Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and 4 novels starring his famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his “Boswell” Dr. John Watson. They are collectively known as the “canon” to Sherlockians. These are his “official” adventures, treated as if they were his biography were he an actual person from history.
Holmes’ adventures in fiction hardly stop there. It is said there have been more books written about Holmes and related characters than any other character in literary history. I have not been able to find even an estimate as to the number of non-canon works, but it certainly numbers near or over a thousand. Many fall into the “pastiche” category. In literary terms, a “pastiche” is something created in imitation of a genre or style. They can range from the very serious imitation to the tongue-in-cheek, but all are done with a level of respect for the source material. Pastiches of the Conan Doyle Holmes fiction are numerous and greatly vary in quality. I admit I have not read many Holmes stories outside the canon. I am sure there are many very good ones, but I am of the mind that a character’s creator is the ultimate authority on writing his/her adventures. Still that shouldn’t stop me from enjoying stories others have written, and it hasn’t of the several I have read.
Which brings me to this audiobook review of Sherlock Holmes and the Seven Deadly Sins Murders by Barry Day, read by the incomparable David Ian Davies. David sent me the chapters in advance of the audiobook’s release to review months ago, but I am embarrassed to say I haven’t had time to accomplish that task until now. The good news is that the audiobook is now available for download, so if you are interested in getting it you need not wait for it’s release.
The book’s plot revolves around a murder of a transplanted rich British gentlemen keeping to himself in the Scottish countryside. Holmes and Watson happen to be on the scene, and the resulting investigation leads to a little known collegiate club of three decades ago called “The Seven Sinners”. The members, most of who are now well known, successful citizens, seem to be the target of a homicidal maniac. Holmes brother Mycroft is one of the targets.
Seven Sins is easily the best of the few pastiches I have read or listened to so far. Author Barry Day successfully captures the Victorian era flavor of the times and makes good use of the vernacular of the day. Many pastiches use the familiar Victorian terms used in Conan Doyle’s stories, but Day goes farther using other terms and phrases of the times that shows he did his homework. He also does an excellent job of describing parts of London and other locations that further place the listener convincingly in late 19th century England. Day is not slavish in his imitation of the Conan Doyle style… so many other pastiches overuse direct quotes and exchanges from the canon as to be tedious. Day writes in a fashion that seems cut from the Conan Doyle cloth without smothering the reader under the fabric.
The story itself is inventive and enjoyable, if a little haphazard. It’s a fast moving adventure yarn. Some of the plotlines seem to go nowhere or seem unrelated to the whole, and the story lacks any real suspense, twists or the presence of any of Holmes’ trademark deductions that turn the case on it’s ear. The culprit is obvious as soon as the club is identified, and the rest of the story is much more of a straight chase and adventure than an exercise in Holmes’ detective skills. For all that it is a fun adventure with great, accurate characterizations of the main characters. Holmes’ powers of disguise are well utilized. There is plenty of the familiar and some interesting new characters.
Many of these Holmes’ pastches fall into the trap of constantly mentioning events and facts from the canon. In many stories Watson cannot walk past any place in London without recollecting the part that pub or street corner or hotel played in one of the canon’s stories. Day’s book does plenty of that but falls just short of overburdening the reader with misty-eyed flashbacks from Watson. That’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine with these pastiches, and I’d love to read or listen to a few that avoid that altogether. One odd thing, twice in the story Watson refers to the “fourteen steps” leading up to their rooms at 221b Baker Street… yet it’s a well known “fact” that there are seventeen steps up to 221b. I am not sure if that was intentional for some reason, or if it’s an uncharacteristic mistake.
Another pet peeve of mine is the “crossover crutch”. Many pastiches are based on Holmes’ meeting up with some person or event from some other literary work. Dracula, Jack the Ripper, Fu Manchu… you name it. These seem silly for the most part. The Seven Sins Murders also does this, but it’s a clever, appropriate and subtle crossover that many would miss. One of the original members of the Seven Sinners, presumably targeted for death, is one Professor George Edward Challenger. This is another, less well known character of Conan Doyle’s from a series of stories the best known of which is The Lost World. The subject of that book is briefly mentioned in this book.
As for the audiobook, it is the usual brilliant performance by David Ian Davies. His vocal talents are astounding, and listening to his narration is like listening to a full cast dramatization. His Holmes has a touch of the playful, without the superiority of some interpretations. His Watson is perfect. Other characters are so distinctive that there is never any confusion as to who is speaking. It’s really a joy listening to his readings.
Overall I definitely recommend this audiobook. Very enjoyable and worthy of the Holmes literary legacy.
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