Saturday, March 20, 2010

Watson's Last Case

I read this book by Ian Charnock, who is evidently a British Sherlockian, or "Holmesian" as they call themselves. He's previously published a book called The Elementary Cases of Sherlock Holmes , narrated by Stamford; it tells of various unpublished cases that occurred before Watson met Holmes. Stamford explains that he did actually know of Holmes's profession, but was merely being mysterious in STUD to encourage Watson's interest in Holmes. I've never read the earlier work, and am not sure whether I should have before I read this one. Perhaps it would have explained things early, such as the fact that Stamford had a cocaine addiction. Or maybe that was only revealed in this book? I don't know.

In Watson's Last Case, Stamford reunites with Watson during Armistice Day, 1918, and they get to talking. In Part 1, Watson confesses a recent mission that Mycroft sent him on during the War, and he gives to Stamford the twelve Casebook stories. In Part 2, Stamford learns of the "last case" of the title; Mycroft sent Watson on an earlier mission when Holmes was preoccupied with another case. In Part 3, Stamford rambles on in a disordered manner about Sherlock Holmes's youth, as well as his own life. It's not a cohesive story as much as a bunch of sketches; they really should have been Sherlockian articles on chronology instead of part of this book, because he keeps starting and stopping, using different narrators who often overlap and cover the same events. Stamford is also oddly frustrating, unwilling to reveal his own first name or the name of his sister even after revealing that she is one of the characters in the canon.

Anyway, in Part 1, Stamford notices that Watson looks sunburned and ill as if he's been in India again, recruiting for the War. Watson says that he was indeed too old to go to the Front, but he found a different way to serve. They decide to leave the noisy Armistice celebrations and go somewhere else. Stamford suggests the Holborn again, but Watson says it will likely be booked up. Watson wants to go to "my place" which he reveals as 221B Baker Street; he's apparently living there after having sold his previous practices when he retired. It's so sweet that he chose to go back there, though of course one would prefer him to be in Sussex with Holmes. It's sad also to think that they really haven't seen each other since 1914. Later on, Stamford will assure us that Watson didn't marry twice; it was just a convenient lie that Stamford made up when he wrote up the BLAN story, too enthusiastically trying his hand at chronicling Holmes's case. (Charnock the Sherlockian is clearly using the book to explain away some of the Casebook stories that are considered bad forgeries.)

So at 221B, Watson and Stamford discuss Holmes a little, and a guilt-ridden Watson tells Stamford about his recent mission, despite its top-secret nature. Mycroft had sent Watson to meet with T. E. Lawrence before he helped capture Damascus from the Ottoman Empire. It's an interesting look into the historical politics of the time, with the Arabs seeking an independent nation while the British and French powers already have the Sykes-Picot Agreement, planning to divide up the lands themselves. The British government is of course represented by Mycroft in this, and after Watson returned from his mission, he berated Mycroft about the deceit and lack of honor. Watson tells Stamford all about this, then gives him his notes on twelve new cases; some are complete stories, but some are only notes and outlines, and he wants them delivered to Doyle to complete. Watson doesn't have time, because sadly, he really is rather ill and soon dies.

Stamford cries over him, but I wish it had been Holmes. Stamford writes the obituary and then goes to deliver the twelve stories to Doyle. They talk briefly of Holmes's reaction to the death, but it's disappointingly nothing. It's supposed to be a sign that Holmes couldn't find the words, or something, but it's a frequent annoyance of the book that Holmes is off-screen throughout, and only discussed endlessly by other people. I wonder if Charnock intends to write up whatever unnamed missions that Holmes was on during the war (because he didn't just stop with the Von Bork case). Anyway, so Stamford and Doyle discuss the Casebook stories, then discover some secret notes in Watson's briefcase, about the "last case" he had before adventuring with Lawrence of Arabia.

That leads to Part 2, all about Watson's secret mission to Russia. Mycroft tells the beginning of the tale, and then we have Watson's report and then some third person. It's like Charnock can't decide on a simple writing style that would help unify everything; after all, LAST was written in third person because no other viewpoint would reveal everything that happened properly. Charnock needs some discipline for his writing style.

As if there weren't enough name-dropping with T. E. Lawrence before, we now learn that Mycroft sent Watson to Russia to confirm that the Tsar's son Alexei suffered from hemophilia, and to investigate whether the peasants were on the verge of revolution or not. I kept expecting Holmes to suddenly show up like he did in HOUN or LADY, but no, he apparently really was busy on some other mission. So Watson's on his own being a doctor and a diplomat out of the British Embassy. He tries to persuade the Tsar and his wife Alexandra to not infuriate the people by supporting Rasputin, but they do not agree with his concerns. Watson intends to leave Russia in defeat, but instead he falls ill and spends quite some time recovering, thereby sticking around long enough for the Russian Revolution of 1917. I won't spoil anymore about that, but it was good that Rasputin's death was glossed over quickly instead of investigated.

Now we get to Part 3, the most meandering and unnecessary part of the book. I think it is really only of interest to a Sherlockian, not a fiction reader hoping for some firm conclusion. And again it's from different points in time and different narrators who keep going round and round over the same things. Stamford hints at other stories that were covered in the previous Elementary Cases book, talks of meeting Victor Trevor in Terai, then tells us about Holmes's family tree and his upbringing which was partly spent in France. We learn that Sherlock was originally "destined for the church" as many younger sons were. (But I thought that was only the case when the older son was intended to inherit property and be a squire? I don't know.) Holmes was good with Biblical Studies at Oxford, but his reason interfered with his faith, so eventually, after GLOR, Holmes decided to abandon theology for crime detection. There's an interesting couple of scenes in which he discusses his decision with Mycroft in their shared rooms at Montague Street. We hear a little bit about Holmes's early career as a detective, but of course Stamford is reserving stuff that's in the other book.

Meanwhile Stamford tells us about himself as well, such as his alcoholism, his world travels, his tragic loss of his wife and children, which I guess led him to his cocaine addiction. Then he talks of his own war service and sort of oddly peters out at the end. I was really not interested in Stamford's story, so it was kind of annoying to have to wade through so much of Stamford's ramblings to get to Charnock's theories. I guess it was an okay book, but not really any kind of pastiche in the sense of having a mystery. Just a couple of espionage-ish adventures plus eccentric Sherlockian theories.

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