Full Title: The Dark Water: The Strange Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes
Author: David Pirie
Publisher: Pegasus Books (2006)
Number of Pages: 354
How long it took me to read: 1 week
Where I got this book: public library
Like a Moth to a Flame
I enjoy mysteries, especially classics like those written by Agatha Christie. And what could be more classic than a Sherlock Holmes-esque story? This book seems to be even more interesting than a typical Sherlock Holmes story, as its protagonist is none other than Arthur Conan Doyle himself.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “The others laughed at this, rather in the way men laugh at a host who is paying for their brandy of which I could see there was a copious supply.” (p.257)
4. “ ‘One more talk, perhaps two, before I kill you. Not with my knife. I was intending to take a limb today but I think instead I will roast you alive in the morning for your heresies. Then I might take the dish cold to your mad father and get him to eat you. The regime in such asylums is foul; I am sure he would eat anything so he might as well eat his son.’ ” (p.16)
3. “My face sported a growth of unkempt beard, my overcoat was torn and covered with dirt, my boots clogged with mud. But I decided from the start it was best not to apologise for it.” (p.38)
2. “Not knowing Bell and being, from what I could see, a somewhat unimaginative man, Randall had no idea he was being insulted.” (p.78)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “Around us were several graves. Yet it was obvious these graves had once been here in large numbers, and one headstone close to the edge was slanted and cracking and would surely crash into the sea at the next landslide. There was about the whole spectacle a sense of terrible impermanence, it spoke of the frailty of human flesh and of the vulnerability of the world we inhabit and the message was constantly underscored by the great crash of the tide below.” (p.143)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“ ‘The room was in darkness.’ Not: ‘The room was dark.’ One sentence in and the author, David Pirie, has already established a strong voice. The detached writing style suggests a story that’s set some time in the past. It also intimates a protagonist who has a logical mind and the keen eye of a writer; specifically, the great intellect of Arthur Conan Doyle, conjurer of Sherlock Holmes.”
“More psychopaths! As I mentioned in my review of The Lincoln Lawyer, I’m fascinated by psychopaths. Cream, who apparently murdered Doyle’s love years ago, has come back and kidnapped him. That’s not what makes me think he’s a psychopath, though. I start to suspect as much when Doyle wakes from his poisoned sleep to find Cream singing softly at his bedside. Plus, Doyle goes on to describe him as handsome, a characteristic shared by most fictional psychopaths and many real ones.”
“Doyle’s self-awareness and coherence while imprisoned by Cream worries me. I can’t help thinking what I would do in such a situation. I don’t know whether I’d have the presence of mind to pretend to consume the laced food and drink as Doyle does, or take stock of my surroundings as accurately as he does. There are countless stories of daring escapes in which the victims smartly orchestrated their freedom, but how realistic are these stories, really? And what about everyone else? I want to know the statistics of how many stupid people survive such ordeals.”
“It’s come to my attention (now I’m starting to write like Pirie in that stiff old-fashioned prose—this always happens to me, I mimic writing styles as if they’re accents)…in any case, it’s come to my attention that I’ve stumbled into the middle of a series. Doyle kept alluding to past events (like the murder of his true love), but I was hoping that was simply a clever writing ploy. It seems not.
“Confession time: I only started reading this book because it’s due in the library (apparently, I’m not allowed to renew books more than 99 times) and I didn’t want to give it back without at least trying it. With the clock running, I don’t have time to get the previous installments, and even if I did I don’t think I could stop in the middle of this book. Oh well. Reading books out of order doesn’t always ruin the larger story. Onwards I go.”
“As I read more about Doyle’s mentor, Dr. Bell, I can clearly see the character of Sherlock Holmes in his manner. As observed by Doyle:
“And I marveled, not for the first time, at the Doctor’s ability to assume authority even in the most unpropitious circumstances. A few moments ago he had been considered a possible felon, now it was as if he were interrogating a junior officer and the other policemen hung on his words with respect.” (p.78)
“How fascinating to think that the fictional Bell in The Dark Water is based on the character of Sherlock Holmes, who in turn was presumably based on the real Dr. Bell. Not having read the actual Sherlock Holmes stories by the real Arthur Conan Doyle, I’m basing this reflection solely on my impression of the character from the BBC show, Sherlock, a brilliant modern retelling of the classic story.
