Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Review - George Mann's The Will of the Dead

Sherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead by George Mann
Published by: Titan Books
Publication Date: November 5th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Watson has left his wife in the capable hands of her mother and has returned to 221B Baker Street. Mrs. Hudson had warned him that Sherlock was in quite a state, which often happens when he has no case to focus his mind on. Luckily for both Watson and Holmes a case is about to walk in the door. Peter Maugham has come to Sherlock Holmes because the will of his Uncle Theobold, who died after a tragic fall, has gone missing. The will has long been known to divide his substantial assets to his three nephews and his niece. Without the will the assets will go to the eldest nephew, Joseph, whose own sister fears for her two cousins and herself if this were to happen. Therefore finding the will is paramount. Though in trying to locate the will, Holmes also realizes that Theobold Maugham's death wasn't an accident, so the disappearance of the will may a have nefarious meaning. And when the son of Theobold's disinherited sister, Hans Gerber appears, he instantly becomes the chief suspect. Older than Joseph, he would inherit the vast estate, and he's making sure his relatives know that this new world order is to be accepted at all costs. Yet no one is willing to accept this change and soon things become dire as Peter Maugham is murdered! The inspector in charge from Scotland Yard, Charles Bainbridge, seems to be less useless than most police officers in Holmes's mind, but he is stretched thin, with his boss not wanting to sign off of Theobold Maugham being murdered, and with the wealthy of London being plagued by large iron men who are breaking into their houses and stealing their most precious possessions. If Holmes can wrap up the Maugham case, perhaps he'd be willing to lend Bainbridge a hand with these devilish iron men?

By now, being readers of this blog, you should have realized I'm a big fan of George Mann. His Newbury and Hobbes series is definitively what Steampunk is to me. He has helped shaped this new Victorian era for me so it seems only logical that he would eventually get around to writing a book in homage to the author and character that shaped the Victorian era in literature the first time around. I'm talking about Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. Reading George's work you can see how he is indebted to Conan Doyle and even if the world's greatest consulting detective were to never grace the pages of his books George has a way to evoke the spirit of Sherlock Holmes with these new steam-powered adventures. This natural progression of combing these two worlds sees it's fruition in The Will of the Dead. It doesn't hurt that this book is able to be enjoyed within the context of the Newbury and Hobbes universe or as a stand-alone. Those who haven't read George's previous work won't know that Charles Bainbridge, one of the first police officers to not completely offend and exasperate Holmes, is a staple of those other adventures, because he blends so well into this new story. This is a wonderful tribute to the enduring legacy of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle and will hopefully capture George a few readers he might otherwise not have caught, this book handily being shelved in the "mystery" section of Barnes and Noble where that certain type of reader would never bother to go the few aisles over to "science fiction and fantasy." But more than anything this book has tried to derail my well thought out reads for this month by making me want to delve back into the world of George's books. Or at the very least read Sherlock Holmes: The Spirit Box! 

The Will of the Dead is an odd little book in that it's precariously balanced between straight up Sherlock Holmes adventure and Steampunk and there's a part of me that wants to tip the scales one way or the other. I get that this is a nice introduction to Steampunk for those who aren't inclined to pick up a book in this genre and lean towards the traditional gaslight mystery, but this was an opportunity to fully mesh Holmes with Steampunk and instead it came off as a dalliance. The thing is, Steampunk goes well with Holmes. It's just one of those facts of life, like peanut butter and jelly. It just is. Even Guy Richie got this when making his films with Robert Downey Junior. So it's disconcerting that instead of forming a cohesive Steampunk whole George instead creates a traditional adventure running alongside a Steampunk one. The two stories never meet and make a satisfying whole. Each story is great on it's own, but that's just it, it's on it's own. If George had wanted to do this he should have approached the book more like the traditional adventures and written them both as short stories and added in that little extra story from The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes to complete the book. This would have worked better in my mind then some story that tries to bridge the gap and instead just seems to emphasis the gap versus closing it. But perhaps my persnickety self just had issues that despite how different the two cases were they ended up being concluded in similar manners. I should point out though that I don't think this is a fault of George's; it's a fault of Conan Doyle! Conan Doyle often had similar endings and themes, in fact I created my own shorthand to categorize the stories when reviewing them back in October and there were many stories categorized similarly. But still, wouldn't it be better to go further and better than the creator? Perhaps one day that will happen, because I don't think George is about to stop writing about Sherlock Holmes...

As for tipping the scales towards Holmes versus towards Steampunk, I think George could have easily gotten away with this. I have read A LOT of writers failing to make even the most easy of stories convincingly part of the Holmes canon. In fact, big, best selling authors who have been endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate haven't created such a compelling mystery as George does here with the death of Theobald Maugham. But what I really liked is how he wrote the mystery in a very traditional way but omitted the most tedious of Conan Doyle's habits, such as the clients retelling their plight in front of the fire at 221B Baker Street. Instead we are given little testimonial vignettes that get us inside the heads of other characters while also deepening the mystery. This is a genius idea and is one of many ways that George maintains the original feeling of the adventures while also switching it up. I particularly like how Holmes's inscrutability visibly annoys Watson and how he occasionally calls Holmes out or at least elicits the sympathy of his readers, who have also, over the years, tired of some of Holmes's shtick. And this is why it annoys me that the book could have all gone this way, because it would have so worked! As for the omissions of the Steampunk? Well, just having Bainbridge there would be the link! By then including the aforementioned short story at the end readers not familiar with Steampunk could see the way stories like Holmes's could be developed into something new. Plus, a riveting little short story at the end? I didn't expect that little bonus, and though I had read the story previously, I found myself instantly captured by the narrative once more, sitting there with Bainbridge on the edge of his seat. That's how you convert them to Steampunk! Bait them with a tantalizing story after telling them the story they were expecting in the best possible way.

I have the need here to go on a bizarre tangent; it's on the naming of characters. The naming of characters is an art. The perfect name will become enshrined on our hearts, like Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Veronica Hobbes. These are just perfect names. They flow, they are original, they are iconic, like the name Sherlock Holmes itself. An interesting aside, but did you know he was originally named Sherrinford Hope? Now that just doesn't ring true for the world's most famous consulting detective now does it? So that shows that even the best of authors have crazy ideas every once in awhile, Sherrinford Hope, really!?! There is a subcategory to naming characters in which the name strikes a cord with us, maybe because we know someone with that name, or with a similar name. This is always disconcerting seeing that name out of context, and it's even weirder if it's your own name! But what if the character is named similar to someone famous or iconic? Apparently that's the real reason for us not knowing about the adventures of Sherrinford Hope, because Sherrinford was a famous cricketer. Hans Gerber gave me no end of annoyance in The Will of the Dead. Let me set the stage. It's a few weeks till Christmas, I'm reading a book with a German character named Hans Gerber, which EVERY TIME I read it morphs into Hans Gruber, he of Die Hard fame. Yes. Hans Gruber as played by Alan Rickman was incongruously walking around Victorian England. Of course there's a chance that this was on purpose and George put it in as a joke? Please say it's true, because otherwise, well, I have weird images in my head right now. End mini rant.

Reading SO MANY books centered around Sherlock Holmes I have started to become some sort of Sherlock Holmes purist. Well, to an extent. My basic approach is anything is fair game so long as it doesn't go against canon without explaining it. For example I just started reading The Beekeeper's Apprentice and Laurie R. King takes time out to explain why her Holmes will appear different than the canonical Holmes as set down by Watson. This is totally fine with me, I was given a reason, I was told up front not to lose my shit when something different appeared, fair play to Laurie R. King. As for Steampunk seeping to the canon, again, it's George Mann, it's to be expected, and therefore enjoyed. It's the little details that are gotten wrong that crawl under my skin. George nails everything pretty well but there is one detail that has gotten under my skin and it's driving me up the wall. So Watson married his first wife, Mary Morstan in 1889. According to George's website and the timeline of the Newbury and Hobbes universe The Will of the Dead takes place in the 1880s. It's important to know that it's the 1880s because if it was later George could be referencing Watson's second wife that we know next to nothing about. The same can't be said about Mary, as she was an integral part of The Sign of the Four and we know her history, mainly that she's an orphan. Her mother died shortly after her birth and her father, well, to say what happened to him would ruin a decent story... but the key here is she is an orphan. In other words SHE CAN NOT BE VISITING HER MOTHER! Every time Watson said that Mary was off visiting her mother I got a little nervous twitch right below my eye. Seriously, to get everything so spot on and have this one thing just there. Yes... I might be taking this too seriously, but still, Holmes wouldn't let it slid so why should I?


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