Pity poor Sherlock Holmes. The man just can't seem to enjoy his retirement. During the past six months, the amateur apiarist has been busier than TV's fastidious detective Monk at a Handi Wipes sale, with at least four new cases to crack.
And apparently there's been a sudden spike in criminal masterminds, because even his associates are reaching for magnifying glasses. His creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will be pressed into service this fall, journeying to America to pursue his interest in spiritualism in Gabriel Brownstein's "The Man From Beyond." And even housekeeper Mrs. Hudson has taken up detection in British writer Martin Davies's "Mrs. Hudson and the Case of the Spirit's Curse."
Certainly, Holmes is iconic. But on a more practical level, he's also public domain. Once other copyrights run out, we'll probably be treated to "Father Brown: The Seminary Years" and "The Prime of Miss Jane Marple." (Hey, I thought of it first!)
But what gives the latest round of pastiches certain points of interest is the pedigree of their authors. These aren't hacks. One's an international bestseller, Caleb Carr; another is a respected up-and-comer, Mitch Cullin; and a third, Michael Chabon, has dusting a Pulitzer among his housekeeping chores.
Melancholy and gentle in tone, Cullin's "A Slight Trick of the Mind" is a portrait of Holmes after World War II. Now in his 90s, the detective needs two canes to walk, and his formidable intelligence is failing. Cullin's elegiac tale weaves together a recent trip to post-Hiroshima, Japan, Holmes's home life with his housekeeper and her teenage son, and the account of "The Glass Armonicist," a married woman with whom Holmes became (inexplicably) infatuated. Let's just say that she's no Irene Adler. (For those who want to see Holmes partnered with an equal - his intrepid wife - Laurie R. King's eighth outing in her well-done Mary Russell series comes out in June.)
Not so much a mystery as a deftly woven character sketch, Cullin's tale creates a Holmes who remains recognizable, but who's become more wistful and human as a result of the damage done by world wars and the passing of decades. There are lots of lovely lines, such as when Holmes is discussing his long-dead chronicler: "You know, I never did call him Watson - He was John, simply John."
Pulitzer Prize-winner Chabon's "The Final Solution" also visits Holmes in the 1940s. This time, "the old man" comes out of retirement to help reunite a mute refugee boy with his beloved parrot, who may be a kind of feathered Enigma machine.
There are some superficial similarities with Cullin's Holmes - preoccupation with bees, a bum knee, paternal feelings toward fatherless boys, and a wandering memory. But Chabon's novella, first published in the Paris Review, is an actual mystery, and the only one of the three to feature some real "aha!" moments, à la the Baker Street years.
Interestingly, the tale that hews closest to the format of Conan Doyle's stories is also the least successful of the three. Carr's "The Italian Secretary," commissioned by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, purports to be a secret manuscript of a service Holmes once did for Queen Victoria in Scotland. Her Majesty's servants are being murdered in the same gruesome manner in which an Italian confidant of Mary, Queen of Scots, was killed.
The case is important enough that it induces brother Mycroft to leave the Diogenes Club - and it's this kind of detail, plausible, but just a shade off, that may give pause to some Sherlockians. Also, the dialogue in "The Italian Secretary" is a hair too pompous and hectoring to ring true - and the idea of Watson and Holmes sitting around gossiping about royal wombs (no matter how long-dead the queen) just makes one shudder.
Now quick, someone pitch all those evil-doers over Reichenbach Falls before Ms. Adler slaps a deerstalker on her head and starts muttering about typewriter keys and cigar ash. Oh wait, too late. She's already in a Carole Nelson Douglas series, with "Spider Dance" as the latest title.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.