Ever since the days of Arthur Doyle’s original stories, fans of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes have clamored for more and more mysteries. Doyle originally tired of writing Holmes stories and so killed him off in ‘The Final Problem’, but the cry for more Holmes forced Doyle to bring his detective back from the grave for more. Even after Doyle’s death, stories featuring Holmes have been numerous — almost too numerous to count — not to mention all the radio plays and movies that have been made featuring Holmes and Watson. Holmes and Watson have become a modern version of Robin Hood: fictional characters that have taken on a life of their own. The difference, of course, is that Holmes and Watson are the creation of a single mind, but that does not stop the folk process from taking place.
In Sherlock Holmes: A Duel with the Devil, Roger Jaynes has added another leaf to the immense Holmesian corpus. In this slim volume, Jaynes provides Holmes fans with three mysteries tied together by the character of Holmes’ archnemesis, Moriarty. In ‘The Case of the Dishonoured Professor’, Holmes and Watson labor to remove scandal from an academic’s reputation. In ‘The Case of the Baffled Courier’, they turn their attention to good smuggling. The final mystery, ‘Moriarty’s Fiendish Plan’, is half the book’s length and pulls out all the stops, bringing in most all the trademark Holmesian mystery elements: a secret code, deception, and of course, Moriarty, not to mention Watson attempting to murder Holmes.
I wish I could write that the stories are impressive, but unfortunately, I’d be found to be a fraud. Jaynes has definitely tried to capture the feel of Holmes and Watson, but I’m afraid he fails. Yes, he has many of the pieces that make a good Holmes story, but they do not add up to the whole. First, key elements for solving his mysteries are kept hidden from the reader. Second, the repartee between Holmes and Watson just does not ring true. Jaynes’s Holmes is too familiar with Watson, so that when Holmes acts mysterious about his interpretation of the clues (a given in any Holmes story), it seems out of character, rather than an extension of Holmes’s failure to be able to maintain regular relations with people.
But I think what fails the most in this book is Jaynes’s attempt to imbue the three stories with an overall large theme. As Watson writes in the preface, ‘for almost six years … Holmes and Moriarty dueled, thrust and parry … for what at times seemed like the very heart and moral soul of London.’ Yes, this is typical Watson hyperbole, but to place it in the preface of this book, Jaynes elevates it to more than hyperbole: we are meant to believe Watson, that this is what we’re reading. But such overblown rhetoric can only fail when placed next to the almost pedestrian quality of a Holmes short story. It’s one thing to take characters to levels not achieved before, but it’s another to try to force them into inappropriate molds. The Holmesian mystery is not something that determines the heart and moral soul of a metropolis. It is much more microcosmic in its themes. And, thus, Jaynes fails to pull off the promise of the macrocosmic theme postulated by Watson in the preface. Jaynes tries, and I’ll give him credit for that, but he’s trying to put square pegs in round holes.
If you’re a Holmes fanatic, these stories are worth a read, but otherwise, I recommend re-reading Doyle’s originals.
(Bresse Books, 2003)