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Review: Sherlock Holmes – The Stuff of Nightmares / Author: James Lovegrove / Publisher: Titan / Release Date: August 30th

Character crossovers are a perennial feature of published fiction as much as they are the engine of fevered playground debate. Who would win in a fight between Superman and the Hulk? What sentence would Judge Dredd give Spider-Man? Would Sherlock Holmes recognise Batman as an ally or regard him as an enemy? Such mash-ups frequently require the use of some handy gubbins to bring the two leads together, often at the cost of suspension of disbelief.

James Lovegrove’s excellent new Sherlock Holmes novel The Stuff of Nightmares deftly negotiates this trap by creating a character who is essentially a nineteenth century superhero. Baron Cauchemar is part Batman, part Iron Man and part Jules Verne-esque scientific adventurer. He stalks London’s East End underworld, apparently righting wrongs and thwarting criminals, but is he connected to the recent wave of bombings? Time for Mr Holmes to dust off the deerstalker.

One of the many gifts that Conan Doyle gave to his inheritors is the series of gaps in the canon. Watson has always been a rather self-effacing and modest biographer who makes no secret of the shortcomings of his accounts, including referring to dates, moments and adventures he has missed or glossed over. Lovegrove inserts his story into one of these liminal spaces, catching up with Holmes and Watson in 1890, between The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventure of the Final Problem. Allusions are made to both, and to other elements of Sherlock lore, making it, like the BBC version, additionally thrilling to eagle-eyed fans.

Of course, none of this would matter if the book, and the adventure it contains, were poor. Fortunately, this is very far from the case and The Stuff of Nightmares is a pacey, exciting thriller that retains everything that makes Sherlock great; the setting, the adventure, the mystery and the central relationship between Holmes and Watson. The steampunk elements are restrained and never used as a substitute for the thrill of mystery and Holmes’ detective skills. When they do appear, they are in the service of, rather than at the expense of, the characters and plot. They do offer the tantalising hint of what would happen if a masked hero appeared in Sherlock’s world and offer an answer to the question of how the great detective would respond.

Lovegrove, an author with a productivity rate that makes Stephen King look positively tardy, displays his well-honed skills on every page. The novel is perfectly structured and characters are introduced with flair and humanity. The overall effect is of a tremendously accomplished thriller which leaves the reader in no doubt that they are in the hands of a confident and skilful craftsman. He is an excellent choice to borrow Conan Doyle’s keys to 221b and the news that he is working on a second Sherlock adventure is most welcome.

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