Friday, November 17, 2023

A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman & Rafael Albuquerque

Neil Gaiman's most famous short stories are mostly from his earlier career (not entirely; he writes less short fiction these days but still does the same kind of thing) and at least mildly stunt-like - all stories where he said "what if I did this with that?" In the way of strong short fiction, they're carried equally by the idea itself and his crisp, precise prose - even thirty-plus years ago, Gaiman was a writer who chose just the right word, and only the right number of words.

Dark Horse has been turning those stories into graphic novels, adapted and drawn by various hands, for at least a decade now - mining all of his work with a tropism to the earlier collections, the ones that his fans know and have loved for some time. And I've been reading them, here and there: see my posts on Only the End of the World Again; Chivalry; Snow, Glass , Apples; Troll Bridge; and How to Talk to Girls at Parties.

In 2018, Rafael Albuquerque adapted a Gaiman story, as part of that loose series: A Study in Emerald. If you want to be reductive, it can be pigeonholed: this is the Holmes/Lovecraft pastiche.

And, as often with these adaptations, I find them good but somehow lesser than the originals. They're about as faithful adaptations as you can imagine, but even here no one tries to reproduce all of Gaiman's prose. It sometimes seems close, though: these are very faithful adaptations, since Gaiman's fans are legion and quite nitpicky. But, still, a short story is a flimsy thing, taut and precise - taking the same idea and running it in a different format, keeping the concept but not the prose, will always change it, and changing something already very strong will probably not make it better.

There may be spoilers from here on; frankly, saying this is "Lovecraftian" could be considered a spoiler. It was originally published in an anthology of Holmesian stories, though, so that's an absolute given. 

As the title implies, this is a riff on "A Study in Scarlet" - an unnamed, Holmesian consulting detective in Victorian London is brought in to investigate a strange death, of a minor German princeling. But, in this world, pretty much all of royalty are...well, not human. The Elder Gods rose a few centuries before, and put mankind under their (relatively benevolent, for a Lovecraftian story; there are no obvious pyramids of skulls) rule. Victoria is Cthulhu, more or less, and it seems that Nyalathotep and Hastur and the others have carved up the human world, in a way that seems much more polite and genteel than would be natural for those vast and unsympathetic entities.

But that's the premise, and we have to allow stories their premises. The detective is smart and incisive and deduces vast amounts (correctly!) from tiny bits of evidence, but...that would be even more of a spoiler.

Again, it's originally a short story, so it's a smart idea, deployed well and quickly. The joy is in the discovery, in seeing somewhat familiar things transformed - just a bit, not too far, so that they're still mostly familiar. And, as usual, I like the books in this series while still finding they tend to flatten their originals just slightly.

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