8 Feb 2013 TLS Fiction Jonathan Barnes

Mrs Hudson’s Diaries, by the veteran joke writer Barry Cryer and his son Bob, purports to present us with the secret journal of the landlady of 221b Baker Street. A minor player in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, she is in these pages promoted to the status of protagonist. Much fun is had with this conceit and with Hudson’s often Pooterish voice (“Well, here I am writing a diary”). The Cryers show evident relish in describing their heroine’s brushes with the stars of Doyle’s originals – whether complaining that Holmes is “the very worst tenant in London”, comforting Watson after the death of his first wife (“the funeral was only last month but his return to his old quarters seems to have brought him some peace”), or encouraging the detective to join in the Christmas celebrations (“I didn’t know both he and Dr Watson knew all the words to ‘Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy’”). She has occasional, unwitting encounters with other familiar names – “a family called Baskerville”; a mysterious anagrammatic villain who leaves the words “Army Riot” as the only clue to his identity.

There are some fine literary jokes (“I like Wilkie Collins – he helps me sleep”) and the notion that one of Doyle’s other creations, the cantankerous Professor Challenger, moves into Holmes’s old rooms after the sleuth’s retirement is an especially pleasing one. Some good­natured horseplay is also had with ancient black­and­white photographs, stomach­churning period recipes (for pig’s liver, boiled tripe and so on) and an increasingly querulous set of footnotes.

Surprisingly, the most memorable pieces of this slender, larky project are to be found in its sporadic attempts to suggest a real inner life for the landlady – bereavement, a flirtation, a sense of humour, an unexpectedly philosophical cast of mind. The book’s final lines, as Mrs Hudson sits alone on a bench in Victoria Embankment Gardens and seems to sense the inexorable approach of war, modernity and change, hint at an intriguing stratum in this otherwise lightweight entertainment which might well have borne further excavation.

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