Review: Death Cloud

by Tom Ingram

Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories never reveal much about Sherlock Holmes as a person. We only know what we see, plus a few oblique references here and there. Part of the appeal of the character is that he’s an enigma as tantalizing as the mysteries he solves. There’s been plenty of expansion on the Holmes mythos since Doyle’s death, connecting him with personages as diverse as Sigmund Freud and Cthulhu, but there hasn’t been much exploration of Holmes himself.

Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes series changes that, going back into Holmes’s childhood, the biggest blank spot in his past, and explaining how he came to be the Holmes we know and love. This is a book written for kids. The first rule of writing good children’s literature is “don’t talk down to them”, and Andrew Lane takes this to heart. While he doesn’t have the classic style of Sir Arthur, his writing captures the spirit of the times well and never comes across as condescending.

In Death Cloud, Holmes is forced to stay with an aunt and uncle over the summer after his father’s military unit is deployed to India. He finds life at their house stifling, dominated by a suspicious and overbearing housekeeper. But it’s not long before he makes friends with a street urchin and discovers a conspiracy in the little town that has left two people dead. As he looks deeper into it, he’s helped in his investigation by his tutor Amyus Crowe, who teaches him how to think as well as the host of assorted facts and skills for which Holmes is so famous.

There are a number of wink-nod shout-outs to the Holmes canon, such as Crowe’s habit of keeping tobacco in a slipper, or an offhand remark from Sherlock about addictive drugs. Lane averts a major pitfall by not getting too reference-happy. He hits that sweet spot where the nods are common enough to provoke a smile now and then, but not so dense that it’s frustrating.

The villains are operating on a much grander scale than is usual for a Holmes story, and since he is after all a kid this might be a touch unbelievable for some. Still, in keeping with tradition, any seemingly supernatural events are explained by ordinary means. Death Cloud is a fun little race through the gritty streets of Victorian England that’s appealing for both young and old, Irregular or not.

You can find Death Cloud online at McNally Robinson