Publisher: Old Street
Pages: 256 (Paperback)
Form: Short Stories
Series: Standalone (?)
Eight thrilling mysteries introducing Henry St Liver, Victorian detective extraordinaire, and his spirited sidekick Olive Salter
And cause that’s not really that descriptive of what’s inside:
Tall, rake-thin and copiously moustachioed with a high, piping voice, Henry St Liver is at first glance not an impressive specimen. But the moment he is confronted with a mystery to solve – one with a risqué element – he is turned into a positive genius of detection and decision. In this first collection, he and his spirited assistant Olive Salter tackle eight cases that have baffled Scotland Yard, taking them on a series of dramatic journeys into the most exotic reaches of Victorian society, and of the human heart. With an extraordinary cameo appearance by Oscar Wilde, and informed by a wealth of lightly worn erudition, these stories mark the fiction debut of a brilliant talent. They will be relished by all aficionados of the Victorian detective genre.
Amazon Product Description
Ok, well that’s a bit more detailed but I still don’t think either blurb is being entirely open about two very important aspects of this book – aspects that could be deal-breakers for someone just looking for the simple Victorian detective stories this seems to be being advertised as.
Firstly this is a comedy. It is very possible to enjoy each story as a Victorian detective yarn, that’s true, but they are also comedic in tone and quite obviously affectionate parodies of Sherlock Holmes and the whole Victorian detective trope, rather than a straight up example of it.
Secondly, and the second blurb does hint a little at it with the ‘risqué element’, Henry St Liver is not an ordinary detective. He is in fact a genius sexologist and all the mysteries he deals with have (or appear to have) a sex element to them – be that transvestism, fetishism, exhibitionism, homosexuality or – well, I’m not going to spoil all the reveals.
Now both these elements might put some people off. I have to admit that after the first story I felt a little dubious – and I had known going in exactly what the premise was. However, if you can put aside any preconceived notions these things might bring to mind, I think you might find it worth the read. The subject matter is treated matter of factly and with respect and the humour is surprisingly mature – no gratuitous ‘haha! He likes weeeird kinky stuff! Eeeeew! Isn’t that funny?’ stuff that a book with this premise could so easily descend into. And, as I said before, they do stand up as decent detective yarns in their own right – the cases may revolve around sexual behaviour, but that doesn’t stop them being fun mysteries.
Like Sherlock Holmes, these stories are narrated by St Liver’s assistant – author Olive Salter – who lacks quite the insight of the main character. Olive is, however, an intelligent, sensible character and is rarely made to look stupid for not noticing something St Liver has – an upside of his very specific expertise. Olive mimics Watson further by having the adventures published in a popular magazine of the day and constantly making references to stories and events that aren’t included in the collection. The prose is written in a very Holmesian style (if Watson wrote them as comedies) and some of the stories are quite closely based on well-known Sherlock Homes ones. I was especially amused by a moment in The Case of the Indentured Gourmet when Olive instantly produced the correct conclusion to Holmes mystery it was parodying, ‘he Adventure of the Red-Headed League (really it is rather obvious). However despite being a parody it’s an affectionate and good-natured one, and you’d be hard pressed to spot any unpleasant jibes or digs at Conan Doyle.
Because the second blurb’s already mentioned it I guess I should as well: the Oscar Wilde cameo. I mentioned in my very first blog post that I wasn’t entirely sure about using real historical characters in historic fiction. In this case it worked and I’d put almost all of that down to tone.Whilst the book I complained about back there was too serious to get away with depicting Dickens that way, the comedic tone of The Case of the Boy Explorer allowed for a humorous cameo by Oscar Wilde without causing mood whiplash. I also think his depiction was handled brilliantly – the renowned wit being so scared of saying something less than brilliant that he barely talks at all to avoid it. It was silly and humourous without being insulting or disrespectful, a bit like the book as a whole.
Overall an unexpected gem of a collection, I won’t say I loved it, but it was an entertaining and fun read – I especially liked the almost Jeeves and Wooster-like silliness and contrived schemes in The Case of the Well-born Client. The subject matter was treated with surprising maturity, respect, and lack of value judgement and the stories themselves were tightly written – though again I’ll admit it took me a couple to get into them properly. If you can’t handle reading a story that starts with the words ‘”The ingestion of excrement is perhaps a rather neglected leitmotif in world culture,” Henry began one beautiful June morning as we were sitting down to breakfast’ it’s probably not for you. I, however, will be keeping my eyes open for a second volume.