“The show stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as his faithful sidekick, Dr. John Watson. The actors share amazing chemistry and deliver outstanding, albeit differing, performances: Cumberbatch is dynamic, while Freeman is ingeniously subtle. There aren’t that many intelligent TV shows out there, so Sherlock is a nice change. Just watching it makes me feel smarter.
“I learned about the show through a friend, after the first season—or, as the Brits say, first series—had already aired. I told my sister about it, as I thought she might want to check it out with me.
“Since it had already aired, we were able to watch the episodes on our own time. We managed to work out our schedules so we could watch an episode a night in quick succession. They were mind-blowing. The characters are complex, the acting superb, and the plot inspired. When the second season rolled around, we were forced to be more patient, waiting to see each episode as it aired. It was an excruciating wait.
“It was pretty hard for us to follow the dialogue in the first season—the logic is whip-smart; plus, though we’ve always loved British accents, we weren’t used to hearing them at that point and the actors speak really fast. Then we started watching more British TV (any Doctor Who fans out there?) and grew more accustomed to it. Occasionally now, if I hear someone speaking with a British accent, it’ll fail to register; it just sounds normal.
“With my dedication to the British series, you can imagine I wasn’t too pleased to find out about Elementary, the American version of Sherlock. People were upset to learn that Watson’s character was being played by Lucy Liu, dismayed by the thought of ruining one of the best bromances ever by making John Watson into Joan Watson. Personally, I was upset enough that they were re-doing an already fantastic show; the gender transformation of one of the main characters is almost insignificant in comparison. I haven’t seen Elementary yet, so I can’t comment on the show itself, but I hope that it will entice viewers to check out its inspiration, Sherlock.”
“There have been a number of typos so far, which I’ve been willing to overlook, but I’ve just come across another one which is one too many for my tastes. In fact, I may or may not have slammed the book down in frustration.
“But sometimes,’ said the Doctor, a lie can be suggestive.” (p.114)
“Note the lack of a quotation mark before the word ‘a.’ It’s understandable that there’d be one or two errors in a book—after all, the editors are only human—but the amount of mistakes in this book smacks, at best, of amateurishness, and at worst, of carelessness.”
“The more I read of The Dark Water, the more I’m reminded of the BBC’s Sherlock. I highly recommend this book to any Sherlockian who eagerly awaits the return of the hit show; with only three 90-minute episodes in each of its seasons thus far, Sherlock can be a bit of a tease. I almost feel like an addict, grasping for my next fix. Two weeks ago, this spurred me to constantly replay the show’s soundtrack—it’s quite amazing how music offers up memories that are so pure they defy words—and now it’s The Dark Water. After not speaking more than one sentence to a Mrs. Leonora Marner, Bell gives a remarkable rundown of her person, deducing the fact that she’s a pianist who practices up to four hours a day by looking at her hands because ‘the skin becomes hardened exactly directly to the degree in which practice is applied,’ a great reader because ‘she carries glasses for reading and studied your books with interest,’ that she goes for a walk around two o’clock most days because the condition of her shoes tells him ‘she walks very regularly and they had been rained on recently, so she was out at two for it was the only rain we saw today and indicates her constitutional is taken after lunch,’ and so on. (p.156) The entire monologue reminds me vividly of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock when he quickly takes in the minutiae of a scene or person and makes a precise deduction; it calls to mind Sherlock’s quick shots and camera angles that pan to focus on each detail as Sherlock lists it. (Look at me, romanticizing camera angles! This is what happens when more than a year goes by between seasons. I can’t wait for season 3 to air.)”
“Doyle has been behaving as a supporting character to Bell, as if the latter were the protagonist in the story. Earlier, he joined Bell as the Doctor made some inquiries, but it seemed as if he only did so to be the reader’s eyes. It was actually slightly annoying, but now I’m pleased to see that Doyle himself acknowledges the lack of his engagement in his own story:
“I found myself reflecting how little I had contributed to the case so far…In a case as important as this, one in which I had so huge a stake, it was not pleasant to reflect that it would have made little difference to our current position if I had stayed in London.” (p.265)
“I suppose if I’d read the actual stories of Sherlock Holmes, I would have easily seen Doyle as the Watson to Bell’s Sherlock; the former being the writer, recounting their adventures, the latter being the brilliant deducting detective.”