Ok. I’ll admit it. I am not the “fun parent.” I spend much of my time with the kids trying to get them to do everything they do not want to do. Pick up their rooms. Put away their toys. Do their homework. Take a bath. Judging by their cries of agony, if it comes from me, it’s torture. In the meantime, my husband is indoctrinating–er, teaching–them all of his obsess…er, interests. My kids are fishing, fossil hunting, science and math-loving, gaming fools. Which leads me to the question–which I hope quite a few of you share–how can we get kids interested in Sherlock Holmes? Well, the Canon, of course, but let’s be realistic: not every child is ready for Victorian/Edwardian vocabulary and pacing. Nor do they necessarily want to read about grown men. There are now several preteen/young adult series featuring a teen-aged Sherlock Holmes on the market, which may intrigue younger readers enough to pick up Conan Doyle. I’ve actually done two reviews of one of these, Darlene Cypser’s The Crack in the Lens and the first in her Consulting Detective Trilogy, University.* In this post, I plan to tackle Andrew Lane’s entire (at least to date) Young Sherlock Holmes series. Normally, I’d devote an entry to each book, but because I’m currently working on a large project, I can’t post at the same rate as before, and to go two months between books would be unfair to you, and the series. Plus, I’ve found that the books tend to share the same strengths and weaknesses so, as much as it may go against my nature, I am going for efficiency. We’ll start with the summaries…
The series begins with Death Cloud. I remember seeing it at our local bookstore when it first came out, largely because, at least in the U.S., it had what a friend terms, accurately, a “Justin Bieber cover.” Fortunately, Macmillan has changed this (not on the Kindle version, however), and the new covers are bright, jewel-toned, slightly abstract, and appealing to both genders.
In Death Cloud, we find a fourteen year-old Sherlock Holmes forced to spend the school holiday with an elderly, slightly eccentric aunt and uncle. His mother is ill with a condition that is only mentioned vaguely here but which we later find out is consumption; his sister also has some sort of problem, and his father has been deployed with his regiment for an anticipated nine months in India. Sherlock would rather stay with his Mycroft, but his brother is new to his civil service job, and simply does not have the time. Stuck with his well-meaning but distant relatives and a menacing housekeeper, Sherlock spends most of his time exploring the woods, where he meets Matthew (Matty) Arnatt, a Huck Finn-like character his own age, who nonetheless lives alone on a horse-drawn narrow-boat. Matty tells Sherlock about a strange cloud he saw in the nearby town of Farnham–a cloud which seemed to move on its own, and may have killed a man in the house from which it emerged. The two boys decide to investigate, eventually aided by Sherlock’s new tutor, Amyus Crowe, an American from Albuquerque who knows Greek, Latin, and how to track down men intent on escaping justice. Crowe has a daughter, Virginia, who is clever, wears boy’s clothing, and rides her horse, Sandia, astride.** Together the four of them discover, not only what the death cloud is and its source, but also manage to foil a complicated scheme to decimate the British military.
In the next book, Rebel Fire–or, if you’re in the UK, Red Leech–Mycroft has a little side-job for Amyus Crowe, who at this point should drop all pretense of being a tutor. When Sherlock and Matty try to investigate further, they end up not only alerting the villains, but setting in motion a chain of events that sees Matty kidnapped. Sherlock, Amyus and Virginia travel to America to rescue him, which neatly dovetails with Mycroft’s concerns. It seems that a unique group of individuals can’t quite accept that the Civil War ended at Appomattox.*** Canon devotees will recognize a cameo appearance by the red leech (which lives up to its “repulsive” Canonical reputation) and may appreciate Sherlock’s attempts to achieve justice, rather than simply satisfy the law. He also gains a violin teacher, Rufus Stone, who, like most of the characters you’ll meet in the series, is not exactly whom he claims to be.
