Written by George Mann — Previously here on Crime Fiction Lover we’ve reviewed The Will of the Dead featuring Sherlock Holmes in a steampunk mystery, and The Executioner’s Heart from George Mann’s Newbury & Hobbes series set in Victorian times. This latest Conan Doyle pastiche takes us back to the summer of 1915. The misery, death and horror of the Western Front has been delivered to the streets of London by monstrous airships – the Zeppelins – which have been bombing the towns and cities of eastern England. Dr John Watson is alone and miserable.
Watson is a widower and his favourite nephew’s name has been added to the growing list of wartime casualties. As he dozes in his armchair, he dreams of the glorious days when he lodged at 221B Baker Street, and the times when his great friend Sherlock Holmes would announce, “Come Watson, the game’s afoot!” He is jerked out of his depression by being summoned to a meeting with none other than the Great Detective and his brother, Mycroft.
Holmes has come out of his bee keeping retirement in Sussex to solve the apparent suicide of a government official. Herbert Grange’s job was to interview German internees to make sure they posed no threat to Britain. Just before his death, he was seen in a distressed state, muttering about something called a Spirit Box. Watson and Holmes are charged by Mycroft – who is a shadowy but powerful shaper of the nation’s destiny – to get to the bottom of the mystery as discreetly as possible. In their quest to find out what drove Grange to suicide, they encounter the weird world of spirit photography, espionage at the heart of British society, and dark secrets hidden within the walls of aristocratic homes.
In some ways, the most interesting character in the book is Watson himself. He comes over as more than just a chronicler of events, and his observations about Holmes are revealing. At one point, he says, “Holmes was perpetually on the outside of life, and never quite able to come in.”
There is just a touch of No Country For Old Men at times as the good doctor’s joints creak in protest when he has to keep pace with his colleague – who seems to be as sprightly as ever. This book shows, if nothing else, that however fantastical the plot or setting, almost any Holmes novel can be made to work, just as long as it doesn’t mess around too much with the original bone structure of Conan Doyle’s creation.
Personally, I like my Holmes unadorned and canonical, but there was just enough going on here to keep me interested. Mann gets the Conan Doyle style of writing pretty much right, although he rather overdoes the instances of Holmes telling someone about their lifestyle and recent history from the state of their cuff-links and the creases in their jacket. I did also raise an eyebrow when at one point there is talk of a room being ‘bugged’. In 1915?
Without giving too much away, I did have a face-palm moment when it is revealed how The Great Detective gets inside the vault of the Tidwell Bank. This isn’t the worst Holmes pastiche-homage I have ever read (nor will it be the last), and it is entertaining enough, but it did have me reaching for the reassurance of the real thing.
Incidentally, a recent American court case seems to have given the green light to yet another generation of Holmes interpretations. The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been levying what might be called a ‘Holmes Tax’ on those who publish novels containing the principal characters. Leslie Klinger, himself an author – and an authority on Holmes – challenged the estate, and the US Court of Appeal found in his favour, and ordered the estate to pay back the money they had received.
You can read our interview with George Mann here. The Spirit Box is released on 22 August.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars