Thursday, March 19, 2015

August Derleth's The Return of Solar Pons

The writing of Sherlock Holmes pastiches seems to have an extraordinary appeal to writers both good and bad, professional and amateur. Not surprisingly this cottage industry has given the world some very forgettable and often very embarrassing fiction. Among the fairly small number of writers whose work in this field is fairly well thought of is August Derleth.

August Derleth (1909-1971) was an American writer best remembered as being the man (in his rôle as publisher and editor) largely responsible for bringing the work of H. P. Lovecraft to the attention of the public. Derleth wrote quite a few Lovecraft-inspired stories in the Cthulhu Mythos as well as work in a variety of other genres. His horror stories are uneven but often excellent. As a very keen Sherlockian he naturally tried his hand at writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches, with considerable success.

Being unable to use the Sherlock Holmes name Derleth renamed the great detective Solar Pons and relocated him from 221B Baker Street to 7B Praed Street. Pons is however quite obviously Sherlock Holmes and all the other familiar characters (all suitably renamed) appear in his stories. The only major change is that the setting is moved forward to the 1920s. Derleth’s knowledge of London was derived almost exclusively from his reading of the Sherlock Holmes stories, a circumstance that could have been a disadvantage but in fact becomes something of an asset. Derleth might have been a little hazy at times on London geography but he had absorbed the atmosphere of Conan Doyle’s stories and he reproduced it quite faithfully.

There’s no need to say anything at all about the character of Solar Pons since he is a exact replica of Sherlock Holmes. Dr Parker performs the Dr Watson function as assistant and narrator.

The Return of Solar Pons is a collection of some of Derleth’s later Solar Pons stories.

The Adventure of the Lost Dutchman does have a genuinely Sherlockian feel to it, with an odd setup that that only the great detective can make sense of. It also has an effective use of the ever-popular “clue of the dying man” trope.

The Adventure of the Devil’s Footprints, concerning the disappearance of a clergyman leaving behind only footprints apparently left by a man with cloven hooves, is less successful and with a plot that doesn’t quite convince but it’s still reasonably entertaining.

The Adventure of the Dorrington Inheritance is a straightforward but enjoyable enough story involving the consequences of skullduggery on the diamond fields years earlier.

The Adventure of the “Triple Kent” is a disappointingly obvious and entirely unconvincing triple murder story.

The Adventure of the Rydberg Numbers introduces us to the brother of Solar Pons, Bancroft Pons, who is of course the equivalent of Mycroft Holmes. It’s an enjoyable and quite inventive espionage tale involving kidnapping and an eccentric young scientist who may be a genius or a madman or both. It’s an excellent little story.

August Derleth
The Adventure of the Grice-Paterson Curse concerns a series of mysterious deaths in a house on an island, deaths that seemed likely to be murder and yet without any real evidence or any explanation as to how the murders could have been committed. Dr Parker has his own theory, much to the amusement of Pons. Derleth really has some fun with this story, with a delightfully outré solution to the puzzle (a solution that seems appropriate from an author who wrote Cthulhu Mythos stories) and a clever nod towards Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories. This one is great fun.

The Adventure of the Remarkable Worm is excellent and nicely offbeat as well, with a monstrous caterpillar and a clue involving a dog although there is no dog. 

The Adventure of the Penny Magenta presents Pons with the challenge of solving an attempted robbery although the object of the robbery appears to be quite worthless. This story includes an homage to Poe (one of several in this collection).

The Adventure of the Trained Cormorant is another good espionage tale, with a cormorant playing a key role in uncovering a German spy ring.

In The Adventure of the Camberwell Beauty Solar Pons has a rather extraordinary client - none other than Dr Fu Manchu! He isn’t actually named (presumably for copyright reasons) but there’s not the slightest doubt as to his identity. His organisation is even explicitly referred to as the Si-Fan. So this story counts as both a Sherlock Holmes pastiche and a Fu Manchu pastiche. What’s interesting is that Pons is very well disposed towards Fu Manchu. Apparently he owes the Doctor a very big favour. Even in Sax Rohmer’s stories Fu Manchu it was always emphasised that Fu Manchu was a man of honour and in Derleth’s story he becomes rather sympathetic.

The Adventure of the Little Hangman is a very nifty little story about the murder of a murderer. It’s one of the best stories in the collection.

The Adventure of the Swedenborg Signatures relies on a plot device that never really convinces but was popular in early detective fiction and was used by Conan Doyle himself.

What distinguishes these stories from the usual run of Sherlock Holmes pastiches is that Derleth was a very capable writer with a genuine flair for the writing of detective stories and a considerable talent for plotting. Even more importantly he had the ability to create plots that really do have an authentic Sherlockian flavour. The references to the works of other writers are what you’d expect from a member of Lovecraft’s literary circle, all of whom constantly referenced each other’s works. Some might find this habit annoying but given that the whole point of writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches is  to have some fun I find that it adds to the enjoyment.

I’m generally not a fan of pastiches but Derleth’s Solar Pons stories are well-crafted and very entertaining. Derleth doesn’t make the mistake of trying to be too clever and he wisely avoids giving the stories a tongue-in-cheek flavour. They capture enough of a Sherlockian feel to appeal to fans of the real thing. All in all they’re a good deal of fun. Recommended.

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