2 March 2018

Blogtour review - Holmes: The Darlington Substitution by Melvyn Small

Holmes: The Darlington Substitution
Melvyn Small
Indipenned, from 14 February 2018

I'm grateful for an advance e-copy of the book as part of the blogtour.

Ever since Conan Doyle stopped writing Sherlock Holmes stories, the character has been reworked, imitated, reinvented, pastiched. (In fact, probably before that...). I was intrigued to be offered the latest example of this - a Holmes of the North East, firmly living in the 21st century (the story includes a sizeable part for BBC Local Radio). Subtitled "A Boro's Greatest Detective Novella", this is a story that gets us away from gaslights, Hansoms, cobblestones and deerstalkers.

It does, though, pack into its short length a fair few references to the originals, just to prove that Small knows what he's about ("Sherlock ever investigated a case that included some sort of hound? I dunno, maybe one terrorising a bunch of posh twats..."; a mention of a horse running in the "Beryl Coronet"; the "Baker Street Kitchen" is a cafe and "The Twisted Lip" a pub, and of course namechecks for DI Barry Lestrade and even Col Sebastian Moran - who Holmes was lucky to escape from alive). Indeed the title itself is a reference Holmes himself drops in the course of A Scandal in Bohemia (the context being the universal human tendency, in case of fire, to save the most precious thing - a point relevant to this story).

Like many of the originals, this isn't, at least not apparently, a case of murder or theft but more of a puzzle. I won't spoil the story by saying just what has happened, but it's more of an oddity, a surprise, that sets Holmes' antennae twitching. But he lacks data and, as ever, John Watson isn't best placed to supply them. Indeed, being preoccupied with selling copies of his memoirs, he doesn't pay a great deal of attention to Holmes's concerns. (The sections detailing signings in bleak branches of WH Smith are written with feeling!)

The story is just the right length for a Holmes case: a novella/ long-short-story is to my mind ideal to introduce a mystery, show how baffling it is, let Holmes do his thing and then wrap everything up. If Small is a little mysterious about precisely how Holmes draws his conclusions, that may be forgiven, Conan Doyle often did the same, but we get a broad hint that detecting is easier in the days of social media so one might imagine he's a skilled at IT, and there are hints at hacker abilities. All this is I think fully line with how the original Holmes was written, a bit of a geek, up with all the latest technology and none too fastidious how he used it.

So once you become used to the central characters, and especially to them NOT addressing each other in the slightly stuffy manner of the originals, the story rattles along. There is some neat writing in places "...hoping I could transform his change of mood into a change of mind..." and use of (I think) real locations in and around Darlington and Middlesborough which slightly passed me by, not knowing the area (but then I don't know Victorian London either?)

All in all an engaging idea, well realised, providing a refreshingly different angle on the Great Detective.

Chapter 1 of The Darlington Substitution is available from 14 February 2018 on the Indipenned site - go over there now to read and to find out how to get the rest!


  1. Hi David,

    Many thanks for such a wonderful review. It’s always great to hear that the stories work if the reader doesn’t know the area. Your point about Victorian London is a very good one.

    The Baker Street Kitchen and The Twisted Lip are actually real places ��

    Best wishes


  2. Mel

    It was a pleasure! Even better to learn that those places are real. That's perfect.

    Best wishes