Matthew Kresal reviews one of the most radical reworkings of the Holmes canon.
Sherlock Holmes may well be the most written about fictional character in the world. Outside of the various tales written by Holmes' original creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there's also been a legion of pastiches expanding or even reworking the Holmes canon that he created. One of the most fascinating examples of the latter is David Stuart Davies' 2004 novel The Veiled Detective.
Davies tale might be one of the most radical reworkings of the canon that doesn't update it for whatever “present day” it's being written or produced in. Going back to basics, the novel presents, what the back cover of the Titan edition calls, “the secret origin” of the famous detective and especially that of the canon's main narrator, Doctor Watson.
Davies has the reader discovering that Watson isn't quite who he seems at all and that the apparently chance meeting between him and Holmes was anything but that. Just as fascinating, Davies also presents the “real” version of some of the best known stories in the canon, Study In Scarlet and Final Problem especially. They might not have quite happened the way we were told they did, with the results portraying everyone in a less than positive light at times. It's as radical a reworking of the canon as Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution, perhaps even more so and that's what makes it a fascinating read.
Yet The Veiled Detective is a frustrating read as well. At 246 pages the novel might seem like a decent page count until one starts actually reading it. Davies' narrative whips along at a great pace, flying from 1880 Afghanistan to the Reichenbach Falls in 1891 while also covering a lot of ground in-between. With that in mind, 246 pages is very little indeed and the novel suffers as a result. It never quite develops and it opens up a lot of avenues that are never explored fully, such as Watson's marriage under the circumstances the novel portrays, or Mycroft Holmes who suddenly waltzes in and out of the narrative with fanfare but little effect upon things. It's the frustrating lack of both a larger page count and the depth that could have come with it that makes reading an otherwise fascinating novel an at times frustrating experience.
That said, The Veiled Detective is well worth a read. That's even more true if you're very much into the Conan Doyle Holmes stories and the canon on the whole. Chances are you wouldn't be looking at this otherwise. While it has it's shortcomings, for having one of the most bold and fascinating versions of the Holmes canon I've yet read, The Veiled Detective is a must-read for any serious Holmes fan.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.