Beast of the Stapletons

Review by C.J. Bunce

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 story The Hound of the Baskervilles finds a sequel 120 years later in the latest Sherlock Holmes spin-off novel from writer James Lovegrove.  Readers will find further adventures of not only that novella, but more connections to past works in Sherlock Holmes and The Beast of the Stapletons, a novel in the same series as the author’s Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon, previously reviewed here at borg.   The question for readers of Lovegrove’s other works, including his Cthulhu Casebook novels and other stories from Titan Books, is: Will he or won’t he? That is, will the beast of the title be something out of the real world (as in Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon) or, as in his Cthulhu tie-ins, something from the world of fantasy?  The best part of this story is the absence for the bulk of the tale of Sherlock’s right arm, Dr. John Watson, who tends toward the whiny and needy in past recent retellings.  A new, interesting foil steps in for this mystery, taking Holmes more in the direction of another famous British franchise.

The new second-billing for this story is Colonel Benjamin Grier, a former Buffalo Soldier from America, whose title, skin color, style, and dialogue conjures both a CIA official from Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels and CIA agent Felix Leiter from the James Bond novels and movies.  For the first two-thirds of the novel it’s great fun to see Sherlock Holmes as Victorian Bond partnered with a U.S. equal as counterpart, and it’s easy to see a young James Earl Jones (Admiral Greer of The Hunt for Red October et al) or Jeffrey Wright (Leiter in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and reported in the forthcoming No Time to Die) as Grier in the reader’s mind’s eye.

The first two-thirds of the novel may be Lovegrove’s best journey into the mind of Holmes yet, told not through the vantage of Watson in most of the Holmes stories past and present, but from Holmes, left to recount a tale to Watson (AWOL this round), who stayed home this time because of his fear of dogs brought on from his work on The Hound of the Baskervilles case, rightly labeled a “pathetic, lily-livered weakling” after being approached by a dog on the street and turning his wrath on the unsuspecting owner.  Many times I’ve flinched at writers taking new twists on the tried and true (the worst of which is that rare writer attempting a long novel in present tense), but here the voice for Sherlock is wonderfully carried out and I didn’t miss Watson for a second.

I’m not a fan of Holmes venturing outside of England, a trope I see belonging more to Bond than Holmes, and as in the Cthulhu Casebooks that happens in the third part/last third of The Beast of the Stapletons.  Just as the fun and unrelenting pacing and suspense reaches its false victory, the story takes a wide tangent and the excitement never quite returns.  To cap it off Lovegrove takes a big step in the final chapter.  The whodunnit plays out as predictable, and then a character surfaces out of nowhere that may appeal to some segment of Holmes readers who are fans of said character (who shall not be named here to avoid spoliation).

The introduction of Grier allows for an examination of both casual racism (and worse) via the dialogue of these 19th century characters, as well as believable in-world attempts to address the subject, most loudly via Watson in his best scene of this story.

Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is famous and familiar to any reader of Victoriana or classic mysteries, but it’s also one of Doyle’s less interesting tales that doesn’t translate well to the 21st century.  So it’s an interesting choice to choose for a sequel.  Luckily the use is really to pluck out some (barely) familiar characters and take them in new directions, which Lovegrove does well.  The MacGuffin is similar to Lovegrove’s big reveal in Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon.  Altogether, fans of the author and Holmes should enjoy this next adventure, even if there’s some muddling through toward the end and a finale that may not quite land on all its feet.

Available in hardcover from Titan Books, Sherlock Holmes and The Beast of the Stapletons, can be purchased here at Amazon, arriving in November in paperback.  The first book in this library and companion book to this new Holmes story, Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon is available here.