James Lovegrove presents what, if we publish quickly, we may call the latest entry in a series of fantastical Sherlock Holmes novels from Titan Books -- the steampunk adventure Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares. Probably, after the word "steampunk," the rest of this review is superfluous: Some readers will relish the image of the archetypical private detective warring with shadowy engineers and their retro-futuristic creations, while others would prefer him to stay closer to home, in a more conventional Victorian London.
Lovegrove's contribution to the series follows two episodes by Guy Adams, subtitled The Breath of God and The Army of Dr Moreau. Of these novels, Adams writes, "From the word go I decided not to be too slavish about [emulating Conan Doyle's style]. Guess what: Conan Doyle didn't write this, I did." (Breath of God, p. 244) Fair enough, but I still regret the decision, partly because Holmes and Watson begin to lose their individuality as the Victorian setting recedes. But this is also because the style Adams prefers is dominated by comma splices, sometimes it seems like there's one on every page.
[spoilers after the jump]
In terms of plot, The Breath of God sets the tone for the series, featuring Holmes's confrontations with Aleister Crowley and an assortment of characters borrowed from early-1900s supernatural fiction. Spoiler: The magical effects directly observed by Watson throughout the adventure are ultimately dismissed as a sequence of thematically consistent drug-induced hallucinations. In the sequel, Holmes encounters characters from Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Conan Doyle's The Lost World while stifling the plans of Dr Moreau, who has hidden a world-class biochemical laboratory in a disused tunnel of the London underground and staffed it with beast-men of his own creation. These impossible hybrids are brought to life by means of Moreau's evolution-inducing serum, which arouses an organism's intrinsic ability to reorganize its structure according to its need. To borrow a phrase, "We cannot too much admire this miracle."
So we risk damning The Stuff of Nightmares with faint praise if we merely observe that it features the most credible plot to appear in the series thus far. The first sentence places Watson at the scene of a train-station bombing, and repeated attacks not only bring out the worst in the Fenian-hating mob but also call the Queen's safety into question. Mycroft, responsible for her Majesty's security, joins Watson in calling on his younger brother to track down the terrorists, but Sherlock seems more intent on finding Baron Cauchemar, whom rumor calls an invincible vigilante from the London sewers.
Mycroft, certain that Baron Cauchemar is "a fictitious figure to whose existence only the worst kind of sensationalist journalism gives credence" (p. 27), takes his brother's insistence as a betrayal: "Not for Sherlock Holmes something so mundane as a hunt for terrorists. Oh no. He would rather pursue a phantom...." (p.27). The disagreement between the Holmes brothers contributes some of the energy to the events that follow, though it was hard for me to square this conflict with my pre-existing concept of their relationship. Hopefully it is not too much of a spoiler to reveal that we do eventually meet Baron Cauchemar, and recognize him as a 19th-century Batman type, with overtones of Darth Vader. The Baron plays an essential role in vanquishing the terrorists after a tactical blunder by Mycroft, thus vindicating Sherlock and restoring peace in the Holmes fraternity. Isn't this an unusual outcome, given that Mycroft is universally acknowledged as the superior mind?
It is clear that Lovegrove is a Holmes aficionado; he even allows Watson to interrupt the narrative a couple of times to reconcile inconsistencies in the canon. "It has been my dream," he admits, "in the thirty-odd years since I fell under the spell of the character and his world, to write a Holmes tale myself" (p. 295). He has stayed somewhat closer to the Conan Doyle style than his predecessor Adams, though some anachronistic language, starting with the word "terrorist" itself, has inevitably crept in. Of course, we are treated to a satisfying array of Holmes's trademark deductions along the way -- I especially appreciated the episode of the unpleasant spaniel-walking gentleman who has the misfortune to take Holmes and Watson for indigent trespassers. Lovegrove has clearly enjoyed his time with the great detective, and satisfied readers will surely look forward to George Mann's Sherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead, scheduled for release in November 2013.