Black Ice opens with a shocker: Mycroft Holmes accused of murder in the Stranger’s Room of the Diogenes. Obviously he is innocent, but how to prove it? Using the cover of a drama troupe headed for Russia, Sherlock, Mycroft, and Rufus Stone head to Russia where they uncover a secret society calling itself the Paradol Chamber.† But whether its aim is to assassinate a Russian official, or to interfere with the purchase of Alaska, I’ll leave you to discover on your own.††
The next story isn’t a book at all, but an electronically published short story which was originally meant to be part of Black Ice, but found itself on the cutting room floor. Going up to London with Amyus Crowe to meet Mycroft for lunch at the Diogenes, Sherlock is drugged, kidnapped and thrown into Bethlehem Royal Hospital, or “Bedlam,” where–when he is finally taken from his cell–he sees he has been “diagnosed” with acute mania. It’s hard to know what is more frightening: the treatment, the other patients, the ghost…or, well, the prospect that he’ll be there for the rest of his life without anyone the wiser.†††
Up to this point in the series, the reader has begun to get the impression that Amyus Crowe is, to all intents and purposes, invincible. In the fourth book, Fire Storm, Sherlock (and the rest of us) learns that that’s not quite true. When his past catches up with him, Crowe disappears with his daughter–but not without leaving clues for Sherlock and Matty. This adventure takes them to Scotland, where they face what is probably one of Lane’s creepiest villains–all the more frightening because he’s one of the most realistic (more on this later). And speaking of creepy, Fire Storm also sees the sinister Mrs. Eglantine get her comeuppance in a slightly amusing, but wholly satisfying way.
Sherlock gets approximately a day to recover from that adventure before he is almost literally plunged into the next. He falls asleep at his uncle’s desk only to wake up in Snake Bite, in the hold of a ship bound for China. For the first time, he’s utterly alone–no Mycroft, Crowe, Matty, or any of the others on whom he can rely for help, advice, comfort, or deus ex machina services. Storms at sea would be bad enough, but add to that pirates, a mysterious veiled passenger, and a bomb plot that could plunge two powerful countries into war…as Sherlock Holmes will observe, far in the future about another matter, “The odds are enormous against its being coincidence.”‡
Hopefully Sherlock’s voyage home (on the Gloria Scott, of course) was less eventful, for he has only to set foot on the docks at Galway to get caught up in another case. After being gone for a little over a year, he’s touched to find Mycroft waiting for him in a carriage–a warm, happy feeling that shrivels somewhat when he learns that his brother actually has a job for him and, using his powers as the up-and-coming British government, changed the Gloria Scott’s original destination to suit his needs. Knife Edge moves into Conan Doyle territory as the brothers investigate a medium who claims to be able to summon specific dead at will–an ability with obvious foreign policy advantages. Ambrose Albano has invited the representatives of several nations to Sir Shadrach Quintillan’s castle in order to auction off his exclusive services to the highest bidder. Those who know a little bit about Conan Doyle’s obsession with spiritualism and Holmes’ declaration that “no ghosts need apply” will appreciate Lane’s juxtaposition of the two camps. Sherlock does his usual exploring, and develops a tentative friendship with Sir Shadrach’s daughter, Niamh but, working with Mycroft, he begins to take on a more adult role. Amyus Crowe and Virginia reappear (as do, eventually, Rufus Stone and Matty), but this latest book in the series hints at big changes to come as Sherlock’s world threatens to shift again.
The first thing a Sherlockian needs to realize about this series is that it’s being written for a general youth audience (ages 9-14), and not for the the adult whose worn copy of the Oxford Annotated is as highlighted as a Baptist’s Bible. If you can get past that, you will enjoy the books a lot more. That being said, I didn’t find any deviations from Canon. Baring-Gould aficionados may be disappointed that Lane picks and chooses from that gentleman’s ideas, but that’s about it.
Because these books are being written in the age of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, they are rather swash-buckly. The villains tend to be over the top (several are actually grotesque), and the crimes are perpetrated on an international stage. For Mycroft aficionados, this means more of your favorite Minor Official, whom Lane makes a nice cross between Canon and the Sherlock version…without the troubled relationship of the latter. There is a lot of action. Deductions, sure, but fights and gruesome deaths abound. If your vision of a young Sherlock Holmes involves a quiet boy surrounded with books, you may be disappointed. With so much excitement in his adolescence, it’s no wonder that adult Holmes had such a problem with boredom and…other things.
Another characteristic of the series which might bother the adult reader is the somewhat anachronistic language. It’s apparent in speech patterns, idioms (such as “Bring it on”), and some vocabulary. Obviously Lane doesn’t have to mimic a Watson voice here, and I think that in using modern language, he widens the series appeal, particularly for children who have reading problems. At the end of each story, Lane provides some reading suggestions ranging from Doyle to pastiche, as well as books he used while researching the latest adventure, providing direction for the interested reader.
Andrew Lane seems to do a fair amount of research for this series. In most cases, every time I marked a passage with a “?,” he had an answer, either soon after in the text or in the afterword. In Rebel Fire, however, I got the sense that his view of the States had been greatly affected by American television…you know, the way a lot of us grew up thinking that 1880′s Minnesota and rural Georgia looked like southern California. In two instances, for example, rural New Jersey becomes the Great Plains. Virginia Crowe may have seen buffalo in a cross-country train journey–although the Transcontinental Railroad wasn’t completed until 1869, and rail service didn’t arrive in her hometown Albuquerque until 1880. However, they’re riding through a state on the Eastern Seaboard, and when Sherlock (who wouldn’t know any better) observes that perhaps they’re slowing down for a buffalo on the line, it goes against character for her not to correct him. Later in the same book, Sherlock borrows a bow and quiver of arrows from a stable owner, part of a collection of weapons the man says he’s obtained from trading with the Delaware “over the years.” This had to be a long span, as the Delaware had been pushed out of the New Jersey area in the mid-18th century. By the time this story takes place, in the late 1860′s, they were settling in Oklahoma.
In the end, however, my overall opinion of the Young Sherlock Holmes series is colored by two aspects: Amyus Crowe and Canon analogies.
First, Mr. Crowe–and please bear in mind that one of my pet peeves is the Dominant Original Character. You may feel differently.
Mycroft Holmes hires Amyus Crowe, who hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to be Sherlock’s tutor. There is an implication in Rebel Fire that Crowe also tutored Mycroft, but this is hard to place in the timeline, and has yet to be explored in another book. As I said previously, it soon becomes clear that Crowe is a sort of bounty hunter for the U.S. government, hunting down Confederate fugitives in particular, and has also served as a bodyguard. He believes that if he had been with Lincoln that night at Ford’s Theatre, he’d have lived to finish his second term. Fire Storm informs us he’s done some bear fighting, is an unsalaried “consultant” for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and in Knife Edge, he’s chosen to represent the States in Sir Shadrach’s psychic auction. He knows about germ theory, the lateralization of the brain, has a progressive view of women and the vote, knows a British specialist in tropical diseases…. He may just be the male equivalent of a Mary Sue.‡‡
What bothers me most about Mr. Crowe, however, is that quite a few quotes and ideas that the Canon attributes to Holmes, Lane turns over to the Crowes. Crowe instructs Sherlock on how to determine the contents of his “lumber room.” He mentions the value of ears as identification and tells him that “theorizing without evidence is a capital mistake.” Towards the end of Death Cloud, Sherlock realizes that Virginia Crowe has been following him. When he protests that he hasn’t seen her, she replies “If I’m following you, then ‘nothing’ is exactly what you can expect to see.” The Crowes’ cluttered cottage has a slipper filled with cigars (Amyus’ tobacco of choice), and correspondence affixed to the mantel with a…. Yeah.
These examples are all from the first book; there are plenty of others. And I will admit that I may be being a little petty. It’s probably perfectly reasonable to think that, as Sherlock’s tutor, Amyus Crowe would impart some knowledge that would show up later in the Canon. Another reader may see these as Easter eggs–and if a child goes on to read Conan Doyle he or she will probably be quite excited to recognize connections to the series. Still, it bothers me to have classic Sherlockian quotes–let alone the iconic decor of 221B attributed to a non-Canon character. I must admit to a certain relief whenever Sherlock is on his own.
