Collaborative story writing isn’t the easiest of tasks, and this book is the result of a bold project involving four authors, two Indian and two Swedish. The four stories centre around Holmes’ sidekick Watson, who as we know was not as elementary and insignificant as Sherlock liked to think. The (magic) magnifying glass is a connecting point and pops up in every story, as do Watson’s relatives. My feeling is that there are too many of these, and keeping track of them as well as the characters in the stories may be a little tedious for the reader. The book begins with a letter to Billy, a descendent of Watson, from his aunt. “If you’re reading this, I’m dead.” She is leaving him a box of letters, and the magic magnifying glass, asking him to make sure it goes where it is needed.
The four stories that follow, two based in India and two in Sweden, are dated 1919, 1976, 2000 and 2014. The first is “Recreated from the notes of Anna Watson”, the second and third are “Recreated from the notes of Martha Watson”, the fourth is “Recreated from the notes of Emily Watson.” Additionally, we are also given their life durations; Martha, for instance, lived from 1934 to 2003. This is all a bit cumbersome, and detracts attention from the stories themselves. A brief piece connecting them to Holmes/Watson would have been sufficient and kept the focus on Stefan, Varun, Julia, Hriday and the rest in the four stories that follow.
Along with the mystery being solved in each story, there are strong underlying themes, ones that we often shy away from: the death of a parent, abandonment, illegal medical testing, and loneliness. The four writers have strong and experienced voices, and a brief summary of one of the stories will indicate the trend. ‘The Girl in the Photograph’ by Katarina Genar tells about how lonely Julia, whose parents have moved from Stockholm to the country thus removing her from her friends, finds a friend in Siri. They come together thanks to Ms Watson (Elementary My Dear’s descendent) who asks Siri to find a pocket watch in the Empty House, which is where Julia’s parents have moved. Siri lurks around the house, the girls come together, and find the pocket watch thanks to some extremely oblique and obscure clues from Ms Watson. Like the four protagonists of this book, I too had once wanted to be a detective, but I could never have dealt with the clues that were thrown at them. But then, each of them also has Holmes’ magnifying glass complete with his initials, and a little bit of magic to boot.
There is a lot of good here, which would have come through more strongly if there had been less of an attempt to collaborate and synchronize; because this has put a strain on the writers and limited their skills and talent. If, for instance, they had negotiated broader links, such as universal childhood experiences, it may well have been less sweat for both writer and reader. Translation and dialogue are two areas where the editor might have played a greater role; for example, “hell for leather” doesn’t ring true as an Indian child’s expression, and there are some phrases where translation from Swedish to English has gone endearingly awry. Errors like “flour” instead of “floor” (on page 109) are however not very endearing!
There is sound advice, and wisdom, in the stories, such as “Sometimes, when the government is wrong, saying things against the government can be right” in ‘Detective Boy’. There is an understanding of and empathy for what children go through, often without the luxury of questioning. This collection left me wanting to read other stories by these authors, written without the constraints of collaboration.
By Zai Whitaker
Authors: Martin Widmark, Anushka Ravishankar, Katarina Genar, Bikram Ghosh
Duckbill Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction