The stories and mythos of Sherlock Holmes have been adapted practically ad nauseum by now. Between BBC’s Sherlock, those Robert Downey Jr. movies, and even more Western-obscure examples like the classic Case Closed anime, just to name a few, Sherlock Holmes has seen more births and rebirths than can easily be counted. Something really interesting about the adaptations that have occurred over the years is how the inherent humor of Sherlock and Watson’s adventures have been kept as an integral part of the experience. G.S. Denning’s Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone grasps double-fisted onto that humor, and pulls it a step further into the spotlight. It turns out that, in addition to film and TV adaptations, there are still Sherlock Holmes books coming out. Many of them have critical acclaim, but it is probably safe to assume that none are quite as strange as this.
Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone is told, as is the Holmes narrative tradition, from the perspective of John Watson, an army medic recently discharged. Without a penny to his name or a direction for his future, Watson eagerly takes up a sudden, somewhat unsettling offer for lodging with the titular Warlock Holmes. Warlock is eccentric, just like Sherlock himself, but they are by no means the same man. Watson is forced to walk backwards across the threshold when he first arrives, is sometimes quickly ushered out of the place by Warlock for reasons unknown, and hears all manner of things unexplainable going on behind the door of his benefactor’s tiny bedroom.
Warlock Holmes – the character, that is – is, quite simply, a little bit dumb. The man is a sort of superconductor for the supernatural, he has the ghost of Moriarty hanging out in his brain, and his best friends are a vampire and an ogre (we’ll get back to that). Most of the actual detective work in the various stories encapsulated in A Study in Brimstone – six in all – is done by Watson, who seems utterly perplexed by Warlock’s behavior but also perfectly willing to help out, all in the name of being a part of something. The pair channel occult powers, make bargains with denizens of the underworld, and more, all in the name of investigation.
What’s surprising, and honestly impressive, about A Study in Brimstone is how genuine these characters come across. Watson starts out simply grateful for anything to call his own, and goes through some very human fear and acceptance in his delving into the strange, occult side of London which his friendship with Warlock drags him into. Impressive, too, is how real his and Warlock’s friendship eventually becomes. It’s like if you took the two characters from The Odd Couple, and replaced them with the two most patient individuals on the face of the planet.
The pair is joined by police chief Torg Grogson, who is, in fact, a literal ogre, as well as Vladislav Lestrade, an actual vampire. These two represent the stranger side of the book’s world, and are mostly also fun characters. They bumble as much as Warlock, for it seems that everyone in the book is a bit of a dingus sometimes. Grogson, in particular, is prone to fits of rage or (sometimes equally violent) conclusion-jumping, and does get tiresome from time to time. The joke of “the big dumb loud man did a big dumb loud thing” can only work so many times, after all.
That’s actually a good measurement of a sort of line that Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone does, on occasion, tiptoe across. Sometimes, to put it all very simply, things get too silly for their own good. There’s a lot of very smart, funny dialogue in the book, and even comedy in the way the author plays with chapter structure and names. The very first story, though – The titular “Study in Brimstone” itself – is marred by some writing choices that send Watson and Holmes over the line from “comically shortsighted” to “surprisingly still alive, given lack of common sense.” This all smooths over later on, as it really feels as though Denning used the first story as an exercise in finding his stride with his characters. This is, indeed, a thing that happens when one writes fiction, but it’s unfortunate that it’s still a little obvious in the final draft. The later stories manage to rectify this, and get as creative as can be. My personal favorite is “The Case of the Cardboard…Case.”
Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone is a successful investigation into what one quote on my copy of the book refers to as the “mashup generation.” It adapts classic Sherlock Holmes tales in a way that stays true to the source, but also enjoys itself the whole time. The book ends on a cliffhanger that left me hungering for more humor and drama alike; luckily, the author is already working on a sequel, featuring a “Hound of the Baskervilles” adaptation among others. Warlock Holmes isn’t as serious as some adaptations have been, but it’s not supposed to be. It amplifies the humor that has already existed in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and puts a new spin on it.
Final verdict: 4 / 5
Full disclosure: this review was written based on a copy of the book supplied by the publisher, TITAN Books.