23 Jan 2014
Don’t let “Sons of Moriarty and More Stories of Sherlock Holmes” fool you. Its definition of what constitutes a Holmesian tale is so broad as to be meaningless in this collection of seven short stories and Estleman’s title novella.
Let’s take the traditional stories first. John Lutz’s “The Infernal Machine” has Holmes and Watson investigating the murder of a nobleman. The machine in the title is a Gatling gun, which was brought over from America to sell to a nobleman with connections to the British Army. When he’s found dead of multiple gunshot wounds, the weapon’s owner is suspected. It is a traditional mystery, decently told, even if the solution seems a little far-fetched.
The other two stories evoke the Holmesian charm but with flaws. “The Deptford Horror” by John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle suffers from being a clone of “The Speckled Band.” Estleman’s “Sons of Moriarty” occupies half of the book. A follow-on to “The Six Napoleons,” the Italian daughter of a Mafia assassin comes to England to take his body home. When the government denies her request, her appeal to Holmes triggers a clash with the Mafia involving opera singer Enrico Caruso, a voyage to America, several assassination attempts, and a showdown on board a ship. Estleman evokes Holmes’ world and keeps the story moving, but after reading it twice, I’m still not sure why the government would care where an obscure man is buried, or why Watson lives in fear of the Mafia for the rest of his life.
“The Field Bazaar” was Conan Doyle’s brief contribution to a fundraiser in 1896 by his alma mater Edinburgh University. At the time, Holmes had been “dead” for three years, and there were hopes that the story would come from Dr. Watson’s bulging case files. Instead, we’re treated to a kind of meta-fiction. In the same way Holmes “read” Watson’s thoughts in “The Cardboard Box,” he deduces that his friend had been asked to contribute to the same Edinburgh fundraiser as Doyle. While not quite a parody, once can’t really call it a story, either. The only true parody, “The Adventure of the Double-Bogey Man” by Robert L. Fish, is marred by the obviousness of the joke. Nothing spoils a joke like an obvious punch line.
Anne Perry’s “Case of the Bloodless Sock” recasts Holmes and Watson as American teenagers, changes Watson’s sex as well, and has her investigating the repeated kidnapping of a girl in a Colorado town. Al Sarrantonio’s “Sherlocks” uses Holmes’ name for a device that is perfect at solving crimes, and asks how a private detective can make a living when he is no longer needed.
Of all the stories, only Lenore Carroll’s “Before the Adventures” is consistently excellent, as Watson describes in a letter to his editor at “The Strand” how he was inspired to create Holmes. Those who count Sherlock among the living will take offense, but the story is charming and inventive.
So of the eight stories, there are only three in which the detective plays a starring role. Including the novella, they take up the majority of the book. The rest are parodies, sci-fi and young adult reworkings, and a alternative-universe prequel; a mixed bag in tone and intent that could disappoint readers expecting a volume in which it is always 1895. Follow Holmes’ example: examine the clues carefully before deducing whoreadit.