Sunday, November 22, 2020

Plague Books: Baker Street Blues

The Baker Street Jurors
by Michael Robertson

Provenance: Here's a secret - Amazon has a free bookstore available in one of its buildings.

OK, it isn't much of a secret, since it was mentioned in an article in the Seattle Times a few years back. And I don't know if it is still there, particularly in these Pandemic times. And what it is is a room with a lot of publishers copies that have been sent in for review for, like the Amazon Book Review that no one else claimed. So it is more of a "free giveway table" situated on one floor of a building that I will not divulge. And it is for Amazon employees, since you have to use your keycard to get in. Many of the books available are bound galleries (Here's the text, but we don't have a final cover or front matter") or Uncorrected Proof ("Here's the text and what we THINK is the cover, but we need to go through it one more time"), so they may not be the finished production you see at the B&N. 

But, hey, free books.

I hit the library few times and, to be honest, found it pretty picked over. I don't know if they restocked every Monday or what, but is had a scattering of SF, a lot of memoirs, some popular fiction, and a good selection of mysteries. Mysteries were well represented, and on a whim I picked up a copy of The Baker Street Jurors there.

And, spoilers, I didn't care much for it at all.

Review: I've nattered on about genre more than a few times to different degrees in this blog. How it is ultimately a marketing term - "If you liked X, you'll like THIS!", How it accumulates its own ancestors (Verne, Wells, or Shelly may have "invented" SF, but none of it was WRITING it when they composed their well-known works). How it changes over time ("Horror becomes Paranormal Romance", or most recently, we've see the mitosis of Fantasy and Science Fiction into two separate sections of the book store.). I don't HATE genre - I'm a big practitioner of it myself - but I do recognize it for what it it.

Well here's another rule about genre - when a genre gets big enough, it starts spawning off sub-genres. Mysteries is a great example. There are cat mysteries, dog mysteries, medieval monk mysteries, feminist mysteries, food mysteries, cozies, police procedurals, ancient Egyptian mysteries, dark Scandinavian mysteries, urban mysteries, and supernatural mysteries. Each of these subgenres may attract general "mysteries" crowd, but they are spot-targeted on appealing to a particular sort of buyer looking for a particular kind of story.

So. Sherlock Holmes mysteries. It it is a successful subgenre in its own right. stepping outside of books, look at the amount of TV shows and movies that have spawned off Holmes over the years, but that's a subject for a different rant. Heck, we have secret Holmes stories, young Holmes stories, lost Holmes stories (like the year he spent after Reichenbach) and even here in this blog, retired Holmes stories.

Baker Street Jurors, and the other books of the series (and yes, it is a series, another hallmark of genre), has an initially tangential connection to the Holmes oeuvre. Its protagonists are lawyers whose offices are at 221B Baker Street. And that's the initial connection. Within this fictional universe, like ours, Holmes is a created character, but that doesn't stop them from getting into Holmes-related mysteries.

In this case, one of the lawyers is summoned to jury duty (Yes, it is a conceit. Would YOU want a lawyer in a jury you were presenting to? But, this is Britain). He ALSO gets a jury summons for Sherlock Holmes at the same address. He bins the second one as a joke, but then, a long, hawk-nosed lanky violinist shows up for the jury duty, looking very Basil Rathbonish. And they are both assigned to the same case, which is a high-profile murder of a famous cricket-player's wife by a famous cricket-player with his famous cricket-playing bat. The game is afoot!

OK, there are conceits in this game. But then, in the midst of the proceedings, they decamp the jurors to the quote-scene-of-the-crime-end-quote. And then jurors start, um, dropping off, in shades of Agatha Christie and her Ten Little Indians (which would be Twelve in this case, plus spares).

Not great, but not criminal, in a writing sense. And the protagonist, Nigel Health (Brother Rory is off on a honeymoon) is fairly likable and a positive character. No, what irritated me about this book, and so irritated me that I kept it on my desk until I could properly dispose of it, was this: Robertson is not playing fair by the reader. If, in a mystery, you say something like "It couldn't possibly be an evil twin", then no matter who says it, you are reassuring the reader that the solution does not involve an evil twin. If the resolution of the crime then proceeds to be, "Ahah! It was an evil twin!" well, yeah, people are going to come after you with cricket bats.

And that's what happens in BSJ. No, not evil twins, but something similar, which left me a little put out. I can put up with the matters of coincidence (like how the guy that looks and acts like Sherlock Holmes ended up on the jury), but this is an outright fib to reader. And that's pretty much a violation of a core concept of mysteries. 

*Deep Breath*, and I've had this volume tucked away behind my monitor for several years waiting for me to get around to dunning it. And now that I have done so, I can safely put it into a box and inflict it on someone at a library sale. 

And feel, somehow, liberated.

More later,