Review by Chris Redmond
This novel of Sherlock Holmes's early years, by A. S. Croyle, is for the most part a detailed, loving recollection of the narrator's experiences as she gets to know the young Holmes, a friend of her not-quite-fiancé. It is a fine example of a genre that has come into existence in the past decade or two: Sherlockian narratives, written mostly by women, that focus on personal relationships and intimate feelings. This one is heterosexual, although the brief appearance of Oscar Wilde as a character provides a shadow of deviance and scandal to come.
It is easy to imagine many, especially male, readers growing impatient with page after page of intricate self-examination on the part of the narrator, Priscilla (Poppy) Stamford, as she gets to know Holmes and (no real surprise here) falls in love with him. It is equally possible to imagine many readers relishing every glance and second-guess. Whether such a process is rewarding for the reader obviously depends on how convincing the author makes the observations and reflections. “I found myself dissecting the fibers in the carpet, following the flame of the candle to its hollow center, tracing the outline of the moon up in the night sky,” Croyle writes in Poppy's voice. “Everything was more prominent, more alive, because of Sherlock Holmes.” First there is annoyance, later there is love, in the end there is regret — that seems convincing enough, certainly.
It's a long book, 370 pages, and there is sometimes a sense that things are moving slowly. Still, it does have three plots in addition to Poppy's internal monologue. One involves the “angels” referred to in the title — infants being done to death by baby-farmers, a real enough social evil in mid-Victorian times. Holmes, Poppy and other characters in the novel are drawn into a crusade against this form of murder at the behest of (naturally) Mycroft Holmes, who has no scruples about risking others' lives to do what the government needs done. Holmes makes some deductions, Poppy takes the lead in a sting operation, and arrests are made, though the plague as a whole is not yet ended.
Second, Sherlock Holmes witnesses and investigates not one but two train crashes — again, a common enough phenomenon in that era. It is a trifle odd to see Holmes using his powers as a transportation safety investigator rather than a detective, but Croyle plausibly portrays the young man not yet sure what career will enable him to make use of his intellectual powers, so the experiment is interesting and satisfying.
And third, the novel retells the events of “The ‘Gloria Scott’,” which have always been considered a little odd anyway. Holmes on his way to chapel? Holmes with a friend, Victor Trevor? In Croyle's version of things, Poppy is on a path toward marriage with Victor when her (not his) dog bites Holmes's ankle and an acquaintance naturally begins. Then the arrival of Hudson and the terror and eventual death of “old” Trevor, the Justice of the Peace, unfold as Poppy watches and Holmes tries to understand. To a Sherlockian, these are of course the most relevant pages of the book.
Croyle writes interestingly and articulately, and her picture of Victorian society is convincing with only a few exceptions. The title page indicates that When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled (the title, incidentally, is taken from a contemporary Epiphany hymn) is “A ‘Before Watson’ Novel, Book One.” So there will be more, and that is good news.