Written by Vaughn Entwistle — Crime fiction lovers might just remember the BBC TV series from 2001, The Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes. In it, David Pirie dramatised the early life of Arthur Conan Doyle, including his father’s death from alcoholism and his experiences as a medical student in Edinburgh. The programme explored Conan Doyle’s inspirations for Sherlock Holmes. Vaughn Entwistle has done something similar here, although he has focused on the later period of the author’s life.
Doyle is now a successful writer living in London, but has grown tired of Holmes. In fact The Strand Magazine has just published The Final Problem in which Holmes appears to die in the clutches of Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle feels a renewed sense of purpose in his writing, free of a character which had grown bigger than its creator. All is not well in his life, though. His beloved wife Louise is slowly dying and even his own medical administrations can’t save her.
He receives an invitation to a fashionable London address imploring that only the ‘inventor of Sherlock Holmes’ can prevent a murder. At first he finds the house empty but eventually meets a medium who is predicting her own death. Lady Hope Thraxton will be hosting The Society for Psychical Research, a group dedicated to the scientific examination of the paranormal, at her Lancashire manor house and has foretold that she will be shot during her third séance.
His friend Oscar Wilde encourages him to make the journey north, concerned for Doyle’s health and feeling he needs a break from tending to Louise. Doyle’s status as the most hated man in London after publication of The Final Problem, and his interest in spiritualism, persuade him his friend is right and the pair journey to Thraxton Hall. They discover an isolated gloomy estate where all the windows are blocked out because of the Lady’s aversion to natural light. There is a family curse upon the Thraxtons, and it’s been killing off successive generations in tragic circumstance. Members of the party include a mysterious masked foreign count, a bitter cynic determined to debunk the paranormal, an American magician who claims to be able to levitate, and an Eastern European witch with a black cat familiar. As guests and members of the household begin to die Doyle and Wilde must solve the mystery and prevent Lady Thraxton’s murder, which comes closer with every séance.
The book succeeds with only a few minor weaknesses. Entwistle creates a grand gothic mystery in the tradition of Doyle’s own The Hound of the Baskervilles or Basil Copper’s The House of the Wolf. Thraxton Hall is a gloomy, claustrophobic place despite its grand size. The darkened hall and secret passage ways make an excellent setting as Doyle rushes around, always one step behind the killer. The literary characters drawn from real life are a nice touch and also include JM Barrie and Bram Stoker, though it is the bon viveur Oscar Wilde that steals the show. Entwistle uses some of his real quotes to establish his wit.
One disappointment is the author’s use of the ghost of Sherlock Holmes coming to Doyle as a vision to guide him in the case. This seems unnecessary. Another was a plot point in which Doyle decides against leaving Thraxton hall after hearing of the impending death of his wife which is quite implausible.
Otherwise, it is an enjoyable book and a welcome variation on the usual Doyle/Holmes pastiches. It’s released on 28 March.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars