Book Review: Sherlock Holmes Gods Of War

Written by James Lovegrove

Sherlock Holmes Gods Of War finds Doctor Watson writing this story in 1923 about events in September 1913: Holmes has been retired for 10 years in the village of East Dean in Sussex, looking after bees and writing monographs (Mycroft has died by this point, from a ruptured stomach ulcer). Holmes is just shy of his 60th birthday, Watson two years older, and Watson has come down by train to Eastbourne to holiday with Holmes, only for Holmes to drag him off on an urgent summons he received an hour before meeting Watson, to a jeweller’s on the main thoroughfare. It has been robbed of everything – all of the merchandise, stored in the cellar in quality safes. The junior employee is missing, thereby incriminating himself, but Holmes has other ideas; there is a circus just outside town …

After solving the case, Holmes and Watson return to Holmes’ cottage, which is a mile from the coast, and notice a biplane flying 30 feet overhead; it is the passion of a local bigwig, Craig Mallinson, who lives nearby, a self-made man with a fortune made in mining and importing, who usually flies around on the weekends. But this is not in his usual pattern, as if he is searching for something … Out walking along the coast, Holmes and Watson come across a group of locals on the beach, who are gathered around the corpse of a man. They make a cursory inspection before the arrival of Inspector George Trasker of the local constabulary (who thinks Holmes is a ‘prying busybody’), who gets them to leave but not before Holmes overhears that the body is Patrick Mallinson, son of the wealthy amateur aviator. The suspicion is suicide, but Holmes suspects foul play due to the specific type of mud on the body …

Holmes and Watson are visited in the cottage by Trasker and the bigwig, Craig Mallinson – Patrick had been missing but this was not uncommon, although the father was worried because Patrick had deferred going to Cambridge University that year to study Classics. The father believes it was due to a girl, although the girl had called it off last week. Mallinson wants employ Holmes to prove that Patrick committed suicide and that there was nothing untoward about his death.

Holmes and Watson travel to Eastbourne, to Tripp’s costumier, owned by Miss Elizabeth Vandenburg, the former paramour of Patrick; she came back to England a year ago after several years in Mysore in southern India, where she was a lady’s companion (all this deduced by Holmes) – she also learned a martial art and sword from a local man, son of a nawab, with whom she had a relationship that could have developed until her employer found out and sent her home. She met Patrick a few months previously – he had come to her shop for a Horus costume and a relationship developed. But then he didn’t turn up to some of their meetings and wouldn’t say why and would get angry when Elizabeth asked questions. The father visited her to request that she stop it but she didn’t; only when she’d had enough of the secrecy did she lay down an ultimatum – she still loved Patrick but she needed him to be honest (for example, his lie about a faded hieroglyph mark on his body). Holmes suspects a link to religious sect, like Aleister Crowley, but Trasker doesn’t know of anything in the area.

The next stop for Holmes and Watson is a midnight trip to Settleholm Manor, Mallinson’s estate, specifically the barn with plane (Holmes thinks Patrick might have been thrown out of the plane); they get caught by Jenks the gamekeeper, who takes them to the manor; where Holmes has to apologise to Mallinson, who is being visited by his friend, the eminent steel millionaire Sir Josiah Partlin-Grey, who has come to give comfort to Mallinson. The reason for the midnight visit was to inspect the plane – Holmes thinks Patrick might have been thrown out of the plane while being flown over the sea. Plenty more happens: Watson is tipped into the sea from the pier at Eastbourne, suggesting the investigation is having an effect; Holmes goes on one of his disappearance expeditions; Miss Vandenburg’s shop is burned down; Holmes does a disguise; there is a pursuit over rivers and up cliffs; secrets are revealed and the mystery solved.

The enjoyment of this story is the details that Lovegrove puts into it. There is a passing reference to Auguste Dupin and the Rue Morgue case – Holmes mentions meeting him in later life but didn’t like his personality. There is a passing reference to an untold Holmes adventure with John Merrick, aka The Elephant Man. There are historical mentions for Henry Ford and HG Wells, and Watson reads The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu, thinking that Dennis Nayland Smith relied on his fists and luck too much, and his colleague Dr Petri was colourless. I also particularly liked the lovely language used: horripilation, ‘the capacity to subluxate joints voluntarily’ [when describing Marfan syndrome], gibbous, nostrum, absquatulation, gallimaufry, lacuna, amanuensis. It speaks of a different age when writing used this vocabulary without a second thought, and I appreciated it.

The story is enjoyable and you feel like you’re reading an undiscovered Sherlock Holmes adventure; the mystery and investigation is perhaps more satisfying than the resolution, but that is true of a lot of stories. Lovegrove has the right voice for the book and Sherlock Holmes Gods Of War fits comfortably in the library of non-Conan Doyle stories.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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