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Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra Hardcover – January 9, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
This first novel fails to live up to its initial promise. A cousin of Dr. Watson's late wife travels to Baker Street from Singapore to consult Sherlock Holmes regarding her husband's mysterious suicide. That consultation leads to another death under seemingly impossible circumstances, and to Holmes's decision to journey to Singapore to investigate both crimes. At first, the author successfully emulates Doyle, and the portrayal of a Watson still grieving over his wife's loss adds welcome emotional depth. Unfortunately, once the world's greatest consulting detective and his Boswell start their voyage east, one false note after another enters, and the story not only goes off the tracks but stays there. Watson engages in a series of sexual encounters, often described with (perhaps unintentional) double entendres ("I lay on the couch beside her in blissful exhaustion, penetrated to my core"), which do nothing to advance the story or deepen the reader's understanding of the character. The plot quickly devolves into a bad episode of The X-Files, with action sequences substituting for any real investigation and deduction. Many of the secondary characters come across as little more than cliches. In a preface, Watson asserts that the incredible events that follow really happened, but the explanation for the mysterious deaths is so far-fetched and without any attempt at a convincing pseudo-scientific basis that the reader is left not in awe at the author's imaginative speculations but flabbergasted by his concoctions.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
One more dip into Dr. Watson's dispatch box (which must be capacious, judging by the plethora of "newly discovered" Holmes and Watson adventures) produces a tale that Watson ostensibly secreted away more than a century ago, convinced that it was "a story for which the world is not yet prepared." This one's a winner; unlike many re-creations of the Holmes canon, it combines perfect narrative pitch, fascinating examples of deduction, and a story that moves easily from 221-B to the Far East, drawing the reader closer and closer into the intricate plotting. A beautiful widow whose husband was murdered in Singapore and a depraved lord whose agents plot worldwide evil form the nexus of a mystery that awakens Holmes' fascination and guilt. Watson and Holmes are plunged into danger of a peculiarly repellent kind. A corker of a story. Connie Fletcher
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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To be fair, Vanneman does have some writing skills: he is generally capable of constructing better English sentences with heightened "Victorian" diction than most professional writers are. Although Vanneman is an American, he is capable of replicating British spelling most of the time (Brit. "harbour" and "labour" and "neighbourhood," not U.S. "harbor" and "labor" and neighborhood") ... but not all the time (oops: U.S. "judgment," not Brit. "judgement"; U.S. "story" for "floor" of a building, not Brit. "storey"). He is further capable of creating some scenes, mostly in the early chapters, where we feel his Watson is an intelligent, sympathetic man and a good, reliable narrative guide for his tale.
However, when it comes to constructing a semi-credible mystery-adventure plot and peopling it with credible characters, Vanneman often lets us readers down. The A-to-Z plot of this novel is a mishmash of melodrama and bad 1920s pulp science fiction. (Would you believe the evil-genius villain is a giant talking rat that is several hundred years old? Would you believe that he has nuclear weapons ... long before any human beings have thought them possible? Would you believe that he controls a basically unknown species of tiny creatures that evolved intelligence roughly equal to that of the human race?) By and large, the human villains are stereotypes with not an ounce of decency anywhere in them. The two most likeable subordinate characters who often assist Holmes and Watson—a rich Chinese widow and a muscular Muslim who both know far more about southeast Asia than Holmes does—sadly are unbelievable in many, many scenes. (A minor third helper of H&W is a lawyer who is given the almost Dickensian name "Craven.")
For the most part, Holmes is incapable of outwitting the subordinate human villains who put obstacles in his path, and the book drags and drags and drags as Watson and Holmes travel from London to Singapore—and then drags still more there. In the final confrontation (which Holmes had no "clew" was coming), Watson and Holmes—and their Muslim ally, the black sea captain—survive only because of Plot Necessity—brought about solely by their completely unbelievable GOOD LUCK. Indeed, throughout this 316-page novel, unbelievable Good Luck—rather than intelligence or good judgment—is the fallback mechanism that Vanneman repeatedly utilizes to save Holmes' and Watson's butts.
