Modesty Among the Virtues
by Susan Rice
Anita Janda died on December 7th, within hours of her last surgery to combat the ovarian cancer she had fought for several years. Her death came as a shock to those who had hoped, as she herself had, that she would be able to attend the 2006 ASH Autumn dinner days before.
Anita appeared on the Sherlockian scene early in 2002 through an e-mail message asking how she could learn about activities in the New York area. As soon as she discovered the many choices, she began appearing at various gatherings and became a regular at ASH Wednesdays. Her cheerful and thoughtful conversation and ability to listen made her part of the sodality immediately.
Anita wrote one of the most interesting, insightful, and unusual Holmesian pastiches. The Secret Life of Dr. Watson, published in hardcover by Allison & Busby in 2001, was John H. Watson’s private diary. Written with the encouragement of his wife, it tells of his difficulties with the imperious Holmes and his frustrations with the demands of his publishers, and provides an appealingly different slant on many of the cases familiar to us only in their abridged published version.
Early in our friendship, Anita mentioned another tie to the Master. She received a Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1978 on the basis of her doctoral dissertation, The Linguistic Analysis of the Honey Bee’s Dance Language.
Anita made no secret of the fact that she was fighting cancer, and maintained a positive attitude coupled with a fatalistic resignation. She told me once she was sustained by her faith, and I hope she’s found peace. She will be missed by many.
Before Anita became an Adventuress, Marilynne McKay reviewed her book in The Serpentine Muse Vol 19, No. 1, 2002.
THE SECRET DIARY OF DR. WATSON: Death at the Reichenbach Falls by Anita Janda, Allison & Busby, 279 pages, $27.95.
All we are told about the author of this intriguing first novel is that “Anita Janda lives in New York City where she earns her living writing about wireless software applications. She earned her PhD in linguistics with a grammatical analysis of the dance language of the honey bee.” I would add that acknowledged or not, this book surely arose from the mind and heart of a genuine Sherlockian.
Opening in 1888, The Secret Diary of Dr. Watson begins like a typical Holmes and Watson pastiche with a telegram followed by a visit to an eccentric client. Although the presentation of the famous pair as “etheric manipulators” is unfamiliar (and amusing), many elements of the new case gradually become recognizable as those in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. The narrative is then uncharacteristically interrupted by the author’s comments, and it becomes clear that this is not a story, but an entry in Dr. Watson's writing journal. This project has been undertaken at the instigation of his wife, former governess Mary Morstan, to “give him back the writing habit.” Her rules for the blank journal, “Bound in real morocco leather, John!” are that he will not be allowed to tell her about his adventures with Holmes—he can only write them down, and she insists that she will never read what he has written. It must be a secret diary.
The premise thus established, we are treated to a deliciously different point of view. While I found the relationship between Holmes and Watson entirely consistent with my vision of the canon, I was amused by Ms. Janda's ability to capture Watson's subtle frustrations in dealing with his refractory colleague, who isn't always ready to release a story for publication. (“Really, sometimes Holmes tries my patience. Does he think this is easy? I should like to see him try his hand at this some time.”) An absolute delight is the development of John’s relationship to his Mary—it gradually dawns on the reader that she is as good as Holmes at manipulating the good doctor. On the other hand, it is Mary's determined efforts at matchmaking that force Watson to beget the extraordinary Irene Adler as an excuse for Holmes' skepticism of marriage.
Meticulously phrased in 19th century language, The Secret Diary provides special insights into a writer’s mind. Sherlockians will delight in the games Watson plays with names and events as he struggles to disguise Holmes' clients as characters in his stories: “What it comes down to is that I am free to use the deductive chain in its entirety—I merely have to make up the people, the crime, and the conversation.”
It is entertaining to encounter back stories for HOUN, BLUE, SCAN, BOSC, and others. We are also treated to Watson’s trials with his publisher (Mary’s “cousin Nat” of the Strand Magazine), whose insistence on buying stories six at a time becomes a burden when Watson’s stories aren’t seasoned enough to print (“I can’t release [BOSC] for his family to read on the way home from his funeral.”)
The winning combination of witty speculation and Sherlockian scholarship flows along so brightly that the plot twist at Reichenbach chills the reader like a dip in the falls themselves. Foreshadowed in the title, the last chapters unfold with special poignancy as Watson comes to realize what Holmes’ friendship has really meant to him. In The Secret Diary of Dr. Watson, Anita Janda has created a sympathetic and unforgettable autobiography that would make a splendid gift for your favorite Sherlockian(s).