Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Weeks Too Late: The Seven-Per Cent Solution

The Seven-Per Cent Solution: Being A Reprint From The Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. Written by Nicholas Meyer.

Aside: That's right, we've done it again, and clearly we've planned this all out, despite what Doomwench says. We're meticulously organized over here at Girl on Book Action. Besides, every once in a while it's important for me to show my co-writers that I can, in fact, read. Plus, it's also fun to freak you out, my little cupcakes.

Preconceptions: True to my words way back in January (I'm nothing if not an honest reviewer-hmm, how sad for me) I decided to look up the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. They turned out to be a gateway drug and after a few months of picking away at them, I started seeking out movies and television series (don't be shocked if a few of those end up creeping onto here) starring my new favourite weirdo detective. Digging around for new material led me to the famous (to everyone but me) fan-fic, the Seven Per-Cent Solution. Despite knowing this is a well-loved book and not having to pick off any rotten tomato off the cover, I was still skeptical. It is, after all, someone else trying to write in Doyle's style. While I've read some good books with Holmes appearing in them, writing a story that is supposed to fit into the canon works is something altogether more difficult (just look at the new Hitchiker's book, or rather, don't).

The Plot: In case I'm not alone in having never heard of it, the conceit of the book is that an unpublished Holmes adventure has been discovered and edited by Meyer. What makes this new case particularly interesting is that Holmes has gone from occasional cocaine use when he was bored, to a full time addict. Watson, ever faithful, sets out to find treatment for his friend. And who is clever enough to treat the detective? Sigmund Freud (My other favourite weirdo detective and the only other man up for the task, Batman, not having been born yet).

General Review: Having just glutted on the original Holmes, I was surprised to see how close in tone this book was to the source material. Though admittedly, I'm only a fan and not an expert I didn't find myself yelling to an empty room (or worse a full one) that "Sherlock wouldn't say that!" More importantly, Watson's voice remained nearly unchanged. There was great skill in keeping the style and language (right down to the juvenile snicker-worthy use of "ejaculate") choices consistent. However, though my most major concern was laid to rest, there was too much neatness and fan service. Not every boat and train station needs to be one we've seen in original books. Along the same lines, while fan-girl me was delighted to see Toby (the lovably ugly tracking dog) back in action, harsh-critic me thought any unnamed bloodhound would do, not to mention be less pandering. There was one other notable change and it was one I couldn't bring myself to dislike. Holmes was the tiniest bit nicer to Watson. This could be explained by a more enlightened Holmes, or simply one who'd been weakened by his condition, but as a long time Watson fan I was happy to let this go.

The Sherlock stories have led to volumes of speculative essays about the characters. This is interesting on its own and was sort of like an academic version of a message board discussing the culture of the Romulans. What the Seven-Per Cent Solution did best was take some of the great ideas considered in those essays and weave them into a coherent story. We learn more about Sherlock's past and Watson's family life, and the information seems believable because the germs for these ideas were extrapolated from the source books.

Perhaps because this was so true to the original books, once the mystery was solved the story lost most of my interest. The last thirty pages of exciting chase scene didn't have much sparkle. Doyle learned early on to keep some of the deductions for the end of the story to keep the reader engaged, Meyer didn't take this lesson to heart. Maybe he thought a swashbuckling, chase scene (and one on speeding trains no less) would be enough to keep the audience engaged. By all rights it should have been, but in a Holmes story the mystery is always more compelling than the action. It was worth getting through, however, because we came back to the the mystery of Sherlock's psyche, being untangled by Freud. All in all, there wasn't enough delving into that particular mystery. The glimpses we got of Freud treating Sherlock were compelling, but they were also brief. One of the book's few missteps was not showing us more of these two characters just talking. It might seem less exciting than jumping from speeding trains, but it wasn't.

The Seven Per-Cent Solution was a great nightcap after reading the Holmes series. It tied up some loose ends and answered a few lingering questions in a way I bought. Be warned, however, that as a stand alone book, it would lose a lot of its power. I don't think you need to have read the entire Sherlock catalog to enjoy it, but if you haven't read a couple of them then you'll be missing out. That is the trouble with writing something this tied to the source material, without that background, it's really only half a book. Yes, it would be a coherent narrative, but it wouldn't be a very interesting one.

Another Aside: Those of you who know me are probably sick of me recommending this comic (and its sequel) by Kate Beaton over at Hark! A Vagrant, but it's still one of the biggest Holmes laughs I've ever had.

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