Tag Archives: The Crack in the Lens

Coming of Age as a Detective: Sherlock Holmes in “The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I”*

8 Sep

The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I: University by Darlene A. Cypser, Foolscap & Quill, 2012.

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Following her masterful debut novel, The Crack in the Lens (which I reviewed last year), Darlene Cypser is continuing her psychologically rich Sherlockian prequels in a new Consulting Detective Trilogy.  After young Sherlock’s first run-in with Professor Moriarty (in the previous novel), one which left him bereft of his first love, Violet Rushdale, and almost unhinged from his sanity, the first installment of the trilogy finds him still making only a precarious recovery at home but embarking nevertheless on his university studies at Cambridge, where he must cope with further dramatic events that will form his character and fully reveal his life’s purpose.

The budding field of psychiatry as a branch of medicine is beginning to make its appearance in the latter part of the century, and Cypser takes full advantage of the possibilities in the early chapters of the novel.  Sherlock continues to be physically and emotionally at his lowest ebb as the novel begins. He is suffering from flashbacks of Violet’s death and a cycle of obsessive recrimination and anxiety that we would not hesitate to label post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, today. But more than 100 years ago, a sufferer risked commitment in an asylum that had little hope to offer except for palliative physical care, restraint from self-harm, and the rudiments of counseling for the lucky few who encountered a capable doctor.  While Sherlock struggled at home, he began receiving visits from Dr Mackenzie, one such capable doctor summoned from the asylum to consult about Sherlock’s condition. While Moriarty was nemesis to Sherlock in the first book, in this new novel, Dr Mackenzie fills the role of an anti-Moriarty, proving to be not only a trusted physician but a crucial ally and mentor as Sherlock’s attraction to the sciences—and the science of detection—increases.

However, the doctor’s experimental remedy for Sherlock’s “traumatic neurasthenia,” namely, an injected solution of cocaine, will dog him throughout his life, first as blessing, and then as a persistent and secret curse. But here, in the beginning, it served its purpose, suppressing his anxiety and panic attacks, while fueling his intellectual excitement:  “Sherlock’s loquaciousness [on the train with Mycroft for a holiday] varied as the influence of the drug varied, fading out as it did. His true nature lay somewhere between the extremes” (p. 113).

The novel hits its stride as Sherlock barely begins to find his, as a new member of Sidney Sussex College, which is pictured in foreboding darkness on the book’s attractive cover.  And darkness is surely still haunting Sherlock as he begins his studies in mathematics, living out of college in private rooms. His panic attacks can still be triggered by anything that reminds him of Violet’s death (such as an early snowfall) or unduly taxes his nerves. Fortunately, he has a capable and devoted companion in young Jonathan Beckwith, who accompanies his charge to Cambridge as servant, as fencing pupil and partner (when Sherlock is strong enough), but above all as Sherlock’s only friend, besides Dr. Mackenzie, for many months of self-imposed isolation.  (Jonathan is so engaging and colorful a character that Cypser has announced plans for another mystery trilogy from his point of view.)

Ironically, Sherlock’s first close friendship at university, with classmate Victor Trevor, begins quite unpromisingly with a dangerous bite from Trevor’s dog. (We also glimpse the aloof Reginald Musgrave and his coolness to Holmes.)  But the friendship with Victor develops rapidly during Sherlock’s convalescence; he visits daily and introduces Sherlock to pipe-smoking, which incidentally provides a stimulant and practical alternative to cocaine. At this point, Cypser deftly interpolates her own retelling of “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” from the Conan Doyle canon; as it is told retrospectively by Holmes, this account intersects with the chronology of Cypser’s story of Holmes’s university days. While he spends a holiday with Victor Trevor and Trevor’s father, events precipitate his first solution of a mystery, one calling forth the unique observational and deductive skills he has already demonstrated casually to the amazement of his classmates. But the stakes soon rise to life and death, and Holmes begins to see—as he later affirms—“perhaps I’m not your average man.” He is destined to pursue no average calling but to create his own profession, as the world’s first consulting detective.

