I freely confess that I am a library junkie. I realize that this puts me in a category with lonely spinsters and elderly men who can only read a newspaper if it’s threaded through a wooden baton, but it got its claws into me early.
1985? 1986? I know I was barely into the double digits in age when I forsook the beanbag chairs and Betsy Byars books in the children’s section in the basement of the old Woodland Public Library for the adult section upstairs, with its musty-smelling stacks and high-arched windows. And the fireplace! On cold winter days, there was always a blazing fire in the periodicals section (in the fireplace, not actually amongst the periodicals, which would have been quite alarming), and those high-arched, iron-banded windows seemed made to have rain spattered against them. It always seemed to be raining on days I visited the library.
The Woodland Library was one of the hundreds of libraries all across the U.S. founded in the early 1900s through a grant by original gazillionaire Andrew Carnegie, when he wasn’t busy betting entire Pennsylvania towns in poker games against Rockefeller, or lighting cigars with fistfuls of cash. (For those of you who don’t know, Carnegie was born dirt-poor in Scotland, basically invented the U.S. steel industry from scratch, then spent the last twenty years of his life literally giving his fortune away to worthy public institutions and charities. What did you do today?)
I remember sitting and reading things for hours, hunched over until my back ached on those little wheeled stools in the aisles. I used my dog-eared library card (with my address neatly typed on it) to check out my first grown-up books – the original Beatles biography by Hunter Davies (the first book I read with the word “fuck” right in it. Wow! What a start! Eat that, Betsy Byars!), the autobiography Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx…and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, which was recommended to me by my fifth-grade teacher.
A fireplace is almost an even trade for the modern library system. The greater Sacramento area has twenty-three libraries, and I’ve been to about twenty of them. A book checked out in one branch location can be returned to any of the others. The full catalog for all locations is online, and with the click of a mouse, a book in a library across town will be transported by some underpaid public employee to the branch down the block from my house within a few days. Or, if I’m too impatient, I pay a visit to a far-flung library and nose around. I usually look for books on my pet subjects (general history, pop culture), but best of all is when a single book on a random topic caught out of the corner of my eye jumps out at me and sends me deep down the rabbit hole of a certain area of study that will consume me for the next several weeks (serial killers, Old Testament history, Celtic mythology, Antarctic exploration, Shakespeare analysis, etc.)
The general conceit of the original Holmes stories is that they were first-person reminiscences written by Holmes’ associate and friend Dr. John H. Watson. Most pastiches are written in the same manner, often purporting to be one of Watson’s “lost manuscripts.” This is one of them, and Faye captures Watson’s (or, rather, Doyle’s) prose style perfectly. It starts, a la Indiana Jones, in the midst of an earlier adventure, and then settles in to a story on a subject that Holmes pastiche-ers find hard to resist: The Victorian era’s greatest detective versus the Victorian era’s greatest criminal: Jack The Ripper. Both the fictional Holmes and the all-too-real Ripper did their work in 1880’s London, and it was inevitable that they should meet. (Pastiches have also brought Holmes up against that other great Victorian baddie, Count Dracula, but the less said about them the better.)
Unread or briefly skimmed by me, but also good possibilities:
Another series featuring a female protagonist is the “Mary Russell” series by Laurie R. King, in which the heroine receives counsel and training from the aging, retired Sherlock Holmes. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is the first in a series of eleven (so far) novels.
The most well-known Holmes pastiche these days is the 2009 Guy Ritchie film Sherlock Holmes. Stuffy Doyle purists got on their high horses and sniffed disdainfully at turning their beloved stories into a loud, big-budget, effects-heavy action film where stuff blowed up real good, and having the great detective himself played by the American Robert Downey, Jr., who bore absolutely no resemblance to the literary Holmes. I actually liked it quite a bit – and if you read the original stories carefully, there’s all kind of references to wild action that Holmes takes part in when not witnessed by faithful biographer Watson. So all the more outlandish stuff merely alluded to in the stories is placed front and center in the film – and cranked up to 11. Although he’s not tall, gaunt, and aquiline in the way Holmes is described by Doyle, Downey is a good enough actor to allow suspension of disbelief for two hours. And even purists praised Jude Law’s note-perfect portrayal of Watson.