In general, I would say I’m not a huge fan of authors picking up and continuing and/or changing the works and characters created by others. On second thought, though, I realize that this has of course been going on ever since mankind first began telling stories…
One fictional character that even survived his original creator’s attempt to kill him off to get rid of him, is the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. The author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, got tired of him and sent him to his death in one story… But got such massive protests from his readers that he had to resurrect him again! Since then Sherlock has lived on and survived not only his creator, but also the copy-rights.
One of several modern writers who have tried adding their own twist to the characters and setting of the Holmes stories is Martin Davies. I’m not sure I would have felt tempted to pick up this series if not for the fact that I had already read four other books by this author – all different from each other, and I liked them all. (The Conjuror’s Bird, The Unicorn Road, The Year After and Havana Sleeping.) So I decided to give his take on Sherlock Holmes a go as well – and don’t regret it!
I read The Spirits’ Curse back in February this year; The Malabar Rose in June; and just finished The Lazarus Testament.
In the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Mrs Hudson is the landlady from whom Holmes and Dr Watson rent their rooms. In Davies’ version, Holmes and Watson buy or rent the house, and then employ Mrs Hudson as housekeeper. She also takes in an orphaned kitchen maid to help her around the house. Not knowing her own origin, the maid goes by the name of Flotsam (as in ‘flotsam and jetsam’), or Flottie.
Mrs Hudson’s past remains a bit of a mystery as well, but having served as housekeeper in several wealthy households, she turns out to be nearly as well-connected with all kinds of people as her new employer, the famous detective – and also just as sharp-witted, in her own more down-to-earth way. And Flottie soon finds herself serving not only as kitchen-maid, but also as the downstairs counterpart of Dr Watson. As Conan Doyle told the Sherlock Holmes stories through Dr Watson, Martin Davies tells his stories through Flottie (supposed to be looking back on events from some time in the fictional future). So what we get in these books is a kind of “Downton Abbey” or upstairs/downstairs view of the famous 221b Baker Street. Important clients still come to seek the help of the famous detective; but we also get the kitchen perspective of events, and Mrs Hudson’s keen eye and her many contacts play a huge role in the background.
Very conveniently, there is a little storage room across the hall from the sitting room where Holmes and Watson usually receive their guests – and doors are often left ajar… So Mrs Hudson and Flottie overhear a lot while polishing silver and folding linen and setting tables and whatnot. And when home alone, Holmes and Watson sometimes also pop into the kitchen and end up having a cup or glass of something in front of the cosy fire there, discussing things with Mrs H – and even with Flottie.
On the whole, I think Davies has managed to nail the classic characteristics of Holmes and Watson quite well – just from a somewhat different perspective. The novels are well-written, the mysteries intricate and very much in the Sherlock Holmes-style, and the general atmosphere seems authentic for the time period.
What perhaps appears a little less believable to me is the friendship formed between Flottie and two young upper class cousins of around her own age. Mrs H arranges for Flottie to be tutored by the young man who knows a lot about science; and she also becomes friends with his female cousin residing in the same house, and gets treated by them like their equal. But it serves the story, as it allows Flottie to move more and more easily between different roles and classes of society. (The two cousins reappear in the following books as well, and get involved in those stories too. They also serve a kind of comic relief purpose, which makes it easy to overlook the credibility issue.)
In Mrs Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse, Holmes gets a visit from a traveler recently returned from the Far East, who fears he's under a curse that will end his life.
In Mrs Hudson and the Malabar Rose, a world famous magician is about to perform in London, and Sherlock Holmes is asked to guard a priceless ruby.
In Mrs Hudson and the Lazarus Testament, an ancient religious artefact has gone missing - and so has the viscount who holds the only clue as to its whereabouts. The trail leads Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, as well as their female servants, to the lonely Cumbrian moors, and a country house in need of a housekeeper.