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The Last Sherlock Holmes Story

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Faber & Faber, London, 1989
(price: 4.99; 192 pages)
(first published in 1978 by Jonathan Cape)

dedication: To Benita

The blurb on the back:

In the late seventies an extraordinary document came to light which for fifty years had been held on deposit by the bankers of the deceased John Herbert Watson MD - better known to devotees of Conan Doyle as Dr Watson.
A continuous narrative in the doctor's own hand, the story opens in the East End of London in 1888. Three women have been savagely murdered by Jack the Ripper. To calm the public outcry, Scotland Yard approaches London's most eminent detective, Sherlock Holmes, and asks him to investigate the mystery.
As Watson faithfully follows the master, recording each trace of the ghastly outrage, the identity of London's most celebrated criminal comes irrefutably into focus.
By the author of
Vendetta and Ratking, Winner of the Gold Dagger Award.

Cover design by Pentagram.

In the year that this book was first published, the film Murder By Decree was released. That too pitted Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and it somewhat stole this novel's thunder. Which was a shame, because while Murder by Decree sought to explore 'serious' theories about Freemasonry and the Royal Family and all that stuff, Dibdin just wanted to have fun with the Sherlockian tradition.

It starts with Watson explaining that he's writing this one himself, not Conan Doyle, and so we'll have to forgive the occasional clumsiness of tone and the discrepancy with the canon. It's a neat little excuse, and similar subtlety continues, alongside some nice jokes - Holmes suggests a book entitled Towards a Definitive Praxis of Applied Criminal Anthropology: Some Notes on the Stangerson-Drebber Murders of 1881, it ends up as A Study in Scarlet: that kind of thing.

The story has Holmes brought in to assist Scotland Yard after the first three Whitechapel murders have aroused public expectations that the official police force cannot meet. From there on it all rattles along nicely - obviously the Ripper details are accurate as far as they are known, but Dibdin's focus can be gauged by the fact that Holmes' point of contact with the police is not with a historical figure but with our old friend Lestrade. (Of the other familiar figures, Moriarty also plays a leading role, but Mycroft only has a brief look-in and that's off-stage.)

The details are good, the tone is right and the revelation of the identity of Saucy Jack is dead clever. The only weak points are the somewhat laboured footnotes (one should be able to assume that readers know the canon well enough to pick up a reference to Miss Stoner or to Tonga), and the loss of focus in the last few pages. Other than that, highly recommended.

NOTE: In the earlier paperback edition there is an Afterword in which Dibdin identifies his reference materials for both Holmes and Jack, and quotes Borges on Judas. This Afterword has disappeared by the time we got to this edition. Why?

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