Review by Chris Redmond
It might be best to start by reassuring readers that, despite the title, the landlady of Baker Street does not actually take up boxing in this admirable novel by Barry S. Brown. Victorian boxing, in an era when the Marquess of Queensberry rules were novel and unproven, was definitely a men's affair, and largely a criminal business with petty thugs at ringside and fast-living toffs making up the betting crowd. Some Sherlockian readers may find the atmosphere distasteful (especially in the long second chapter), but once there is mystery (is it murder?) and the scene varies more frequently, it's not difficult to be drawn into the events and the investigation.
Brown's book, the third in a series featuring Mrs. Hudson in a somewhat unexpected role, is long for a Sherlock Holmes novel. At some 107,000 words, it runs twice as long as The Valley of Fear, and the plot is complex. But the author keeps things moving, and — very impressive by current standards — the language is clear and effective, the grammar almost flawless, the inevitable explanations of Victorian sights and smells and household goods well integrated into the narrative. The story is told in the third person, so that modern diction is possible, except of course in the dialogue, of which there is a great deal. (Mrs. Hudson herself gets to talk a good deal, and ostentatious apostrophes replace a great many Hs when she does.)
Some of the clichés of the pastiche genre do raise their heads. The dramatis personae include one real-life prominent Victorian, Lillie Langtry, as well as a number of Victorian sportsmen (both athletes and their patrons) who are barely known to modern readers, such as Hugh Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale. Sherlock Holmes is, inevitably, given the opportunity to disguise himself as a conspicuously absurd Spiritualist practitioner and conduct a seance. There is kitchen intrigue lifted, it seems, straight from “Downton Abbey.” But all these things are handled well by a very competent author.
In most respects, then, a Sherlockian reader need not raise any eyebrows at this case in which Holmes moves in worlds both high and low, struggles with Lestrade over the politics and ethics of Scotland Yard, and solves more than one case of murder. The one respect in which this narrative (and, apparently, Brown's two previous books) parts company with the world of the Sherlockian Canon involves the role of Mrs. Hudson. Here, one realizes within the first chapter, she is a full partner in the consulting detective enterprise that we have hitherto believed to include only Holmes and Watson. Indeed, she is the leader of the trio and the master schemer. Holmes is no puppet like Michael Caine in the film “Without a Clue,” but he defers to Mrs. Hudson's instructions and plans, and it is always evident that he is right to do so. Other authors have made Mrs. Hudson into a detective in various ways, but only Brown seems to have done it this naturally and successfully. I really must hunt out his other books one of these days.