Friday, July 1, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D.”

Nicholas Meyer; Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company (September 1993, Originally 1974)
“Allowed to choose his own repertoire, he reverted to the melancholy, dreamy airs of his own invention.  They were haunting and desperately sad, but they had the eventual effect of lulling me gently to sleep.  I drifted off, vaguely wondering if, now that we had struck a spark in my friend’s chilly soul, that spark was destined to kindle itself into flame or die out again with the coming day.  The episode with the violin proved that his soul was not gutted and charred beyond igniting, but whether music was sufficient in itself for the purpose, this I instinctively doubted” (131).
To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure you could “review” a book that has been available for over 30 years, but I’ve decided to give it a go.  Maybe “discussion” is the better word here.  Anyway, I’m fairly sentimental about Nicholas Meyer’s three Sherlock Holmes pastiches.  The reason being is that Meyer’s third novel, The Canary Trainer, was the first Sherlock Holmes story I ever read, before I even picked up the original canon.  One summer in my early teens, I developed a complete and uncompromising obsession with musical theater.  And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying musical theater, my interest was accompanied by an (extremely, please trust me) inaccurate belief that I could sing.  Soprano, specifically.  My poor mother.  Anyway, that summer as our house filled with off-key, tuneless screeches that I no doubt thought were beautiful arias, my mother desperately searched for something, anything, to distract me, and provide her with a little peace and quiet. 
At the end of her search, she found a copy of The Canary Trainer, languishing unread on her own bookshelf, and passed it along to me, thinking it was the perfect combination of a musical with which I had become obsessed, and a diversion that she hoped would prevent her from having to spend the rest of the summer popping migraine medication.  She was correct, but as anyone who has read The Canary Trainer knows, if you only know the essential facts about Sherlock Holmes and his world, the novel is confusing and raises more questions than it answers.  To my young mind, it was filled with unfamiliar names and places like “Adler,” "Reichenbach,” and “Sussex.”  I had no idea why Holmes was keeping bees, or why he had solved the novel’s primary mystery without Dr. Watson at his side.  My mother ended up spending the majority of that summer with me at our local library—she read a Sharon Kay Penman novel in a quiet corner—while I searched for my own answers in the stacks.  To this day, we both like to think of that time as a successful compromise.
Nicholas Meyer is the author of three successful Sherlock Holmes pastiches: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), The West End Horror (1976), and The Canary Trainer (1993).  The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was adapted for the screen in 1976, starring Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes, Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson, and Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud.  Charles Gray also makes a brief appearance as Mycroft Holmes, foreshadowing his role as the eldest Holmes brother in the Granada Television series.  Dr. Watson prefaces the manuscript of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by stating that there are several supposedly “genuine” Sherlock Holmes stories that are commonly included in the canon, but that are, nonetheless, “forgeries by hands other than mine,” including: "The Lion's Mane", "The Mazarin Stone", "The Creeping Man" and "The Three Gables."  But he goes on to say, “Yet these same astute scholars…have never with a certainty branded as spurious the two cases which I spun almost entirely of whole cloth and separated them from the others” (17).
The Doctor refers, of course, to the adventures of “The Final Problem,” and “The Empty House”—stories famous for featuring the Great Detective’s death at Reichenbach Falls and his subsequent resurrection.  Watson fabricated those stories, he contends, to mask a much more tragic journey that he took with Sherlock Holmes during that timeframe.  The Seven-Per-Cent Solution tells the story of Watson’s last, desperate attempt to save his friend from an evil more insidious and hypnotic than any criminal mastermind.  According to the Doctor, “Was it possible that between the absence of intriguing misdeeds and my own departure from Baker Street, Holmes had fallen prey once more—and this time beyond redemption—to the evils of cocaine” (27)?  When Holmes visits Watson in the spring of 1891, muttering about air guns and criminal professors, the Doctor is immediately concerned for his friend’s sanity.  And when a visit to Mycroft Holmes seems to confirm this assessment, Watson hatches (with the help of his wife, Mary, and Mycroft Holmes) a complicated plan to lure the great detective to Vienna, Austria. There, he will hopefully receive treatment for his cocaine addiction, from the renowned specialist, Dr. Sigmund Freud.
The question that surrounds The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is not one of whether or not the novel has any value as a Holmes pastiche, or even if the book is any good.  As I pointed out earlier, this particular novel has stuck around for more than thirty years, and as much as I hate to jump to conclusions, I would venture that it’s safe to assume that people enjoy this book.  So the question is not one of merit, but rather why it has merit.  Examining the story presented in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the plot appears to hinge on two key elements: the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the fact that the story contains an actual mystery for Holmes to solve, as opposed to being a novel entirely about his addiction and recovery.
Arriving in Vienna, Holmes’s addiction is at its very worst, and no one is spared the outrages of his temper.  Realizing he has been tricked, he speaks vilely to Watson: “Well, Iscariot…you have delivered me into the hands of my enemies.  I trust they will recompense you for the trouble you took on their behalf” (93).  And later, as Holmes is suffering the agonies of withdrawal:
“…his interminable abuse struck much more deeply into me.  I had not thought him capable of such rhetoric or such vituperation…he heaped on me such execrations as it pains me, even to this day, to recall.  He told me how stupid I was, cursed himself for ever having tolerated the companionship of a brainless cripple, and worse…” (113-4).
Not long after, Watson knocks Holmes out cold, when the Detective attempts to escape.  He confesses that the force of his blow was fueled by resentment and anger, and is then characteristically remorseful for his actions.  Similarly, when Holmes finally emerges on the other side of withdrawal, he too seems contrite and subdued, saying: “…I do seem to recall screaming at you [Watson], hurling all sorts of epithets in your direction…I want you to know that I did not mean it.  Do you hear me?   I did not mean it.  I remember distinctly that I called you Iscariot.  Will you forgive me for that monstrous calumny?  Will you” (119)?  Finally, the conclusion of the novel offers a glimpse of Sherlock Holmes as he is rarely written—with all his armor stripped away and his closely-guarded memories laid bare.  But even then Watson does not leave Holmes, remaining resolutely by his friend’s side.  The deeply personal and intimate slant to this particular portion of the novel highlights the loyalties that Holmes and Watson owe to one another.  While they seem always at one another’s side in their more traditional cases, the private nature of this struggle throws their relationship into stark relief.  Watson is not just a part of Holmes’s life when it interests him; he is a part of the Detective’s life no matter what.  And while it might sometimes seem that Holmes take Watson for granted, and could get along without him, the author demonstrates how deeply lost Holmes would be, without his “Boswell” (SCAN).
But beyond the secrets of the Detective’s addiction, and the details and process of his recovery, Meyer has written a mystery into the novel reminiscent of the traditional canon stories of which Dr. Watson maintains it is a part.  When one of Dr. Freud’s patients is kidnapped, Holmes and Watson (along with Dr. Freud) find themselves embroiled in a case that could have international complications, and find themselves face-to-face with a villain who will not be satisfied with anything less than total, global conflict.  Holmes must use all his powers to solve the case, and suddenly, the Great Detective—as the reader knows and recognizes him—finally appears, not the fragile shadow of the man, who haunted the previous pages.  The Great Detective needs to be recognizable as just that—a detective.  While Meyer provides layers and dimension and depth, the foundation remains the same, familiar and identifiable.
When looking for a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, readers are often drawn to stories that offer new, compelling mysteries, suggestive of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s style—detective fiction in the most traditional sense.  Stories that speak in the same voice as the canon.  But there is also a need to fill the gaps that Doyle left—the mysteries of Holmes’s early life, the development of his personality, the meaning behind his sometimes inscrutable actions.  Nicholas Meyer’s first—and perhaps most famous—Sherlock Holmes pastiche offers the reader both options.  The Detective and Doctor’s single-minded, and sometimes hazardous, loyalties to each other offset the traditional mystery of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.  And Nicholas Meyer was able to reconcile both aspects into a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that remains wonderfully readable, even thirty years later.
Take a moment to enter the new blog contest!  Share the details of your ideal Sherlock Holmes story, and you can win a prize package of pastiches.  Contest is open until July 23.


