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Book Review – Warlock Holmes: A Study In Brimstone

Written by GS Denning
Published by Titan Books

The extent to which you will enjoy this book depends on how much you smile when you read the title. I’m amazed nobody has come up with that play on words before – I’m genuinely jealous. The opening lines of the book set the tone:
“The dominion of man is drawing to a close. The age of demons is upon us. This, I recognize, is largely my fault and let me take just a moment to apologize for my part in it. I am very sorry I doomed the world. Really, just … absolutely, horribly sorry.”

The narrator is Dr John Watson – a doctor retired from the army after being shot in the shoulder in Afghanistan – who is introduced to Warlock Holmes, repeatedly striking a corpse with a cricket bat in the morgue of St Bart’s Hospital, as someone in need of a man for shared lodgings. Together they move into 221B Baker Street, with their landlady Mrs Hudson. Despite the similarities, things are different – Warlock is no master of deduction (that role belongs to Watson, in keeping with the real-life inspiration for Doyle in the original Sherlock Holmes stories); Lestrade is Detective Inspector Vladislav Lestrade, a nihilist vampire; the other detective inspector friendly to Warlock is Torg Grogsson, an ogre; and Warlock has the spirit of Moriarty trapped in his head. Warlock acts as a consulting detective for Lestrade and Grogsson, not for fame or money, but to keep the supernatural hidden from the public so that his own peculiar abilities with the supernatural are never revealed.

Although there are these differences, there are many more similarities in the stories. The main tale, A Study in Brimstone, is a reworking of A Study in Scarlet, with a cab driver killing someone at 3 Lauriston Gardens; the remaining short stories in the book are reworkings of Sherlock Holmes stories. Therefore, The Adventure of the Resident Sacrifice is a reworking of The Adventure of the Resident Patient; The Case of the Cardboard … Case is The Adventure of the Cardboard Box; The Adventure of the Yellow Bastard is The Adventure of the Yellow Face; The Adventure of the _eckled _and is The Adventure of the Speckled Band; and Charles August Milverton: Soulbinder is obviously The Adventure of Charles August Milverton. Denning uses the same names and crimes as the basis for his tales, but gives them a supernatural twist after leading the reader towards the conclusions of Sherlock in the originals.

This is an interesting concept in a mash-up kind of way, with occasional lines that raise a chuckle (Warlock: ‘When I listed my faults as a living companion, I told you to expect bloody messages to appear in German, Latin and Sanskrit.’). However, the book is never as funny as it should be. In the acknowledgements, Denning thanks Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, two sources of inspiration and unfortunately comparison – Denning is a competent writer but he isn’t anywhere near the levels of Adams and Pratchett. The occasional interesting turn of phrase (‘cardio-cranial narrative-sensitive exploditis’) isn’t enough to add to the single joke of the title character’s name.

The narrative style doesn’t help to ground the basic joke because it doesn’t feel like Doyle’s style, and doesn’t have a Victorian ring to the prose – the book is set in the same time frame as the original stories, but you wouldn’t get that from reading the book. And that’s not just because there’s a joke about the Nigerian prince email scam, or a reference to Donkey Kong. I’ve read a few books of Sherlock Holmes stories by other writers and the correct tone of voice and language aid those books in their telling. This book is interesting and may develop into something more (the last tale has a cliffhanger ending for further adventures), and if you enjoy spotting all the references to the original tales you will find something to enjoy, but for my money the best mash-up Sherlock Holmes story is still A Study In Emerald by Neil Gaiman.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.


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