Holmes and Watson take to the skies in the quest of the nefarious Von Bork and his weapon of dread… A night sky aerial engagement with the deadly Fokker nearly claims three brilliant lives… And an historic alliance is formed, whereby Baker Street’s enigmatic mystery-solver and Greystoke, the noble savage, peer of the realm and lord of the jungle, team up to bring down the hellish hun!
This edition also contains a brand new afterword by Win Scott Eckert and a bonus preview of the new Kim Newman novel, Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles.
Hello Ghouls and Boils,
Yesterday we brought you a great overview of FarmerCon/Pulp Fest 2011 by Sean Levin. Today we have a terrorific follow-up, Minion Henry Covert gives us a review of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Peerless Peer – the first Wold Newton book by Titan Books. So, without further ado, I will turn things over to Henry. Enjoy, my fiends!
Sarah L. Covert
Titan Books has begun a new series reprinting Sherlock Holmes pastiches, all with nicely designed covers and selling for a very amenable price ($9.95 is the US cover price). This particular entry in the series is remarkable for many reasons – first off, because it is the only known team-up of Holmes and John Clayton, Lord Greystoke – who we know more famously as Tarzan of the Apes. It is also the only Holmes adventure recorded by Tarzan’s biographer, sci-fi iconoclast Philip Jose Farmer. Actually, Mr. Farmer humbly serves as “editor”, the true author being of course one Dr. John H. Watson, Holmes’ partner and the man who has recorded the vast majority of The Great Detective’s known cases. Finally, in the course of Holmes’ adventure, he and Watson encounter several other notable crimefighters and solvers of mysteries – some whose identities are disguised for the same reasons that it took so long for Farmer to unleash Peerless Peer upon the world – the necessary anonymity of archenemies of evil. And, this being billed a Wold Newton novel, it follows the standard tropes of Farmer‘s Wold Newton concept – fictional authors (Watson in this case) are used; adventurers are real and their cases merely exaggerated in fiction; and there is a strong emphasis on genealogy.
The action of the novel begins in early 1916. As zeppelins bomb London, Watson is having a brandy with a friend, Dr. Fell, when he is summoned by Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft Holmes, head of the British Secret Service, to the Foreign Office, where Sherlock is waiting along with a Dr. Merrivale, next in line to assume chieftainship of the British Military Intelligence Department. All are briefed by Mycroft on the resurgence of Holmes’ foe Von Bork, (last seen in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s “His Last Bow”), who he ranks as the most dangerous man in the world right now. After murder and sabotage, Von Bork destroyed a bacillus that would have left the Germans completely devoid of sauerkraut, thus winning the war against Germany. Hinging the outcome of the war on sauerkraut is certainly befitting of the absurdity throughout Peerless Peer, all played lovingly straight by Mr. Farmer.
***Mild spoilers follow throughout***
Von Bork escaped and is holed up in Cairo, where Holmes and Watson are assigned to find him. Watson believes that they may encounter the current duke of Greystoke, allegedly a feral man whose exploits have been published in somewhat fictionalized accounts by a “Bayrows? Borrows?” (really Edgar Rice Burroughs). Watson and Holmes are flown by two pilots – a Captain Wentworth and a Colonel Kentov AKA The Black Eagle and other epithets. Wentworth sees them only to Marseilles, after which Kentov will take them to our protagonists’ destination. After Wentworth’s co-pilot proves to be a German spy, the journey continues, with Watson and Holmes bedeviled by air turbulence and fear for their lives, which are in the hands of the hallucinating Wentworth, who believes the German planes attacking them are giant cockroaches and flying leopards. After Wentworth gets them to their destination, they are assigned Kentov to get them to Cairo.
