Ah, the delightful world of ‘what if’. What if everything we thought we knew about Dr. John H. Watson was a lie? What if Watson wasn’t really Watson?...moreAh, the delightful world of ‘what if’. What if everything we thought we knew about Dr. John H. Watson was a lie? What if Watson wasn’t really Watson? What if the events surrounding the momentous meeting between Holmes and Watson in A Study in Scarlet was all a set-up orchestrated by that criminal mastermind Moriarty? What if David Stuart Davies took the above as a starting point for a new pastiche?
Well, to answer the last ‘what if’, the result is David Stuart Davies first pastiche to be published by a non-Sherlockian press - The Veiled Detective. While Davies is no stranger to Sherlockian pastiche, having thrown Holmes up against the likes of Dracula and into the midst of the Prisoner of Zenda, The Veiled Detective takes Holmes, to say nothing of Watson, along a very different path. Rather than taking the traditional approach of throwing Holmes and Watson into non-traditional stories, Davies instead reimagines the very core of what we know about our heroes. In essence he has taken the traditional Holmes story, in this case mostly using A Study in Scarlet and later The Final Problem, and changed the basic characters populating it. Not in an altogether unpleasing manner either.
Davies begins on a strong note, we find ourselves privy to events in Afghanistan on a fateful night in 1880 that lead to the court martial and disgraced dismissal of Dr. John H. Walker. While heading back to England aboard the Orontes, the despondent Doctor, facing a future with no employment or prospects for income, finds himself being recruited for some enigmatic business concern by a suave fellow who keeps mistakenly calling him Watson. Upon arriving in England, Walker soon finds himself face to face with that great over-used Sherlockian plot-device Professor James Moriarty and here is where the plot begins to thicken. You see, the Professor is concerned about some young upstart named Sherlock Holmes, while he admires Holmes intellect, he also wisely sees the young detective as a potentially serious threat to the well being of his vast criminal organization so wishes to keep an eye on the fellow. Rather than simply have Holmes killed, he enjoys the challenge of playing a game against a comparable intellect too much, so he invests in a plan to put a spy in Holmes’ camp who can report back on any potentially threatening investigations. Walker is of course just the fellow for the job according to Moriarity’s recruiter, but he is an honorable man and wants no part in the plan… until his life is threatened and a handsome monthly payment is dangled before his eyes. Reluctantly Walker is given a new name (Watson) and his background is effectively covered up so that he can begin a new life. He rationalizes his acceptance of the spying job by thinking that he will never have to raise a hand in violence and that all he need do is send written reports to Moriarty if Holmes comes too close to any of the Professor’s machinations. So in short, John H. Walker becomes a half-pay medico called Watson newly returned from Afghanistan looking for lodgings in London. If that isn’t twisted enough for the reader, Davies then really lays on the tough to swallow stuff by having the house in Baker Street set-up by Moriarty, even including a dodgy actress as housekeeper, has pressure applied to Holmes landlord in Montague Street to evict the young lodger, and uses Stamford’s gambling debts to manipulate an introduction between Watson and Holmes that leads to their sharing of rooms. Once the introduction occurs, things settle into mostly familiar territory and a slightly skewed version of the main plot of A Study in Scarlet unfolds. Walker/Watson develops an admiration of the arrogant young detective and a protective friendship develops. Walker/Watson goes so far as to keep very damaging information, the sort that could put Holmes on the gallows, from both Moriarty and the Law. Things move along so well for Walker/Watson through The Sign of Four that Moriarty even allows him to marry and move from Baker Street. Needless to say, sooner or later things start to unravel leading, rather predictably, to a climax that is a variation of events in The Final Problem.
Davies, as usual, demonstrates an engaging style and useful knowledge of the form that is never totally at odds with the Canon. The exception being, of course, that Watson has lied to us. He deftly weaves a world that is both instantly familiar yet radically at odds with our expectations. Unfortunately, the radical start, labyrinthine plotting aside, soon gives way to a sense that Davies is playing it safe after-all. Sure he throws a few curveballs in presenting a warts and all view of Holmes, and an even odder view of brother Mycroft, but one gets the sense that he could have pushed the intriguing premise considerably further. I’m not suggesting the sort of re-imagining that we were given in the television production Sherlock: A Case of Evil but I did feel that having everything settle into the Canonical view post-Reichenbach was something of a let-down. Is it as radical a re-imagining of events as in say Nick Meyer’s Seven Percent Solution? Possibly. Does it transcend the medium of pastiche and will it crossover to a mainstream readership in the same way? Not a chance. Is it as good or will it have the same sort of impact on the Sherlockian reader? Doubtful at best, but perhaps that is the result of 30 years of pastichery that has taken Sherlock Holmes to almost every extreme, dulling our senses to what should be a radical interpretation, that in the end makes this seem like just another well-written and researched ‘what if’ that didn’t quite push the envelope as far as it might have. Whatever the case, it is an entertaining enough variation to make it a worthwhile read and addition to the Sherlockian pastiche bookshelf!
The Bottom Line: Recommended for pastiche enthusiasts who enjoy something off the beaten path, but not recommended for those who prefer the traditional pastiche approach.(less)