Friday, December 31, 2004

Three Holmes Stories

The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon, Read by Michael York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004

No matter what else he writes, Michael Chabon will always have The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys as testaments to his supreme abilities as a writer. (Having not yet read Kavalier and Clay, I won’t pronounce judgment there.)

Perhaps this is an early effort, an old manuscript dusted off from the days of college, polished with a more accomplished, more mature eye, but The Final Solution is a bit thin going. Which is a huge disappointment, if only a minor failure as a novel. Combining a never-named but undoubtedly elderly Sherlock Holmes coming out of retirement to solve the riddle of a mute German Jewish refugee boy and his missing parrot, a bird that cryptically speaks in German numbers, this book has a tantalizing set up. Little is made of it, however.

Starting with the title alone, both a reference to Holmes’ last story, “The Final Problem,” and to the Nazi program of genocide, the choice is unwise. It anticlimactically provides the solution to the mystery while failing to directly address Nazism save as some far away thing, related to the war and somehow involving Jews. On that level, the title works as a sort of tasteless tease unworthy of Doyle or Chabon.

Which is not to say that the book is badly crafted. It’s not. The sheer immensity of Chabon’s talent is available for all to see on every page and in every line. Of course, one of Chabon’s lucky choices in the story was telling it in third person omniscient narration rather than in first person, which would have saddled him with the unenviable task of striving to duplicate Watson’s prose style and idiosyncrasies. Not that there is a Watson in the book to speak of, nor any suggestion as to his fate, though the Holmes character does repeatedly refer to a specific date on which he last entered London, an anniversary — but of what?

Chabon’s gift for crafting interesting characters allows us to eavesdrop on the parrot's thoughts, the police inspector's, and the melancholy reflections of the “old man” (as he’s called), close to the end of his life. Chabon imbues those reflections with a poetic pessimism devoid of self-pity or romanticism. Having for so long avoided death, the old man now finds himself concerned that he may meet his end in undignified position (such as “on the jakes”). Here he is looking for a scrap of paper the boy has dropped:

While he crawled on hands and knees, the possibility of his dying thus recurred to him, and he found to his pleasure that no shadow of indignity darkened the prospect. Long life wore away everything that was not essential. Some old men finished their lives as little more than the sum total of their memories, others as nothing but a pair of grasping pincers or a set of bitter axioms proven. It would please him well enough to amount to no more in the end than a single great organ of detection reaching into blankness for a clue.

Despite all of Chabon’s talents as a writer and the promising material before him, it is surprising that he does so little with it, the crime being rather commonplace after all, the mystery of the German numbers spouting parrot so mundane, and the plot’s exposition moving so gingerly along.

Michael York reads the work admirably, yet without much bravura. As an accomplished actor, more is expected of him. He is adequate to the task and little more. The same can be said for Chabon.

The Double-Barreled Detective
, by Mark Twain, Read by Thomas Becker, Commuters Library, 2000

In this even shorter novella, we have a situation almost perfectly reversed. Twain’s crazy burlesque of detective tale is an hilarious send up of the character of Sherlock Holmes, yet the book is saddled with the worst reader I have ever heard in my life, rivaling the great turd that is Blackstone Audio’s Frederick Davidson.

This satire begins with a ridiculously unbelievable account of a boy with literally the smelling ability of a bloodhound who tracks his father, a scalawag who dishonored his mother. After three chapters, Twain butts in editorially, providing letters to the editor regarding his work, asking if it in earnest. He addresses these fools soundly, pointing out such ludicrous writing as this:

It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in he empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.

then returns to the tale of the scalawag tracking, turning to the mystery at long last when a man is blown to bits in a Colorado mining camp.

Sherlock Holmes, in person and by name, happens to show up just as the deed is being committed and sets about trying to solve the crime, which was actually committed by his nephew Fetlock Jones. Our bloodhound-nosed hero, exposing Holmes as a pompous fraud, reveals the true villain, and in a neat twist of fate discovers also what happened to his wicked father. It is amusing, insulting to Holmes, and briskly done.

However, the audio quality of this recording is remarkably crappy, sounding as if the book were recorded at home in someone’s bathroom. Thomas Becker, the reader, is totally daft, mispronouncing many words like “fragrance” as “frag-rants” instead of “fray-grence.” He reads “imPOH-tent” for “impuh-tent” really hitting the “POH.”

Sentences run together in a word jumble, a too fast cluttering of clauses and phrases. Half the book is nigh on unintelligible for Becker’s tin ear. Perverse shifts in accent from Midwest to Jersey to Southern to British within same character mark Mr. Becker’s rather peculiar reading style. Each accent is badly done, like most everything else done in this audio travesty. Fetlock Jones veers wildly from Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins’ London to an Indian coolie in A Passage to India, occasionally even reading through stuffed nose. A scene filled with miners is like a trip through the Porky Pig fanclub basement, replete with variations on a nasal theme. When female characters arrive for their share of abuse at Becker’s hands, it is an outrage upon the fair sex, a lynching matter.

Why Commuters Library, now InAudio, demonstrates such poor readers can be found on their website, wherein we read this interesting piece of information:

Narrators interested in reading for In Audio should send a demo to In Audio, PO Box 3168, Falls Church, VA 22043. The demo has to have narration (voice over alone, isn’t enough). Instructions:
1. A boom box or other home recording device is okay, the quality of the sound is not a factor.
2. Please indicate whether you have your own studio.
3. Please indicate whether you have independent proofing ability.
4. If you do not already have a demo consider reading three three-minute excerpts (your choice) some of
which is first person and some of that should be in the voice of the opposite sex.
5. The recording can be on CDs, ADATs, DATs, or cassettes: your choice.

Emphasis mine.

So, if you have a hankering to be the next big annoying thing, follow the link above.

The Sign of the Four
, by Arthur Conan Doyle, Read by David Timson, Naxos Audiobooks Ltd., 2003

And of course, as always, there is no substitute for the real thing. Doyle's Holmes having never been equalled, the world's first consulting detective is on the trail of a missing fortune bequeathed to Miss Mary Morstan by her deceased father.

For my money, this is the real first Sherlock Holmes’ novel, A Study in Scarlet being half taken up with the faux western that Doyle tells to unfold the backstory of the mystery. Herein we are also introduced to Holmes’ cocaine and heroin injections, we are treated to several of his deductions based on scanty evidence, the relationship with Watson assumes its more familiar form, and Watson finds a wife. The treats in this book greatly outweigh the delight in our initial introduction to the previous novel.

Granted, the novels are, for my money, the weakest links in the Holmes’ chain. The short stories are so effervescently compact, precise, and intoxicating that you can easily find yourself saying “just one more” all night long until you’ve finished the volume.

The saddest fact is that there are such a small number of stories available compared to many other schlockmeisters’ work; yet at the same time the Holmes tales are so endlessly diverting and entertaining they can be read and reread for years without once growing stale. Chabon strives for this elementary timelessness and is, of all the writers riffing on Holmes I’ve read, the closest to coming near capturing that quality. Twain, while his book is described as a satire, would seem, by chronological proximity, the most likely to ape the Victorian mannerisms accurately. Yet he seems uninterested in echoing Holmes than in telling a farcical yarn.

David Timson, who Naxos has put to work reading the entire catalog, is an excellent reader who manages to gently move through the works with an obvious love for the stories. He gives each character such a distinct voice at times you’d be surprised that only one person is speaking throughout.

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