Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows

Our latest review enters the murky world of HP Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors to explore the first volume in The Cthulhu Casebooks trilogy. But it is not a mash-up.

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove, Titan Books, December 2016.

Hardcover. 352pp £12.99

Reviewed by Adrian Middleton

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows starts strongly and with some well constructed prose that presents us with a slightly different version of Messrs Holmes and Watson that that seen in the original canon.
   Taking us from their original meeting through their very earliest adventure, Lovegrove presents us with a mystery too terrible to be told at the time, revealing exactly why Dr Watson was invalided out of Afghanistan and why we never heard of any of Holmes’ more supernatural cases.

   These subtle changes–all presented as truths concealed by the fiction of the canon–justify the voice of an older, more honest, more intelligent Watson who shows us a Holmes whose dedication to spurious possibilities in conversation a conspiracy that positions the pair as champions of the war against Cthulhu and his minions.

   Some minor niggles. First, while the book presents a crossover between the world of Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos of H P Lovecraft, and wile it revisits and reimagines the early adventures of Holmes and Watson, it is not a mash-up. 

   Such a label does the book, and Lovegrove, a disservice. The words are not Doyle’s, and the characters have be appropriated so effectively that they acquire a new life in the telling of this story, dipping into key moments in their lives together, but never truly quoting the original. There are common facts, but there are also divergent ones, and Lovegrove tales is deeper into the realm of period adventure, evoking both the classic Weird Tales of Lovecraft and Howard, the lurid Dime Novels of Hammet and, of course, the more rigid tales of Doyle himself.

   The second niggle is language. Overall the voices of Holmes and Watson are captured. With Holmes this is flawless, and with Watson almost so. While Lovegrove effortlessly inserts period language into his narrative in such a way as to infer the meaning of words most readers will be unaware of, these insertions do stand out and, on occasion, jar. I never once needed to reach for a dictionary, but there were times when I just knew a word or phrase wasn’t quite right (‘myocardial infarction’ instead of ‘coronary thrombosis’, for example). That said, he has introduced me to my new favourite word: parrumping!

   The Lovecraftian element is layered enough to introduce the novice to Cthulhu and his minions. Using plot devices resembling those used by Sax Rohmer to shift from the mundane to the exotic, weaving the two worlds together seamlessly in a pulp style that would make the late August Derleth green with envy. Indeed, the common criticism of supernatural Holmes crossovers is the idea that the irrational undermines the great detective’s rational approach, meaning that it might only take one horror story to unravel Holmes’ approach. Where this was previously tackled head-on in Andy Lane’s Holmes/Cthulhu/Dr Who crossover All-Consuming Fire, Lovegrove takes an entirely different approach, using Watson’s Afghan experiences as a touchstone for Holmes’ scepticism, and setting the pair up for a trilogy of adventures spread out over a lifetime of cases. Not once did I feel that Holmes’ mundane cases would be affected by the inclusion of the mythos, merely that the forbidden knowledge that he acquires adds an additional dimension to his thought processes. 

   In conclusion, while not perfect, Shadwell Shadows comes as close to unifying the Holmes and Cthulhu canons as is possible, easily meriting Titan’s foray into producing a very special hardback trilogy that stands apart from its other Sherlockian ranges.

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