August 1, 2008

Mini-review: "The Execution of Sherlock Holmes," by Donald Thomas

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

The Execution of Sherlock Holmes, by Donald Thomas
The Execution of Sherlock Holmes, and Other New Adventures of the Great Detective (book; 2007)
By Donald Thomas
Pegasus Books / ISBN: 978-1-93364-822-4

As someone who for a long time now has been dedicated to the newest of the new in the contemporary arts, I of course have a low tolerance for so-called "comfort food" projects; that is, the act of revisiting a set of fictional characters or a certain fictional milieu over and over again, not because the milieu is necessarily good but merely for the warm, cozy sense of the familiar such an activity provides. After all, it's this exact compulsion that inspires the lowest and crappiest forms of the arts altogether: the endless soap operas, the endless cop and lawyer and doctor television shows, the endless mystery novels all featuring a quirky detective protagonist. But that said, I confess that I too fall prey to this pleasant sense of the familiar sometimes, that happy sense of the known and understood that comes to eventually supersede whether or not any particular project is any good, the artistic equivalent of sleeping every night in a favorite t-shirt despite it being old and ratty and a little smelly.

One such comfort-food subject for me, for example, is that of Sherlock Holmes, that delightfully sociopathic private detective of Victorian-Age London, the invention of doctor-turned-author Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1800s, a character who ended up being featured in a total of four of Doyle's novels and 56 of his stories. After all, even since a child I have always deeply connected with Holmes, and have always empathized with the tortured situation he found himself in; a brilliant rationalist with a barely disguised contempt for humanity, he was much too smart to be a cop and much too arrogant to be a politician, instead adopting the freelancer's life and collecting massive amounts of knowledge just to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity, forced into heavy opium use during down-times of his life just to get his brain to slow down a little. Add to this, then, that Doyle's Holmes stories were one of the first projects of my childhood to introduce me to Victorian-Era England, a time in both history and the arts I have come to have a deep love for as a middle-aged adult; perhaps, then, you can see why the mere idea of Sherlock Holmes produces a certain sense of happiness and contentment in me, the mere thought of sitting down and reading yet another one of his adventures.

And of course, I'm far from alone in this yearning over this exquisitely complex character; in fact, you could argue that the 125-year-old Holmes is more popular than ever with mainstream society these days, with for example not just one but two competing new movie deals recently being announced by competing Hollywood studios, one of them being directed by no less than gonzo-action veteran Guy Ritchie. And a big part of this, frankly, can be attributed to the fact that the copyright on Sherlock Holmes expired awhile ago; it means that for several decades now, pretty much anyone who wants to can legally sit down, write and publish their own story featuring the detective, which of course has led to hundreds and hundreds of new projects coming out over those decades. (This is in fact one of the biggest arguments over why copyrights need to be held down to a decent but not infinite duration, just long enough to benefit that artist and their immediate family; when you allow corporations to own the creative rights of certain characters and stories into perpetuity, society never gets a chance to expand and build on these characters and stories. And that's an integral part of the arts, is the chance to grow and add to the things that have come before, something that is getting profoundly tampered with these days through the exact Disney-led effort to get copyrights lengthened into perpetuity.)

And thus do we come to The Execution of Sherlock Holmes, by a veteran genre author named Donald Thomas who has actually cranked out a number of other books in the past of Holmesian adventures; this latest is a collection of five long stories, ones that in true Doyle style slyly reference many of the others Thomas has written already. In fact, this the sort of the main point I wanted to bring up about these stories and this book; that it was so successful in my eyes precisely because it is so Doylesian in its spot-on mimicry, very much as if Thomas wanted these to be mistaken literally for old Doyle stories that just happened to have never gotten published, ones that had maybe gotten discovered recently in some trunk in some British attic and were just now getting released to the public for the first time. And this of course is why I've been talking about the concept of certain artistic projects being enjoyed for the same reason as comfort food, because that is exactly what this book is; it's a book for people who are already slobbering fans of Sherlock Holmes, people who can get a smile on their face just thinking of smoking jackets and bubbling glass vials, people who don't want their beloved detective screwed around with by snotty postmodern revisionists, but rather an exact and faithful reproduction delivered with each and every new product.

Is it wrong to occasionally delve into the world of comfort arts, to have a certain part of such a thing in our lives? Not really, in my opinion, but with the operative word being "occasional;" let's not forget that such projects are mostly filler when it comes to an intelligent person's life, the equivalent of a potato you eat during dinner for no other reason than to help fill your belly. Thomas' book is extremely well-done for what it is, with him even using the five stories as an excuse to take on five different archetypical "types" of Holmesian tales (a daring escape; a job for the royal family; a case in the rural boonies; a story about war; and a showdown with a master nemesis); but let's face facts, that it is no better and no worse than the couple thousand other well-done Holmesian tales that have now been published over the last century, something merely to have some short-time fun reading while at an airport or the beach and then to forget again. The book itself comes recommended to all my fellow "Baker Street Irregulars;" I just urge all of you as well to keep track of how much of this kind of stuff you take in altogether in your life, and to make sure it's balanced by unique and challenging projects too.

Out of 10: 8.5

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:16 PM, August 1, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |