Originally posted May 2006

For the first time I've gotten a book club book which I found disappointing. I was surprised, since the book was part of a recommended series by a couple of authors who've worked together previously, so you'd think by now they've had gotten it right. However, as I noted already, I found it rather disappointing.

Only black & white

Do you remember the old Sherlock Holmes stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle? I read them as a child and enjoyed them tremendously. I still enjoy them as light fiction. However, I do not find they stand up literarily to the tests of time and life experience. As an adult, I have issues with the ease with which Mr. Holmes produces information from off screen (like a Japanese anime girl produces a hammer) to smite us over the head with his intellectual superiority.

Such conviction, such righteousness in his proclamations! Never was there doubt in his world, for everyone conveniently catered to his every detecting need. Never was a victim so dastardly as to wear a watch which kept less than perfect time! Further, no criminal would dare to smash that watch even an instant before or after the actual moment of death!

Even as a child, too, I was clearly aware of what has to be the most cruel literary line ever: "What do you make of this, Watson?!" Poor, patient, ever-doting Watson: the bumblingly supportive, perennial second fiddle to Holmes' idiosyncratic self-absorption.

I was fascinated to discover Doyle loathed his self-righteous private detective, attempting repeatedly to kill off that monstrous ego. It was the demands of his adoring public and his editor, however, which repeatedly caused Doyle to grit his teeth and once again come up with yet another increasingly fantastic excuse for his arrogant creation to live once again.

I always wondered why the public loved Holmes so. Did they not realize the disdainful contempt in which he'd hold them — just like practically everyone else in his life? Was he, perhaps, emblematic of a morality play to them — a sort of harsh but just avenging angel in a world full of victims of unfair sorrows?

Holier than thou

I mention Holmes specifically, because I found myself wincing repeatedly throughout Dance of Death, as I found several incidents of what appeared to be either relatively straightforward imitation, or admiring and deliberate replication, of what I personally found worst in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Like Holmes, Pendergast is a tall, thin, pale aristocrat. How do we know he's an aristocrat? He's absurdly wealthy and dresses impeccably in ridiculously rare and expensive clothes which the average reader couldn't afford, let alone find. He knows and drinks finer wines than anyone else, and is just generally more genteelly courteous than everyone else. Also like Holmes, he has a cadre of inexplicably devoted servants and friends dedicated to his every need and willing to do absurdly stupid things in order to tend to his every whim, up to and including dumping their entire life's work and abandoning their (supposed) beloved without explanation.

Pendergast is yet more marvelous than this, however. He learned mystical Nepalese fighting ju-ju as a child, which is known by no one else and makes him somehow a better fighter than everyone else. He has no use for following the rules and yet gets things done regardless of flouting authority at every step. Finally, just like Holmes, Pendergast also has a smarter, supposedly deceased, more evil brother. Were Pendergast's brother not so deliberately disgusting I'd root for him to off this paragon of self-righteous virtue.

This Sherlockian hero-worship continues throughout the book, with several of the plot 'surprises' being presented in precisely the same manner as was common in Doyle's stories. I always have issues with authors dropping character changes or plot revelations on the readers without any sort of clue or previous warning in the story. In what way does this make for an absorbing, challenging tale, if there is nothing for the reader to recognize, even if only in hindsight? If you have a smoking gun in Act 3, you surely must have it appear in Act 1, or risk cries of foul!

more tomorrow…

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