No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, August 02, 2010

2010/59: Sherlock in Love -- Sena Jeter Naslund

Holmes was dead: to begin with. And had been dead for well onto two years. And who was I without Holmes? He had been my dearest friend. He had served as that fixed point around which my life as a storyteller revolved. (p. 3)

The story begins in 1922, when an elderly Watson (widowed again, living in the Baker Street apartment, lonely and beginning to lose his grip on his memories) decides to write the definitive biography of Sherlock Holmes. A notice placed in the Times garners unexpected responses: a note warning him to 'beware the ghost of Sherlock Holmes', the silhouette of Holmes in a window, the removal of significant pages from Holmes' notebooks, and the appearance of two women -- a mysterious figure in red, and a ragged old woman with a dog.

Wiggins shows up, too: he's now a consultant psychiatrist at St Giles, and is on the trail of an escaped patient. This turns out to be the ragged woman, who calls herself Nannerl and whose first words to Watson ("You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive?") are enough to make him 'faint dead away'.

From his own notebooks ('the dreadful experiment of writing in the present tense'), Holmes' private diaries and the unpublished manuscript of 'The Adventure of the Mad King', Watson pieces together the story of Holmes and the dead violinist Victor Sigerson -- not forgetting Sigerson's twin sister Violet, a woman who Holmes held in the highest regard.

The different sections of the novel -- Watson as an old man, Watson writing for himself, and Watson writing for an audience -- have markedly different tones: in particular, the framing narrative of 1922 is a poignant and credible version of canon Watson, albeit one who's a little too comfortable in his assertion that he and Holmes had 'very few secrets from each other'. The doomed romance between Holmes and Violet is sober, restrained, constrained and thus credible: Holmes is perfectly in character, the man who never speaks of the softer emotions.

Naslund is fond of name-dropping: Holmes and Watson encounter "Sir Leslie Stephens and his daughters, Stella, Vanessa and a chubby girl of four named Virginia" (p.113), the latter of whom will marry Leonard Woolf; Holmes returns from Europe claiming to have met one interesting person, "A boy of seven named Albert ... Little Einstein has the most determined and objective mind ..." (p. 134). There are some niggling Americanisms ("we walk on down Regent till our German stops beyond Piccadilly Circus"); and I'm not convinced that trains to Edinburgh have ever run from Charing Cross. But overall, the novel complements the tone and style of canon, and the measured pace fits the unfolding mystery very well.

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