The Crimes of Dr. Watson

Monday, January 25, 2010



The Crimes of Dr. Watson: An Interactive Sherlock Holmes Mystery
Duane Swierczynski, 2007


Last week I talked about a version of A Study in Scarlet which recreated all the evidence, accounts, etc. pertaining to the novel by Conan Doyle.  This book is a similar idea, but for an original story.  It mostly consists of a letter from Watson to a friend in Philadelphia, asking for help proving his innocence in a crime.  He has received several mysterious mailings from America, which are enclosed, along with several other clues.  You, the reader, are supposed to use the account and the clues to solve the mystery.  The aesthetic advantage this book has over the last one is that the clues are fully created, not just pictured, and included in envelopes pasted into the book.  It is very very pretty.

Unfortunately, that doesn't stop it from being really terrible.

Now, let's be clear.  I don't mind, in principle, choosing to deviate from canon.  I mind when it's done badly.  I mind when the author (purportedly Watson), makes excuses as to why he doesn't sound like Watson.  (Also a problem in The Seven Per-Cent Solution, and this one did a lot better than Meyer.  To my ear, the fact that this author comes much closer and still misses almost makes it worse.)  I mind a bad pun written in 1895 referencing a book that doesn't come out til 1900, when the author is asking me to examine the evidence.  I mind when the inconsistencies make me doubt the veracity of each clue, when the point is supposed to be to solve the case.  The fact that the dates on the postmarks don't seem to work with the account?  Doesn't mean anything. 

I was hoping this would be like The Eleventh Hour, one of my favorite books as a kid, which also features a sealed solution at the end.  No such luck.  (I don't remember whether I ever opened the solution to The Eleventh Hour, because even though I solved the main riddle, found most of the hidden pictures, solved many of the hidden messages, I was never convinced I'd gotten them all.  I kept trying for a good long while, though.)

Before I get into the realm of spoilers, I will add one more line for anyone who may be reading this book, and stumped, and wondering if they should just open the ending already.

If you are as big a Holmes fan as I am, I say to you: Norbury, my friends.  You are overthinking it.  The solution is less complicated, less interesting, and much less satisfying than you may be thinking.  The ratio of red herrings to actual clues here is obscene.  Forget almost everything you think you've learned, everything you know about Holmes and Watson and everyone else, and look at the bare surface of this thing.  Seem like a dumb solution?  You've probably got it.  I probably should have known from the moment "Watson" feels the need to explain that he, in fact, isn't a bumbling idiot that this book was not written for me. 

If you're never going to read this book or try to solve the mystery (and I recommend you don't), feel free to read on, but we're going into spoilers from here on out. 
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Okay.

Let's start small:
The author moves the end of the Hiatus forward in time to work with the clues he wants to use (First Performances of Hedda Gabler, publication of The Time Machine).  Which is fine, whatever, except that those clues are nothing, mean almost nothing in themselves, and could just as easily have been something else. 


Worse:
Holmes is the correspondent in Philadelphia, and he is the person who's been sending Watson the clues.  This means that he solves the mystery...he created.  Good job there.  If Holmes felt the need to warn Watson without revealing his whereabouts, wouldn't he just cable Mycroft?  Or send Watson an anonymous telegram with a clearer message than "theater ticket, newspaper, postcard, brochure for antique sex toys, timetable"?  He doesn't have that much faith in Watson's deductive abilities.  Also his alias is an anagram, which is stupid, when you're supposed to be hiding.


Even Worse:
Holmes, the consummate actor, who observes the unkindness of Germans toward their verbs and the unique spelling of American advertisements, writes a letter posing as a Philadelphian gentleman/scientist/Civil War veteran.  This reads like an obscene parody of a Wild West gunslinger.  While I appreciate the concern for Watson at the very end, if he was so concerned, he could have sent a clearer message, and not been such an intentionally mysterious prick.


Worse Still:
The solution to the mystery is: Mary (Mrs. Watson), concerned about Watson's inability to get over the death of Holmes, hires an arsonist to destroy the Baker Street apt (which no one lives in).  Holmes, IN AMERICA, somehow hears about this and has time to send Watson a series of mailings vaguely related to marriage or wives before anything happens.  He could have come HOME in that amount of time. 

Moving on: the arsonist was instructed by persons unknown to look for papers before torching the place, and in the meantime Watson is warned about the intruder by a Baker Street Irregular.  He confronts the man, who claims to be seeking Holmes' help.  The arsonist somehow gets the drop on Watson, then sets fire to the place, but Watson is pulled out, possibly by the Irregular lad, and the arsonist dies in the fire.  Why?  How?  We don't seem to care.  Watson, found unconscious in the street, is charged with the murder of the arsonist. (Who is now missing a leg, because he had a fake one.  That part is laughably obvious, even before they give you a stupidly obvious clue in case you missed it.)  Mary brings Watson a few more red herrings (here's where the pages of The Time Machine come in) even though she apparently started all this to save her marriage, so I'm unclear on why she tries to confuse the issue seriously enough to keep Watson imprisoned indefinitely. 

Watson writes to Philadelphia, and his correspondent (Holmes) writes back with the explanation and writes the same to the authorities.  The fact that Watson's lawyer tells a story that seems to reference the mailed clues?  Meaningless.  The numbers which repeat? Nothing.  Hedda Gabler/HG Wells connection?  Nope.


Worst of all:
Despite reprinting "The Final Problem" in its entirety, the text of the letter contradicts the end, stating the Watson has not found the "papers done up in a blue envelope" that are needed to convict Moriarty's gang.  FOR FOUR YEARS.  Besides the fact that I think Holmes would have cut the Hiatus short if most of the gang had still been running about making trouble, this undercuts the power of the original story.  Taking this as so, all Holmes accomplishes in "The Final Problem" is killing Moriarty, when the whole reason he doesn't just arrest Moriarty to start with is to get the whole gang, or as many as he can.  The beast without the head is less dangerous, but if Watson is talking about worldwide trouble four years later, it doesn't seem to have helped much. 

Now the whole reason they seem to have changed this is so: 1) Watson can be scared of something (the gang), 2) The Arsonist can have some connection to the gang, giving Holmes a reason to hear about it (again, I say, really, hear about a simple arson payoff, from across an ocean?), and 3) gives the Arsonist something to look for in 221B Baker Street, delaying him long enough for Watson to get there.  Now, disregarding that if they had known about the papers, (and nothing seems to indicate this is new information) Moriarty's surviving agents should have made a play for them long ago, I have a problem here.  Simply, despite breaking the storyline to have them be missing, the solution to the mystery does not include the finding of the papers, or, in fact, anything about the papers.  At the end of the book they are still lost.  (Holmes's letter doesn't even say, 'look in place X,' or anything.)  The central mystery has no weight, no larger implications other than that Mary went off the deep end.


I don't care that Mary goes to jail instead of dies (or goes to an asylum, or leaves Watson, or any of the other theories), but because I'm familiar with those theories, it was impossible for me to see the solution the author intended.


I have contemplated better solutions to the mystery, but actually, forget it.  Better Solution: just read "The Empty House" and be done with stories about the Hiatus already.

1 Star - Didn't Much Like It

1 comment:

Zak said...

TO HELL WITH THAT STORY!

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