Well, it has been far too long since I read anything Sherlock Holmes-related. And, after a family member found three modern Sherlock Holmes novels in a charity shop and thought that I might be interested in them, I was spoilt for choice.
Since the weather was still fairly hot, I decided to go for the shortest book in the pile – Daniel Stashower’s 1985 novel “The Ectoplasmic Man”. Although this novel can be enjoyed without reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, you’ll get a lot more out of it if you read at least a few of them first.
So, let’s take a look at “The Ectoplasmic Man”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS (but I won’t give away the solution to the mystery).
This is the 2009 Titan Books (UK) paperback reprint of “The Ectoplasmic Man” that I read.
The novel begins, like most modern Holmes novels, with the author’s account of how he “discovered” a lost manuscript by Doctor Watson, detailing a meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini in 1910.
Then, we are taken to 221b Baker Street, where Inspector Lestrade makes a sudden arrival after dashing across town. Lestrade tells Holmes that he suspects a visiting American escapologist called Harry Houdini of carrying out a terrible crime. Yet, much to Holmes’ annoyance, Lestrade also tells Holmes that he has been ordered not to reveal the details of the crime.
Naturally, Holmes is curious and decides to meet Houdini. The two don’t get along well, and part on angry terms. But, later that evening, Houdini’s wife Bess shows up at Baker Street, imploring Holmes to attend Houdini’s show because Houdini has received a threatening note from an old rival called Kleppini and she fears he may be in danger. Holmes scoffs at this and points out that he is not a praetorian guard. Out of honour, Watson decides to attend the show to keep watch for any danger.
During the show, Houdini spots Watson in the audience and asks him to help out with one of his tricks – an escape from a glass box filled with water. After a bit of a mishap, where Watson takes the act too seriously and smashes the glass box with a fire axe, Lestrade shows up and arrests Houdini for the theft of sensitive royal documents. But, before Lestrade begins to take Houdini to the police station, Holmes emerges from the audience and declares that Houdini is innocent and that he shall prove it…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel was that it is brilliantly theatrical 🙂 Although the actual mystery at the heart of the story is fairly compelling, the main attraction of this story is probably the humour, the atmosphere and the characters. If you love the moments in Conan Doyle’s original stories where Holmes indulges in tricks, disguises and witticisms, then you’ll love this novel 🙂 It is delightfully amusing 🙂
Seriously, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that this novel was theatrical. Not only does this novel focus on the themes of magic tricks and escapology, but both Holmes and Houdini also get so many wonderfully theatrical moments too, much to the consternation of poor Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade.
Seriously, if you’re fascinated by things like stage magic, “impossible” feats, escapology, lock-picking, disguises etc… then you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. It has a gleeful theatrical flair to it that perfectly mirrors the themes of the story.
And, as I mentioned earlier, it is also a comedic novel too 🙂 A lot of the novel’s humour is, like in Conan Doyle’s original stories, kept reasonably subtle – with most of it being found within the narration, footnotes, references and dialogue. However, this novel also includes some brilliantly vaudevillian moments of traditional comedy, such as a hilariously over-dramatic phoney seance.
The mystery at the heart of the story is fairly interesting and it includes a couple of dramatic plot twists, an intriguingly “impossible” crime and the drama of Houdini being falsely accused of it. But, even though the reader is given a few clues (which are explained by Holmes at the end) and the case itself is certainly worthy of Sherlock Holmes, this is one of those stories which is slightly more of a thriller than a traditional detective story.
In other words, it is one of those stories where the main focus is on how the crime was carried out, rather than the identity of the criminal. Even so, this allows the novel to include some wonderfully thrilling and gloriously melodramatic (if a little contrived) chase sequences, a daring prison escape and a vaguely “Charles Augustus Milverton“-style scene where Holmes and Watson break into a theatre.
In terms of the characters, they are brilliant. Not only are Holmes and Watson fairly faithful to the original stories (although Holmes’ attitudes towards women are a little bit cartoonish/two-dimensional in this story), but one of the best parts of this story is the interactions between Holmes and Houdini.
At first, the two are very much rivals – with Holmes’ scepticism and Houdini’s brash confidence putting them at odds (and leading to some hilarious dialogue exchanges) but, as the story progresses, they end up becoming quite the team. Seriously, since both Holmes and Houdini are masters of trickery, logic and theatricality, it is an absolute joy to see both of them in the same novel 🙂
Likewise, if you enjoy the definitive ITV adaptation of “Sherlock Holmes” starring Jeremy Brett, then you’ll enjoy this novel even more 🙂 Seriously, the version of Holmes in this novel is more like Brett’s interpretation of the character (eg: disguises, caustic wit, theatricality, eccentricity, Latin quotes, practical jokes etc…) than either Basil Rathbone’s or Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretations of the character.
In terms of the writing and narration, Watson’s first-person narration is reasonably true to the original stories. However, it has been very subtly streamlined for slightly more modern audiences. Even so, expect lots of wonderfully formal and dramatic narration. In other words, this novel uses a reasonably good imitation of Conan Doyle’s style that really helps to add some atmosphere and authenticity to the story 🙂
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At a brilliantly efficient 203 pages in length, this novel stays true to the focused brevity of Conan Doyle’s original novels and short stories 🙂
Likewise, the pacing is mostly good – with the story moving along at a decent pace most of the time, although there’s a slightly slow part (eg: when Watson spends a while describing an aeroplane) during what should be a fast-paced scene. Even so, the pacing of this novel is really good and it is as gripping as the original Sherlock Holmes stories.
As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged really well 🙂 Thanks to the historical setting, the vintage-style narration and the recognisable characters, this is one of those novels that could almost have been written today.
All in all, this is a gloriously theatrical, intriguingly thrilling and wonderfully amusing novel that fans of the great detective will really enjoy 🙂 It was a lot of fun to read 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just about get a five.