I was genuinely excited to read this book when I was handed a review copy. Why? Well, I knew that it satisfied my two most important criteria for a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. No crossovers and no magic.
What we find within its pages is more of a thriller than a traditional Sherlock Holmes adventure in which the Prince of Bulgaria hires Holmes and Watson to recover the eponymous Codex – a document that has much symbolic, perhaps spiritual, importance to his country’s morale.
The pace of the book is good and Symonds comes close, in my opinion, to the Watson style. Watson was always quite big on, perhaps, unnecessary descriptions of countryside and buildings – Symonds replicates this quite well although I think his Watson occasionally outdoes the original in the volume of such detail. There’s a fine line between useful description and literary padding and I think Symonds occasionally puts his foot on the wrong side of the line. However, it is a matter of personal taste and for some this level of detail could be welcome.
The key characters are pretty well drawn but the others are less so. This makes it relatively easy to know which characters to keep an eye on. This, in turn, takes a certain amount of guesswork (or deduction) out of proceedings. This is particularly true of one of the principal villains. As soon as he appeared on the page I just knew he was going to be at the bottom of something.
In a parallel with the story Sherlock Holmes and the Irish Rebels by Kieran McMullen we have a more conventional crime in the middle of this thriller. This was, to me, far more interesting than the political intrigue that was going on around it. However, its resolution, when it came, was a little like the dénouement from a Poirot mystery. All the points leading to the conclusion were revealed and made logical sense but, to me, it seemed impossible to have actually worked it out for yourself. Some of the clues were there but by no means enough. Then again perhaps I am just a little slow. I was also slightly less than happy with how Holmes went about ensuring justice. Although Holmes has done slightly similar things elsewhere in the Canon I do wonder if he was ever quite so cold-blooded.
The biggest problem with this book, at least in the beginning, was the seemingly endless paraphrasing of the Canon and references to past cases. Before the mid-way point of chapter two, I had counted paraphrasing or direct mentions from no less than four original adventures – A Scandal in Bohemia, The Bruce-Partington Plans, The Copper Beeches and The Second Stain. Mostly these were admitted to at the time of use but it was not always the case. To help you avoid missing any of the references Symonds later makes plain all links in a glossary (which seems a little out of place in a story).
This harking back to the Canon was a mistake in my opinion because it made it appear as though Symonds was attempting to convince me, the reader, how well he knows the Canon. Anthony Horowitz made this same mistake in The House of Silk. As readers, we really don’t need to be told how well or not you know the Canon. That will become apparent as we read your story. It is also fairly safe to say that all but the most devoted fans would probably not worry about the odd slip-up of chronology. All we need is a story that we enjoy and that takes us back to 1895 (so to speak). Conan Doyle himself got canonical references wrong so you can relax. All but the most stunning clangers will not trouble most people.
To sum up. This is a well paced story close to the Watson style. It all hangs together but it's not hard to work out who to watch or what their motives are. If you can accept this I think you will be entertained.
For more information on Arthur Conan Doyle and his time at Undershaw please refer to my book, An Entirely New Country which is available through all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Classic Specialities, and in all electronic formats including iTunes, Kobo, Nook and Kindle .
The Norwood Author is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Waterstones UK, Amazon UK, Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon Kindle, iBooks for the iPad/iPhone, Kobo Books, Nook.
Close to Holmes is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.