May 25 2017

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows

by James Lovecrove

The Cthulhu Casebooks – Book One

An interesting premise

Some weeks back I announced that I was reading this book, one written by English author James Lovegrove. I also promised a review once I’d completed it. Well, I’ve read it so here’s the review. Along with some waffling about movies and such.

But first a caveat. As I’ve previously explained, I’m no book reviewer — there’s an art to such things and I don’t profess to have that gift. But I know what impresses me and what doesn’t, and I like to think I have the ability to express my views reasonably well. So that’s what follows here — my own perceptions rather than a professionally crafted review.

That’s that out of the way.


The stars were right

The book was published in November last year and, while it’s not taken me too long to stumble across it and dive between its covers, it was inevitable that I would do so sooner or later. You see, this tale is a cross-over piece in which the author depicts Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as they investigate a supernatural mystery, one that concerns the Cthulhu mythos, invention of 1920s American author, H.P. Lovecraft.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes since first discovering him during my early teens. Okay, the discovery was made courtesy of Hammer Films’ version of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, but it prompted me to go on to devour all of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, as well as a few since then by contemporary authors.

On reading ‘The Hound’, I discovered the many flaws of Hammer’s take on the tale but, suffice to say, the movie impressed me at the time. It was bound to, the pairing of Peter Cushing as Holmes, and Christopher Lee as Henry Baskerville gave the account a level of intensity that thrilled the teenage Steve Wand.

I digress.

The tarantula of the Baskervilles – why?
The old man of Providence – one scary guy

The work of H.P. Lovecraft has also been a favourite of mine for many years — albeit not as many as Conan Doyle’s. As with the Sherlock Holmes stories, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft by accident. I’d been playing Dungeons and Dragons for several years (I know, but what can you do) and ‘progressed’ from there to play ‘Call of Cthulhu’, a horror role-playing game based on the works of — you guessed it — Howard Phillips Lovecraft.



Sherlock Holmes vs the Cthulhu mythos
No contest

A review – at last

Roll forward to 2017 and enter James Lovegrove with this, the first of a trilogy pitching Holmes against the otherworldly horrors of the Cthulhu mythos. Like I said, it’s inevitable that I would arrive here eventually, but was it worth my time?

The short answer to that is ‘yes’, most definitely. Any author having the courage to take on the task of writing a Holmes novel commands a certain degree of respect, whatever the outcome. If novel writing isn’t tough enough, by taking on Holmes one must also overcome the highest hurdle of all — audience expectations. I’m guessing this is why on-line reviews of his book have been mixed. But who pays heed to such things anyway? Hell, even Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ received one-star reviews from some quarters. The slum quarters, obviously. Moving on …

A shadow out of time

The book begins with a cleverly crafted preface in which the author tells of an email he’d received from a solicitor in Providence, Rhode Island — not only the USA’s smallest state, but the birthplace of H.P. Lovecraft. It becomes clear that Lovegrove had inherited a manuscript from unknown relative Henry Prothero Lovecraft, descendant of the 1920s pulp-fiction writer, HPL. With me so far?

He goes on to reveal that the two trans-atlantic families share a common line of descent from the Von Luftgraf family of Germany. A family who had hastily left Germany ‘under a cloud’, one branch emigrating to England where they changed their name to Lovegrove, the other to America where they become Lovecraft. Neat, eh?

The author explains that the tale that follows the preface is a reprint of the manuscript — alleged to have been written by John Watson, ex British army surgeon, thus blowing apart the ‘fictional status’ of the Holmes/Watson partnership. It also reveals that their investigations were of a much darker nature than those published as fiction by Conan Doyle in the Strand Magazine.

Lightweight penny fiction that hid a dreadful reality?

I’d only read the preface and I was already intrigued. But, had Mr Lovegrove managed to write an authentic sounding Sherlock Holmes story? In other words, had he been able to adopt the ‘John Watson voice’? For even if his plot reflected the pinnacle in ripping yarns, if he’d failed with the voice, he’d failed with the story. I was to be pleasantly surprised.

Smutty fiction

Overall, I consider that the author has done well to recreate the familiar nuance of John Watson’s Victorian diction. This was vital as it allowed me to become quickly transported to the bustling metropolis of London with its pea-soup fogs, opium fugue, smut-caked buildings and hansom cabs.

I was able to enjoy the story without the feeling that this was just a poor slip-shod attempt to ride the Arthur Conan Doyle wave and coerce some cheaply-won pounds from the legions of Holmes fans slavering for something new.

New flesh on old bones

The characters of Holmes and Watson are well drawn — perhaps not entirely how I would expect at times, but providing contemporary authors adhere to Conan Doyle’s basic principles, I think it wise to allow a degree of latitude, if only to maintain a sense of vitality. When they step onto the stage, other familiar characters, such as Professor Moriarty and Inspector Gregson have an air of freshness about them, subtle differences injected into their characters by the author that add further interest to the tale.

I won’t outline the plot here. The back-blurb does that sufficiently. Suffice to say that, having now read the book, it does what it says on the tin. So, overall, I was well impressed and I enjoyed the story — enough to want to read books two and (if the quality is maintained) book three as well. The second novel is scheduled for release November 2017, with the third a year later.

That’s all on the plus side. There are two negatives.

Music hall flim-flam and flummery

While I’ve already declared that Watson’s voice is well articulated by the author, Lovegrove does lapse on occasion into what I’d describe as alliterative gobbledegook of the sort usually heard in Victorian old-time music halls. Such unnecessary use of archaic jibberish — that he may have injected to create an air of authenticity — only serves to kill the immersive element of the story. Like advert breaks during a thriller movie.

The second gripe I had was Lovegrove’s habit of over-explaining the nature of the Cthulhu mythos during immersion-wrenching information dumps. Sure, the mythos is a complex and horrifying concept, but its very mystery is part of that horror. To indulge in elaborate exposition only serves to remove the mystique, and thereby destroy any tension created by uncertainty.

Some questions are best left unanswered

I’m a strong advocate of leaving some things unsaid, or unexplained. Life’s like that. Sure, an author needs a full understanding of those things or characters he’s writing about, but only a small percentage of that needs to be relayed to the reader. The fact that the author possesses all the cards allows him suggest an impressive hand while only revealing a fraction of it. Readers are generally intelligent creatures and don’t need spoon-feeding.

Those that aren’t tend to read books like ‘Wolf Hall’ then bitch about them.

Overall, a hearty thumbs up

Don’t let those two shortcomings put you off reading this book. It’s a good story, based on a neat and original premise, and is well told. There’s some cracking writing here and several of the set-piece horror scenes are graphic page turners that set the pulse racing.

These, together with their contrasting genteel-gothic backdrop create a memorable Holmes tale that I’m sure would have both Conan Doyle and HPL doffing their caps in salute.