Feb. 16th, 2017

sawyl: (A self portrait)
Following up on a recent review in the Guardian, I read James Lovegrove's Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows. The book opens with a framing prologue from Lovegrove himself: in 2016, out of the blue, he received a manscript from an American lawyer dealing with the estate of a distant relative of HP Lovecraft; despite concerns about the veracity of the narrative, Lovegrove agreed to edit it for publication. The resulting tale, The Shadwell Shadows, rewrites much of the accepted history of the man who is surely England's greatest detective: Sherlock Holmes.

The book proper opens with a second prologue, this time from the manuscript itself. Writing in the 1920s, towards the end of his life, Dr John H. Watson states that he has decided to write the truth about his time with Sherlock Holmes and to describe three episodes, set a decade apart, which go to the heart of the terrible things they dealt with together. But in order to do so, Watson confesses, he must set aside many of the accepted truths about the Great Detective's life and about his own.

Having lately from Afghanistan and indeed been injured, although not by a rifle bullet, John Watson is at a low ebb. One night, having sunk so far as to play nap in a dingy pub, Watson encounters a person from his past: Stamford, a fellow medico, attempting to buy a teenage girl from a pair of Lascars. Appalled Watson tries to draw his former friend back from the brink, only for the man to flee. As Dr Stamford runs, a second man, apparently an alcoholic middle-aged Yorkshireman, enters the fray and dispatches the two pimps with an elegant, eastern martial art. The man is, of course, Holmes, in one of his many disguises.

Lovegrove's re-writing of Watson's return is skilfully done, taking many of the established facts and putting them into a new perspective. Even Watson's conscious efforts to re-write his past make sense of the Holmes canon's inability to remember quite where he was shot: was it in the leg or the shoulder? The book is also clearly aware of and dialogue with Neil Gaiman's A Study in Emerald, right down to a deliberate reference to Holmes' mother's maiden name being Vernet. We also get plenty of atmosphere, from a London Particular to a run-down boozer complete with sinister foreigners engaged in the sex trafficking — a staple of British detetive fiction of a certain era.

Despite giving chase to Stamford, the man gives them the slip and the pair retire to Holmes' lodgings in Baker Street. There Holmes informs his new friend that he has been investigating a series of mysterious murders that occur around time of the new moon which have seen desiccated victim with a look of acute horror embossed on their features abandoned in Shadwell. When Stamford eventually turns up in a police cell, he is out of his mind and raving nonsensically. When he kills himself in a highly gruesome fashion, the duo follow up their only remaining lead: an opium den in Limehouse known to be frequented by the fallen doctor. Here they cause a scene, during which Holmes loudly mentions the name of the owner, Gong-Fen Shou. Sure enough, the feint works and the pair find themselves subject to a late night visit from the impeccably mannered crime lord.

What appears at first to be a fallen London doctor engaged in attempted child abduction turns into something else as Holmes introduces a series of apparently impossible murders, with the first hints of the supernatural introduced through a series of animate shadows. With the re-appearance of Stamford, Lovegrove immediately signals that we're in Lovecraft Country by having him come out with some classic phrases of worship associated with Cthulhu and, by having Watson react to them, uses it to impart something about Watson's buried past. The opium den, which might seem like a hackneyed location, is instead shown to be a sophisticated setup, a place frequented by the highest in the land, and whose existence owes as much to political resentment as to profit.

Gong-Fen, who seems genuinely intrigued by Holmes, holds out a hand offering enlightenment. Holmes accepts and the pair depart, leaving Watson to count the anxious hours until his new friend's return. When Holmes reappears, he is a changed man. Courtesy of Gong-Fen, he has been on a dream quest and seen the horrifying forms of the Outer Gods, barely returning with his sanity intact. This prompts Watson into his own confession: during his time in Afghanistan, he and some of his fellows slipped away from their regiment to search for a lost city; here he earned the terrible wound in his shoulder and first heard the ancient words that so shocked him when he heard them repeated by the deranged Dr Stamford.

In introducing the first full-on Lovecraftian elements, Lovegrove pays homage to a established technique: having the characters relate their events in flashback part-way through the narrative. Not for them the cosy safety of a Club Story; instead, through their mutual retellings, one recent and one older, the pair now finally begin to see what they may be up against, and that it might be more terrible than they can possibly having imagined.

Following their mutually reinforcing revelations, the pair realise that Gong-Fen was right: the world is far older than they supposed and its ancient gods far more real and more inimical to humanity than they had ever dreamed. The pair dedicate themselves to the study of esoteric texts, hoping to learn the secrets of the eldritch world, only to chance upon a lead which promises to help resolve the Shadwell murders.

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows is highly entertaining and extremely enjoyable, mixing Lovecraftian horrors with a very fine take on Conan Doyle. Lovegrove's Watson is appropriately gruff and bluff and good-hearted; his Holmes cerebral and febrile by turns. Victorian London, with its fogs and cabs and low dens, comes across well. Lovegrove clearly possesses a detailed knowledge of Holmesiana which he skilfully uses to re-write much of Holmes and Watson's shared history to incorporate the fantastic, using the excuse that Watson found it necessary to alter the truth in his previous writings in order to avoid horrifying his unprepared public.

Given that Watson's framing preface explicitly mentions that he is going to relate three events, each a decade apart, which formed the key points in Holmes' shadow career, I think I've got a lot to look forward to...

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