The Baker Street Translation by Michael Robertson
The Baker Street Translation by Michael Robertson (Minotaur Books, 2013) is a fascinating book written at an interesting time. At this point, I need to divert in a parallel universe. For these purposes, I’ll call it “the world created by Amazon” which has recently launched a fan fiction subdivision in its publishing division. So if the copyright holders sanction the exploration of their fictional worlds, fans will be allowed to write whatever they like (well, not really) and get paid royalties varying between 20 and 35%. This is supposed to attract the community of fans that spends its time writing fiction for fun. Just think: for as little as 20% you can give away all your rights in your work and enable Amazon to make even more money from your efforts. What’s not to like about that? Anyway, let’s now travel back to our mundane world where authors are allowed to take characters already out of copyright and do what they like with them (including sex scenes, and counterintuitive acts and omissions) and they get to keep all the money their creativity inspires through film and television rights, foreign distribution, and so on.
The idea of the shared universe has been around as long as there have been oral histories. People used to travel from village to town, passing on the latest news and telling stories about culturally iconic characters. This allowed multiple authors to get creative when talking about the exploits of heroes and so fantasy fiction was born, e.g. Beowulf and other sagas. Once copyright appeared on the scene, ring fences were thrown around the most valuable properties and the collaborative development of ideas has had to wait until the monopoly expired or for the copyright holders to give permission for the sharing. Coming up to date, the world of television has recently brought us Sherlock and Elementary, continuing the tradition of playing in the Sherlock Holmes sandbox. To be honest, I’m always interested to see how inventive authors can be when approaching the Sherlock Holmes universe. This hook is particularly ingenious. One of the enduring myths has been that Holmes was (and remains) a real person. Hence there’s a steady stream of mail going to 221B Baker Street. Since 1932, a building society has occupied the site and has employed a person to answer all the correspondence. Michael Robertson has the building society lease out some of its rooms to a barrister on condition that he takes on the role of secretary to Sherlock Holmes. This barrister is then sucked into adventures in the style of Sherlock, such excitement usually being triggered by letters or individuals arriving at his chambers believing Holmes to be a real person.
In this instance, an old man arrives from Taiwan. He has been working as a freelance translator but the person who last employed him has refused to pay. For this man, it’s not so much about the money. He feels his honour has been besmirched and wants “Sherlock” to investigate why he has not been paid. Asking a few superficial questions, the barrister establishes his potential client was asked to translate instructions for a toy duck designed to spout nursery rhymes and so drive the parents of small children demented. He insists the translations are absolutely accurate yet, when our hero views the rhymes in their finished form, he finds their meaning distorted. Concluding the translator is incompetent, he sends the man away with a recommendation he return to Taiwan, perhaps delaying the journey to see The Mousetrap. Sadly, the body of the translator is found that night with the barrister’s business card and a theatre ticket in his pocket. What better way to force our reluctant hero into an investigation?
At this point, I need to alert readers to the semi-comic nature of the book. This is not a strictly canonical work which relies on set-piece deductions to arrive at a grand solution in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. This is a London barrister (plus his brother who’s currently aiming to qualify for the bar in the US) in a love triangle. He’s ineffectively in love with a beautiful model who has been involved in previous adventures. But a press baron also has his eyes set on her and believes his money and status make him irresistible to members of the fair sex. To complicate the adventure of the translator, said press baron is kidnapped and held to ransom. Yet, in addition to the £1 million in cash, they also demand all the letters that have been delivered to Sherlock Holmes during the last month. Now you can see how everything ties together. But. . .
As I said in the previous paragraph, this is not intended to be taken seriously. That’s why we’re supposed to forgive the distinctly illogical set-up of the work to be translated. In fact, nothing about this plot device makes any sense. If people of even vague competence were involved in a conspiracy with this declared purpose, they would easily be able to plant bombs in the places to achieve their desired effect without having to go through all these MacGuffin-based manoeuvrings. But if you approach the book on the basis that its many absurdities are a part of the humour, it proves to be a reasonably enjoyable lightweight read. The Baker Street Translation is therefore of interest to anyone who wants to see how the Sherlock Holmes trope can be extended, and for those who want an undemanding book to read during the summer holiday period.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.