The Short Version: When Sherlock Holmes is approached by the heirs of the recently deceased Sir Theobald Maugham, it seems a rather open-and-shut case of an old man having fallen down the stairs. But Holmes senses something worse at foot and is quickly proved right. Meanwhile, the intrepid Inspector Charles Bainbridge is faced with a series of robberies by gigantic iron men – and desperately needs Holmes’ assistance. The two stories come together in this newest Holmesian tale: The Will of the Dead.
The Review: Readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge fan of George Mann and his Newbury & Hobbes series (I’m not going to link all five books, but I’ve reviewed them all). It’s a steampunk-y, Fringe-y alternate universe that mirrors our own but with some notable differences – like more occult dabblings and more airships. But Mr. Mann has also been writing for two exceptionally well-known fictional figures – The Doctor and Sherlock Holmes – and he’s managed to weave his universe into theirs. In doing so, I’d argue that he’s enhanced the reality of his alternate universe, making it seem even more familiar and thus even more readily accessible.
In the first Casebook of the N&H universe was where I had my first Mann-penned Holmes encounters and so I was well prepared for this full-length novel. Delighted as I was to see the “A Newbury & Hobbes Universe Novel” tag on the back cover, I was happier to see that this was a Holmes story pure and simple – just one that happens to take place in that other universe. A younger Charles Bainbridge supports Holmes & Watson in their endeavors and the Iron Men Robberies are a bit out of Holmes’ usual purview (in our world, anyway) but if you don’t know Newbury & Hobbes, you’ll still love this as a Holmes novel. And while I’m tempted to wag my finger at Mann for pushing just a touch too hard with the footnote about The Affinity Bridge, I think it’s allowed simply because it will hopefully direct readers to the series who might otherwise have passed it by.
But enough about N&H-verse stuff. How does this novel stand up on its own?
The answer, of course, is “very well” – all the tropes you’d expect are there: Holmes’ Persian slipper and ratty bathrobe, the violin, Mrs. Hudson, the disguises, the attitude, the deductions, and so on. The case itself seems unlikely to pique Holmes’ interest at first – a seemingly ordinary accidental death, made interesting only by virtue of the missing will… but something catches and Holmes takes the case, realizing very quickly that the death was no accident. Readers who think they’re on top of the case will find themselves surprised at the end, in the way of some of Conan Doyle’s best stories – where it goes, in fact, one step further than you’d realized and Holmes is the only one who puts it all together.
The fun thing about this novel, though, is that the action doesn’t stop at the resolution of the titular crime. Whether because Mann wanted to pull Holmes more thoroughly into the N&H-verse or because he just wanted to deploy a few more tricks, the background case of the Iron Men provides the actual resolution of the novel. In Holmes’ way, he’s been keeping tabs on the case from the start while remaining mostly uninvolved – and when he and Watson finally do deliver it their full attention, it’s a joyful and fun denouement. You get the sense that while it wasn’t entirely necessary for the novel as a whole, it was more about Mann planting his own flag in the well-trod Holmes canon. He’s saying “I can do you a classic story, sure – but I can also bring Holmes somewhere you’ve maybe not seen him before.” It’s a bold statement to make but Mann pulls it off with aplomb.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The two stories do seem a little off when placed next to each other and, again, the Iron Men story felt more like Mann’s statement of purpose regarding how HE will write Holmes stories. But this is an excellent bridge between what most people know of Holmes and where he could potentially go. I’m immensely looking forward to his next stop in the N&H universe – and, more generally, to Titan’s developing Holmes series. They’re not like The House of Silk and “fully endorsed canonical novels” – but Holmes is such a delight, why should he be locked up? He’s not even like Bond, who benefits (I think) from remaining in the same continuum – Holmes is a figure for all times and all seasons. Just look at how many versions (all with their own merits) exist in current pop culture? So ride on, Titan – and write on, George. You’ve earned your right to tell us your Holmes stories and done the near-impossible by making an established and classic character a little bit your own.