Review by C.J. Bunce
So many genre novels are quick reads, full of action and modern surprises. Once in a while you stumble upon the slow read–the book that is so smartly written, so exciting and enjoyable you never want it to end, and you force yourself to take it slow and enjoy the author’s use of language. With his latest book I’ve now added James Lovegrove to my shortlist of authors I will make sure to read as soon as his next work is released. His new novel is Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils, book three of his trilogy, The Cthulhu Casebooks. In short, this work has it all–tie-ins, a mash-up, genre-bending, and immersive storytelling in a suspense-filled mystery adventure. It’s a big feat because the very subject matter and project has much to overcome. First, it is the third book in a series, not your usual place as a reader to begin. As it is a new release, I delved in anyway, and discovered Lovegrove crafted a complete end-to-end story requiring no prior knowledge of the first two books in the series. Second, it’s a tie-in and a mash-up of the most well-known historical characters in all of fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson twisted together with the macabre, dark world of H.P. Lovecraft.
I’ve reviewed several Watson and Holmes stories written in the past decade and the challenge is always the same–getting two voices just right, voices that are so familiar after reading original Doyle writings, and watching countless modern sequels and a host of television series and movie versions. One misstep and it’s easy to pull a reader out of the narrative, yet Lovegrove doesn’t skip a beat in this regard. Whether you’re drawn to the TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the classic Basil Rathbone film version, modern retellings, or just Doyle’s own marvelous words, you will feel this book is a believable sequel to the original stories and the voices are spot-on. Another barrier for Lovegrove to overcome is getting right that rich world of H.P. Lovecraft, whose works and words drip with a uniquely strange brilliance and eerie beauty. Again, Lovegrove fully captures the spirit of his creations and seaside environments, too, as if he’d conjured Lovecraft for this story. This strange mash-up of the logical, rational Holmes and Watson and the dark and fantastical Lovecraft probably shouldn’t work so well. These are opposites, right? But Lovegrove fuses them into one, evoking the 19th century wonder of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne science fiction and fantasy along the way. Not merely a fun romp for fans of either world, Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils has all the realism and research of a scholarly work, sinking us into the world of England, the nautical life of coastal peoples at the turn of the 20th century.
The story begins a few years after the retirement of Holmes and Watson. In Doyle’s story “His Last Bow” we learned the character retired to a farm at Sussex Downs taking on beekeeping as a pastime. Only two original stories take place during Holmes’ retirement. This is where Lovegrove’s Watson catches up with Holmes: The date is 1910 and as England and the world moves toward war, Holmes and Watson learn the leaders of the famed Diogenes Club are all dead, found under strange circumstances. When three young women go missing in a nearby town, the detective duo takes on sleuthing out their disappearance as their final case, where they encounter local lore that speaks of monsters from the deep and a foretold legend of the return of a phantom from long ago. Locals believe that is why the women are missing, and Holmes knows it must all be connected. How much is real, how much is fantasy? Is it possible Holmes could discover both worlds might co-exist? Can Holmes ever escape the specter of his lifelong nemesis Moriarty? And what of his brother Mycroft?
The tale takes Holmes and Watson from England on a perilous, months long adventure across the globe to try to destroy the ultimate evil, if they can only keep their wits, rescue the missing women and survive physical and mental challenges in their old age. The author taps into Verne and Wells, setting the stage via his use of science fiction tools in a sort of early version of The Hunt for Red October. Lovegrove makes great use of the classic Watson narrator format even incorporating the author’s own participation in editing the story as well as enlisting his team of editors as a coda to the story. It makes for a completely immersive reading experience.
This third part in Lovegrove’s The Cthulhu Casebooks trilogy is so masterful, artful, and literary that midway through the book I had to get my hands on book one, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows, and book two, Sherlock Holmes and the Miskatonic Monstrosities–two books I plan to read slowly and hopefully savor as much as this third book over the coming year. Add this series to Lovegrove’s first novel in the Firefly franchise, last year’s Firefly: Big Damn Hero (reviewed here at borg), and the forthcoming Firefly: The Magnificent Nine, and you’re bound to have some great reading ahead.
Certainly in contention for the year’s best read, don’t miss James Lovegrove‘s Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils, now available here at Amazon in an attractive hardcover edition from Titan Books.