The Adventure of the London Waterworks

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Tagged: reviews, books, puzzles, sherlock holmes, david whiteland, puzzle books

The formal title of this puzzle book is The Sherlock Holmes Escape Book: The Adventure of the London Waterworks by Ormond Sacker. Yes, genre labels are always terrible; "escape book" is what people are calling them these days. And yes, "Ormond Sacker" is a pseudonym. The puzzle and text were created by David Whiteland, who created the Planetarium web puzzle that I reviewed... oh, jeez, I wrote that review exactly twenty years ago.

At any rate! You are Holmes, investigating dastardly goings-on at the Kew Bridge Waterworks. (A historical location, now the London Museum of Water and Steam.) Watson follows you around with his revolver and his reliably dunderheaded commentary. Okay, that's not fair. He points out clues as often as he misses them, and he tends to roll his eyes at your snottiness when you're not looking.

Waterworks has the format of a CYOA book, but it's not a branching-path story. Instead, it's a sequence of puzzles. Some solutions are a number, and you are meant to turn to that page. Others boil down to a multiple-choice question: if the answer is odd, turn to page X; if even, page Y. Or that sort of thing.

But can't you cheat your way through just by peeking at every possible page? Some wrong solution-paths lead to an obvious disaster. Others send you down a false trail that leads to failure in short order. But the book can be more sneakily discouraging. The finale puzzles require you to put together several clues you've found in your travels. In many cases, if you screw up a puzzle, you're sent to a page with a bad clue. You won't realize this until you hit an end-game puzzle and find that your collected clues are inconsistent or useless.

Yes, you can always guess. The ending is not a full-on metapuzzle where you must assemble all the information to make any progress. It is, ultimately, a choice of two or four options. But if you want to cheat, you might as well just turn to the back -- hints and solutions are included. If you want to solve the thing honestly, you're on the honor system.

I recommend giving it an honest try. There's a wide variety of puzzles -- enough that a few are likely to annoy you. I looked at answers for two or three. But the majority were satisfying to push through.

Plus, the book has a cipher wheel in the front cover! That would make Waterworks a Cool Puzzle Book even if the rest didn't measure up.

I'll line up my quibbles:

  • Most of the puzzles are on the easy side. Some are so easy that the book asks you to solve them with a time limit. This seems like a design flaw. (Yes, I saw what you did with that maze, that was nice.)
  • Many of the illustrations conceal clues or hidden marks. However, these are often quite small or dim. You really will need a magnifying glass, at least if you're over the age of 30.
  • You don't need to be a Sherlockian fanatic to solve this. But if you're not, you're going to be checking Wikipedia in a few places. That's fine, it's not cheating.
  • Print out the Dancing Men cipher (Sørensen's version) before you start. It's a lot easier than using the code wheel.
  • The puzzles don't always connect to the story in any mimetically meaningful way. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they're just pasted in. This is, unfortunately, most noticeable in the finale puzzles. The story tells you to collect clock times, and the clock times are clues, but there's no in-story reason for them to be clues.
  • The antagonist is Moriarty. Moriarty is boring. It's always flippin' Moriarty. At least it's not meant as a surprise -- Holmes spills Moriarty's name on the second page. (And there's a sly "seeing Moriarty everywhere" gag later in the book which made me laugh.)

My only serious complaint (aside from the magnifying glass) is that it's not a very Holmesian experience. Yes, there's a blizzard of canon in-jokes, but not much sense of the lightning observation and deduction which makes the stories fun. When you observe something, the narration just tells you that you've observed it. And when you go to work, you're solving formal puzzles, following the book's instructions. Really it feels like Watson's job... so much so that I kept forgetting who the narrator was!

Of course, Watson's point of view is always more comfortable. He narrated the original stories; the various TV and movie versions mostly followed suit. Game versions have gone both ways (we all remember Creepy Watson). But inhabiting Holmes's first-person (or second-person) viewpoint requires more than snippy banter. The story has to convey being brilliant. This book mostly conveys things being obvious but Watson didn't see them. I suppose it's how the Holmes POV should work, but the fun is missing.

To be clear, this is purely a complaint about the narrative style. The puzzles are fun; the book is cleverly put together. It pulls a couple of admirably sneaky tricks. The sense of place is solid -- I felt like I was sneaking around the real Waterworks, dodging hoodlums and searching for clues amid the offices and machinery. It's a good puzzle book. I recommend the thing and I hope the creators make more of them.