I’ve been listening to my Audible library trying to get through some of the things I bought on a two-for-one credit sale a while back. I’ve got some highbrow stuff floating through the archive, but, well, also some gentle, familiar, and plain comedy stuff. One such two-for-one purchase was the first two books of G.S. Denning’s series, Warlock Holmes. I’ve listened to the first one, A Study in Brimstone, to completion, and I’m halfway through book two, The Hell-Hound of the Baskervilles.
So, how have I found it so far?
Satire and Retellings
There’s quite a challenge in tackling a character and story that is so well-known, so much part of cultural knowledge. Sherlock Holmes is (according to the Guinness World Records) the most portrayed character in television and film. Even during the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the original author, there were fanfics and unauthorised versions of his character floating around the periodicals and publications. Of course, they weren’t called fanfics, and aren’t, technically, if we think about the more recent adaptations: those are pastiches. Think about all the versions that you’ve seen on the telly: not just Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch/ Benedryl Cabbagepatch and Martin Freeman, or Elementary with Watson as a ‘sober-coach’ played by Lucy Liu, but the Robert Downey Jr version too, and the soon-to-be released one with Millie Bobby Brown as Sherlock’s sister. So, we’ve seen a lot of Sherlock in various forms over the years. Even hinted at, by a deerstalker and magnifying glass, we know what we are supposed to see, and we sort of fill in the details.
It’s how reworks are as compelling as they are – they have a familiarity our brains can easily work with. So, what’s the rub with Warlock Holmes? Is he as dapper, as clipped, as ruthlessly logical as the Sherlocks we have seen on page, stage and screen, for the last 100+ years? In short, no. He’s actually a bit of an idiot. The joke in these books is that Warlock Holmes is, well, a warlock, who has his extreme knowledge of character and people’s past actions through liaising with a crew of otherwordly, sulphur-spewing demons. The demonic powers often come at a cost; one of the demons involved is none other than Moriarty.
Doctor John Watson, on the other hand, is more or less unchanged from the original, except he brings to bear a lot of the deductive reasoning we usually associate with Holmes, and actually ends up teaching him how to rely on visual cues rather than demonic powers. Nothing like not exploding your street using supernatural powers to avoid detection by the neighbours.
It’s certainly a different take to the original, or indeed to any of the remakes. And while this brings a novelty to the story, I think that given the other pop-imagination-capturing versions, such as the Moffat-Gattiss piece of excellence, it’s not quite lived up to the challenge as I would have hoped.
So, the novels so far (being finished one and partially through another) crack on with the good business of solving crime, usually with a smattering of supernatural anti-deus ex machina. Not quite so elementary, my dear Watson.
The books are broken into various shorter episodes, including retellings of “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” and “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”, among others. In all of these, the main idea and protagonist/client is kept more or less the same, but with explosions of magic and occasional dismembering. Just like canonical Holmes is relatively episodic, so is Warlock and this edition of John Watson. So that works, I suppose.
Another hearkening back to the original is its prose-style, as recorded and produced by Watson. Some of my favourite bits are when this breaks down, and Watson’s narration almost interrupts itself. The mediated report of the action gives the writing a particular texture, and may contribute in part to some of the pace issues, because all the action is filtered through Watson’s perceptions.
My biggest challenge when reading/listening, is that I don’t find there is enough compelling me from story to story. I keep listening mostly because I pressed play initially, rather than because I need to find out the next step.
These books are built around finding some humour in the Holmes structure and construct. As someone who aspires to be a funny writer, I know that humour is bloody freaking hard. I think Denning has some substantial stabs at humour, and some of them land, but some feel quite tryhard. It’s not a nice thing to say about a comedy book, because, well, it is a new take on a character and stories that usually are kept on the serious side (notable exception, the RDJ edition).
The humour mostly comes through in the often drastic stretches of well-known passages or exchanges, and in the titles of the episodes: “The Freckled Hand” instead of “The Speckled Band”. I think it struggles in comparison, especially held side-by-side with “A Study in Pink” (the first episode of Sherlock) and similar evocative titles. When writing into such an established canon, you have to have guts (and honestly, balls, too).
In Denning’s favour, there are some chortle-worthy passages, mostly playing on the idiocy of Holmes in the face of social interactions and norms – so definitely worthy of some humour points.
Aside from Warlock Holmes and his dear housemate, there is some pretty decent character-building and characterisation. The characters of Torg Grogson (an ogre in the police force) and Vladislav Lestrade (a vampire in the police force), there is the eternal Mrs Hudson, and of course, Moriarty who is possessing Holmes.
Some of my favourite characterisations from the novel include Grogson being at odds with himself in size and ambition, and Mrs Hudson’s lascivious proclivities and stockpile of x-rated romance novels.
Warlock and Watson are both well-characterised; the former is more caricature than rounded character, but that sort of works with Watson’s report-style process. Watson shows some excellent, very human concerns, particularly focusing on his place in society as a penniless, wounded veteran.
I think the limited perspective of the narrator gives the reader a good sense of the action and the characters that go through it. It is certainly not a reliable narration, but that’s never really bothered me.
I bought two of Denning’s books on an Audible sale, the first book titled A Study in Brimstone, and the second titled Hell-hound of the Baskervilles.
I think my frustration with this is that the stories are not all the same level of gripping, and occasionally I found myself to be listening just to get through it. That’s not ideal, and is not really how I want to spend my leisure reading time (even if that happens to also be my leisure bathroom-tile-scrubbing time, or my leisure laundry-folding time). The first novel ends on enough of a cliff-hanger that I was keen to at least give the second one a try, and the first bit of the second one is reading better in general.
I also need to have a think about the medium through which I am receiving these books. Listening to a book is just slower than reading, so I have to consider whether I’m doing the books a disservice by listening to them rather than zooming through them. How do you find listening alters your perceptions of a book?
In short, these are reasonably entertaining reads, the sort that would work well as a plane book or similar. I think I would read the others rather than listening to them, if I could find them in my local library when it re-opens, but probably not as a first choice.
Have you read them? What did you think about dear old Warlock and his flashing green eyes?