Monday, November 14, 2016

A Back on Baker Street Book Review: A Study in Terror

In which Nick reviews a pastiche which was seemingly lost to the sands of time. Should it have stayed there?


Ellery Queen is arguably one of the most famous names in detective fiction. The name - the nom de plume of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee - was also the name of their detective hero, himself a mystery writer. Queen - whose father in the stories is a NYPD officer - would solve an array of bizarre cases working alongside his Dad and other figures more often than not in the New York City region. By the mid-1960s, Dannay and Lee had begun to incorporate other ghostwriters into their team, including author Paul W. Fairman who wrote the sections of this novel which feature the great detective.

The novelization of the 1965 film A Study in Terror tells two stories at once. While suffering a crippling case of writer’s block, Ellery is visited by a friend who has wound up with a copy of a long-lost manuscript written by Dr. John H. Watson which chronicled Sherlock Holmes’ investigations into the Jack the Ripper murders. The manuscript details how - at the height of the Ripper’s reign of terror - Holmes receives in the post a surgeon’s medical kit; the postmortem knife missing. Divining some connection between the case and the killings, Holmes and Watson set off to investigate. As Ellery reads the manuscript, he endeavors to find out how the document ended up entrusted to him and what relevance it has eighty-odd years after the killings occurred…

What surprised me most about The Study in Terror is just how closely the plot followed the film. It is difficult to discuss that 1965 Holmes vs. Ripper film as it has not been formally reviewed on this blog, but its best central elements are all retained in the novelization which is welcome. As the story is told entirely from the perspective of Dr. Watson, this pastiche feels very real. At times, the Watsonian voice (very nicely captured by writer Fairman) goes a long way to making some of the more wild sequences more palatable. This method of presentation did end up restructuring a large portion of the story and omitting large chunks of the film’s original plot as well.

The cast of characters in the Holmesian sections are also rather diminished. It is actually easy to count on one hand the number of central characters in this story (including Holmes and Watson). The Ripper’s victims (who had a rather decent amount of screen time in the movie) are barely presented in the book’s pages and Inspector Lestrade’s involvement in the case is reduced to a mere cameo appearance.

The non-Holmesian sections are short and to-the-point; though Ellery’s snarky sense of humor is displayed fully herein and some of the descriptions of his writer’s block are genuinely amusing (especially to a writer such as myself). They are marginal however, and only really add anything to the plot come the finale when Ellery contests the identity of the Ripper which the manuscripts presents. While this is certainly a neat twist, the presentation with which this is done does leave something to be desired and one feels almost as though it was included simply for the sake of a twist ending.

Sherlock Holmes (John Neville) learns a surprising truth
from Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle) in 1965's A Study in Terror

It should also be noted that while A Study in Terror is hardly the most historically accurate representation of the Jack the Ripper murders, it at times looks like a docudrama when compared to the novelization. While it will certainly not bother a casual reader, amateur (or seasoned) Ripperologists beware that the historical accuracy of this book is severely lacking.

While it would be hard to call A Study in Terror one of the cornerstones of the subgenre that is Sherlockian pastiche, it is an interesting take on the well-worn Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper story which has become something of a trope in the aforementioned subgenre. It’s certainly a curious book to be sure, but it would be cruel to Holmes fans if this book remained out of print like so much of Ellery Queen’s work.

Positives: Depiction of Holmes and Watson, fidelity to the source material, general sense of humor

Negatives: Rushed execution and twist ending, historical inaccuracies

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 deerstalkers