“The time has come to unburden myself of secrets I have kept long after Sherlock Holmes died.”
It’s hard to imagine two fictional worlds that have less in common with each other than that of the world famous Sherlock Holmes and the tales of terror contrived by H. P. Lovecraft. Where one, based entirely within the era of Victorian England, focuses on the cunning and ruthless application of logic and observation, the mythos of Lovecraftian monsters in the other strive to do nothing more than render those attributes moot. That these two worlds could ever be combined, much less done so seamlessly, may seem impossible accomplishment. James Lovegrove, however, has done it in a way that one might imagine few other authors could.
In typical pastiche form, the story of Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows takes concepts and various story cues of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a light buttering of Lovecraft. At first. However, as we are introduced to Watson and are offered an inventive retelling of his meeting Sherlock Holmes, it’s very clear that this is by no means has any intention of remaining as Doyle’s Holmes.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.
The John Watson of Shadwell Shadows is a broken man, far more so than his original literary counterpart. An experience at the Battle of Maiwand has left his psyche shattered and his body frail. His shoulder is scarred from the claw marks of a beast he refuses to allow himself to remember. Now he is returned home, friendless and penniless, with no hope for a future.
Enter Sherlock Holmes, by means of an accidental intervention, and the duo known so well in literary history has been joined together once again. The mystery that is afoot, however, is not the familiar one fans already know. There is no A Study in Scarlett parallel here. Instead, the mystery revolves around emaciated and drained bodies turning up throughout the Shadwell district of east London. Having only gone missing the day before, the condition of the corpses is perplexing. Starvation is clearly not a factor, but what else is there?
With the capture of Stamford, friend turned foe in this retelling, the mystery becomes darker. As the once-colleague of Watson commits suicide in his cell, he shouts in R’lyehian a message that takes the doctor back to darker days and later revealing that Watson’s war wounds stem from an excursion into the ancient city of Taa’aa. Being the only survivor, Watson divulges his experience to a skeptical Sherlock. From there, the duo work to find the mastermind behind these mysterious killings.
Characters both new and old will make appearances and exits in Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows, not the least of which being Professor James Moriarty himself. True to form, he plays a beguiling foe, but with origins and goals very unlike his predecessor.
In terms of the application of Lovecraft’s creations, readers might be disappointed that many of the elements of that genre are more or less independent creations of Lovegrove, at least as far as I could tell. The final baddy is, however, a major Lovecraft monster that, without spoiling anything, should please horror fans.
The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.
While the overall tale of Shadwell Shadows is a fun adventure, there are issues that I personally take with some of Lovegrove’s retellings. For starters, I do not feel that either Sherlock Holmes or Moriarty are written to their fullest capacity; exuding character flaws and even levels of ignorance that their original counterparts simply did not possess. Lovegrove attempts to corral this, at least in the case of Holmes, by having Watson state that the Sherlock Holmes of these stories is younger, less tempered and more impulsive than he had originally let on. This is emphasized in Watson’s bulldog-ish over protectiveness of Holmes when his companion is behaving brashly or, as the good doctor puts it, taking unnecessary risks.
There is also the matter in which Lovegrove abruptly combines elements of multiple original Sherlock Holmes stories, waving them off with a simple line of Watson more or less stating “these changes were featured simply because they didn’t fit the narrative”. To me this seemed rather impetuous and almost a little deus ex machina; Lovegrove making convenient changes for his narrative with little explanation simply because he needed to. This was most evident, quite heavy handedly, in the introductions of both Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes’ elder brother, Mycroft. It was the worst by far at the conclusion of the story, where I felt Lovegrove may have played a plot device card a little too soon. However, given the expansive amount of Lovecraft yet to really be woven into these stories, it may not prove too detrimental in the end.
Granted, this method might not be nearly as offensive for lesser or even non-fans of the Sherlock Holmes series. It simply irked me because I was excited to see where key points of Sherlockian lore would come into place in the series, only to find that most of those hands were dealt in this first novel.
“Life is full of whimsical happenings, Watson.”
Despite these complaints, I very much enjoyed my time with Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows. While various narrative choices might have been irksome, I have to admit that Lovegrove made the best use of these unusual genres.
The book is available for a very generous price of $7.99 via Kindle and $13.51 as a very nice little hardcover edition through Amazon.
If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, H.P. Lovecraft, or simply love the mashup literature culture that seems to be taking bookshelves by storm these days, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows is certainly an affordable and wonderful read!
Final Verdict: 4/5
Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows was written by James Lovegrove.
Publisher: Titan Books.
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows.