Book Review - Blood to the Bone

It was only a couple of weeks ago the journalist crew at Yorkton This Week each wrote of the three books which most influenced them.

I chose Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ as one on my three because it planted the seed which grew to be my love of both Holmes, and more generally mysteries.

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Doyle is of course long gone, but there are dozens of other authors who have taken up the standard to write tales featuring Holmes and his sidekick/partner Dr. Watson. Some have stumbled miserably in their efforts, some have matched Doyle typewriter stroke for typewriter stroke, and still others fall somewhere in between.

Blood to the Bone is a Holmes tale by Canadian writer Andrew Salmon writing as Jack Tunney.

Salmon is also the author of Fight Card Sherlock Holmes: Work Capitol. 

So first a word here on Fight Card. It is a growing collection of books written around the theme of boxing, wrestling and the like. I had not really known there was a dedicated following for such books, happening upon them because of my own interest in Holmes, but I suppose there are fans of every sub-genre imaginable, and if Blood to the Bone is indicative of Fight Card books, readers liking the genre will be pleased. Check them out at www.fightcardbooks.com

In an interview with Salmon I touched upon the idea of fight-themed tales.

“I am a huge fan of classic pulp fiction and fight stories are part of that rich, entertaining legacy,” said Salmon. “So, yes, the genre is of personal interest to me. As this fiction is being revived through reprints of classic material and the plethora of today's creators producing entertaining new material, pulp fiction is alive and well. Fight Card Books has published dozens of fight tales, most of which I've read, and I'm just happy to be part of what they do.”

In the case of Blood to the Bone the book came from a writer with some pedigree, so my expectation was for a good read.

Salmon’s “other Sherlockian tales have appeared in five volumes of Airship 27’s award winning Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective series. A multiple Pulp Factory Award winner with numerous other nominations for Ellis, Pulp Ark, and Pulp Factory awards, Andrew lives and writes in Vancouver, BC. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Pro Se Presents, Masked Gun Mystery, Storyteller, Parsec, TBT, and Thirteen Stories. He also writes reviews for The Comicshopper and is creating a superhero serial novel currently running in A Thousand Faces Magazine,” detailed the book material.

“To be perfectly honest, I'm a Watson fan,” he said in his interview. “Holmes can be a handful sometimes. Ha! To answer your question, yes! From the moment I sat down to read the tales for the first time, I was hooked. Of course the incredible selection of adaptations have been imprinted on my brain as they have on just about everyone who has lived these last hundred or so years and a comfortable familiarity has resulted. 

“You can stop anyone on the street, mention Sherlock Holmes, and they will know who you're talking about. That said one must always separate the fictions. The adaptations, at times, bear little or no resemblance to the rich characters Doyle gave us. I am a fan of the canon and the adaptations that stick as closely to the essence of the original tales as possible. By that, I don't mean word for word adaptations. BBC's Sherlock, for instance, makes wholesale changes but captures the essence of the characters and their deep, abiding friendship. It is that friendship that keeps me reading/watching their adventures and keeps me writing them as well.”

The key to making Holmes work is knowing the man, the era, and the cadence of creator Doyle, a combination which is no small task.

“Yes (it is daunting). I say this because any writer of Sherlockian mysteries has legions of Holmes fanatics looking over their shoulder,” said Salmon. “This is a blessing and a curse. 

“A curse because you can't please everyone, but a blessing because it keeps you on your toes. There is no slacking with a Holmes tale. The readers are poised to pounce the instant you step outside of canonical facts or have the characters behave in an unacceptable fashion. You've got to get your dates right, get the characters right - and that's only half the battle. 

“What is truly daunting is coming up with a mystery that the greatest detective brain in the history of literature can't solve in a heartbeat. That's the hard part. One has to play fair with the reader while moving the plot along so that only Holmes can figure it out. It's a lot of hard work but hearing from satisfied readers makes it all worthwhile.”

Salmon hit upon writing Holmes in more detail in the book’s author notes.

“The first novel in the Fight Card Sherlock Holmes series, Work Capitol, presented a number of daunting challenges,” he wrote. “Not only did I have to learn how Victorian fighters plied their trade, but also how Sherlock Holmes would put his inimitable spin on the science of pugilism. “Added to that was the responsibility of discerning how Watson would describe a fight in the language of the time.

“Research and a lot of pondering led me to the solutions. Hearing from readers since the book's release, I was pleased to see these solutions were met with positive reactions. The book even snagged an award nomination along the way. Holmes fans enjoyed the book, which was a tremendous relief to me and the Fight Card team.”

For Blood to the Bone Salmon wrote that he knew he had to offer up a fresh take on Holmes within the genre which Fight Card fans wanted.

“Now, all I had to do was pull it off again! More than that, actually, as the second book could not and should not be just more of the same. No matter how much readers liked Work Capitol, the new one had to be different,” he said. “We writers don't like to repeat ourselves …

“My nets landed smack dab in the middle of the forgotten Victorian female pugilists of the 1800s. As the first book had not featured a female lead, this find immediately struck me as something different yet still staying well within the world of bare knuckle boxing. Endless research showed me the female fight game was a great element, which simply couldn't be ignored.

“But how the heck was Holmes going to fight in the women's ring? Stumbling upon the tag-team aspect of women's boxing saved the day. Discovering that couples used to face off against other couples with the ability to tag up like wrestlers and switch partners saved my bacon. Holmes and my female lead could now step up to the scratch line together.

“But what brought them together? Wait a minute! Tag-team couples! What if a husband in one of these tag-teams suddenly disappeared and Holmes and Watson were asked to investigate? Yeah, that would work. Okay, I had Victorian circuses, the forgotten boxing booths of the time, the somewhat obscure history of female bare knuckle boxing, a couple of other little known chapters of history (too spoilerish to talk about here) and a lunar eclipse thrown in for good measure. We were off to the races.”

