Saturday, August 8, 2015

Sherlock Holmes Meets Henry James – Two New Stories by Daniel D. Victor and Dan Simmons

I’ll be the first to admit that, while I had heard of author Henry James, I knew very little about him. The first time I went through college, at the normal college age to get a Business Management degree, I took all the general courses that give one a broad base as an enlightened human – literature, the arts, etc. (I was glad to have all under my belt when I went back for a second time to get an engineering degree.)

But, during that first pass through college, Mr. Henry James was not really covered or even mentioned, as my teachers favored Greek tragedies and then a big jump to Germanic Romanticism. (I still have The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann von Goethe stuck in my head – talk about something I’d like to push out of my brain attic. I even hear the way the teacher pronounced it – Vair-ta – as opposed to the way I wanted to say it at the time, the same way one pronounces the name of that wonderful candy – Wer-ther. I can’t look at those now without at least saying once in my head Vair-ta’s Original Caramels.)

But I digress, which ought to be the real name of this blog.

My wife, who has a couple of Master’s Degrees, one in English literature – and I know Henry James was an American – doesn’t have a high opinion of him. Still, I had heard of him, but barely, and that’s all I needed or wanted to know.

Now, however, I’ve recently read two different stories where James interacts with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and I can say that I still don’t need to know anymore, but at least I do know a little bit more, and I’ll tuck that part away in my brain attic for possible future use in a conversation somewhere down the road.

The first story where I encountered Henry James was in “The Adventure of the Aspen Papers” by Daniel D. Victor. This will be published this autumn in Part I of the massive new anthology, The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories.

When I conceived the idea of putting together this anthology, I combed the shelves of my Holmes collection in order to identify authors that I wished to participate. I had really enjoyed Mr. Victor’s first Holmes novel, The Seventh Bullet, back in 1992. (It has since been reissued by Titan.) I first found it in a bookstore in Baltimore, where I was spending ten weeks as a Federal Investigator, temporarily detailed to that area. Your tax dollars were putting me up in an apartment in a high-rise overlooking the Inner Harbor, and I remember reading and enjoying that book while enjoying the view and wanting to come home.

More recently, Mr. Victor has been writing a series known as the “American Literati” for MX, in which Holmes encounters famous literary figures. In The Final Page of Baker Street, he meets young Raymond Chandler, who serves as one of Holmes’s pages. In the upcoming Sherlock Holmes and the Baron of Brede Place, he becomes involved in the affairs of Stephen Crane. He is also currently working on another Holmes novel.

When I asked him to write a story for the anthology, he agreed immediately, and soon sent me “The Adventure of the Aspen Papers,” in which Henry James visits Baker Street in October 1887 to hire Holmes to locate a missing friend who is on the trail of a hidden literary trove. Although not labeled as such, this tale, featuring a visit from the American Henry James, is clearly a part of Mr. Victor’s ongoing “American Literati” series. I hope that, in addition to writing more of the novels, Mr. Victor comes up with a whole volume of more of these short stories, because I’d love to read them. I enjoyed this one very much, and it gives both an interesting case for Holmes and Watson, and also a quick thumbnail portrait of Henry James.

Soon after I received and read Mr. Victor’s story, I obtained another tale about an encounter between Holmes and Henry James. This one, substantially longer, is a 600+ page novel by Dan Simmons, The Fifth Heart.

Set in the spring of 1893, Holmes encounters James while doing undercover work for Mycroft during The Great Hiatus. James recalls meeting Holmes several years earlier - not during the events of Mr. Victor’s story. Holmes’s current investigation into a global anarchistic plot has connections to events that took place several years before amongst a group of people living in Washington, D.C. These people are friends of James, and Holmes recruits him to help with the resolution of what occurred before, and also to defeat the current conspiracy.

This book was interesting, although it was padded a little too heavily with factoids about life in 1893. (People who were actually living in those times probably wouldn’t have had conversations where they worked in so many of these things for the benefit of us, the readers – they would have just known it already.) This book presented a different viewpoint of Holmes and his frantic activities during the Great Hiatus. (Those who think that Holmes just sat around in Tibet for a couple of years, contemplating . . . something need to read more pastiches. He was a very busy man during that period, racing all over the world.)

My biggest problem with this narrative is the same thing that happens in some other people’s pastiches: This author, in trying to be clever, takes some noted and established ideas from the Canon and then reveals his own version of “the truth”, when in fact these jarring revelations simply yank one out of the story entirely. I’ll never understand why, if someone wants to work so hard to bring another Holmes adventure to the world, he or she can’t just do so in the way that has made these stories popular for so long. Instead, the writers find the need to inject their own inventiveness.

Without revealing any too-obvious spoilers, I can say that most of the book is very interesting, but I’ll be skipping some parts when I re-read it next time. Simmons makes some general mistakes, such as getting the ending of “The Copper Beeches” wrong, and he makes up an entirely spurious backstory about Holmes’s origins. Simmons does the same thing with Professor Moriarty that Michael Dibdin did in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, although in this case it’s for a much more noble purpose. He also has taken a female criminal and her assassin son and incorrectly given her the name of a Canonical character, attempting to tear down the reputation of the true figure, and also libelously fictionalizing whole chunks of the book in order to try to create a shocking relationship between the assassin and his supposed father. I’ll mark all of this down as “Incorrect.

In spite of these parts which try to damage the Canon instead of uplift it, this book for the most part is still enjoyable, although one must read it carefully and with a grain of salt to be aware of the falsehoods. The best part of the book, for me, was Holmes and James’s visit to a certain famed part of a Washington, D.C. cemetery. I’ve previously had no interest in that area, but now I think that I’ll be certain to visit there when I’m next the capital.

Most of this book takes place in Washington, D.C. and New York, with side trips to Connecticut and Chicago. There are a number of other pastiches by other authors set in the spring of 1893 that also have Holmes all over the U.S. during this time, and this story, where Holmes is fighting the anarchist’s intrigue, serves to augment those other stories by explaining why he was in the U.S. then. Some of Holmes’s other adventures in the U.S. during the spring of 1893 are related in the following:

By Philip J. Carraher:
Alias Simon Hawkes (Four short stories: “The Magic Alibi”; “The Captive Forger”; “The Glass Room”, and “The Talking Ghost”)
Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Dead Rabbit’s Society
Sherlock Holmes in New York: The Adventure of the New York Ripper

By Owen Haskell
Sherlock Holmes and the Fall River Tragedy

By Donald W. Holmes
Indian River Trilogy (Two short stories: “The Menacing Midden” and “Barker’s Bluff”)

Stories in Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Years (edited by Michael Kurland, also a contributor to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories)
• “The Mystery of Dr Thorvald Sigerson” – Linda Robertson
• “The Bughouse Caper” – Bill Pronzini
• “The Strange Case of the Voodoo Priestess” – Carole Bugge
• “Cross of Gold” – Michael Collins

By David Marcum (That’s me!)
• “The Adventure of the Brother’s Request” The Papers of Sherlock Holmes –Vol. II

. . . and also in numerous short stories found on the internet.

All in all, I much prefer Mr. Victor’s tale of Henry James and Sherlock Holmes, but both serve as interesting companion pieces. Read them both and decide for yourself!

More about The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories can be found at:

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