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Mann, George - 'Sherlock Holmes - The Spirit Box'
Paperback: 336 pages (Aug. 2014) Publisher: Titan Books ISBN: 1781160023

George Mann is perhaps better known as a 'steampunk' author (for the uninitiated, think Victoriana mixed with science fiction elements - automata, vampires, clockwork monsters, airships, whimsy - a sub-genre which seems to be influencing everything from Doctor Who to Hollywood). Mann's Newbury and Hobbes series follows the occult-tinged adventures of Sir Maurice Newbury and his sidekick Veronica Hobbes. The author says: "I'm massively influenced by Doyle's Holmes stories, but also Doctor Who, The Avengers, Hammer Horror, Sexton Blake, Jason King, Charles Dickens…"

THE SPIRIT BOX is set in the same universe as Newbury and Hobbes, but is a Sherlock Holmes adventure narrated by the redoubtable Dr Watson. It opens as the Great War is in full swing. London is besieged by German zeppelins and even Watson feels vulnerable and old, and is additionally burdened with grief for his nephew, recently killed in France.

The elderly doctor is summoned by the spymaster Mycroft Holmes to a reunion with his old friend Sherlock, and a new case. Three strange suicides of public figures appear to be linked and may have significance for the war effort. Mycroft wants Holmes and Watson to sort them out for the sake of the nation.

Initially, Watson finds his old friend out of step with the modern world and in particular with the scale of the tragedy of modern warfare.

"In all the years he'd been hiding away in Sussex with his bees the world had changed, and there, in Grange's house that night, his disassociation with the modern age was brought to the fore in sharp relief. Where Foulkes and I had remained in London, and had consequently witnessed the horrors of the war first hand, Holmes had only read the reports in the newspapers, or heard them recited on the wireless."

However, the great detective is soon back in the game and identifies an oddly coloured photograph of one of the suicide victims as an important clue. A meeting with Sir Maurice Newbury leads Holmes and Watson to Ravensthorpe House, home to the peculiar young man Seaton Underwood, who is working on a 'spectrograph device' which he believes can photograph the soul.

Although there are supernatural touches, as with Doyle's stories the mystery and its solution are improbable rather than impossible. Some nice Sherlockian touches are an improbable physical feat by Holmes, and mention of some additional apocryphal cases for the great detective - the 'affair at Horburton Fen', for example.

THE SPIRIT BOX isn't for purists, but it's an entertaining read. An additional treat is a short story, THE LADY KILLER, featuring Newbury and the attractive master criminal Lady Arkwell.

Rich Westwood, England
September 2014

Rich blogs at
Past Offences.

More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 12/09/2014 18:52