BOOK REVIEW: The Peerless Peer

This is the second book by Philip Farmer that I’ve reviewed in a pretty short time, and I’ve got another two sitting on the side waiting for my attentions.  I’ve come late to the game but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his pulpy tales so far.

The Peerless Peer is part of a new collection of Sherlock Holmes adventures which, if not out-and-out parody, at least push the Great Detective into more fantastical areas than we’d traditionally expect (e.g. Dr Jekyll And Mr Holmes; Seance For A Vampire, The War Of The Worlds etc) – and that pushes him more into my kind of area.

Literary history can be a slippery thing, I’m beginning to learn.  Farmer’s ‘Wold Newton’ series, of which this undoubtedly forms a fragment, takes the conceit that many literary heroes were/are real beings.  You could almost say that the books form a shared world biography.  One of his tricks is fictionalising the publication history, blending his role as true writer with merely editing other people’s words.  In the instance of The Peerless Peer there are multiple layers.  We are told that the story is a real account from Dr Watson, found in a battered tin box after the Blitz.  We are also told that the story was originally published in 1974, has since been amended due to copyright issues, leading to the replacement of a main character, and has only recently been re-published in its original form.  The latter sounds plausible, but I wouldn’t bet my reviewers badge on it.  What it definitely is though, is a fun bit of wrapping.  As with Time’s Last Gift and The Other Log Of Philleas Fog, these little extra nuggets (often expanded upon in afterwords and essays) add a real value and mystique to the series as a whole, as well as to Farmer himself.

The Peerless Peer is set at the end of Sherlock’s remarkable career.  It is 1916.  Holmes has long since retired and spends his days writing epigraphs and studying bees.  His brother Mycroft is still active in the intelligence services though, and he persuades Watson to drag Sherlock back into the game to help prevent a truly terrible plot.  Von Bork, The German secret agent from ‘His Last Bow’ (chronologically speaking, Conan Doyle’s final story) has returned with a vengeance.  In his hands, a stolen weapon with the potential to swing the war in either direction.  In the course of their hair-raising pursuit, Holmes and Watson crash-land amidst the wild lands of the African sub-continent and soon find themselves in savage hands.  Is ‘Tarzan’ just a hack story by an American writer or is there more to mad Lord Greystoke than meets the eye?  Between ancient cults, lunatic pilots and killer insects, can they hope to stop Von Bork?

Well of course they can.  It’s hardly a serious story, after all.  How much you enjoy The Peerless Peer will depend entirely upon how readily you can get into the mind-set for pulp.  Whilst there is a tendency to think of Conan Doyle and Burroughs as writers of ‘classics’ it is important to remember that in their time they simply wrote entertaining adventures for the masses.  Farmer’s literary homage is to the pulp genre en-masse rather than to Doyle’s personal style.  The writing is exuberant and silly and only contains a smidgen of reverence.  Cast fandom aside and embrace the pulpy spirit and you’ll get the best out of this one.  The plot (what little there is of it) is frankly ludicrous, I’ll tell you now.  You will either be grinning by the end of the first chapter or throwing the book to one side in disgust.

There are several cameo appearances from familiar faces, but they add little to the story.  There may be some satisfaction for aficionado to spot them, but they are given very little to do save cause our heroes some humorous discomforts.  Areas of plot are sometimes skimmed over with undue haste, whilst many characters are sadly reduced to mere ciphers – including the heroes, sad to say.  Although I would find myself hard pushed to describe this as a good book, I can still brazenly tell you that I lapped it up.  There is just something infectious about Farmer’s blend of poe-faced silliness.  I loved some of the action pieces, revelled in the outlandish details and was awed how easily he made the pages fly by.

It is a very short read, with all the benefits and disappointments that entails.  Rather shamefully for Titan, a good third of this publication is taken up with promotion material for other volumes in the series.  Whilst I can understand the desire to bulk out an otherwise slender tome I think they’d have done better either combining it with another Holmes story (preferably the one I mention  below), or releasing it at the proper size with an appropriately reduced price-tag.  It may not look as impressive if they chose the latter, but it’d serve as a cheap and easy gateway for people curious about the new range of Sherlock Holmes books.  £7.99 is way overpriced for what you actually get here.  Personally I’d like to have seen some extra stuff about Farmer’s take on the literary icons.  This isn’t the only time he’s dallied with The Great Detective, after all.  The Peerless Peer is a standalone tale, but several references are made to an earlier case called ‘The Evil In Pemberley House,’ written by Farmer and a chap called Win Scott Eckert.  From the drips of information gleaned and a quick scan of the internet it sounds like a real hoot.  I’ll definitely be seeking that one out.

The picky critic in me doesn’t think The Peerless Peer technically deserves more than two out of five, but my childish grin says otherwise.  You just can’t beat a grin, sometimes.

Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear me blathering about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
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  1. I own a copy of the original publication from the 1970s, I think it’s time I reread it

  2. The part about the revision with a new character is absolutely true. The revised edition, retitled “The Adventure of The Three Madmen,” appeared in a Farmer anthology entitled “The Grand Adventure.” I own copies of both the original 1976 Dell paperback and the revised edition.

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