Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Pastiches (Of All Time) Part II

Let's not waste any time and proceed at once...

#5 - The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna - It would be an understatement to say that Sherlock Holmes has faced off against Jack the Ripper a lot in fiction. Two films, countless novels and even a video game feature this premise. However, one version of this oft-told story stands out above all the others - Edward B. Hanna's The Whitechapel Horrors, surely the finest book to feature the world's greatest detective matching wits with history's most famous killer.

Written in the third person as opposed to Watson's narration, Hanna's narrative manages to weave in a great deal of historical content into his fascinating story. Many of the theories regarding the Ripper's identity are explored within the book as Holmes and Watson move through a tangled web towards the truth. The late Hanna was clearly well-up on his Sherlockian knowledge as there are many references to the original works and each chapter opens with a quote from the canon. For a devout Sherlockian, The Whitechapel Horrors is simply brimming with Sherlockian goodness from start to finish. With a page-count which exceeds 400 pages, it's easily the most thorough Holmes vs. Ripper novel ever published, and one which is sure to impress both the Sherlockian and the Ripperologist.

#4 - The Tangled Skein by David Stuart Davies - Aside from plots which find Sherlock Holmes squaring off against Jack the Ripper, the other most common literary encounter is the great detective meeting the king of vampires, Count Dracula. The concept has been a multitude of times, but perhaps the best representation of this concept is David Stuart Davies' novel, The Tangled Skein. Set after the events of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes' pursuit of the very-much alive Jack Stapleton soon lead him to encounter Dracula himself on the Devonshire moorlands.

The Tangled Skein is part Sherlock Holmes novel and part Hammer horror tribute (which is probably why I love the book so much). The twisting, turning story-line is deftly woven and despite the overt supernatural elements inherent in the plot, the book still feels true to its Doylean origins. For those interested, Big Finish Audio adapted the novel as part of their Sherlock Holmes series, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The brilliant music, sound effects and performances from Nicholas Briggs and Richard Earl heighten the already fantastic plot, and one is liable to feel a cold shiver pass through their spine while listening. In all, if you're looking for a pastiche to sink your teeth into (pun intended), look no further than The Tangled Skein.

#3 - The Giant Rat of Sumatra by Richard L. Boyer - "The story for which the world is not yet prepared" is without doubt the most famous of all the untold Sherlock Holmes adventures referenced in the canon. Dozens of variations on the concept have seen print, but the version penned by Richard Boyer is a work of sheer genius. Few writers have captured the original Doylean style of writing the way Boyer did, and presents his characters faithfully.

When a seaman drops dead on Holmes' doorstep, Holmes and Watson are drawn into a complex mystery which surrounds a mysterious ship called "The Matilda Briggs." Investigating further, the duo soon discover a link to a recent kidnapping and will face an old foe in doing so. What is so impressive about the plot for The Giant Rat of Sumatra is that it is a genuine mystery, with clues dropped all the way through which only the most keen of readers will see. Oftentimes, a pastiche leans towards being an adventurous novel, which is fine, but it's fantastic to see an author craft a truly intricate mystery for the great detective to solve. That's not to say that there is no adventurous spirit in the novel - the climax in particular is quite dramatically realised with its fantastic twist ending. I do not want to divulge too much as much of the fun of The Giant Rat of Sumatra is being lead on the same path to discovery as the detectives.

#2 - The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz - I think part of the appeal of The House of Silk is that it was penned by an author of a high calibre. What's more, Anthony Horowitz shows that he is a genuine fan of Arthur Conan Doyle and the original stories in his pastiche, surely the best Holmes pastiche of recent memory. Advertised as Holmes' darkest case, the claim is certainly true. While investigating a man's claim that he is being pursued by a dangerous criminal, Holmes and Watson become entangled in a web of devilry and deceit. They are faced with one seemingly unanswerable question throughout their investigation: what is the House of Silk? Little do they know what dangers the pursuit of that answer shall bring.

