Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Review: Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets: An Anthology of Holmesian Tales Across Time and Space

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets: An Anthology of Holmesian Tales Across Time and Space
Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets: An Anthology of Holmesian Tales Across Time and Space by Kasey Lansdale

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sherlock Holmes has been remixed and reimagined many times over the years. The character, and his associated characters (Watson, in particular), and even the minutiae like the 221B Baker Street address, are so iconic that they're still recognisable even after considerable distortion.

Take Elementary, for example (which the editor references in the introduction). Watson is an Asian woman, but that's comparatively cosmetic compared with the really big change to the character: she's a competent detective, not Sherlock's dense foil and occasional muscle. And yet the show works, largely because it's well-written and develops the relationships between the characters in ways that are continually surprising and yet make sense.

The premise of this collection is to create such alternative Sherlocks, Watsons and 221B Baker Streets. Some are science fiction, some are alternate history, at least one is clearly fantasy, several are horror, others are none of the above. We get not one, but two lesbian Sherlocks, a Watson who's a Chinese magician, and settings all over space and time.

But do they work as stories?

For me, they mostly didn't rise above mediocre, and so I was surprised to read the author biographies at the back of the book and read their extensive publishing history and their many award nominations and wins. (I'd only heard of a couple of them.)

Now, there are a few mitigating factors which may have contributed to my low evaluation. One is that I was reading an unedited Netgalley copy, which I was given for purposes of review. There are a lot of editing issues (I marked more than 70, including some very basic ones), some of which I expect will go away in the final version, though I have my doubts about others. The editor seems to have standardised on "alright", which I consider incorrect still, and there are also multiple instances of "disinterested" used to mean "uninterested" - that's a fight I consider lost, though, and I didn't even count them in the 70.

Not only were there a lot of errors from the authors, but whatever file was sent to Netgalley was in a format that, for Kindle reading, introduced more issues, missing spaces, extra or missing paragraph breaks, and a few instances of outright word salad. It also didn't provide a table of contents or navigable chapters, which makes it harder to read. Now, none of these issues will be in the final book, but they did wear away at my concentration, and when I'm distracted by such things I'm more likely to notice weaknesses in the stories themselves.

Then, too, I've been reading some great anthologies recently, collecting classic stories and the best of current writing, and these stories just didn't seem that great by comparison.

My expectations were lowered by the first story. OK, the characters don't have the traditional names (they're Haus and Wilson). OK, Wilson isn't a doctor, is black, American, and wounded in World War I, while Haus is a seedy carnival owner. Without the slightly forced introduction of the 221B address (it's on an old apartment door which is part of Haus's caravan) and the fact that it's in this collection, I probably wouldn't have spotted this as a Sherlock Holmes story at all.

All of which could still have worked, but this isn't a complete story. It's Act I of a three-act story. We get the characters and the situation introduced, but the mystery isn't solved. It's not an auspicious beginning. We also get someone "wrapping" instead of "rapping" on a table.

I won't go story by story, since I don't have the means to navigate between them easily, but I'll mention a few others. One of the stories has the 19th-century British style down perfectly, much better than several others in the collection which proceed as if using excessively long words and roundabout ways of saying things makes you sound like Watson (it doesn't). The problem is that this perfect 19th-century British style is used in a story set in America in the 1970s, something that is extremely significant to the plot, and that is repeatedly signaled by the author dropping cultural references into the text with, as it were, big flashing lights on them that form a sign: "WE ARE IN THE 1970s. THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER". The author also manages to dangle a couple of participles.

There are stories set in South Africa and Australia that aren't bad, but didn't thrill me.

Apart from some editing issues, I found the story of an Arthur Doyle who goes to interview Watson, the surviving half of a comedy detective show, one of the stronger stories. The ending wasn't a big surprise, having been well telegraphed, but it was nonetheless sound.

Some use of words the author doesn't actually know the meaning of in order to sound "19th-century" mars the story of Holmes and Watson as simulations in a computer who are starting to cross over into other works of literature. It would be a great premise if it hadn't been done so often.

Then there's the dreary, sordid story of a gay Holmes and Watson caught up in Andy Warhol's factory, too drugged and alienated to be able to prevent the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

The story in which Watson is a campus doctor at a Californian girls' college afflicted by a serial killer and a reality TV show was one of the more successful for me, linear though the plot was.

My confidence in the editor's ability to fix the numerous editing issues I'd been finding took a big hit when, in one of the story introductions, I read "unprepossessing" as a description of the author, when I'm fairly sure, from context, that the intended word was "unassuming". Calling someone unprepossessing isn't a compliment. It means they're ugly.

That particular story was, for me, one of the weakest in the collection. It invokes "something like human cloning" to explain a Holmes who periodically emerges from a box full of his ashes, memory and skills intact, and then disappears again into the box like a genie. The McGuffin is a "stolen formula". It reads like a 1930s pulp story, and not one of the best ones.

We close with another stronger story, in which Charlotte and Jane, schoolgirls, solve mysteries, including the theft of some of Jane's Sherlock Holmes fanfiction. The fanfiction is well written (more so than all but a tiny proportion of real fanfiction), and also serves to remind us that fanfiction is what this whole book is.

Again, for me it seldom rose above mediocre, and was occasionally worse than that. Whether that was because of excessive distraction by issues that won't be in the final version, I can't be sure.

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