  1. You have certainly proven, to my satisfaction, that a great book can still be reviewed with profit, and the added benefit of perspective, after many years. If the timing of reviews were charted on a statistical distribution, a classic book should have a very long tail indeed.

    Any author should be overjoyed to have such a thoughtful appreciation of his or her work as you have provided for Nicholas Meyer's outstanding Sherlock Holmes novels, which are almost too perfect and ambitiously conceived to be called pastiches. Thanks for recommending "The West End Horror" in a tweet a while back. The best thing about your appreciations/reviews of books and films is your relentless pursuit, with Holmesian tenacity, of the "why's" of their appeal. It is no easy task for a new author to lift a story to the level where it is not merely a reminder, but a living embodiment of the spirit of Holmes and Watson's engagement with our world. The proof for Meyer should be that you came to Holmes through "The Canary Trainer"--that memory is a wonderful story in itself.

  2. @Lucy: You spoil me with your kind and generous comments, Lucy! I don't exaggerate when I say I might have given up this endeavor if it hadn't been for your support and encouragement! I'm still so pleased that you enjoyed "The West End Horror," and I definitely have plans to discuss that story as well in a future post. You've assured me that there is still a benefit to be had from discussing classic books, and the world of Sherlock Holmes certainly has a plethora of classic books to share!