Rose's Reviews > The Secret Journal of Dr Watson

The Secret Journal of Dr Watson by Phil Growick
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Apr 19, 2012

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bookshelves: holmes, mysteries
Read in September, 2012

My last Holmes pastiche saw Holmes and Watson board the "Titanic" -- which, as I noted in my review for it, meant that the author had, apparently, more or less written the book specifically *for* me, given my fascination with the "Titanic," and nautical stories in general. "The Secret Journal of Dr. Watson," which sends Holmes and Watson off to Russia to attempt to rescue the Romanov family being held captive in the city of Yekaterinburg, may not quite have been written for me personally -- but I may have, at the least, been a consideration. I have been fascinated by the Romanov family for close to twenty years, and the idea of Sherlock Holmes being sent on a mission to rescue the Imperial Family was nearly on par, in terms of sheer, epic awesomeness, with placing him on board the "Titanic."

Regardless of that, this book was a hard one to rate. The first half of the story, with Holmes and Watson racing via boat and train for Yekaterinburg, was crackerjack. There was tension, there was mystery, there was intrigue and espionage, and no small amount of danger. We also got great character development -- Growick _gets_ Holmes and Watson, and I loved sinking my teeth into a story about these characters' courage, compassion, and friendship for each other. There were individual moments -- Holmes rescuing a child from a group of soldiers, Holmes reacting to a threat made against Dr. Watson, the two friends dealing with the horror of war- and rebellion-torn Russia -- that really struck me and stuck with me.

Alas, the intricately-woven threads began to unravel in the second half. Or ... I shouldn't say "unravel," because it's not quite a matter of things coming apart. Post-rescue attempt (I won't tell you if the rescue was successful or not), the action slowed dramatically, and by the time circumstances are separating Holmes and Watson, I was becoming frustrated by the lack of payoff to the first half's epic buildup.

At least part of the problem is that, as I'm discovering is apparently common in pastiches, everybody writing life-or-death Holmes epics wants to pay homage to the stylings of that most epic of all Holmes stories, "The Final Problem." If you are a pastiche writer who is threatening the possibility of killing off Holmes at the end of your story, you are probably enough of a Holmes fan that you then can't help but mirror the events of "The Final Problem" -- in terms of separating Holmes and Watson towards the end, and then having Holmes's resolution (one way or another) play out "off-camera." This worked beautifully for me in "The Titanic Tragedy," because the homage to "The Final Problem" was so clear -- but it's a fuzzier reference in "Secret Journal," and so, instead of enjoying the beats of similarity between "Secret Journal" and "Final Problem," I just ended up frustrated when Holmes and Watson are separated with 30-40 pages left of novel remaining. (Especially since the last sixty or seventy pages had been, forgive me, somewhat uneventful.) The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the novel-pastiche format means that Growick is forced to keep things from Watson's point of view -- so unlike, say, the film "Game of Shadows," we can't follow Watson AND Holmes after they've been separated. And I love me my Watson, but with the level of build-up that had come before, finishing out the conflict without Holmes (he is out of the story BEFORE the mystery is solved) was rough. (Although, and this is also unfortunate, the solution to the mystery had been far too foreshadowed, so the ultimate solution isn't as surprising as one might hope.) There was also a lot of talking and "telling" in the second half -- I missed the "showing" action from the first half of the book.

So, "Secret Journal" has its flaws, which kept me from giving the book more than 3 stars. And yet -- 3 stars means you liked it, and the fact remains that, flaws aside, I *did* like this book a good deal. The first half is outstanding, and, if the second half didn't live up to the expectations the first half had given me, there were still moments to enjoy. And I will say that the *ultimate* ending -- the last few pages we get, from the POV of Watson's grandson -- was absolutely what I look for in a Holmes pastiche. It hit me right in my feels, as they say, and made up for some of the lagging of the second half of the book. It is an ending, therefore, that is worth reading through to.

Not a perfect read, but a good one. If Growick writes another Holmes pastiche (or other mystery novel), I'll be giving it a try.
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