Young Sherlock Holmes: Red Leech

Young Sherlock Holmes Red Leech

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for its prequel, Death Cloud. You can read my review of this novel [here].

The Young Sherlock Holmes series was written by Andrew Lane and authorised by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The novels focus on a fourteen year old Sherlock as he begins to develop the skills that will characterise him as an adult. At the time of writing, six books have been published – Death Cloud (2010), Red Leech (published as Rebel Fire in America) (2010), Black Ice (2011), Fire Storm (2011), Snake Bite (2012) and Knife Edge (2013). For the purpose of this review, I’ll be looking at Red Leech only.

Following the events of Death Cloud, Sherlock has returned to live with his Uncle in the country and has resumed his studies under the former bounty hunter, Amyus Crowe. However, before he has chance to recover from his previous adventure, he finds himself thrust into another when Mycroft arrives with alarming news. John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, is rumoured to be alive and well and living in the neighbouring town.

Although Amyus tells Sherlock not to get involved, he and his friend Matty swiftly take off to investigate the claim. However, their search backfires when Sherlock is captured and almost shot by Booth’s cohorts. In the ensuing escape, Matty is kidnapped and taken with the Confederates as they flee back to America.

Fearing that they intend to use Booth to rally a new army and restart the Civil War, Amyus swiftly follows them and brings both Sherlock and his daughter, Virginia, with him to help with his investigation. However, their journey is wrought with danger. The Confederates know that Amyus will follow them and have taken steps to ensure that he never reaches America…

While Death Cloud presented a very competent (if somewhat strange) murder mystery, Red Leech is a very different kind of novel. This time, there is no mystery to be solved. The identity and motivation of the criminals is deduced by Mycroft and Amyus within the first few chapters and the novel never tries to trick the reader into thinking anything different. While this does not necessarily present a problem in itself, it does show this novel’s first failure as a Sherlock Holmes story.

Doyle’s series of novels and short stories tended to all follow a similar structure. There is always a mystery to solve, one that will often seem impossible or even supernatural at a first glance but will be proven to have a mundane solution. For example, a dying man appears before Holmes, covered in sores and ranting about “the lion’s mane”. It’s a mystery that seems to make no sense until the consulting detective deduces that he has been attacked by a deadly lion’s mane jellyfish. Without a mystery to solve, Red Leech just did not feel like a Sherlock Holmes story. In fact, the novel in general had more in common with a James Bond adventure.

The book was essentially one big chase. From the moment Sherlock learns about Booth’s whereabouts, he never stops moving. The criminals are pursued by horse, boat, train and then horse again as Sherlock tries to both rescue Matty and bring them to justice. Although the pace of the story leads to some exciting sequences, they unfortunately feel out of place within the novel. Sherlock Holmes stories are about logic and making rational deductions, not about shoot outs on the roofs of moving trains and killing off the bad guys. Although the violence in the story is not gratuitous by any means, it still seemed out of character. Let’s note that in Doyle’s story, Holmes never intentionally kills anyone (not even in self-defence). I don’t want to spoil Red Leech for you but let’s just say that Lane’s Holmes is not quite as considerate.

I commented in my review of Death Cloud that the character of Sherlock did not seem to share much in common with his adult self and this observation also carries across into this novel. He is just far too ordinary. I appreciate that the purpose of these stories is to show how he developed into the genius detective but Lane’s Holmes has no spark of brilliance and shows far too much compassion towards his friends and family (particularly Virginia, for whom he holds an obvious crush). While Lane does try to show how certain character traits originated (in Death Cloud he gained his interest in bees and the starting of a morphine addiction, while in Red Leech he obtained an interest in tattoos and learned how to play the violin), the character simply does not behave like Sherlock Holmes in any way. He comes across as a character that just happens to be called Sherlock Holmes, rather than the Sherlock Holmes.

The other characters in the novel also fail to get any development this time around. Over the course of the story, we don’t learn anything about Amyus, Matty, Virginia or Mycroft that we did not learn in the previous story. While they are still likable characters, it is a shame that they did not really feature much within the story and so faded away into the background of most scenes. The villain of this novel also did not leave as much of an impression as Baron Maupertuise did in the previous adventure. While the two of them shared some similarities – such as physical frailty – his master plan was not as gloriously bizarre and he barely made any impact within the story.

But what if I just take this book in its own right, I hear you ask, and not just as an adaptation of Doyle’s work. Well, unfortunately, even if read as a thriller that is unrelated to the Sherlock Homes franchise, it is still a weak novel. The story lacks any kind of suspense and a lot of the climax occurs off page. It wraps up rapidly in the last twenty pages and the fates of many of the characters – including Booth himself – are merely exposited to Holmes as he is not present to observe them. Chekov’s Leech also had very little importance to the story in the end, purely seeming to exist to enable the villain to get his comeuppance. Again, I can’t say any more without giving spoilers but, really, why did the leech even feature in the story? It would not have changed anything if it had been left out.

The only thing that I rather enjoyed were the educational sections of the book, particularly concerning the American Civil War as I don’t know much about this period of history, but even this were a little frustrating in places as they sometimes caused the story to grind to a halt while someone spent five pages explaining a concept to Holmes. I also noticed some inaccuracies with the facts given, particularly concerning komodo dragons, and so I am dubious as to how much of this information is actually true.

Anyhow, to conclude, I did not find Red Leech to be anywhere near as enjoyable as Death Cloud. The story is lacking in suspense and functions as more of an action thriller than a Sherlock Holmes story. This time, there is no mystery to be solved and Holmes seems to be even more out of character this time around. Although I will continue with the series in a later review and hope that it will improve, I was underwhelmed by this instalment and would not recommend it to any fan of Doyle’s work.

Young Sherlock Holmes: Red Leech can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on

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