Friday, January 19, 2024

Who the heck is Solar Pons?

August Derleth: The Solar Pons Omnibus (1982)
August Derleth. The Solar Pons Omnibus. 2 vols. Ed. Basil Copper. Drawings by Frank Utpatel. Foreword by Robert Bloch. A Mycroft & Moran Book. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1982.

The other day I ran across this strange pair of volumes in a local secondhand bookshop. Solar Pons? Who on earth could that be? I was, of course, familiar with the name of the author, August Derleth, from my extensive reading of the late H. P. Lovecraft, whose literary executor he was ... or claimed to be.

"Solar Pons", though ... "pons" is the Latin word for bridge, and "solar" for all things pertaining to the sun. Was the intention, perhaps, to suggest some kind of Bifrost-like bridge leading to enlightenment?

Richard Lancelyn Green, ed.: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1985)

"God said: Let Sherlock be! and all was light ..."
- John Masefield

But enough of this trifling. "Solar Pons" is an avatar of "Sherlock Holmes", as I knew already from a scatter of references here and there. He isn't included in Richard Lancelyn Green's classic anthology The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as that collection is confined solely to stories using the original names.

But then that was Derleth's original intention, too:
On hearing that Doyle did not plan to write more Sherlock Holmes stories, the young Derleth wrote to him, asking permission to take over the series. Doyle graciously declined, but Derleth, despite having never been to London, set about finding a name that was syllabically similar to "Sherlock Holmes," and wrote his first set of pastiches in 1928, which were published in The Dragnet Magazine in 1929.
- Wikipedia: Solar Pons

Elementary (7 series: 2012-2019)

We've certainly become rather accustomed to updated film and television versions of Sherlock Holmes over the past couple of decades.

Sherlock (4 series: 2010-2017)

Sherlock Holmes (2 films: 2009 & 2011)

House, M.D. (8 series: 2004-2012)

And if you're tempted to query the presence of Dr. House in this grouping, what can one say of a man whose best friend is called "Wilson" (= Watson), and who's segued from a consulting detective to a consulting diagnostician? In any case, I've canvassed that subject extensively here.

Of the other three pictured above: Robert Downey Jr's steampunk version of Holmes; Benedict Cumberbatch's excessively cerebral, almost Alan Turing-like incarnation of the great man; and Jonny Lee Miller's New York-based junkie impersonation of the detective, I'm rather surprised to put on record here that at present it's Jonny Lee Miller who scoops the prize for me.

No doubt that has something to do with a serendipitous pairing with the dazzling Lucy Liu, definitely the most impressive Watson to date - so much better than Martin Freeman's petulant misery-guts, or even Jude Law's no-nonsense action man. In any case, for those of you who haven't seen it, Elementary is a very satisfying exercise in suspension of disbelief.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. (4 series: 1984-1994)

So what's next? Sherlock Holmes on ice? With an eventual total of 154 episodes, Jonny Lee Miller is now (according to Wikipedia) "the actor who has portrayed Sherlock Holmes the most times in television and/or film, overtaking Jeremy Brett (with 41 television episodes) and Eille Norwood (with 47 silent films)."

It may, however, interest you to know that Derleth wrote "more stories about Pons than Conan Doyle did about Holmes." Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories about Holmes, whereas Derleth wrote more than seventy stories (plus a couple of novels) about Pons.

August Derleth (1909-1971)

There are obvious similarities between the two. Pons lives at 7B Praed Street; Holmes at 221B Baker Street. Pons' companion in crime is called Dr. Parker; Holmes's Dr. Watson. Pons' landlady is Mrs. Johnson; Holmes's Mrs. Hudson. Pons' Inspector Jamison stands in for Holmes' Inspector Lestrade - et al. Each has a group of "Irregulars" who assists him in scouring the labyrinthine warrens of Old London Town ...

There are, however, significant differences as well. The Pons stories are set in the 1920s and 30s, starting just after the First World War. The Holmes stories are set some forty years earlier, in the twilight years of the Victorian era (with one significant flash-forward, in "His Last Bow," to a piece of espionage during the Great War). Pons frequently mentions his "great predecessor," and even comments on the resemblance of some investigation or another to once conducted by Holmes himself.

Nor are the other characters precisely interchangeable. Dr. Parker is a far more peevish and irritable companion than Watson, and there is far less sniping at the official police in the Pons adventures. Nor is Mrs. Johnson's sang-froid at the goings-on of her unusual tenant nearly as tenuous as Mrs. Hudson's.

Pons lives in a rather more cushioned fantasy world than his progenitor Holmes. He also encounters other heroes of the time, such as Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu, Agatha Christie's Poirot, Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, and even Leslie Carteris's Saint on various occasions, which might have the deleterious effect of breaking the fourth wall, but which nevertheless provides innocent amusement to fans such as myself.

