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.
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.