Sherlock Holmes: The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove

Review by Chris Redmond

This novel by James Lovegrove, apparently one of a series that also includes narratives by other authors, is in many respects exactly what a Sherlock Holmes pastiche should be. Told in Watson's voice, it narrates an interesting and complicated investigation conducted — eventually successfully — by Sherlock Holmes, and one can hardly ask for more than that.

The setting is Oxford, where Holmes visits to learn more about a remarkable machine built by an absent-minded but dynamic professor at Balliol College. It utterly eclipses the famous “difference engine” designed, though not fully built, by Charles Babbage decades earlier. In fact, it appears to be able to solve crimes as well as answering complex questions on a variety of topics. Unsurprisingly, Holmes finds in the end that it is not quite what it claims to be, but through most of the book the reader is made uneasy by wondering why it is taking Holmes, or indeed Watson, so long to realize that something is wrong. (As for the construction of such a machine, authentic or otherwise, it would surely have required far more time and far more money than Professor Quantock could have had available to him in Victorian Oxford. Perhaps it is unfair to expect the background of a pastiche to be realistic, but an author should be encouraged to try.)

The puzzle of the Thinking Engine quickly turns out to be intertwined with several murders, and Holmes's investigation of those gives him some opportunity to show off his deductive skills, although the narrative is largely lacking in what some readers find to be a special joy in the authentic stories, the brilliant rapid-fire assessment of individuals as Holmes meets them. (Lovegrove need not feel singled out on this point: most pastiches omit that sort of wit, which is devilishly hard to write. This one at least has more genuine detecting than most.)

The narration is clear, correct, smooth, and engaging, and a number of characters are interestingly portrayed, though one of them, the blustering press magnate, is a bit of a caricature, and Watson sometimes uses a rather more modern vocabulary than one might expect. The story moves along without confusion and without the deeply irritating stream-of-consciousness interjections that some authors insist on including to mystify their readers. It reads, in short, the way a Sherlock Holmes story ought to read, and for once there are enough events — all of them related to the central mystery, it turns out — to justify the 300-page length. Perhaps Lovegrove can even be forgiven the brief appearance of Harry Houdini in his story...and the Moriarty motif which seems to be impossible for pastiche authors to resist.