May 18, 2016 by kitmoss
Some might think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson dealt with some of the seamier sides of London crime, but there is a decided lack in terms of such scandalous matters as male prostitution. That is where we latter day novelists can correct this lack, and that is what Anel Viz has accomplished with The House in Birdgate Alley.
A baronet is deathly ill with pneumonia and his wife asks family friend Dr. John Williams, the Watson character, to find out why he was out in the miserable weather until three in the morning. He calls on his Holmes-like cousin, Cyril Fosterby, a chemist with remarkable powers of deduction to help him solve the mystery. The murder of a young male prostitute comes to light, and the two soon establish that the baronet had a longstanding love affair with the young man. They choose to enlist the help of the prostitute’s friend and colleague, Johnny Rice, in finding and catching the murderer, whom they are sure is not the baronet.
Johnny is bright, attractive, and fearless, and though the novel is ostensibly a detective story, the central theme is really the growing awareness of “inverts” by the good Dr. Williams. At the outset he is clear that homosexual acts are “unnatural” and is repulsed, but as he gets to know the various cast members of the book who are so drawn he is, by nature, forced to reconsider his attitude. When Johnny starts to fall in love with him and his own affection grows, he is forced to recognize “normal sexuality” cannot be pigeonholed as one type or another. Johnny’s spirit and liveliness he comes to realize is largely bravado to mask the torment of his underworld life.
This is also an origin story of sorts, with Fosterby, an experimental chemist, realizing just how much he enjoys detection that he decides to make it his profession. Holmes aficionadi will recognize the Master Sleuth here with his superior powers of observation and his use of disguises. Now I will confess that while I enjoy the Conan Doyle stories, I have always felt they were rather simplistic and contrived, not quite as amazing as their reputation. People seem to get caught up in the brilliant creation of a character like Holmes, the real artistry of the novels, and assume what they are seeing is Holmes’s brilliance in action. I am tempted to think Viz sees it this way too, because The House in Birdgate Alley is fairly thin in terms of the detective story, much like typical Holmes and Watson tales. The quirky and intriguing Holmes/Fosterby character is not half as interesting as Watson/Williams, with his observer’s objective view and judgments.
This is not a long book. Its primary attraction is entertainment, but more its sensitive interpretation of the characters and relationships. Just sit back and enjoy.