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Titan Books, 15 November 2016
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.
It is the autumn of 1880, and Dr John Watson has just returned from Afghanistan. Badly injured and desperate to forget a nightmarish expedition that left him doubting his sanity, Watson is close to destitution when he meets the extraordinary Sherlock Holmes, who is investigating a series of deaths in the Shadwell district of London. Several bodies have been found, the victims appearing to have starved to death over the course of several weeks, and yet they were reported alive and well mere days before. Moreover, there are disturbing reports of creeping shadows that inspire dread in any who stray too close. Holmes deduces a connection between the deaths and a sinister drug lord who is seeking to expand his criminal empire. Yet both he and Watson are soon forced to accept that there are forces at work far more powerful than they could ever have imagined. Forces that can be summoned, if one is brave – or mad – enough to dare…
I love a bit of Sherlock Holmes, so was delighted when Titan offered me a copy of the first book in this new series by James Lovegrove.
In his preface, Lovegrove relates the unlikely tale of hos his hitherto unknown family connection with HP Lovecraft led to the receipt of three yellowing typescripts, the work of none other than Dr John Watson, recounting the true story of his adventures with Sherlock Holmes. Are they real? Are they fake? Is the rarefied world of Holmesian scholarship about to be unset? or are even worse revelations in store?
I enjoyed this foray into an almost MR Jamesian world of lost manuscripts and unspeakable horror. Because of course, as the title proclaims, what we have here is the fusion of two great pantheons of popular literature. Holmes and Watson are supported by Mrs Hudson, Gregson, Lestrade and Mycroft - in their world of 221B, fog and hansom cabs (there's a hilarious bit where Lovegrove shows off his knowledge of clarences, growlers and who knows what else wheeled conveyances). Lurking underneath, though, are Elder Gods, tentacles horrors, sanity-blasting books and obsessed cultists.
In the hands of a less skilled writer this could have been a real mess. These two worlds have very distinct rules. While Holmes adventures may have a touch of the sensational and even Gothic, that's only to show off Holmes's superb rationalistic deductive power. And while some of Lovecraft's stories do permit a (temporary) success in driving back the cosmic horror, that's only to counterpoint the cold, bleak despair of what is surely coming to devour us.
Yet Lovegrove does a superb job in combining these immiscible essences, allowing the Great Detective and the Good Doctor to discover sinister horrors and reason themselves in ton accepting them as the only explanation - once the impossible has been removed - for the horrible deaths stalking Shadwell.
On the way, we're treated to a good pastiche of a late Victoria shocker: opium dens, vice ridden dives in the East End and so forth. Of course Lovegrove is writing for a modern audience and he properly contextualises the 'sinister Chinaman' stereotype, making it clear how the opium trade began with the British Empire and dwelling on the horrors inflicted on China. They aren't, of course, cosmic, but one can compare the results of colonialism with the eager, hungry desire of ancient gods to come and consume humanity.
It's all great fun, very smartly done, and with enough enjoyable Holmes references - Watson explains that his earlier stories were distortions, intended to make the truth - to keep the keenest Baker Street Irregular on their toes.
Two further volumes are promised and I look forward to them. My only criticism - and it's a bit of a picky point - would be that in my mind, the classic Sherlock Holmes tale is a short story, Conan Doyle only having written a handful of full length novels. The short story is suited to an incident, a satisfying episode or a minor crime and to highlighting Holmes's methods and world. The novel requires a more spectacular resolution and when you're dealing with Cthulhu and his ilk for 'spectacular' read 'life limiting'. So I'd welcome some short stories set in this world as well, if Mr Lovegrove could oblige...?