Posts tagged Sherlock Holmes
Thankfully I wasn’t a total steampunk noob when I sat down to read James P. Blaylock’s latest novel The Aylesford Skull. I was luckily introduced to steampunk subculture few years ago, by a memorable newspaper article that profiled avid Massachusetts people in the scene. Since then I’ve been fascinated by the movement’s fusion of science fiction and Victorian era clothing, themes, and technology. So when Titan Books offered me a chance to review a steampunk book, I was excited by the concept of an adventure in this imaginative world. Naturally, I also was a bit wary since this would be my first foray into steampunk literature, but I figured if Blaylock is referred to as a “steampunk legend” then I was probably in safe hands. And I’m happy to report that I was.
Probably the most surprising thing about The Aylesford Skull is how subtly it fits into the steampunk genre. Initially I expected overt reminders of this book’s place in the subgenre with all kinds of wacky futuristic contraptions, terminology, and styles of dress. I quickly discovered that the Victorian England inhabited by Blaylock’s protagonist Langdon St. Ives, is not very ostentatious. There are occasional references to goggles, airships, and other advanced technology, but nothing that screams steampunk. In fact, Blaylock’s setting is remarkably similar to the London of another Victorian era hero: Sherlock Holmes.
As a character, Langdon St. Ives is essentially the steampunk Holmes. Both are brave, intelligent men who consistently find themselves wrapped up on complex mysteries fraught with danger and intrigue. Like Holmes, St. Ives has a faithful companion who is almost always by his side, and he has friends from all walks of life that assist him when needed. Hasbro is St. Ives’s equivalent to Watson, and his young friend Finn Conrad seems like he could easily fit in among the young scamps Holmes occasionally employs for assistance. St. Ives even has a nemesis Dr. Narbondo, who’s a dastardly mastermind akin to Professor Moriarty. Their resemblance is clearly intentional since Blaylock features a character who aids St. Ives named Arthur Doyle as a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Scottish author who created Sherlock Holmes.
Despite their common traits, St. Ives is not simply a Holmes carbon copy. He’s a professor and adventurer as opposed to a detective. St. Ives is also a fuller, more sympathetic character because he’s a family man with a wife and children that he cares about. He’s not a manic detective obsessed with his work who goes looking for trouble; St. Ives becomes incidentally embroiled in it. This admirable man is motivated by genuine concern for his loved ones, and he’ll do anything to protect them.
Blaylock’s tale involves supernatural elements, and like Holmes, St. Ives is a man of logic, so he’s reluctant to accept the ideas at first. Unlike one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s yarns however, The Aylesford Skull doesn’t have a rational justification for its fantastic portions. Unfortunately that’s one of the book’s few shortcomings, its murky, slightly confusing exposition on how the titular Aylesford Skull actually works.
Aside from this thin MacGuffin, The Aylesford Skull is a brisk, fun romp that you’ll devour quickly. Throughout the book Blaylock deftly weaves multiple characters and shifting points of view together in a way that effectively maintains momentum and drives the story forward. When the personalities do cross paths, their dialogue has a dry British humor that makes for amusing banter. And while there’s no grand explanation of the mystery from the protagonist in the style of Holmes, Blaylock’s conclusion is action-packed enough to make up for it. If this is what steampunk literature is supposed to be like, count me in for more outings.
The Aylesford Skull is available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
I was at a critical disadvantage when I started Sherlock Holmes – The Army of Dr Moreau by Guy Adams. That’s because I never read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or the H.G. Wells tale The Island of Doctor Moreau. So I knew that I couldn’t critique Adams’ versions of the characters in relation to the originals.
Despite my inexperience with Doyle and Wells, popular culture had already given me enough background on Sherlock Holmes, and the crappy 1996 movie The Island of Dr. Moreau acquainted me with Dr. Moreau. While a general understanding of Holmes as a character was necessary for me to get into this novel, prior knowledge about Moreau was not since Adams provides adequate back story. Seeing Moreau’s hideous creations in the Marlon Brando/Val Kilmer flick did help me better visualize their physical appearance as I was reading though.
The mystery at the heart of this Guy Adams novel leans more toward the horror genre than typical Sherlock Holmes cases. Mutilated bodies are turning up in London with wounds clearly caused by ferocious exotic animals. Sherlock Holmes is visited by his brother Mycroft, who is certain that the murders are the calling card of the deranged Dr Moreau, a biologist who was employed by the British Government. Moreau expanded on the work of Charles Darwin, before his grotesque experiments were halted for attracting negative publicity. Mycroft thinks that Moreau’s research has resumed and charges his brother with tracking down the rogue scientist before the situation grows out of control.
Just like Doyle’s Holmes adventures, Adams sets up The Army of Dr Moreau as story within a story. Holmes’ trusty partner Watson acts as the narrator, talking to the reader while he uses his notes to recount the events of the case. In this way, Adams gives his book a humorous Meta quality. One of the novel’s funniest scenes involves Watson’s visit to his editor at The Strand, the real magazine which published Doyle’s Holmes stories. It’s easy to chuckle at this self-aware tale, when the editor cleverly remarks “Some people just can’t help but blur the lines between fiction and reality.”
Similar to its portrayal in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, the relationship between Holmes and Watson in The Army of Dr Moreau is fraught by Holmes’ predilection for leaving his partner in the dark. Adams provides entertaining depth to their delicate relationship as Watson openly vents about his frustrations. Sometimes he’s playful like when says to Holmes “You are quite the most irritating man I know,” but in other moments Watson is deadly serious “In all honesty I felt like leaving Baker Street just as I had those few years ago, not to take up a new life as had been the case then, but simply to eradicate the irritations of the current one.”
One great trick Adams uses to keep the narrative interesting is to allow other characters like Sherlock and Mycroft to take over narration after Watson is kidnapped by the villain. As a result, the final conflict is much more exciting because you get to experience it from all of the angles and players involved in the master plan.
Although The Army of Dr Moreau is a riveting mystery, surprisingly it’s not all action and fluff. Given Moreau’s heinous experiments on animals as a vivisectionist, the characters raise important ethical and moral questions about the doctor’s work like when Holmes asks “Is man wrong to interfere in the passage of so-called natural law or is he simply exhibiting the intelligent dominance the proves the validity of the law?” Statements like that will leave you thinking long after you finish this book.
Sherlock Holmes – The Army of Dr Moreau is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
It’s sad to admit, that the expression “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” exists because people gravitate toward books with flashy designs and testimonials on their covers. Publishing companies cram as many positive blurbs on there as possible, because they know one of the best ways to drive sales is by word of mouth.
What’s really refreshing though is when you see a book like Sherlock on Screen by Alan Barnes, which lets the subject matter speak for itself. Its cover is stylish yet simple. There are photos of various famous actors who have portrayed Sherlock Holmes on film and television over the years: Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr., and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is not the character of common adaptation from the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; he’s a more of a maverick. In classical representations of Holmes, he’s a refined gentleman with a profound intellect and sense of logic, known best for his pipe and deerstalker hat.
Ritchie’s Holmes comes off more like a savant, he’s brilliant but at the same time cocky and socially inept. Holmes, portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., doesn’t like to play by the rules. He’s constantly calculating plans in his own head without letting others in on the details.