Written by James Lovegrove — With James Lovegrove’s background in science fiction, you might expect something other than a straight pastiche of the great detective here in The Stuff of Nightmares. And, while that’s true, there are still enough of the familiar tropes to please any Holmes fan. The year is 1890, placing the adventure near The Copper Beaches and The Red-Headed League on the Sherlock Holmes timeline, and shortly before The Final Problem. Holmes is living alone in his 221B Baker Street lodgings and Watson has married Mary.
On his return to the capital, Watson is caught up in a bombing at Waterloo Station, the latest in a series which have rocked London. Scotland Yard have no suspects and no group has come forward to claim responsibility, though Irish terrorists are suspected. The situation is dire enough for Mycroft to ask his brother Sherlock to consult, but to everyone’s surprise he demures.
Holmes is more concerned with investigating the strange phenomenon of Baron Cauchemar. There have been rumours coming from the East End of a strange terror, part man, part machine, covered in black armour and able to attack with poison gases and bolts of electricity. The whole city has heard of this monstrosity, but many doubt his existence, including Watson. If Cauchemar is real, is he for justice or a new super criminal? Neither Watson nor Mycroft can fathom Holmes’ obsession with what is surely an urban legend, but Holmes has noticed that Cauchemar first appeared shortly after the bombings began and believes there must be a connection. Only by solving the mystery of the masked avenger will he get to the truth of the bombs.
Their investigation takes them to the rough pubs of the East End, to one of the most notorious brothels in London, to a deconsecrated church, into the sewers, and to the embassies of foreign nations. They mix with the criminal and political classes, and even Moriarty makes an appearance. The adventure climaxes on a giant train, The Iron Duke, as Holmes and Watson battle to prevent a foreign conspiracy to assassinate Queen Victoria.
There are elements of science fiction – particularly steampunk – in the weapons and airships, similar to the stories in Encounters of Sherlock Holmes, which we reviewed here. The book is also faster paced than the traditional Holmes story, with more action and less mystery. The villain is evident early on and, disappointingly, the mystery is a puzzle even the dull-witted Watson could have solved.
However, Lovegrove clearly knows his way around the canon and there are plenty of nice touches for Holmes fans to appreciate. Watson narrates (of course), and places teasing hints about other unreported cases, and the relationship between Holmes and Watson is spot on and faithful to the originals. Indeed Lovegrove has changed just enough to make the book stand out from all the other Holmes pastiches, but not so much as to alienate long term fans.
The Stuff of Nightmares comes out 30 August
CFL Rating: 3 Stars