The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Promise – David Stuart Davies
I don’t know when I first became familiar with Sherlock Holmes, but it wasn’t terribly early in life. On a trip to London with my parents when I was a child, we were at a Tube station when I noticed a stop for Baker Street. “Look!” I said. “That’s where Basil the mouse detective lives!”
Eventually, I got more up to speed. I like the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle; I enjoy the various media portrayals I’ve seen, especially the Steven Moffat TV adaptation – and yes, The Great Mouse Detective is still one of my favourite Disney films. It would be hard to find somebody past a certain age who isn’t familiar with Sherlock Holmes; he is one of the most enduring fictional characters ever. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he has appeared in film more times than any other literary human character (Count Dracula being considered a non-human). He’s certainly one of the few characters you can write publishable, sellable fanfiction about – for indeed, that’s what any original non-Conan Doyle story about Holmes is. This particular one, The Devil’s Promise, is by David Stuart Davis, described in the author profile as “a renowned expert on the Great Detective”. So you’d reckon that if anyone can create a good Holmes story, it would be him.
When the story begins, Sherlock Holmes has been in a particularly dark mood: his brother Mycroft has suffered a stroke, and he himself is getting on in years. The ever loyal Dr Watson decides to try a holiday, and they end up spending a week in a cottage on the Devonshire coast. When Holmes discovers a corpse on the beach, however, it looks like he may have another mystery to stimulate his mind. But things quickly take an even darker turn – and several months after the events of the holiday, with Holmes acting very suspiciously, and the possible involvement of a Satanist group, it’s Watson who has to take the initiative and try to save his friend.
The Devil’s Promise is not a very long book at 224 pages; it took me a couple of days to read it all. But it manages to pack plenty of substance into that space. What could have just been a simple adventure, as many of Conan Doyle’s stories are, turns out to be quite a bit more. It starts out looking like a basic mystery as Holmes and Watson investigate the corpse and the strange behaviour of the nearby villagers – but about a third of the way through, we abruptly cut to a scene months later. This is where things become quite different, as Watson – who allegedly suffered an illness and has lost his memory of the intervening months – tries to find out what’s going on behind the scenes, and the story becomes a combination of mystery and thriller. Certainly there are high stakes involved and the plot is very compelling. With his writing voice, Davies doesn’t focus too hard on trying to imitate Conan Doyle, instead using a style somewhere in-between Victorian and modern prose, which works well.
The story does a really good job of exploring the relationship between Holmes and Watson. This relationship is sorely tested by events, and we see how far Watson is willing to go for the sake of his friend, and how well he understands him. It is also made clear that there is a more vulnerable side to Holmes under the genius and aloofness, something some adaptations don’t always bother with; he’s an extraordinary human, but he’s still a human. One slight disappointment with the two main characters is that we don’t see Holmes using his brain and deductive skills all that much, with the ‘mystery’ side of things eventually taking a back seat.
One of the main villains, Enoch Blackwood, seems rather unoriginal, as a young, dark, “cruelly handsome” gentleman, whom you might expect to see seducing innocent village maidens even if he wasn’t secretly a Satanist. (I wonder if it’s meant to be a shout-out that he has the same last name as the villain from the first Robert Downey Jr. movie about Sherlock Holmes, especially since that Lord Blackwood was also associated with dark magic.) His sister, Arabella, feels like wasted potential; it’s implied that she’s conflicted about what her associates are doing, and plenty could have been done with this, but it’s never really explored.
Another thing I didn’t like, without spoiling anything, is that it turns out God and the Devil are definitely real entities within the story, and the magic and power involved is real, which felt quite out of place in a Sherlock Holmes story – personally, I would have preferred more ambiguity in this case.
I would certainly recommend The Devil’s Promise to any existing Sherlock Holmes fan, though anybody who hasn’t read (or watched) at least a few of the original stories should do that first so they can best appreciate it. Rating: 3.5/5.
I Am Dead – Gareth Wiles
I feel quite bad writing this review as I think this is the first time I’ve given a bad review to a story having actually met the author. Albeit, it was only very briefly at the Preston Comic Con, but Gareth Wiles seemed like a nice guy and signed the first of his four books for me. But sadly, that couldn’t make me enjoy I Am Dead.
The main character is Peter Smith, a 32-year-old loser who is unexpectedly killed by a block of ice falling from the sky. Finding himself on trial in what is apparently the afterlife, he is instructed to go back to an earlier point in his life where he should have died – during a bank robbery – and ensure that he properly snuffs it this time. Of course, Peter does no such thing, stopping the robbery and saving the girl he fancies, Lauren, in the process. This leads to serious ramifications in the timeline, and Peter eventually finds himself having psychic visions and moving between different timelines, encountering different incarnations of the same people, and trying to make sense of it all.
There could be a really good story here. Some of the ways that different characters are used – Peter encountering them at different points and piecing together things about their backgrounds – have great potential and are fairly interesting as they are. But the story as a whole makes very little sense at all. Peter’s experiences feel totally chaotic and incomprehensible, and many of the elements described – like something called the Space that gives Peter his visions – are not adequately explained.
The tone is sometimes unclear: for example, when Peter moves into a timeline that plays out like a thriller, it climaxes in a scene of revelations so convoluted and over-the-top I wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek or not. The pacing is also all over the place: sometimes events that feel very significant are passed over in the space of a paragraph, through flat, emotionless prose.
As well as this, none of the characters are likeable. Peter is very self-absorbed and doesn’t endear himself to the reader at all. He doesn’t have any real voice, either; his manner of speaking goes back and forth, as random as everything else. As for his romance with Lauren, I couldn’t get invested in it. Lauren is uninteresting and unintelligent, and I couldn’t understand why Peter is so devoted to her, except that she’s good-looking – not to mention, his insistence that she will surely wait for him in timelines where he’s never even met her yet is irritating. Mind you, there is one point where he seriously considers a relationship with a woman he’s known for a few minutes – and after she gets killed shortly afterwards, he thinks of her as “my woman”!
And if I do ever read the book again, I’ll count the sheer number of times Peter is knocked unconscious and wakes up somewhere else – and possibly the number of times that he is captured or almost captured by the police or somebody else’s security, and still gets away.
There were some parts that I quite liked, particularly in the ‘thriller’ section, but overall I found I Am Dead too messy to be enjoyable. Rating: 1/5.