ALMOST THERE | ISSUE TEN
The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (2)
Ghosts, vampires and giant green spiders...
I think we can safely say that some of the Sherlock Holmes stories are pretty far-fetched, but then that’s all part of the charm isn’t it? After all allowing one’s disbelief to be temporarily suspended is quite a pleasant experience. Having it hung by the neck until it is dead is not, however, and it’s a shame so many of Conan Doyle’s contemporaries did not seem to understand the difference. Time and again you find them, in a desperate search for originality, stretching the improbable to way beyond the laughable. Of the numerous cringe-worthy examples that come to mind, I think one of Sax Rohmer’s early tales takes the biscuit.¹ I mean, are we really expected to swallow a plot line that has an eminent scientist fake his own abduction (making it look as if he had been carried off by a giant green spider) rather than admit his much-heralded medical breakthrough was a failure?
Clearly if we are looking for convincing rivals to Sherlock Holmes we should leave oversized arachnids well alone. Aylmer Vance, on the other hand, the creation of husband and wife Claude and Alice Askew, seems quite a promising candidate. Like Holmes Vance is a confirmed bachelor, has a suitably outlandish name and occupies lodgings with faithful friend and chronicler, Dexter. But these similarities prove to be superficial, with the Vance stories differing from Conan Doyle’s in two crucial respects: (i) Aylmer Vance only investigates supernatural phenomena; (ii) his adventures are not very exciting.
Ghost-busting was, it turns out, quite an Edwardian cottage industry, and Aylmer Vance was by no means the only one running up and down the country looking for phantoms, ghouls and other things that go bump in the night. Hard on the heels of Vance and Dexter were W. H. Hodgson’s fearless ‘ghost finder’ Michael Carnacki, (who rarely left home without his Electric Pentacle), occult psychologist Flaxman Low,² and John Bell, the creation of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace. With that lot on the loose I fear those poor spooks didn’t stand a chance.
Photo-shopping, Victorian style
Vance and the others clearly reflected the late Victorian fascination with the supernatural and the occult. Add to that the popularity of detective fiction and you would appear to have a winning combination. Alas no. All of the above are pretty disappointing, but I feel particularly let down by the adventures of John Silence, the ‘physician extraordinary’ created by Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood, as a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, should have known a thing or two about the occult. He may have done, but it’s certainly not reflected in his stories.
He liked to drop on on his freinds unexpectedly
Sherlock Holmes, as we know, did not waste much time chasing after malevolent spirits; he was too busy taking on evil in its human form. And of all the adversaries he faced in his long career, many would agree that the most evil—and the most memorable—was Professor James Moriarty. There is something strangely compelling about Moriarty. I suspect it’s his hidden power, the idea he controls a vast network of minions, plotting and scheming behind the scenes, operating at every level of society in order to undermine that society. Certainly a number of Conan Doyle’s contemporaries were captivated by the concept and set about cooking up their own version of the good professor. Yet again the results were less than satisfactory.
The most well-known of these would-be Moriaties has to be Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu-Manchu, who first makes his appearance in 1913. Fu-Manchu does all the things you’d expect of an arch-villain (plotting to take over the world, devising ingenious ways to dispose of his enemies and so on) but for me he is too much of a caricature to be convincing. The same can be said of Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola.³ In fact Dr Nikola is not even particularly evil- surely the first prerequisite of any master criminal. The French soon got in on the act, with the appearance of the sinister Fantômas in 1911. I haven’t read any of the numerous Fantômas adventures yet,* so the jury on the ‘Murdering Corpse’ (as his friends liked to call him) is still out.
So, to sum up- what are we to make of all these rivals of Sherlock Holmes? You may feel I have been overly harsh in my assessment. You may even be right. But before you reach your own verdict, let me leave you with one wholly circumstantial yet nonetheless suggestive piece of evidence. There have been countless film, television and radio adaptations of Holmes. The same can be said of the works of the great detective fiction writers of the inter-war years (Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers etc etc). Since we clearly can’t get enough of these period detectives, how is it that none of our late Victorian and Edwardian friends ever get a look-in? Where, for example, are the big screen adventures of Horace Dorrington? Why aren’t interminable series featuring the baffling cases of Romney Pringle a TV scheduler’s dream come true? And why, most tellingly of all, is no-one even remotely interested in the exploits of Duckworth Drew?
¹ The Green Spider (1904).
² The Flaxman Low stories were written by E. and H. Heron, the pen names of Major Hesketh Vernon Pritchard and his mother Kate.
³ The Dr Nikola stories are amongst the earliest examples of the genre. The first came out in 1895.
* Fantômas (the creation of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre) was hugely popular and enjoyed a long and fruitful criminal career. There were 43 Fantômas adventures in total, the last being published in 1963.