My irritation with Mr. Crowe is, however, eclipsed by my appreciation for the series’ Canonical allusions. Andrew Lane’s author bio mentions a large Holmesian library, begun forty years ago, and his affection for Sherlock Holmes is obvious. There are canonical quotes, little insider mentions (the red leech, the Gloria Scott), and even the occasional subtle reference to television shows. A murder victim in Fire Storm is named Sir Benedict Ventham, for instance, and a there is a reference to Sherlock’s nice baritone voice which doesn’t jibe with Canon Holmes (whose voice Doyle described as higher pitched), but which does describe, well, the triumvirate of Rathbone, Brett, and Cumberbatch.‡‡‡ The relationship between Sherlock and Matty foreshadows that of Holmes and Watson, down to the instances in which Sherlock tells Matty that he may not be a genius himself, but that he has the knack of inspiring it in others. After his trip to Russia in Black Ice, Mycroft is convinced that he needs to forgo travel, and his affection for comestibles grows, along with his waistline, so that by Knife Edge, Sherlock has to help him get out of a carriage.
Most enjoyable, however, are the references which allow us to see Sherlock become Holmes. We see him begin learning the violin, and bargaining for an instrument with a marvelous sound–although he doesn’t yet know to what he should attribute it. When he has a tobacco sack put over his head during a kidnapping, he gets a taste of the crumbled leaves and decides he’ll never smoke. He learns of his father’s struggles with mental illness and fears the same peaks and valleys could be in his future, and he begins to feel a sense of loss and boredom at the end of a case. He likes talking things out and learns how to apply theatrical makeup. In several kidnappings, he’s attacked with laudanum, and while he hates the strange vivid dreams it gives him, he also feels a sense of…longing when he remembers it as well. These are but a few examples, but all are nicely woven into the story and never seem forced.
So. Where does that leave us? Although there were some books I liked more (Death Cloud, Snake Bite, and Knife Edge), and Rebel Fire/Red Leech was not my favorite, I have to say that the series as a whole is well-written, held my interest, and gives the reader characters and a world he or she can recognize, identify with and care about. With the caveat that some scenes are a little gory, I would not hesitate to recommend these books for any pre-teen reader. Add a little Granada Speckled Band and you’ll have a new Sherlockian before you know it!§
The Young Sherlock Holmes series is available both at all online booksellers and your local brick-and-mortar shop, in both print and ebook format. I need to caution you, however: the US is running about a year behind. Firestorm is just now coming out, while Snake Bite and Knife Edge aren’t even on the radar. Fortunately, you can order these books directly from amazon.co.uk, and only wait about a week for shipping. Unfortunately, you cannot buy them from the UK site in e-book form. You can learn more about the series, and Mr Lane at his website: http://www.youngsherlock.com.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5–“Well worth your time and money.”
*You can find these reviews here: http://wellreadsherlockian.com/2012/02/25/cypser-darlene-the-crack-in-the-lens-morrison-co-2010/ and here: http://wellreadsherlockian.com/2012/07/11/cypser-darlene-the-consulting-detective-trilogy-part-i-university-morrison-co-foolscap-and-quill-2012/ And if you liked these books, you’ll be glad to know that the second in the Consulting Detective Trilogy is due out within the next few months.
**What would her mother say, you ask? Well, her mother is dead, perished on the voyage over. There is a distinct lack of living, healthy, or completely functional mothers in this series, which probably makes it suitable for Disney.
***Let’s be honest. In many US states, you meet people like that every single day.
†Amyus Crowe is busy during the first half of the book, but lacks the language skills and stands out a bit too much for Mycroft to allow him on the trip; he and Virginia stay home for this one.
††The Paradol Chamber turns up over and over again in Sherlockian pastische. Two of the first examples are a 1945 radio program with Rathbone and Bruce, and a short, humorous play written by John Dickson Carr and performed for the Mystery Writers of America in 1949.
For the radio show, see:http://www.greatdetectives.net/detectives/sherlock-holmes-paradol-chamber/
For the play, see: http://tonymusings.blogspot.com/2010/09/adventure-of-paradol-chamber.html
†††The scariest part is that this kind of thing actually happened to people. Money and marital property rights were frequently involved.
‡ “The Adventure of the Second Stain”
‡‡A protagonist who can do no wrong. The male equivalent is actually called a “Marty Sue” or “Gary Stu.”
‡‡‡ Actress Wanda Ventham is Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother.
§In trying to indoctrinate…er…educate my own three, I started with Granada’s “Speckled Band.” I thought perhaps it might be a little mannered or slow for them, but they were enthralled.