REVIEW: City of the Saved: Tales of the Great Detectives (Philip Purser-Hallard,ed. – Obverse Books)

totgd-completeI’ve read alot of Sherlock Holmes anthologies, but never one quite like this. If you haven’t come across City of the Saved before (I hadn’t, and it doesn’t matter) it’s effectively the city at the end of the universe in which everyone in history, living, dead or fictional, have been resurrected. In Tales of the Great Detectives, that means that all the endless iterations of Holmes and Watson have banded together to form the Agency, and this anthology details the investigations of a disparate bunch of pairings which is – like I said – the kind of Holmes and Watson’s you’ve never read before. [Warning – this review contains major spoilers. Sorry.]

It opens with a brief introductory piece by editor Philip Purser-Hallard, Saqqaf, and later is closed by its companion piece, Sussex – both atmospheric, illusory fragments that sets the tone for the rest of the anthology. The second story, Young Sherlock Holmes and the Mansion of Doom by Stephen Marley is a superb cold open; starting off like a stock Holmes story so precise in its execution that I utterly failed to see the turning point in which my mounting list of criticisms (cliched story, ‘young’ characters that sound old, illogical deductions…) were suddenly revealed to be deliberate and the story slowly lets you figure out that this is a fictional Holmes in a fictional computer game which is just plain bonkers but just plain brilliant.

It’s a clever start to the anthology because it weans you so neatly from straightforward-Sherlock into the genre-mashed, self-aware archness of the rest of the stories. The second story notches it further: in Eliminating the Impossible by Jess Faraday, Holmes is being stalked by a grim-looking man he believes to be his Creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, a man who in turn believes he is being stalked by Holmes’s. If you like your ontological arguments packaged as Arthur Conan Doyle attempting to assassinate Sherlock Holmes, this is the one for you. (It also has a particularly bone-chilling final image mirroring, I realise as I write this, a cosmic Reichenbach Falls.)

Next is The Case of the Pipe Dream by Chantelle Messier which is, quite frankly, a work of bonkers genius. A Watson is dispatched to a ‘Victorian’ area of the city to attempt to repair a ‘broken’ Holmes, one reconstituted from a half-complete radio serial and dashes around solving shonky mysteries and interspersing his speech with product placement advertising. This by itself is smart and funny, but the conclusion of the story which sees Holmes and Watson battling the ‘Plot Device’ which is leaking genre into the town and causing everyone to act as villainous archetypes is the pinnacle of this anthology’s self-aware brilliance. And of course, the ‘Plot Device’ is disarmed by chucking in some volumes of literary criticism. “Literary theory, my dear Watson!’

Kelly Hale’s Art in the Blood is focused on Watson, with his Sherlock an agoraphobic hologram, casting him as a film-noir ladykiller who, in the course of his investigation, accidentally cops off with Sorcha Lock, the only female Holmes. The mystery afoot is something of an afterthought to the story, but like much of the rest of the anthology the joy is in the intriguing characterisation – and a Sam-Spade-Watson is up there with the best of the book.

That said, the final two stories can’t quite live up to what preceded them. The Adventure of the Piltdown Prelate by Andrew Hickey sees two Watsons, the original and an affable, bumbling incarnation, investigating the disappearance of Arthur Conan Doyle, only to uncover his involvement in a mass religious conspiracy involving the remaking of bog men and fairies. Unlike the rest of the stories, this story feels very preoccupied with the mechanics of the mystery, lacking the imaginative genre play that the others have. Round off the collection, The Baker Street Dozen by Elizabeth Evershed features a Watson assigned a dim-witted anime Holmes investigating the remaking of a Moriarty, a trail that eventually leads them to a university facility housing all of literature’s most famous criminals. It feels like a great first two thirds of a novella – anime Holmes is funny and both the Agency and the odd asylum of villains is fascinating – but the ending suddenly evaporates in half a page. More please.

In fact, generally: more please. I didn’t know quite what to expect from the anthology – I’ve read quite a few Holmes anthologies, and I always enjoy those that bend the form until it squeals a bit. In that respect, Tales of the Great Detectives blows them out of the water; smart, cutting, self-aware and highly entertaining. Sequel, now.

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