As reviewer I’ll interject here that the idea of women boxing in Holmes’ era initially struck me as strange, to the point I had it chalked up to the author’s imagination before reading notes in the back of the book which detailed women’s boxing.

That Salmon dug out such a unique basis for the book really took the story up a notch upon reflecting on it.

“I am a beast when it comes to research,” Salmon said. “There's nothing I love more than diving head first into an historical period and wallowing in the minutiae - no detail is too small, no event too big - I can't get enough of it! Victorian bare knuckle boxing in its entirety is a fascinating, somewhat forgotten, chapter of sports history. I hit on (no pun intended) the female boxing history early on in researching the first book and filed it away as ‘Work Capitol’ needed to display the boxing prowess of Holmes as laid down in the canon by Conan Doyle. This delay proved to be a godsend. 

“Sitting down to write ‘Blood to the Bone’, I found there had been a miniscule avalanche of historical material in the interim. I say miniscule because women's' boxing did not receive much attention from Victorian newspapers and the historical record is, sadly, incomplete. But there was enough to ground my tale in the world of female pugilism. Pouring over the biographies of the great championesses (as they were called back then) and reading the sparse eyewitness accounts of the fights helped me in the creation of the tale's heroine, Eby Stokes. Hearing that the Victorian female boxers were to be inducted into the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame Museum while I was writing ‘Blood to the Bone’ was one of those serendipitous moments that told me I was on the right track with the tale. Shining the spotlight on the unsung history of female Victorian boxing will, I hope, raise awareness of the rich, tragically obscure historical legacy of these great athletes of yesteryear.”

The female pugilist in the tale is Eby Stokes, and while this may upset some Holmes fans, she actually comes to over shadow the great detective. There is something highly compelling in Stokes, and she simply took over the book in many ways for me.

For me Stokes is the break-out character here. I see her going off to work with Mycroft Holmes which opens up a rich possibility of books she as the main character bringing in Sherlock, Watson, Mycroft, or even borrowing an ‘Irregular or two’ to tie to the established mythos.

Salmon said he realized Stokes was special as he wrote her story.

“I was about halfway through ‘Blood to the Bone’ when I realized that Eby Stokes had sprung to life,” he said. “She began as an amalgam of several of the real Victorian fighters but became a much more personal creation when my wife and I loss our dear friend Linda Gavin who passed away suddenly while I was writing the tale. 

“Put simply, I gave the character flesh, blood and a name but it was our dear departed friend who gave Eby Stokes her soul. From the moment Eby sprang to life in my mind and on the page, I soon realized that the character would transcend the book. I most definitely have plans for future stories featuring Eby Stokes. We've not seen the last of her. That's a promise.”

As a Fight Card book, this Holmes reminds more of the Robert Downey Jr. version of the character, and at times the writing captures that too.

So was that intentional?

“Yes. For a couple of reasons,” said Salmon. “The first being that the success of the current Holmes films has expanded this dimension of the character so it's something newer fans come to expect. As I said earlier, Doyle mentions in several of the original tales and in ‘The Sign of Four’, that Holmes is an accomplished boxer but we don't see much of that in his tales outside of quick references to fights he's had. ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist’ contains a Holmes fight scene in a bar but it is only described in a line or two by Holmes himself. The Downey films have merely shown what Doyle describes. And that is what I do with my Fight Card Sherlock Holmes tales. What I set out to do is to write Holmes tales with boxing in them, not boxing stories with Holmes and Watson shoe-horned in. The Downey films do the same - the fight scenes, for the most part, take very little screen time. 

“The second reason is that the new films get it 100 per cent exactly right! I have written eight Holmes tales to-date and the dynamic duo of Holmes and Watson have taken root in my head. They carry on conversations between themselves on myriad subjects and I just write down what they say. It's scary. The fun kind of scary. As I was in the midst of writing my gaggle of Holmes tales when the first movie came out, I went into it with Holmes and Watson rattling around in my head. That first fight scene, I just nodded my head in agreement as I watched it. For me, it worked to perfection. This was exactly how Holmes would approach a fight - devoid of emotion, using his powers of observation and clinically planning each step towards the goal of defeating his opponent. 

“To put it simply: there's simply no other way to portray Holmes describing a fight. They laid it out to perfection. When it comes time for Holmes to describe the fight Eby Stokes has on her hands in ‘Blood to the Bone’, there was, for me, no other way to show it. 

“That said, I built on what the movie set down by using rhythm and pace to capture the feel of the fight Holmes sees but the reader sees only through him. Being a book, not a film, the language has to create the image in the reader's mind and I think I pulled that off.”

Whatever the motivations and influences, Salmon gets it right with Holmes in this book. It is a worthy member of the upper echelon of non-Doyle books with Holmes as the central figure, and that to me is all you can ask as a fan of the great detective. I know in my case I hope to one day grab Salmon’s earlier Holmes works.

And there will be a third book as well.

“While doing the research for ‘Work Capitol’ two years ago, three avenues of potential plots bubbled up as I explored the world of Victorian bare knuckle fighting and so it has always been my intention to write three stories,” said Salmon. “I hesitate to say I'm creating a 'trilogy' because each story is meant to be enjoyed on its own. That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't encourage readers to read the two published to-date anyway. So pick up copies for yourself and a few friends! Ha! So to answer your question: Yes! I am in the process of researching a third Holmes book for December 2015 and the folks at Fight Card Books have expressed interest in a third tale. The game is indeed afoot! Mark your calendars, mystery lovers!”

© Copyright Yorkton This Week

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