Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Book Review - David Pirie's The Dark Water

The Dark Water by David Pirie
Published by: Pegasus Books
Publication Date: May 1st, 2003
Format: Hardcover, 354 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Arthur Conan Doyle's nemesis has returned to England. He and Dr. Bell have made it their life's work to capture this man, Dr. Neill Cream, and see him pay for his crimes, not the least of which is murdering Elspeth, Conan Doyle's fiance. Yet Conan Doyle didn't expect Cream to strike first, kidnapping the would-be author and holding him hostage while heavily drugged. But Conan Doyle miraculously escapes, and thanks to some help in the unlikeliest of places, he reunites with Dr. Bell in Edinburgh. They retrace Cream's steps through England, where he is using the name Dr. Mere, and realize that this murderous man is in desperate need of funds. Dr. Bell starts going over everything that Conan Doyle remembers of his incarceration and Cream's mention of the sea seems to coincide with a suspicious disappearance of a wealthy man in the town of Dunwich. Sir Thomas Jefford had just inherited a house in Dunwich, The Glebe, when he disappeared. His friends thought it was a joke, but locals believe it is tied up in the legend of the Witch of Dunwich Heath, which Jefford was planning on writing about. Conan Doyle and Bell set out for this remote village on the Eastern Coast and slowly start to piece together what has happened. But soon there are not just dealing with a disappearance, but deaths. Murder! Can they separate facts from fiction and catch Cream before he has a chance to escape their grasp once more?

Recently I was having a conversation with one of my friends about people who rate books on Goodreads when they haven't finished them. We were in total accord that it's unfair to the book and the author. To give a star rating that is factored into the overall rating for something you couldn't be bothered to finish skews the results. You either finish the book and rate it or abandon it, there is no middle ground. This then morphed into a discussion on when do you give up on a book. Do you give it fifty pages, a hundred pages, what? When do you know in your gut that enough is enough? When do you know that you can't make it to the end and have the satisfaction of adding your two cents on Goodreads? I'm a masochist, because I can really count on one hand the number of books I have actually given up on. I'm in it for the long haul, no matter what. Rage reading, incentives, whatever it takes, I WILL finish that book. The reason I bring this up now, other than the wacky serendipity that made these two events happen within days of each other, is that if I was the type of person to actually give up on books, well, The Dark Water would have been abandoned early. Yet you will notice that in the end I really liked it. I mean, I REALLY liked it. So how long did it take for me to get into it? 123 pages. This just proves that there is no magical page number at which you should abandon hope. A book with a disjointed and awkward start can click from one page to the next and become a true page-turner. Plus, it's always nice to have your patience rewarded, it's awkward when the book goes the other way, ie, to the dogs.

The Dark Water is actually the third book in David Pirie's series about Dr. Joseph Bell and Arthur Conan Doyle. While I didn't actually know this when I bought the book, before reading it I looked up the summaries to the first two books, The Patient's Eyes and The Night Calls, and realized that they sounded very familiar. See, this series actually didn't start out as books, but as a television show, Murder Rooms, therefore doing the opposite of most adaptations out there. 'The Patient's Eyes' was the first episode after the pilot, while the pilot became The Night Calls. While I think 'The Patient's Eyes' is one of the strongest episodes, the pilot isn't of the highest quality, so I figured I'd be safe just skipping to the new story. Because that is what I was really excited about. I was sad when Murder Rooms was cancelled and here, with this book, it felt like the axe hadn't fallen. Yet upon starting The Dark Water there were all these mentions to things I hadn't heard about, little stories that didn't line up with the show. References or asides I just didn't get. This could in fact be one of the reasons it took me 123 pages to get into the book. It was just a weird experience, like hearing a story you've heard a hundred times but with key points changed for no perceptible reason. I almost felt as if the books took place in a parallel dimension to the television series. You knew enough about the world to get around but it was just that little bit off to be disconcerting. Therefore, given the chance to do this over, I would read the first two books first, because maybe it would make those first 123 pages interesting.

