OR: Mycroft Holmes & The Stuff of Nightmares

A couple of reviews that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 25th of July last year:-

Having started the week with a detective story set in the year 1815 (see previous blog entry), it seems appropriate to skip forward half a century or so and show some love to a couple of books featuring the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used to be a basketball player (Hall of Fame inductee, so I’m assuming he was a bit good at it), but then moved into the writing world, with books for both adults and children in the back catalogue, winning an award for one of the latter entries in his oeuvre. With MYCROFT HOLMES (Titan Books hc, 328pp, £17.99), the first in a trilogy (so far) of books chronicling the adventures of Sherlock’s older and even cleverer brother, Abdul-Jabbar joins forces with professional screenwriter and script consultant Anna Waterhouse.

At the time of this story Mycroft is a minor government official serving under the Secretary of State for War. News of the disappearance of children on the island of Trinidad is a cause of concern to the two most important people in Mycroft’s life, his bride to be Georgiana Sutton, who was born there, and his friend Douglas, a black man who secretly owns a cigar shop that Mycroft patronises. When Georgiana leaves for Trinidad with no explanation, Mycroft uses his influence to start an investigation into goings on in the British colony. With Douglas posing as his manservant Mycroft embarks for Trinidad, but even while shipboard there are attempts on his life. These continue and in more deadly earnest once he makes landfall. The game is very much afoot.

I rather enjoyed this while I was reading it, but three weeks later I couldn’t recall much about it. The pleasures of the book are mostly to be found in the way in which Mycroft displays his intellectual prowess, in the very opening chapter coaching Cambridge to a boat race win and then outrunning some thugs, with perhaps the highlight being a meeting with brother Sherlock in which the two compete for mastery. The greater mystery doesn’t quite ring true, with scenes that seem rather more to do with plot convenience than credibility and an unconvincing picture of both life shipboard and in a British colony. I assume the authors did their research, but for me at least it didn’t translate to verisimilitude on the page.

Of the two groups who help Holmes and Douglas bring the fight to their enemies, I was intrigued by the Merikens, a group I had never heard of before and a sterling example of that aforementioned research, but I wasn’t quite so taken with the Chinese martial artists, whose presence stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb and had echoes of a Jet Li movie. Both groups and the Merikens especially, provide welcome scope for criticism of the racist tendencies prevalent at the time in which the book is set, with a subtext that sadly is still relevant today.

In the final stretch the book read like something Wilbur Smith might have written in his heyday, with a firefight between slavers and liberated slaves, which made for an exciting ending, while the resolution with Georgiana added a bittersweet note to proceedings. It was, all things told, something of a feel good finale with the men behind the scheme getting their deserved comeuppance and the forces of good prevailing. I enjoyed the book, but it lacked the originality and sheer style of Conan Doyle’s creation, perhaps inevitably so.

The book seems to have done well for the publisher, with a mass market paperback edition released in July of last year, and a sequel imaginatively titled Mycroft and Holmes following in October 2018, while a third volume is planned for September of this year.

One of the people I get directed to under the “also bought” banner when checking out Mycroft Holmes on Amazon is James Lovegrove. I’ve reviewed a couple of his previous books, apparently without any lasting damage to the writer’s career, and it appears that in recent years Lovegrove has carved out a niche for himself producing Sherlock Holmes’ pastiches for Titan. As you’d expect, given the writer’s pedigree, these books have a fantastic and/or horror bent to them, though at all times respectful to the canon. THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES (Titan Books tpb, 297pp, £7.99) from 2013 was Lovegrove’s first foray into these largely uncharted waters.

It’s 1925 and Watson has deemed it safe to release his “fictionalised” account of an adventure that took place back in 1890. London is beset by a series of bombings that move ever closer to Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace. A worried Mycroft invites his younger brother to join the investigation, but Holmes is much more interested in the case of Baron Cauchemar, a mysterious figure who is despatching summary justice to the criminals of the East End. The two cases prove to be connected of course, and the scene is set for a climactic showdown.

This isn’t a book that is going to change anyone’s life, but it is a splendid piece of entertainment. It’s been a long time since I read any Conan Doyle, so I can’t honestly say if Lovegrove gets the tone and flavour of the original, but the work feels right. His prose is engaging and the story races along at a ruthless pace. Holmes is somewhat more approachable than I remember, with his affection for Watson obvious, but he still on occasion displays his uncanny ability to read people from outward signs, though not to the point where we find it tedious or simply showy. He is also prone to playing his cards a little too close to his chest, and at times this is the goad that stimulates the plot, making what might otherwise seem a tad too opaque grab our interest.

The book has a rather magnificent villain, one to rival Moriarty in his duplicity, with an oily manner and leaning towards perverse pleasures that solicits our animosity even if I did find the character’s exaggerated “chauvinism” a bit hard to swallow. If the book had been written four or five years later I’d suspect Lovegrove of sounding a rather obvious and unsubtle warning on the dangers of grotesquely twisted nationalism (but of course, you could argue that such warnings are always timely). Baron Cauchemar is the complete opposite of this monster, with an engrossing back story: an honest man and a little too naïve for his own good, but like a character in his beloved Jules Verne novels he is determined to put his scientific prowess to good use.

The plot is enthralling, giving us plenty of occasions for alarums and excursions, all of them leading up to the grand finale in which Cauchemar as a steampunk Iron Man takes on his nemesis in an epic battle royal between rival inventors, with Holmes and Watson on hand to provide assistance if required (at this point you could make a case for the detecting duo being supporting characters, though who gets to be steampunk Happy and who is steampunk Pepper I’ll leave others to decide).

With its steampunk trappings the book rather reminded me of the 2010 straight to video Sherlock Holmes starring Ben Syder, which has to be one of the most woeful attempts ever made to place the character on celluloid, but fortunately Lovegrove has a much better grasp of the characters and an ability to use the material with a flair and imagination lacking from that production.

I read The Stuff of Nightmares over the course of two days and had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing so. Lovegrove has written eight more Holmes’ pastiches and as soon as there’s a window of opportunity in my reading schedule I hope to check out some of them.

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