Monday, September 12, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “A Case of Witchcraft: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes”

Joe Revill; Publisher: MX Publishing (September 2011)
“…he makes a great heap of facts, then shows how they all fit together, and finds a pattern in them.  It’s a bit like solving a puzzle—or what you do in your line of work, sir.”
“Yes, the analogy had occurred to me, Joe.  That sounds just the sort of thing I need.  Do you have it?” (15)
Hesketh Pearson once said, “‎We feel we know everything about [Sherlock Holmes], yet we want to know much more about him.  We badly want to meet him.”  Pastiche writers work very hard at knowing Sherlock Holmes, at imagining the man the Detective might be if the writer was ever to meet him.  The result is a series of very different Great Detectives, and depending on the author, the reader may encounter a Sherlock Holmes who is tormented, complicated, demonstrative (but guarded), open-minded, close-minded, logical and rational (but with a keen aesthetic sense), or maybe just a victim of Dr. Watson’s (sometimes intentionally sloppy) narration.  Sherlock Holmes can be any and all of these things, and it is always a wonder to see how a writer will interpret him, how he or she will produce him on the page.  In his novel, A Case of Witchcraft, Joe Revill creates a Sherlock Holmes who is every inch the logical, rational, deductive mind that readers want and expect, but is also all too human, with frailties and failings that seem to relentlessly pursue him.
In late October of 1899, Sherlock Holmes is visited at Baker Street by Miss Emily Tollemache, who wants Holmes to travel to the northern island of Trowley, in search of her missing father, the Reverend Tollemache.  Miss Tollemache believes that her father is being held captive by the island’s “Witch-Cult,” and that they plan to sacrifice her father on Halloween, in just a few days time.  Holmes agrees to take the case, but initially travels alone, as Watson is recovering from having a Jezail bullet removed from his leg.  While on the train, Holmes meets a young Aleister Crowley, who is drawn to the case by a shared sense of adventure and pertinent knowledge, and eagerly requests to accompany the Detective.  The case the two men discover on Trowley is, in reality, neither paranormal nor mystical, but all the more terrifying for its real world implications.
The cast of characters in A Case of Witchcraft are at turns compelling, menacing, comical, and flamboyant.  Crowley proves a worthy companion to Sherlock Holmes, as his youth and eccentricities allow him to be capable at moments when the Great Detective finds himself crippled.  He is precisely as he describes himself: intelligent and willing to obey orders without question (42), but he occasionally makes a humorous mistake.  Trowley’s Provost, Mr. Grimson, and his entourage of likeminded fellows, are more sinister than the darkness which he would warn Holmes against.  And of course, the beautiful schoolmistress Louisa Reid complicates Holmes’s life tremendously, but if the reader imagines he knows how or why she does so, then he is probably mistaken.  Every character in the novel appears to have a unique role to play, and they do so intensely, no matter how briefly they are on the page.
Revill has done his research in writing this book, and his knowledge comes across in the details—the manner in which he describes food (I have never read a Sherlock Holmes novel with such a lovely, though lengthy, description of cheese), clothing, local and period customs, and settings, particularly architecture.  His depiction of Trowley is atmospheric, vivid, and fully-formed.  Likewise, Revill’s Sherlock Holmes is a meticulously educated man, with an extremely sensible view of his vocation.  As he tells Crowley, “I wonder whether Dr. Watson’s stories may not have given you a romantic view of my work.  In reality, it can be more difficult, more tedious, and often more dangerous than one might expect from reading of my adventures in the Strand” (41).  Nevertheless, the climax of the novel will probably leave the reader breathless, unsettled, and like Sherlock Holmes, recalling with nostalgia the less gruesome world of only a few moments previous.
However, this novel also deals largely with Holmes’s views on religion and sexuality (his own and in more general terms), and such discussions might not be to everyone’s taste.  Likewise, Holmes’s personal drug use is more varied and elaborate, and the Detective is frank and candid about his life in a way that is sometimes surprising and unnerving.  For all his conflicted beliefs about the nature of God and religion, Revill’s Sherlock Holmes sometimes reads like a man desperately seeking confession.  Hesketh Pearson maintained that readers want to know more about Sherlock Holmes, but Revill makes the reader wonder how much the reader really wants to know, if it is not better to have a divider between the Sherlock Holmes of Dr. Watson’s stories, and the Sherlock Holmes of a harsher reality.
Revill’s Sherlock Holmes is equal parts the Great Detective that readers already know, and the man that they so desperately want to know, for all its implications.  Despite what the novel’s title may lead a reader to believe, there is nothing supernatural in this story, nothing paranormal or otherworldly.  Just very human people, acting in very human ways, with very human consequences.  And that applies to Sherlock Holmes, as well.  Throughout the novel, Holmes appears to walk the fine line between man and machine, standing desperately on the outskirts of true human experiences.  But in A Case of Witchcraft, Sherlock Holmes is still, first and foremost, the detective that readers know and love, even if Revill keeps his more human characteristics partially shrouded in mist.
A Case of Witchcraft: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes, by Joe Revill is available in paperback from MX Publishing, and Amazon.  It is also available for the Kindle.  You can also follow the author on Facebook.
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  1. Intriguing - you've provided just enough detail to get my imagination going, while leaving just enough out that I'm sure I'm wrong. Another to add to the 'to read' list, I think.

  2. @KateM: Oh, spoilers in book of my biggest pet peeves, and I do try to avoid them at all costs! I'm so glad this intrigued you, and I hope you give it a shot. It's definitely worth a read, but may not be to everyone's taste, as I said. Let me know what you think, if you get around to it.

    Oh, and congratulations again! :-)

  3. An excellent review. I just started reading this book so I was hesitant to read this until after I finished but I agree with KateM: good job making the review spoiler free. I made sure to make note of this in my mention of your post here:

  4. @Always1895: Thank you, Matt! It's always wonderful to be included on your site. I'm especially glad to hear that the review was spoiler-free, as I know how frustrating it can be for a reader to accidentally encounter important plot points in a review.