Saturday, 29 February 2020

The West End Horror

Author: Nicholas Meyer
First Published: 1976
Pages: 222hb
Publisher: Dutton

This is another in my occasional series of reviews for books that are not currently available in the eBook format - but probably should be.*

The West End Horror, published in 1976 and written by Nicholas Meyer was published after the success of his first Holmes pastiche titled The Seven Per Cent Solution in 1974. It was followed by a third novel, titled The Canary Trainer in 1995. Meyer has returned to the memoirs of John H. Watson M.D. once more in 2019, with the novel The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols. The fourth book is the only one that is currently available in eBook format. I wonder why only this installment has been converted considering the success of the earlier works has enabled it to be released in the first place?

Nicholas Meyer produced an adaptation of his first Holmes novel into a screenplay for the movie version in 1976. Directed by Herbert Ross and starring Alan Arkin, Robert Duvall, Nicol Williamson and Laurence Olivier, the script by Meyer was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. Meyer never looked back from there (he'd apparently only written The Sever Per Cent Solution while waiting for the writers strike of 1973 to be resolved) and went on to direct Time and Again, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Volunteers, wrote the screenplay for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and also wrote and directed Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He is also listed as an uncredited writer for Pierce Brosnan's James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies.

The West End Horror begins in the winter of 1894, Holmes is displaying manic tendencies and is currently obsessed with English Charters, even planning a trip to Cambridge so that he can develope his knowledge and consult with other experts in the field. Watson isn't so enthusiastic and so the interuption of a new case is a bit of a relief from his perspective.

The new puzzle comes in the form of the apparent murder of well-known drama critic Jonathan McCarthy. His rival from a competing newspaper hot foots it round to Baker Street to inform Holmes of the incident, hot off the press, before it has been widely reported. Holmes decides to investigate, partly as the visitor is an aquaintence of his, Bernard Shaw (i.e. playwright George Bernard Shaw) and both himself and Watson race to the scene of the crime to witness the aftermath before the local constabulary ruin the evidence. Here they meet old friend Inspector Lestrade, who is perfectly willing to let the detective step in and examine the body which has been stabbed. Naturally Lestrade has already come to his own wildly inaccurate conclusions about what has happened.

From here the plot proceeds to take in the theatrical landscape and community of London, and the exuberant, outlandish personalities that were present at the time. Meyer manages to weave in to the story the involvement of true life stars such as William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Gilbert and Sullivan), Henry Irving, actress Ellen Terry and even playwright Oscar Wilde and author Bram Stoker! (That's two Sherlock Holmes books in a row for me with a Stoker link to them). There is even a reference to the Marquess of Queensbury.

It would seem that the murderer of theatre critic McCarthy could be one of many people - he was not exactly the most pleasant of people, and even though he had amassed a collection of signed photos from those in the business, his reviews could be disastrous to the careers of men and women in the theatre.

Holmes begins to uncover some idea of McCarthy's movements prior to his murder, and his investigations lead him to reveal more about the secret lives of those linked to the corpse.

The West End Horror starts quite well. I enjoyed the depiction of Holmes' early deductive powers at play; Watson's disliking of Bernard Shaw was also a nice touch, as were the scenes involving Lestrade and his constable Hopkins at the first crime scene. Holmes is suitably verging on obsessive complusive until the case begins.

However, I'm not a great fan of stories that try to link Holmes and Watson with historical figures. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't. In this particular effort I felt like Meyer included too many of them. I prefer it when these cameos (if I can call them that) are restricted to perhaps a single person, and even then just very briefly in a single scene or two. I wouldn't go so far as saying that thier inclusion ruins the plot, just that I would prefer them not to be there. It sometimes felt like Meyer was 'showing off' how good he is, or how good his research was.

It's a shame that the good start to the book isn't maintained throughout. Holmes rather goes off the boil a bit in the middle section. It doesn't feel like his is deducting as much as we delve further into the plot. Even the final section has a lengthy narrative from someone explaining what has happend, which I felt should have been left to Holmes to disclose.

Another impression I had with The West End Horror was that it tended to lapse into portraying the consulting detective and his partner a little too closely to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce's film version in places. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love those films and watch them on a regular basis. But in my opinion writing the Holmes and Watson characters in a book so that they mirror those particular actors characterisations is not appropriate.

Even with my own criticisms, I don't consider this a bad book, but it's not a great one either. I'm not sure if I'll read more of Meyer's Holmes pastiches based on this effort. There are so many more out there that I think I'll enjoy more.

*With thanks to a Facebook Group member, I have just been told these are available in eBook format in the U.S. - just not to us in the U.K. it would seem! (I've tagged this blog as both Paperback and eBook to reflect the copyright issues at play here).