At two hours from Cairo, Kentov claims that spies in Turkey report a zeppelin left there and believe it intends to pick up von Bork, who has somehow slipped past his cordon and is waiting in the desert for the airship. Storm turbulence necessitates they abandon ship. Kentov sights a zeppelin amid the sandstorm and Holmes thinks von Bork is in it. Holmes and Watson are aghast at the madman Kentov, who intends to attack the zeppelin. Kentov shoots numerous Germans when they descend into the ship, cackling madly all the while. Apparently felled by a ricocheting bullet, Kentov falls, possibly to his death (he does have a parachute), never to be heard of by Watson again.
Holmes and Watson surrender and encounter von Bork, who orders them killed. The German commander Reich lets them live however. Soon plans are made to abandon ship somewhere over British East Africa, near Lake Victoria, and Holmes and Watson are jettisoned. Bushes break our protagonists’ fall, but they are confronted by von Bork, who still has his insidious formula. They escape him, but, exhausted and out of food or water, are about to be bitten by a cobra. An arrow downs the cobra, and a man suddenly appears before them. “Lord Greystoke, I presume?” asks Holmes.
***Major spoilers follow throughout***
Despite Holmes’ and Watson’s fear of Greystoke (who Burroughs also called Tarzan), Holmes, as is his wont, makes many deductions involving Greystoke (all while Watson fears Tarzan may eat them). Holmes remarks on how his cases keep involving the duke’s family or those involved with them. Holmes was called in to find the sixth duke’s illegitimate son; the fifth duke and his son and wife were lost en route to Africa with all hands aboard; Holmes saved young Lord Saltire (a dead ringer for Lord Greystoke); and so on. Watson tells Holmes, despite the latter’s protestations, the whole story of the first two Tarzan novels, “edited” by Burroughs. Greystoke abandons the pair and heads into the jungle after the Germans.
Holmes and Watson endure for days in the jungle and are captured, alongside von Bork and Reich, by natives. Watson becomes enamoured of the natives’ high priestess Nylepthah. Soon Tarzan returns, and Holmes tells him that Tarzan’s father should have been the seventh duke and theorizes, rightly, as to Tarzan’s origins. Holmes deduces that upon the death of Greystoke’s hated first cousin and rival for his wife Jane (who Tarzan believes dead at this point), Tarzan took his cousin’s identity. It is here that Farmer – or Watson really? – clears up a few lingering mysteries from Holmes’ cases involving the Greystokes and explains how Tarzan can be a duke and the world not be aware of his true nature, thinking it only fiction. Tarzan should rightfully be the 8th duke, but passes himself off as his cousin to ensure anonymity.
Watson’s adventure of the Peerless Peer comes to a close with a swift succession of events. The Germans are defeated and the formula’s threat negated; Holmes’ rapport with bees helps save them; Watson takes the high priestess to be his wife; and Tarzan leads our intrepid pair on their way home.
Farmer is clearly “having a go” at Holmes and Watson in Peerless Peer the two while still respecting them. PJF‘s tongue is planted firmly in cheek and he is definitely winking at us. The story is like one massive inside joke that PJF gleefully welcomes us in on. Farmer verbally jibes with the reader on many occasions, especially in his footnotes, and there is a degree of satire present in his depiction of Holmes and Watson. But only a degree. He still plays them straight enough, though, in a way, Tarzan is the straight man in a story that jokes a bit at Holmes’ and Watson’s expense. Watson’s utterly nonplussed reactions to the things and people that they encounter in their adventure are priceless. Some say one must know the rules of something in order to successfully break them, in the arts especially. In that case, Farmer succeeds perfectly here. He is a master Sherlockian and no slouch when it comes to all things Tarzan either. Farmer’s characterization of Watson is priceless; though Holmes purists may find it a bit too tongue in cheek. Farmer also uses Peerless Peer to further and to cement his Holmesian own theories from his “fictional biographies” Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.
