Following the success of Charlie Higson’s Young James Bond series, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle authorised a run of novels to introduce the adventures of Sherlock Holmes to teenage readers. This series, written by Andrew Lane, tells the story of a fourteen year old Sherlock as he begins to develop the deductive skills that will serve him well in later life. The first novel is titled Death Cloud and was published in 2010. It has been subsequently followed by Red Leech (2010 – published in America under the name Rebel Heart), Black Ice (2011), Fire Storm (2011), Snake Bite (2012) and Knife Edge (2013).
Due to his father’s military service and his mother’s illness, Sherlock Holmes is forced to spend his summer holiday staying with his eccentric uncle in the British countryside. At first, Sherlock is annoyed by this decision. The town where he has been forced to stay is boring, the house keeper seems to hate him and he wishes that he had been allowed to stay in London with his brother, Mycroft. However, everything changes when he discovers a dead body.
His uncle’s gardener is found in the forest, his body covered in horrible boils. The only clue is a plume of smoke that is seen rising from the corpse. This is the second death of this kind within a matter of days and it causes panic to spread as the townsfolk fear that the cause is the bubonic plague.
Sherlock is less convinced by this and, as he investigates, quickly becomes certain that the deaths were both murders. However, the further he digs; the more danger he places himself in. Trusting only in his friends, Matty and Virginia, and his tutor, Amyus Crowe, Sherlock rushes to get to the root of the conspiracy before his enemies succeed in silencing him forever.
I’ll just begin by telling you know that I’ll be taking special care not to reveal any spoilers in this review. There is not a lot of point in reading a mystery novel if you already know all of the ins and outs of the plot. I’m not going to give away anything of significance so that it won’t impede your enjoyment of the story if you choose to give it a try.
Death Cloud is actually a pretty solid little thriller. The plot, although fairly slow to start, quickly gathers speed as the story progresses. The reveals are evenly spaced throughout the book and so the story develops with a regular pace that never feels rushed or forced. When the villain’s intent is finally deduced it is somewhat absurd, but it still does make coherent sense. As Sherlock would say “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
The novel bridges the gap between a Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys style children’s mystery and an adult crime novel. It takes its intended audience seriously and presents a very realistic vision of Victorian England. Nothing is sugar coated. Fear of the work house is very real, London’s East End is not safe for a woman, and the Thames is a mire of human filth. There is a sense that death comes as no surprise to the characters of the novel because they live in a world that is so rife with it.
Unfortunately, the author goes overboard with his descriptions to the extent that the novel sometimes reads like a textbook. A character mentions the Charge of the Light Brigade in conversation only to then spend the next page explaining exactly what that was. This is purely for the benefit of the reader – there is really no need to explain everything to the characters in the novel as though they are all aliens who have never experience Victorian culture before. Although some of these descriptions do have significance later in the mystery, as they provide Holmes with the knowledge he needs to deduce his way out of tight situations, many serve little point other than to break up the otherwise smooth flow of the novel.
The original characters that are introduced within the story are also well fleshed out and likable. Matty, Virginia and Amyus are all very strong characters with different personalities. Although their backstories are only just touched upon in the novel, they serve well to explain the characters’ strengths and personality flaws. They also offer some intriguing loose ends, such as the nature of the event which has caused Amyus to grow so protective of Virginia, that I hope are developed in subsequent novels. Virginia’s character in particular has a lot of room for development and I truly appreciated that she was portrayed as having equal intelligence and capability to the male characters, despite the Victorian setting.
The villain, although not really appearing in person until the climax of the novel, was incredibly unique and memorable and the motivations for his actions were understandable. I am not sure if this character is a reoccurring bad guy for the series, but I kind of hope that he is. He has proven to be highly connected and dangerous villain, and it will be interesting to see how his plans develop in the future.
Sounds pretty good so far, right? Well, unfortunately it’s time to touch upon my primary criticism of the novel – the characterisation of Sherlock Holmes.
Lane’s Sherlock is a perfectly believable fourteen year old boy. He’s curious about the world around him, he’s resentful of the people who would inhibit his fun and he’s awkward around attractive girls. However, for most of the novel, he does not feel like Sherlock Holmes. There are a couple of nice little nods towards the original stories (an interest in keeping bees, a couple of quotes, the first hints of a future drug addiction) but beyond this there is little to tie Lane’s teenager to Doyle’s detective. There is nothing really special about Lane’s Sherlock, other than above-average intelligence and a penchant for making rash deductions (which are usually wrong).
I see where they are going with this idea. Amyus plays the role of the wise mentor – the man who will teach Sherlock everything that he needs to know about deductive reasoning. The results of this are already becoming clear at the end of the novel, when Sherlock finally manages to use his logic to figure out the villains plan. This novel is like a superhero’s origins story, the escalating series of events that cause the ordinary boy to become an unparalleled detective. The problem is that this cheapens the character.
There does not seem to be anything special about Lane’s Sherlock. If he learns everything he knows from a wise mentor, it feels like it should be the kind of thing that anyone could be able to accomplish. There is no innate brilliance – no genius IQ or eidetic memory. Structuring his evolution in this way just makes him seem ordinary and Amyus seem like the more impressive character. He is, after all, the teacher; the one who not only has developed this school of thought but can train others to utilise it just as efficiently. To make Sherlock into a normal boy takes away the thing that makes him special. He is no longer an exceptional being. He is just a clever boy with a good teacher.
So how does this novel rate? Well, as a mystery story it’s actually pretty good. It’s well written, makes coherent sense and doesn’t take any huge leaps in logic. If it had simply been a Victorian murder mystery, I would have had no real problems with it at all. However, as a Sherlock Holmes story, it has a few problems. The character of Sherlock seems a little flat and uninteresting, lacking the innate spark of brilliance that made Doyle’s character so memorable and special. The novel is very entertaining and I would recommend it to anyone, but it could have been so much better.