But then again... I think not. The reason those first 123 pages don't work is because of Cream. Dr. Thomas Neill Cream is an historically interesting person; a Scottish-Canadian serial killer known as the Lambeth Poisoner who tried to claim the victims of Jack the Ripper as his own. So we have historical precedence of his evil deeds and ways. But, despite this book being fiction, the sheer unlikelihood of his ever crossing paths with Conan Doyle, nine years his junior, let alone becoming his arch-nemesis just strains credulity. Add to that the whole lovelorn Conan Doyle who lost his first love at the hands of Cream and we're in absurd penny dreadful territory. While there's a disconnect between the fictional Conan Doyle and the actual, artistic license allows a little freedom, but taking Cream and forcing him into the role of Moriarty to Conan Doyle's Holmes... it just doesn't work. And not just the fact that Bell is the true Holmes of this narrative. It's fun seeing the little hints of how life became fictionalized in Conan Doyle's stories, but this is too heavy handed. Too obvious. Cream is taking Moriarty too far, especially at the end. Subtlety is needed to make this conceit believable. Subtlety and just enough reality. Cream is too over the top. Too theatrical. His kidnapping of Conan Doyle and holding him hostage is so overly dramatic and also tedious that it bogs down the first two sections of the book. It's not until Cream disappears offstage that the book starts to work. If it wasn't for Cream this could be a near perfect book, but alas, it isn't. Also, is there anyone else that thinks the name Cream doesn't inspire terror?

Getting beyond Cream and into the history of the small English town of Dunwich captivated me. Dunwich is a small coastal town on the eastern coast of England that was mentioned in the Doomsday book. Much of the town has been lost to coastal erosion and now lives under the sea. They have stories that you can still hear the bells of the churches under the water calling you. This locale brought with it the haunting atmosphere that made The Hound of the Baskervilles so memorable and easily Conan Doyle's greatest story in the Sherlock Holmes canon. There's something about desolate and bleak settings that just up the Gothic impact of a mystery and make me all the more invested in it. It's the haunting landscape of Cornwall coupled with her writing that makes Daphne Du Maurier so memorable. Her writing wouldn't have had the same impact set anywhere else. Plus she had a symbiotic relationship between her and the land that makes me think if it wasn't for Cornwall who knows if she would ever have really written anything memorable. That is what Dunwich does for The Dark Water. The town becomes a reflection of the story and becomes a character in it's own right. The treacherous walks along the cliffs where even holy landmarks to God were destroyed by the forces of nature sends a frisson of excitement through me just thinking about it again. The wind and the rain which might be a detriment anywhere else here become a real danger. Now I'm not saying I ever want to go there, but the way this book transported me there, it feels like I've already been.

Yet Dunwich wouldn't have had the impact unless it was coupled with the mythology and folklore that surround the town, and not just the ghostly bells. The way "The Wylde Hunt at Dunwich" and the Witch of Dunwich Heath not only added an otherworldly element to the story but spread fear and cleverly concealed the real killer is the beating heart of this book. I have always been fascinated by the idea that Fairy Tales may be real and that mythology and folklore must have some basis in fact. I love how Dr. Bell instantly sees through these scare tactics, such as the howling man roaming the moors, but realizes the importance of these stories and the effect they will have on the surrounding community if they are believed. He works backward, from the stories that have survived, knowing that they have a grounding in reality. He is able to find how seemingly impossible deaths were accomplished by using the truth within the story. But it's not just the ability to use these stories to catch a killer, but the stories themselves that give you a glimpse into the past. You get a mini history of this small community through their folktales. Regional folktales are the way history has been passed down through the generations. You learn more about an area and it's past from it's stories than from some staid history written to set the record straight. Plus let us not forget that in his old age Conan Doyle set more store in fairies and folklore than in his own writing. Fairy Tales are just history and mystery coming together, and in this instance they are used to catch a killer.


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