by Graham Moore
"There had been a time when the world was full of blank spaces, and in which a man of imagination might be able to give free scope to his fancy. But... these spaces were rapidly being filled up; and the question was where the romance writer was to turn?" - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Harold White has just been inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars, the elite Sherlockian scholarly society, and he is their youngest member to date. His dizzying first days as a member grind to a halt when it is discovered that the most prominent Sherlockian scholar was killed in his hotel room just as he was about to reveal his newest discovery: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's missing diary. Who killed Alex Cale? Why did they scrawl "Elementary" in blood on the wall? What in the diary was so great and terrible that they wanted to keep it from being revealed? Where is the diary now? Only Harold White can find out.
In the mean time, Arthur Conan Doyle is having trouble of his own. His story starts when he gleefully writes the death of Holmes over Reichenbach Falls. Alas, poor Conan Doyle was not expecting the societal backlash: old women accost him on the street, the newspaper writes an obituary of Holmes, the nation wears black arm bands as a sign of mourning. Then, someone sends a bomb to him in the mail with the word "Elementary" and some newspaper clippings about a murdered girl. After extricating himself from the rubble of his study, a reluctant Conan Doyle is launched into his own investigation with his own Watson, an unexpected, but well-cast Bram Stoker. They hunt the suspect through the foggy streets of London during the time the missing diary was supposed to chronicle. The author volleys back and forth between the two eras like a jaunty yet foreboding tennis match.
It is not a bone chilling mystery by any means. There are moments of action and thrills, but it is a leisurely mystery, as mysteries go. Harold falls into the job of detective rather by accident: he wears the biggest fanboy pants (or in this case, deerstalker hat), and he's the only one crazy enough to actually interfere with a police investigation. You have to admire his enthusiasm, though! With HIS Watson-like only-just-met reporter companion, Sarah (who is a vaguely suspicious character in a way you know will pay off later), Harold follows the trail of literary clues to find the murderer and the diary.
One failing I would have to say is that this book struggled with trying to be Holmes, but from inside the would-be detectives head, rather than Watson's. Holmes is a fascinating enigma because he sits in silence for a few days, and then jumps up with the answer, and then has to explain to us how he got there. Since we are in Harold's head, we get him deep-thinking quite a bit, trying to emulate Holmes, thinking detailed, but unhelpful thoughts. Then, he jumps up with an epiphany, and we think it has come out of nowhere, because the thought process we heard did not lead him there. He then, like Holmes, has to explain this sudden outburst with thoughts to which we were not privy to his slower Watson, and it comes across as a bit conjecture-y.
Some of the twists were obvious, some seemed weak, and and others seemed unrealistic. Still it was a fun ride!
I liked the Conan Doyle sections, as he is a grouchy, yet earnest unlikely hero. He comes across as a stick-in-the-mud, and then puts himself through incredible indignities to sink his teeth into a criminal. The author also does some delightful name dropping: Bram Stoker (along with J.M. Barrie and Oscar Wilde) were historically friends with Arthur Conan Doyle. Bram also worked as theater manager to a playhouse where Henry Irving and Ellen Terry performed. It was like a delicious literary figure parade! Once the story revs to life, however, frivolity is gone, and the game is afoot! It is thrilling to follow the twists and turns, speckled by murder after murder, as Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker speed closer and closer to an ending that someone would kill Alex Cale to hide.
Woven through this tale is the sad thought that Holmes and Watson could not survive the electric lamp. That their London thrived in the romance of fog and shadow. That the world now is too complicated. We trust Holmes to take us through uncertainty to a satisfactory ending where everything is clear. In the real world, left to our own devices, we are not so lucky.
One extra juicy bit of trivia is that this is based on true events. There was a Sherlockian scholar who was killed in the same manner which sparked a worldwide Sherlockian search for his killer.
A delectable easy read, chock full of noms for Sherlockians, mystery fans, and literary buffs!
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