Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Book Review - Robert Newman's The Case of the Baker Street Irregular

The Case of the Baker Street Irregular by Robert Newman
Published by: Aladdin Paperbacks
Publication Date: 1978
Format: Paperback, 228 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Andrew arrives in London from Cornwall with his guardian Mr. Dennison. Andrew is overwhelmed by the great metropolis bustling around him. He and his guardian have a small room near Baker Street where they are staying. After they settle in they walk around the neighborhood and Andrew gets a glimpse of the great detective himself, Sherlock Holmes! The next few days Mr. Dennison is busy and Andrew doesn't see much of him. The young lad is starting to know the area and befriends a young girl who goes by the name Screamer and whose brother is one of Sherlock Holmes's Baker Street Irregulars. They spend a great day at the zoo but then everything changes for Andrew. He sees his guardian, Mr. Dennison, bundled into a carriage against his will by a cabbie with a broken nose. His landlady is very helpful and they report the incident to the police, but soon Andrew's steps are dogged by the man with the broken nose and he takes refuge in the poorer areas of London. Beaten and stripped in an alleyway, Screamer, her brother, and their mother, Mrs. Wiggins, take Andrew in. But Andrew knows he is a burden on this poor family and happily takes any jobs he can get. One comes down from the great detective himself. Andrew is to lead a blind fiddler around town for a few days. Little does Andrew know at first that the blind fiddler is Sherlock Holmes and that their work together might solve not only the theft and forgery of some paintings, the disappearance of Mr. Dennison, but also find Andrew a home. It's all in a day's work for the world's greatest consulting detective!

My younger brother's bookshelves growing up consisted of Dr. Seuss, The Berenstein Bears, and magic books. There would occasionally be a book that didn't fit into these three categories, a book for school or a video game guide, but that was a rare occurrence. Some time last year the two of us were clearing out a few random boxes that contained stuff from his old bedroom, and yes, we did find old Christmas candy, the less said about that the better... but we also found this book I had never heard of, The Case of the Baker Street Irregular. It went into the pile dubbed, "Stuff That is Now Mine." Because seeing that book I had an idea. An idea that morphed into Sherlocked. That night I sat down at my computer and started making a list of all the books I had or wanted to read that were inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation, Sherlock Holmes. From middle grade reads written by Eve Titus to continuations written by Anthony Horowitz to loving parodies written by Neil Gaiman, within a few short minutes I had a list of almost twenty books and that got me thinking about how much Sherlock Holmes has been a part of my life in one form or another. From movies with cartoon mice to watching PBS with my mom, Sherlock has always been there for me. My three-month long Sherlocked extravaganza was born then and there and I knew that one of the books I read would have to be The Case of the Baker Street Irregular.

The Case of the Baker Street Irregular is a book that is painfully middle grade. What do I mean by that without being overly critical. Yes, laugh all you want that I'm worried about being overly critical. But I did enjoy the book, it's just that the author has some issues that are common in older books written for a younger audience (cough, L. Frank Baum, cough.) Primarily he talks down to his audience. He dumbs things down to make his audience get the concepts, but to a painful degree. The book is peppered with that dreaded concept of "teaching moments." He seems more concerned with educating his readers than creating a thrilling story that just happens to educate. This lends an overall flatness to the book. There is no fluctuation with excitement or danger or even mystery. The book plods along with it's slow snail pace and it's not until you accustom yourself to this that you can enjoy the book for what it is, not what it isn't. Newman is obsessed with locations and maps and characters muddling along through the morass of London in a way that does more to confuse than aid the reader. It isn't until Holmes in disguise is working with Andrew that the book finds it's legs. Before this moment it's two stories running tangentially that you are just waiting to connect. The book is also clever in that their working together isn't spelled out for you til the end. You know what's going on, but you're not 100% sure, and this is truly the only mystery the book affords that is worth your time.

