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Review: The House at Baker Street

Pan Macmillan recently supplied me with a copy of The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby. Here is my review.

The story begins with eavesdropping. We learn that Mrs Hudson has been listening to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson through a vent ever since they became residents of 221B Baker Street. Via this she hears a young woman – Mrs Shirley – come to Holmes about a case of blackmail. He turns her away when she is less than forthcoming and Mrs Hudson not only intercepts her but decides to take up the case. In this she is assisted by her good friend Mary Watson (nee Morstan).

Hudson and Watson - London's newest detective pairing

At first glance the story has elements that have sunk many a pastiche. Multiple canonical characters appear, some as mere cameos, some more substantially. Often this looks like a desperate attempt by the author to add authenticity where they feel it may be lacking. However that is not the case here. Michelle Birkby uses these characters well and always to a purpose.

I suppose that, for me, the key thing is the use of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. They feature but do so sparingly. Inevitably we feel strongly about Holmes and Watson and we can be sensitive about how they are handled by other authors. If an author crosses our personal red lines we may well give up on the book (or at least view it harshly). Birkby uses them so lightly that she manages to avoid offending my view of Holmes and Watson. I don’t feel they are maltreated in her hands. This may not be so for all readers but it was for me.

Birkby’s chosen protagonists are almost blank canvases with which anything can be done. We may love Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson as characters but they were not fleshed out to any great extent by Conan Doyle. Therefore another author needs to go some way before they can really disappoint us with their characterisation.

Birkby certainly knows how to create atmosphere and tension. She also has a wonderful ability to evoke images of Victorian London in your mind. She doesn't over describe but instead gives you just enough to enable your imagination and memories of screen adaptations to do the rest.

There are things I don’t like. The informality is a bit grating. Mrs Hudson calling Dr Watson John is out of place. Unlike the author I don't subscribe to the idea that Mrs Hudson and Martha (from His Last Bow) are one and the same so the use of the first name Martha was not something I liked.

That said, these are quite trivial points. The story moves at a good pace and, even though it is dealing with a case of blackmail, remains quite light…for a time. However, Birkby is merely lulling us into a false sense of security. Almost halfway through the book events take a gruesome turn that I’ll admit I was not prepared for. Birkby also makes use of Victorian male prejudice in her story with Mrs Hudson and Mary getting out of some scrapes by use of the excuse but we’re only women, what would we know? (I'm paraphrasing but you get the gist). Sometimes this is amusing, sometimes necessary but I hope it is not something that she relies on too much in future.

All in all this is a good read and for me, the arch critic of pastiches, this is high praise. I would go so far as to say I would like to read more of the adventures of Hudson and Watson. I was therefore relieved to note that the author has more in the pipeline. I would also like to see Michelle Birkby have a go at a Holmes and Watson adventure. I believe she would do an admirable job of it.

Release date Feb 25th 2016.



Written by Alistair Duncan Buy my books here

2 comments:

  1. Yes, thank you! It sounds intriguing, but - informality? John? *gulp* - not sure here. These are things I have difficulties to get past. Perhaps I'll download a trial copy first, if there is one.

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