Death in the Air by Shane Peacock

Review by Chris Redmond

I wish I were more enthusiastic about Death in the Air than I actually seem to be. The author, Shane Peacock, is a pleasant fellow, with whom I enjoyed chatting over a glass of beer when he visited a Bootmakers of Toronto meeting a few months ago; besides, it's always good to help promote Canadian works and writers in the Sherlockian world. (Peacock, who lives in Whitby just east of Toronto, was the subject of the cover story on Quill & Quire, the magazine of the Canadian book industry, an issue or two ago.) And it's always good to see anything appear that might help attract a young generation of enthusiasts to the Sherlockian cause. Death in the Air is the second of Peacock's "Boy Sherlock Holmes" tales, a sequel to Eye of the Crow, and as such is intended partly, though not entirely, for young readers.

And yet, as Mr. Holmes surely said somewhere, I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly. Possibly, of course, that's precisely because its suitability for young readers makes it proportionally less suitable for adults. That is more than a matter of vocabulary and syntax; it's also a comment on the author's emphasis on the moment-by-moment consciousness of the adolescent Holmes, his emotions raw, his nerves tuned to fever pitch, his awareness so keen that to an adult reader he seems to suffer from an attention deficit disorder (as to some degree, come to think of it, the authentic adult Holmes does also).

Death in the Air is somewhat less creepy than its predecessor, Eye of the Crow, which skirted on having elements of the supernatural, even diabolical. This book, by comparison, has only the exotic (acrobats flying high overhead in the Crystal Palace), the wicked (a formulaic gang of villains in a formulaic deserted warehouse), the squalid (life for vagrants and street urchins in Victorian London, which I am quite prepared to believe was every bit as miserable as it is painted here) and the dramatic (not merely the twanging nerves of the young Holmes, whom the author prefers to call "Sherlock", but a violent or startling incident every page or two). It also has, irritatingly, a number of names drawn, as Sherlockian authors seem to like to draw their names, from the Canon and its penumbra: we met Irene Doyle in the first volume, and here she is joined by Sigerson Bell. (Oh, and don't forget Violet!) There is also a sort of youthful arch-villain known coyly as Malefactor; it seems virtually certain that his actual name will be revealed, somewhere in what is expected to be a longish series of sequels, as Moriarty.

Shane Peacock clearly takes great pains with his use of language; the product could not be so artificial, so different from both ordinary diction and the language of the Canon, by accident. It reminds me of nothing so much as sequences in Carole Nelson Douglas's fiction that purport to follow the thoughts of a madman, a Ripper, or the material from Mark Frost's spooky The List of 7. Most of the narrative is in the present tense: Sherlock walks here, sees this, thinks thus, does one thing and another. There are frequent sudden interruptions and discontinuities. Details are lovingly described, although sometimes important developments are told with a glance away so that the reader has to work hard to follow.

It is a pity that there are a great many grammatical errors, probably the result of the author's reaching beyond his grasp to sound properly Victorian. He is not reliable in choosing between "shall" and "will", a distinction that is difficult for those (most modern writers) who have not learnt the actually very simple rule. Disbelief also becomes hard to suspend when, as happens from time to time, the author errs in some detail of Victorian life that really ought to be familiar to a dedicated Sherlockian. It is not as though Peacock is ignorant of Victorian London — far from it; his research has clearly been careful and extensive. (We learn from publicity copy and from interviews that he has personally walked the weary distances, criss-crossing London, that he makes young Sherlock Holmes walk in these narratives.) And yet from time to time he slips up.

There are a fair number of truly bad Sherlockian novels. The works of Shane Peacock are by no means in that category. And yet, with all these eccentricities and little errors, I find them irritating . . . and oddly memorable. So yes, I will read the next one when it comes my way, and hope to be able to be more enthusiastic about it.