Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Final Problem

Earlier this year, I reviewed a string of Holmesian pastiches, which is when I got very annoyed at a recurring plot element. It seems that many pastiche writers go for the cliché plot element where they “kill” Holmes for one scene, have Watson mourn his tragic death, and bring him back twenty or thirty pages later. This got so annoying that when I was reviewing Loren D. Estleman’s first-rate Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, I ended up writing the following:

Basically, I’ve gotten very tired of sitting through Holmes’ death over and over again, and only to see him come back. It’s not like I hate Holmes – I love the character – but it’d be refreshing if someone killed Holmes off and just left him dead.

Those words have come back to haunt me. Because as it turns out, there is a gentleman out there named Michael Dibdin who wrote The Last Sherlock Holmes Story. And ooooooooh boy, it’s definitely the last Sherlock Holmes story. I won’t say why it’s the last one, but I will say this much: Dibdin’s revisions to the Canon are so drastic that they make Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per-Cent Solution look like a faithful follow-up.

Fortunately, Dibdin’s revisions are not of the “Oh, I’m just too clever, aren’t I? Probably better than Conan Doyle!” variety. These are some genuinely fantastic and intriguing ideas, intelligently backed by the Canon. Although I found the ending a bit on the weak side, with Dr. Watson being phenomenally stupid, Watson offers a decent defense of his stupidity and makes it seem plausible. It’s also a very good instalment in Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper lore, turning the infamous murders into a fantastic prelude to The Final Problem.

That’s honestly all I dare reveal about the plot and all you need to know going in. Holmes does battle against Jack the Ripper, and this is my favourite kind of Jack the Ripper solution: it’s a solution that’ll only work in fiction and doesn’t try to do anything else. Like René Reouven and Elementary, My Dear Holmes, the villain cast as Jack the Ripper couldn’t possibly be a suspect in real life. But oftentimes, an author writing a Holmes vs. the Ripper story will try to make their suspect a plausible culprit in real life and only succeeds in making the fiction weaker. (Lyndsey Faye’s Dust and Shadow ran into this problem.) But no, Michael Dibdin allows his imagination to run wild and comes up with one of the most interesting Jack the Ripper suspects I’ve ever read about. Is it the definitive Holmes vs. the Ripper story? No, I still think that honour goes to Elementary, My Dear Holmes. But The Last Sherlock Holmes Story stands its ground quite admirably.

The characters of Holmes and Watson are very well drawn. Watson is fairly intelligent until his bout of stupidity near the end, but as I’ve already said, he has a legitimate excuse. I liked seeing Watson being smart, because that makes him more interesting company and it makes Holmes’ brilliance seem all the more dazzling. Although Watson narrates the story it sounds nothing like the Dr. Watson from the Canon. This too is explained: it turns out that Arthur Conan Doyle was the author of the Holmes stories, and used Watson’s case notes to construct them. This is a masterstroke on Dibdin’s behalf, but I really dare not go into more detail here.

Holmes is essentially the same figure we all know and love from Conan Doyle’s story. The brilliant mind is still there and is still impatient at the stupidity of mere mortals. The excitement of the chase is still there and he doesn’t back down from an intellectual puzzle. He gets into a duel of wits with a master criminal, and it’s at these moments where Holmes is at his finest.

That’s really all I can say about this story. It quite simply took me aback. Michael Dibdin did something interesting, original, clever, and creative with Sherlock Holmes. Shockingly enough, he keeps his promise that this is The Last Sherlock Holmes Story. It’s not a book that will appeal to every Holmesian, but if you’re tired of seeing the same old clichés dressed up in different ways, this is a refreshing book. It’s one of those books that reminds me just why I fell in love with Holmes in the first place.

6 comments:

  1. I know why it's the last Sherlock Holmes story. I have this and read it many years ago.

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  2. This book got some pretty bad reviews in some quarters so glad to hear you thought much better of it - I did like Dibdin's books though stopped keeping up with hsi Aurelio Zen series long before his death as they got a bit repetitive for me (probably an Italian thing - not really much of a Donna Leon reader either).

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  3. I have never read the book, but I know the premise as it spoiled for me when I was reading up on it. I don't think I'll be reading this one anytime soon as it is just a bit too radical for my tastes. The premise may be original, but it's not my cup of tea. If you're still interested in a Holmes vs. the Ripper novel, I recommend "The Whitechapel Horrors" by Edward B. Hanna.

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  4. I was bothered by the ending; in fact, by the latter part of the book. There was some genuinely intriguing plotting and characterization upfront but the final fizzle left me feeling unsatisfied.

    I had similar feelings about Nicholas Meyer's "Seven-Per-Cent Solution". Some great writing, clever plotting but a disappointing latter half of the novel.

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    1. I think I'd probably agree with you. If you go back to my review of "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution", you'll see that I was far more enthusiastic about the first part of the novel where Meyer pulls all the revisionist rabbits out of his hat. The mystery we're left with is obvious and not particularly interesting, but the journey we took to get there was so much fun that I still think it's an excellent read.

      I had sort-of similar feelings about this book at first, but then I thought back and realized that I liked the fact that Dibdin took some risks. The ending requires Watson to be a complete moron, but he himself admits that it was not his finest hour, so I can forgive him. The overall result was far more interesting to me than reading yet another serious, 'credible' take on Holmes vs. the Ripper. ("Credibility" in these novels often serves only to make the fiction weaker.)

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  5. My biggest complaint about the book is that if I were going to buy what we are served up, then I would like to know just where the heck is Mycroft in this story? The character doesn't seem to exist in the novel and IMO Dibdin shouldn't have left him out.

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