August Derleth: The Casebook of Solar Pons (1965)

But are the stories themselves any good? Well, that's debatable. They're surprisingly readable. Pons is seldom at a loss when it comes to solving the neat little puzzles that present themselves to him (more often than not by an attractive young lady who "instinctively" addresses herself to him despite the presence in the room of the gloomy Dr. Parker). He often repeats classical Holmesian adages such as "the game's afoot", and is seldom seen without a deerstalker - an item of clothing invented by Doyle's illustrators rather than by the author.

Here's a list of Derleth's original collections:
  1. "In Re: Sherlock Holmes": The Adventures of Solar Pons (1945)
  2. The Memoirs of Solar Pons (1951)
  3. The Return of Solar Pons (1958)
  4. The Reminiscences of Solar Pons (1961)
  5. The Casebook of Solar Pons (1965)
  6. A Praed Street Dossier (1968)
  7. Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey (1968)
  8. The Chronicles of Solar Pons (1973)
All of the stories in these books, including the novel Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey, are included in The Solar Pons Omnibus (1982), pictured above.

Basil Copper (1924-2013)

The story doesn't finish there, though - not by a long chalk. After Derleth's death in 1971, the character was revived by British horror and detective writer Basil Copper (author of Necropolis, among many other titles). He went on to write a further eight volumes of Solar Pons adventures, initially with the cooperation of Derleth's estate, but later on his own:
  1. The Dossier of Solar Pons (1979)
  2. The Further Adventures of Solar Pons (1979)
  3. The Secret Files of Solar Pons (1979)
  4. The Uncollected Cases of Solar Pons (1979)
  5. The Exploits of Solar Pons (1993)
  6. The Recollections of Solar Pons (1995)
  7. Solar Pons Versus The Devil’s Claw (2004)
  8. Solar Pons: The Final Cases (2005)
Most challenging of all to true believers, however, was his editing of The Solar Pons Omnibus. As well as breaking the continuity of Derleth's original volumes into approximate chronological order (as in William Baring-Gould's similarly controversial Annotated Sherlock Holmes), Copper, an Englishman, also "corrected" faults of orthography and idiom in the stories themselves! Not very assiduously, it must be said, given the number of solecisms they still include.

As a result, The Original Text Solar Pons Omnibus Edition was published in 2000 by Mycroft & Moran. It restores the original text as it was before Basil Copper's edits, and includes - as well as the six collections and one novel in order, the full text of A Praed Street Dossier (1968), as well as The Final Adventures of Solar Pons (1998).

To the 71 canonical stories by Derleth included in the 1982 Solar Pons Omnibus, then, one should add the following supplementary publications:
  1. The Unpublished Solar Pons (1994)
  2. The Final Adventures of Solar Pons (1998)
  3. The Dragnet Solar Pons et al.: Original Pulp Magazine and Manuscript Versions (2011)
  4. The Novels of Solar Pons: Terror Over London and Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey (2018)
  5. The Apocrypha of Solar Pons (2018)
  6. The Arrival of Solar Pons: Early Manuscripts and Pulp Magazine Appearances of the Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street (2023)
The last in the list (it should be stressed) is simply a revised and expanded version of The Dragnet Solar Pons.

So what is one to conclude from all this? That some people have far too much time on their hands? That the idea of fan fiction goes back far further in time than one might have supposed (as far back as Cervantes in the 17th century, at least ...) That the Transatlantic battles between American Sherlockians and English Holmesians now have their echo in the battle between these two warring omnibuses? (Or is the correct term omnibi? Basil Copper would know ...)

If you're curious to know more about Solar Pons and his adventures, I strongly recommend the website,, devoted to him and his adventures. Its creator, Bob Byrne, who is clearly a pop culture fanatic after my own heart, has also written a good introductory article, "The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Meet Solar Pons" (17/11/2014), on his blog Black Gate: Adventures in Fantasy Literature.

I certainly don't regret purchasing Basil Copper's handsomely bound and curated collection of the Solar Pons mysteries - not to mention the many happy hours I've spent poring over its contents. There are only 60 actual Holmes stories to read and re-read, after all, and even a somewhat watered-down version of his mythos such as this can be very entertaining.

I'm also trying very hard to tell myself that I don't need the (even rarer) Original Text Solar Pons Omnibus Edition, but if anyone has a copy for sale at a reasonable price, you could do worse than drop me a line in the comments section below ... There's no fool like a bibliophile, as the saying has it, and I have to plead guilty to the imputation.

Monday, January 01, 2024

The World of Hercule Poirot

The World of Hercule Poirot
[photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd (2023)]

We didn't really intend to make a tradition out of it, but at the beginning of 2022 I posted a piece about finishing a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle called The World of Charles Dickens; then, in 2023, another about completing a new puzzle called The World of Dracula to usher in the New Year:

Barry Falls: The World of Charles Dickens (2021)

Adam Simpson: The World of Dracula (2021)

This year, as you'll have gathered from the picture at the head of my post, we have the world of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot - and here I am starting on the task on (or about) Christmas day:

So why Poirot? I can remember a time when some people adopted a rather sneering attitude towards Agatha Christie. Not a real author, they said (whatever that means) - a mere hack, a penny-a-line writer with no real sense of style of atmosphere.

