This Christmas, we get to see the second Sherlock Holmes film featuring Robert Downey, Jr. as the great detective. I know many people disliked the first film for all of its modernization of the character. I wasn’t one of them. I enjoyed Downey’s take on Holmes (and Jude Law’s version of Watson) and look forward to the new film.
One of my favorite aspects about the film was the inclusion of mystery along with the action. Mystery is, I think, an aspect of “crime fiction” that is often left out in a lot of modern stories. Mystery fiction showcases a detective of some sort, trying to unravel a puzzle, and bring the culprit to justice. More generally, crime fiction showcases lowlifes or ordinary people caught up in events beyond their control. There’s not a lot of wonderment in say, a heist tale, other than how the robbers pull off the steal. It seems, also, that there’s usually a lot of action in crime fiction where mystery fiction can (but not always) trend towards the mental.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew that both ingredients—mystery and crime with a little action thrown in—made for a good story. Why else did he name the first dozen Holmes tales “Adventures”? It’s a lesson continued by his literary descendants, Leah Moore and John Mark Reppion, who have scripted The Trial of Sherlock Holmes, a comic book series for Dynamite Comics. This gripping story, a more traditional portrayal for all the purists out there, could have emerged directly out of Doyle’s pen.
In the opening panels, a huge explosion rips its way through the East End district. The next morning, Dr. Watson makes his entrance into 221B Baker Street. In a nice change from Watson’s usual astonishment at Holmes’ deductive abilities, the good doctor takes Holmes’ suppositions about Watson’s activities in stride and moves forward. I mean, really, how many times does Holmes have to do this until Watson just waves a hand and smiles? These events take place in 1895, some eight years after the two men first met. It’s nice to see Watson is used to Holmes’ “magical” deductions.
According to a letter Holmes has received, the explosion is not some random act. Sir Samuel Henry, former assistant police commissioner, writes to Holmes that he, Henry, is to be murdered at his house precisely at 7pm the next day. If Henry makes plans not to be at his house at the appointed hour, additional explosions will tear London apart. Naturally, Holmes and Watson, together with Inspector Lestrade and a cadre of London’s finest, all guard Henry and his estate. While waiting, Lestrade informs Holmes of another, separate, typed letter. It seems some loyal Britons don’t want the Germanic Baron Lothair to set foot upon English soil, something the nobleman is about to do on a tour of London’s great monuments.
As the gentlemen are discussing these developments, Sir Henry’s many clocks chime a quarter until seven. A few minutes later, a request is delivered by one of the policemen: Sir Henry wishes Holmes to come into his bedroom, alone. This Holmes does. At precisely seven o’clock, a single shot rings out. Lestrade, Watson, Detective Inspector Davis (of Special Branch), and all the policemen race upstairs. Seeing the door to Sir Henry’s bedroom locked from the inside, they break it down. What they find astonishes them: Holmes, standing over the dead body of Sir Henry, a smoking revolver in his hand, his face containing a look of utter surprise.
That, dear readers, is what you call a cliffhanger! If you happened to have purchased the first issue at your local comic book store, this is where issue #1 (of 5) ends. Yeah, I couldn’t have waited a month to find out what happened next either. That’s the beauty of collected story arcs in trade paper-sized editions. Naturally, the second chapter begins in a bad way—Holmes is arrested and thrown in prison—and things go downhill from there. Literally to say any more about what happens in chapter two (and how it ends) would ruin the enjoyment of a fulfilling and complicated story, one full of surprises, and none moreso than the one revealed on the last page.
One of the joys of reading a so-called “fair play” mystery is that the author gives readers all the information the detective has, and readers can see whether the correct solution presents itself to them before the denouement. In movies, it’s pretty easy to achieve. Let the camera linger on something or have an off-screen sound give the viewers a clue. Books present a bit of a different problem in that the author has to make sure the detective asks the right questions. Comic books, you might think, would be easy. It’s a visual medium, like movies, but you also have the printed words. Moore and Reppion provide the clues necessary to make some educated guesses, but you have to be an astute comic reader to see and read them. Upon a second reading, much like re-watching The Sixth Sense, once you know the secret, you see all the clues were there. Brilliant.
I was happily surprised at the relationship between Watson and Lestrade. If you’ve read the Doyle stories, you know Holmes has all but disdain for the metropolitan police, Lestrade being one only slightly more capable than the rest. Here, Lestrade holds his own and shows himself to be as loyal to Holmes as Watson. Even Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, makes an appearance.
I’ve gone this far without mentioning the most crucial aspect of The Trial of Sherlock Holmes, the artwork. Aaron Campbell’s drawings capture Victorian England in all its little nuances and detail. There’s a sepia quality to many of the panels, and his use of shadow and light is superb. Campbell draws Holmes in a traditional way, much like Sidney Paget did in the original Strand illustrations. Watson gains a little weight and is a bit more jowly, but it suits him. Again, Lestrade is best served here. Unlike the often spindly way he appears in older illustrations and even when portrayed by Eddie Marsanin the first Holmes/Downey film, Lestrade here is a striking presence. Firm-jawed, handsome, his hair short and well-kept, his mustache neatly trimmed, Lestrade is a modern man here, visibly a policeman, but one that can win the heart of a fair maiden after hours. Truth be told, I could read an entire series featuring this version of Lestrade as long as Campbell draws him. When I read that this series was Campbell’s first comic sale, I was glad to be present at the beginning of a great career.
The Trial of Sherlock Holmes, available in hardcover, comes with some great extras. There is an afterward by noted Sherlockian Leslie Klinger as well as an essay by Moore and Reppion. Also included is the script the authors gave Campbell to direct his art, complete with references to special effects and dialogue boxes. I loved flipping from the text description to the glorious pictures Campbell created. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the workings of a comic book. Lastly, Campbell illustrates a few pictures for the reprinted original Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” from His Last Bow.
Holmes pastiches are often fun, and provide authors other than Conan Doyle a chance to play with Holmes and Watson. Rest assured, The Trial of Sherlock Holmes can stand with the best of them. After reading this story, I had only one thought: when is the sequel?