Death Cloud by Andrew Lane
Series: Young Sherlock Holmes #1
Genre: YA, historical fiction, mystery, Sherlockian fiction
Published on February 1, 2011
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Read From: 2.21.13 - 2.24.13
It is the summer of 1868, and Sherlock Holmes is fourteen. On break from boarding school, he is staying with elderly relatives in the country and expecting a tedious vacation. Instead, he finds himself in the midst of a shocking murder mystery. Two local men have died from symptoms resembling the plague. Soon it is clear they have not died from natural causes.
Heedless of danger, Holmes throws himself into an investigation of what and who really killed them. With encouragement from his American-born tutor and the help of two new friends, he uncovers a diabolical plot. So begins his first battle of wits against a brilliantly sinister villain of exquisitely malign intent.
Cover Blurb: Yes or No? Absolutely not! Why, oh why couldn't the US editions keep the UK covers?! I hate this cover! Absolutely hate it! Do I even need to explain why I hate it? Just look at it! That kid is so obviously from the 21st century! And he's just annoying.
Characters: We will address the protagonist first: Sherlock Holmes, at age fourteen. Everyone knows at least something about the famous detective, even if it's a popular myth that has been perpetuated by flawed movie renditions (like the deerstalker cap; thank you, Basil Rathbone). But very few people can portray him as accurately as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did, and that's because few people actually bother to read - really read - the stories. They're more content to follow what the movies tell us, and there has only been one movie (or I should say TV) rendition of Sherlock Holmes that has portrayed him almost 100% accurate (BBC's Sherlock). The Sherlock Holmes of Death Cloud, unfortunately, must join the ranks of endless incorrect portrayals of Sherlock's character. While young Sherlock is a very likable protagonist - bright, caring, curious, - that is where some of the flaws reside. There's a very good reason that Dr. Watson was ever Sherlock's one and only true friend, and it has nothing to do with Sherlock having been a polite, if somewhat eccentric, man. Sherlock Holmes is downright rude at times, to a point that it really does seem like he doesn't care about other people's feelings (I don't think he doesn't care, he just doesn't think about it because his mind is occupied with other things). Young Sherlock displays neither the Sherlock's sarcasm, unending logic, eccentricities, or even uncanny deductive skills. Instead, young Sherlock comes across as a blank slate, waiting to be molded into the great detective that we know so well by his American mentor, Amyus Crowe. Problem: there are some skills and eccentricities that you simply don't learn from other people; you are born with them. Sherlock's amazing deductive skills have to be inherent; they can't have been learned from someone else, and the same goes for his eccentricities. I have a hard time believing that Sherlock ever copied anyone's habits. But probably the most glaring difference between young Sherlock and the Sherlock is a mistake that a lot of people make in portraying the detective: Sherlock Holmes so clearly suffers from depression and bipolarism. He has rather sever mood swings, he crashes after cases, goes for days without talking or leaving his flat, but displays amazing energy when a case engages his interest. That's classic bipolar! Young Sherlock doesn't have any of that; not one whit. And that is definitely not something you learn from a mentor. So, in order that you don't spend the whole book gnashing your teeth, it is best to forget that young Sherlock is supposed to be the Sherlock, and that is actually more easily done that you might suppose.
Mycroft was pretty much spot on, though. Which is why I disliked how close he and young Sherlock were. Think about it: Mycroft is a rather pushy, arrogant person, an older brother, and in many ways smarter than Sherlock. Sherlock isn't the type who likes people smarter than him, and a smarter, pushy older brother I don't think made for a very close - or at least a very amiable - relationship between them. In fact, I imagine their relationship is a lot like it is in BBC's Sherlock.
As for the other characters: Maddy was an adorable street urchin. He worked very well as a "stand in" for the role that Watson would later take over in Sherlock's life. I still don't know what to think of Virginia. She didn't have The Attitude, but there was something about her that didn't quite fit in to the story's time period, even if she was an American. I liked Amyus Crowe as a character, but I didn't like the idea of his being Sherlock's mentor in all things that make Sherlock who he is. Again, Sherlock copying someone else's habits doesn't sit well with me. It isn't him. The villain is creepy up until the Reader actually meets him - and more specifically, sees him. Conan Doyle may have had cases that had kind of strange aspects and macabre deaths, but the strange aspects were always explained in a logical sense, and his villains were never weird looking. They didn't have some strange, hugely unique scar or crippled in a way that caused the villain to construct himself a totally impractical machine to support himself on, or anything like that. The villains were pretty normal people - at least in looks. Where this kind of villain started, I don't know, though it seems to be a prerequisite for spy novels: the villain must have something physically and visually horrific about him.
