Sunday, June 22, 2008
Dr. Ben Eller's New Book, reviewed by Gary Carden
The Children of Sherlock Holmes by Dr. Ben F. Eller
Raleigh: Pendium Publishing House
$14.95 (softcover) – 243 pages
Reading Dr. Eller’s novel, “The Children of Sherlock Holmes is like passing through a secret door and emerging on a cobbled street in 19th century London – a squalid world that swarms with pickpockets, doxies, beggars and orphans. Eller’s concern is with the latter – the multitudes of hapless children who are forced to labor in what the poet, William Blake called “the satanic mills.”
Eller’s novel reflects the author’s penchant for exhaustive research; consequently, many of the passages that depict the underbelly of Victorian England seem to glow with an eerie luminescence. Such scenes recall the works of William Hogarth – a painter and social critic who captured the deplorable conditions of the London slums in a series of famous prints with names such as “The Four Stages of Cruelty” and “Industry and Idleness” and “Gin Lane.” Hogarth’s work served as an indictment of an age given over to excess.
It is especially alarming to note that even though Hogarth depicted London in the 18th century, the same conditions that he deplored still existed a century later. In fact, it had grown steadily worse. Despite the efforts of some of England’s most notable writers and social critics the “child factories” continued to flourish. As Dr. Eller reveals, the factories were often owned by the wealthy and privileged, many of which were members of Parliament.
Frequently, passages in Dr. Eller’s novel become as vivid as a Hogarth print. “The Children of Sherlock Holmes” takes you inside a “tannery” in which children are trained to kill livestock, process leather and make shoes. They are denied access to the outside world, sleep in filth and are fed in accordance to how hard they work. Not only do they live without sunlight, they are denied a childhood. In such conditions, many wither and die like blighted flowers, while others are sold into prostitution in foreign countries. Under such desperate conditions, these helpless victims need a champion – someone willing to reveal their plight to “the higher courts,” including Parliament, Queen Victoria and God.
Eller’s cast of characters are vividly drawn. Most appealing are Terrence and Murdo, two young boys who are “apprenticed” to an inhuman butcher. This early experience shapes two very different destinies: Terrence feels compelled to relieve suffering and becomes a doctor;
Murdo develops a need to dominate others and becomes the owner of a “child factory.” In addition, the enslaved children are not “faceless victims,” but distinct personalities that are in turn, frightened, devious, trusting and endowed with a will to survive.
Sherlock Holmes retains his traditional character: rational, disturbingly insightful and committed to a need to serve justice. Watson is good-humored, devoted and dependable. Both are flawed and are sometimes at the mercy of their shortcomings. Together, these two old friends venture into a dark, uncharted world filled with terrors and daunting odds.
In conclusion, a few details regarding the author’s background might be enlightening. Dr. Eller, who resides in Cullowhee, has a distinguished background that includes an Associate Professor of Psychology at East Tennessee State and Professor of Behavioral Studies at the University of Alabama. Not surprisingly, he has published in the areas of child abuse, autism and educational technology – a background that influenced “The Children of Sherlock Holmes.”