Further Encounters is (if the title doesn’t give it away) the follow-up to George Mann’s anthology of Sherlock Holmes short stories from a few years ago, which took me a little over a year to read when I mislaid my paperback halfway through. Despite that stunted reading experience, I enjoyed the anthology enormously.
An anthology generally lives or dies by the strength of it’s individual stories, so I’ll run through them, each in their own right. It’s hard to avoid spoilers, but I will indicate on each story if I’m about to ruin the denouement.
The anthology opens with The Adventure of the Professor’s Bequest (Philip Purser-Hallard) which sees Holmes investigating the theft of papers belonging to the late Professor Moriarty. It suffers from a somewhat threadbare mystery (or rather, something of a slender set of clues) but makes up for it by punting the story into a fascinating retro-futuristic-Matrix, Cartesian philosophical conundrum in the last few pages. Following that is The Curious Case of the Compromised Card-Index (Andrew Lane). I initially disliked this story for a simple reason: the plot hinges on the theft of Holmes’ vast collection of files in which he stores all his information, and I felt that, plot device aside, the existence of these files somehow reduced Holmes as an archetypal genius. Then I read a few more stories, and realised that it wasn’t an invention of the writer’s, and that these files were completely canonical, and had to reconsider. Revising my opinion of the story with that in mind, it’s a neat little mystery that, whilst not precisely complex to unpick, features some clever bits of deduction and down-right chilling moment of moral ambiguity on Holmes’ part at it’s conclusion. Third out of the hat is Sherlock Holmes and Popish Relic (Mark A. Latham) in which Holmes investigates the appearance of sinister hooded figures in a haunted manor house, after the disappearance of it’s owner. It’s a similarly solid piece of Sherlockian mystery, bookended by rather less canonical (but very welcome) supernatural element. (SPOILER) The solution of ‘supernatural figures are costumed ruffians looking to scare the locals’ may have been used by everyone from Blyton onwards, but it’s an effective enough story that I enjoyed.
The first three stories all pull of a grand job of telling reassuringly Holmesian stories, and they all do a sterling job of replicating Doyle’s prose. The Adventure of the Decadent Headmaster (Nick Campbell) manages to do both of these things, whilst also injecting into the story a degree of almost Wodehousian humour to the prose, and is by far and away my favourite story of the bunch, involving the disappearance of a pupil and the arrival of the body of a woman at an expensive boarding school. On top of the rollicking mystery, the author has taken the unusual (but wonderful) approach of bookending the story with an appearance by himself, seeking out the story which he then relates, and neatly drawing the threads together at the end. Highlight of the collection, undoubtedly. The Case of the Devil’s Door (James Goss) is one that’s been mentioned in every review of the anthology thus far, with exactly the same feelings: the poor, poor writer. (SPOILERS) It’s impossible to entirely assess how original and clever the ending of this story might have felt if, by an unlucky coincidence, the reveal of the facade-buildings hiding steam vents from the underground railroad had not been a key part of the recent series of Sherlock. It aims for a ‘horror story’ setup, and I really do feel for the writer that, in some ways, his thunder has been stolen.
All anthologies have to have a weak spot, and it says something that for this anthology, even my least favourite of the bunch is still a solid mystery. The Adventure of the Coin of the Realm (William Patrick Maynard & Alexandra Martukovich) sees Holmes investigating two mysterious deaths aboard a steamship crossing the Atlantic. It’s solid–every entry in the anthology is–but the whole story hung on one sentence which, whilst it presumably was meant to go overlooked and be revealed as a surprise, instead stuck out like a sore thumb, meaning the ensuing investigations were a tad lacklustre. It’s followed by The Case of the Displaced Detective (Roy Gill) that, (SPOILERS) in some ways, is the only story in the book in which a case is actively not solved. It thrusts Holmes into H. G. Wells’ Time Machine (oh my word…. Wells. As I’m writing this review, I have just connected that naming the company that makes the Time Machine in question “Wells & Co.” is a BIG OBVIOUS CLUE that I missed) and chucks multiple Holmes into the mix, which is great fun. Aside from that, it feels like the first story in the collection to try fusing genres (although there’s more to come) which was one of the standouts features of the first collection, and it’s hugely enjoyable for that.
Then it’s as if George Mann has saved up the genre-mashers for a solid run, because next is The Girl Who Paid For Silence (Scott Handcock), in which (SPOILERS) Watson is dictated an eyewitness testimony to a murder by a girl does not, in fact, exist. It’s a short, sweet and very effective story that winds up feeling more urban myth than detective story, which is a refreshing read. On it’s heels is An Adventure In Three Courses (Guy Adams), which, after the Decadent Headmaster, is my second favourite of the collection. It sees Sherlock and Watson deducing important facts about the guests around them at a private restaurant, and it’s the kind of unusual structural gamble that made David Barnett’s entry in the previous anthology such a winner: it stands out as clever, and entertaining, and willing to run with Doyle’s setup. Injected into that is a rather sharper, more sarcastic Holmes and Watson that actually feel rather more like the Sherlock of the recent TV show, and it’s an excellent, excellent story.
The last anthology featured a story called The Martian Ambassador in which Holmes investigated the death of (funnily enough) the Martian Ambassador, fusing Sherlock into sci-fi. Judging by reviews it was a love-hate story, with some picking it out as their favourite and some, like me, generally hating it. Although in synopsis form, Lou Ander’s The Sleep Of Reason might echo this story–a Great Detective is transported, by mental link, to Mars, where representatives of various planets are under suspicion for the murder of an intergalactic ambassador–this story feels like what Martian Ambassador should have been. For a start, the sci-fi trappings actually have a function, and a key role in the plot, and secondly, it’s given enough time to develop an actual mystery. On top of this already quite absurdist version of Sherlock Holmes, there is the fact that this story is not, in point of fact, about Holmes; instead, this is the story of S. Quentin Carmichael, the Dandy Detective of New York, who wears a Green Carnation in his button-hole, and whose disinterest in women may come from places other than Sherlock’s in the Doyle’s story. He’s played as a rather more jocular, singularly American, counterpart of Sherlock (which is then tied in at the end, in a way I won’t reveal.) It’s hard not to admire the story for picking up Doyle’s work and running as far away as fast as it can with it, and although it wasn’t, objectively, my favourite story, it had the same kind of rebellious genre-mashing of the first anthology, and made for a nice surprise when reading.
By comparison (because what story could not?) the final two stories of the anthology are firmly in safe Holmesian territory. The Snowtorn Terror (Justin Richards) features Holmes investigating the death of a railroad owner by a monstrous creature (can you guess the explanation) and A Betrayal of Doubt (Philip Marsh) features an aged, retired Sherlock returning to London to investigate a locked-room, occult-related death. Both stories hinge on relatively small details, although I had only clocked to the solution to one of them. A Betrayal of Doubt justifiably finishes out the anthology by depicting an aging, receding Holmes, which is an interesting portrayal, toying with the contrast to the archetypal, heroic Holmes that we’ve been privy to for the rest of the anthology, and it’s certainly a well-written tale.
But I started by saying that an anthology lives or dies by the strength of it’s stories, and that’s certainly true of Further Encounters, as it never sinks below solid (and as anyone will tell you, most anthologies have several duff entries) and frequently soars with excellence. It’s less rebellious than it’s predecessor, that gleefully banged together genres, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, and it’s liable to please Holmes purists more, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I hope that a third installment is imminent.