Horowitz's fidelity to the canon is excellent with fine portrayals of the principle characters. His tone does differ at times from Doyle's, but Horowitz fill his pages with references to the originals which are sure to warm the heart of any Sherlockian. The plot is tense and incredibly suspenseful, putting Holmes and Watson in a number of truly compromising situations. And Horowitz's prior experience writing for Agatha Christie's Poirot and Foyle's War comes into play as he manages to pull off when the greatest twist endings in any pastiche I have ever comes across.

And (drum roll please)...

#1 - The Veiled Detective by David Stuart Davies - Writing a pastiche is a difficult enough task. Writing a pastiche which tries to do something very different with its central characters is another matter entirely. But David Stuart Davies managed to pull it off wonderfully in what I believe to be the greatest Sherlock Holmes pastiche I have ever read. The Veiled Detective makes for absolutely compulsory reading once you've started.

The premise finds a medical doctor named John Walker hired by Professor Moriarty to spy on a detective named Sherlock Holmes. Assuming the name Watson, Walker moves into Baker Street and together the two begin work together as detectives, embarking on some of their most famous cases, the real details of which are finally made public. The Veiled Detective portrays its central figures in a different light - all are flawed, very real human beings. The original plot aside, the novel is a brilliant character study and allows the reader to examine the close friendship between Holmes and Watson in a way which has not been possible before. I was blown away by this book when I read it for the first time some four years ago and it has left a tremendous impact on me to this day. If you're interested in a fascinating character study of the world's greatest detective, The Veiled Detective is highly recommended.

As always, I open it up to you now. What do you think of the list? Did I leave one of your favourites off? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Pastiches (Of All Time) Part I

It is nearly impossible to list every single Sherlock Holmes pastiche which has ever been published in some form. There are a myriad of them in film, television, audio and print form. Having already examined movies and television, I'm excluding those from this list and focusing mostly on Sherlock Holmes novels or short story collections.

#10 - The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer - Without doubt one of the most widely-known pastiches, Nicholas Meyer's novel brought the detective back into the limelight, and though not the first pastiche, turned the Sherlock Holmes pastiche into a literary sub-genre. Meyer boldly decided to present an alternate version of the original canon in his novel, deciding to inform readers what really happened during Sherlock Holmes' presumed death.

In the thralls of cocaine addiction, Holmes begins to persecute his old maths tutor, Professor Moriarty. Knowing that Holmes is doing harm to both the Professor and himself, Watson manages to lure the detective to Vienna to see Sigmund Freud. Freud will work to cure Holmes of his addiction, but no sooner has the treatment begun than Freud, Holmes and Watson are thrown into a case. Meyer's novel is fast-paced and engaging as he managed to capture Doyle's original tone excellently. The story, while aggravating to the most devout Doylean, is an interesting alternative history, and the novel is written with such conviction that the story line is not too far fetched. As I noted above, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was not the first Sherlock Holmes pastiche, but it made writing them popular and the novel became a bestseller, ultimately spawning two (lesser) sequels and a beloved film adaptation.

#9 - The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes by Adrian Conan Doyle & John Dickson Carr - This collection of short stories has the distinction of being authored by Conan Doyle's own son and master mystery writer John Dickson Carr. Together, the two collaborated on a series of short stories, each one based on references made to untold stories from the canon. What resulted is a milestone in Sherlockian history, and some of the finest crafted short stories in the detective's long literary history.

Though there are some stories which are easily forgettable in the collection, some make worthwhile reading on their own. "The Adventure of the Black Baronet" concerns an impossible mystery and a family curse which Holmes must solve in order to acquit a wrongly-accused woman. In "The Adventure of the Seven Clocks," Holmes must determine why a mild-mannered man becomes enraged at the mere sight of a clock, and discovers political implications in the case. And in "The Adventure of the Deptford Horror," Holmes and Watson face another locked-room puzzle, and a means of committing murder which made my hair stand on end when I first read this collection. Written in an extraordinarily authentic voice, The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes are some of the finest Sherlock Holmes short stories which I have ever happened across.

#8 - The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes by Jonathon Barnes - Though the only pastiche that is not a published book on this list, this Big Finish audio drama simply had to be included. Writer Jonathon Barnes has created four, interconnected cases from four periods in the great detective's career. Holmes and Watson will face danger at every turn as they take on what amounts to be one of their most epic adventures.

The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes is truly a story of epic proportions. Each of the four hour-long audio recordings are set in a different decade, beginning with Holmes just starting his career as a consulting detective and ending with the detective having long-since retired. The mysteries are truly engaging and thrilling, complimented by Nicholas Brigg's excellent turn as Holmes, and Richard Earl's remarkable reading as Dr. Watson. Big Finish has crafted some excellent Sherlockian offerings, but The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes is certainly among their best. (As an aside, Big Finish's next Jonathon Barnes-scripted Sherlock Holmes series, The Judgement of Sherlock Holmes is to be released later this December.)

#7 - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes by Loren D. Estleman - In the pastiche world, it's fairly common for two literary characters to meet. One of the best examples of this is Loren D. Estleman's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes which brilliantly weaves Holmes and Watson into the plot of Robert Louis Stevenson's original novella. Though the twist ending of Stevenson's story is known the world over, it's fascinating to see the original portrayed as a mystery once more, and part of the suspense and enjoyment of the story is seeing Holmes piece together the clues to come to the inevitable conclusion.

Estleman presents a very authentic Sherlockian voice, which adds further to the pastiche. Holmes and Watson are presented remarkably well as are Stevenson's characters, and their interaction is seamless. Taking no liberties with the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Estleman has managed to create one, unique plot which doesn't feel disjointed in any way. It is interesting to note that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes was Estleman's second Sherlockian foray - his first being the rather melodramatically titled Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula. Much like the novel which followed it, Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula incorporated Sherlock Holmes in the plot of Bram Stoker's novel, but not in the same flawless manner as this pastiche.

#6 - The Scroll of the Dead by David Stuart Davies - This particular pastiche will also hold a special place in Sherlockian heart as it was the first pastiche I ever read. David Stuart Davies, one of my favourite Sherlockian writers, has written what is perhaps the most exciting, action-filled novel of its kind. Matching wits with a maniac, Holmes and Watson must use all of their resources as they hunt down an ancient Egyptian papyrus which claims that it can raise the dead from their graves. As they embark on their dangerous mission, the duo do not who they can and cannot trust.

The Scroll of the Dead is an un-apologetically exciting novel. It is filled throughout with set-pieces which make for exciting reading, linked together by a complex plot, wrought with twists, turns and suspense. Throughout, Davies writes with an unmatched replication of Doyle's original making The Scroll of the Dead (for all of its outlandishness) feel like an original Sherlock Holmes novel. It's an overall fun, exciting read which should thrill and delight any Sherlockian.

So, we've come to the end of part one. Come back next week as I look at the top five best Sherlockian pastiches. As we enter the holiday season, maybe you'll find the ideal gift for that Sherlockian on your list...

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review - "The Devil's Promise"

The Devil's Promise is perhaps best described as an unconventional Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I might as well say now that I enjoy unconventional pastiches. If handled correctly, these novels can provide some extraordinarily entertaining reading. Written by David Stuart Davies, one of my favourite Sherlockian writers, The Devil's Promise features Holmes and Watson entangled in a most unorthodox problem. How did it fare overall? Let's find out.

On holiday in the English seaside, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are soon embroiled in a mystery. The duo discover a body on a secluded beach, which promptly disappears. Deciding to investigate, Holmes and Watson soon find that the residents of the sleepy seaside hamlet are behaving oddly, seemingly intimidated by the Blackwood family who live in a secluded mansion outside of town. According to local lore, the Blackwood's father was a renowned Satanist who tried to conjure the Devil during a black mass. Sensing a potential lead, Holmes and Watson are prepared to investigate further when they are attacked in their rented cottage. In the struggle Watson is knocked out cold.

When the good doctor comes to, he discovers that months have passed. Returning to Baker Street with Holmes, Watson finds that his friend's personality has changed dramatically - the detective is far more distant and cold. What could have caused this change in character, and what happened after the two men were attacked months earlier? Watson will set out on his own to discover the truth, putting not only his life in jeopardy, but Sherlock Holmes' as well.

The Devil's Promise summed up in the above two paragraphs clearly shows that it is a different breed of Sherlock Holmes pastiche. However, I was drawn into the mystery almost from the beginning and I found myself finishing the novel in only a few sittings. While it may not please the most conservative of Sherlockians, the novel was obviously written by an ardent Holmes fan who managed to craft an ingenious plot around Holmes and Watson. There were many twists and turns in the plot which made for edge-of-your-seat reading, and the idea that Watson is alone in his investigation, unable to trust Holmes added much tension to the story.

The twisting plot was complimented by wonderful atmosphere. The book was filled with a sense of foreboding, impending doom which practically jumped off of the page. Just as Davies' Sherlock Holmes-vs.-Dracula novel The Tangled Skein was an obvious homage to Hammer horror films, The Devil's Promise fit the same mold. There were several Gothic nuances throughout the story and the climax was the typical blood-and-thunder set piece seen in a Hammer horror. The book particularly mirrored Hammer's 1968 film The Devil Rides Out which starred Christopher Lee fighting the forces of the Devil and a group of insane Satanists.

While the book was quite good, it's plot did make a few things difficult. There were few scenes which Holmes and Watson shared together and seldom were the detective's deductive prowess put on show. But, these were all compromises which had to be made considering the novel's plot. Therefore, I happily say that David Stuart Davies has delivered once more. The Devil's Promise is filled with twists and unexpected turns and tremendous Gothic atmosphere. I give the book 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A State of the Blog Address


I just wanted to take a moment and apologize for my recent in-activity on this blog. I have been very busy lately and as much as I would like to keep the blog up-to-date, I simply haven't had the time.

I cannot say with certainty how much time I'll be able to devote to posts over the next few months, but I will try my best to post a few reviews and thoughts whenever I have the chance. There's a few things on the horizon which I hope to devote some time to.

So, in all, don't lose faith dear readers - though my output may not be as tremendous in the past, I have not forgotten my blog. I hope you check back periodically as I do have a trick or two up my sleeve.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Dark Water/Death in Heaven"


Warning - This review will contain spoilers!

Well, another season of Doctor Who has come to an end. How did the finale, a two-part story scripted by showrunner Steven Moffat fair and how it stand up against the rest of the series? How did Series 8 fare compared to the other seasons of the show and what of Peter Capaldi? I hope to answer all of these questions in the following review, so without further let's dive right in...

Distraught over the death Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), Clara (Jenna Coleman) almost incapacitates the Doctor and his TARDIS by throwing the time machine's seven keys into a volcano. Seeing how far she would go to save the man she loved, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) takes Clara to 3w, a mysterious institute fascinated with death. The Doctor comes face to face with Missy (Michelle Gomez), the strange woman who has dogged his heels throughout the series, and together they manage to contact Danny in heaven. No sooner have they accomplished this does the Doctor learn that 3w is harboring Cybermen and Missy is in actuality his arch enemy, the Master! With the future of planet Earth hanging in the balance, the Doctor will have to use UNIT to save the day. But at what cost?

When it comes to two-part episodes like this, I tend to find one portion to be better than the other. Here, Dark water/Death in Heaven managed to remain consistent throughout. I must applaud Steven Moffat for keeping the tone the same throughout the two episodes, even when plot twists are introduced and the scale becomes much grander in the second half. I do not hesitate to say that these two episodes have been two of the darkest episodes in Doctor Who's recent history, dwelling on subjects like death and the afterlife, rather taboo for a children's show. However, I found it to be quite compelling and original. I would be lying if I said I wasn't drawn in - especially by the episode Dark Water which had to lay on the mystery extra thick.

The Doctor and the Master - or is Mistress?
We'll revisit the story itself in a minute, but I need to take the opportunity to address the performances from the principles. Peter Capaldi pulled out all the stops in these two episodes. He is without doubt the best actor to have taken on the role of the Doctor since the revival in 2005 and, aside from Matt Smith, is my favorite Doctor. The changes which we the audience have witnessed in his character since the start of the series have been tremendous - a truly brilliant character arc. I look forward to Capaldi's future in the role as I know he will retain that tremendous quality.

