Few pastiches of Sherlock Holmes have been completely satisfying. The characters of Holmes and Watson are finely drawn creations, and our image of them has been affected by their ubiquity. Recapturing the delicate balance between Watson’s bulldog Englishness and Holmes’s equally English aloof diffidence is a tricky matter. So too are the stories, because the temptation is to be too clever by half. This must be done, to illustrate exactly how Holmes actually is too clever by half, but also because the novel length demands it – but remember that the bulk of the Sherlock canon was done in short-story format.
David Pirie deals with the first problem nicely, because since the characters here are Conan Doyle and his mentor, Professor Joseph Bell, he can deal with them as the ur-Holmes and Watson they were. Thus we get hints of the fictional characters, which we recognise, but are also treated to differences that make them more enjoyable as themselves, and quirks like Doyle’s belief in the beyond add a retrospective kind of frisson to the proceedings.
The second problem, however, is a difficult one. Pirie’s tale might be thought a loose version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, though its codes, runes and secret passages will remind Sherlockians of other tales. The plot twists deeper and deeper, always entwined around the character of Thomas Neill Cream, the Victorian serial killer. Cream is a wonderful villain, but is off stage, manipulating, through most of the tale, and where manipulation is concerned he is not quite the Napoleon of crime. In fact, the book’s best moments are those where Cream’s villainy is at its most obvious. But obvious is not what we strive for in a Holmesian novel. At time tortuous in its perpetual denouement, The Dark Water, while engaging and satisfying in a fair sort of sense, is more interesting for its hints than for what it actually delivers. Perhaps short stories might work better?