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by Lindsay Faye
Mysterious Press, December 2021
312 pages
ISBN: 1613162618

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Lyndsay Faye's novel DUST AND SHADOW, which shows Sherlock Holmes tangling with Jack the Ripper, was a well-received revival of the endlessly revived detective and murderer. Faye has since received considerable acclaim for novels of suspense that play with classic literature, including JANE STEELE (a deeply Gothic and postcolonial take on Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE), the Hamlet- meets-New York tale THE KING OF INFINITE SPACE, and, of course, her Timothy Wilde series of police procedurals. Now, Faye resumes reviving Sherlock Holmes with OBSERVATIONS BY GASLIGHT: STORIES FROM THE WORLD OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, a collection of short memoirs by minor characters--allies and adversaries--from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "canon" of Sherlock Holmes stories and novels.

I wanted to enjoy this book far more than I did. The stories all constitute engrossing, well-paced mysteries, and Faye gives unique, sometimes comic, often knowingly critical voices to her cast of supporting characters turned lead. Especially captivating is Faye's Irene Adler, a consummately professional actress whose thespian fervor drives her to dress up in the streets and understand Holmes's own compulsive need to perform roles. Wiggins -- now grown up and a lawyer -- is another arresting figure. He looks back to the ordeal of street-childhood, and explains how Holmes helped him to save a fellow street child who had disappeared, and then reappeared in deeply uncanny form. This girl, Meggie, has a relationship with Wiggins not unlike the early nineteenth-century London writer Thomas de Quincey's with his fellow street child friend Ann in his memoir CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER. Like Ann, Meggie's life is harsh enough that solving her mystery will not necessarily solve her problems or keep her safe. Faye's honesty about this reality is good to read. Poor Lestrade, beleaguered inspector whom Doyle presents as an idiot, to Holmes's eternal consternation, knows exactly what Holmes thinks of him. In his memoir, he insists that no one except Watson is ever treated better by Holmes. Mostly, that's true, but hardly difficult to figure out.

In these minor players' words, Faye delivers some good lines about the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. "We're both performers, he and I," says Adler. "The difference between us is that I can content myself with a gaggle of clapping strangers, and he only wanted one set of eyes lit up with astonishment and gleefully calling "encore." Those eyes are Watson's, of course. It's perhaps supposed to seem original that Holmes's real fascination is with Watson, not "THE woman" that Watson (alone) says Adler is. This is hardly news to most fans of either the Doyle canon or the universe of modern spinoffs.

There have been several collections like this one lately. The "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Effect" that re-imagines classic literature from the point of view of non-protagonists, typically characters marginalized in the original, is well represented in modern Sherlockiana. I wish Faye had used it to provide insights that rearrange the mental attics of Sherlockian readers somewhat more radically. Still, OBSERVATIONS BY GASLIGHT is worth reading. The narrators emerge from the gaslit shadows to show how, in many ways, Watson and Holmes have been gaslighting us all. That is an engaging discovery.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, December 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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