reviews

Resurrected book review: The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, by Michael Didbin

From the summer of 2013.

1.

So I’m not done with this one yet, but I’m ready to rant about it.

I saw it on the shelf and I was like oooh, published fanfiction and snagged it, even as I lamented the inability to flip through an audiobook the way you do a book to quickly scan and judge the writing quality.  God knows I don’t want to read bad Holmes fanfiction.

However, even if I had been able to flip through it, I would have still checked it out.  The writing is definitely good, though there’s this odd sort of premise that actual-Watson, as opposed to Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote this one and it was sealed in a vault a few years before he died and was only retrieved in 1976 and then read aloud for the first time by a banker and then there were violent protests against its publishing and claims of Watson’s deteriorating mind…a lot of work to build suspense, anyway.

However!  I have just become aware this is actually a story about Jam Watson, and I am not at all pleased.

At first, as I winced frequently, I thought it was being true to the original series, where Sherlock is kind of a dick and Watson is a little fawning over him.  But Sherlock is really a dick here (Watson keeps pleading with Sherlock to take him with him on his dangerous adventures, and Sherlock says “no, I need someone with both nimble wits and limbs, and you have neither”), and Watson is really dumb.

Spoilers in the rant, not about the ending yet as I’m not there yet either:

So it’s about Jack the Ripper.  That could be interesting, except the author is so fucking unoriginal that he couldn’t make up a new villain.  No, it’s Moriarty in disguise all over again.  That was the first major disappointment.

And then there’s Holmes and Watson’s relationship.  So my favorite depiction of said relationship is in the Guy Ritchie movies (also the TV show Elementary), which I love because — I guess you can’t call them equals, at least not intellectually, but Watson holds his own against Holmes.  There is absolutely no fawning.  Watson will punch Holmes in the face when he’s being a dick.  It’s so refreshing.

But yeah, here Holmes keeps employing the simplest of tricks against Watson (“let’s go out to your favorite theatrical production! Haha just kidding I’m going to slip out halfway through and not even tell you”), often to placate him so he can go off on his own Dangerous Adventures and not be “held back” by Watson.

But it’s becoming clear why he does this, because Watson has reached a brand new level of dumbness and it’s just infuriating, ugh.

See, Watson is convinced Holmes is Jack the Ripper.

Well okay, not quite convinced.  He’s undergoing mental anguish.  But there’s a QUESTION IN HIS MIND, AFTER SEVEN YEARS LIVING AND WORKING WITH THIS MAN.

Admittedly, there’s more than just circumstantial evidence for why Watson has come to this conclusion: he saw Sherlock Holmes, in the flesh, in the act of mutilating the body of a woman.

I might let Watson have his doubts, EXCEPT for the fact that just recently, after returning from one of his adventures, Holmes TOLD him how he’d been almost tricked by a positive double of John Watson himself — the only giveaway was a limp in the wrong leg.

And Watson was all disturbed, exclaiming how he would have been blamed for the murder of Holmes had the impostor been successful.

But the fact that he cannot retain that information in his head from a recent conversation with Holmes, in a discussion about their very deadly foe and the dangers of which they must be aware — and I even gave him a week, granting him the terrible shock of the grisly scene and seeing his dear friend in the act — but no, he never once considered the possibility of “Impostor!” or the fact that even Holmes was very nearly tricked and does Watson think he has a better eye…

JAM WATSON.  It’s the only conclusion.

2.

JAM WATSON IS THE WORST WATSON

Cringed all the way to work this morning, because (more spoilers):

After Watson saw “Holmes” mutilating the girl, he didn’t actually see his roommate at all for a week, because Holmes ran off after Moriarty to the continent for his Final Showdown. Watson thrashed around in angst for a week, even writing up a list of evidence for and against his theory that SHERLOCK HOLMES IS JACK THE RIPPER.

Then Holmes sends a telegram announcing Moriarty’s defeat and his imminent return, and Jam Watson panics.  He packs his things and runs away to get married.

He’d already been engaged to Mary, so it wasn’t totally crazy, but he’d also been avoiding the subject of his fiancee entirely with Holmes because Holmes tended to have massive prissy fits whenever she came up, and Jam Watson is meek like that.

But he persuades Mary by telling her how anxious he is that she might be murdered next, especially without ~manly protection~ around her current house. And then he turns around and writes Holmes a letter explaining his sudden departure, specifically blaming female hysteria and Mary’s dread of being the next victim, even though he had tried to reason with her, etc. He ends by apologizing and expressing the wish that they can catch up soon on how Holmes took Moriarty down (and also Watson thinks he’s going to keep an eye on Holmes somehow, what).

Holmes wrote back with his congratulations and also to say that the catch-up will have to wait, as he’ll be out of the country for several months at least, as Europe has more interesting cases and he’s sick of London.

I’m starting to wonder if they are never actually going to have a reconciliation, oh my God.  What if Watson actually locked up the manuscript with the belief and accusation that Holmes was really Jack the Ripper, and that’s the reason for the consternation and the threats against publication in the 70s when it was finally revealed?  My God, that would be stupid.

The whole thing is appallingly insipid — that Watson witnessed everything he did, working seven years with Holmes, and can’t spare the slightest skepticism for deceit of his own senses — that he can’t be bothered to actually stop and talk to his friend before jumping to extreme action — it’s just contrived, honestly.

3.

So I finally finished the dumb published fanfic about Jam Watson.

Let me tell you just how ludicrous this story gets.  This is really long, but stick it out, because you can’t imagine yet the ways Jam Watson will amaze you.

At first I thought the Jack-the-Ripper/Moriarty theory was a pathetic lack of creativity on the part of the non-Doyle author, but it turned out he had a reason.