Also of particular note was Michelle Gomez as Missy. When it was revealed she was in fact the Master at the end of Dark Water, I wasn't quite sure what to think. (Not to sound too narrow-minded, but I have never been a big proponent of the whole gender swapping thing.) I reserved my judgment and I must say she did an excellent job. Gomez communicated a sense of the Master's true deranged character in a cold, quiet manner which was far more successful than John Simm's scenary-chewing attempts when he played the character. It wouldn't be too outrageous to liken Gomez's Master (Mistress, whatever) to Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lector; speaking quietly and delivering a genuine chill up the spine.

While the scripts for Dark Water/Death in Heaven fared well for Capaldi and Gomez, it fell rather short when dealing with the companions. Jenna Coleman delivered her usual fine performance but it seemed like the independent nature of Clara's character became a bit too outrageous when she virtually kidnaps the Doctor and nearly destroys the TARDIS. What's more, this scene, which really goes nowhere, was hardy linked to the rest of the episode. Samuel Anderson, who usually gave a pretty decent performance in the past, seemed rather flat here, especially once he's been turned into a Cyberman. I don't want to bash too much on the script - especially since it did afford Capaldi one of his greatest Doctor moments; skydiving from a crashing airplane without a parachute, tearing a page from James Bond's playbook in Moonraker.

As I said at the top of this review, both episodes of the finale fared equally. Therefore, I give them both 3.5 out of 5 stars. So, in all, how did Doctor Who series 8 fare? Rather well. It featured some truly excellent episodes, but a fair share of mediocre ones. I'd say the series did afford Peter Capaldi a nice introduction and I look forward to his future in the role.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Review - "A Scandal in Bohemia Graphic Novel"

I am actually not very familiar with Sherlock Holmes graphic novels. The extent of my knowledge consists only of the graphic novelizations by Ian Edginton featuring moody, evocative artwork by I.N.J. Culbard. All four of them, published by Self-Made Hero, are highly recommended. But today's subject is a little different. Today I take a look at an interesting take on A Scandal in Bohemia by Petr Kopl.

Going over the plot of the graphic novel may be a little redundant as it more-or-less follows Doyle's original but also manages to weave the plot of The Speckled Band into the mix. Despite this, this particular graphic novel may be a little surprising for the more ardent Doylean. The tone of this retelling is quite light and fun, bordering at times on outright parody. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson aren't above exchanging banter and getting into petty squabbles. One particular scene found the detective strong up from the ceiling of 221b hanging by his feet testing a theory. Aside from the fact that there's something overtly Robert Downey Jr. about the panel, it was actually quite funny, especially as Watson enters the sitting room, only to find his friend in a most unusual situation.

Holmes as drawn by Petr Kopl
However, the tone of graphic novel does change and scenes of genuine suspense or horror were conveyed quite nicely. These instances came more often than in the segment retelling The Speckled Band which managed to convey its original's sense of Gothic horror beautifully. The artwork was of particular note here, and I feel as though I should devote a bit of time to the artistic style. Though drawn in an obviously cartoon style, the exaggerated features of the characters was actually quite charming. Holmes is portrayed as quite angular with pronounced chin and nose, and surprisingly enough, Watson is drawn as quite the competent medico and not in the traditional buffoonish style. The illustrations added to the more-or-less light-weight sense of fun which ran throughout the graphic novel and heightened the "fun factor."

There were also a number of interesting asides and references to outside works to make this reader's eye widen. Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days makes a cameo appearance, and Watson becomes a member of the former's exclusive club. Mata Hari is also referenced (this comes as something of a funny twist come the comic's end) as are both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These touches, though enjoyable, were something of a distraction from the overall narrative and with the inclusion of Frankenstein's Monster into the mix (yes, Frankenstein's Monster is in here too) one began to feel that the writer's tongue was planted a little too firmly in his cheek. That's not to say this was a drawback just something of a stylistic surprise.

