Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Baker Street Phantom by Fabrice Bourland

This is a great idea – a series which hinges on a literary mystery, and introduces a new pair of detectives, James Trelawney (who fancies himself as the new Sherlock Holmes) and his Canadian friend, Andrew Singleton, who’d rather be a writer. Finding Boston offers limited opportunities for any interesting detecting, the two young men take up residence in London in 1932, serendipitously choosing lodgings in the first street to house Sherlock Holmes, Montague Street “just round the corner from the British Museum”, as Holmes says.

For readers seeking conventional cosy crime, though, a warning – Bourland is, he says, “reviving a subgenre of crime fiction that was very popular in the past, that of detectives of ‘the strange’ or ‘the occult’.” Despite initial scepticism on the part of Singleton, himself the son of a famous Canadian spiritualist, ghosts abound.

Very much in the Holmes tradition the story begins with a visitor to the lodgings of the newly arrived detectives. It is Lady Conan Doyle, who tells them that she has a premonition that something dreadful is going to happen, and that she believes reports of hauntings at 221 Baker Street may be connected. Singleton and Trelawney, hoping to prove that the “hauntings” are staged by charlatans, decide to attend a séance, and before long find themselves plunged into the murkier parts of London, and working with some very strange characters.

There are some quibbles – mainly the signs of rushed research, I think. Bourland has obviously gone into the  Sherlock Homes part with enthusiasm, and goes well beyond my superficial knowledge of Conan Doyle’s writing, but he’s shaky in other places. He’s unfortunately muddled up his Montague Streets, so that he thinks that Regent’s Park is also just round the corner from the British Museum (it might at a pinch seem so to two healthy young men with long legs but I hope no elderly readers decide on a walking tour based on this book!)  and I was disconcerted by the description of someone as an “East Indies” officer – East India, surely? I was even more disconcerted to read that Londoners had “long ceased heating their homes with coal” so that fog rarely descended on the city and the myth was only perpetuated by Hollywood directors. I must have been born in a different London, where smogs still happened and the Clean Air Act was only passed in 1956! I’m not entirely convinced by a handwritten telegram, too – but the telex machine was first used in Britain in 1932, so it’s a moot point. These are things that a good copyeditor ought to have picked up on before publication.

I must admit that this feels like a first novel, and both writing and plotting are a little clunky in places, but writers have to start somewhere, and there’s enough here to make it certain that I’d pick up the second in the series. There are books where the author’s enthusiasm for his/her project shines through, and this is one of them.

The Baker Street Phantom came courtesy of Bookdagger’s Real Readers. Bookdagger’s website is well worth a visit. In fact, more on that anon…

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