The last time international treasure Neil Gaiman tangled with the classic canon coined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he came away with a Hugo Award in 2004 for writing the year’s Best Short Story, and something of cherry on top, too: namely the 2005 Locus Award for Best Novelette.
If he hadn’t had it already, he could have had my heart as well.
Indubitably, the widespread recognition given “A Study In Emerald” was both hard-earned and well-deserved. It was a slow burn of a story, certainly, but when it caught its light was surely bright; brilliant, I’d go so far as to say. “A Study In Emerald” was a thing of poise and power — harmonious in one moment with the Sherlock Holmes and the Dr Watson we knew from the tales of discovery and derring-do and delightful, decisive deduction we loved, and in the next... not.
Of course “A Study In Emerald” was no mere Sherlock Holmes story. Unexpectedly, it set the great detective and his beloved biographer against the oeuvre of another turn-of-the-century novelist: one of Conan Doyle’s most celebrated contemporaries, namely the dark fantasist H. P. Lovecraft. In the introduction to his lattermost short story collection, Fragile Things, Gaiman reflects that he “suspected there was something deeply unpromising about the set-up [given that] the world of Sherlock Holmes is so utterly rational, after all, celebrating solutions, while Lovecraft’s fictional creations were deeply utterly irrational, and mysteries were vital to keep humanity sane.”
However, for all the author’s professed apprehensions, somehow this shocking collision of the sacred and the profane — of the ineffably sensible and the unspeakably absurd — somehow “A Study In Emerald” came together, and marvelously, moreover. Gaiman gave us a Baker Street bewitched, complete with a monarchy of monsters, wherein “there are those who do not believe that the coming of the Old Ones was the fine thing we all know it to be. Anarchists to a man, they would see the old ways restored — mankind in control of its own destiny, if you will.” This is seditious talk in Gaiman’s fantastically ghastly reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes stories, wherein things are not at all as they appear, to excellent, nay unforgettable, effect.
I wouldn’t dare give more than this and that away, but suffice it to say, if you’ve read “A Study In Emerald” — a course of action I really would recommend — you’ll recall that despite appearances to the contrary, it wasn’t, strictly speaking, a Sherlock Holmes story at all. In a sense, then, Gaiman’s latest hot tip for the next round of genre awards for short fiction chronicles the author on relatively untarnished territory. And this time, there isn’t a tentacle in sight!
“The Case of Death and Honey” occurs in the mysterious twilight years of the great detective’s career, but is also alludes to what might have happened to our man after his retirement. Given that “A Study In Emerald” so evoked “A Study in Scarlet” — which is to say the very first Sherlock Holmes story — this, I think, is particularly fitting. A sort of closing of the circle — though it isn’t giving the game away to stress, a second time, that appearances can be... deceiving.
When we re-join Holmes in “The Case of Death and Honey,” which can be found in either A Study in Sherlock or in Jonathan Strahan’s sixth annual collection of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, forthcoming from Night Shade Books, he has, in any event, hung up his hat — or so it seems. That’s the when, and we’ll get to the what shortly. But as to why? Astute as ever, Gaiman posits the following:
This is the problem, wrote Holmes in 1899: ennui. And lack of interest. Or rather, it all becomes too easy. When the joy of solving crimes is the challenge, the possibility that you cannot, why then the crimes have something to hold your attention. But when each crime is soluble, and so easily soluble at that, why then there is no point in solving them.
Look, this man has been murdered. Well then, someone murdered him. He was murdered for one or more of a tiny handful of reasons: he inconvenienced someone, or he has something that someone wanted, or he had angered someone. Where is the challenge in that?
I am only alive when I perceive a challenge.
Thankfully there is a challenge in “The Case of Death and Honey,” and it is perhaps the greatest challenge of Holmes’ entire career. Who or rather what the great detective is out to outwit is the foremost mystery of the piece, so we won’t dwell on overlong, except to assert that it involves far Eastern provinces, a vanishing man, and a certain species of bee.
“The Case of Death and Honey” unravels across two parallel narratives. In one, we are privy to an arcane assortment of Holmes’ notes — as above, and ordered just so below; in the other, in the in between times, an omniscient narrator tells the strange tale of a white ghost who comes to China, apparently to rent a hive from stoic Old Gao, the local apiarist.
This latter aspect of Gaiman’s second Sherlock Holmes story very much put me in mind of “The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains,” which was certainly the highlight of Stories: All New Tales, the collection he co-edited with anthologist extraordinaire Al Sarrantonio in mid-2010. Both take place in desolate, rugged settings. In both, our protagonists’ purposes are shrouded in secrecy. And last but not least, in “The Case of Death and Honey,” as in “The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains,” Gaiman is on top form; reading his honeyed, honed prose is like coming home to luxuries untold.
With respect to the sections of the text ostensibly written by the great detective himself, Gaiman gives us an icily cold, deathly old Holmes, not a little embittered yet ever the gentleman, and though Watson has little to do with “The Case of Death and Honey” directly, there is something of an ode to him, in the form of a letter addressed to the dear doctor. Sherlock’s brother Mycroft plays a rather larger, more meaningful part, for it is his dire deathbed confession that comes to obsess our man in the last years of his life as he and we know it.
Like “A Study In Emerald” before it, “The Case of Death and Honey” is, in a word, masterful. Whether one story is more accomplished than the other is elementary: both are unequivocally terrific. Alas, I dare say die-hard Conan Doyle devotees are likely to balk at the pseudo-supernatural twists that ultimately animate these narratives, but the less fervent will find in each no less — and perhaps a great deal more — than pastiche of the very highest variety, as fresh as it is faithful, and as resonant as is it dissonant.
Niall Alexander reviews speculative fiction of all the shapes and sizes he’s partial to here on the mighty Tor.com, as well as in the pages of Strange Horizons and Starburst Magazine. When all else fails, you’ll find him burbling away on his blog, The Speculative Scotsman, or trying to figure out Twitter.