Titan Books has been publishing (and republishing) quite the run of Holmes pastiches under the series umbrella of "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." And Holmes is having adventures indeed: not content to pit Holmes against the usual suspects, like Jack the Ripper (yes, there's a Jack the Ripper novel, by the late Edward B. Hanna), the series offers us invaders from other fictional universes, like Dr. Moreau. Not surprisingly, Holmes also finds himself occasionally saddled with faux Watsons, like Theodore Roosevelt. (OK, that is a bit surprising.) In other words, the series runs the gamut from multi-universe and multi-genre mashups to more conventional imitations of Doyle. David Stuart Davies' The Veiled Detective, first published in 2004, illustrates both the potential and the (sometimes frustrating) shortcomings of the busy market in imitation Holmes.
Like so many pastiches, The Veiled Detective retroactively insinuates Moriarty into every aspect of Holmes' professional life story. Moriarty requires stimulation, and Holmes provides it; they are, after all, "'two colossi facing each other across the great divide'" (60). Later, after Holmes intervenes in the plot of A Study in Scarlet in a very non-Doylean fashion, Watson desperately tries to reassure himself that "Holmes was not a monster, was not really a murderer, and if he had transgressed it was for the best possible reasons" (153). (I'll come back to this in a moment.) This is not particularly new either: previous pastichers have suggested that Moriarty is actually Holmes' split personality, or that Holmes is some sort of criminal (e.g., our pal the Ripper), or that Holmes is just projecting wildly. Davies becomes more interesting, however, when he constructs a vast conspiracy theory around Holmes that includes John H. Watson himself--really John H. Walker, court-martialed for getting drunk on duty while in Afghanistan--along with Mrs. Hudson and...well, let's just say some other people of note. Alternating between first and third person, Davies constructs new scenarios for A Study in Scarlet (which takes up nearly 2/3 of the book), The Sign of Four, and "The Final Problem," in which Walker/Watson simultaneously serves as Holmes' sidekick and Moriarty's spy. (Incidentally, in a spectacularly missed opportunity, Davies neglects to use Walker/Watson's "real" background to solve the Notorious Case of Watson's Wandering War Wound--surely it went wandering because Walker/Watson couldn't remember his own lie?)
As a result, The Veiled Detective becomes a kind of meta-pastiche, highlighting how Walker/Watson creates the Sherlock Holmes legend--and, in the process, creates himself. Like Doyle, Walker/Watson dabbled in adventure tales in his off hours, and so he is already established (in a minor way) as a self-conscious genre writer even before he gets his hands on Holmes. Assigned the task of reporting on Holmes' doings to Moriarty, Walker/Watson finds himself "relishing" the act of "storytelling" (80) when he runs into Stamford, who has himself been suborned by Moriarty and feels "as though he were taking part in some stage play and had just been given his cue" (80). Shortly after this, Watson realizes what is going on, but continues to play the game. In a way, this is more homage to Golden Age detective fiction than it is to Doyle--the John Dickson Carr characters who casually remark on the fact that they're in a mystery novel, for example--but it also reworks the openly metafictional elements of the Holmes stories, which famously feature Holmes grumbling about Watson's narrative technique. Here, the "characters" Holmes and Watson (and, eventually, Mrs. Hudson, who is actually an actress in Moriarty's employ) struggle against the extent to which they are being written by Moriarty, who is the novel's plotter in both senses of the term. Initially, Watson's stories turn out to be his way of salving his conscience, creating a "dynamic detective hero" for the popular market to counteract the "unadulterated accounts" passed on to Moriarty (120). But the unadulteration doesn't last for long; after the events of Scarlet, Watson realizes that not only will he have to "embellish the plot" for a mass readership, but also that Moriarty has to receive the "official version" (that is, what they told the police) instead of the true one (155). Davies thus rewrites the Holmes canon as the product of a multiply-unreliable narrator, constantly and consciously targeting his stories for different niche audiences--Mary Morstan included--while, presumably, telling us the authentic version in his first-person journal. Or is he? Because readers will quickly spot at least a couple of misleading comments, suggesting that even Walker/Watson's most "authentic" utterances are also unreliable...
Somewhat bizarrely (and probably not intentionally), then, Davies winds up putting a quirky spin on the Holmesian readership. Moriarty, who fancies himself a kind of god capable of ferreting out his subordinates' every secret, is also the one who actually believes in the "unadulterated" (not really) stories that Walker/Watson passes along to him. We, by contrast, are offered more and more layers of fictiveness, as Walker eventually becomes "the Watson of my stories" (224). "Reality" and "fiction" appear to change places, but what does that mean in the context of a tale where almost everyone is projecting a fictional self (and Holmes never uncovers all of the lies)? Moriarty dies in part because he is an uncritical reader of the stories Watson sends along; despite being a master liar himself, he fully believes in the possibility of truth. Watson and Holmes, the other side of the Moriarty coin, turn the art of lying into a means of pleasure, profit, and, paradoxically enough, righteousness. It simply no longer matters. The wise reader knows what s/he does not know, apparently.
This is, however, where things start going a little haywire. Like many pastiches, The Veiled Detective feels the undertow of its canonical original: Holmes, despite doing some Very Bad Things, is pretty much on the side of All Things Good (his clean-up-the-streets approach perhaps makes him the ancestor of the modern superhero, doing in those the police leave untouched?), whereas Moriarty is an entirely unmitigated villain. Although the casuistical moment referenced above initially makes it seem as though Watson is deceiving himself about Holmes, the story unfolds in such a manner as to ultimately hit the reset button. Davies' ample use of Doyle's original text further drags the novel back in the direction of Doyle's vision--in effect, the novel is about the characters turning into what Doyle imagined, even if their secret backstories are not what Doyle had in mind. Pastiche usually has some element of reassurance about it, and The Veiled Detective is no exception. More problematically, though, the novel has some serious technical difficulties. Davies' prose style looks ungainly next to Doyle's, and matters are not helped either by Moriarty's moustache-twirling or by the awkward plot construction (the excess Scarlet makes the rest of the book feel perfunctory). And if we're going to have a rewritten Scarlet, I don't see why it's necessary to uncritically retain the anti-Mormonism.