A sadly inferior knock-off of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Solar Pons is here presented in twelve tales as a sort of successor to Conan Doyle’s great fictional detective. August Derleth, the Wisconsinite founder of the legendary publisher Arkham House, was a tremendous fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories. In inventing his own mirror of the world of Holmes and Watson, Derleth was clearly striving to create a replacement for Holmes and Watson in his own characters of Pons and Dr Lyndon Parker. Unfortunately, the attempt falls flat.
Pons is painted much as a younger Sherlock Holmes might have been. His origins are obscure: it is known that he was born in Prague in 1880, Oxford-educated, and settled in London at No. 7B Praed Street (note already the willful similarities to Holmes). Pons’ trusty medical companion and chronicler is Dr Lyndon Parker, and their Praed Street landlady is the long-suffering Mrs Johnson (rather than Mrs Hudson). Pons’ meeting with Parker is right out of “A Study in Scarlet,” with Parker’s origin having been changed to north Africa. The titles of the stories themselves are very much in the pastiche vein as well: rather than “The Norwich Builder”, we have “The Norcross Riddle.” Instead of “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” we are given “The Adventure of the Limping Man.” And in place of “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” the volume concludes with “The Advertures [sic] of the Man with the Broken Face.” And those are the ones that it took me all of thirty seconds to find. In a way, Derleth’s work is reminiscent of the “fan fiction” phenomenon of today, with all of the caveats and diminished expectations that those words embody.
The dialogue is wooden, over-Americanised for British characters, and often somewhat tedious. The settings are clear pastiches of Holmesian originals, while scarcely adding to the corpus delecti of the detective story. And, worst of all, the trick has been done before, presenting nothing new here. Sherlock Holmes had a well-known cadre of “rivals,” characters from other contemporary authors to Conan Doyle, who wrote often in the same vein. Books collecting these stories are quite easy to find, and the contents are of varying quality, it has to be said. Derleth’s contribution to the body of detective literature, is, unfortunately, disappointingly weak. There are flashes of fun, and occasionally a tale takes an interesting twist.
Interestingly, the character was compelling enough for some readers to be continued, after Derleth’s death, by novelist Basil Copper, and those cases are far more satisfying. I have also read that for a collected edition of the Pons stories, published by Arkham House, Copper rewrote many of Derleth’s less-accurate or more malaprop passages, to the benefit of controversy. Sadly, although I once almost purchased that two volume set many years ago, it is now prohibitively expensive and, for the time being, beyond my reach, so comparison must wait for another day.
In his introduction, Vincent Starrett states: “Solar Pons is not a caricature of Sherlock Holmes. Rather, he is a clever impersonator…” While this might be true for some readers, for me, the stories simply never approached the gold standard which is the original work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even other authors of the same period created problems and detectives with more convincing voices. The comparative obscurity at present of the Solar Pons stories might be taken as confirmation of my opinion, but if you’re a casual or devoted reader of Holmes, you may wish to see for yourself. Read these only if you absolutely cannot get enough Sherlockiana. Otherwise, try the Copper versions, or re-read the works of the master Conan Doyle himself, as it is about time for me to do.
Originally reviewed 3 December 2012.
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