Gags By Gaslight
The covers are shockingly bad – possibly made by children with pasta shapes and Pritstick. The formats are annoying – why is Volume 4 a different size? But behind the covers are a real surprise. First, let’s step back a bit.
The nation went into mourning when it heard that Arthur Conan Doyle was not planning to write any more Holmes adventures, so the young American writer August Derleth wrote to Conan Doyle and rather cheekily asked if he could take over the series. Homes’ creator declined the offer, but the undeterred Derleth set about writing his own version, and assonantly christened him Solar Pons.
Derleth had built his reputation by being the first publisher of HP Lovecraft, and added to the Cthulhu Mythos himself, founding publishing body Arkham House, but he was also a pasticheur. His Holmes parodies were blatant swipes. Dr Watson was replaced by Dr Parker, Mrs Hudson by Mrs Johnson, Mycroft by Bancroft, and instead of residing at 221b Baker Street Pons was based at 7B Praed Street. But Derleth cleverly added a detail that prevented his series from being a straight steal of another author’s work; Pons existed in Holmes’ world. Pons knew all about Holmes, and was not his exact contemporary, operating in a later time frame.
When Derleth died in 1971 his character was in turn picked up by another author, Basil Copper, who explored Pons’s ‘missing cases’ just as Derleth had done with Holmes, as well as adding his own original tales, so that we have pastiches of pastiches. (You’ll find more about him in ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors).
MRC Kasasian’s five book series seems at first glance to be a Solar Pons redux, a copy of a copy, but turns out to be something stranger. One-eyed Victorian consulting detective Sidney Grice is a hateful human being who entirely lacks empathy or likability. His problem, undiagnosed in his own era, is his autism. His sidekick, March Middleton, is a plain young woman with a tragic past, impatiently eyeing the coming modern age. The plots in which they find themselves entangled are complex, fast, barely comprehensible and frequently hilarious. Grice’s inability to utter a single kind word fits perfectly in this far-from-cosy version of Victorian London, where filth, ignorance, inequality and poverty threaten to overwhelm the higher born and frustrate the modern thinking March.
And the longer we go along with Grice, the more we wish to find a chink in his armour. March is the chink, of course, and his eventual capitulation in Book 3 is heartbreaking. Here Kasasian performs a small miracle, shifting what clearly started as a rather impatient Conan Doyle homage into a breathing, living joy of its own. The jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, born of character, and the darkness, usually involving family secrets, shadows and rare poisons, is very dark indeed. Much of the farcical nature stems from the cruelties of the age – dim servants, grisly medics and sinister lawyers are in great supply – it’s as if Tom Sharpe had tackled Holmes.
Then after five lengthy novels the author jumps ship to related characters in the 1940s, which to be fair he has laid the path for in earlier books. I have yet to fully get to grips with Betty Church (critics say there are echoes of MC Beaton, not much of a recommendation in my book) but I must trust the author – we’ve come this far together.
The Sidney Grice/ March Middleton books aren’t perfect; Occasionally the slapstick oversteps its mark, and Kasasian sometimes establishes entire plots in a line or two which he expects you to recall over several hundred pages – but it doesn’t matter. It’s rare that I find a book I’ll continue reading just for the fun of it, even though I don’t know what’s going on.
What I don’t understand is how such a riotous talent has failed to get much critical traction. I can only think that the combination of humour and Victoriana puts off the bright young reviewers trying to make a name for themselves by slogging through every overwritten post-modern New York zeitgeist novel. The books are probably niche, then, to be placed on the shelf marked Crime/historical/humour – but they are finding a market and getting word-of-mouth interest. They’ve certainly cheered me up on many a wintry day.