Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Summer of Sherlock: "Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula" by Loren D. Estleman

Encapsulate the plot in one sentence?

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson investigate a bizarre series of crimes in London linked to the arrival of Count Dracula.

What year was this book published? Which edition is it?

The book was published in 1978, but this paperback reprint was published in 2012 by Titan Books under their series banner: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

What's your verdict?

Very clever, but a very different book than if it were written and published today. The events take place in-between the events of Bram Stoker's original novel, Dracula, with Holmes' involvement only going so far without interrupting the events of that book. As a result, this novel becomes an apocryphal subplot, making Dracula one busy vampire. Characters like Mina Harker and Professor Van Helsing only appear in one-scene cameos, so the interaction between them is unfortunately expository - especially disappointing for fans of Mina in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics - but the exchanges don't ring false.

Estleman once wrote that this book was almost adapted into a film starring Pierce Brosnan as Sherlock Holmes, which is kind of interesting. I could imagine Pierce delivering Holmes' dialogue as it's written here, though he would probably be subject to some bizarre hairdo like Roger Moore's in Sherlock Holmes In New York, due to Eon Productions guidelines that actors playing James Bond not look too Bond-like in other films that they appear in concurrently. As the book went on, however, I could only picture the late Jeremy Brett as Sherlock saying this stuff; that actor still  has the advantage of appearing in adaptations of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that adhered close to the text; you don't get that from watching Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., or Johnny Lee Miller. Brett's portrayal got increasing loopy when he insisted on playing the role as his health declined, right down to when his speech became slurred and the production values overcompensated by adding a gothic tone to the proceedings...but it's all there.

As for the possible film adaptation, the climax makes this book Watson's story - not Sherlock. It's Watson's wife Mary who is kidnapped by the Count and Watson who has the stirring final words with Dracula by the end, which allows Holmes to stay in character and give Watson a chance to be more involved beyond that of sidekick/narrator. Loren D Estleman was/is one of the few writers of new Sherlock Holmes pastiches who found Watson just as interesting as Sherlock and essential to the series success. It makes sense that he would highlight that with his first Sherlock Holmes novel. Perhaps now  we could imagine a film like that produced today, whereas in the past, Brosnan would've been cast as Watson to reflect the weight of the role in this story or revised the whole thing by introducing Irene Adler as the damsel in distress. This tinkering happened with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  film, when it became a vehicle for Sean Connery playing Alan Quartermain, when the focus of the comics was always Mina Murray.

Then there's Count Dracula. Estleman's approach is to cast the Count as a Sherlock Holmes villain.  The sequences featuring him parallel scenes from classic Sherlock Holmes stories: a spooky hound appearing in the fog (The Hound of the Baskervilles ), standoffs with villains in Holmes' study ( The Speckled Band, The Final Problem, Charles Augustus Milverton, The Mazarin Stone ), races against time to save a damsel in distress ( The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, The Copper Beeches,  The Illustrious Client ), a boat chase ( The Sign of Four ), searching for mundane objects holding valuable things ( The Blue Carbuncle, The Six Napoleons, The Disappearance of  Lady Frances Carfax, The Norwood Builder ) and an ending to a wild goose chase that relies on Holmes assuring us of a likely happy ending happening offstage ( Wisteria Lodge ). Within this context, Count Dracula is in good company with Count Silvius, Milverton, Moriarty and the rest, but then Estleman throws a surprise bit of depth to the Count's last scene in this book by adding an interesting dialogue with Watson - without turning him into Barnabas Collins. Dracula's powers were never too clear; Estleman hints that his appetite for blood may be linked to how much he exerts himself, so he is never omnipotent...I couldn't picture Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee as the Count in this one, or Gary Oldman's one-man-monster-mash Dracula...maybe Anthony Hopkins. And David Burke as Watson, though Martin Freeman or Jude Law would do okay.

What surprises did this book hold, if any?

It's short! Seriously, it's about the same length as any of the four Sherlock Holmes novels written by Doyle. It is ironic that aside from Barrie Roberts or Nicholas Meyer, most of the pastiche novels tend be over 250-300 pages...or more! In what way is that an improvement on the master?

Another surprise is that it's not...comic book, action figure spectacle. The stakes are raised in a convincing way and everyone is in fine form. You could argue about whether or not Watson's dignity was compromised by having his wife kidnapped, but that is not an impossible consequence when dealing with Dracula, who tends to like wife-stealing. At least Estleman didn't bring Irene Adler into this - that character becomes less interesting whenever she appears in new stories. That "relationship" with Sherlock never happened...nor did Nero Wolfe become the product of their one-night-stand in Montenegro. If Holmes saw any action in the bedroom in the canon, it was likely with the maid he became engaged to in "Charles Augustus Milverton" when he was disguised as a plumber in Milverton's house.

I'm somewhat surprised "The Adventure of The Sussex Vampire" isn't given more than just a nod in the opening. That story is best-known as the source for the "No ghosts need apply" quote, but it is unusual in that it features a cruel prank pulled by a disturbed boy on a baby. It was adapted into a two hour episode of the Jeremy Brett series as "The Vampyre of The Village" and delved deeper into why the boy might've done that. It wasn't very good and neither was the story, but I guess that's why Estleman chose to just take the quote and ignore the rest. Few people who love Holmes' remark about the impossible and improbable even remember that it was taken from The Sign of Four!

Have you read other works by this author?

I'm about to read Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes, Estleman's follow-up novel, which he thought was superior to Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula,  so this should be interesting.  As per the rules I set up for this "Summer of Sherlock" reading challenge,  I'll offer a review next month, giving you, the readers, time to read it for yourselves if you'd like. 

Give us a good quote.

Sure. Check out the gallery below.

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