Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sherlock Holmes in Russia

Sherlock Holmes in Russia by Alex Auswaks, published by Robert Hale, 2008.

This is an excellent collection of seven Sherlock Holmes adventures, written by two Russian authors; a rare treat for all crime fiction fans, and long overdue. The introduction, by George Piliev, tells the fascinating story of how these tales came to be written, in the context of the Sherlockian phenomenon in Russia. Conan Doyle’s detective came to Russia in 1893, via Germany, and was so popular that a host of (presumably unauthorised) imitators sprung up, creating a subgenre of it’s own in the first decade of the twentieth century. Mr Piliev explains how Holmes reached an even greater audience when Russian writers decided to transport him and Watson from Baker Street to Russia, on the premise that they travelled widely in the country and became fluent in the language.

There is something very appealing about Holmes going on another eastern excursion after his last case in 1903, rather than retiring to keep bees (Conan Doyle’s tongue must have been sore from the number of times he placed it in his cheek). While Doyle quite rightly guarded his creation jealously (he took action when Maurice Leblanc included Holmes in an Arsène Lupin story), one can’t help thinking he might have enjoyed the Russian approach, especially once he began to regard Holmes as a burden: two of these seven stories end with the Great Detective missing, presumed dead.

Most of the cases concern thefts of different sorts, which perhaps reflects the concerns of the Russian middle class at the time. The first two, by P. Orlovetz, are the best: The Brothers’ Gold Mine has a fiendishly clever solution, and despite a dull title and very slow pace, The Railroad Thieves is superb. The richness of atmosphere and detail in the depiction of life on the Siberian railway is completely compelling. The Strangler, by P. Nikitin, has the most potential, but is let down by a poor action sequence in the finale. It is nonetheless a brooding, grim Gothic mystery in the spirit of The Copper Beeches and The Speckled Band, with a touch of The Final Problem thrown in.

One mystery remains: absolutely nothing is known about the two authors who created these marvellous tales. Mr Piliev and the publisher both deserve the thanks of mystery fans worldwide, but the greatest credit should go to Alex Auswaks, the translator, for his painstaking work in building such a fantastic bridge from Baker Street to Vladivostok.

Rafe McGregor

1 comment:

Nik said...

I like the sound of this - more meat in the description than the book's blurb, too! It is quite amazing how the Doyle Canon, written over 40 years, has continued to capture the public's imagination around the world - and there's no sign of it ending either!
Nik Morton (Ross Morton)