Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter

Posted: October 18, 2019 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Alexis Hall, Fantasy

There are heaps of stories about Sherlock Holmes. Mountains of them. Oceans of them. Even if you dive down and start looking only at queer Sherlock Holmes re-imaginings, or alternate-reality-Sherlock-Holmes re-tellings, or gender-swapped Sherlock reworkings… well, you’re going to be here for a while.

THE AFFAIR OF THE MYSTERIOUS LETTER (Amazon) rolls a little bit of all of these variations together and while the result is absolutely bonkers, it’s also delightful.

Author Alexis Hall goes straight for the wild and weird. He does not set his version of Sherlock in a slightly-different-but-still-recognizable London. Or even a deliberately-not-London-but-clearly-still-familiar locale. Nope. THE AFFAIR OF THE MYSTERIOUS LETTER is set in the city of Kelathra-Ven, a cosmopolitan gathering place in a world full of witch kings, Eternal Lords, re-animated corpses, vampires, and inter dimensional portals.

It’s a big swing, but what keeps the reader grounded, rather than afloat in the rush of world building, is the straightforward story arc.

John Wyndham is in need of a better living situation, and the rent at 221B Martyr’s Walk is eminently reasonable, even if it does mean sharing living quarters with the unpredictable sorceress Shaharazad Haas. And if the landlady is a hive of bees living inside of an old corpse, well, there’s not much he can do about that either. Besides, Wyndham’s intrigued when Shaharazad’s friend Eirene Viola declares that a blackmailer is forcing her to call off her wedding.

Eirene is supposed to marry Cora Beck, of the Ubiquitous Company of Fishers, but the blackmailer is threatening to reveal Eirene’s all too sordid past if she doesn’t discreetly break off the engagement. Shaharazad grudgingly agrees to investigate five of Eirene’s former lovers and, with John in tow, she sets off to find the blackmailer.

That’s it! Keeping the plot beats familiar allows readers to enjoy the ride and the world that Hall has built. Shaharazad and John’s dynamic will be as familiar to readers as it is compelling and entertaining. The mystery itself is nothing to write home about, but then, the heart of Sherlock’s popularity lies not in the mysteriousness of it all (although that’s certainly part of it!) but in the characters.

Wyndham is a delightful narrator. His Victorian sensibilities come not from the milieu of 1890s London, but from having grown up as part of the Church of the Creator, whose sole purpose was to fight the oppressive and hedonistic rule of the Witch King Iustinian. His compassion and good sense are an entertaining foil to Haas’s antics.

While Wyndham embodies many Victorian sensibilities from his upbringing, he is also a trans man. Hall touches on John’s backstory with a light hand, but allows the tension between John’s conservative upbringing and his transition to motivate his character and gives him greater depth and tension.

Hall proves that the key to a successful Holmes and Watson re-telling isn’t dependent on time or space, but on sharp writing and an emphasis on character.

While I worried that Hall’s faux-victorian narrative style might be a little wearying after a while, he continues to mine it for comedy throughout. Wyndham’s editorial conceit of ‘editing’ out Shaharazad’s (and everyone else’s) choicer language might have easily lost its charm, but Hall keeps his narrative fresh. In fact, Wyndham’s small attempt to assert editorial control by eliminating inappropriate language, when juxtaposed against his complete lack of control as Shaharazad drags him through vampire castles, towers of insanity, and at least one literary salon, is admirable.

THE AFFAIR OF THE MYSTERIOUS LETTER proves that the key to a successful Holmes and Watson re-telling isn’t dependent on time or space, but on sharp writing and an emphasis on character.

  • Recommended Age: 12+
  • Language: Almost none, thanks to John Wyndham
  • Violence: Mild Peril
  • Sex: Implied, mentioned, not seen

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