Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud, by Andrew Lane
Aside from the dancing, homicidal pastries, Barry Levinson’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes was just plain great. Yes it had Holmes and John Watson meeting at boarding school (The cries of Sherlockians ring out “Not canon! Not canon!”) and involved an hallucinogenic poison dart spitting Egyptian cult with a secret pyramid headquarters under London’s Docklands, but that doesn’t mean it was all bad. OK, the flying machine was pretty bad and there’s still no getting away from those pastries but as a youthful adventure yarn Young Sherlock Holmes was seriously good fun. It was meant to be the first in a series (be sure to watch right through to the end of the credits for a spoiler scene for the planned second film) but bombed at the box-office and so the proposed series was shelved. So, for the past twenty-five years, the potential of the youth of Sherlock Holmes has been a largely untapped if still rich resource. Fortunately, Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud has now arrived to help fill the void in the great consulting detective’s back-story.
Death Cloud takes place in 1868 when Sherlock Holmes is fourteen. A desperately lonely Sherlock has been boarding at Deepdene School for Boys and is looking forward to spending the summer holidays back at his family home. However, as his fellow students are being collected by their families, Sherlock is summoned to the headmaster’s office where his elder brother Mycroft is waiting for him. Sherlock’s father has been unexpectedly recalled with his regiment to India and, since his mother is still suffering from some unexplained illness and Mycroft is busy working for the government, Sherlock is to be sent to spend the summer at Holmes Manor in Hampshire with his Uncle Sherrinford (one of the names that Arthur Conan Doyle considered for his detective before settling on Sherlock) and Aunt Anna.
Ignored by his peculiar relatives and unsettled by their malevolent housekeeper Mrs Eglantine, Sherlock spends his days wandering about the Holmes estate and the nearby town and befriends a boy his own age named Matty Arnatt. Matty is a runaway who witnessed an inexplicable dark cloud moving swiftly about the scene of an unexplained death in the town. Mycroft Holmes arranges for an American tutor named Amyus Crowe to be employed so that Sherlock can, much to his disgust, continue his education during the holidays. While on a nature walk with Crowe, Sherlock discovers a dead body on the Holmes estate and witnesses a similar cloud to the one that Matty had described. Realising that something sinister is afoot, Sherlock, aided by Matty, Crowe and Crowe’s daughter Virginia, sets out to investigate the unexplained deaths and the strange cloud that seems to have accompanied them.
First things first, Death Cloud is children’s book along similar lines to Charlie Higson’s Young Bond books and so has a very different primary market to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories. This is not to say that long-term Holmes fans will not like Death Cloud, since it is in fact a very good mystery/adventure story, just that there are important differences that must be acknowledged. The most important stylistic difference is, of course, the absence of Doctor Watson’s voice. While Conan Doyle had Holmes’ trusted companion Doctor Watson guide the reader through their remarkable adventures, Lane’s fourteen year old Sherlock has no such confidant and convenient chronicler so Death Cloud is a third person narrative where the reader gains an insight into Holmes’ deductive process that is rarely offered in the original books. This absence of Doctor Watson is necessary but does result in the core storytelling in Death Cloud being quite different to the treasured Conan Doyle Holmes tales. The second major stylistic difference is that Death Cloud is a lot more action packed than the adventures of the older, more cerebral Holmes. Young Sherlock is still a deep thinker but he hasn’t reached the stage of being able to solve any and all mysteries from the comfort of his favourite high-backed chair in Baker Street yet. The mystery involved is arguably less subtle as the youthful Holmes plunges into some fairly sensational exploits. There are plenty of thrills, spills and derring-do to be found in Death Cloud but not a great deal of cogitation and pipe-smoking (which is probably just as well on reflection).
However, it’s important to emphasis than none of the issues mentioned above make Death Cloud bad, they just make it different. Andrew Lane clearly knows a great deal about Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and has done a plenty of research into the period and setting of Death Cloud so that the story feels authentic and the speech rings true. He has subtly worked in many references to Conan Doyle’s books that fun to spot; the most surprising of these must surely be Sherlock’s first exposure to opiates when injury necessitates he be given a dose of laudanum. As well as giving Death Cloud a legitimate Victorian tone, Lane has also excels at providing an entertaining back-story for Sherlock Holmes. While Ian Flemming provided a fair bit of guidance about the youth of James Bond that Charlie Higson could use in his Young Bond novels, Arthur Conan Doyle remained silent about Sherlock Holmes’ past. This probably isn’t too surprising given that Conan Doyle wasn’t too precise about Holmes’ adulthood either (How many wives did Doctor Watson actually have? Why did his wife Mary persist in calling him James when his name was actually John? These are just a few of the unanswered puzzles from the novels). Lane uses Death Cloud to provide readers with a sense of why Sherlock Holmes is so staunchly analytical, so reclusive and so distant with women.
As portrayed by Lane, young Sherlock Holmes is a loner by necessity rather than a recluse by choice. He desperately longs for friendship while at school but is ignored by his fellows; he is shunned rather than being cold and simply uninterested in other people. As Sherlock develops through Death Cloud, as circumstances force him to seek out the truth, it is possible to see how the boy will come to develop into the world’s greatest detective. Not having access to Conan Doyle’s regular supporting cast (Doctor Watson of course, as well as Mrs Hudson and Inspector Lestrade), Lane has done a great job of providing interesting companions for Sherlock. Amyus Crowe is an excellent mentor for Sherlock and is convincingly able to help him develop his mental processes as well as encouraging him to take action when necessary. Sherlock’s friendship with Matty Arnatt and his fledgling relationship with Virginia Crowe emphasis Sherlock’s youth and that, behind his great mind, he is a regular person with all the confusion and baggage that this entails. The baddies were equally great creations; Baron Maupertius (of The Colossal Schemes of Baron Maupertuis fame?) was delightfully demented while Mrs Eglantine was a menacing, if underused, foil.
Death Cloud was a great read. Although clearly different from the fully developed detective that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about, Lane’s Sherlock is an intriguing character capable of great deductions and feats of adventure. The story was fast-paced and exciting if not quite as complex a mystery as those Sherlock Holmes will eventually become accustomed to.
Apparently, the next book to feature the Young Sherlock Holmes will be entitled Red Leech (a case referenced by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez) and will involve Sherlock accompanying Amyus Crowe to the United States. It is due to be released in November 2010.