Sherlock Holmes’s Christmas by David Upton


Review by Chris Redmond

This pastiche novel was published in 2005 by Park Publishing, in the English town of Slough, near Windsor and Eton. Indications are that the publisher is actually the author himself, David Upton, which explains the lively local detail that is one of the book's real strengths. Its 16 chapters tell a story of Holmes and Watson, summoned to a mansion about a mile from Windsor Castle, simultaneously experiencing a country-house Christmas and an epidemic of bloody murders. (Such has been the formula for other stories as well, including those in the two volumes Holmes for the Holidays and More Holmes for the Holidays, and the reviewer might wish that this one had a less generic title to help it stand out.)

Upton has an almost flawless command of written English, and a strong aptitude for Watsonian style. In a better world, these traits might be taken for granted, but the reality is that the majority of pastiche authors do not seem to have them, and so a discerning reader sighs audibly with relief when page after page turns out to be made up of grammatical sentences and plausible diction. Still better: Upton appears to have mastered plotting and pacing, so that the story is engrossing and the reader turns the pages eagerly.

It could well be the case that Upton enjoys writing such material even more than readers enjoy reading it. In this case, he has written rather too much of it — the book runs some 75,000 words, roughly 20,000 more than the longest of the original Holmes novels. The reader wearies before the end. Sherlock Holmes's Christmas would be a better book if it had been trimmed accordingly. One place to start would be the several passages in which Holmes and Watson tell each other (unnecessarily, one would like to think) the details of previous cases in which they have been involved together. Such material is likely included because the author thought the reader might need it, but surely this book is likely to attract few readers who are not already familiar with the Canonical stories.

In fact, many other conversations are too wordy as well, as Upton has a tendency to make his characters — all of them, male and female, aristocracy and servants alike — talk in the same elaborate style as Watson's written narration. “My undoubted skills in horticulture helped me to obtain a new billet,” says the gardener, somewhat unconvincingly.

Erecting a country house on the north side of Eton is a reasonable thing for the author to do, even if he does it at the expense of the existing Eton College Cricket Field. However, he gives it rather unconvincing proportions and layout, and leaves it badly understaffed, with a butler, two maids and a cook shouldering all the work of some three dozen rooms. A floor plan of Tilstone Court, provided at the beginning of the first chapter, emphasizes these oddities, and in any case is not badly needed.

However, it does serve to forewarn the alert reader that this narrative, although it purports to be a Sherlock Holmes novel set in the later Victorian era (1894, to be precise), has many of the characteristics of a 1920s detective story featuring somebody like Philo Vance. It takes three full chapters for Holmes to explain the clues and the solution to a cosy gathering of suspects, perpetrators and puzzled police, and his narrative is full of explanations about who had just left the library when somebody else returned, who could not have been in the bedroom while somebody else was up in the tower, and the true names of both the guilty and the innocent. Watson dutifully records it all, but the reader is sorely tempted to start skimming.

Finally, as in so many other Sherlockian novels, we learn what really happened at the Reichenbach Falls. It is, however, a pleasure to report that Irene Adler does not figure in any part of this story.