Books Monthly November 2014 The Jerry Dowlen Column

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Jerry Dowlen on... Sherlock Holmes - The Seven Per Cent Solution


 

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives

 

Nicholas Meyer set a very high standard with his new Sherlock Holmes full-length mystery story, published forty years ago …

 

Forty years ago exactly, in 1974, the American author Nicholas Meyer sent forth his exciting new Sherlock Holmes full-length story 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution'.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton this was one of the first and in my opinion still one of the best of the huge number of new Sherlock Holmes books that have rolled off the press during the last four decades.

In the same way that moths are drawn to electric light after dark, scores of authors have become drawn to the legendary Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective in British crime fiction history. Famous names such as Michael Horowitz, Stephen King and Michael Moorcock are found on the fast-growing list of modern-day authors who have penned inventively-spoofed Holmes stories of all shapes and sizes. And of course, the prize-winning television series ‘Sherlock’, starring Benedict Cumberbatch has become a smash-hit phenomenon. It is no exaggeration to say that during the Christmas season of 2013 ‘Sherlock’ on the BBC raised the Holmes legend to levels of mass popularity that hadn’t been seen since the original stories serialised in The Strand magazine sold like hot cakes to a Victorian public in the 1890s.

 

‘The Seven Per Cent Solution’ - 1974


In 1974 it was still considered to be of questionable etiquette to write a new Sherlock Holmes story and thereby "steal" the legendary Victorian detective from his original creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In homage to this sense of controversy, Meyer and indeed several other authors from that 1970s and 1980s trail-blazing era prefaced their new Sherlock Holmes stories with elaborately-concocted explanations for the sudden and unexpected discovery of an old but undoubtedly authentic Doctor Watson manuscript that had somehow become locked away or forgotten and lost.

Indeed in his short postscript to 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution' and in his copious footnotes that punctuated his narrative of the story, Nicholas Meyer revealed that pre-1974 there already existed: "A tremendous bibliography of Holmesian criticism: a wealth of literature that fills hundreds of volumes."

Much of this emanated, it seems, from American enthusiasts. I can well remember myself that in the sadly now departed 'Crime Time' bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London there was for many years a big stand-alone section whose shelves were crammed with Holmes-themed books, magazines, pamphlets and papers. Many of these were indeed USA publications.

Mr Meyer put the characters of Holmes’s fictional arch-enemy Professor Moriarty and the real-life psychiatrist Dr Sigmund Freud into his fast-paced, gripping tale 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution'. The title refers to cocaine. The book is effectively two stories in one. It starts with an imaginative new twist on Holmes's consuming battle with the sinister Moriarty. Afterwards, the action leads to Vienna and the consulting rooms of Freud, whereupon the two masterminds Freud and Holmes become engaged in a game of high-stakes political intrigue that involves the Kaiser himself, and powerful members of the European aristocracy.

 

“My dear Holmes!”

When he included in his early short story 'The Blue Carbuncle' (1891) the astonishing narrative in which Holmes deduces several facts about an unknown man simply by examining his hat, what a gauntlet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle threw down to subsequent authors!

 

Watson was left open-mouthed in astonishment, exclaiming “My dear Holmes!” when the master detective explained that the hat revealed that its owner is an intellectual who has fallen on hard times, has gas laid on at his house, lives a sedentary life, has allowed his morals to become lax, and whose wife has ceased to love him.


A quality-test of a good Sherlock Holmes new story is surely the assessment of how well the author has risen to the challenge - the obligation, indeed - to replicate Conan Doyle's delightful piece of fun.
Nicholas Meyer passes with flying colours. He was bold enough, indeed, to essay two attempts at the feat, for in 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution' there is an early interlude where Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock’s elder brother) deduces the precise exact detail of Watson’s movements around London earlier in the day; then later in the story an astounded Freud listens while Sherlock Holmes recites a list of numerous detailed things that he has deduced about him after briefly setting foot inside his study.

But I cannot say that subsequent authors have all performed the trick satisfactorily. It is a high hurdle to try and jump: indeed, to write an attention-holding and convincing new Holmes story at all, contains several traps that some authors have negotiated much more successfully than others, in my estimation.

Conan Doyle imitators: long stories; short stories; films

 

Bearing in mind that Conan Doyle in large part presented Holmes in fast-action short stories that were always smoothly and satisfyingly readable, how readily can we accept a full-length Holmes novel? Is there a danger of the pace being too leaden, with too much padding? - even Nicholas Meyer injected factual diversions about early travel on the London underground railway, and the architecture and society-life of Vienna in the year 1891.

 

I fear that a good many of the recently published new Holmes books have fallen short of the excellent, crisp quality that deservedly earned Nicholas Meyer the Crime Writers' Golden Dagger Award, forty years ago.

I will make an honourable exception of the Canadian writer LB Greenwood. Her first two Sherlock Holmes mysteries 'Sabina Hall' and 'The Thistle of Scotland' were published by Simon & Schuster in 1988 and 1989 and were hailed as "Unpedantic ... A sure feel ... Writing new Sherlock Holmes stories seems almost a cottage industry now, but few Conan Doyle imitators are as good as Greenwood."

Harking back to the 1970s and the sudden new dawn of hitherto unpublished Holmes stories I really should give the last word - or do I mean the first word - to a film company. What an enjoyable and surprising novelty it was in 1970 when United Artists released the Billy Wilder film 'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes' starring Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakely as Watson.

With its bizarre plot of German spies trying to copy the plans of a newly-invented British submarine, and its daring inclusion of some female nudity, 'The Private Life' took the Sherlock Holmes brand into new and iconoclastic waters: literally! - the plot led Holmes and Watson to the shores of Loch Ness. If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been alive to see what had been done to Holmes in this cinematic curiosity, he would surely have declared it to be monstrous!

Jerry Dowlen

September 2014

 

(Sherlock Holmes is the theme of a special new exhibition opening this month at the Museum of London. The dates are 17 October till 12 April 2015.)

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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