I have a confession to make: I had never read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories before being asked to review this one. In fact I had avoided them because I always had a suspicion I would find his writing dry and procedural, and very likely racist or sexist. When the BBC series Sherlock aired, I gobbled up every episode, but assumed that the style in which the stories were told on that series was markedly different than his writing.
Well, I was wrong. In preparation for reading The Spirit Box, I read several other Sherlock Holmes stories, including A Study In Scarlet, The Sign Of The Four, and “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Here is my advice to everyone who has never read Sherlock Holmes, but who enjoys the BBC series: read them. Read them now. The dry wit, nudges, and self-awareness are all there, and while the racism and sexism sprinkled here and there is ugly, it’s also simply an honest accounting of the time in which it was written. I found myself devouring them, and will no doubt continue to do so once I’m done writing this review.
The Spirit Box is, of course, not written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but by George Mann, who has written one other Sherlock novel entitled Sherlock Holmes: The Will Of The Dead. This novel takes place in 1915, about 30 years after the originals, and London is being bombed by the Kaiser. I admit I knew very little about WWI before reading this, and the fact that London civilians were under direct attack in their own homes was shocking to me. Mann does a beautiful job of outlining Watson’s heartache and fatigue surrounding the war, and I particularly enjoyed the details about his advancing age and what it is like to grow older and feel less and less relevant in a city which once was in the palm of his hand. I also liked Sherlock coming out of retirement in the country, blithely underestimating the gravity of what Londoners are enduring every day. Mann keeps quite well to their characters, although perhaps giving Sherlock rather more credit towards reading emotions than he seems to have been blessed with by his creator.
Despite this, Mann captures the spirit in which the originals were written, from the language style to Watson’s internal monologues, and I still felt as if I were in Doyle’s world. He does employ that tactic beloved by mystery writers the world over, and toes the line between the occult and science in an effort to keep the reader guessing; to some degree I feel like this is cheating, especially when minimal explanation is given as to the true nature of some of the details in the end. But I suspect that the reason for this is to tie this novel together with a spinoff mystery series of a more occult type, using a paranormal investigator named Newbury who also appears in The Spirit Box.
The one place that I do think Mann falls short is humor; although he does try to sneak in some brief moments of comic relief, I was sorry to see the lack of dry wit and biting commentary from Sherlock (and Watson, for that matter) that I so quickly came to love in the originals. Rather than the cutting, pithy remarks in which Sherlock so aptly sums up another person while revealing even more about himself, it seemed that Mann mistook those moments for Sherlock simply being condescending or mean. In my opinion, one of the only things that makes Sherlock’s arrogant and patronizing nature bearable is his (albeit unintentional) ability to mix scorn and criticism with undeniable facts and a touch of hilarious unseemliness. That element was missing for me throughout The Spirit Box.
If you’re already a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, definitely check out this book. It will sate your Sherlock craving for a while. If you’re not a fan of Doyle’s work already, I humbly suggest you get on that immediately, especially if you like the BBC series; considering how long it will be before the fourth season is released, you’ll need your Sherlock craving sated too. This was a fun, easy read with a lot of twists and turns, and I will definitely be checking out Mann’s other work. The game’s afoot!