One of the questions I kept coming back to last year was how the in many ways slight, in some ways clumsy, in every way uneven, stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle continue to command such attention. His prose style is perhaps unfairly maligned – that narration contains many subtelties of voice which help create the characters of both Watson and Holmes – but could surely never be called beautiful. His stories are very often rehashes, or remixes, of earlier ones. Even his sense of plot and pace is at best variable. And yet something about those stories keeps many coming back – nostalgia for childhood reading, you might say. Maybe so, maybe so.
The question poses itself again having read Nicholas Meyer’s Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Abigail, this is your cue). This is the first time I’ve read it, though I’ve seen snatches of it before – notably the passage in which Meyer’s Watson dismisses whole swathes of the Casebook as forgery and drivel. It is expert stuff in many ways – Meyer’s apeing of Conan Doyle’s voice is for the most part spot on, and even in those parts where it necessarily departs from the original texts it still manages a sort of spiritual fidelity. It is also replete with footnotes and the sort of Great Game-playing Sherlockians go wild for. I pointed out in my reading of The Final Problem and The Empty House that these stories make Holmes into something close to a superhero; in playing the Great Game, Meyer must pretend that Holmes was real, and therefore such derring-do becomes simply unbelievable. How, then, to explain away the ridiculous mythic quality of those stories?
Simple: Meyer, or rather Holmes, uses the seven-per-cent solution. The novel is a story of cold turkey, in which Holmes is weaned from his cocaine addiction by Sigmund Freud, whose techniques of small observations leading to grand deductions, of course, bear some superficial comparison with Holmes’s. It’s a neat conceit, although inevitably it diminishes Holmes in many ways; but humanising the great detective is Meyer’s main aim, and in so doing it seems clear he influenced the Holmes who would feature in the Granada TV adaptations. Brett’s Holmes – mercurial, maddened, repressed – is to a great extent Meyer’s. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution must have been a shock to Sherlockians of the 1970s who were still completely sold on Basil Rathbone.
All of which is to say that the novel is good fun, clever hokum. It is deeply respectful of the source texts, but not afraid to ask them to grow outwards. Meyer fills in some gaps left by Conan Doyle; he prises some further apart; he has a ball, and he never once disrespects the canon whilst doing it. Meyer’s Watson is Conan Doyle’s with just a little added freedom – dictating his last story on his pre-war deathbed, Victorian propriety is now less of a concern. And yet. For all that fun, the book never quite has the warmth, depth or density of one of the original stories. It is a pastiche; it isn’t meant to. At the same time, though, the lengths to which Meyer goes to echo Conan Doyle, and the extent to which he ultimately fails in complete replication, begs that same old question: what is it about those stories?
More on this as I go through other non-canon works, no doubt…