The Canary Trainer

The Canary Trainer (1993) is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche by Nicholas Meyer. Like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, it was published as a "lost manuscript" of the late Dr. John H. Watson. This novel describes Holmes's adventures during the "Lost Years", when (according to the Sherlockian canon) he was traveling the world, trying to escape the minions of Professor Moriarty. The bulk of the novel is a first-person narrative, in which Holmes recounts a visit to Paris where he played the violin in the Opera Garnier and became entangled with a mysterious "phantom".

Plot summary

In 1912, Dr. Watson visits the retired Sherlock Holmes, who is happily cultivating bees on the Sussex Downs. Holmes seems mostly concerned about interesting Watson in his new hobby, but Watson prefers to interrogate Holmes and fill some of the gaps in Sherlockian history. For example, Watson says, Holmes's account of how he spent the "Lost Years" (1891 to 1895) was laden with contradictions. Finally, he persuades Holmes to retell one episode of his adventures.

The narration switches to Holmes, who describes how he escaped Professor Moriarty at Richenbach Falls and then began to travel Europe, slowly realizing that the entire world believed him dead. Wandering mostly aimlessly, he finds himself in Paris, where (after a short-lived stint as a violin instructor) he obtains a position at the Paris Opera. From the very beginning, his job has ominous undertones: the vacancy only appeared because the previous violinist ran into the street, swearing that he would never work in the place again. This does not daunt Holmes, who interviews with and favourably impresses the conductor, Maître Gaston Leroux.

Holmes gradually becomes accustomed to the Opera's distinctive culture. He learns that all minor mishaps are attributed to the Ghost, a spectral personage who haunts the Opera's labyrinthine passageways, sometimes appearing to ballet dancers wearing an evening suit but without a head.

All goes reasonably well until the prima donna soprano, La Sorelli, falls ill and is replaced by Irene Adler, an old adversary almost alone in her ability to outwit Holmes. His admiration for her provokes uncertain emotions, largely foreign to his calculating nature—but he soon realizes that torment is secondary, when the opera rehearsals subject him to her incomparably beautiful singing. He suffers in silence until Adler sees his profile in a Degas painting, whereupon she realizes that he is alive, and enlists his help. She has taken the young coluratura Christine Daaé "under her wing", and is fearful that the innocent singer may fall prey to intrigue once Adler has left.

Irene Adler blackmails Holmes into assisting her, promising that she will remain silent about his continued livelihood. While investigating the melodramas which surround Christine, Holmes appears to run afoul of the Opera Ghost.

Literary influences

In the novel's afterword, Meyer acknowledges the two most obvious influences, Conan Doyle's vast Sherlockian opus and Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, which Meyer terms an "absurdist masterpiece". Furthermore, the "facts" of the story shift about in a way reminiscent of Pynchon: Holmes openly states that he was traveling Europe to escape Moriarty's henchmen, yet small clues indicate that he may have been convalescing after his treatment by Sigmund Freud. One one level, The Canary Trainer is a detective story with doses of action-adventure, but Holmes's thoughts about building a new identity bring in a much more contemplative, almost philosophical element, much like the mystery-story parodies Vladimir Nabokov constructed (compare Lolita, Pale Fire or The Real Life of Sebastian Knight). Meyer nods at these more "literary" concepts, inserting a tongue-in-cheek footnote (supposedly by the "editor" who is publishing Watson's manuscript). The priceless Degas in which Irene Adler saw Holmes's portrait, says the footnote, was purchased by the Marquis de Tour et Tassis—a clear allusion to The Crying of Lot 49.


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