Gags By Gaslight

Reading & Writing

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.

22 comments on “Gags By Gaslight”

  1. David says:

    Reminds me that I still have books 4 and 5 waiting to be to read. I quite enjoyed the first 2 but I seem to have “lost the plot” somewhat, during book 3. I found it to be a bit to much of a ramble and wasn’t keen on the switch of narrative focus. March I found to be annoyingly wimpy.

    Perhaps, I’ll give it another go.

  2. John Griffin says:

    Yep, with David. Loved Book 1, enjoyed 2 then lost enthusiasm. Grice is a wonderful creation, though.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    I read “Mangle Street Murders” last year and gave it 6 out of 10. I wasn’t that fussed, but I will now give the next one a go.

  4. Roger says:

    “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.”
    You’re mistaken there, I think: Holmes was “killed” in 1893 and revived in 1901. Derleth was born in 1909 – or was time travel one of his talents?

  5. brooke says:

    Tried my best to read MRC Kasasian’s MSM…could not. Decided to put to audio test; listened a bit but decided scrubbing bathroom was more interesting. Skipped around with audio, trying to pick up interesting plot. Nothing doing. Cruising library shelves this week, I started to pick another Kasasian obese volume, but returned it to shelf when I recalled unnecessary filler, i.e. March’s “tragedy.”
    Fast–not. Complex, barely comprehensible–author in love with self. Frequently hilarious–must have skipped those two paragraphs.

  6. Andrew Holme says:

    One of the joys of this site is having a forgotten author from my teenage years brought back into focus. Solar Pons! I’m immediately back in Praed Street, with Parker and the great Mrs. Johnson. In the Seventies I wrote my own Sherlockian pastiches ( didn’t we all?) featuring the great detective Flanbridge Wells. Another favourite series was The Black Widowers books by Asimov. I devoured them all on the day of purchase.

  7. admin says:

    Hmmm…I suspect his talents are of the Marmite variety. I loved the voice switch in 3, but I have more patience with undisciplined writers than with hyper-disciplined ones. There are certain kinds of writer (like Dave Eggers and the McSweeney darlings) who make me want to run amok with an assault rifle.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Thanks again – that’s another series I need to check out. On top of your B&M series, Mick Herron’s ‘Slow Horses’ series, Jim Eldridge’s ‘Museum Murders’ books, Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers’ series, Andrew Cartmel’s ‘Vinyl Detective’ series, and all the lovely new stuff from The British Library. I can hear my bank manager’s withering sarcasm from here…

  9. brooke says:

    Marmite is good stuff–no comparison.
    Eggers and McSweeney–boo hiss. Firearms? So US. Just sneer at them, Oscar Wilde style, on Amazon and Goodreads.

  10. Martin Tolley says:

    With both David and John Griffin here. Really enjoyed the first one, and the second one. But the third seemed interminably long and I just lost the will to live before the end. The clever main joke of Sidney Grice and his little ways, and the contrast with Ms Middleton (a princess by any other name!), just got a bit tedious.

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    Would you pepper their position first with a salt rifle, sorry I’ll get my condiments.


  12. Andrew Holme says:

    Don’t forget to use mustard gas until the reinforcements ketchup.

  13. John Griffin says:

    From what sauce do you get these quips?

  14. Jo W says:

    I’m relishing these comments.
    #John Griffin – they get those quips from their Daddies.

  15. Brian Evans says:

    You must all be pickled. These saucy old gags aren’t exactly mint fresh anymore and no longer cut the mustard.

  16. Cary Watson says:

    Kim Newman’s The Hound of the D’Urbervilles is a very good addition Holmes spin-off. Instead of Holmes and Watson he gives us Moriarty and Colonel Sebastian “Basher” Moran, Moriarty’s Flashmanesque sidekick. Funny and well-written, but maybe overlong.

  17. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Loved ’Mangle Street Murders’, and the brilliant characters of Sidney Grice, March Middleton, and Molly the maid with her mangled language – not to mention Cook, whom you never meet. They really are very funny and original. I rather trudged through the later books in this series out of respect to the first one – the one involving cats was unnecessarily grim, but I don’t think the Betty Church ones work at all. Gave up.

  18. Michael Pitcher says:

    I loved the solar pons stories, Alan Bradleys flavia de luce books aren’t mentioned very often but they are strangely engrossing I too liked the first Sidney Grice book but interest waned by the 3rd book,

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Flavia de Luce is sometimes problematic. Mr. Bradley is too Canadian in his memories to suit those who actually lived through the post war era. Nevertheless I enjoy her and her madly cycling off in all directions (to misquote Mr. Leacock).

  20. Daniel O'Sullivan says:

    I have enjoyed all his books but there is always a Charles Birkin level of cruel detail in the murders. Plus individuals are regularly described as having disfigurements. It’s like the author has a horror of the physical body

  21. admin says:

    I like my cruelty at a Victorian level – although mental torture is more fun (wait for my upcoming stand-alone novel!)

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Victorian cruelty. Now there’s a thing. Probably one of the best exponents of this, was the explorer and archaeologist, Augustus Pitt-Rivers. He disowned children for talking to the ‘wrong’ people, and took a macabre delight in making his wife’s life a misery. Pitt-Rivers was an advocate of the then fashionable cremation instead of burial. His wife was rather religious, and had a real horror of the idea of cremation. Pitt-Rivers would frequently tell her that she was going to die before him, and when she did, she was going to be cremated, whether she wanted it or not. He would often sidle up to her, and whisper in her ear:
    “Woman, you are going to burn!”
    A truly dreadful human being indeed.
    You will be pleased to hear that Mrs. Pitt-Rivers outlived him by ten years.

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