What bothered me most about the book was the Baker Street Irregulars themselves. Ignoring the fact that the title of this book annoys me because of the singular versus the plural, the Irregulars aren't handled right. It felt to me like Newman didn't want to handle the actual social status of a street urchin in Victorian England because it would create too much of a disconnect with his readers so he made characters that would resonate more with kids today, couching the book in terms a young reader would get. In other words, see the "dumbing down" of above. So instead of true street urchins we have Mrs. Wiggins and her two children that are acceptably poor but not destitute. No, no, and no again. The Irregulars don't have families! Well, they might have siblings in their gang but NOT parents to go home to at night. This is some sort of rose-tinting of the Victorian era that is unacceptable to me. It somehow lessens what the Irregulars are. They are a force to be reckoned with because they have eyes and ears everywhere, they are always watching, not going home to their mom and dad at the end of the day! This is why in the new adaptation, Sherlock, that he uses a homeless network. The homeless problem of today with it's ubiquitousness is equal to what the street urchin epidemic was in Victorian times. They are everywhere so we have learned to tune them out. I just feel that for a book that liked it's "teaching moments" that to not handle an actual problem that is still ongoing in different forms is sloppy writing. Not to mention it just pissed me off and was totally against canon!

But the truth is if you can't get Holmes and Watson right then just don't write about them. Go big or go home. The genius of Eve Titus is that she was able to capture the language of Conan Doyle so perfectly that even a book written for very young children had that spark necessary to interest readers in the world's number one consulting detective. Newman doesn't get Holmes and Watson right at all and therefore is forced to make everyone else so bloody boring that Holmes and Watson are interesting by comparison. I don't think the correct way to interest someone in books is to make your story so boring in parts that their only alternative is to read the original work to get the point you were trying to make. While I've never been 100% on board with the quality of Conan Doyle's writing, when you see someone else fumbling simple descriptions and settings, not to mention the dreadful dialogue, you realize that perhaps you've underestimated Conan Doyle all along. And it's not just the set-up that failed for me, it's that the characterizations were so wrong. Watson was lippy and took control versus being obsequious. Holmes actually bothered to explain things as they were happening instead of reveling in the great reveal at the end. With all that was wrong you are probably confused as to why I liked the book. It's because of the seismic shift half-way through when Holmes is undercover with Andrew. Holmes was quiet and terse and secretive, and FINALLY Holmes. While after this little interlude Holmes went back to being wrong, and dare I say, melodramatic, because Holmes himself couldn't think of a more condemning word, that short interlude made the book worth everything else.

And I haven't even come to the crimes perpetrated in the book. Conan Doyle has a way with creating crime. He created stories that appeared mysterious and convoluted till the end reveal when it all made sense. In a nutshell they baffled while NEVER being illogical. The ending always fit with everything that came before. It's like if you were doing a puzzle but didn't have a picture of what you were working on. Once you finish it the picture is clear and everything fits together. Newman apparently didn't get this memo on how to craft a mystery. The crimes perpetrated in these pages are too convoluted and illogical. They are full of unnecessary red herrings and twists just to cover up their failings. But I seriously can not even when it comes to the illogical. I am quite literally baffled by the stupidity and lack of sense. Let's just look at the theft of the paintings. So their owner Lytell is short on money. Keep in mind short on money means he NEEDS money. Therefore to get money he is auctioning off several famous paintings. These paintings are stolen from the auction house and replaced with forgeries. Now if the thieves then went on to sell these paintings on the black market it would make total sense. Instead they ransom the paintings back to Lytell. So let me get this straight. Lytell doesn't have money, so you steal his paintings he was using to get money and then demand money of him? WHAT THE HECK! If he didn't have the money in the first place how would he have money now? Not to mention that this involves so much more work than necessary with trying to deceive Holmes and finding a decent forger. OK, now I'm starting to wonder why I liked this book... I think it might be the reverse effect of "Last Good Book I Read." Meaning I was reading a lot of shitty comics so this looked good in comparison. So maybe skip this one after all? But read the part where Holmes is undercover, that's fun.


I wonder if you have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" which collects apocryphal Sherlock Holmes stuff credited to him, including a couple of one-act plays.

A fault I find with the Holmes pastiches is that the author's frame-of-reference goes askew in favor of how they want to tell THEIR story. The Holmes and Watson of these tales might have more in common with their portrayals on film & television than in the canon - how else could Loren Estleman have Sherlock engage in cat-and-mouse games with Count Dracula and entertain the idea that Holmes was The Shadow? Then there's the 'Mary Sue' - of Carole Nelson Douglas uses to achieve maddening results. And on the other hand, Nicholas Meyer's trilogy is quite's quite a mixed bag, but never dull to peruse.

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