When I was a kid, I loved reading in the car. So much so, in fact, that twice I missed my school bus stop because I was too engrossed in a book to notice. Now that I’m an adult, however, that’s changed. Not because I get motion sickness, or anything like that, but because I need to see what’s going on, and offer my helpful observations to the driver.** On a recent trip back from the Gulf Coast, however, it was a wonder we made it home in one piece, because I was far too distracted to play co-pilot.
Distracted by this book.
In fact, once I pulled it up on my Kindle, during spring break, I was torn between the desire to “make it last” and the need to “readitallrightnow.” To achieve the former, I tried reading only when conditions were absolutely perfect–e.g., when everyone was in bed and I had the living room to myself with a bottle of real Coke. But then came the car trip home, and all self-discipline was lost. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you if you navigated over to your favorite bookseller right now and bought a copy, leaving me hanging in the blogosphere. But, since you’re polite enough to stay….
Darlene Cypser begins this first volume of her Consulting Detective Trilogy right where she left off with its prequel, The Crack in the Lens. At the conclusion of that book, Sherlock Holmes, still not recovered from the illness which almost took his life,*** struggles downstairs to his father’s study in an effort to salvage his opportunity to attend university. This scene is repeated in University, after which we follow Sherlock in his efforts to regain his mental and physical health in time to start his studies with the new term. Living as we do in an age where modern medicine both helps us diagnose, treat, and cure disease much faster than at any other time in history, it’s interesting to realize how long recuperation could last a century ago. However, his lungs are not Sherlock’s greatest problem. The events of November and December still haunt him, and it takes only his mother’s careless disclosure, a glimpse of the moor or a fencing bout into the shade of the outbuildings to throw him back into what his loyal manservant, Jonathan, calls an “attack” (and what we would call PTSD). Fearful of his father’s reaction should he find his son mentally compromised, Sherlock forces his way through these episodes until, by the time he leaves for Cambridge University’s Sidney Sussex College,† he believes he has them conquered.
Sherlock begins his college career uneventfully enough, settling with Jonathan into what seem to be very nice quarters, playing “the game” by observing his fellow students in chapel, and studying the mathematics his father has prescribed. He’s not overly thrilled with the subject, finding all of the memorization boring, but he wants out of Yorkshire, and becoming the engineer his father wishes seems as good a way as any. He doesn’t really mesh with the other young men at his college, and his reaction to their innocent questions about his illness puts them off even further. Still, things seem to be going well for him until, one day in November, he leaves the lecture hall and walks into a snowstorm.
There are some struggles that are never really over. Whether they have their roots in events, our own peculiar demons, or some unholy combination of the two, we are destined to fight and refight these battles throughout our lives. The ghosts of 1871 revisit Sherlock with a vengeance, taking him on a terrifying, dangerous journey through his unresolved guilt and grief, his only hope of recovery lying in the meager treatments available at the time. He doesn’t fight alone. Mycroft, the alienist Dr. George Mackenzie, university staff such as Senior Tutor Rev. John Clowe, Victor Trevor and his prescient father; and, most of all, Jonathan Beckwith, provide him with invaluable support. Still, in the end, it is Sherlock Holmes himself who discovers the one antidote which will keep his mind from “tearing itself to pieces.”††
Perhaps in no small measure to Dr. Watson’s own efforts, we often come to see Sherlock Holmes as someone not quite human.††† He’s almost like a Victorian superhero–smarter than everyone else, able to bend pokers straight again with skinny arms and no exercise, defeating all comers with his expertise in fencing, single-stick fighting and baritsu. There’s the whole not-eating-or-sleeping thing, described by a man who needs humbugs on a stake-out. In his efforts to chronicle the detective’s exploits and (let’s be honest) sell stories, Holmes’ admiring Boswell sacrifices a bit of his flatmate’s humanity in the telling.
Ms. Cypser’s Holmes, however, is extremely relatable. Unlike other writers who take on the project of exploring Sherlock Holmes’ unrecorded youth, she doesn’t bring in unusual characters or spectacular adventures. Sherlock’s dilemmas are, instead, familiar to all of us. He wonders how to reconcile his skills and interests with the courses and careers available to him. He has difficulty making friends and runs afoul of a student known for his ability to destroy reputations with a few well-placed rumors. He tangles with authority, both academic and familial, building the confidence he needs to make that final, necessary break. In the second half of the book, he begins to try his hand at detective work, but his “cases” are such as one might expect to find in a university setting; not a stolen jewel or secret weapon among them. Most importantly, however, he grapples with the puzzle of his own mind. Without asking for a show of hands, I imagine that quite of few of us have come to realize the uncomfortable truth that, due to trauma, biology, or a nasty concoction of both, our minds can venture into places we would never willingly go. And while psychology was still in its infancy some 140 years ago, you’ll likely find Sherlock’s attempts to regain control of his mental health very familiar–and will come to see how they may have continued to affect him in as an adult. None of this is spelled out for the reader. Instead, Ms. Cypser skillfully and subtly takes the events of Sherlock’s university career and, just as she did in The Crack in the Lens, leaves it for the reader to deduce how they helped to create the detective of Baker Street. Some, such as the experimental medication Dr. Mackenzie prescribes to help Sherlock through an especially difficult time, are obvious. Others are less so.
