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No, Not Elementary

Sherlock holmes is the deductive genius of Victorian London, right? In a subversive take on the resident deity of 221B Baker Street, Dr Watson reveals the truth for the first time about his friend and partner in crime-fighting, writes Indrajit Hazra.

books Updated: Jul 24, 2009 21:54 IST
Indrajit Hazra

The Curious Case of 221B
Partha Basu
# Rs 299 # pp 279

Later this year in December, the director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie, not your Merchant-Ivory kind of filmmaker, will be out with Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. Barring the link between the two of former cocaine use, the American actor is perhaps the unlikeliest person to play the role of the tall, gaunt Victorian detective hero of Arthur Conan Doyle. But then, Ritchie’s Holmes is an updated brain-meets-brawn Holmes. Something that Partha Basu’s debut novel, The Curious Case of 221B, which strictly sticks to Conan Doyle’s tone and language is definitely not. What it is, however, is something far more subverise: a refashioning of Holmes according to his friend, chronicler and partner-in-crime-busting Dr Watson, to the point where we are re-acquainted with the Victorian sleuth as a brash, high maintenance gentleman who, most damningly of all, got things wrong in his deductions that the outside world were left ignorant of — until now.

Basu enters the book in a startlingly un-Conan Doyle-ish manner, not in 1890s London, but in early 70s Deogarh. The reader first meets Jit, whose parents have been gunned down some three months before by insurgents. It is while rummaging through their belongings that Jit discovers a bundle of letters and notebooks of a Dr John W. Watson MD, a friend of his father when the latter was a student in London in the 1920s. These notebooks that the aged Dr Watson had kept away from the public eye reveal a different Sherlock Holmes — and, in a subtle way, a more capable, less comic Watson.

Basu structures the book in three layers — Jit’s observations which come as ‘non-Holmes-ian’ digressions, Watson’s narratives, and ‘mid-words’ from Emma Hudson, the daughter of the housekeeper of 221B Baker Street Mrs Hudson, who is now a companion to the good old doctor. (Her true relation to Dr Watson is unfolded in an interlude chapter where Jit pays a visit to Emma in Richmond, London.) Emma also provides synopses of cases narrated, providing much-needed backgrounders to the well-known stories that non-Sherlock Holmes junkies may not be familiar with.

Classic adventures such as A Scandal in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax and The Adventure of Speckled Band are recast with the ‘truth’ as Blunder in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Invisible Client, The Reappearance of Frances Carfax and The Serpentine Affair. One story by Basu stands out for its intriguing and deranging departure from the Holmes pantheon altogether. The Missing Courier springs from a single line at the beginning of the Holmes adventure, The Problem of Thor, in which Watson recounts “a battered tin dispatchbox” in the “vaults of the bank of Cox and Co. at Charing Cross” crammed with papers recording cases that Holmes failed to crack. One of them involves a “Mr James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world”. Basu pulls out a whole story involving Victorian London’s underbelly involving opium trade and thugs out of this single-line box, giving the book an edge that one certainly didn’t see coming.

In Judgement at the Abbey Grange, Basu pulls off a coup when he brilliantly conflates the story of a violent husband and his wife as narrated in Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, and the real-life episode of George Edalji, a Parsi lawyer who was wrongly convicted of killing horses in the West Midlands in the 1890s (an episode fictionalised in Julian Barnes’ 2005 novel Arthur & George). It is here that Basu makes Holmes, a campaigner against the racially motivated imprisonment of Edalji, get in touch with someone very special in the Sherlock Holmes universe.

There is a trunkload of Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Jamyang Norbu’s The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes and Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution being two notable ones. What makes The Curious Case of 221B so special is that this is a parallel telling of the Holmes saga, coming from someone who knows his Sherlock Holmes inside out, that dangerously disrupts our notion of the God of 221B without taking a jot away from reading it the Conan Doyle way.