In Search of Mycroft Holmes

The doctor paused before the canvas. His gaze fixed on the organs of the fanged beast, which appeared visible through an opening on the crown of his head.

“The beast’s tubes must serve some purpose!” cried the doctor.

My brother looked at me in bafflement.

“Alimentary, my dear Watson,” I said.

"The Paperchase", by Marcel Theroux

One of the things which has most struck me in my recent reading of some non-canonical Holmesian fiction is respect for the original stories. The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes, as it was known in the United States a novel by Marcel Theroux which is on the other hand not at all about the older, cleverer brother of the great detective. (Its UK title – The Paperchase – is thus far less disingenuous.) It is instead the story of Damien March – an under-ambitious, under-achieving minor BBC journalist whose bohemian uncle, Patrick, dies unexpectedly and leaves his Cape Cod home to his footling nephew. It is in going through the contents of that home that Damien discovers some distinctly unHolmesian manuscripts – a series of short stories starring Mycroft Holmes, one of which forms a single chapter of this slim novel.

The Paperchase is in no way the equal of Theroux’s much greater and most recent novel, Far North – which I reviewed here and argued should be the winner of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. Not only is this earlier novel less complete and less satisfying; it is also less imaginative – not in the sense that its world is in large part our own, but in that its narrative voice is simply a version of Theroux’s, all middle class angst and more famous, more successful, young brothers. This makes The Paperchase a diverting, rapid read – but not, perhaps, one which has much in the way of its own depth.

And the Holmesiana? It is so weak that one might almost conclude that Theroux’s knowledge of the canon was very slight indeed prior to beginning his novel. At one point we are told that, during childhood visits, the rabid Sherlockian Patrick would quiz his nephews with maddening Conan Doyle trivia. His questions – what was the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, what was the name of Sherlock’s brother – were, you’ll forgive me, elementary. This shallowness extends into Theroux’s pastiche of Patrick’s pastiche of Victorian prose style. Admittedly, March slyly accepts that his uncle was no great writer (he pauses particularly wryly over the phrase “the pungent shag tobacco of her nether hair”); nevertheless, the tone, pace and style of the Mycroft sections are so grandly divorced from any love of Holmes, his period or the  fiction of the time that the fictional fiction itself, and the supposed love of Patrick for Conan Doyle, are fatally undermined. The whole novel – unlikely wills, family secrets – feels strained and contrived, and Patrick’s writing does not help.

Still, The Paperchase is not in truth a slice of Holmesiana. (It might, indeed, provide ammunition for those who accuse Theroux of being a literary raider, in Far North abusing SF and here clumsily deploying crime fiction’s urtexts.) It should be judged on those other criteria – its forgettable characterisation, clever but brittle prose, and fumbled plotting.  Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that The Paperchase, whilst rarely naïve, lacks Conan Doyle’s compensatory heartiness.


4 thoughts on “In Search of Mycroft Holmes

  1. I disagree that it’s shallow. Quite emphatically.

    There’s the postmodern playfulness of the book – the way that the tensions within the life of Mycroft reflect the tensions within the life of Damien which, in turn, reflect the tensions in the life of his father. I thought that that was very well realised.

    I also liked the way in which this onion skin-like structure was reflected in the style – Patrick was apparently witty but he also had an incredibly dark streak to him. This is reflected both in the changing tone of his fiction (from the whimsical-sounding Peanut Eaters through to the dark and existential final Mycroft story) and in the tone of the novel itself : Initially Damien is witty, light and detached but as the novel wears on he becomes more downbeat, serious and needy.

    These structural and stylistic shifts are also what make Far North so good and I now want to check out some of Theroux’s other works to see if it pops up there too.

    But even the side-shows are good. The pastiches are readable and fun (I really want to read the novel that makes up the Mycroft origin story) and the story of an isolated man who suddenly realises that he wants to have a family again is quite movingly handled aside from the final bit where he mentions a mysterious wife.

    It’s not a great novel and it’s not as god or as substantial as Far North but it’s still really well put together and it has its moments.

    I do however think that the Holmes stuff is quite weak (including a Holmes reference in the title is actually quite dishonest on the part of the publishers) and the novel feels quite awkward when it is rushing to deal with Damien’s attempts to investigate the possible murder.

    I really enjoyed it though… far more than I’ve enjoyed some Sf I’ve read lately. It’s like Boyle’s Budding Prospects crossed with the less savage Tibor Fischer.

  2. danhartland says:

    There’s the postmodern playfulness of the book – the way that the tensions within the life of Mycroft reflect the tensions within the life of Damien which, in turn, reflect the tensions in the life of his father

    C’mon, though, this is playground stuff – and so over-egged that it adds to the strained quality of the book. How many parallels does one novel need? “Look how clever I am with all these echoes of echoes – aren’t I all thematic and such?” Theroux says to us. “Hm,” we might reply.

    Goes without saying that it’s better than most sf you or I have read lately, and sure it is well put together – like I said, it’s diverting enough (indeed, ‘game’ was the word that kept coming to mind which I didn’t use, and all the structural nods and winks felt to me very much a form of play rather than having any broader purpose). I agree, too, that it attempts the same sorts of stylistic shifts as Far North – but it does so with considerably less dexterity. The book isn’t awful – but nor is it that subtle.

    Glad we agree on the rushed plotting and the Holmes stuff, though.

    • I think that the book reads like a blueprint for Far North – same engagement with genre mythology, same thematic shifts, same stylistic expressionism.

      I agree that all of these things are done better in Far North – better skill, better focus.

      But I don’t think that it follows that because Far North is a better book, those same techniques and ideas are somehow less valid in The Paperchase.

  3. danhartland says:

    But I don’t think that it follows that because Far North is a better book, those same techniques and ideas are somehow less valid in The Paperchase.

    Well, of course not. But I’m not saying that, though Far North is admittedly a happy comparator. The techniques we’re talking about aren’t poorly used by comparison, they’re simply poorly used. The Paperchase is OK, it’s alright – but, as I say, it’s all rather baldly done. We’re both seeing the same things here, but they’re impressing mess less. 😛

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