I stumbled upon The Chronicles of Solar Pons—the original 1972 Mycroft & Moran edition, in nearly new condition—on one of the “Used Books” shelves of Borderland’s Books. Not even in the Mystery section of the store, but in the Horror section, which tells you which section of August Derleth’s wide range of works may be most remembered today. I knew who Solar Pons was, but I wasn’t familiar with the stories. Still, I knew that true Holmes aficionados considered the Pons stories to be the best pastiches of the Canon out there, and the book was quite reasonably priced. So I bought it.
According to the front leaf of the book’s dust jacket, Derleth passed away not too long after finishing the final draft of the manuscript. So Chronicles is the last volume of the Derleth-authored Pons stories, and I began my journey at the end, so to speak. I had vague memories of running into a Pons story before, in some anthology or other, a long time ago; I think it was one of the stories Basil Copper wrote. I was not so into Sherlock Holmes back then, so the story made little impression.
But then I picked up Doubleday’s two-volume The Complete Sherlock Holmes (the 1930 edition, I think). How that happened is a different story, one I’ve told before. That got me reading the Holmes stories once more, and then I revisited them again during the first season of BBC’s Sherlock, comparing the original stories to the show’s updated versions.
So by the time I picked up Chronicles, I was far more attuned to the voice, the mood, the atmosphere of a true Holmes and Watson tale. I could clearly “hear” how off so many other authors’ attempts at a Holmes story were, how wrong Holmes or Watson sounded, how wrong their relationship felt, when coming from some other writers’ pens.
Solar Pons isn’t Sherlock Holmes, of course. Dr. Parker isn’t Dr. Watson, and the tales take place between the World Wars, not in the Victorian era. And yet, when I opened the book and entered 7B Praed Street, I was there. In 221B Baker Street, and he was Holmes, and the other one was Watson, and Inspector Jamison might as well have been Lestrade. I envisioned their landlady, Mrs. Hudson—er, Mrs. Johnson—and all the women in long Victorian era dress, not 1920’s garb, and in my mind, everyone traveled by hansom cab or horse-drawn carriage. It was uncanny how completely Derleth captured the entire Holmesian vibe.
Derleth did put his own spin on the Pontine universe. While reading, I met Pons’s nemesis, the Baron Kroll, who is not so much a criminal mastermind as an espionage mastermind (for Germany—this is between the World Wars, remember). And there’s the mysterious Si-Fan, head of an international criminal enterprise; Derleth’s version of Fu Manchu. The stories that center around these characters aren’t my favorites; even Moriarty didn’t show up all that much in the Holmesian tales, and that just fine with me. But they are still enjoyable. One tale, “The Adventure of the Orient Express,” doesn’t feel like a Holmesian tale at all, but more like an Eric Ambler spy thriller. Derleth fills it with characters that will seem quite familiar if you are a fan of mysteries and thrillers. I recognized the Hercule Poirot character. Wikipedia also mentions Ashendon and The Saint.
There are other stories (not in this volume), where Derleth wanders a teeny bit over the line that Doyle drew, marking Holmes’ cases as firmly in rational, ordinary reality—nothing supernatural. While Holmes firmly rejected the possibility of supernatural explanation, Pons is perhaps a bit more open minded. In “The Blind Clairaudient” (from The Reminiscences of Solar Pons), Dr. Parker protests against taking the titular character as a client because clairaudience is charlatanry; as he declares, “it refutes science!”. Pons’s rejoinder:
Strong words, Parker! Strong words! Let us just say it goes against what we know of science at this point in the development of man.
The solution to the mystery, be assured, is strictly natural. But Derleth allows the implication that the clairaudient’s abilities were genuine to remain.
(And as an aside, I noticed that Parker can be a bit of a prig sometimes—far more than Watson ever was.)
At any rate, I devoured The Chronicles, and as I regretfully closed the book on the last story, I wanted more. A search on Amazon revealed tattered copies of a 1970s paperback run, to be picked up piecemeal here and there. Battered Silicon Dispatch box offers The Original Text Solar Pons omnibus, which I think is still in print—for $200. And there were several more affordable collections of the Basil Copper-authored Pons stories, but I wanted to start with the original run first. From the beginning. So I wish-listed all the used paperback volumes that I could find on Amazon, waiting to find the first one, In Re: Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of Solar Pons, which for whatever reason did not turn up in my search that day. And then I went on with my life.
By a happy coincidence, not very long afterwards, author David Marcum launched a Kickstarter to fund his new book, The Papers of Solar Pons, his own collection of Pons stories, inspired by the Derleth originals! A pastiche of a pastiche. I pitched in for an electronic copy, and sooner than I expected, I was savoring another dose of Solar Pons.
Marcum does a pretty good job of capturing the Ponsian vibe, and I enjoyed the stories thoroughly. There are shoutouts to other iconic detectives woven throughout the stories: I caught references to Nero Wolfe, and to Lord Peter Wimsey’s friend and brother-in-law, Inspector Charles Parker. There are probably others, too, that I don’t remember right now. Marcum also expands on the in-universe connections between Holmes and Pons (as does Derleth, on occasion). Reading this collection renewed my desire to find more of the original Derleth stories, but—luckily—I procrastinated yet again.
Because, finally, Marcum’s publisher Belanger Books reissued the first four volumes of Derleth’s Solar Pons collections! At last, I could re-enter the world of Solar Pons, as Derleth intended it to be.
These first four volumes (in fact, the first five) follow the same naming conventions as the five original collections of Sherlock Holmes stories: The Adventures, The Memoirs, The Return, The Reminiscences, and The Case Book. I believe each volume has the same number of stories as its Holmesian counterpart. We meet Parker returning from World War I service and becoming Pons’s roommate. We read the case where Parker meets his wife-to-be, one of Pons’s clients. Fortunately for us readers, Constance Dorrington Parker is as understanding as Mary Morstan Watson, so Parker can still spend plenty of time following Pons on his adventures. As in the original Holmes tales, the timeline jumps to and fro, from the early years of the duo rooming together, to the cases after Parker’s marriage, and back.
In addition to paralleling the Holmesian universe so closely (I haven’t even mentioned Solar’s brother Bancroft, of the Foreign Office), I think there’s another reason the Pons series is so successful a pastiche. Derleth understood that Sherlock Holmes tales are really as much about the relationship between Holmes and Watson as they are about the mysteries. Watson has a personality; you can read his sense of humor in some of his remarks, in the way he sometimes describes the clients, and above all in the little back-and-forth jousting that often occurs between him and Holmes. I think too many pastiche authors miss that: for them, Watson is mostly Holmes’s admiring chronicler, but not much beyond that. Parker has a personality, too—different from Watson’s. And you can see it in the back and forth between him and Pons. Also, Parker got a little better at applying “the method” than Watson did, I have to say.
Anyway, I finally get why so many Holmes aficionados are so fond of the Pons stories. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and would love to have more like them, then I highly recommend Solar Pons.
You can find the new Belanger Books re-release of the first four volumes (and David Marcum’s collection, as well) on Amazon, or at the Belanger Books website. The next two volumes of short stories, along with Derleth’s two Solar Pons novels and some previously uncollected Pons stories, are coming soon.