J. Lawrence Matthews might not be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – but he really sounds like him (in part of the novels). In the best of ways.
Very much like The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the table of contents makes this look like an anthology of shorter stories – not that short, though. Judging from the number of pages, it’s like 3 novellas framing a short novel. We’ll come back to that thought later.
I was immediately satisfied upon realising that Watson would be my narrator throughout the book. Because, let’s face it – there is only one way to tell a Holmes story, and that is through Watson. It’s the right way.
And with Watson reading a manuscript written by Holmes, the great detective also gets to tell a part of his story himself. This has also been done by Doyle before, take The Musgrave Ritual, for example.
I’ve stated that this looks like 3 novellas framing a novel (judging by the parts and the number of pages per part as stated in the toc). It’s a fitting statement for the size (so this book is quite long – and longer than it should be), and in parts of the structure, but those stories are not separate, they belong together.
The problem here is size – and pace. Sure enough, no one would expect a high octane thriller when reading a Holmes story. And all historical fiction books have the added responsibility to explain their world to the reader. But I can’t help thinking that this has been overdone here.
Holmes wrote his script with Watson as an intended audience, and they are nearly of the same age. So why does he keep explaining stuff to his former assistant? For the reader’s sake, that’s why. It’s called an empty exposition, and it usually means that you’re looking at a missed opportunity to shorten the text.
In this case, it also means you get thrown back between the present and the past multiple times, and quite frankly – this narrative structure started to become unnerving pretty fast. I couldn’t follow one story to the end and always had to keep things in mind until we came back to it to resolve it. Or not resolve it, that happened sometimes, too.
So Holmes soon takes over as narrator, but it looks like we’re seeing a very passive Holmes here. There are some great touches – like the chemist master who’s way to think greatly influenced the later Sherlock – but there are many passages about the american civil war which struck me as unnecessary, because they are not furthering the plot. And yes, there are a great deal of historical details that blend together Fiction and History, but let’s be honest: I don’t need a footnote telling me the name and alias of the author of a historical book Holmes is perusing.
Which really means that the first third of this book is really dragging on, seemlessly forever. It took me far longer to get behind the 40 % threshold than it should have. The good news is that the pace gets better after that.
But when Booth is captured in the past – and Moriarty in the present – the tale starts to look like it should be coming to an end. Abs then you realize there is still a quarter of the book left to read. Which made me fear yet another drag fest in the end of the book. Sadly, I was right.
With Sherlock’s intent of getting to know everything there is to know about young Moriarty (and quite some stuff that isn’t worth knowing), we enter the longest epilogue in the history of literature at the 72 % mark.
And yes, Moriarty. Or a Moriarty, at least. Which makes me think this was kind of uncreative. Because – really? Do we need another Moriarty? I dare say we do not!
It’s also an epilogue about the end of the first world war, and beekeeping and a thousand other things, and a minority of open ends left over from the main story, like the origin of the name Sherlock.
Because Matthews invented a lot of things new – a total new name for Mycroft and Sherlock, new names, new origins. He does this with the utmost care so it might fit the canon, and he’s showing off that care, like Sherlock would be showing off his powers of deduction.
And then the epilogue turns into an epitaph – because if you’re going to reinvent the life of Sherlock Holmes, you might as well go the full mile and do his death, too. So Matthews ended up telling two stories about Holmes never told, like the intro and the outro to the vast works already told. And as Sherlock’s mind seems to wander in the end (from the christian Bible to the Baghavad Gita of buddhism and the arab poet Hafiz), it kind of matches the telling of this tale that meandered in it’s own time.
Ordinarily, this well crafted and expertly told tale would gather my highest praise. But there are things to consider here – the really terrible pace in the beginning and the end, the unnecessary details, the meandering timelines (a little too overdone, and you never know which details you should try to remember till you get back to it). I end up with 3.5 stars, a half star decrease for every one of my three pain points, rounded down where half stars are not applicable. Yes, rounded down instead of up because of the final cause of death of Sherlock – after all this, he succumbs to [spoiler]? What a pity!