Thursday, 13 May 2010
Review: Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud by Andrew Lane
The year is 1868, and Sherlock Holmes is fourteen. His life is that of a perfectly ordinary army officer’s son: boarding school, good manners, a classical education – the backbone of the British Empire. But all that is about to change. With his father suddenly posted to India, and his mother mysteriously ‘unwell’, Sherlock is sent to stay with his eccentric uncle and aunt in their vast house in Hampshire. So begins a summer that leads Sherlock to uncover his first murder, a kidnap, corruption and a brilliantly sinister villain of exquisitely malign intent . . .
I have been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories since I was in primary school. My sister and I had piano lessons every Friday evening, and we would walk the two miles from school to our grandparents' house, met half way by Grandad. My sister's always had her lesson first, and then I would race back round the corner to my grandparents' house in order to be sat in front of the TV ready for the weekly Friday night black and white film on BBC2. I saw all kinds of classic films at this young age, including many of the Ealing comedies, but it was the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies that I loved the most. And I still love them to this day. Yes, Jeremy Brett's portrayal of the master detective is, I will readily admit, the screen incarnation of Holmes that is truest to the books, but at the age of nine I wasn't to know that the stories had at times been tinkered with a sledgehammer for Rathbone's productions, and nowadays I just don't care. Last Christmas received the boxset of Rathbone's films for Christmas and in my mind they are as good as ever, more so because they led me to reading Conan Doyle's books as I neared my teens.
As a child I was obsessed with mystery books. I read and re-read Blyton's Famous Five and Five Find-Outers books, and then progressed onto The Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys. From here it was only natural that I would eventually move onto Agatha Christie and, because of the films, Sherlock Holmes. These days there appears to be a dearth of good detective mystery stories for kids and young adults, although there are several great series that are well worth diving into that I will mention over the next fortnight. So it was with a huge amount of excitement that last year I read about a new series of books that would focus on Sherlock Holmes' teenage years. It is such an obvious concept for a series of YA books that I am surprised we haven't seen it earlier, especially given that Charlie Higson's Young Bond series has been around for half a decade. Perhaps, as with the Young Bond series, it just needed the right person to come along to write them.
I loved this book and I believe that in Andrew Lane we definitely have the right man for the job, as do the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle who have given this series their authorisation. Despite this 'blessing' it is still a massive challenge that he has taken on. There are more than 350 Sherlock Holmes fan clubs around the world, and no doubt there will therefore be a lot of die hard fans who will not warm to this idea, and will possibly be over critical in their discussion on this book, just as they are when any author publishes a book featuring the legendary detective (and believe me, there have been many such books written by a plethora of authors since Conan Doyle died). In my opinion, though, Death Cloud is the perfect way to introduce this character to a new generation of book readers, especially given Holmes' rise in their cultural awareness following the Robert Downey Jr film.
Andrew Lane is himself a lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes, and his passion for the original Conan Doyle stories is apparent throughout the book, which includes many cheeky nods towards the original stories. For example, in Death Cloud the young Sherlock has to go and stay with his Uncle Sherrinford, this name being one that early notes show had been conisdered by Conan Doyle as a possible name for his detective. There are many such references throughout the book, which more uptight older fans may find irritating. Me? I found them a charming addition to the story, many of them bringing a knowing smile to my face.
I have already mentioned the Young Bond series, but Mr Lane's task in writing this book was very different from Charlie Higson's. Ian Fleming provided his readers with many details about Bond's youth, and Higson had to be very careful not to upset the fan boys by contraticting the character history created by Fleming. As far as Sherlock Holmes is concerned however, Conan Doyle provided very few details about his character's formative years, thus giving Andrew Lane more chance to use his own imagination in creating a life for the teenage Sherlock. I was very relieved as well that Mr Lane chose not to create a young Dr Watson to accompany the teenage Holmes on his adventures. Much as I love Barry Levinson's 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear, screenwriter Chris Columbus chooses to totally ignore the fact that Conan Doyle has Holmes and Watson meeting for the first time in A Study In Scarlet. Of course, this also means that unlike the original stories, these are not narrated by Watson, and Lane's story is written in the third person.
Unlike some other reviewers, I really enjoyed the way Andrew Lane has started to develop the character of Sherlock Holmes. The adult incarnation has an incredibly complex personality, with emotions that change in a flash, going from moments of extreme elation, and then right down to the other end of the emotional scale. This would not work in a book such as this, and some adult reviewers may not have grasped this through their lack of understanding of the teenage book market. In Death Cloud, Andrew Lane presents us with a Holmes that is almost a blank canvas - he is bright and inquisitive, but is yet to develop the cerebral abilities and obsession with detail that see in the adult character. It would be ludicrous expect these in a 14 year-old whose life experiences are pretty much limited to boarding school and a sheltered family life.
Another big difference between Death Cloud and Conan Doyle's stories is the level of action. This book has a fast-paced plot with many exciting action scenes involving chases, escapes and a smattering of blood and gore as well. There is also a brilliant climactic fight scene when Holmes has to do battle with the arch-villain of the piece, the gloriously demented, and physically gruesome, Baron Maupertuis. Yes, this character is a little over the top, but I loved him and young minds will send nervous shivers down many a spive as their owners picture this monstrous man. Is this selling out? No - it is providing the 21st Century 11+ reader with exactly what they want in an adventure story that will keep them turning pages.
Without a Watson or a Lestrade to keep our hero company on his adventures, Mr Lane has obviously had to create a brand new set of characters. My favourite by far of these is Amyus Crowe, an american gentleman employed by Sherrinford Holmes to tutor Sherlock for the duration of his stay at Holmes Manor, and it is Crowe with whom the author places the task of starting to mould the boy's personality into the adult one fans know well, and again, fans who are able to climb off their high horses will enjoy spotting the moments that allude to the adult character's personality and abilities. Another interesting character is the sinister Mrs Eglantine, Housekeeper at Holmes Manor. She is the thorn in the young Holmes' side, making him feel very unwelcome from the moment he arrives at his relatives' house, but unfortunately I felt that Mr Lane did not lavish as much developmental attention on her as he could have. Perhaps this means we will see more of her in future books, and the mystery surrounding her character will unfold further.
Overall I found this a hugely enjoyable read and I am unashamed to say that Mr Lane has created at least one big fan for his new series. My big thanks go to Dominic Kingston at Macmillan for sending me a proof copy to review, and also for his generous offer of some copies of the book to give away on this blog - watch this space for more details. Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud is scheduled to be released on 4th June 2010.