Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove

Front cover of Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James LovegroveLovegrove delves deeper than the immediately recognisable traits of a Sherlock Holmes story, delivering a plausible perspective on how the consulting detective might react to the discovery of Lovecraft’s incomprehensible and hostile cosmos.

As Dr Watson’s famous stories will tell the world, when he returns from Afghanistan in 1880 to recover from serious injuries, his path crosses that of Sherlock Holmes. However, contrary to the official history, Watson’s injuries were not sustained from a jezzail attack while retreating from battle but during monstrous events he has all but driven from his mind. Drawn into Holmes’ investigation of a series of mysterious deaths in the Shadwell district of London, Watson accepts Holmes’ claim that there is a mundane explanation. However, as they dig deeper, they discover the tales of shadows terrifying people to death are neither hyperbole nor cunning deceit but a glimpse of ancient pre-human truths that will shatter Holmes’ belief in a rational world and force Watson to face what the aching wound in his shoulder is really from.

Lovegrove, as other have before and since, fuses Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos. However, rather than portraying this as a single incident in the famous detective’s life, Lovegrove presents a tale of Holmes discovering the universe is Lovecraftian almost at the start of his career and facing off against that for the rest of his life, while Watson’s stories of everything having a rationale explanation are fabulations to hide the truth from a world mostly unready to hear how insignificant humans are before an uncaring and incomprehensible universe.

As part of this conceit, the novel is scattered with references, both overt and subtle, to Conan Doyle’s stories and novels, some of which come with a Lovecraftian “true” explanation and others of which are left for the reader. Lovegrove’s cosmic horror is also, as is common with additions to the Mythos, scattered with names, phrases, and other references to Lovecraft’s work and that of his successors.

Lovegrove’s choice of structure and prose style is skilled, emphasising the “narrative within a narrative” format, “slow trickle of clues followed by sudden massive escalation” arc, and (to modern eyes) formal prose that the most famous Conan Doyle and Lovecraft stories both display. This feel for the commonality goes a long way toward fusing the two different parts into a plausible whole.

Lovegrove also does not shy from the prejudices of the originals, having Watson display a decidedly white colonialist male perspective rather than an anachronistically diverse one. However, the casual racism and sexism is applied with a light touch and confined to interpretations of events rather than behaviour of non-white-male characters. Thus, the novel has the more modern feel of a story told by someone who is prejudiced rather than one that assumes the prejudices are true.

Unfortunately, the underlying arc of detective fiction is the reduction of the puzzling until revealing the certain where as that of cosmic horror is the reduction of certainty until revealing the incomprehensible. Thus, while Lovegrove takes considerable effort to lay a foundation of similarity and to listen to both his shoulder-authors, he must ultimately choose, and chooses to favour Holmesian adventure rather than Lovecraftian dread.

Nevertheless, while there are too many nods to the canon, too many logical deductions, and too many moments of manly heroism to create a true feeling of cosmicism, the echoes are loving and the horror has moments of uncaring vastness, so this is homage and not pastiche.

While Conan Doyle’s Holmes had his belief in rationality repeatedly upheld rather than undermined so the leading characters are not the same people, Lovegrove develops them from a solid understanding of how the originals see the world, meaning that readers are likely to feel they are plausible portrayals of how Holmes and Watson would be if they had discovered Lovecraftian truths.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. I recommend it to those who do not require their Holmes stories to be unassailably rational and those who do not mind their Lovecraftian horrors being opposed rather than merely escaped with sanity shattered.

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