Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Thistle of Scotland

Sherlock Holmes and the Thistle of Scotland by L. B. (Pamela) Greenwood. New York: Pocket Books, 1990. 208 pages.

It's been many years since I read the Sherlock Holmes canon, so I may not be the best qualified to judge the worthiness of Sherlock Holmes and the Thistle of Scotland as a pastiche. From what I recall, however, L. B. Greenwood has made a valiant if not entirely successful attempt to give new life to the great Victorian detective.

The outline of the mystery, which involves an impoverished earl, a contracted marriage, and a valuable historic gem, is pure Holmes. On the day of Lady Caroline's wedding, her only dowry, the famous Thistle of Scotland amethyst, is stolen from her hair—in front of a room full of family, guests, and servants. The clues are odd and apparently unconnected: a white thread, deliberately damaged books, ugly trousers, uncurled hair, and the very elusiveness of the victim. Only Holmes could make sense of so many random clues.

Greenwood draws on as many Holmes canon elements as possible, including Mrs. Hudson, references to a previous case, Holmes in disguise, a train trip, ancillary puzzles, the Baker Street Irregulars, and (of course) a vainglorious Scotland Yard inspector. There are more Holmes elements than in any one Conan Doyle story—indeed, there are too many. Here, they serve as utilitarian devices that lack the evocative charm that Conan Doyle gave them. The brash young inspector is bland, without a distinctive personality. The train trip confirms a clue, but Holmes is not aboard to make chilling observations, such as how easily crime can be committed and hidden among the peaceful farmhouses of the countryside. The cabs roll along the streets of London, accompanied by mundane detail about how they are hailed and how expensive they are. Conan Doyle (who, I understand, was not familiar with London) evoked London's foggy nights and murky underworld so vividly that the city feels tangible and real—so much so that people still look for 221B Baker Street. It's as though Greenwood grasps the vocabulary, but not the grammar. The words and the physical references are correct, but the subtle nuances that would make Holmes, Watson, and the rest live again in the imagination are missing. Instead, they are flat characters in a somewhat efficient if not engaging plot.

Holmes himself lacks the sharp wit, intellectual arrogance, and emotional detachment that made Conan Doyle's character enigmatic and compelling. He questions the servants too gently, he doesn't brood in the way Watson always finds so disturbing, he fails to chide the doctor for his inability to make sense of all that he has observed, he offers no philosophical insights into human behavior, and he doesn't express smug elation when he reveals what happened. Even worse, he doesn't explain how he makes the enormous mental leap required to make sense of the clues, and focuses on how the clues fit his solution rather than on how they led him to it. There is no real evidence against the culprit other than possession (why the amethyst was not disposed of after the theft is not adequately explained, so even this makes little sense). The ending is rushed, and I felt cheated by the somewhat scattershot buildup to and presentation of the solution.

Sherlock Holmes and the Thistle of Scotland begins solidly enough, but Greenwood tries too hard to be clever and not hard enough to be evocative. The fate of Lady Caroline is more of a bow to 1980s feminist sensibilities than the logical culmination of the story as told. The broadest strokes are found throughout, but Conan Doyle's subtle touches are missing. Most important, the great detective himself is missing. The man who says, "Five-and-three? Dear me! I foresee that this case is going to cost a fortune in cab fares," is not the coldly incisive, yet strangely vulnerable Sherlock Holmes I remember, the genius who challenged Professor Moriarty and the misogynist who succumbed to the combined beauty, charm, and intellect of Irene Adler. The surface is here, roughly executed, but the substance is not.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

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