The Romance: Another problem: while young Sherlock doesn't exactly fall head-over-heels in love with Virginia in Death Cloud, there's definitely the beginnings of an attraction. I have a huge problem with Sherlock "noticing" girls. Sherlock's mind just doesn't operate that way, he's far too preoccupied with other things (and no, I don't support the theory that he fell in love with Irene Adler, or that he's gay). It's also my strong opinion that the reason Sherlock Holmes has such a low opinion of women is because he's secretly afraid of them. So, while I can accept young Sherlock not knowing how to behave around girls, I cannot accept him daydreaming about Virginia's pretty copper hair and strange violet eyes. Just no.
Plot: The mystery itself is, I'll admit, very engaging. I was immediately curious to see how things would turn out, and I was (for the most part) stumped, though as things progressed, there were elements of the case that became very obvious, and I was rather surprised - and irritated - that it took young Sherlock so long to piece it together. I mean, if I can, surely Sherlock Holmes can! There's plenty of chase scenes and near-death scenes and even a few fight scenes that actually don't get ridiculous. Not much, anyway. It's well-paced and pretty well thought out.
Believability: I must say that some of the case's explanations were rather clever. Though the villain's plan, while very eloquent, was flawed. In a perfect world, it would work, but in real life, probably not. However, young Sherlock points this out to the villain, which made me happy. Young Sherlock, a boy of fourteen, also gets into a bare-knuckles fight with a very buff guy and gets the snot kicked out of him, which I greatly approved of. Fourteen-year-old boys just don't win fistfights with well-muscled, full-grown men. And the fight that Sherlock does win, he employs some tricky moves, so it's not all brawn-against-brawn (which a fourteen-year-old boy would lose as well). How believable the villain's contraption is . . . I have my doubts that he could engage in a sword fight with it. I suspect the Author just put it in for weirdness. Virginia's traipsing about in trousers was a fine line. In rural America, it wouldn't have kicked up a huge fuss, but it still would have been frowned upon. In England - even a sleepy little farming village, - it would cause a stir. When Virginia wears trousers in London, she disguises herself as a boy, so I can accept that. But she doesn't do that in the village, and I'm sorry, but in 1868, there would be wide disapproval, and not just the "a frown here, and a frown there" type. Amyus Crowe would more than likely have people coming to his door, complaining about his daughter's behavior, and demanding that he put a stop to it. And certainly, no one would associate with Virginia (young Sherlock being the exception, though given his vocal opinions of women, maybe not).
Writing Style: Honestly, it was nothing special. It didn't fit the time period, the dialogue was at times cliche and a little silly (especially with the thugs), and the Author became a little too moment-by-moment with some of the fight sequences. His style isn't wholly modern, but it's definitely not classic, either.
Conclusion: The end threatened to become absurd. The villain, naturally, monologues, but that happens a lot in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the Author did it in such a way that it wasn't cheesy. However, the final showdown between him and young Sherlock was just plain weird and ridiculous. And then of course, once Sherlock gets away, the right-hand man just shows up out of the blue, and there's one more showdown, and a gristly death, and the promise of a sequel. As a Sherlockian, there were aspects of this story (namely, the portrayal of Sherlock) that were painful. But I think that this is probably going to be the best portrayal of a teenage Sherlock Holmes that will ever be written, and I cannot deny that it was an entertaining read. It's very easy to forget that young Sherlock is supposed to be the Sherlock Holmes of 667B Baker Street, and once you do that, it becomes less painful. And there are definitely worse Sherlock spin-offs out there.
Recommended Audience: Guy-read, any age. Sherlockians who are a little less touchy about how Sherlock is portrayed will enjoy it, while strict Canon fans (like myself) will struggle to see past its imperfections.
Others in the Young Sherlock Holmes Series: