Arthur Conan Doyle famously tired of Sherlock Holmes and repeatedly tried to end the series of stories featuring the detective he dismissively called “my most notorious character.” On each occasion, though, an intense popular clamor -- and the opportunity it afforded to shore up the author’s shaky finances -- coaxed Conan Doyle into an additional sequence of stories. Holmes’ adventures total four novels and 56 short stories.
As he explained in the single chapter of his 1924 autobiography devoted to the most famous character in detective fiction, “I do not wish to be ungrateful to Holmes, who has been a good friend to me in many ways. If I have sometimes been inclined to weary of him it is because his character admits of no light or shade. He is a calculating machine and anything you add to that simply weakens the effect. . . . I would say a word for Watson also, who in the course of seven volumes never shows one gleam of humor or makes one single joke. To make a real character one must sacrifice everything to consistency and remember Goldsmith’s criticism of Johnson that, ‘he could make the little fishes talk like whales.’ ”
Conan Doyle may have Holmes’ measure in that appraisal, but he’s a mile wide of the mark when it comes to Watson. As no less a novelist and creator of memorable characters than John le Carre writes in his concise (but splendid) introduction to Leslie S. Klinger’s two-volume annotated collection of Holmes’ stories: “Dr. Watson doesn’t write to you, he talks to you, with Edwardian courtesy, across a glowing fire. His voice has no barriers or affectations. It is clear, energetic and decent, the voice of a tweedy, no-nonsense colonial Britisher at ease with himself. . . . He is a first-class chap, loyal to a fault, brave as a lion, and the salt of the earth. All the cliches fit him, but he is not a cliche. . . . He is one of the greatest storytellers the world has ever listened to.”
One of the reason’s first-time novelist Lyndsay Faye’s energetic, charming and nicely atmospheric new Holmes pastiche, “Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson,” entertains so successfully is because she gets the critical component -- Watson’s voice -- right. As Le Carre and others have pointed out, Conan Doyle’s style in the Holmes stories -- clear, spare and unadorned by authorial flourish -- isn’t hard to emulate, which is why these tales are among the most widely and successfully translated in the world. The dialogue, particularly between Holmes and Watson, actually is a bit more delicate. Faye, who was trained as a stage actress, also gets this just right. She has, in fact, not only an excellent ear for the spoken word, but also an eye for the scene-setting visual detail and a cinematic instinct for evocative gesture. (Given the book’s camera-ready final scene, if this book hasn’t already been optioned to film, I’ll buy every agent in the Grill this Friday a drink.)
Faye’s novel, which comes with the blessing of Conan Doyle’s heirs, takes as its jumping-off point a coincidence that has attracted other mystery writers over the years. As the particularly dreary summer of 1888 melted into dank autumn, London was convulsed by the murders and mutilations of five prostitutes in the East End’s Whitechapel section, where the great city’s upper- and upper-middle-class men routinely prowled for commercial sex. As Faye’s Holmes remarks, “the district of Whitechapel offers a great many natural advantages to the predator.” The popular press -- a burgeoning new cultural force in the late 19th century -- dubbed the killer Jack the Ripper, our first “celebrity” serial killer. Just a year earlier, Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story had appeared to great acclaim in the Strand, the popular, new illustrated London magazine (another ebullient new cultural force). So what might have happened, if . . . .
Over the years, a number of mystery writers, including the cousins Fred Danning and Manfred B. Lee, creators of Ellery Queen, have taken a crack at imagining what might have occurred if the fictional Holmes had been called in to pursue the real Ripper. Faye’s is, by far, the most successful such effort.
Her opening conceit is that this is an account of a particularly painful, wrenching exercise in detection, which Watson has deposited, along with other papers, with his solicitor in 1939 on the eve of war.
Following the resolution of another case, Holmes and Watson find themselves at home on the evening after the August bank holiday, the detective experimenting with an American snake venom, Watson reading the evening papers, in which he spies an account of one of the early Ripper murders, which provokes this exchange:
“ ‘I cannot begin to understand,’ I said to no one in particular, ‘what could drive a murderer to such total desecration of the human body.’
“Holmes, without looking up from his work, remarked, ‘An argument could be made that the ultimate desecration of the human body is to end its earthly usefulness, which would imply that all murderers share equally that specific charge.’
“ ‘This is rather beyond the pale. It states here that some poor woman, as yet unidentified, was found stabbed to death in Whitechapel.’
“ ‘A deplorable, though hardly baffling occurrence. I imagine that she worked the area for food, drink and daily shelter. Such pitiable unfortunates are particularly likely to inspire crimes of passion in the men with whom they associate.’
“ ‘She was stabbed twenty times, Holmes.’
“ ‘And your unassailable medical assessment is that once would have been enough.’ ”
Soon, following the infamous night of Sept. 30, when the Ripper killed twice, Holmes is drawn into the case by his old Scotland Yard adversary/comrade, Inspector Lestrade.
Before the case has run its course, the great detective will not only be forced to plumb the darkness of depravity, but he also will himself stand accused of being the Ripper by a proto-tabloid journalist.
Let’s look at history
There are minor historical inaccuracies in this generally well-researched novel. For example, the then-commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Charles Warren, cannot have relieved Gen. Gordon at Khartoum, because Gordon and all his men were killed by the Mahdi before the British/Egyptian rescue force arrived in Sudan. Moreover, as Holmes narrows his hunt in Faye’s narrative, the paucity of suspects lets readers resolve the mystery a bit earlier than he does.
Faye’s book, however, really rises or falls on her ability to summon the spirits of Holmes and Watson. Her final evocation of a darker Holmes, more wounded by a life peering into mendacity, greed and passion than Conan Doyle -- confident product of a confident imperial age -- perhaps could have allowed, is a contemporary liberty that does her credit. In the end, she concedes Conan Doyle’s “most notorious character” a bit more humanity than did the creator himself.