She was contrasted adversely with more self-consciously literary crime writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton - wordsmiths for whom detective fiction was simply a day-job, a way to finance their more artistic endeavours. How absurd - and patronising - all that sounds now!

Ilya Milstein: The World of Hercule Poirot (2023)

I guess what did it for me - and, no doubt, for many others - was David Suchet's superlative interpretation of the character in the wonderfully entertaining British TV show Poirot, which ran for a quarter of a century, from 1989 to 2013.

Poirot: 70 episodes (UK, 1989-2013)

I'd read a number of the books as a teenager (my father had a huge collection of them upstairs jammed onto an old wire display frame he'd liberated from a local stationery shop which was going out of business; it made a horrible graunching sound when you swung it around, so we always referred to it as 'the squeaker' ...)

I, however, I tended to prefer such stand-alone mysteries as Crooked House (1949) and The Hound of Death (1933) to what seemed to me then the more predictable puzzles of Poirot and Miss Marple (let alone the egregious Tommy and Tuppence).

Sidney Lumet, dir.: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

I did enjoy Albert Finney's interpretation of Poirot in the original 1974 movie, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) that of Peter Ustinov in Death on the Nile (1978) and its successors. David Suchet took the character in an entirely new direction, though: away from slapstick to the intensely serious world Poirot himself inhabits.

It's not that the Suchet Poirot isn't funny - it's just that he himself is completely unaware of the fact. Ustinov, in particular, tended to play to the audience on the other side of the camera. Suchet never does that.

Kenneth Branagh, dir.: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Which leads us to the vexed question of Kenneth Branagh's Poirot trilogy (if it actually is a trilogy, that is - there seems little reason for him to stop at three if they're still pulling in audiences). There's no question that they're all sumptuous-looking films, with dazzling casts of A-listers.

They are awfully gloomy, though. Branagh's Poirot is constantly castigating himself for various crimes of omission (and commission), and large slabs of invented biography - his First World War service, for instance - have been rather awkwardly shoehorned into the original plots.

Kenneth Branagh, dir.: Death on the Nile (2022)

It's hard not to admire the durability of stories which continue to invite this kind of reappraisal and reinvention so many years after they were written, though. The ingenuity and originality of Agatha Christie's plots continues to astonish after all this time. She was, it seems, constantly being castigated for offending against the spirit (if not the letter) of the oath sworn solemnly by members of the Detection Club:
Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition , Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God?
It was Monsignor Ronald Knox who codified these rules into a set of Ten Commandments (or Decalogue) for detective writers:
  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
It was claimed - at least by some - that the central conceit of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), where the narrator is himself the murderer [sorry for the plot spoiler for those of you who haven't read it - but it has been in the public eye for the past century, so I do feel that it's roughly equivalent with revealing that Hamlet dies at the end of the play] was not really an acceptable innovation, but with the passage of time it's Christie's brilliance as a fabulist is what shines out from these early novels, in particular.

Kenneth Branagh, dir.: A Haunting in Venice (2023)

In any case, as the proverb has it, "the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.' Whatever your opinion of Branagh's own innovations, the result is certainly very watchable, if a little too self-consciously Orson-Wellesian at times. In any case, it's very much in the spirit of other modern adaptations of Christie. Such films as Crooked House (2017) and And Then There Were None (2015) showed that there was still lots of room for manoeuvre in these old tales.

For me, The ABC Murders (2018) went a step too far. John Malkovich's portrayal of Poirot as an aging loser suffering from depression at his failing powers was certainly original, but not precisely enchanting - if that's the right word. The joy and zest of Christie's story was lost in a morass of self-pity (together with a truly awful performance by Rupert Grint as an grim and humourless young police detective). But no doubt the book will survive it, and go on into further incarnations in the future ...

That is, if the Agatha Christie Estate can be dissuaded from rewriting all her old books in line with modern sensibilities. It's not that it's not shocking to come across the "n-" word in the original title of And Then There Were None, and the offensively racist and misogynist attitudes of many of Christie's characters might well be a stumbling block to some readers (as they are in that throwaway remark about "Chinamen" in Knox's Decalogue, quoted above).

But Bowdlerising Shakespeare doesn't seem to have done much good in the long run: except to illustrate the absurdity of rewriting an author to fit a completely different cultural context. One of the many reasons we read is to learn about the past: how people lived, how they thought. If we try to recast them in our own (surely equally flawed?) image, then all we're really doing is adding another wing to our own hall of mirrors.

A Happy New Year to All in