Win Scott Eckert‘s afterword is written from a Wold Newton perspective, i.e. Win, like Farmer, treats the events and characters of Peerless Peer as though they truly existed, with certain things altered for prudent reasons. Right from the beginning, Win points out a connection that I missed upon two readings of the book . The manuscript found its way into the hands of the 17th Duke of Denver, who authorized Farmer to edit the manuscript for publication. The 17th Duke is Dorothy L. Sayers‘ detective character, Lord Peter Wimsey. I completely missed this connection.
Eckert expounds upon Lord Greystoke’s shifting feelings about Farmer‘s biographical depictions of him, beginning with Tarzan Alive (1972). He posits this as a possible motivation for PJF ‘s 1984 rewrite of Peerless Peer as “The Adventure of the Three Madmen”. This tale substituted Mowgli for Tarzan as the feral man Holmes crosses paths with. In “Three Madmen”, Farmer claimed that he, not Watson, wrote Peer as a misdirection from the truth of events. Actually, according to Eckert, the reverse was true. Dennis E Power, in an essay “Jungle Brothers, or, Secrets of the Jungle Lords“ in a book edited by Eckert, Myths for the Modern Age, makes a compelling case that Watson wrote both versions of the manuscript and Power has reconciled the two manuscripts.
Eckert then details the other famed personages Holmes and Watson encountered in the novel, some albeit in disguise. “Colonel Kentov” is actually the man known as The Shadow (real name: Kent Allard though, as Farmer points out, he is also known at times as Lamont Cranston). The hallucinating pilot Wentworth is not Richard Wentworth aka the pulp hero The Spider, but the Spider‘s half-brother (and the Shadow‘s full brother) Bruce Hagin Rassendyll, the unbalanced but heroic pilot known as G-8.
Win takes note of all of Farmer‘s references, no matter how arcane. Farmer begins dropping names, hints, and clues almost by page two. For example: Watson’s friend, Dr. Gideon Fell, is an amateur sleuth and solver of “locked room mysteries” and is the protagonist of 23 novels by John Dickson Carr, published from 1933 to 1967. Sir Henry Merrivale is also a Carr character based loosely on Mycroft Holmes (some have theorized that Henry is Mycroft’s son). Merrivale appeared in 22 locked room mysteries from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Other references and appearances include Leftenant John Drummond, revealed here as in Tarzan Alive to be Tarzan’s adopted son Korak. Farmer mentions Lord John Roxton, from The Lost World by Edward Malone and “edited” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Tarzan, Holmes, and Watson locate the lost city of Zu-Vendis, last visited by Allan Quatermain in the eponymous novel by H. Rider Haggard, Quatermain’s “biographer”. Eckert argues that Peerless Peer is a primary text in the Wold Newton mythos cycle of books, and how could it not be with the characters mentioned above referenced or depicted?
Eckert explains at length the ducal situation of Tarzan, and further clarifies once and for all Tarzan’s place in the house of Greystoke and how Tarzan dealt with it. He proves that Farmer’s surmise was the only logical one, though Burroughs clearly obscured the facts. In all, Win’s afterword fleshes out the references in the book and enriches one’s appreciation of Peer as a Wold Newton work. Were Peer a film, surely Mr. Eckert would be selected to do the audio commentary.
As a book on its own terms, a Sherlockian mystery, Peer succeeds marvelously, though strict Sherlockians are often put off by the Wold Newton phenomenon. Peer manages to be both reverent and irreverent towards the Holmes canon. The book is distinctly Farmerian while doing what is difficult when one attempts pastiche – replicating each character’s unique “voice”, regardless of being originated by different authors. In Farmer‘s hands, Holmes “sounds” like Holmes, Tarzan like Tarzan, the Shadow like the Shadow, and so on.
The Peerless Peer will entertain fans of Holmes, Tarzan, mysteries, crossovers, and/ or the Wold Newton mythos, especially the deeper roots of that mythos embedded in Peer. This is billed as the first “Wold Newton novel” and, I pray, the first of many to come.I give this one an unreserved 5 out of 5 tentacles.
Henry Covert, Minion (Columnist/Reviewer)