working with a publisher?

Oh, sure. Free booze at conventions. Getting big boxes of beautifully printed books delivered to my door. Help with marketing and promotion. Insightful editorial input. (I’m lucky: I’ve worked with three editors and I liked and respected them all. That’s a track record some writers I know would envy.) I think it’s the free booze I’ll miss the most…and I’m only partially kidding about that. It’s extremely validating when a publisher buys you a gin and tonic. You feel like you’re in, you made it, you’re real. Of course, you’re a real writer without the free G&Ts, but that can be hard to remember sometimes.

I’ve had a book outline sitting in a drawer for what seems like forever due to both laziness and insecurity. Any advice for amateur authors hoping to break into the field?

I’ve got a standard line that always sounds flip, but believe me — it isn’t. Here it is: Keep writing bad stuff until you’re writing good stuff. That’s pretty brief as secrets to success go, but I can make it even briefer: Keep writing. Or in your case, start writing, then don’t stop. The number-one thing every writer needs in order to succeed is perseverance. After that, you need talent and skill (two different things) and luck. But without the perseverance, everything else is meaningless. The other advice I give is to start small, like I did, with short stories. That was how I turned raw talent into honed skills. It was how I established myself as a professional, too. The agent who ended up selling Holmes on the Range to Minotaur found me via a story in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She approached me! Imagine that! You never know what will lead to what. But it always starts at the same place. A keyboard. Write!

Fans of your blog always seem to be mentioning their affection for Hannah Fox, featured in several of your shorter works.  Any chance we’ll see more of this Nancy Drew with attitude?

Hannah actually pops up in my contribution to an upcoming anthology, so fans will get a chance to see what’s become of her. I have a whole book about her in a drawer — she was the star of the still-unpublished novel I wrote before Holmes on the Range. I keep thinking I’ll pull that book out again and rewrite it, since I still like the idea and I’ve gained (I hope) a lot more skill and smarts over the years. Hannah’s definitely alive in my mind. Whether she breaks out into the real world again (or at least the world of stories and books) remains to be seen.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read your latest work, Cadaver in Chief. Tell us how that came about.

I was waiting to hear back from an editor about a potential project and I thought to myself, “God, I hate sitting on my ass. I bet I could write and publish an ebook before I get an answer on this other thing.” So I set out to do it. And because I wanted to do it so fast, so now, I thought that should be reflected in the book. I wanted it to be a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of thing. Super-zeitgeisty. Which is why it ended up being about political manipulation and cultural disruption and the collapse of traditional media. Oh, and zombies! Can’t get more zeitgeisty than that, right? It was a ton of fun to write — it’s as much a mystery and a satire as it is horror — and I think it turned out really well. Plus, I won the race! I did finish before I got an answer, which is another reason to love indie publishing. You can react to trends really, really quickly. Of course, even if you do you’ve still got to figure out the goddamn marketing. Sigh.

I certainly couldn’t end the interview without asking about Gustav and Otto and the chance of further adventures.  When we last left them, they were looking at a bright future and I for one would like a glimpse into that.  After all, nobody fell off a cliff or anything….

I deliberately left the boys in a happy place at the end of World’s Greatest Sleuth! because I wasn’t sure we’d ever see them again. Things were obviously winding down with Minotaur — the series never took off the way they’d hoped — and I was feeling burned out and disappointed. Those books were really, really hard to write, all of them, yet at the end of the day what did I have to show for all that work? (Other than five books I was proud of and some nice cash I was grateful for, of course.) That’s still a question I wrestle with. As much as I’d like to see Big Red and Old Red ride again, I’m not going to write a book about them just for me and 100 other people. That would be too painful, and dammit — I simply can’t afford it. The thing that gives me hope is that the Holmes on the Range short story collection I put out, Dear Mr. Holmes, keeps selling and selling at a very satisfying clip. So we’ll see. At the moment, I’m leaning toward giving it a try. The movie’s already running in my head. I know what happens to the guys next. Maybe I’ll start transcribing soon.

Fingers crossed that the Amlingmeyer brothers ride again!  If you’re not familiar with Steve Hockensmith’s works, I’d suggest you start with Holmes on the Range. It’s a delightful mystery and a great introduction to what you can expect from a Hockensmith novel.  Of course, Cadaver in Chief is on sale now, so if you’re sick of the presidential race yet want some political intrigue (and maybe see a politician or two get their faces eaten off), maybe you should start there.

Steve maintains a blog at the aptly named Steve Hockensmith’s blog, a.k.a. Stevehockensmith.com where he ruminates on all things mystery and, well, whatever meets his fancy.  Check it out!