Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Giant Rat!

“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared." - "The Sussex Vampire"
Out of these short lines penned in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," Arthur Conan Doyle opened the flood gates for writers in the future. Pastiche writers jumped on this throwaway reference to an untold case and today there are countless numbers of short stories and novels which feature the great detective and "the story for which the world is not yet prepared."

So, where does one begin with recounting the history of the Giant Rat?Two of the earliest mentions of the story occurred during the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series of made at Universal. In "The Spider Woman," Bruce's Watson sees his account of the story written up in an old scrapbook, and in "Pursuit to Algiers," the doctor recounts the story over dinner to a group aboard a cruise ship. Funnily enough, to thoroughly explain his story to the guests, Watson utilizes props readily available at the table - a stick of celery stands in for Holmes while a dinner roll stands in for Watson.

In the abominable 1975 novel, "Sherlock Holmes and the War of the Worlds," it is revealed that Professor George Edward Challenger aided Holmes in his search for the giant rat. Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will recognize Challenger as being the hero from another series of stories written by Doyle. Challenger debuted in the 1912 novel, "The Lost World" where he leads an expedition to a lost plateau and discover dinosaurs roaming free ("Jurassic Park" eat your heart out).  Also during the '70's, the Doctor met the Giant Rat in the beloved "Doctor Who" serial, "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" my review of which can be read here.

1987 saw the release of perhaps one of the very best Sherlock Holmes pastiches very written. Richard L. Boyer's "The Giant Rat of Sumatra" still stands out to me as being perhaps the definitive version of the lost story, and although I read the book for the first time over three years ago, it still delivers a haunting quality when I think about it. Boyer's novel captures the Doylean voice wonderfully. The book also gives Holmes a chance to solve the mystery using deductive reasoning and logic - something which is lacking in many Sherlock Holmes pastiches today.

David Stuart Davies (author of "The Tangled Skein,") tried his hand at penning the giant rat's story in "The Shadow of the Rat." While Davies' novel is by no means the epitome of the lost story, it was an enjoyable read. Sadly, it was not as memorable as Boyer's Sherlockian effort, and what really let the plot down was the fact that Holmes does not act normally throughout the story. Throughout the novel, Holmes is hypnotized by the villains of the book, and therefore bows down to their mercy. However, much like Richard L. Boyer's novel, Davies expertly captures the style of Doyle's writing and it was an enjoyable read.

There have been many other contributions to the Sherlockian mythos concerning the giant rat (almost too many to talk about here - and I have not read them all). One wonders what makes this particular untold story so famous among writers. Perhaps it's the promise of Gothic horror and mystery which makes this story so appealing. The fact that Holmes says this story is one for which the world is not yet prepared tantalizes readers and writers alike to bring life to the most notorious untold story of them all. 


  1. French author Rene Reouven has said that his favourite of his Sherlock Holmes pastiches is "Le Rat" (The Rat), a story found in "The Bestiary of Sherlock Holmes" about this Giant Rat of Sumatra. I haven't read it yet and so cannot comment on its merits, but if you can read French then Reouven's pastiches are very worthwhile. He came up with what I consider the definitive tale of the mysterious death of Cardinal Tosca-- in a locked library no less! His spin on the Addleton tragedy is another story I consider the definitive take on one of Watson's throwaway references.

    As for the Giant Rat... frankly, I've yet to read a version of the story that satisfies me. I've read a handful of them and remember being dissatisfied with each one, though at this far-removed date I couldn't tell you who wrote them or what it was about. I don't think I read Davies' take on the Rat, but maybe it's just one of those stories that works better in your own imagination, letting you conjure up the wildest visions of the Rat and how Holmes came across it inside your own head instead of relying on an interpretation.

    1. My knowledge of French is somewhat limited. Do you know of any English translation that I could find? I have read your glowing reports of that collection.

      I still highly recommend the 1987 version by Richard L. Boyer. The writing is brilliant and the plot twist at the end (which I will not spoil) is genuinely surprising.

    2. Unfortunately, there are no English translations. For there to be any, we'd have to assume that the publishing industry in France and in the English-speaking world gave a damn about quality fiction instead of hunting for the next multimillion dollar hackwork in the grand tradition of "Twilight" or "Fifty Shades of Grey".


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