Art in the Blood by Bonnie MacBird

Review by Chris Redmond

There are high expectations for this Sherlock Holmes novel, to be issued (September 2015) not by a specialist imprint, still less by a self-publishing amateur, but by HarperCollins, who presumably are choosy about their material and can afford to have it properly edited and typeset. The author, Bonnie MacBird, is an Emmy-winning producer and screenwriter, though this is her first novel; from her, too, much should be expected.

It is pleasant but not surprising, then, to find that Art in the Blood is highly competent and readable, and will ring very few of a Sherlockian's alarm bells. Indeed, there was a point, about two-thirds of the way through, when I was turning pages as fast as I could to see what was going to happen. That's what mystery novels are supposed to achieve.

Not surprisingly there were also things that I didn't like, notably the nature of the crime that turns out to be at the centre of the plot. It shares this unfortunate feature with the much-celebrated The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, which appeared four years ago. It may be inevitable that the crime that society currently considers to be the worst thing possible is the crime mystery authors most want to write about. (Society of the present day, certainly in North America, is much less indignant about, say, jewel theft than the Victorians were, or claimed to be.) Art in the Blood also presents a scene of Holmes under torture, which reminded me of Donald Thomas's 2007 The Execution of Sherlock Holmes. (There is also a reference, not fully explained, to Holmes having spent some time in prison.) Both of these reservations reflect my squeamishness, although I also have theoretical objections to the latter, a conviction that authors should not intrude too far into Holmes and Watson's personal lives or bodies, which other readers perhaps do not share.

Because a commercially published pastiche must be held to a much higher standard than the unedited work of an amateur enthusiast, it is a relief to be able to say that this book falls in, let's say, the top 10 percent of Sherlockian fiction. It reads well, with the appropriate number of red herrings and comic interludes and scenic descriptions and other Watsonian touches. And it gets special credit for the prose style, which is perhaps a little simpler than Watson's but equally dignified and, thank the deities, totally lacking in anachronisms, Americanisms, and downright errors. It does, regrettably, include one prominent historical figure; pastiche authors pretty much can't resist that temptation.

I predict that this novel is going to be very well received by Sherlockian readers. It deserves to be.