Originally published in 2020
Sherlock Holmes 1942 #1
A killer going by the name of “Crimson Jack” is stalking the wartime streets of London, murdering women on the exact dates of the infamous Jack the Ripper killings of 1888. Has the Ripper somehow returned from the grave? Is the self-styled Crimson Jack a descendant of the original Jack—or merely a madman obsessed with those notorious killings?
In desperation Scotland Yard turn to Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective. Surely he is the one man who can sift fact from legend to track down Crimson Jack before he completes his tally of death. As Holmes and the faithful Watson tread the blacked out streets of London, death waits just around the corner.
I have previously revealed the role that the animated movie The Great Mouse Detective played in my becoming a mystery fan. It was not just an entertaining adventure in itself, it also introduced me to some of the story beats and ideas of mystery storytelling and specifically to the character of Holmes. It did this well enough that when I happened upon one of the Rathbone Holmes movies a few years later I couldn’t resist watching with the series quickly becoming appointment viewing for me whenever they were repeated on weekends or during school holidays.
For me, at least during my early childhood, Holmes was not a Victorian gentleman who travelled by hansom cab but someone pitching into Britain’s war effort, matching his wits against the Nazis. I loved those movies because of, not in spite of, the setting and pulpy style and I determined I would watch them all. In those pre-internet days I had little idea just how many there were so whenever I spotted a new one listed as showing in the Radio Times it was particularly exciting. Not that it stopped me rewatching those ones I had already seen.
Little wonder then that when I discovered A Study in Crimson, the first novel to my knowledge that specifically features that wartime Holmes incarnation, I set everything else aside and immediately started reading…
The novel opens with a short adventure in which Holmes and Watson are summoned to a scientific research installation to investigate the disappearance of a scientist from within her locked bedroom. This is actually one of two short impossible crimes within the novel and I was entertained but neither case is substantial enough on their own to justify fans of that form seeking it out. Both cases do serve an important role in demonstrating Holmes’ gifts are methods before we delve deeper into the central mystery.
That case concerns the murder of several young women in the streets of London. The first two murders occurred on the anniversaries of the corresponding murders committed by Jack the Ripper and there are some other similarities in the crimes that seems to suggest that there may be a copycat. That is particularly worrying given, as Holmes points out in the quote above, it seems to suggest that further murders will follow on the anniversaries of the subsequent murders.
The idea of taking Holmes and having him come face-to-face with the Ripper, or someone deliberately emulating him, is not exactly unprecedented. I remember playing a PC game called The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes in the mid-90s which featured a murder that Lestrade wants to attribute to the Ripper (spoiler: it isn’t) and there have been plenty of other stories such as Big Finish’s Holmes and the Ripper or the movies A Study in Terror and Murder by Decree. Still, while it may have some familiar elements, I think there is enough novelty introduced here with the time gap between the original crimes and those being investigated that it avoids feeling derivative.
One of the reasons that I think this works is that the period setting contributes to the sense of fear surrounding the killer being at large. This was the era of the blackout meaning those who cannot help but be out at night will feel all the more at risk. This also helps build a sense of tension later in the book as our heroes attempt to patrol the streets in the dark in the hopes of preventing subsequent murders.
I think this is just one example of how the novel uses its historical setting well, drawing on elements of the period such as radio broadcasts, American GIs and air raid patrols to create a strong sense of place and time. It was this sort of material I most hoped to find in this book so I was happy to see that Harris made effective use of it and made the setting important to the story.
Harris’ Holmes similarly feels like a pretty solid evocation of the Rathbone portrayal of Holmes. He has the familiar moments of prickliness and brilliance but there are some moments of patriotism and advocacy of his principles that make him feel like that more conspicuously heroic version from the movie series. Similarly the language this Holmes uses reminds us that he is a mid-twentieth century man rather than a Victorian (or Edwardian) one.
Watson on the other hand has been presented with some slight differences from the Nigel Bruce portrayals in those movies. Harris’ Watson is still a little old-fashioned and formal in some social interactions but he never appears to be foolish or an overtly comedic creation which is, I feel, to be welcomed. He is however the warmth and the heart of the novel – something I feel he has in common with the Bruce portrayal of the character.
Several other familiar characters from the Holmes universe make their appearances with different degrees of attention. These include Mycroft, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, all of whom struck me as not dissimilar from their traditional roles. I was far more interested in learning about the members of the Baker Street Irregulars, particularly their leader Wiggins who remains in London. This once again tied nicely into the novel’s historical setting but I also appreciated hearing how he felt about Holmes and the enormous sense of respect he feels for his hero.
These elements, combined with the novel’s setting, go a great way toward evoking that sense of the original movie series. This story offers some lighter moments, including a sort of awkward romance for Watson, as well as a solid hook in the idea of the copycat Ripper killer. As much as I enjoyed those elements however and the sense of nostalgia I felt, I did think that the novel was a little disappointing in the way it presents the investigative portion of the novel itself.
I know from my own readings (and re-readings) of the Doyle canon that Holmes’ stories often feel like they would be better labelled as adventures than mysteries. This is not much different. While there are some clues dotted around as to what has been happening, I feel much of the crucial work happens when we are not following Holmes and that we learn about some elements after the fact which can be unsatisfying at times.
I would also add that I found the solution to be a little disappointing, in part because the case ends up feeling quite simple with limited suspects and surprisingly few clues. While there are a few interesting applications of logic to make some deductions, the case felt over a little too quickly and seemed to be begging for another twist for its resolution. That being said, I was not unhappy with the pulpiness of the resolution which did at least seem to fit the general tone Harris was clearly aiming for.
In spite of those disappointments, I still enjoyed much of what this book had to offer. The central concept of writing more stories for this incarnation of Holmes is a great one and based on the evidence here and Harris’ confident handling of the character, I think it could easily sustain a series and I would certainly be interested in checking out any subsequent installments.
The Verdict: An entertaining, if rather light, read with a solid handle on its version of Holmes and the era he lives in.
2 thoughts on “A Study in Crimson by Robert J. Harris”
I think your comments are spot on. This was a fun, breezy read, and the decision to set the novel in the universe of the Rathbone/Bruce films made this feel unique as a pastiche. The clever hook was well-sustained, though as Holmes and Watson made their way through the investigation, I was pretty much able to figure out where it was headed. A fun pastiche, in all, but perhaps a slight one compared to the greats.
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It is amazing to think no one has thought to do this before (at least to my knowledge). I agree that the story is on the slight side but still an enjoyable read. I hope more will follow!
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