Monday 1 November 2010

Review: Red Leech by Andrew Lane (Young Sherlock Holmes)

Sherlock knows that Amyus Crow, his mysterious American tutor, has some dark secrets. But he didn't expect to find a notorious killer, hanged by the US government, apparently alive and well in Surrey - and Crow somehow mixed up in it. When no one will tell you the truth, sometimes you have to risk all to discover it for yourself. And so begins an adventure that will take Sherlock across the ocean to America, to the centre of a deadly web - where life and death are cheap, and truth has a price no sane person would pay . . .

Edit: I have a contest now running on my blog where you could WIN a copy of Red Leech. Contest closes on Friday 12th November - full details can be found here.

Anyone who read my review of Death Cloud, the first book in the Young Sherlock Holmes series from author Andrew Lane, will know that I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and I loved that first outing. Taking on a task as huge as writing the back story for the world's most famous detective is bound to attract a lot of attention from die-hard fans, and I know that some of them have been somewhat critical of Mr Lane's efforts, stating that there was little of the Holmes power of deduction that they have come to know and love. I sometimes wonder how intelligent people can sometimes act so unintelligent when it comes to a subject they feel so strongly about: of course, the young Sherlock character is different from Conan Doyle's creation, he is after all only fourteen! Why can't these detractors look beyond this and spot the subtle details and experiences that Andrew Lane spread throughout his story that are the seeds from which the adult character will grow?

Hopefully, this minority of angry fan boys will be silenced by Red Leech, the second volume in these chronicles of the young Holmes as I feel it is even better than Death Cloud. Having met the character in that first book we are now given a chance to get to know him properly; this is often difficult in a first-in-series book for young readers who demand fast pace and regular action scenes, and so second-in-series books are all the more important when it comes to character development. Andrew Lane certainly rises to this challenge with Red Leech as we start to observe the genesis of some of the mannerisms and beliefs that are so well known in the full formed adult version. Some of these moments in the story are very subtle, some are far more obvious, but almost every one I spotted sent a small shiver of delight down my spine, and created a smug knowing grin on my face. Mr Lane also pays more attention to the legendary Holmes thought process in this book, as the young Sherlock reflects on things that he sees or events that happen. Not all of these minutiae are directly related to the adventure he finds himself on, but many of them demonstrate the birth of a very logical mind. We see him thinking about coded messages for the first time, and admiring "the logical processes that could be used to deconstruct them"; and we witness the dawning of a theory in his mind that the creation of an encyclopaedia of tattoos could be a useful tool in identifying people and solving crimes. These and many other such moments are what make this book even more enjoyable than the first.

Death Cloud was packed full of great action sequences, and the sequel is no different in this respect. Sherlock finds himself escaping from the jaws of certain death time after time as the story progresses, but unlike modern heroes such as Alex Rider he does not have gadgets to help him out of sticky situations, he has to rely purely on his own intelligence and desire to stay alive. He is of course aided in this by his good friends Matty and Virginia, although quite often the final life-saving decisions end up falling to Sherlock as he finds himself having to get all three of them out of perilous situations. In Red Leech we also see the growing bond between Sherlock and Virginia, although given the misogynistic views of the adult Holmes I fear that Andrew lane may be slowly setting his readers up for a big upset sometime on the future.

As in Death Cloud, we see Sherlock continuing to be tutored by the charismatic American, Amyus Crow. We also learn a little more about Crow's background and the reason he his living in England. The author ties this in with real events of 1860s America, revealing that Crow is an agent for the American government, sent to Britain to track down war criminals from the Civil War, a war that caused so many men to lose their lives at the beginning of that decade. We discover that John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, is possibly alive and well and living in Surrey, rather than having been killed in 1865. This is the premise on which the rest of the plot is built, and in my opinion it works very well. It also sees Sherlock travelling across the Atlantic with Amyus Crow to help him track down Booth and his co-conspirators. Crow is the major influence on the young Sherlock and the development of his personality towards the adult character, but there were aspects of Holmes' character that haven't come from Crow, and so Mr Lane now also introduces us to Rufus Stone, a violin player whose voice holds "a slight Irish brogue". Yes, this is where we see Sherlock learn to play the violin for the first time, and I feel we will be seeing more of Stone in future outings.

Another similarity that this book has with its predecessor is a particularly nasty villain. Death Cloud brought us the deranged and deformed Baron Maupertuis, Red Leech introduces us to the just as deranged and deformed Duke Balthassar. I won't say much about this particularly evil man other than that he has a fondness for leeches, using them, on...... let your imaginations run wild at the thought of that! Some might say that the two Andrew Lane created villains we have seen so far are over the top but I love them, and so did the Victorians - their penny dreadfuls and other publications were full of them.

One part of the adult Holmes' character that we know so well his is overwhelming sense of what is right and what is wrong. I don't want to go into any detail here but there is a scene towards the end of the book where the young Sherlock finds himself having to agonise of the planned actions of others, actions he disagrees with despite these others being on the same side as him. I will not say what decision he comes to but it is a decision that will resonate with Holmes fans everywhere, and also reveals an early glimpse of the rebellious streak that lies at the heart of the adult Holmes.

I am not sure when the next instalment of the Young Sherlock Holmes series will be released, although I have it on good authority that it will be entitled Black Ice. Red Leech however is scheduled to be published on 5th November although I wouldn't be surprised if it is in a lot of stores already. My thanks go to Dom and Macmillan for sending me a copy to review.


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