Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God
Trade Paper, 224 pages, $12.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
Can the logic of “The World’s First Consulting Detective” withstand a skirmish with the supernatural? Such a question is far from elementary, my dear reader, in Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God. The narrative by Guy Adams is infused with icy interactions, as the intellect of the illustrious investigator collides with arcane expertise exemplified by famous occult practitioners. While a meeting of such divergent minds is difficult, a slight thawing does occur out of necessity: The future of civilization is at stake. Adams is both whimsical and wise in his treatment of the book’s characters; artfully playing on their well-known reputations and personas. Fact and fiction blend easily in the author’s hands, and the result is a cleverly engaging mystery romp.
Some bizarre deaths, one victim “consumed a heroic quantity of his own taxidermy collection,” lead to an investigation spearheaded by a league of rather extraordinary gentlemen. Psychic sleuth John Silence approaches Holmes to help look into the curious casualties. Sherlock remains aloof and reserved, in spite of a list which includes his name along with those who have peculiarly perished. The detached sangfroid of the detective is well documented by Dr. Watson, but the good doctor also acknowledges his friend’s mercurial traits: “Perhaps the key to Holmes’ character lies in his contradictions rather than his consistencies. When in a cheerful mood he could be electric, his humour and charm second to none. When at a lower ebb he could be quite intolerable, even cruel. Holmes was, quite simply, a fractured man. But then what genius can claim to be stable?”
Instability, intellect, and enormous ego are qualities also shared by three important figures in the tale: Aleister Crowley, the infamous occultist; Thomas Carnacki, ghost hunter extraordinaire; and Julian Karswell, authority on runes, and a cunning conjuror of unspeakable creatures. For many aficionados of horror fiction the names of Carnacki, the aforementioned Silence, and Karswell will have resonance. Crowley is the sole primary personage portrayed in the novel to have actually lived. And, he’s been employed as a character in enough fabrications to be thought of as fictitious. Certainly his very public life was embellished by the wicked image he sought to create.
Enlisting the aid of Sherlock Holmes seems an odd choice for this circle of magical mystery men. The great detective does develop a respect for Carnacki, who is a doubting Thomas despite his acceptance of the uncanny. The eventual pooling of unlikely resources reveals a diabolical plot, sucking Watson into a maelstrom of malevolence. After several profoundly eerie episodes shake him out of his comfort zone, the doctor distills the need for dogma: “We read a tragic story in the newspaper, we see a child die, we hear the sabre-rattling of war … all these things are factored and related to via our beliefs. And without that simple structure, that rigidity, that arrogant assumption that we understand the world and our place in it … well, without that, we are utterly exposed.”
In addition to conveying the inner workings of plagued psyches, the novel gives a fair share of attention to atmosphere and edifices. In this brilliant passage, a building is assessed: “These terraces were lightly gravelled and monitored by mournful statuary wood nymphs and water-bearing maidens whose shrewish countenances made it clear they would brook no ill behaviour. For all its age and architectural beauty, Ruthvney Hall was a house the made an art out of the death of amusement. It was seriousness personified in every brick, every rectangular window, every perfectly shorn privet hedge. One simply couldn’t imagine having a good time there.”
In Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God, Guy Adams has concocted a delightful homage to perhaps the most famous figure in the mystery genre. Thankfully, the author hasn’t neglected fans of horror; a bone is thrown our way that would more than satisfy The Hound of the Baskervilles. “The game is afoot,” and it’s a tremendous amount of fun.