In all, A Scandal in Bohemia was a fun, very entertaining read. As far as Sherlock Holmes graphic novels go, it fared quite well I think. I do not hesitate in recommending it to fellow Sherlockians, and seeing as Petr Kopl has authored other Sherlock Holmes graphic novels in the same vein, I would be interested in taking a look at those too. I award A Scandal in Bohemia 4 out of 5 stars.

***

A Scandal In Bohemia – A Sherlock Holmes Graphic Novel is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository . In ebook format it is in Kindle, Kobo, Nook and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).

Friday, October 31, 2014

Top 5 Dracula Films - #1 "1979 Version"

To celebrate Halloween, here's my pick for the best Dracula film - the winner, the 1979 version released by Universal starring Frank Langella as the vampire. This oft-overlooked film is without doubt the most atmospheric and stylish version of Bram Stoker's story ever committed to film and boasts a particularly fine cast.

The 1979 version began life as a revival of the 1920's stage play which had originally starred Bela Lugosi. The show was performed both in America, where Frank Langella took the role of the vampire, and in Britain where Jeremy Brett took on the role. The play, featuring sets designed by famed illustrator Edward Gorey, was a tremendous success which eventually spawned a film version. In the director's chair was John Badham, whose last directorial job prior to filming Dracula was Saturday Night Fever! However Badham managed to create a truly awe-inspiring atmosphere for the film. It's a beautiful film to watch.

Many reviewers today complain that the latest DVD (and blu ray) releases have drained all of the colour from the film. This is true, but the result is brilliant. The re-coloured DVD adds tremendously to the overall atmosphere, accentuating the bleak nature of the story. What's more, when there are scenes of vivid colour, there is a greater contrast (like the controversial vampire wedding with lasers and the brightly-lit climax). The action is also updated to 1913 which gives the characters the opportunity to inhabit a stylish Edwardian world.

Of course taking centre stage is Frank Langella's Dracula. Langella performs the role in the vein of Bela Lugosi - a cool, hypnotic vampire. However, Langella doesn't perform with the same theatricality which Lugosi did which makes this Dracula all the more creepy and manipulative. Langella's subtly-played Dracula makes him seem eerily alone and humane - a point which is accentuated by changing the now-famous line of dialogue to "Listen to them, children of the night...what sad music they make." To play off of Langella's Dracula is Kate Nelligan's Lucy. Nelligan's heroine is a strong, independent character which makes her falling to Dracula's will all the more creepy.

Frank Langella - best Dracula of them all?
Interestingly characterised on IMDb as a romance, the 1979 version was one of the first to portray Dracula as a romantic figure. However, the movie succeeds brilliantly in this respect. Later versions (*cough Francis Ford Coppola's version cough*) reduced Dracula's threat by making him a romantic figure. Here, Langella's vampire is still an evil, manipulative figure, yet you cannot help but feel a twinge of sadness for Dracula come to the film's inevitable conclusion.

The rest of the cast compliment Langella and Nelligan nicely. In the role of vampire hunter Van Helsing was the great Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier. While it could be argued that Olivier was slumming it in this horror film, Olivier delivers a strong performance, and the script afforded the actor an interesting acting opportunity as Van Helsing becomes the father of one of Dracula's victims. Donald Pleasence lends some light comic relief to the film in the role of Dr. Seward and Trevor Eve plays a likable, sympathetic Jonathon Harker.

In all, the 1979 version of Dracula is underrated, but something of a minor masterpiece in terms of Dracula adaptations. However, one thing stood out the most while working on this review series - each of the five films I selected were totally different from one another, so in terms of favourites, Dracula films are perhaps the most subjective. If you're partial to classical theatricality, faithful surrealism, atmospheric evil, blood-and-thunder bombast, or stylized melancholia, one of the five films I selected should appeal to you.

We've come to the end of this review series. If you liked these reviews or believed I left out a particularly good version (or take umbrage with my constant Francis Ford Coppola bashing), then feel free to leave a comment. Happy Halloween!