The Strange Return of Sherlock Holmes by Barry Grant

Review by Chris Redmond

This book by Barry Grant is much better than a book about the post-cryogenic return of Sherlock Holmes ought to be, and the little publishing firm of Severn House, on the Surrey shore south of London, is to be commended for publishing it. What could have been a tiresome cliché is, instead, convincing and even touching — and some other aspects of the book have considerable merit as well.

Importantly, and by no means to be taken for granted in the flood of Sherlockian fiction that's currently appearing, the English in which Grant writes is entirely correct and clear. He has an advantage over most pasticheurs, it's true, in that his characters live in the present era and do not have to talk like Victorians, nor does he need to try to replicate Watson's prose style. Still, we seem to live in a time when simply writing intelligible English, without grammatical errors or misused words, is an achievement, and that achievement is welcome here. "Sherlockians will be pleasantly surprised," says a cover blurb from Publishers' Weekly, and whatever the original reviewer meant, the statement as it stands is certainly true.

There is no evidence in the book that this is not Grant's first novel, so it is all the more surprising that he can handle both dialogue and exposition, and knows how to pace the development of the plot. Surprise developments are not telegraphed, and in fact it would be possible to read the first two chapters, at least, before realizing that Mr. Cedric Coombes, retired resident of Hay-on-Wye (of all places), is somebody rather more famous and surprising.

And once the penny drops, for the reader if not immediately for the narrator, there are opportunities for picturesque glimpses of a modern Sherlock Holmes at work, and occasionally a line of dialogue that is as appropriate in this context as the classic Sherlockisms are in the canon: "Details are like piles of old nuts and bolts in a drawer. You never know which one is important until you need it."

The final unravelling of Grant's plot reveals a motive about which it is difficult for a reviewer to say much without descending into spoilers. Remarkably, the author handles even this sensitive topic well. Almost certainly he is revealing his own political position and concerns, but he does it without being either embarrassing or annoying. There might be objections in some quarters that current events ought not to be dragged into the exposition of a detective adventure, but what the author does here is actually not so different from what Arthur Conan Doyle did with the Indian Mutiny in "The Crooked Man" and The Sign of the Four.

Purists may not like this book, lacking gaslights and cobblestones as it is, but general Sherlockian readers surely will, or should.