Friday, March 27, 2009

The West End Horror, a Posthumous Memoir of John Watson - by Nicholas Meyer?!?!

Recently I had the good luck to discover the book The West End Horror, the plot of which centers around Sherlock Holmes and his faithful friend, Dr. John H. Watson. By Nicholas Meyer...not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
At first I was a skeptic. Seeing the novel sitting so tantalizingly on a friend's bookshelf, I chose to ignore it. How dare somebody presume to even consider trying to fill in Doyle's literarily stunning footsteps? What impertinence.
The next visit to the friend's house found me cautiously handling the book with the mistrust one usually manifests towards the Ark of the Covenant - and finally, cracking it open and reading the description.
What? This book throws Holmes and Watson alongside legends such as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Bernard Shaw, Ellen Terry, and Gilbert and Sullivan? How extraordinary. I read a bit of it.
The next time, I recklessly immersed myself in the book, and gratefully accepted when I was given the opportunity to borrow it.

I just finished reading the book. It is fascinating, I must admit, although I was mostly plunging on so obsessively so that I could find more devious ways to criticize the person who dared attempt to measure up to Doyle. (Alright, I admit it...I'm a possessive, crazed fan).
The book was published in 1976, Meyer's second venture at writing a Holmes novel, apparently: the first was The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.

The plot covers the strange and bizarre events that occur in London circa 1895. It is a miserable, dreary March...and what better to add interest to the fitful, wintry weather than the mysterious murder of a scathing, indiscriminate critic by the name of Jonathan McCarthy, followed by the equally puzzling demise of a young actress? The evidence mounds up as usual, but with the equally usual confusion and general disconnect. In that, Mr. Meyer did his work well.

And the ending is satisfying surprising, yet also a credit to the usual jolting flavor of a Doyle ending. I'll admit, it was an enjoyable read. I wish someone could come along to keep us amused with Holmes stories, or - better yet - that Doyle had written more! When you're an obsessive fanatic such as I, you'll take anything as compensation after you've read all the real stories a dozen times over.

Now, after saying nice things, I'm going to be critical and satirical to my heart's content.
First off, the thing that struck me as the most obviously nonsensical thing: Holmes getting teary-eyed? (The subject of his emotion is an unjustly accused man, who is in prison with scant hope of reprieve).

This is completely out of character and borderline ridiculous. The rare occasions in which Sherlock Holmes does express emotion is done in an effectively English and dissatisfying manner. Tears? Please. You'd sooner find a posse weeping over the plight of their quarry than the character of Sherlock Holmes getting teary over the prospect of a man being convicted unfairly. Holmes is a doer; if he were so upset by this matter, instead of slogging around a bleary-eyed mess he'd immediately move on and find a way to fix the situation - id est, find the real murderer.

In the defense of Mr. Meyer, I will state that this was an observation of Watson's, which Holmes was taking pains to conceal, and which passed fairly quickly - although Holmes was apparently emotionally shaken by practically everything that happened along the way, also frightfully uncharacteristic. Usually Holmes displays about the same amount of emotion as a cat - which is almost none at all. Not to say he is a heartless creature, but rather than moping around weeping over the horrors of the world and at his wit's end, Holmes promptly sets about righting things to the best of his abilities. And he does want to right things, proof enough of his goodness and compassion for his fellow man. I suppose my point is, Holmes may state his distress, regret, or any other emotion, but it doesn't physically manifest itself.

Also, Nicholas Meyer's Sherlock Holmes showed an uncanny openness, and Watson displayed an extraordinary propensity for constantly barraging his friend with questions. In my experience I find that Watson has learned to leave Holmes to his thoughts until he is ready to disclose them on his own time.

And, of course, Doyle's sublime Holmes would have figured things out quite a bit sooner. Also the fact that - especially towards the end - Watson displays a completely unforgivable lack of medical knowledge, not to mention a very loose grasp on the happenings in the outside world. Really, an unemployed bachelor would certainly have expansive knowledge of what was going on in China or India in his day.

I also thought Meyer went a step too far when he used these telegraphs from Shaw (in reference to his play Pygmalion, a great favorite of mine, and coincidentally the only Bernard Shaw play I have ever read) to Winston Churchill:
"Have reserved two tickets for first night. Come and bring a friend if you have one."

Churchill responded:

"Impossible to come to first night. Will come to second night if you have one."

And then claimed the wires were between Shaw and Holmes. Now I know he didn't mean it seriously, but I find too many liberties with historical fact misleading and annoying. Especially since I would have liked the correspondence to be between Shaw and Holmes...

Overall, I suppose I enjoyed the book thoroughly - for the opportunity it furnished for me to be nit-picky, as well as its entertainment. I found Meyer's Holmes and Watson to be a thinner version of the original blueprint - something I can't quite explain, like jelly when it's spread too far, or the difference between honeysuckle perfume and smelling the real thing. It was unexplainable and strangely disappointing.
However, reading Meyer's acknowledgements was satisfying. He took a very humble approach to everything, stating that any inaccuracies were all his own - and therefore very meekly assuming that there are mistakes.

Otherwise, Mr. Meyer did his Holmesian research with devotion and care, and did a better job than I could ever hope to do. The ending was rather in Doyle's style.

And the bottom line is? I may criticize, belittle, berate, and harp all I want to; but no matter how many mistakes he made, Nicholas Meyer is a published author, and I am not. So he must have done something right!


  1. Hooray, a fellow Sherlock Holmes fan! A fellow critic as well, come to think of it. I will certainly read The West End Horror now. Just discovered your blog. 'Tis absolutely excellent. Very artsy. Keep up the good work!