Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Most Mysterious Murder...

Le Détective Volé (The Stolen Detective) by René Reouven begins with a disclaimer that goes something like this: “Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849, and Sherlock Holmes was born in 1854, but such a minute detail wouldn’t have prevented two such remarkable people from meeting.” This is a bit misleading, since there is never at any point in the novel a moment where Sherlock Holmes meets Edgar Allan Poe. And yet…

I will admit, the concept of this novel initially had me baffled. This is a Sherlockian pastiche in which Holmes’ fictional nature is admitted from the outset, and as a result the entire novel is a literary game being played out between Reouven and his readers. Here is the premise: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is sick and tired of hearing all these comparisons between Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin stories and his Holmes stories. So he uses H. G. Wells’ time machine to send Holmes and Watson back in time to Paris in the 1830s. Their mission is to get in touch with Vidocq, and investigate whether or not Poe ripped the idea for The Purloined Letter from the headlines. And if so, who was the real-life C. Auguste Dupin?

Part 2 of the novel is set in the late 1840s in America. After wrapping things up in Paris, Holmes and Watson go through the time machine once again to find that Edgar Allan Poe has just died. But what is the significance of the names that Poe shouted out before he expired? And what does this case have in common with the Mary Rogers murder case, which inspired Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget? Holmes investigates and comes up with a surprisingly plausible solution to the crime (one that apparently is gaining more credibility with academia these days).

The book is divided into two parts, and the two parts form sort-of individual narratives that ultimately tie into each other – so that in the end, this is truly one novel, as opposed to, say, two novellas. And plot-wise, this is an absolutely delicious book. The “real” Dupin’s identity is deliciously ironic, the death of Poe is satisfactorily explained, and the plot threads from both parts end up meshing together beautifully. I must confess I found the second part a little more interesting than the first part, but that’s mainly because it’s what I was waiting for – an investigation of Edgar Allan Poe’s death. Throughout, whenever a historical figure intervenes in the story — like Vidocq or Poe — the moments feel genuine and necessary to the story.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the structure of the plot. I have compared it to a literary game, and that seems to me most appropriate. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are fictional, and H. G. Wells’ time machine is not a literal time machine, but a literary device. Despite that, they are interacting with real historical figures and investigating real events. Simply put, Reouven tells you a story, and it all leads to a surprising resolution. The challenge is to outguess him instead of being ambushed by the plot. It’s like an intellectual tennis game.

I was equally impressed with Reouven’s sense of place. He really brings the Paris of the 1830s to life, with the French Revolution ended not too long ago. A considerable chunk of the novel revolves around the homosexual community of Paris, and it’s fascinating to see these details brought to life (though I cannot vouch for their historical accuracy). When the action shifts to New York, a lot of time is spent in gangland territory, and as a result Reouven can take you to all sorts of interesting murky places, such as a gruesome fight between a bull and a pack of dogs.

All this is written in a style that really captures the essence of Holmes, at least as I imagine it when seeing it through the veil of translation. Reouven’s pastiches are among the few that can make me do a double-take: I can find myself wondering whether this is actually an original Conan Doyle tale that was lost to the world shortly after it was translated into French. It’s wonderfully done, and these stories demand that a professional Sherlockian tackle a translation job someday.

Overall, Le détective volé (The Stolen Detective) is a masterpiece. It’s really one of the best Sherlockian pastiches I’ve ever read. I can’t say enough good stuff about it. The plot is delicious, the setting and atmosphere is wonderful, I didn’t see the ending coming, and it left me feeling 100% satisfied. It was a terrific, riveting read… and yet, Reouven has managed to surpass the height of even this novel. Please join me next time as I take a look at a Sherlock Holmes story without Sherlock Holmes in it! Well, sort of; that’s not quite entirely true. (Look, it’s complicated.)

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