Author: James Lovegrove
Title: Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon
Series: Sherlock Holmes (Titan Books)
Right on time for the fast-approaching Christmas season, a new Sherlock Holmes novel hit the shelves this October. It is quite an eye-candy: a wonderfully bright and festive cover draws the eye and at the first glance invokes the spirit of Yuletide, and the interior is equally lovingly arranged. A nice gift for any bookworm, and especially for all those Sherlock Holmes fans out there 🙂
As for the content, well… 🙂 I must admit, I am always a bit wary of books utilizing characters created by someone else – especially characters like Sherlock Holmes, arguably the world’s most famous detective, whose existence is irrevocably and undeniably bound with that of his creator, sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Books about such renowned characters, written by other authors, always seem to me slightly too close to fan fiction for my liking. In that context, Gaiman’s and Albuquerque’s A Study in Emerald is a notable exception here, offering a very welcome and impeccably executed twist on the Holmesian (or should it rather be Sherlockian?) lore, masterfully intertwined with Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos. But in case of Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon, I didn’t mind the fanfic associations in the slightest: the author was respectful but not overly fawning over its source material, managing to strike a nice balance between the spirit of original Sherlock Holmes novels and his own voice and delivering a pleasant new storyline to the ever-growing Holmesian. Plus, the book came with recommendation from Aaron at Swords and Spectres, and I learned to trust his tastes (…well, in most cases! :D).
In keeping with tradition of Doyle’s novels, Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon is written from the perspective of the good doctor and even better sidekick, not to mention an aspiring writer, John Watson. The story starts in London, but quickly abandons 221b Baker Street and moves to a remote Yorkshire castle, where the majority of events takes place. Eve Allerthorpe, the young heiress of an old and eccentric Yorkshire dynasty, asks Holmes for help in a seemingly supernatural case: a local Christmas demon, the malignant, child-eating Black Thurrick, seems to haunt her (even though she can no longer claim membership in that broad and somewhat vague category of children), leaving bundles of birch twigs as his calling card. Holmes is intrigued, suspecting rather more material and down-to-earth causes of demonic visitations, as Allerthorpe stands to inherit a sizeable bequest within a week – provided she is sound of mind. Someone wants to take over Eve’s fortune – and with Christmas being a traditionally social occasion, on which all members of the Allerthorpe clan converge in the Fellscar Keep for a few days of eating, drinking, posturing and family quarreling, the list of suspects gets substantial very quickly. And the stakes rise as well, when the first murder victim is found.
Lovegrove lovingly depicts the cold remoteness of Yorkshire winters at the turn of century. The ever-present piles of snow, the constant scarcity of light and warmth, the slightly sinister atmosphere of long, cold nights – all create a nicely thrilling stage for a familial drama to unfold. Adding to the impeccable worldbuilding, the author juggles the many threads, red herrings and educational tidbits comprising the body of the novel with enviable skill. We learn a bit or two about Victorian Christmas traditions and various Christmas demons, demoted to this role by Christianity from their previous pagan incarnations. A few paragraphs about the symbolism of birch twigs are nicely incorporated in the overarching plot, as well as several trademark Holmesian repartees about illogicality of superstition. We also get a crash course in the merits of fighting with icicles and chases on frozen lakes and, last but not least, we can try to solve the Christmas demon mystery on our own, for Lovegrove is quite reliable in dropping the clues here and there with efficiency and noticeable relish. I wish Watson were a tiny bit less dense, as he somehow seems more clueless than usual here, but then, if that were the case, maybe I wouldn’t be able to pick up all the clues so easily 😉 It all doesn’t mean the plot is seamless, and the final resolution and rationale behind certain actions of characters leaves something to be desired, at least for me – but then I am known for being picky ;). But those are small peeves, and bound to be found in a vast majority of mystery novels: one should just avoid picking them apart too much. If there was one thing I truly wasn’t happy with, however, it was the answer to Watson’s limp, which seemed unnecessary shoehorned into the meat of the plot. Still, despite these small flaws it’s a very pleasant read, highly entertaining and rewarding – especially for a curious fan of Sherlock Holmes in need of a seasonal fix ;).
A well-intentioned tribute to The Hound of Baskervilles, mixed nicely with a dash of Victorian Christmas traditions, and a little play on stereotypes concerning Yorkshire inhabitants, traditionally considered not the sharpest knives in the British drawer, Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon is indeed a highly enjoyable read. One of the few books I managed to read within a day this (increasingly busy) year, Lovegrove’s take on the famous detective duet delivers on most fronts. For me the biggest draw was the balance it maintained between respecting the spirit of Doyle’s novels and offering something fresh – mainly, a new, intriguing case in the ever-growing portfolio of mysteries solved by the world’s greatest detective and his faithful companion.
A recommended read for all Sherlock Holmes fans this Christmas season 🙂