Arthur Conan DoyleSherlock Holmes
The Albino's Treasure
Medium: book
Year: 2015
Writer: Stuart Douglas
Original creator: Arthur Conan Doyle
Publisher: Titan Books
Keywords: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: UK
ISBN: 9-781783-293124
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 1 July 2015
I quite enjoyed it. I don't think it's as good as Conan Doyle's stories, but that's hardly a criticism. Those have stood the test of centuries and will probably still be being read after Western civilisation has fallen. (Come to think of it, might they be the most-read 19th century fiction? That's not to claim that Doyle is like Dickens, Austen, Hardy et al., but Sherlock Holmes is one of the most iconic fictional characters of all time and his stories still work today, even for knuckle-draggers who'd never dream of picking up, say, Bleak House. His only rivals I think are from horror, e.g. Dracula or Frankenstein, and I suspect Holmes attracts more readers than Stoker or Shelley. R.L. Stevenson's an interesting comparison, though. However I digress.)
I was discussing The Albino's Treasure. It's the latest in a series from Titan Books called The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which includes titles like Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes, Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula and The War of the Worlds. Disappointingly, this isn't a similar literary team-up. On second thoughts, maybe it is and I've just betrayed my ignorance? Is the Albino be someone from Victorian literature I've never heard of? Might the Lord of Strange Deaths be a well-known fictional mastermind of the same ethnicity? (I'm assuming that he's not, personally, but then again I've never read the original books. I've only seen the films.)
However if there is such a literary reference, I've missed it. Functionally, for me, this is a book of Sherlock Holmes vs. Stuart's original characters.
(Footnote: yup, I've betrayed my ignorance. To quote Stuart himself... "Zenith the Albino comes from the Sexton Blake stories and the Lord of Strange Deaths is another name for Fu Manchu (pinched from Kim Newman, but I asked him and he said that he got the name from some pulp where it was already being used as a pseudonym for Manchu).")
Anyway, what's the book like? It's an adventure and, as such, entertaining. It has a surprising number of Moriarty-level supervillains (the first of them actually compared to Moriarty himself), but I can live with that. Strong antagonists are a plus. People meet horrible deaths, Dr Watson does some doctoring and Sherlock gets an intellectual puzzle to beat his head against and get bad-tempered. I also spent half the book suspecting a completely innocent character of being a fourth supervillain, on general whodunnit principles, even though my theory was at odds with everything we'd been told about the character.
It's fun. I like its language, including the odd bit of period slang (e.g. lollygaggers). Its use of real history in the Sherlock-verse is surprising, bringing in both Ireland and China. I read it happily enough and I'd have no problem with picking up Stuart's next one, The Counterfeit Detective.
All that said, though, I think the book suffers if compared with Conan Doyle. In some ways that's an unfair comparison, since this isn't cobweb-ridden pastiche. It's not aping the way Doyle plots his stories or advances his narratives. It's a novel from 2015, albeit set in 1896. End of story... in theory. However, in practice, of course we'll be comparing them. It's Sherlock Holmes! We've all read the stories, or at least I'm always surprised to hear of people who haven't. We've known him since our childhoods. Of course we're going to judge a new Sherlock Holmes story against those long-established yardsticks, whether or not it's fair to do so.
Firstly, to me, Holmes and Watson felt too unsympathetic. Holmes's off-putting behaviour is theoretically in accordance with Doyle, but it's as if the book's rubbing our noses in it. "Holmes gave one of his most hearty laughs, as though someone had said something enormously humorous, but I confess to feeling only a terrible coldness as I looked down at the poor woman's corpse." There are also moments when we glimpse Holmes's compassion and fondness, but at the end of the day I found him more gratuitously unpleasant than I expect from the original.
Meanwhile Watson is oversensitive and prickly. Admittedly he can be mollified easily by a moment of thoughtfulness from Holmes, but it's hard to imagine these two living with each other for even a fortnight. I wouldn't say they even feel like friends. Friends understand each other better than this and can go with the flow.
The narrative voice is perhaps a little dry. This Watson tells a story a little like a police gazette, giving us the facts without necessarily bringing his world alive as vividly as he might.
Then there's the storyline, which is fine by modern adventure standards but not as good as Doyle's. I don't think Doyle tends to get enough credit for his storylines. Holmes is the star, yes, but the mysteries Doyle created for him to solve are attention-grabbing. Their ideas and imagery stay with you. The Red-Headed League! The Speckled Band! Doyle creates simple, ingenious puzzles with satisfying solutions. Here, though, we have one bunch of potential villains who sort of fade away and the book being built around a puzzle for Sherlock (involving pictures) that feels perhaps a bit contrived. It's the villains you'll remember here, not what they were doing.
The point of a Sherlock Holmes story is to watch him being clever, I think. That's what he does. That's the point of the character. Here, that cleverness feels a little more peripheral than I'd have personally chosen to make it.
That probably sounds negative, but I did enjoy this book. It's fine. It entertained me. It also inhabits its era quite well, e.g. Holmes's logical premises occasionally involving dodgy and/or politically incorrect 19th century assumptions, or Watson being capable of being a prissy old schoolmarm. (I say both of those with approval. That's how the characters were and it's both correct and, oddly, even charming.) The treasure itself is a neat idea. Meanwhile the narrative voice feels satisfyingly true to the period, in both its grammatical and vocabulary choices.
It's a decent book, I think. All of my reservations are Holmes-specific and come from comparisons I'm making, perhaps unfairly, with Doyle. To be honest, I'm not sure they're even quite the same genre. They're both detective stories, but Doyle's Holmes is so quick at demolishing criminal cases that it's almost impossible to build a full-length novel around him. It's like putting a shark in a fish tank. You have to write him out for great chunks of it. This book, on the other hand, is more like a police procedural. It doesn't, for instance, do that Doyle thing of doing pages and pages of unbroken dialogue until you realise that that's how he tells these stories.
I look forward with interest to The Counterfeit Detective. I just have a few things I'd like to see tweaked.