Review by Chris Redmond
This excellent but infuriating Sherlockian novel by Marcia Wilson — it can't really be called a “pastiche”, since it doesn't present an adventure of Sherlock Holmes — is centred on the work of the Scotland Yard inspectors whose names figure in the Canon: Lestrade, Bradstreet, Gregson, MacDonald. The picture Wilson gives of their work (and their working conditions) is entirely convincing, and at once the reader feels more sympathetic toward them than the Canon ever encourages. Whether Lestrade was more rat-like or ferret-like — one of the continuing Canonical mysteries — is not really made clear, but his personal life is explored sympathetically and can easily become a reader's headcanon, as it seems fully consistent with the glimpses provided in the original tales. A more colourful backstory is provided for Bradstreet, a sequence of events and a lingering mystery that set the plot of this adventure in motion.
Perhaps the most important feature of the book for a Sherlockian reader, however, is the picture given of John H. Watson, considerably more affected by his battle wound than readers usually realize. In A Study in Scarlet he describes himself as “weak and emaciated... my health irretrievably ruined”, but in later chapters of that tale, and certainly in every story that follows, he seems to be robust and energetic, apart from a wound that sometimes aches in wet weather. In this story, a more plausible Watson is seen, not just physically damaged (he walks with a stick and his strength fails quickly) but emotionally ravaged by his terrible experiences in Afghanistan. Repeatedly Lestrade worries about overtiring or overtaxing him, and one wonders what a Watson with these enduring weaknesses might be like in partnership with, say, a Holmes like Jeremy Brett. (The closest approximation to such a Watson in film to date is probably that of Martin Freeman.) Holmes himself does appear in the novel, but only briefly.
The narrative begins with an 11-page “Prelude” set somewhere in Cornwall; the reader never gets to find out what, if anything, it has to do with the rest of the story, which is set in London and then, as the action heats up, in Edinburgh. In the Scots capital, the proximity of the medical school and the lingering memory of the 1820s body-snatchers Burke and Hare make for an unnerving environment; the plot would have worked far less well back in London, where the inspectors from Scotland Yard would have been much more at home. As they continue their investigation, they not only shudder at Edinburgh's clammy old stones, they fuss a good deal about the differences between English and Scots law and procedure, though the terminology they use is not the most convincing part of the book's historical detail.
It's a good creepy story and a very convincing picture of several men doing an unpleasant job that touches horribly on their personal lives. Regrettably, it's told in very peculiar English, and while some of the oddities may be an attempt to render dialect or class speech patterns of the period, they extend to the narrative and description in the text as well as to conversation. There are hundreds of malapropisms, awkward phrases, and mangled idioms, many of them enough to make the reader stumble, some of them enough to block understanding. This book desperately needed an editor. Nevertheless, it's one of the more impressive Sherlockian books of the year.