Monthly Archives: September 2015


I have just returned from a week touring the Hudson Valley and the Catskills in upstate New York. Most of it was for a piece for The Times and it was a very successful trip – good food, dramatic modern art, fantastic scenery, Robber Baron’s grand historic homes, and some possibly too close encounters with local wildlife. But one standout was the hotel we stayed in on the last night, mainly because it was so unexpected (it was the result of a tip-off from a native New Yorker who said: ‘Don’t ask questions, just book in’).

If you read a lot of the US travel press you might think that the recent renaissance of the Catskills – which is a few hours’ drive from Manhattan, up I-87 or 90 – means it’s a Williamsburg with trees and mountains, with a farm-to-fork restaurant at every junction, an antique Americana collection on every porch, a cool bar beside every creek. This isn’t true, there is a lot of driving around (by our standards at least) to sample the best of, say, Delaware County.

The town of Andes in The Catskills is good for Americana

The town of Andes in The Catskills is good for Americana

After a slightly disappointing first turn through district, the highlights being Andes (quaint, good vintage clothes, antiques, coffee and cookies) and Delhi (bookstores, covered bridges, more antiques) but not fly-blown Bloomville (Table on Ten restauarant and not much else), I thought maybe The Roxbury might not live up to its billing. However, there is often something about the typography and colour scheme of a place’s signboard that tells you that you are in safe hands. “Contemporary Catskill Lodgings” this one teased in limegreen and black and it delivered.

The Roxbury and backdrop

The Roxbury and backdrop

The Roxbury is a themed hotel, in that each of the 28 units is decorated to a particular brief, in this case a TV show or movie. Now, I’m not always a fan of themed rooms. Sometimes hoteliers think that all it takes is a hideous shagpile carpet, a lava lamp and a couple of DVDs and bam! The Austin Powers Suite. Or a bit of gold MDF and organza and you have the Arabian Nights room. That isn’t the case at The Roxbury Motel.

The owners, Greg Henderson and Joseph Massa both have theatrical backgrounds and it shows (Greg does concepts, Joseph is the craftsman) in the outlandish concoctions. What makes The Roxbury different is the attention to details – every room is done with passion and panache. Most are based on the sixties TV shows that were on constant re-run when the owners were growing up. So there is a Star Trek room, where the ceiling becomes the galaxy of dopplered stars as seen in warp drive, created by a massive coil of fibre optic lights in the roof space, and where the bathroom tiles glow to recreate the holodeck. For I Dream of Jeannie, the pair used an ancient Roman technique to create a perfect spherical space to represent the genie’s bottle. Gilligan’s Island is basically a huge inverted coconut cream pie as baked by Ginger and Mary Ann.

The understated Amadeus-themed room

The understated Amadeus-themed room

Best of all, though, is a three-bedroom stand-alone single-story house called The Digs. It was inspired by the purchase at auction of artifacts that were previously owned by a man who claimed to have worked for the Board of Education. Greg and Joseph discovered that they were from places such as Persia/Iran, the Far East and various destinations not open to the usual US tourist in the 50s and 60s. They decided the vendor had been a spy-cum-archeologist and so created a huge backstory which means The Digs is filled with the sort of items that might be boxed up at the end of Indiana Jones – and indeed there is a room with a ceiling full of bullwhips, snake wallpaper, a Mayan temple hiding a pull-down bed and a giant boulder above the lobby in homage to Indy. There’s also a fish tank so special it has featured on Animal Planet.

The Digs' ceiling lamps - from Cairo.

The Digs’ ceiling lamps – from Cairo.

But here’s the thing: despite all the frivolity, the hotel work – the products are excellent, there are bathtubs as opposed to mere showers, the fabrics, tiles, lamps, ceiling fixtures are sourced from the best suppliers in the world, there’s a two-part spa (hot tub and sauna in one wing, steam and treatments in another) and the sheets are as good as those in the Four Seasons.

As if this wasn’t enough, the pair have also bought a slightly sagging antebellum mansion down the road (see, which sits right next to a dramatic gorge and waterfall and they plan to do much the same with it (albeit more in keeping with the estate’s history than, say, The Jetsons room). Having toured the site, their plans are either insanely ambitious or just… No, I suspect The Roxbury at Stratton Falls will be ready within the two to three years they have allowed themselves. And I’ll be back.

The Digs living room

The Digs living room

See for rates. I flew with Virgin Atlantic ( and hired a car through Alamo. The ins and outs of a Hudson Valley fly-drive will be dealt with  in The Times Travel piece.


This blog is actually about some “new” Arthur Conan Doyle stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. But stick with me for a while…

Back in 1998 Sony Records released Panthalassa, a sound collage of music made by Miles Davis between 1969-74, but given a radical reworking by Bill Laswell. Actually, it wasn’t that radical, he simply updated techniques used by Miles’ original producer, Teo Macero, who was the master of cut and splice and extracting a coherent shape from hours of studio jamming. Regardless of its honourable precedents, there was predictably some outrage from Miles Davis purists, claiming that what Laswell had done was sacrilege. These were the same people who, presumably, were happy to listen to the original In A Silent Way, with its whole section repeated verbatim (or whatever the musical equivalent is) – the last six minutes of the first track “Shhh” are actually the first six minutes of the same track repeated in identical form – the same performance, in fact. (To be fair, only a very few reviewers and listeners noticed this at the time).


     But there is another reason why the purists are wrong. Laswell did not destroy the originals of In A Silent Way, On The Corner or Get Up With It. Those are still there to enjoy. And in fact, I play the original and Laswell’s versions of In A Silent Way about equally (incidentally, the boxed set of IASW contains two killer unreleased tracks – the blues-soaked Ghetto Walk and Joe Zawinul’s wonderful Early Minor).

The reason I mention this is because today (September 3) sees the release of The Case of The Six Watsons where, like Laswell, I have taken something considered as a sacred text and tinkered around with it. I therefore expect similar opprobrium to rain down on me. For I have taken Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s texts and inserted some of my own words into them, this creating a collage of my own (although the majority of the text remains ACDs). The idea is to create “new” Holmes/Watson stories from the template of his non-Sherlock shorts which, let’s face it, are widely ignored compared to the 56 that make up the Holmes ‘canon’.

Case of the Six Watsons ebook cover

       Five of the six short stories I used are Conan Doyle stories that were among the hundreds (of variable quality) that he produced in addition the familiar Sherlock Holmes cases. Two of them actually make oblique reference to a famous detective, and in some countries are anthologised with the other 56 short stories (there are also the four novels, of course). The other three stories were the ones I thought could easily be transformed into Holmes tales (in fact, as the title suggests, it is mainly Watson who features in all of them) without disrupting the original text too much. The sixth is an original Watson short story by me, set in Egypt in 1915, when Watson would have been in the Royal Army Medical Corps. So the contents are as follows:

  1. The Beetle Lover. This immediately struck me as one of Conan Doyle’s short stories that most resembled a Holmes tale. It has a mysterious newspaper advertisement (as in ‘The Red-Headed League’), a job opportunity at a country house with some strange provisos (‘The Copper Beeches’) and the original narrator of ‘The Beetle Hunter’ (1898) was indeed a doctor, albeit somewhat younger than Watson. Until now. As with all the stories in this collection, I have changed the title slightly (from “Hunter” to “Lover”) so that there is no chance of confusion with the non-Watson original.
  1. 300px-Beetle-hunter-strand-juin-1898-5
  1. The Wrong Detective. This is the story that kick-started the whole idea of recasting ACD stories. In my Watson novel A Study in Murder (for which it formed an appendix), this was called ‘The Girl and the Gold Watches’, a slight twist on the original title, ‘The Man with the Gold Watches’. But I wanted to suggest that Holmes appears in this one, hence the new name. Holmes did get a mention in the version published by Conan Doyle in 1898, as an anonymous ‘well-known criminal investigator’ who offers some of the explanations that Holmes uses here.
  1. The Brazilian Wife. At its core this is an ACD story called ‘The Brazilian Cat’, originally published in 1908. My retelling is set during the Great Hiatus, when Holmes was assumed to have perished with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. I have inserted various events and references from ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Empty House’, the two short stories that bracket the Great Detective’s absence. This version sees Watson doubly bereft, with both Holmes and Mary Morstan gone from his life. Is it any wonder he acts irrationally?


  4. The Prisoner in B.24. Originally written in 1899 (under the title B.24) in the form of a  submission to the court of appeal, with no clear outcome. I have substituted Dr Watson for the court and given it a new ending.

5. The Missing Special. There are some anthologies of the Holmes stories, especially in translation,that include ‘The Lost Special’ (as it was originally called) in the ‘canon’ (or as apocrypha), becasue the celebrated detective who writes to The Times is clearly Sherlock. His identity is betrayed by he opening sentence of his letter – it is a classic Holmes maxim. So I have re-jigged this story to give the Great Detective and Dr Watson a more central role. Plus in the original (published in1898) there is a reference to a villainous Englishman at work, so I have taken the liberty of identifying him.


6. The Broken Crocodile. Having played fast and loose with some of Conan Doyle’s work, I thought it about time I gave myself a taste of my own medicine. This ‘samples’ a section of a novel I wrote about TE Lawrence (of Arabia) called Empire of Sand. The setting is from that book, but the mystery of the broken bowl is entirely new, although those who have read Dead Man’s Land – the first in the Dr Watson at War series – will recognise a character in the opening scene. It is set in the spring of 1915.

For a limited period these six stories are available to download for free as an e-book from the Amazon Kindle store.

And if you don’t approve, then I shall invoke the Laswell Defence, in that the original ACD stories are readily available, unsullied by me or anybody else, in the collections Tales of Unease and Round The Fire Stories.