Monday, December 11, 2023

Crime-solving lessons from the Great Detective himself

By Vikas Datta
Title: Sherlock Holmes’ School for Detection; Author: Simon Clark (editor); Publisher: Robinson; Pages: 448; Price: Rs 499

Even nine decades after his original creator penned his last tale, the solver of mysteries, scourge of criminals, and saviour of the wrongly-accused is still busy at work. But in the thousands of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, there is one glaring omission for a detective whose swore by the “science of deduction and analysis”. For a science can be taught.

And who better as an instructor than Holmes himself. It seems a more feasible idea than some of the situations that he has found himself in his further appearances — battling vampires or aliens, teaming up with or confronting various real and fictional contemporaries, and so on. And approached in the right way, it is most probable that he would accept.

“You are the only man who can elevate the humble police officer to where he, and she, will become an efficient detective. The investigators you create will become the intelligent, logic-driven weapons that will destroy criminality,” says Lestrade here, and it does the trick.

But as Simon Clark, editor of this anthology of around a dozen new Holmes stories, argues, the premise seems rather obvious. As he tells us in the introduction, and then through Lestrade’s voice, like the education of doctors became standardised in the 19th century, so would governments seek that the professional police forces become trained in crime detection.

And while a framing device is not necessary for another outing of Holmes’ talents, this one makes for an innovative set of stories.

After a rather incongruous start where Lestrade, who has solved a rather macabre crime, approaches Holmes and obtains his acquiescence, we learn that “The Imperial Academy of Detective Inquiry and Forensic Science will train students not just from Great Britain but the four corners of the world”.

Holmes, who will have total freedom to design the curriculum, will give lectures, mentor them as they go about their assigned work, and make them apprentices in his own investigations if he so likes. And with his expertise at surveillance, disguises and cipher-cracking, he will also cater to members of the secret service.

As expected, this makes for a wide variety for stories by crime fiction as well as fantasy and science fiction writers, with the focus not only on an number of peculiar crimes but a range of inexplicable activities, as well as a new look at the great detective, his faithful biographer and other familiar figures from the Holmes canon. And in most cases, it is Dr Watson who sketches out the events.

Alison Littlewood sets the ball rolling with “The Adventure of the Avid Pupil” where Holmes solves a perplexing crime with his customary methods of sharp observation and knowledge while setting up an insolent and presumptuous pupil, while Saviour Pirotta’s “The Pressed Carnation (or A Scandal in London)” has a hint of deja vu (its name is a hint) though it waits too long to introduce the unexpected undercurrent.

“A Gentlemanly Wager”, by William Meikle, is more about espionage, as is Simon Bestwick’s “The Adventure of the Orkney Shark” — which seems more the territory of James Bond, but is an exciting sea story all the same.

Others to look out for are “The Spy and the Towers” by Nick Oldham about a terror threat that Britain faced for about a century, Guy Hayley’s “The Bell Rock Light” where the issue is a bit academic but not its consequences, Cate Gardner’s surrealistic, Gothic and eventually disturbing “The Gargoyles of Killfellen House” and Paul Finch’s “The Monster of the Age”, where Holmes and a female pupil ultimately identified who Jack the Ripper was.

Clark’s own “The Pair of Wrong-Wise Boots” is intriguing but a little complicated, while Carole Johnstone’s “The Case of the Cannibal Club” has promising material but is a bit of a climbdown subsequently as is “Sherlock Holmes and the Four Kings of Sweden” despite the exotic location of its action.

But still, Holmes aficionados, as well those of the genre, will welcome this collection to see the Great Detective in an entirely new light.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

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