Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Bookwalks: The Sherlock Solution

Image credit: Alterego, on Wikimedia Commons

I'm very much enjoying Howard Andrew Jones' Arabian Nights-esque fantasy novel The Desert of Souls, which has so far featured a colorful look at the Bagdhad of Haroun al-Rashid, court intrigue, questions of fate and free will, a desperate fight in an alley, a battle with magically-animated dead monkeys, and an enjoyable cast. It's part of his series of tales about the scholar Dabir and his friend and chronicler, the swordsman Asim. (Full disclosure -- Jones is an editor at Black Gate magazine, which has a story of mine in their inventory.) On their first novel-length adventure Dabir and Asim find themselves in possession of a pair of exotic door-pulls that may just originate in the legendary lost city of Ubar. A trip to that cursed metropolis, for all that Asim declares it impossible, is surely in the offing.

Part of the enjoyment here is Asim's narrative voice, and how in a sense he's acting as Watson to Dabir's Sherlock Holmes. Asim comes across as no fool, but he is no scholar either, and the byplay between the two characters is entertaining. There's also nice irony in that Asim is chronicling the adventure long after the fact, and it never occurs to the Asim of the "now" that he might be the author of anything except the deaths of villains.

Dabir and Asim illustrate how useful it can be to have a pair of main characters -- or at least a hero and a sidekick -- who can add dialogue to a scene, and whose different perspectives bring depth to a situation. It's not that a story about a solitary hero (say Solomon Kane or John Thunstone) can't be exciting, but unless the protagonist goes all Hamlet on us, there's going to be less dialog, and either a more introspective mood or a more headlong one, as the writer gets into the character's head or throws him or her directly into the action.

Dabir and Asim also demonstrate a solution to the problem of when one of your heroes boasts a brilliant mind. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, he had the insight that Holmes himself would make an insufferable narrator, and thus we have the bright but not extraordinary Doctor Watson telling the tale of Holmes' exploits. This method has many things going for it. It preserves some suspense, as the detective (or scholar) can keep his insights private until a properly dramatic moment. It sidesteps the problem of presenting a brilliant intellect from the inside (because face it, we're not all Ted Chiang.) It gives a good excuse for exposition, as our genius has to pause to get his comrade up to speed. And it's often cause for humor, as the wise man and the chronicler can poke fun at each other's blind spots. It's a handy conceit that other writers have used to good effect.

For example Umberto Eco transplanted Holmes and Watson to medieval Italy in The Name of the Rose, transforming them into friar William of Baskerville (!) and novice Adso. They struggle to understand a series of murders at a monastery hosting a theological disputation. Like Holmes, the friar uses deduction to solve the crimes, and rejects the easy conclusion, in this case demonic possession, and as with Holmes we experience the story through a friend's eyes, as Adso tries to make sense of the conflicting ideas of his elders. (I'm relying here on having only seen the movie, though my wife has read the book and talked about some of the details.) 

And there's Barry Hughart's amazing Bridge of Birds, in which Number Ten Ox, a young villager in "an ancient China that never was" seeks aid from a sage named Li Kao, a brilliant mind, but with "a slight flaw in his character." Master Li would in fact be a master criminal were it not for his basic good-heartedness and loyalty to China. In a way he'd rather be a Moriarty than a Holmes, which may account for his sour moods. However, give him a suitable villain for a target, and Master Li's full gleeful cunning is unleashed. Bridge of Birds features many villains to thwart as Master Li and Number Ten Ox cross China to find the Great Root of Power, a magical ginseng root that can cure stricken children in Ox's village. Hughart balances humor and adventure in a winning way, and builds to a conclusion that's epic and moving. (I didn't find the sequels, The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen, to be quite up to this level, but then Bridge of Birds is a tough act to beat, one of the best fantasies I've ever read.)

Commentators have noted that Patrick O'Brian's famous Aubrey-Maturin series has some of the Holmes-Watson flavor as well. I've only read the first book, Master and Commander, but I can see Aubrey taking the role of straightforward man of action and Maturin, who turns out to be a secret agent, playing the part of brilliant schemer. (The relationship is complicated however by Aubrey's outranking Maturin, and Maturin's initial unfamiliarity with the sea. We also see Maturin's own point of view as he learns the ropes... er, lines... of life aboard ship.)

J.R.R. Tolkien may not have had Holmes and Watson on his mind when first writing of Gandalf and Bilbo, but there's an echo of that partnership in The Hobbit, and later in The Lord of the Rings as Gandalf is advising Bilbo's nephew Frodo. We never see the wizard's thoughts from the inside, which preserves a great deal of mystery as to his plans and his talents. (It also gave Tolkien some room to refine his concept of wizards in Middle Earth as he continued writing.) However, some of the familiarity here may simply be a result of a longstanding mythic pattern, of the novice hero getting the help of a wise counselor, and indeed Tolkien snatches Gandalf away from the hobbits in both cases, so that ultimately they must rely on their own wits.

Of course using Holmes himself has been irresistible to many writers, and there is a long list of pastiches. But two I'd like to mention are ones in which Arthur Conan Doyle is himself a character. In Mark Frost's The List of Seven, Doyle is drawn into a supernatural adventure beside a brilliant and eccentric Crown agent, thus "explaining" both Doyle's interest in spiritualism and the origins of the character Sherlock Holmes. 180 degrees from this is Vonda N. McIntyre's story "The Adventure of the Field Theorems" in which Sherlock Holmes takes Doyle as a client, and in which Holmes' rationality is pitted against Doyle's belief in the supernatural. Yes McIntyre has the audacity to have Doyle's own creation critique Doyle's beliefs! It's a very enjoyable story, one that has appeared in two anthologies of speculative fiction Holmes pastiches -- Sherlock Holmes in Orbit (edited by Mike Resnick and Martin Harry Greenberg) and the more recent The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (edited by John Joseph Adams.)

Speaking of speculative, here's an extreme stretch. You could argue that in Isaac Asimov's Foundation, the whole civilization of the Foundation is in a sense playing "Watson" to the "Sherlock" of its founder, Hari Seldon, who manifests in a holographic tank now and then to reveal his brilliant predictions for how his spiritual descendants are faring down the centuries. This makes the catastrophe in the followup book all the more shocking, when Seldon's "ghost" turns out to be completely wrong about something. And there's Iain M. Banks' Culture series, filled with organic characters playing catchup with the brilliant, and generally patient, artificial intelligences of the setting.

Interestingly, in the BBC's recent "reimagined" Sherlock Holmes series (titled simply Sherlock) the modern-day Watson's experience as a combat veteran is emphasized, and he's shown acting as a bodyguard, much as Asim does for Dabir in Desert of Souls. The new series also emphasizes the quirks of Holmes' thought in interesting ways, putting me in mind of the whole question of what is neurotypical, and in what ways an unusual brain can be both burden and gift.

The Desert of Souls is on sale now. Doyle, Eco, Hughart, O'Brian, Tolkien, Frost, McIntyre -- and Asimov, Banks, and the BBC -- are most likely available at your friendly neighborhood bookstore, or online vendor -- or at your library.

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