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.