Pros: A brave and generally well written attempt at re-working Sherlock Holmes
Cons: Farther-fetched than Doyle
It would take a very brave or very foolish writer to attempt to rewrite the history of one of literatures best-loved characters. I think Dibdin is the former but I'm not convinced he completely pulls it off.
I'm a great fan of Dibdin's Aurelio Zen novels (see my review of Blood Rain), and it was whilst flicking through one of his books that I came to the 'by the same author' page, and nestled amongst the Aurelio Zen mysteries and other works I spotted The Last Sherlock Holmes Story. I've both read and seen quite a few pieces inspired by Sherlock Holmes over the years, some of them reasonably good, many of them unutterably bad, but I thought if there's a writer good enough to pull it off then Dibdin must be the number one suspect.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was allegedly quite happy for other writers to use his characters; as anyone who knows anything about Doyle will be aware - Doyle got so tired of Holmes that he 'killed' him off at the Reichenbach Falls, for several years. Most Holmes fans, would agree that he Reichenbach Falls episode does not rate as one of Doyles better written adventures, so perhaps Dibdin can be forgiven for not handling his last Holmes story quite perfectly.
Potential Spoiler Alert - I will attempt not to give too much of the plot away, but as my problems with the book are to do with the plot and the books central premise I may be giving away large clues, clues that even Lestrade might spot, so please feel free to discontinue reading.
Still with me?
On your own head be it..
Dibdin quite cleverly gets round the problem that he is not Doyle by putting himself forward as the editor of a paper Watson left sealed until 1976 (the date of the book's first publication). He then uses Watson's voice to describe how Doyle wrote fiction based on Watson's accounts. Arguably this explanation is a little contrived but it just about works. It also explains the difference in style - Dibdin writes roughly in the style of Doyle, but it is fairly apparant it is not Doyles writing - the adventurous pace isn't there and in it's place is a deeper, almost psychological approach. I couldn't truly fault the quality of Dibdin's writing, just the content.
The plot is neatly shoe-horned into the time span between a few of Doyle's short-stories (again the references to the Doyle stories is a little gratingly contrived). The subject is the Whitechapel Killings - the Jack The Ripper murders. As a subject for creative fiction, it has been done to death (please excuse the rather tasteless and accidental pun), but Dibdin's approach is at least fresh and original. Holmes puts down his cocaine and joins in the investigation, with Watson at his heels. The investigation continues, revealing a darker side of Holmes than Doyle ever painted.
I found the plot overly far-fetched and very contrived, sentiments which I know people have made against Doyle's stories. I found the first half of the book reasonably enjoyable, but from half way through I had guessed the ending and completing the book became merely a way of finding out how Dibdin would present it.
I'm not generally a fan of books where a second author has continued another authors work (although there are exceptions) and I was quite disappointed with the book. To be fair the attempt was brave, and if it is controversial that arguably isn't a bad thing. The book was fairly well written if seemingly more contrived than your average crime novel.
Not totally bad by any means, but unless you feel truly drawn to the book I would go and start reading Dibdin's Aurelio Zen books instead - they're all worthy of a minimum of four stars, most of them five, this i can only give a three.