Written by James Lovegrove — Sherlock Holmes remains an enduring literary phenomenon. He is an iconic character that continues to capture the imagination of readers, writers and TV viewers alike. This undying popularity seems to make Holmes’ original creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, unique. However, crime fiction lovers who don’t dip their toes into darker waters may be unaware that there is another author whose creations continue in a life of their own.
The American horror writer HP Lovecraft may not be as popular as Conan Doyle, but his Cthulhu Mythos is the inspiration for countless books. Lovecraft envisioned a number of Elder Gods, led by Cthulhu, who ruled over the Earth aeons ago and may do so again in the future. If that day comes then humanity will perish and in the meantime anyone who catches some knowledge of the gods will realise our cosmic insignificance and go mad.
Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows is the first of James Lovegrove’s Cthulhu Casebooks, which attempt to merge the Arthur Conan Doyle and HP Lovecraft literary lines and bring out the best in both of them. In order to do this he has had to tinker with the chronology of the Holmes canon. Purists might feel like turning away now, but shouldn’t, because in other respects he has made a good job of being faithful to Conan Doyle’s legacy. Lovegrove is no stranger to writing Holmesian stories, and we reviewed two of his novels previously – The Gods of War and The Stuff of Nightmares.
This one begins in 1880. Watson has returned from Afghanistan an invalid, but the cause of his injury was not as previously stated a Jezail bullet during the Battle of Maiwand, but rather as a result of his first brush with the occult. It is not to be his last. He is dragged by accident into one of Holmes’ cases, and from there their friendship grows.
Holmes has been investigating a series of bizarre deaths in the East End district of Shadwell; poor, unfortunate men and women are dying at the height of the new moon, their bodies aged and shrunken in an improbable manner. The locals report the presence of shadowy spectres in the area, and blame a dark magic. Ever the rationalist and logician, Holmes is dismissive. However, the mystery, rather than the injustice, is enough to engage his massive intellect. His chief suspect is much more corporeal: the Chinese businessman and suspected opium importer Gong-Fen Shou.
Shou is indeed involved. In fact, he is in over his head. He has begun investigating that which men are not meant to know and like all questers for forbidden knowledge he is coming to realise that what he seeks to control is in fact controlling him. A first hand encounter with the Shadwell shadows is enough to convince Holmes and Watson of the otherworldly peril threatening mankind and so begins a frightful game of cat and mouse which draws in other notable Holmesian characters including Lestrade, Mycroft, and… well, you know who.
Inevitably, Lovegrove has to include a little exposition about Lovecraft’s creations for things to make sense, but he manages to do without it getting in the way of the story. The plot itself is quite satisfactory, delivering some, but not too much, horror, as well as plenty of clever deduction on Holmes’ part. Even if you are primarily interested in Holmes, and have little interest in the Cthulhu crossover, you’ll still find plenty to enjoy. I was carried away by the story, and especially satisfied with the author’s rendering of Watson, both as a ‘steadfast friend’ but also as a man trying to keep body and soul together. In our article Beyond Conan Doyle, we heaped praise on Shadows over Baker Street, and at last there is a companion novel of similar skill.
One of the masters of supernatural crime fiction is John Connolly. We took a look at his work here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars