When is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche not a Sherlock Holmes pastiche? Well, when the great detective does not in fact appear … This is the clever conceit of this mystery by poet, critic, novelist and editor Julian Symons, who brings a mild postmodern flourish to his story. Sheridan Haynes is an actor currently playing Holmes on television but the ratings are slipping, his wife is unfaithful and he heartily dislikes the modern age. So, in the style of the master, he sets out to solve the so-called ‘Karate Killings’ in 1970s London …
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“What I have in mind, obviously, is that Sherlock Holmes will solve the mystery of the Karate killings”
This ingenious and thoroughly enjoyable mystery sees Symons at something like his best. As a novelist he will probably be best remembered for his hard-hitting psychological crime stories, such as The Progress of a Crime or The 31st of February perhaps, and maybe such wry exercises in irony like ‘The Man Who …’ trilogy. But what makes A Three Pipe Problem stand out for me is the way that it manages to combines his fascination with the realities of everyday crime with his enormous affection for the traditional detective story (not incidentally, the book is dedicated to Ngaio Marsh.).
“The day a TV Sherlock beats the Yard I’ll write out my resignation”
Three people have been killed with a blow to the back of the neck, so the press dubs them the ‘Karate killings’ though it is established early on that using the martial art in this way would be risky and ineffective. The three victims are seemingly completely disconnected and Inspector Devenish, a busy, lusty, down-to-earth copper with unusually large thumbs, is baffled. Enter Sheridan Haynes, who is is currently starring as Sherlock Holmes on a TV show that, having reached its fourth season, is on the verge of being cancelled. Changes are being made to the stories to try and claw back viewers (Irene Adler is now a regular foe), which upsets the actor, who is so devoted to Doyle’s original that he has moved into a flat in Baker Street which has been re-modelled to look like the great detective’s own digs. Sher (as his friends call him) isn’t very keen on the modern age and is particularly against motor vehicles, which he considers a noisy and polluting blight on society. His wife Val is much less romantic however, loves to drive fast, and is having an affair with the TV show’s producer. The actress playing Irene Adler is having an affair with notorious gang boss Harry Claber and Sher wonders if maybe he is behind the killings. He decides to find out, to the disgust of Val, his producer and Devenish too, though he does in fact uncover an art fraud. He accomplishes this through the help of his ‘Irregulars’ made up of a trio of a traffic wardens led by the amiable Joe Johnson, who increasingly functions as Watson to the actor. But when Val leaves Sher, and his fellow actors from the show play a nasty trick on him that gets in the papers and leads to the cancellation of the show, does the actor finally tip over the edge – or is he on to something? A heavy fog descends on London, leading to an elaborate and exciting finish.
“I hate the thing itself, the internal combustion engine. If I could I’d sweep it away. It’s destroying everything I know and love about England.”
The problem with most Sherlockian tributes and pastiches is that the stories are often weak and rely too much of popular and inaccurate conceptions of Sherlockian lore rather than going back to the original sources. Here the plotting is very firm and although there is a clear tongue-in-cheek element, Symons plays fair and doesn’t pretend that his characters don’t know that they are trying to recreate a fictional universe for themselves. Indeed, in this respect this feel like quite a modern text and Symons depicts his characters with utmost realism (very few of them are completely likeable as a result, sometimes exhibiting the casual racism and homophobia that would have been common at the time). Sheridan Haynes would eventually return in a belated adventure, The Kentish Manor Murders, reviewed by that bibliomane extraordinaire John F Norris over at his blog Pretty Sinister Books – it sounds like a thoroughly problematic text and sent me scurrying to look at Haynes’ first case to see if my memories of it were correct and I am glad to say that for the most part I was not disappointed.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘mode of transportation’ category: