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.


Echoes of Sherlock Holmes

Nice premise, mixed execution. Something for everyone.

Echoes of Sherlock Holmes edited by Laurie R King and Leslie S Klinger, Pegasus Books, October 2016

368pp £18.99 (Hardback)

Also available as an ebook.

Reviewed by Adrian Middleton

In the wake of their award-winning Holmesian anthology In the Company of Sherlock Holmes (2014) comes a further collection of tales edited by King and Klinger, inspired by the works of Conan Doyle. Broader in scope than the earlier volume, Echoes presents 17 diverse stories from a mixture of authors known and less well-known.   To be honest, I didn’t feel this volume was as strong as its predecessor. It has a solid core of strong, enjoyable stories scattered throughout, but there are a few weak ones whose inclusion may have owed more to the name of the author than to the strength of the stories. Also, there is less focus on the period and the art of deduction than on interesting characters and premises, particularly those revisiting the elder canon in some way. I did get the feeling that the stronger stories in this collection were positioned earlier in the volume, so to avoid that pitfall I looked at the stories in alphabetical order.

   Tasha Alexander’s Before a Bohemian Scandal provides a prequel to the famous Scandal which focuses on Irene Adler’s experiences leading up to the famous case. An interesting take on the woman.

   Dana Cameron’s Where there is honey didn’t sit so well with me. The scarce information provided in canon made the possibilities presented by this story fun as a premise, but it left me feeling that the core characters just didn’t ring true.

   John Connelly’s Holmes on the Range is a humorous tale set in a sort of library of the literary afterlife which couldn’t help but remind me of the first ever Holmes parody by J K Bangs.

   Deborah Crombie’s The Case of the Speckled Trout introduces Holmes’ goddaughter in an amusing tale involving a fish and a potential murder. Fun, but I tend to struggle with gender-flipped Holmes adventures with descendants (in this case Sherry Watson) and whatnot taking over the reins. Marred by my personal tastes, I’m afraid.

   Cory Doctorow’s The Adventure of the Extraordinary Rendition was a story I was looking forward to, but which quickly disappointed. As a modern story inspired by Holmes it felt more like it was trying to be too clever for its own good, and fell a lot flatter than I had hoped for.

   Hallie Ephron’s Understudy in Scarlet was an enjoyable take on both Irene Adler and the nature of American movie productions, taking the books remit seriously, and delivering because of that.

   Meg Gardiner’s Irregular plumps for a modern day detective, but in doing so failed to capture either my interest or my investment in the character. Again, my personal tastes may be a barrier here.

   William Kent Kreuger’s The Painted Smile takes us into the realms of child psychology, with a clever and very different spin on the identities of Holmes and Watson and their influence on us all.

   Tony Lee & Bevis Musson break up the prose with a fun comic strip called Mrs Hudson Investigates. Sadly too brief to have much impact, although I do believe that more anthologies should sneak a comic strip in.

   Catriona McPerson’s The First Mrs. Coulter explores the literary stirrings that Doyle’s writings evoke in a Victorian lady’s maid. Well enough told, but I didn’t feel like the target audience.

   Jonathan Maberry’s The Adventure of the Empty Grave introduces a grieving Watson to none other than C. August Dupin. A clever reminder that modern Sherlockians enjoy their post-modern reflections.

   Denise Mina’s Limited Resources again triggered my aversion to the gender-flip, with the rather odd Shirley. 

   David Morrell’s The Spiritualist cleverly explores Doyle’s spiritualist beliefs, which are challenged when he is visited by the ghost of someone he knows never existed… a good, strong interlude.

   Anne Perry’s Raffa amusingly asks the question “what if a TV Holmes were approached to solve a mystery”, and doesn’t disappoint.

   Gary Philips’ Martin X was a breath of fresh air which brings Holmesian inspiration to the funkadelic sixties, mixing up the rise of the civil rights movement with a very unusual spin on Sherlock Holmes.

   Hank Phillippi Ryan’s The Adventure of the Dancing Women managed to just about overcome my aversion gender-flipping and absurdly-names descendants as Annabelle Holmes brought the Dancing Men up to date with text and emojis.

   Michael Scott’s Crown Jewel Affair introduces us to an Irish bordello madam-turned-detective, but doesn’t give us enough room to really appreciate her.

   In conclusion, the diversity is good, but it does make me feel that overall more stories miss the mark than hit it, which is a shame as there are some gems here. 

   Traditionalists may struggle in places, and some stories feel more like experimental fan fiction, but the collection emphasises just how much variety exists in the world, and that can only be a good thing. There is shipping, Mary Sueing, crossovers and game-playing aplenty, but ultimately that is what the book is about: embracing the many aspects of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, and reflecting the mix of modern audiences contrasting modern with period, personality with problem, postmodernism with tradition, and women with men.