The Short Version: World War I rages on as Dr. John Watson sits in London on the edge of a deep depression. But when a mysterious summons from Mycroft Holmes reunites him with his friend and comrade Sherlock Holmes, the somewhat older men find that some things never change and the game can still be afoot. Only this time, it might be the very safety of the nation at stake…
The Review: The continuing adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have always fascinated me. Holmes is one of the first characters who we, as a society, really allowed to be so much more than what is canonically established – after all, aren’t all these Holmes stories really just fan fiction, in a way?
But were it not for novels in Titan’s series (or stories from other sources, be they “estate-approved” or otherwise), then how would we get to experience times we might want to understand – like Holmes and Watson during World War One? It can be difficult to see our heroes age, but Mann takes them to 1915 rather gracefully and his examination of how that changed world might leave our dynamic duo… not behind, not befuddled or anything like that, but how it might leave them a bit uncomprehending of just how quickly their world is transitioning to the next. Watson, for example, spends much of the novel on the edge of a deep depression: his nephew, the last of the Watson line, died in battle in France, cut down by machine gun fire. What a horrific and unthinking end from a staggeringly impersonal device – and you can imagine how someone like Watson or Holmes, men of intellectual and consideration, might be left blinking by such widespread cruelty.
Luckily, the world will always need minds of precision and tact – and isn’t that why we always come back to these gentlemen and their adventures? And here, the boys are recruited to do their part on the home front, recruited in fact by Mycroft and engaged in a plot far larger than they’re perhaps aware of. And if I have a quibble with the novel, it’s that while the investigation itself is pretty thrilling and full of the particular brand of derring-do we expect, the resolution felt rushed and simple, as though the final act of the novel was compressed into a few short scenes. As such, it sort of takes the wind out of the adventure – although I’ll also admit that I have this problem with some of the original Conan Doyle stories, too. The resolutions always feel just a bit too fast and perhaps that’s just a personal thing; I would love to linger a little while, for the tension to ratchet just one or two turns higher. But that’s not a terribly big quibble, not really.
One thing I really do love about Mann’s work, of course, is his continued world-building – and there on the back, provoking a grin (as it did before), is the note that this is “A Newbury & Hobbes Universe Novel”. Newbury makes an appearance, as do several others who we’ve seen in one way or another, but it was a short comment from the good Doctor midway through the novel that caught my attention: “The stories, I gathered, must have grown in the telling, as the London they described was a far cry from the one I remembered.” In this single moment, Mann manages to include Holmes & Watson in his universe while keeping the two universes somewhat distinct for those who might not appreciate the weirder alt-history of the N&H-verse. It’s a respectful gesture, both to his readers and to the larger cultural figures that Holmes & Watson have become, and while I for one am thrilled to see Holmes and Newbury as grudging appreciators of the other’s work, I realize that plenty of people come to Holmes just wanting our world. So there’s no talk of the prolonged life of Queen Victoria or clockwork oddities or anything like that (although they do hover just at the edge) – and instead, the reader is left to question the stranger bits of this particular adventure, just as Watson does in the final pages. Readers of the N&H novels will know that the spectrograph probably was capturing images of the subject’s aura, while traditional Holmes readers might see it as nothing more than a curiosity. That willingness to be open is a modest and selfless thing for an author to do and I salute Mann for having done it.
Rating: 4 out of 5. An admirable return by Mann to the Holmes canon, notable for its continued world-building of the Newbury & Hobbes universe but also for the introspective parts of the story featuring an older Holmes & Watson staring down the barrel of World War One’s rapidly changing world. There’s a sadness, a bleakness to some moments here that was almost surprising – and made all the better for the redemption and joy that arrives when the boys spring back into action. It just goes to show that we will always need men like Holmes & Watson and I’m glad to know that authors like George Mann are continuing to provide for us.