Which is great, because, like its predecessor, University stands up well to re-reading. As a matter of fact, the reading upon which I am basing this review is my fourth–since April. University is impressively well-researched and documented; several characters are based on actual people, and there is an essay on sources in the back of the book. When it comes time for Holmes to spend time with Victor Trevor and his father at Donnithorpe–a crucial event which Watson records as “The Gloria Scott”–canon and book are expertly combined. Ms. Cypser’s own prose is plain and workman-like. She will likely never be accused of waxing rhapsodic about moss-covered brick walls.‡ Still, Holmes’ world is vividly drawn and compelling; once you enter, you won’t want to leave. Occasionally, I found myself wishing for a little more detail. When Sherlock goes home for the Christmas holidays during his first year at school, for instance, I had to wonder what the local young women thought of him. Was he desirable, as the son of a Squire with at least a few prospects in life? Had the rumors of his relationship with Violet Rushdale and his subsequent illness damaged any cachet he might have had with them? Does he have to avoid them? Were there awkward encounters? Wouldn’t Mrs. Holmes, with her social instincts and lack of perception, push both Sherlock and Mycroft to come away from the punch bowl and mingle? Ms. Cypser does briefly address Sherlock’s (and Mycroft’s) views of women in two instances, and I am sure the question will figure in future volumes, but I felt there was a missed opportunity here. What I loved most about University, however, was the suspense. Although I enjoyed The Crack in the Lens immensely, there were times when I wondered why a particular scene was included and, for me, this slowed down the story. University presents no such problems. Every scene has an ultimate purpose, and nothing is wasted. I was pulled in from the first, and had no desire to resurface. During one particularly suspenseful chapter (there are several), I found myself beginning to worry about Sherlock–then realized with a start that *spoiler alert* the very existence of the canon meant that he would be able to fight his way through. My advice? Forget chores, ignore the laundry, order takeout for dinner and just settle in for the ride. You’ll miss it when it’s over.
Have you read either The Crack in the Lens or University? Got a comment or question to share? First commenter wins their choice of either book–plus a copy of one of several books for which the authors have designated profits to go to the Undershaw Preservation Trust’s efforts to save Arthur Conan Doyle’s home. A list of these books will be provided for you with your notification e-mail.
The Consulting Detective Trilogy, Part I: University is available at all major online booksellers, and a large number of brick-and-mortar shops. For a comprehensive list, see http://www.foolscap-quill.com/booksellers.html. It can also be had in e-book format. Both of Ms. Cypser’s Sherlock Holmes books have Facebook fan pages. Other information is available at http://www.foolscap-quill.com/.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5–“This is a wonderful book which gets it right.”
* In the interests of full disclosure, I will tell you that the author asked me (and several others) to read her book and make comments pre-publication. Other than providing a list of typos, I contributed nothing to its content. I am reviewing the published version of the book.
**This is how I prefer to see it. My husband calls it being “an annoying control freak,” but long drives make him irritable.
***It started out as pneumonia, but became something much more serious. Although it isn’t absolutely necessary to have read The Crack in the Lens before University, I do think it helps the reader understand Sherlock’s struggles in a more visceral way.
†Doyle tells us that Holmes attended university, but exactly which university is up for spirited debate. For a good Cambridge (and Sidney Sussex) argument, see: Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “Holmes’ College Career” in her book, Unpopular Opinions. For Oxford, consult Nicholas Utechin’s Sherlock Holmes at Oxford. Both books are available at a reasonable price from Amazon. For a nice online write-up on the history of Sidney Sussex College, see http://www.sid.cam.ac.uk/aboutus/visitors/history.html. And, by the way, University explains exactly why we have to have this debate at all.
††”The Man With the Twisted Lip”
†††In some instances, he isn’t human at all. See Robert Lee Hall’s Exit Sherlock Holmes.
‡See Watson’s description of just such a wall in “The Retired Colourman.”