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The Last Sherlock Holmes Story

December 10, 2010

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story
Michael Dibdin
Oxford University Press
Paperback $6.95 72 pages

I read this book, and wrote a review of it, longhand on notepaper, about a week before I saw the new BBC Sherlock Holmes, where Benedict Cumberbach turns Holmes into a modern genius. I was enthralled from his first supercilious text message, and am rethinking my usual stuffy stance on Holmes adaptations, including what I wrote in this review.

A good reimagining of Sherlock Holmes works with the spirit of the original, the atmosphere and language as well as the characters. Call me a purist, but I want to see Holmes and Watson obeying the cadences of Conan Doyle’s original language, behaving in ways that extend from the patterns Conan Doyle set up in A Study In Scarlet and Hound of the Baskervilles. To tell a completely new story while honoring its origins takes a fine, balanced hand.

Michael Dibdin honors the Holmes legend while pushing its boundaries. Dibdin restlessly prowls the foggy world of 19th century London, invoking Holmes’ keen intellect, Watson’s loyalty sometimes tempered with exasperation, incorporating the real-life events of Jack The Ripper.

Best of all, Dibdin doesn’t head for the facile conclusion a Holmes vs. Ripper showdown could have had.  It could have been an ordinary pure dichotomy: good versus evil, clues, chase, crime solved.

What Dibdin builds is a much more thoughtful exploration of the Holmes character, and even the Ripper’s psyche. It raises probing questions about Holmes’ character for both Watson telling the tale, and the reader, putting it into the context of the larger Holmes narrative.

Other Holmes adaptations I like:

Sherlock- the BBC series. I started watching the DVDs on Monday and was floored. Sherlock! Texting! Taking nicotine patches instead of cocaine! But still being his arrogant self! Watson! An Afghanistan vet! God, it’s perfect!

The Italian Secretary- Caleb Carr. No surprise that the author of The Alienist has a terrific ear for recreating Conan Doyle’s language, while telling a new, almost whimsical story. (Anything involving a parrot is at least somewhat whimsical. Blame Monty Python.)

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders-Larry Millett. It took a while to get used to the idea of Sherlock Holmes visiting America, or in the sparse, somewhat frontier setting of Minnesota. I picked this up at the library by chance. (And had the entirely unworthy thought of comparing it to the Book of Mormon, in that it took literary figures far from their accepted setting, to construct a wholly new mythology.) The mystery and characterization grabbed me, though. I had no idea there were others. I might read them.

The Art of Detection- Laurie R. King. Detective Kate Martinelli investigates a murder within a community of Sherlock Holmes-obsessed enthusiasts. I wish Laurie R. King would write more Kate Martinelli books. I know she’s done extensive volumes of her own Holmes adaptation, starring Mary Russell, but I find the idea of Married!Holmes decidedly creepy. It verges on fanfiction.

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