The Affair of the Incognito Tenant by Lora Roberts

Review by Chris Redmond

All hail Lora Roberts, who from a position of obscurity so far as the Sherlockian world is concerned (she “lives a quiet life in Palo Alto,” according to the publishers' blurb) has gloriously succeeded with two challenges that have utterly defeated so many previous authors. Roberts is apparently the author of eight or so detective novels, not hitherto known to have any Sherlockian connection; it would be worth some reader's effort to check them out and report on their merits and specifics.

The Affair of the Incognito Tenant is, to start with the basics, a pastiche — that is, a novel of Sherlock Holmes. Some pastiches adhere to the voice of Dr. Watson and the conventions of the Baker Street rooms, a client and a crime, but many, perhaps the majority, present other narrators and frame their events differently. Notoriously, some of them introduce Victorian characters, historical or fictional, who are already known to readers. Others do what the original Watson/Doyle narrator never chose to do, giving glimpses (or more than glimpses) of Holmes's emotional life and personal history, with love interests or new angles on his relationship with Professor Moriarty. Few do it well.

Roberts does it well — that's the first of the challenges she has surmounted in this excellent book, which has not, I think, received much Sherlockian attention to date. The story is set subsequent to Holmes's retirement: his beekeeping and research are interrupted when Colonel Sebastian Moran, freed from prison, comes in search of revenge. Under an assumed name, Holmes (the “incognito tenant”) takes a temporarily vacant house, where certain adventures ensue and where he forms a warm relationship with the housekeeper, Mrs. Charlotte Dodson. (Her surname is perhaps the only infelicitous touch in the entire book.) He does not marry her — only Laurie R. King takes things quite that far — but he does, once, kiss her before disappearing into a more austere and appropriate life without her. He goes a little farther than he ever did with Irene Adler, and that is quite far enough to make the story interesting.

Roberts's second success is to write of this romance and these adventures in lively, clear sentences with absolutely correct grammar and, so far as I can tell, no anachronisms. A clumsy style and a thick scattering of improbable detail is too often the best that authors of pastiches can do, apparently not caring that both daily life and literary language were considerably different in Watson's England from what they are in our own North America. If Roberts has made any blunders in describing the routine of a country house and the behaviour of police constables in 1903 Sussex, she hides them well, and there is not one malapropism or dangling modifier in the whole book.

She tells a good story; she adds to our knowledge of Sherlock Holmes, to the extent of one brief unbending in the company of an interesting and admirable (but not unbelievable) woman; she keeps her invention modest, so that we need not throw away other adventures (even other pastiches) in order to believe this one and add it to what one might call the augmented canon. She even, with the parting of heroine and hero and the brazen disappearance of Colonel Moran as events wind up, leaves the door slightly open for a sequel.