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Sherlock Holmes — The Breath of God

Guy Adams
Titan Books £7.99

Sherlock Holmes – The Breath of God is Guy Adams’ first contribution to Titan’s popular The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series. Which, given the seemingly immortal appeal of Conan Doyle’s detective, seems set to run and run.

Adams’ premise is an intriguing one. It is December 1899 and the world stands on the cusp of a new century. The book opens well with the horrific death of Hilary de Montford, a foppish young man whose smashed body is discovered in Grosvenor Square. His injuries are consistent with a fall from an immense height but such a death seems impossible given where his corpse was found. Holmes is visited by an occult expert, Doctor Silence, who tells him that three men including de Montford and Holmes himself have been named for death by the ramblings of a young girl, apparently possessed by demons. With that the game’s afoot and an investigation begins which will take Holmes and Watson all over London and eventually to the shores of Loch Ness with plenty of bizarre incidents and grisly deaths on the way.

Reviving another author’s creations, especially ones as iconic as Holmes and Watson, is a tricky tightrope to walk. The reader has expectations that have to be met but also demands something fresh that expands on the original creation without stepping too far from the template. In some respects Adams is very successful. He continues the convention of using Watson as the narrator and does a good job of recreating the original elaborate and wordy Victorian style. Watson’s story is interspersed by evidence in the form of accounts of events given by other characters and on the whole this works well and gives the novel an authentic antique feel.

How you feel about the presentation of our heroes will depend on how precious you feel about Conan Doyle’s originals. As Adams explains in his afterword, the author was not trying to slavishly copy the originals but rather to put his own spin on characters he has loved from his youth. How successfully he has achieved this will be a matter of personal taste. Dr Watson remains very true to his blueprint, loyal, wry and heroic, but also loveably bemused throughout. Holmes is a different matter. He is a less likeable character than his original and is a sort of pick’n’mix of characteristics from many of the innumerable screen interpretations some of which are welcome while others are less convincing.

Adams has also chosen to introduce other characters from the period. Aleister Crowley, the real- life occultist and notorious nutcase makes an appearance and there are also borrowed fictional characters along for the ride; the ‘Psychic Doctor’ Doctor Silence, the supernatural investigator Thomas Carnacki and demonologist Julian Karswell all wander in from other Eighteenth Century novels to add more period authenticity. There’s even a nod to Dracula’s Van Helsing thrown in to add colour and depth to the supernatural story.

Doctor Silence’s grim story of demonic possession at the book’s opening is only the first of a series of diabolical events. Silence is convinced that an expert occultist is summoning the mythical ‘Breath of God’ to destroy his enemies and, as our heroes investigate ever more grisly and bewildering crime scenes, it becomes harder to discount the paranormal. As Watson spends time working with

the psychic investigators he becomes more convinced, particularly when he starts to believe that he might be the victim of demonic possession himself. Holmes, of course, remains sceptical and, at several points, drops into the background of the narrative to monitor events from an impartial distance.

Adams manages the supernatural set pieces confidently, ramping up the tension very well and delivering the shocks effectively. It is in these sections where having Watson as the narrator has the most impact. His usual air of comfortable bemusement when faced with Holmes’ superior analytical intellect becomes something far more feral and panicked when he is forced to put his trust in the hands of his occultist allies and he finds himself facing terrors that he cannot understand but that seem all too real.

Unfortunately it is exactly these supernatural elements that undermine the novel as a Sherlock Holmes story. The one basic rule of Sherlock Holmes that has to be adhered to is the idea that every mystery can be solved through rational explanation based on the observation of facts. It’s what made Sherlock Holmes such a fascination to his original readers. The challenge of trying to pick up all the facts and put them together to find the solution was what created the obsession with Conan Doyle’s stories in the first place. The problem here is that the solution to the mystery and the perpetrator of the crimes is transparently obvious from fairly early in the book. In addition to this the subtleties are never properly explained and there is a sense that there might really be powers beyond this world — something Conan Doyle’s Holmes would never have accepted. Sherlock Holmes is the very byword for rationality and logic and to have him apparently endorse and accept the occult world just feels wrong. It doesn’t help either that Guy Ritchie’s recent film trod much the same ground with much more intricacy, attention to detail and panache.

For fans of the Victorian period and those who enjoy a good old fashioned supernatural romp Sherlock Holmes — The Breath of God won’t disappoint. It is full of imagination and has plenty of breathless action to keep you entertained. However, if you’re a Sherlock Holmes purist or you’re looking for a complex mystery puzzle to challenge your grey matter you won’t find what you’re looking for here. The old-school connoisseur would be advised to fill a pipe, dust down their copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and re-read The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

David Stonehouse

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