Author: David Stuart Davies
Title: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair
Colonel Sapt of the Ruritanian Court journeys to England on a secret mission to save his country from anarchy. He is to engage the services of Rudolf Rassendyll once more to impersonate the King while the monarch recovers from a serious illness. But Rassendyll had mysteriously disappeared. In desperation, Sapt consults Sherlock Holmes who with Watson travels to the Kingdom of Ruritania in an effort to thwart the plans of the scheming Rupert of Hentzau in his bid for the throne.
It was one of Holmes’s most annoying treats that he would keep vital information to himself until it suited him to reveal it, usually at a moment when he could create the most dramatic effect.
Davies does a good job imitating Doyle’s writing style. Die-hard Holmesians might be able to tell the difference but casuals enthusiast will have a hard time telling if a paragraph has been written by Doyle or Davies. Holmes’ manners and his relationship with Watson is also well described (especially the latter is something pastiche authors often fail to do).
However, this isn’t everything because the story as a whole feels everything but Holmesian. It’s more like a Victorian James Bond with a hero who rushes from one dangerous situation into the next and then has to shoot/punch his way out of it. And Davies’ Holmes has no qualms about this. I genuinely don’t know how many people get killed in this 120-page story but I think it’s somewhere around 10. And only one of those gets murdered by the bad guys, the rest are killed in fights with Holmes and his associates. But don’t worry. They are all –gasp– traitors and anarchists.
I don’t object to a bit more action in Holmes-stories. And after all The Prisoner of Zenda is quite a swashbuckling novel full of fights (and also with quite a high body count which only bothers the heroes tangentially) so you can’t fault the book for taking some inspiration from there. But the reason Holmes (and Watson) get in half of these fights is their incredible stupidity:
Just imagine: You are on a very dangerous case. You know your opponents don’t shy away from anything and have already tried to kill you twice. Now you meet someone new. You feel there is something fishy about him but you can’t quite put your finger on it, yet. He offers you a drink. Do you
a) Drink it
b) Wait a moment and try to figure out why you have such a bad feeling
If you answered b) congratulations! You are cleverer than Holmes is in this book!
Then there’s the fact that this is also a sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda and…it’s not a good one. In the original Rupert Hentzau works for the Black Michael, the main villain but while they get Michael, Rupert gets away at the end. As a reader, you can’t help but feel happy about it because Rupert is such a fun villain. He’s definitely bad: he has no issues with killing unarmed men if they stand in his way, and he has no sad backstory as a reason for it (not that sad backstories excuse murder…but there are people who think that) and his ulterior motive is power and money. But he has glorious one-liners, is charming and dashing (even the narrator says so)
and gets played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the movie.
Once again he turned to wave his hand, and then the gloom of thickets swallowed him and he was lost from our sight. Thus he vanished–reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered.
Is an actual quote from the actual Prisoner of Zenda. Even Rudolf loves him. Sort of.
In other words: Rupert is a bit of a magnificent bastard.
In The Hentzau Affair, he’s a mustache-twirling villain who abducts children to blackmail their relatives into helping him and has the rhetoric talent of a playground bully.
And then there is the end. The Prisoner of Zenda does not have a very happy ending and it seems the author wants to ‘fix’ this with his book. Now that in itself isn’t wrong but in doing that he ignores all the reasons why there wasn’t a happy end in the original. He seems to think there was only one obstacle and by getting rid of that everything will be fine but there were more reasons.
What now follows are ramblings that spoil this book, The Prisoner of Zenda and its actual sequel Rupert of Hentzau so proceed at your own risk.
In The Prisoner of Zenda, the King of Ruritania gets kidnapped in an attempt to steal his throne (it makes sense in context). To foil this plan Rudolf Rassendyl impersonates the King for a while (it makes sense in context). Unfortunately, he falls in love with the King’s fiancée Flavia (and she with him). But once the king is saved they do not take it further because that wouldn’t be honourable. Flavia marries the real king, Rudolph returns to England and all they do is exchange one letter each year.
In Rupert of Hentzau Rudolf has to impersonate the king again because plot. But then the real king dies. When they suggest he should just continue the charade because he clearly loves Flavia and because of other plot-reasons it’s also the easiest solution for everybody, he gets angry. Because that kind of deception would be not honourable. He is conveniently saved from having to make a decision when he gets killed as well.
In The Hentzau Affair, the king gets sick, Rupert’s plan is to force Rudolf to impersonate the king again because…plot…and anarchists…anyway, Rupert wants to be king instead of the king (the anarchists presumably want no king at all but…plot). Whatever. Then the real king dies, Holmes frees Rudolf and when they suggest he should just continue impersonating the king because he loves Flavia and it would be easier for everyone he’s just like ‘Fine. Just let me write a letter to my brother that he shouldn’t wait for my return.’
In the original stories, Rudolf refuses to shoot Rupert when he has the chance even after he has shown himself to be absolutely ruthless and killed several people. Instead he challenges him to a duell. And when Rupert loses his sword, Rudolf waits for him to pick it up again because anything else would be dishonourable. Does that look the kind of person who would take the place of a monarch just because he has pants-feelings for the guy’s wife?
I can’t deny that both The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel would be much shorter books if the heroes acted less honourable and I did roll my eyes a few times while reading it. But that doesn’t change that this is what they are. You can’t just ignore that. In Rupert of Hentzau it was at least brought up that he would dishonour Flavia if he doesn’t continue the charade (it makes sense in context) and that is the only reason, Rudolf even considers going along with it. There is nothing like this in The Hentzau Affair, he’s just immediately fine with it, which makes me wonder how much the author cared about the source material.