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Book review - Rendezvous at the Populaire by Kate Workman

I was never going to completely warm to this story simply by virtue of the fact that it violates one of my two golden rules. The rule in question being that Sherlock Holmes pastiches should stay firmly within the world of Holmes and this one strays into Phantom of the Opera territory. However, in the interests of objectivity, I shall put that temporarily to one side.


The most significant thing that struck me is that this is not only a case of Holmes in the land of the phantom it also very much Andrew Lloyd Webber's phantom rather than Gaston Leroux's. The characters come across (to me at any rate) as they do in the musical rather than the book. In some respects, reading the book was like re-living parts of the musical (a musical I enjoyed) but I'm not sure that this is necessarily a good thing or what Workman was aiming for.

The biggest challenge when writing a pastiche is that of mimicking the original author's style. When you have a cross-over you have the problem of balancing two (or possibly more) styles. In Workman's case she is juggling three - Conan Doyle, Leroux and Lloyd Webber. Inevitably one of these influences has to dominate the book and I personally believe that Lloyd Webber is the winner here with the result that Holmes and Watson don't speak as authentically as they should. To be fair, no Holmes pastiche I have ever read has truly managed to capture the spirit of Conan Doyle but I have read many that have come closer.

Another problem comes from trying to step into the heads of too many of the characters (which is another significant departure from the style of most Sherlock Holmes stories). Sections are written from the perspective of Watson, Holmes and Raoul which is, I think, two too many. Also it is not always immediately clear with each chapter whose head you are occupying.

Next I come to matters of editing. I appreciate that the author is American but if you are writing a Holmes pastiche from the perspective of characters from Victorian England they must be both Victorian and English. Workman, at the beginning of the story, describes Holmes being shot in the leg. Writing as Watson she uses the word 'pants'. This is simply unforgivable. As an Englishman, Watson would say 'trousers' and nothing else. It would be perfectly acceptable for an American character to use the term but not good old Watson.

I would advise the author to make sure she has an editor fully conversant with English English on board for her next effort in order to weed out such little oversights.

All the above said, the book flows well and never seems to drag. The only part which really didn't ring true for me was the sword fight between Holmes and the Phantom. However I suspect this stems from the fact that I have experience of fencing - something which I suspect the majority of readers will not have and will therefore not be troubled by.

In short the basic problem with this story is that it is attempting to be a Holmes pastiche featuring the Phantom of the Opera but ends up being a Lloyd Webber inspired Phantom pastiche that features Holmes and Watson. If you understand this at the start I think you will enjoy the book more. If you start it expecting a Holmes adventure I think you will be slightly let down.

If Kate Workman tackles some of the obvious issues I think her next book will be something I shall definitely check out.

9 comments:

  1. I'm glad that you reviewed my book. You're right, I never truly thought about the subtle differences between American English and British English. Obviously, I know some of the differences. 'Color' and 'colour,' or 'favorite' and 'favourite' for instance. But 'pants' and 'trousers' I didn't even think of, and I thank you for pointing that out. There's a scene in my next one where Holmes is focusing on a pair of pants, and your paragraph above made me realize I had to go back and replace the word with 'trousers.'

    I wish I did know someone familiar with both British English and American English to help me find other things like that.

    I did find it interesting, though, that you mention having trouble keeping straight who is narrating. As you said, it's Holmes, Watson, and in one segment, Raoul. I always labeled Watson's segments with "From the Journal of John H. Watson, M.D.," and Raoul had one small segment with his name at the top. Since that just leaves Holmes, I'm confused how there was any question of who was narrating?

    All in all, thank you for the complimentary things in this blog, and even moreso for the constructive criticisms. (For the sword fight, I did look up what I could from books, but not being able to see it firsthand and truly experience what I was reading about, I felt it better to gloss over what moves were done instead of blundering through detailed descriptions that would surely have huge mistakes that Holmes would never make, given his fencing experience.)

    Even though my second novel does stray into including another literary character, I hope you'll read and review it, and I hope it holds up better to British standards. :)

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  2. I admire your reaction to my review. You're clearly better at keeping your cool than I am :-) As MX Publishing well knows, I am notoriously tough on pastiches so please don't take it too badly. I also know all too well what it is like to be on the wrong end of a critical review. Just have a look at some of the comments on Amazon.com for my first book (Eliminate the Impossible).

    Regarding the "whose head am I in?" bit I shall check but I'm fairly sure there was at least one place where it wasn't clear and threw me off. I shall get back to you on that. If I turn out to be in error I will of course amend the review. I like to be as fair as I can be.

    Re the swordfight, I appreciate the fine balance to be drawn. As I said in the review, I suspect most people would fail to notice anything amiss. It is just the case that I fenced regularly for seven years so I am much harder to please. However I know full well that if you'd written "Holmes executed a parry in quarte and enveloped Erik's blade" you would have tried people's patience.

    As for the American Vs English "English", I have already offered my services in that direction to MX Publishing and I believe the idea was going to be put to you at some point.

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  3. Re the narrating issue. Perhaps it's a personal thing. With hindsight I now know that all Watson's chapters are stated as coming from his journal and that Raoul's is headed with his name but when you're reading for the first time you don't automatically know that all the others are therefore Holmes.

    In most cases, when such a chapter arises, the context makes it clear within a couple of sentences but the chapter beginning on page 81, which concerns the Masquerade, follows on from a Watson chapter and gets almost to the bottom of the page before it becomes clear that we are now in Holmes's head. As both Holmes and Watson are attending the ball the confusion arises because either of them could be describing events.

    I know how easy it is to get so familiar with what you're writing that you forget how it will strike someone for the first time. Perhaps it is just me being a bit dense. If no one else has mentioned it maybe it isn't a serious problem. For me however it was a little jarring. If you had headed Holmes's chapters "From the recollections of Sherlock Holmes" or some such heading this confusion would have, for me at any rate, been eliminated.

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  4. I know that I'm coming to these comments well after the fact, but I was just curious if you've read I Will Find the Answer? I'd love to hear you comments and criticisms on that one, and if it's closer to being a Holmes pastiche featuring other characters, rather than, as you said of this one, a Phantom pastiche featuring Holmes and Watson.

    Honestly, looking back over my Phantom one, I'm tempted to completely rewrite it once the others are done. Make i what it should have been instead of what I favored. Here's a link to my blog, if you care to follow it. I'll follow yours as well, as soon as I figure out how...

    http://bakerstreetthoughts.blogspot.com/

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    1. Hello. No I'm afraid I've not read it. I only read what I'm sent by MX and that one has not come my way. Given my oft stated preference for conventional pastiche maybe the decision has been taken not to send me any others that are not so.

      Am now following your blog. :-)

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  5. I believe I have one spare copy left. If you'd like it, or would ask Steve to send you a copy, I'd love to hear your opinion of it. That scene I mentioned above, where Holmes is inspecting a pair of pants? After reading your comments, I went over it and made sure all uses of 'pants' were changed to 'trousers.' :)

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    1. Pop Steve a line and get him to send me one. I'll get round to it as soon as I can.

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    2. I emailed Steve as soon as I saw this, so hopefully one will be shipped out to you. :)

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  6. I received your books, though I've only read over Eliminate the Impossible. It's actually coming in very handy to me for Jack of All Trades, and even gives me a good Canonical reasoning for something in the next one that I just happened to randomly come across. Honestly, while I feel you left out some actors in the film section, the synopses of the stories and who's in them has become invaluable to me.

    Were you able to get my second one? As I've said before, I look forward to the review(even if you don't care for it.)

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