The Magazine

Back on the Job

Familiar faces, contemporary cases.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By JON L. BREEN
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Rex Stout, asked his opinion of writers who take over a deceased colleague’s fictional characters, compared them to vampires and cannibals and said they should “roll their own.” But that didn’t stop Robert Goldsborough from writing several new cases for the team of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin after Stout’s death. When the creator of a famous fictional detective or thriller hero dies, readers want to see the saga continue, and, whether their motives are literary, celebratory, or purely commercial, heirs, writers, editors, and publishers are often eager to oblige.

Screen shot of actor Ian Carmichael playing the character of Lord Peter Wimsey

Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey

Popperfoto / Getty Images

Sherlock Holmes’s official life in print ran from 1886 to 1927; but since the death of Arthur Conan Doyle in 1930 innumerable new cases for the Baker Street sleuth have been supplied by other hands. Raffles, the gentleman-burglar created by Doyle’s brother-in-law E. W. Hornung, lived on in novels and stories by Barry Perowne, a pseudonym for Philip Atkey. The last novel by the late Joe Gores was Spade and Archer, a superbly managed prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. Eric Van Lustbader has inherited Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne franchise; Don Winslow has written a new novel about Trevanian’s assassin Nicholai Hel; and next year will see the first of Ace Atkins’s new cases for the Boston private eye Spenser, created by the late Robert B. Parker, who himself had added new volumes to the saga of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

The artistic and marketplace success of these ventures varies. Though Goldsborough started from the best of motives—he wrote his first Stout pastiche as a gift for his mother, never intending it for publication—his honorable efforts were inferior to the originals and generally derided by series fans. The Erle Stanley Gardner estate erred in hiring Thomas Chastain, a capable mystery writer whose new Perry Mason cases lacked the pace and spark of the originals. Parnell Hall, uniquely able to replicate Gardner’s writing and plotting style and mastery of courtroom trickery, was turned down for the job but proved his superiority in novels about lawyer Steve Winslow, published under the pseudonym J. P. Hailey. The long-delayed sixth in the series, The Innocent Woman, was published earlier this year as an e-book.

Each of the four books here returns to the stage one of the most celebrated characters in mystery and thriller fiction, with varying approaches and levels of success.

In the last three or four decades, Sherlock Holmes has met virtually every celebrity of the Victorian/Edwardian period, involved himself with all of the period’s notorious criminal cases (most frequently Jack the Ripper), and been used as a character in bridge problems and as an unlikely spokesman for evangelical Christianity. Secondary characters from the Holmes saga have had their own separate cases, including Dr. Watson, Inspector Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, Irene Adler, and the sedentary brother Mycroft Holmes, severely distorted into an action hero. Juvenile series have featured the Baker Street Irregulars and a hitherto unimagined feminist sister of Sherlock and Mycroft.

Though the Doyle estate has given permission for many of these, only recently have they directly sponsored or commissioned new cases for Holmes, putting their imprimatur on one pastiche for adults and one for children.  The adult book is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, best known as the creator of the superb British TV series Foyle’s War. The juvenile is Andrew Lane’s Death Cloud, which concerns a schoolboy Sherlock, obviously gifted but an intellectual work in progress. Sent to spend the summer with relatives he’s never met, he encounters negatives (a Mrs. Danvers-ish housekeeper) and positives (an American tracker hired by Mycroft to tutor him for the summer) and vanquishes a particularly grotesque principal villain. The author sets up a two-boys-and-a-girl theme that worked so well for the Harry Potter series, and enough loose ends are left behind to fuel future entries. The story is more thriller than detective story, with many effective scenes of physical action; but there’s quite a bit of good reasoning as well, and the author is knowledgeable and respectful of the Holmes canon, slyly including allusions that Sherlockians will recognize. Apart from dialogue that occasionally sounds too contemporary, Lane does a good job with the 19th century.

Jill Paton Walsh was already well known as a mystery writer and Booker-nominated novelist when she got the job of finishing Thrones, Dominations, the novel about Lord Peter Wimsey and his mystery-writer wife Harriet Vane that Dorothy L. Sayers left unfinished when she deserted detective fiction for other literary and religious interests. A second posthumous collaboration, A Presumption of Death, drew on “The Wimsey Papers,” a series of letters Sayers wrote for the Spectator early in World War II, but the mystery problem was entirely Walsh’s own. In The Attenbury Emeralds Walsh brings Peter and Harriet, along with perfect manservant Mervyn Bunter and various associates and family members, into the Britain of the early 1950s to investigate a case that began 30 years earlier at the start of Wimsey’s career as a consulting detective. The characters have aged in real time, and they confront a postwar Britain drastically changed for members of the aristocracy. Walsh is able to take the characters in new directions without distorting them. For plotting, literary style, and character insights, she is one of the most effective successor-authors.

While Walsh is the only writer (to my knowledge) to extend the Wimsey franchise, Jeffery Deaver is at least the fifth to continue the James Bond saga, following Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham), John Gardner, Raymond Benson, and Sebastian Faulks. Unlike the other characters under discussion, Bond has not been placed in a period setting but is thrust into the contemporary world. Not content with ignoring Bond’s past, Deaver effectively erases it. His clean-slate Bond is an Afghan war hero in his early thirties who has a tragic family backstory and works for a covert British unit called the Overseas Development Group. Forget Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, and the other Ian Fleming Bonds—apparently none of that stuff ever happened. Still the secondary characters are in their proper roles—M, Miss Moneypenny, Felix Leiter. Brand names are freely dropped. If Fleming’s Bond had recommended the 2005 Rustenberg Peter Barlow Cabernet, it would have precipitated a run on the wine shops; but I don’t know if Deaver’s version will have the same effect. As in any respectable spy novel, a flurry of acronyms and initialisms are deployed: SOCA, JTAC, ELINT, IMINT, SIGINT, MASINT, COBRA, SAPS. There’s no shortage of beautiful women with suggestive names—Ophelia Maidenstone, Felicity Willing—exotic locales are widespread and varied—Serbia, Dubai, South Africa—and gadgets from Q section are available at short notice. The main visible villains, recycling tycoon and corpse devotee Severan Hydt and engineer Niall Dunne (aka the Irishman), are in the grand tradition. Less Fleming-like is the whodunit element, solved by Bond from fair, if well-hidden, clues. 

The novel begins unpromisingly with cinematic derring-do and a plethora of clumsily inserted tidbits from the author’s research files, a tendency that becomes more tolerable as the story gathers momentum. Deaver is meticulous enough to explain why Bond wants his martini shaken rather than stirred: It’s colder that way and serves to aerate the vodka, improving the flavor. Deaver is a trick constructionist whose fictional technique involves the planting of periodic jolts to the reader’s expectations. However expertly done, this sometimes becomes too much of a good thing, like a fireworks display that goes on too long. It generally works better in his short stories. The bottom line: a respectable effort that mainly lacks Ian Fleming’s stylistic flair.

Mickey Spillane was a competent writer with a knack for colorful prose and operatic plotting who struck a responsive note with mostly male readers in post-World War II America. Where Doyle, Sayers, and Fleming all had a favorable critical response in their own time, Spillane did not. In the April 1952 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, four prominent reviewers were quoted on The Long Wait. Most backhandedly complimentary was Anthony Boucher of the New York Times (“may rank as the best Spillane .  .  . faintest praise this department has ever bestowed”). Also weighing in were James Sandoe of the New York Herald Tribune (“Readers will look without success for any hint of intentional satire”), Lenore Glen Offord of the San Francisco Chronicle (“murky and incredible plot and complete lack of taste, all as usual”), and Sergeant Cuff of the Saturday Review (“Amnesia angle handcuffs reader; plot turgid and violent”). Those of us who believe the contemporary reviewers essentially got it right are swimming against the prevailing tide.

For me, the biggest drawback to Spillane is not the vivid sex and violence, not the vigilante justice and reactionary political slant, and certainly not the atmospheric prose and humor, but a distinct lack of the compulsive readability his admirers claim for him. Maybe Spillane, in opening up the mystery form to male aggressive and sexual impulses not fully represented in earlier popular fiction, made his books a masculine equivalent of the Nancy Drew juveniles revered by so many women mystery writers—another case of far superior work being traced to an original inspiration of limited artistic quality. (In fairness, Spillane’s works do score higher on literary value than the Nancy Drews.)

Of the latter-day writers and critics who have celebrated Spillane’s mysteries, none has been more vocal and effective than his friend and posthumous collaborator Max Allan Collins, a vastly better writer. Collins, though best known for historical novels based on true crimes or disasters, has successfully written virtually every type of crime fiction. After the death of Spillane, he inherited the job of mining the unfinished works and fragments. Kiss Her Goodbye, the third Mike Hammer novel to carry their joint byline, is based on two partial manuscripts found among Spillane’s effects. All the expected features are here: evocative descriptions, frequent use of italics, bursts of explicit violence, over-abundance of beautiful women, and a dramatic final scene with a shock twist.

Hammer, who has been in Florida recuperating from gunshot wounds, reluctantly returns to a changed New York in the 1970s for the funeral of an old friend and mentor. He claims to have put his avenger days behind him, but he can’t believe ex-cop Bill Doolan would have committed suicide. Hammer is a Manhattan celebrity, known by reputation to everyone he meets. It’s hard to imagine anyone but sometime-actor Spillane himself speaking the humorous tough-guy dialogue. Sex scenes are more explicit than Spillane could get away with in his early days, but the enthusiastically graphic violence needs no stepping up. Collins’s faithful imitation ultimately does Spillane better than the man himself ever managed. (I have a hunch that the creator of Mike Hammer, who never seemed to take himself too seriously and could afford to be generous to his fellow writers, would agree.)

Four pastiches, each to at least some degree worthy of its model and one surpassing the original. Whether the increasing franchising of dead bestsellers and successful series characters is salutary or not—and I suspect it is not—this quartet bolsters the case for the defense.

Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Probable Claus.