Saturday, 22 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #29 – All-Consuming Fire by Andy Lane

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
All-Consuming Fire
By Andy Lane

Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes?  Shut up and take my money!

All-Consuming Fire is one of the more infamous New Adventures, and it's easy to see why.  Even a quick look at modern British television will tell you there's some serious cross-over between these two fan-bases, but mashing them together is still one of those things that just isn't done.  Fortunately for us, Andy Lane, Holmes enthusiast and co-writer of the thrilling Lucifer Rising, is happy to ram your favourite toys into one another.

The result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more a Sherlock Holmes novel than a Doctor Who.  It wouldn't be as special a Who book otherwise.  And it's good, authentic Holmes, though I'm no expert: I've read a fair few, seen most of the adaptations, and watched all of the Jeremy Brett episodes.  (You can put Basil Rathbone on the cover, but it's Brett in my head.  The man was Holmes.)

Andy Lane quickly establishes the world of London, itself as much a character as Holmes or Watson.  It's foul-smelling and busy, with the kind of tragically obvious social degradation that "Dickens could dine out on".  At times it's more revolting than Doyle or perhaps even Dickens would have dared, as there are thugs lopping off pilferers' hands, a particularly grim dog-fight and a lair of child prostitution.  But there is also the reassuring warmth of 221B Baker Street, the relative oases of the Diogenes Club and the Library Of St John The Beheaded.

There's much added charm and authenticity in relating it all in first person, predominantly via Watson, occasionally via Bernice.  (And once or twice, Ace.)  The characters are well captured, particularly the warmth, familiarity and gentle sniping between Holmes and Watson.  But of course, it's the mixtures that form the book's USP.  Holmes meeting the Doctor is a thing of nerdish glee; his powers of observation desert him, as he hasn't the context to deduce the Doctor.  This leaves him feeling much like Watson did when he met the Great Detective.  But this leads to something of a problem with All-Consuming Fire, which was perhaps inevitable.

If you've got the Doctor and Holmes, well, do you need both?  Like any multi-Doctor story, both these geniuses are usually equal to any task by themselves, and combining them (implying that they're not enough by themselves) lessens them both.  Holmes suffers in particular.  To introduce a problem that is too otherworldly for Holmes, and thus require the help of the Doctor, is simple enough; giving some of that workload back once the goal-posts have moved beyond Holmes's genre altogether is much harder.

There's a point in All-Consuming Fire when the action moves to another planet.  This at least feels like nineteenth century science fiction: the planet is strange and fantastic, the aliens more like animals than people, the ideas and methods more akin to Jules Verne-ish creativity than anything recognisably Who.  (Ace and Watson need a way to store oxygen, so they locate some blowfish-like aliens and use them as air bladders.)  The imperialist Watson is in his element, more or less becoming a character from Doyle's Challenger stories.  Even here it's not so far from a Sherlock Holmes tale, as those often juggled a case that needed solving with a largely separate adventurous tale by way of explanation.  (Okay, so this one's on Planet Zog.)  But as for poor Holmes, he's at sea.  There's nothing for him to deduce – although the Doctor lets him make a few observations, seemingly out of pity.  There are some character-driven elements for him near the end, but it's still something of a waste of the character.  Particularly when the narrative was trudging along with Watson and Ace, I wondered: isn't this meant to be a Sherlock Holmes thing?

The mystery is, frankly, beneath him.  Obviously Holmes could never work this stuff out because it involves aliens and they're far outside his wheelhouse, but – coming at this from a lifetime of Doctor Who stories – I was nonetheless surprised it wasn't a more complex plot.  Some books are missing from an ancient and impregnable library; Holmes is recruited by the Pope to find them; he does; the books are being used to send a British vanguard to another world; this is actually a ruse, as emissaries from the other world secretly want to come here.  Well, is that it?  Even the spontaneous human combustion of the title is just a minor, almost random element.  I can hardly blame Andy Lane for my own expectations, but I had assumed a certain level of complex conflagration would be needed just to get the Doctor and Holmes together, let alone fill a novel-length adventure.  It's all just a bit too straightforward.

Which brings me to the story's big coup.  The Doctor and Sherlock Holmes, together at last.  How can that be?  It's taken this long, so it must be a near impossibility, or so you'd think.  Following a novel where theatre comes to life, and remembering Conundrum where we visited the Land Of Fiction, I had visions of something rich and strange here.  You'd need a whopper of an idea to make it work, or someone else would have done it already.  But, no: it turns out there just was a Holmes and a Watson pottering around London doing their thing, except their names were different.  Doyle then "co-wrote" these exploits with "Watson", and it's those original adventurers we're chumming around with now, with the names changed.  I mean, I hate to sound churlish, but...  is that it?  The idea is tossed at us without fanfare, almost with a shrug.  It's rather dismissive of Doyle (suggesting he not only plagiarised the whole world of Holmes, but that he didn't even write them up unaided), not to mention a serious stretch of plausibility that Doyle could go his whole professional life banking on an utter fib and not get rumbled.  Also, while I accept this is a first person narrative so there will be conversations we're simply not privy to, it struck me as bizarre that the Doctor, Bernice and Ace never stopped to marvel at what they have discovered here.  Holmes and Watson were real people!  Doyle just changed the names and passed them off as his own!  Crivens, isn't that worth more than a cursory, mildly surprised raise of the eyebrows?  It's an enormous damp squib in theory and execution.

Fortunately for All-Consuming Fire, despite all the above it's a damn fun book.  Lane is quite at home dishing out amusing idioms and character-defining observations, Doyle-style.  I loved this bit about Watson: "I quickly realised that human suffering was largely due to humans, and the meagre amount of relief I could give was like trying to bale out the ocean with a teaspoon."  Lane follows that up with Bernice, neatly drawing a connecting line between the two: "I waved him away, feeling a sudden knife-stab of guilt.  There were tens of thousands of people in Bombay.  I couldn't help all of them."  There are enough pithy moments for me to pick favourites out of a hat – "A thin, rather diffident man who held out his hand for shaking like a man might proffer a rather dubious anchovy" – and they come convincingly via the voices of Watson and Bernice, equally witty yet distinct.  When the narrative hops between the two, it's downright sublime.

There are all sorts of jolly touches that make All-Consuming Fire feel like a labour of love.  There are references to other Doyle works (a rogue's gallery of Holmes figures feature; Lord Roxton shows up; Professor Challenger is mentioned) and as mentioned earlier, it seems to occupy different aspects of Doyle's imagination.  It touches on nineteenth century sci-fi and steampunk (that underground tube!), as well as dishing out enough Doctor Who references to feel like a treat, rather than a list.  Professor Litefoot is an off-screen presence (alas!), and there are knowing nudges towards Ace's propensity for sexual partners, and the awkwardness of the two-companion setup: "One of our problems is that there's just the three of us, cooped up in here, getting on each other's nerves.  It might do us some good to broaden the team a bit.  Bring some fresh blood in."  "This isn't Mission bloody Impossible.")  As I've said a few times, this feels like an odd fit for the New Adventures overall, but I'm probably missing the point in trying to fit them in.  They should be able to occasionally divert into Sherlock Holmes territory, so long as it still meets some sort of Doctor Who criteria.  However well it works, you've got to admire the nerve.

And of course, not something to take for granted, Lane handles the main characters well.  The Doctor is a somewhat fleeting presence, but he recovers much of his oddity through the eyes of Watson.  There's a marvellously otherworldly bit where he apparently nips around a corner to retrieve the TARDIS, but has in fact "after walking around the corner ...  made his way across America by rail and engaged passage in New York upon a ship bound for London.  Once there he had located his miraculous time-travelling cabinet, which remained exactly where he had left it at the home of Professor Litefoot, and travelled back to the moment at which he had left us."  (I'm not entirely convinced by his unceremonious dealings with his own past selves, observing his first incarnation and doffing his hat at him, bamboozling his third incarnation at word games, but it's all very McCoy.)  Bernice we're seeing via her own diaries, and very Bernice they are too, a.k.a. a joy.  Ace, well, I'm ticking off the books until she goes; she sounds about right, all smart-bombs and foul mouth, but it's still not very good.  As for bundling her away on an alien planet until the story reaches its final reel, I can't say I missed her, but then it's yet another example of "Buggered if I know" companion juggling.  You just can't win.  (Still, something similar happened in Birthright.)

It pains me to say it, but All-Consuming Fire just isn't the knock-it-out-of-the-park win I was hoping for.  Hype is a killer, especially when it's self-inflicted; I'm not sure how much the novel failed and how much it just wasn't what I personally wanted.  But it's undeniably enjoyable, and I'm glad they gave it a shot.  I'd say read it if you like Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes.  Or one or the other.  I don't know if it's possible to put both the Doctor and Holmes's talents to equal and complementary use, or to explain how they could meet without disappointing somebody out there.  Certainly you could do worse.


1 comment:

  1. When I read this novel, I felt that this is a book which every fanatic of Doctor Who ought to read, it is that much fun. The Doctor meets Sherlock Holmes, and the prose style matches Doctor Watson as narrator. The scenes in London are the best part, although it takes a long time for Doctor Who to get involved (fortunately even longer for Ace, who then regresses to her pre-No Future personality). India and the ocean voyage leading to it are equally evocative and interesting.

    I enjoyed very much the outrageous pulp fiction elements: the puzzle over the spontaneous combustion and the servant with surgically implanted secret purses were the most memorable.

    Unfortunately the last third of the novel falls apart somewhat. The mysterious and conspiratorial Cthulhu-cult plot turn into a routine invasion of earth by a telepathic slug and his mutated minions (Actually not a bad plot, very typically Whovian: I just was hoping for more after such a terrific first 200 pages). Holmes is also poorly written in this section. (On a side note, there are too many geniuses trying to outdo each other in this book: the Doctor, Holmes, Moriarty, Mycroft, Sherrington, Maupertuis.)

    Nonetheless this novel is very well-written overall and its humorous narration and dialogue sustain it even through its weak portions.