It is the business of this novel to unfold for us Sherlock’s early exercise of talent in a new mystery at the university (which I won’t reveal), as well as his change of academic  direction, suiting all his studies to those sciences which will inform and develop his detection skills and build his arsenal of knowledge.  Though not aiming to become a police detective, he is fascinated by police detectives’ work and gets into some nasty scrapes trying to observe it first hand, much too closely for their comfort.  With his prodigious memory, he begins to be a serious student of crime and collects accounts of it. Mycroft sends him clippings from the London papers, and with satisfaction, the reader watches the genesis of his alphabetic file of crime reports, which will come in handy so often, tantalize the reader with names and cases Watson hasn’t yet narrated, and fill Mrs. Hudson with consternation when the mass of riffled clippings is strewn everywhere at 221b…

But all that lies in the future. For now, Sherlock is a young man not quite 20 who must deal with authority figures still wielding much power over his life, whether they are university officials or his own implacable father. It is also the business of this novel to show how he will assert his own choice and begin to follow his “line in life”—which will also be his lifeline, drawing him back from his darkest moods.

In a recent New York Times essay,The Art of the Sequel,” author Andrew Motion considered the proliferation of literary sequels and prequels,  even including an  “I, Sherlock Holmes”  on his facetious list of typical sequel titles. Based on his analysis of some of the most effective sequels, such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (a sequel to Hamlet) or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jane Eyre), he offered some pointers to would-be fashioners of such works.  Although it is a tremendous advantage that the characters are already familiar, and possibly beloved, a successful sequel or prequel “allows us to think afresh about characters whose fame can otherwise make them feel inaccessible to new interpretations.”  In other words, it should attempt to add something more to what we already know about them, perhaps surprise us by its revelations, even when we believe we already know a character—say, a complex hero such as Holmes—very well indeed.  Moreover, sequel-writing presupposes a certain playfulness, artfully inserting familiar references, while deploying ingenuity to put the character to a new test. No matter how much we revere a character, Motion argues, “something more than imitation is far more honoring.”

Both of Darlene Cypser’s Sherlockian prequels to date fulfill these criteria.  Her pastiches are not imitation but exploration, and she shows the confidence and command of the canon which enable her to inquire more deeply into Holmes’s formative psychology.  Her latest novel has the hallmarks of a true bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel—about a sensitive protagonist, often a youngest son, who suffers loss and undergoes a series of difficult trials that lead to mastery of self and ultimately to maturity.  It can encompass education or other training disciplines, artistic development, and apprenticeships (Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship being the classic example). At the end, the hero understands himself better, knows how he might move beyond self to contribute to the world, and is both ready and equipped to do it.

Through psychological insight, swift movement of the plot via effective dialogue, and consistent characterization, Cypser has fashioned a bildungsroman for young Sherlock with great skill.  As goddessinsepia writes, with her usual grace and clear perception,

“By the end of Cypser’s second novel, the reader stands in full knowledge and awareness of the man before them, and you wonder how you missed it, so understated was his development. Where previously there was only the merest hint of the man that would become the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes now stands tall, assembled, if not yet fully-formed.”  [See the rest of her insightful review at her blog Better Holmes and Gardens]

My interest and absorption in this story never flagged, a tribute to Cypser’s high level of craft.  I also enjoyed her humor, for example, when a fellow student observed Sherlock’s easy victory over an opponent who had challenged him to a match with unfamiliar fencing sticks, the bemused spectator remarked, “I don’t think the weapon matters. Holmes could probably thrash any of us with a teaspoon.”  This first installment of The Consulting Detective Trilogy works as mystery fiction, but more than that, it emerges as a fully rounded novel of Sherlock Holmes.

*Note: FTC disclosure. I received a complimentary review copy of this novel. The opinions I’ve expressed are, of course, my own.

  • In my next post, I will review Andrew Motion’s own sequel, Silver: Return to Treasure Island.

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On Sherlock Holmes and Superman: Catching Them at the Crossroads

5 Jul

Sherlock Holmes and Superman are both unusual men, to say the least. Hence, they have each aroused a sustained curiosity in their readers to understand how they got that way. For Sherlock Holmes, readers must rely on hints, dropped artfully within the canon stories and novels, of his early family life, his education, his  formative exploits in the science of detection, whereas for Superman, his formative years already loom prominently in his story, and are essential to creating his myth.

