The first Sherlock Holmes pastiches started to appear in the early 20th century, predating the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One reason is the deceptive simplicity of the endeavor: take one brilliant detective with curious habits and a talent for offending everyone, pair with a battle-scarred, upright citizen to witness and record their adventures, and mix in a mystery. It’s been done and done again—even in science fiction and fantasy, which, at least, ensures some variety along the way, from timeshifting and racebending to monsters and metafiction.
But rarely has it been done with the energy and sheer creative joy of Alexis Hall’s new novel The Affair of the Mysterious Letter. It’s a Sherlock Holmes fantasy with a dash of horror and steampunk, but Hall doesn’t stop there. His approach is to expand the good detective’s universe to include basically everything under the genre sun, and to revel in the sheer scale of creative possibility. The end result is a fine Holmesian riff, and an even finer fantasy romp involving magic, mad mind-eating gods, vampires, and several million other things, all delightful.
The Sherlock of the story is Shaharazad Haas, a powerful sorceress overfond of mind- and mood-altering substances. She in an apartment at 221b Martyrs Walk in Khelathra-Ven, a city formed from three others (including one now residing at the bottom of the ocean and containing hidden cracks that lead to various points in time and space; it was once ruled by immortal, omnipotent beings). Captain John Wyndham is our Watson, a traveler from the former Kingdom of Ey, which recently overthrew (and cut into pieces) the insane Witch King who ruled them, with power going to a rather stuffy set of religious fanatics. Wyndham is a veteran soldier and former member of the Company of Strangers that is fighting an eternal war at the Unending Gate; he comes to sublet a room from Haas (and by extension Mrs. Hive, the insect-like creature currently animating the dead corpse of a stevedore, and also their landlord) out of financial necessity. He’s almost immediately drawn into Haas’ activities as a detective when her former lover Miss Eirene Viola asks for her help in a case of blackmail. Through all of this, Wyndham struggles to be polite, despite his increasing horror and discomfort with Haas’ manners, lifestyle, and tendency to threaten apocalyptic witchcraft on everyone who gets in her way.
That’s about one percent of what’s going on in this decidedly bonkers novel. There is so, so much more to tell you about, including (but not limited to) time travel, memory-eating trickster demons, a bank that offers loans with reasonable rates in exchange for post-mortal servitude (the idea of selling your soul for a loan that still bears interest is so 21st century capitalism), and brain-munching worms that help you breathe and speak underwater, but only once you’ve swallowed them.
This book is extra, in all the right ways.
Hall revels in a universe that is apparently infinite: Haas and Wyndham encounter and refer to a huge list of creatures, individuals, powers, and entities, coming several to a page in a nonstop barrage of references—some based on established worlds, from Chambers’ The Yellow King (made literal here) to Lovecraft’s Mythos—and unexplained Noodle Incidents that quickly make the universe Haas and Wyndham inhabit feel lively and packed with adventure.
The order keeps order in this wacky setting via a rigid mystery structure: Haas quickly produces a list five suspects who might be blackmailing Miss Viola into breaking off her engagement to Cora Beck, and thus she and Wyndham embark on five distinct adventures to interview the possible criminals, usually having to overcome various obstacles along the way, including (but again, not limited to) a treacherous actress in a dream-play, stuffy and vicious intellectuals at the World’s Worst Salon, and an army of vengeful spirits (the latter of which Haas swallows). Each foray into detection thus colors (in madness-inducing hues) more of the universe around them, while strongly implying there are infinitely more realms and characters yet to be explored.
The key word to describe this book is fluid—its reality is as such, frequently slipping away from our heroes and stranding them, temporarily, in ghastly fantasy realms. As with the best sorts of mysteries, the solution to the blackmailer’s identity is fluid, jumping from one prime suspect to another, until a final set of mind-breaking twists reveal all. And sexuality is fluid, as in the city of Khelathra-Ven and all the places beyond it, no one much cares who you’re romantically involved with—in fact, as the story goes on it begins to seem like Shaharazad Haas has in fact been intimately involved with just about everyone and everything the investigative pair encounters.
The other word to describes it fun. You can feel the joy Hall took in creating this anything-goes and these characters, who remain recognizable riffs on the classic Holmes and Watson even as they take on their own unique and inclusive identities. Let’s hope they have many more adventures.