After Holmes leaves for Europe, he sends Watson a few letters, which persuade him that Holmes has recovered his mind through his travels and is no longer a danger to anyone.  They eventually meet again, and it’s like old times; Watson keeps it together, Holmes does not seem like a psychopathic serial killer.

A couple years pass. They do a few cases together, but Watson distances himself, focusing more on his home and practice.

Then the Ripper murders start again, and Watson receives a coded letter from Holmes that Watson thinks is the product of drug-addled delirium, because this is Jam Watson.

Soon after, Holmes breaks into his home in the middle of the night, claiming to be chased closely by Moriarty, and that Watson’s long-time gardener is one of Moriarty’s creatures, and Holmes hasn’t slept for more than an hour in two weeks. He asks for Watson’s help, and Watson promises it, and Holmes promptly passes out.

Watson immediately injects Holmes with a solution to make sure he stays asleep, then goes to investigate the house across from Baker Street, that Holmes claimed had been occupied by Moriarty.  There, in a secret compartment, he finds DAMNING EVIDENCE: a long knife, organs and a fetus in jars, and a mocking poem about killing people without a care in a world, that was apparently a basardization of some hymn or something.  There was nothing — of course not even fingerprints — to link Holmes to these objects, but there’s no longer any possibility of doubt in Jam Watson’s mind.

Apparently what he found (i.e., the fetus) was so ghastly that it justifies his next course of action, which was not to go straight to the police or anyone else, or even to confront Holmes immediately, but instead:

To inject himself with cocaine — for the first time — on a daily basis in order to stay awake and watch Holmes forever. Because that is the only way to prevent Holmes from committing more diabolical murders.  And also with the idea of eventually confronting Holmes, “when the time is right.”

Because Sherlock Holmes won’t notice his constant companion’s new drug habit or any change in his behavior. Or the fact that he doesn’t sleep.

Jam Watson, everyone.

(Although I should mention that on returning to the room where he left Holmes, Holmes hits him with a poker with a blow that would have taken Watson’s head off, and Watson only attributes his survival to his newly drug-heightened reflexes. Take that as you like.  And he wakes up to find Holmes begging to know if he’s all right, and blaming Moriarty for driving him to such a state that he would almost kill his dearest friend out of suspicion.)

So for the next two weeks Holmes led an increasingly coked-up Watson on an exhausting and random trek across Europe, eventually ending up — at Reichenbach Falls.  Precisely at the time that Watson runs out of cocaine, since his Constant Vigilance and the wackiness of their travels prevented him from restocking.

Holmes delays their start up the mountain until the withdrawal symptoms start in earnest — with auditory and visual hallucinations, just in case there wasn’t already enough suspicion of the narrator’s reliability.

But of course it turned out to be all deliberate timing on Holmes’ part. Because — brace yourself — Sherlock Holmes had in fact noticed Watson injecting himself with cocaine three times a day.  And he had concluded that Moriarty had long ago killed Watson and was now impersonating Holmes’ closest friend.  So he, too, had taken Watson up the mountain for a Final Confrontation where he demanded to now exactly when Moriarty had murdered Watson, and then to kill him with Jack’s/Moriarty’s own knife.

Before he pulled the knife, mind you, Watson tried to shoot Holmes repeatedly with his own gun, which he totally believed was loaded, but Holmes had removed the bullets, because, y’know, he didn’t have the highest confidence in coked-up Jam Watson’s judgement.

So this all led up to the most moving scene in the entire book, when Holmes has Watson pinned to the ground (in addition to the new coke addiction, Holmes cited as evidence for Watson’s falseness how his usual stout devotion had been absent the past few weeks; Holmes also simultaneously confessed to daily use of a special mix of cocaine-infused snuff) with the knife raised over him, and Watson screams out that Holmes should go ahead and kill him because Moriarty has won, and what a triumph it is to trick Sherlock Holmes into murdering his only true and loving friend.

That actually halts Holmes, who after a moment lowers the knife, pulls back, and very gently tells Watson not to worry, Moriarty will not harm him.  And then he steps off the edge of the cliff, and Watson peers over to see his body strike an outcrop of rock.

So, as you can see, there’s a certain amount of brilliance in how its set up with the open question as to whether or not Moriarty is to Holmes as Hyde is to Jekyll, and whether Holmes knew it in the end or not.  And Watson never once glimpsed Moriarty in this version.  But there’s more than ample cause to doubt Watson’s reliability.

But the story did not end there.  The final, and biggest, shock of the book was the conclusion, which explained how Watson was determined to preserve the good image of Sherlock Holmes in the minds of the public, even to turn him into a myth, as a way of enshrining the good he’d done and burying the rest.  And of course his chosen method of accomplishing this was arranging for Arthur Conan Doyle to write the rest of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  (Why Watson would then account the whole true tale and put it in a vault to be opened in fifty years is beyond comprehension.)

So the entire story was all an elaborate set-up to dump on Doyle and the legacy of Sherlock Holmes.

But I didn’t realize the real punch of it until, less than an hour after finishing it, I had to sit in a dental chair for two and a half hours, and I started an audiobook on my iPod to get through the ordeal. I only have four audiobooks on my iPod, and two of them are Sherlock Holmes, so I started playing “Valley of Fear” — which happens to open with a discussion of Moriarty.  And then, to my annoyance, I realized that the aspersions of the stupid fanfic had succeeded in shadowing my enjoyment of the canon, because I couldn’t keep from double-guessing the events to see if there was any real confirmation that Moriarty was who Holmes claimed him to be.

Least satisfying published fanfic ever.

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