Along the way, Vanneman slips up occasionally with small details. Near the beginning, in Chapt. III, when Holmes and Watson go to examine the room where a woman who'd just recently consulted them had been murdered, a gap in Vanneman's knowledge causes Watson to revert erroneously to a U.S. convention of architectural description. Entering the building with Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, the three men approach the staircase leading to the SECOND story/storey (in the U.S., the "ground flood" is called the "first floor," and the next higher floors are called the "second floor," the "third floor" [etc.]; in the U.K., however, the "ground floor" is conventionally NOT called by any number, while the next higher floors are called the "first," the "second" [etc.]). And near the ending, in Chapt. XXXVII, Holmes twice mentions "Dr. Darwin" as a scientist whose works he studied carefully and whose methods and theories he sought to apply in one of his own lengthy publications. Presumably this is meant to be Charles Darwin (1809-1882), but who ever calls him "Dr. Darwin"? Charles Darwin was briefly apprenticed to his father (who was an M.D.) and briefly studied medicine in Scotland—but he became bored with it and (with his father's grudging approval) transferred to Cambridge University, where he earned a B.A. degree with the temporary goal of becoming a parson in the Anglican Church (this, of course, never happened). I can find no record of Darwin having ANY sort of doctorate, medical or otherwise.
Finally, so-called "purists" (readers who insist that Holmes and Watson in pastiches be like their originals in Conan Doyle's works) have objected that, in this book, Watson describes himself (with rather explicit details) as having three sexual interludes with three different women (including the wife of a British army officer) and implies that Holmes also found both the time and inclination to have a sexual relationship with a woman while in Singapore. My own feeling is that these episodes might be the sort of things that COULD happen to H&W, but they would NOT be the sort of things that either of them would ever discuss or commit to writing.
Weighing the relative strengths of this book with its weaknesses, in my judgment it deserves at most a "D" grade (2 out of 5 stars).
This well written mystery, revealing a Watson and Holmes still believable and consistent, nevertheless confounded me in disallusionment when the Giant Rat was an unscientific genetic monstrosity (3 feet tall) who was not only a brilliant planner and
leader, but could talk, write and develop unheard of weapons. In Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the rats' ability to talk was believable and acceptable to the reader because it was in the context of interpersonal, but not interspecies communication, at least
not between animal and human. In this otherwise attention holding novel, we are asked to believe a rat of Moriarity's intelligence and capability. No expert on evolution, nevertheless I'm reasonably well informed, and know that it is quite possible Neanderthals could not speak as well as Cro Magnon man (modern humans) due to palate differences; they were likewise as intelligent as we, but in
different ways, ones that became critical when the climate changed. So, I simply boggled when a rat could invent a weapon heretofore never known or thought of by man, and speak English well enough to talk with our heroes. Everything else - the travels,
the politics, the geography , the ships, all seemed interesting and convincing. For me, all those lovely hours simply ended in
Sure, there were randy parts, which didn't exist in A. Conan Doyle's original stories. But hey, we have to make some allowances for modern sensibilities (modern Americans are ashamed to admit that a quarter of us are celibates, so celibacy must be denied at all times). Vanneman did a nice job of making sure the randy parts were described in appropriately stilted, Victorian language. I think that's a pretty impressive feat.
I suppose the SciFi aspect breaks tradition with the original, and no doubt won't appeal to some folks. In this book, we have an evolved species of intelligent rats. So what's wrong with that? As rodents go, rats sure beat all hell out of crap animals like hamsters and gerbils. Rats are actually capable of being friendly and affectionate. So why not have a bit of evolution to make them something more? My only concern was whether the anti-evolution morons would start picketing Vanneman's house.
Is this Martha Grimes? No, but it's still interesting and well done. Much better than the last Borthwick my wife forced me to read.
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