The game is not afoot. The Better-Every-Day world of 1895 is gone, even hard to recall as WWI ends. From his rural cottage, Holmes no longer provokes Scotland Yard’s envy or his landlady’s impatience, but neither is he content with the study of bees. August 1920 finds him filling out entry papers at a nearly defunct psychiatric clinic on the Normandy coast. England’s new Dangerous Drugs Act declares his cocaine use illegal and he aims to quit entirely. Confronted by a question as to his “treatment goal,” Holmes hesitates, aware that his real goal far exceeds the capacity of any clinic. His scribbled response, “no more solutions, but one true resolution,” seems more a vow than a goal to his psychiatrist, Pierre Joubert. The doctor is right. Like a tiny explosion unaccountably shifting a far-reaching landscape, the simple words churn desperate action and interlocking mystery into the lives of Holmes’ friends and enemies both.
Holmes speaks, Watson answers:
“It’s clear, Watson, that you have come to trust this man, never mind your fancy knot work.” He let a hand rest briefly on Joubert’s shoulder, and then snatched it away. “The charade you two gentleman have just now performed causes me to question myself. You are evidently in collusion.”
I said, “We were that obvious?”
“I’m afraid so,” Holmes said. “In fact, when I have time, I will publish a monograph on what I will call ‘body language.’ Today’s performance will serve as a prime example. I watched you usher this Frenchman across the cottage—your hesitation, your caution lest you cause him the least pain, was evident. Your care was exactly as you would grant a lifelong patient going through a complicated procedure. You watched his every backward step, lest he trip. I noted the commiserating tilt of your head—and the lines of concern on your brow. Without a single word, you managed to signal your sympathy. To sum up, between the gun and the man you pointed it at, I detected at least a hundred yards worth of high-grade Watsonian scruple.
Holmes glared down at the top of Joubert’s head. “No doubt the entire Punch and Judy was your conception, Pierre, but you could not hide your concern for Watson, how you sought to assure him that it was all for a worthy purpose. Indeed, I saw you shudder and sweat, but you were in no fear for your life—in no dread of John Watson, at least. I submit to you both, that what I have witnessed just now was more a dance than an arrest.”
Review by Lisabet Sarai
the impossible has been eliminated, then whatever remains, however
improbable, is the truth.” ~ Sherlock Holmes
As a teenager, I was as avid a fan of Sherlock Holmes as any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s contemporary readers – those pesky fans who refused to allow the author to kill off his fictional detective even after Doyle had become thoroughly tired of him. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes still lives on in twenty-first century culture. When I do a web search, one question that Google pops up is “Was Sherlock Holmes a real person?” I wonder how many twenty-somethings believe he was. In any case, more than one hundred years after the setting of Doyle’s last Holmes story (1914), the insightful, moody, irascible forensic genius retains a enduring grip on our imagination.
Susanne M. Dutton’s novel is a meticulously constructed and engagingly presented homage to the Holmes myth. It takes place in 1920, well past the Victorian era I so strongly associate with the series. Holmes and Dr. John Watson, his faithful friend, assistant and the chronicler of many of his adventures, are both in their sixties. Holmes has retired to a rural cottage in Sussex where he reportedly occupies himself with his violin and with bee-keeping. Watson is one of the few people who know that he is actually a patient at a psychiatric hospital in Normandy, seeking a cure for his long-time addiction to cocaine. Thus the good doctor is quite surprised (though pleased) to receive a telegram, ostensibly from his old friend, with the traditional summons: “The game’s afoot.”
All is not as it seems, of course, as Watson discovers when he arrives at the cottage. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment by detailing the twists and turns of the plot, or previewing the characters who turn up to play a role in the tale. If you’re a Holmes aficionado, you’ll recognize some of them, while others are clever re-imaginings from the original stories. (I particularly liked the nineteen-twenties version of the Baker Street Irregulars.)
The language and overall style are convincingly antique, similar enough to Doyle’s prose to pull the reader back into the Holmes world. At the same time, there are delightful modern touches. The author shows us that Holmes is a celebrity at the level of Kim Kardashian or Brad Pitt. The detective is disgustingly famous. His escapades are well known, and when it seems he may have a new case, all sorts of people are eager to get involved, just for the excitement and the glory. All that’s lacking is a Sherlock Holmes Twitter or Instagram account.
Like Conan Doyle, Ms. Dutton also does a great job illustrating Holmes’ somewhat precarious grip on sanity. Genius is definitely kin to madness.
The actual facts of the “case” did not impress me as much as the overall atmosphere and the attention to the details of Holmesiana. There’s a long, dramatic dream/hypnosis sequence that really made no sense to me in the context of the plot. Also I was disappointed by the ending, which stretched my credulity beyond the limit of the improbable. Nevertheless, I had fun reading the book.
If you’re not familiar with the Holmes cannon, the novel will likely be quite hard to follow. However, anyone who has spent significant time with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s world will find Sherlock Holmes and the Remaining Improbable a well-crafted, entertaining diversion.
About the Author
Susanne Dutton is the one who hid during high school gym, produced an alternative newspaper and exchanged notes in Tolkien’s Elfish language with her few friends. While earning her B.A. in English, she drove a shabby Ford Falcon with a changing array of homemade bumper strips: Art for Art’s Sake, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, Free Bosie from the Scorn of History. Later, her interests in myth and depth psychology led to graduate and postgraduate degrees in counseling.
Nowadays, having outlived her mortgage and her professional counseling life, she aims herself at her desk most days; where she tangles with whatever story she can’t get out of her head. Those stories tend to seat readers within pinching distance of her characters, who, like most of us, slide at times from real life to fantasy and back. A man with Alzheimer’s sets out alone for his childhood home. A girl realizes she’s happier throwing away her meals than eating them. A woman burgles her neighbors in order to stay in the neighborhood.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Susanne grew up in the SF Bay Area, has two grown children, and lives with her husband in an old Philadelphia house, built of the stones dug from the ground where it sits.
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