“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” So proclaims the legendary sleuth in 1890’s The Sign of Four, and such is the inspiration for many of the stories in The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams and published by Night Shade Books. This collection of stories arrived in stores last September, but I only became aware of it a couple of weeks ago when Night Shade sent us a copy for review.
It’s a hefty hefty large format paperback volume, delivering its assemblage of tales in just over 450 pages. There are 28 stories included, all of which are reprinted from previous collections except for “The Adventure of the Pirates of Devil’s Cape” by Rob Rogers. The other 27 represent a fantastic sampling of Holmesian work from literary luminaries including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Anne Perry, and Sharyn McCrumb.
There’s no question that the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film brought the character and his adventures back into mainstream popularity, and this publication makes no excuses for capitalizing on the resurgence in Holmes’s popularity. In fact, Adams’s preface makes specific mention of the film in a footnote, and the Holmes and Watson depicted on the cover painting bear more than passing resemblances to Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. Really, no excuses are needed, as Holmes is an enduring character (as evidenced by his #5 placement in our 100 Greatest Fictional Characters poll), and if it took a big budget movie to get readers interested in him again, so be it!
The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is more than a standard jumble of Holmes stories written by modern authors. Rather, it assembles a fine collection of stories that tend to roam farther into weird territory than Doyle’s original stories venture. Some of these stores are mysteries in the vein and style of Doyle without any supernatural trappings, but the vast majority do push the bounds of reality and test Holmes’s assertion about eliminating the impossible. The stories that address the supernatural are divided into a couple of camps here. Some of them begin with the appearances of ghostly wrongdoers and phantasmal murders, but in the end they are revealed to be hoaxes or misapprehensions of the Scooby Doo ilk. The remainder of the stories dealing with the paranormal actually dive head first into the strange and the unknown, dropping Holmes and Watson into encounters with bona fide otherworldly entities.
The fun of this collection, as with any good mystery, is that you don’t really know what you’re in for until you reach the end of each piece. Brief editorial introductions introduce each story with information about the authors and short contextual hints about the story itself, but at no point does the editor spoil the surprises. Trying to guess which stories actually inhabit the realm of the impossible makes the reading all the more enjoyable.
This isn’t a book to read through quickly. Given that all the stories are set in the world and lore of Sherlock Holmes, you’ll encounter the same characters and settings, as well as even similar situational setups, again and again. Plowing through the whole collection all at once will lessen the impact of each individual story, so I highly recommend you take the time to savor this one.
Newcomers to Sherlock Holmes likely will find something to enjoy in The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but I think longtime fans of the writing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will get a lot more out of the book. They get to see their cerebral hero faced with truly bizarre situations, culminating in conclusions the likes of which Doyle never produced.
Rating: 4 / 5 Stars