A Desperate Ruse,
by Robert Underhill
Readers of Robert Underhill’s previous books will find this one significantly different, since this is a period piece, located in London, England, in the late 1800s. It’s also different in that it is centered around a quasi-historical character, the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, creation of the Englishman Arthur Conan Doyle.
In the Doyle story “A Study in Scarlet,” the great detective is first introduced, along with his partner, Doctor Watson, and Holmes’ brother, Mycroft. These three are the main characters, along with two police detectives who work with Holmes to solve the mysteries that arise in Victorian England.
Sherlock Holmes and his new method of using “deductive reasoning” to solve crimes became immensely popular in that period in England, and since then his popularity has spread all around the world. For example, in the past few years here in the U.S. there have been a new film and several TV programs with him as the main character. The main feature of these exciting adventures, aside from the use of deductive reasoning, is the relationship between the emotionless, cerebral detective, his stolid, unimaginative doctor assistant, and the two bumbling detectives who can’t find a clue even when it’s right in front of their faces.
Doyle wrote many short stories and novelettes featuring these characters. His creations became so popular that Londoners would line up to get newly released stories, much as kids did recently when a new Harry Potter adventure came out. In fact, the character Holmes became so popular that when Doyle became tired of writing about him and killed him off in what he intended as the “final” Sherlock Holmes story, the furor was so great that Doyle had to bring his hero back to life and write even more stories.
Now Robert Underhill, a popular local mystery writer, has done something interesting and new with Sherlock Holmes. Many authors have written new Sherlock Holmes stories, but most have kept the familiar characters and simply introduced a new mystery. Underhill does the reverse. He makes a significant alteration in the personality of each character and then re-tells the original story, observing the changes that result. For instance, what if Holmes wasn’t as brilliant as originally designed? What if the doctor was the imaginative one? What if the detectives weren’t bumbling but rather intelligent police officers? If these altered characters were to face the same mystery, for example, “The Study in Scarlet,” would the mystery still be solved? Would the result be the same?
If you are not a Holmes reader, you will still enjoy this Victorian period mystery. Perhaps it will even lead you to delve into the Holmes stories written by the great writer Arthur Conan Doyle. If, however, you are fortunate enough to be a Holmes enthusiast already, you will be delighted to see how cleverly Underhill alters the personal history of these characters and, as a result, how their motivation changes. Then you’ll see how the motivational changes affect the solving of the mystery. It’s almost as if it were written by a psychiatrist!
Bruce Balas, June 2014
Omena resident Bruce Balas is a long-time volunteer and bookstore angel at Dog Ears Books. He’s pulling your leg (something he often does) with that last sentence of his: Robert Underhill, as many of you (including Bruce) already know, is a retired psychiatrist.