Sherlock Holmes has always been in good literary company. He comes from an age that gave us Dorian Gray, Count Dracula, Dr. Jekyll (or should we call him Mr. Hyde?), a number of Vernian and Wellian scientists, and authors that may as well have been literary figures themselves. Sometimes those characters stroll from book to book, erasing the boundaries between fictional creations as they mingle on the pages of adaptations and pastiches. Such is often the case with Sherlock Holmes: he is famously unable to stay on his own page, much to Doyle’s chagrin (the unfortunate author received many letters addressed to “Sherlock Holmes”), and this time, he’s strolled his way into Stevenson’s Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.
Have you ever wondered whether Holmes would be able to crack the strange case of Dr. Jekyll’s other half, or does Stevenson’s science resemble the supernatural too much for Holmes reason to uncover the mystery? That is the premise of Loren D. Estleman’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, one of a number of novels making up the Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s such a fine work that it could almost take its place in the canon of Holmes stories penned by Doyle himself.
The book begins, as so many Holmes sequels these days do, with a prologue outlining the discovery of yet another manuscript of yet another Holmes story (this one has the merit of both ingenuity and believability), followed by Watson’s almost customary explanation of his reasons for finally telling this tale (as we know from canon, the good doctor is an utter gentleman who does not reveal the secrets of clients, and that is why we had to wait so long for this story).
Finally, we get to the story: a friend of the respectable Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Utterson, comes to seek out Holmes in order to delve into the mystery of why said respectable doctor has placed too much trust into the roguish and possibly criminal Mr. Hyde. It is entirely in keeping with the Victorian sensibilities of the period portrayed and with the Holmes canon for the story to unravel this way: even in Stevenson’s tale, the natural assumption is blackmail, and Utterson’s desire to seek out a detective to get to the bottom of the case reads believably. And thus begins the case.
Of course, unless one has been living under a rock since the late 19th century, one obviously knows that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are, indeed, the same person (or, to be more accurate, two aspects of the same being). This brings the novel dangerously close to being a murder mystery whose murderer is evident on the first page; it’s a mystery story whose solution is obvious to the reader but not the greatest detective mind fiction has ever produced. It’s a tricky proposition to tell this kind of mystery well, and Mr. Estleman manages admirably.
That’s partially due to the Victorian prose that makes Dr. Watson sound so much like Dr. Watson. Not that Doyle’s writing was particularly striking; in fact, it is, at best, non-descript, but to emulate the unremarkable prose of a bygone era is more difficult than one might think. Estleman’s prose is believably Victorian in a way that does not draw attention to itself, allowing the reader to instead focus on the much more interesting aspects of the story – such as Holmes himself.
A believable portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is, of course, high on the list of requisites for a good Holmes pastiche. He can’t just be an incomparable detective, he must be the unique man that Holmes is: moody and dramatic, energetic and lethargic, a man of opposites. It is not merely in his detecting that makes Estleman’s Holmes resemble Doyle’s original; it is in all the aspects of his personality. Behold, for instance, the following dramatic utterance:
“Purple is the fatal colour, Doctor,” he informed me. “Should the liquid assume that hue once I have introduced this other substance – as I suspect it will- a murder has been committed and a woman will march to the gallows. Thus!” He tipped the powder into the tube.
This reads so much like the introduction of a Doyle story, with Holmes in the depth of a new discovery as Watson looks on, that I was sold on the very first (well, second, really) page.
Beyond that, it is simply an engaging story as one follows Holmes’ comings, goings, deducing and adventuring; at a couple hundred pages, it is a tale that is neither too long nor too short. Holmes’ investigation is neither frustratingly long for a mystery whose ending one knows, nor too short for a satisfying detective story. I would not suggest that it adds any particular depth to the Holmes canon as we know it, but then again, not all pastiches seek to do so. It is simply what we come to expect form a Holmes story: an entertaining tale in which Holmes charms us with his deductive magic.