New treatments of these characters’ early years, therefore, face different, complementary challenges. Sherlock’s youth must be rather thoroughly imagined by would-be authors, whereas Superman’s youth must be re-imagined. As examples, I will consider two recent books that make fine contributions to their respective literatures: The Crack in the Lens (Foolscap & Quill, 2010) by Darlene Cypser and Superman: Earth One (DC Comics, 2010) by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrator Shane Davis.

 

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In The Crack in the Lens, the dramatic irony of all we know about the Great Detective could hang heavy, but Cypser blends old and new plot elements with a light, enjoyable touch. At seventeen, Sherlock is not yet the dominant figure that he will become. He is subject to the implacable will of Squire Holmes, who does not understand or indulge his youngest son. Sherlock’s older brothers are more benevolent presences. Mycroft has the most insight into Sherlock and is the most help to him in the end. Sherrinford, who displays a natural warmth and good will, is the solid, eldest brother who will one day be Squire. Though “not incisively intelligent in the manner of his two younger siblings,” he is, as goddessinsepia observes so perceptively, “earnest and compassionate in a way that foreshadows the presence of Dr. Watson.” As a reader, I was heartily glad to meet him here.

One more figure dominates Sherlock’s young life, his new 25-year-old tutor, a certain Professor James Moriarty. He has been hired to further Sherlock’s chance of getting a place at university to study engineering, thereby fulfilling his father’s determined wish for his future career. Squire Holmes recites the man’s qualifications: “He comes highly recommended and is reported to possess a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” earning him a university chair which he had lately resigned to seek “more prestigious employment” (p. 48). Sherlock is already astute enough to wonder to himself “why a man would agree to tutor the youngest son of a country squire if such glory awaited him elsewhere.” The battle of wits began early for these two and the novel develops this angle with ingenious care and faithfulness to Sherlock’s relatively powerless position as a young student. One very effective engine of suspense is the question of whether (and how) Sherlock may overcome this distinct disadvantage.

Another catalyst will be the fate of Violet Rushdale, daughter of one of the tenants on the Holmes’ land. Sherlock’s romance with Violet is the most original element of the novel, and given its seeming improbability to most students of Sherlock Holmes’ character, Cypser offers it up rather seamlessly and convincingly, creating both a watershed moment and a dark secret that explains much of what drives the adult detective. When the Constable says, “There’s no detective on earth who could find her now,” I could almost see young Sherlock mentally picking up that gauntlet! This moment beautifully foreshadows both his impatience with the police and his attraction to the seemingly insoluble case.

 

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In Superman: Earth One, we find Clark Kent struggling with grief over Pa Kent’s death, worry over his mother, and indecision about his own future. Clad in leather jacket, dark red hoody, and jeans, he is pacing the streets of Metropolis, with his shoulders hunched and his mouth set in sullen reflection. Clark is morose and on the brink of making a cynical career choice, albeit for the lofty motive of supporting Ma Kent financially.

Newly graduated from Smallville Junior College, he has headed for the big city, Metropolis. As a professional athlete or even as an engineering research scientist, he could take advantage of his superior physical and mental gifts to become a star, and reap a big payday. In the end, he will choose a job where he is not so obviously a standout, in fact one where he can fade to the background. If he joins the Daily Planet as a reporter, he will need to learn some things from his associates, Lois and Jimmy, and from his boss, Perry White. But interestingly, he doesn’t make this choice right away, but only after events force his hand.

He is forced to make a decision about himself when interplanetary enemies come to destroy the last son of Krypton. Shall he face them as the man he truly is? Superman: Earth One is particularly deft at reimagining this critical decision in a new way, while keeping some continuity with his Smallville upbringing and his origins as fans of the character know them (see the io9 ComicReview for a detailed comparison with Superman’s standard history). I won’t give more details of how the confrontation plays out, but be sure to read the coverage of it in the Daily Planet (thoughtfully reprinted at the back of the book). I enjoyed seeing Clark use at least one ace-in-the-hole when it came to reporting on Superman.

Both these books attempt to catch their remarkable protagonist at the crossroads, at the moment when events elicit a defining decision. As goddessinsepia says in her excellent review of The Crack in the Lens, the book ends as young Sherlock is “on the cusp of greatness.” In Earth One, Superman’s greatness is first revealed, to the world, to some cosmic villains, and especially to himself, as events shape his decision and draw forth his commitment.

Sherlock Holmes and Superman are both beloved and highly influential characters, each earning a solid place on The Fictional 100.

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