I have been strongly attracted to this cover for some time, but the reviews on Goodreads didn’t seem great so I had passed up on this book until I decided to throw caution to the winds and give it a go.
I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and this means that I could be nitpicky about contemporary writers written unofficial “extensions” to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Thomas’s book has its own flaws such as an overload of details which boggles the reader and made me feel like giving up at some points. However, I stuck it through, and once Sherlock Holmes actually enters upon the scene (after a third of the book, probably) the action gains momentum and the tedium lessened. I found that his writing, during the more exciting parts of the book, was sufficiently in tune with that of Arthur Conan Doyle’s, so much so that sometimes I forgot that I’m not actually reading an original Sherlock Holmes story. This in itself is a great plus point for me, though it didn’t mean that I managed to sit through every word in the novel. I would certainly pick up more of Donald Thomas’s books in the future, and in fact I have already borrowed another one from his Lost Sherlock series, Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly.
Update 1 (21 August 2015):
– page 88 22.0%: “I am swamped by all the army/military details, but there are glimpses of some interesting action so far, though not quite enough to justify the military backstory. I find myself scanning through the bits of which Fusiliers and which Artillery is moving to where and where, and the carnage of war. At last, it’s Dr Watson’s turn to take the stage of narrative, but even then he also felt the need to talk army in detail.”
Update 2 (21 August 2015):
– page 170 42.0%: “The action is starting to pick up and the story is starting to get clearer now that I’ve gone to Wiki bits of the actual history that happened, including the death of the Prince Imperial, Capt. Jahleel Carey’s involvement and so on. Enjoying this book more now.”
One of the most major problems about this book is the overload of information and details. It is clear that Thomas knows his stuff about English military history, and even other things like the anatomy of a paddle steamer and how its crew work. He shows it, and he shows it abundantly. The first third of the book was honestly a bit of a drag because it detailed specific battles that the English army fought in Zululand and other places in South Africa. Of course, these battles were central to the main plot line, which was that of Col. Rawdon Moran (brother of the infamous Sebastian Moran) being a background puppeteer of all these spectacular English defeats in South Africa. But I felt the language here far too technical, and it lost my attention many times. I fairly skipped over paragraphs and paragraphs of strategies and men being killed in the carnage of war. Names were thrown around that never had any relevance to the central plot, and only served to confuse me further. I almost gave up at this point. However, I persevered and was rewarded for my determination.
When I was wading through the military history bits of the novel, though, I decided to look up this whole period in history on Wikipedia. I was fairly sure that it was inspired by real-life historical events, and I was right. Reading up on the death of the Prince Imperial Louis Napoleon of France, as well as that of his main escort, Captain Jahleel Brenton Carey, certainly helped a lot in the understanding of plot events that unfolded after. If I hadn’t, I would be even more lost than I was. (P.S. I was very morbidly fascinated by that memorial photomontage of the Prince Imperial’s funeral. I wonder what primitive form of Photoshop they used for that. Also, it was rather macabre imagining the Prince Imperial being stabbed through his right eye and there is a sort of mark at that position in that photomontage)
I was also pleasantly surprised at some of the plot twists, like the Rev. Dordonan actually being Major Putney-Wilson, and Josh Sellon turning up dead. Thomas also likes to weave in a sort of timeline into the story. This entire case was supposed to have happen shortly after Holmes and Watson meet, so there were some brief mentions of the “Brixton Road mystery”, Mary Morstan and a commissionaire who featured in a small role in one of the earlier cases, Albert Gibbons, makes a bigger appearance. I was neutral about this timeline thing – it wasn’t a distraction, but it wasn’t necessary either.
I also thought Mycroft Holmes served up a deus ex machina, revealing a large part of the backstory when he appears halfway through the investigation. I thought the rivalry between Mycroft and Sherlock slightly too overstated in this book, though. Whatever rivalry there was in the original canon, it was kept very subtle and under wraps. Here, Sherlock looks at his brother “coldly” and Mycroft comes across as a pompous know-it-all.
Watson, being our faithful narrator as always, remains completely in the dark most of the time. It is good and well that us readers remain in the dark with him, which is the whole point of him being a narrator. Plot twists were not so easily guessable that we would think Watson being deliberately obtuse. At one point in the story, Watson receives a ciphered telegram from Holmes, which he takes about 2 pages of soliloquy just to decipher. While I like that Watson shows his struggles as a mere mortal with a brain that works at a normal speed, but this also exemplifies the problem with Thomas’s writing. There is just too much detail. A few lines would’ve sufficed to let the reader understand how much problems Watson encounters with the cipher, rather than pen down his stream of consciousness.
As I mentioned in the above blurb though, I would still try out more of Thomas’s books, in the sanguine hope that if his stories didn’t center so much around military history, they would read better.