4 out of 5 stars
First published in 2010, Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud is the first novel in a (at this point in time) seven book series written by British author Andrew Lane. As the title suggests, it follows the fourteen-year-old Sherlock Holmes in a time before he met John Watson. The first novel is sees Sherlock’s father sent over to seas to India whilst his mother is ill and his sister is left to care for her. As the oldest male in the house, his brother Mycroft sends Sherlock to spend his summer holidays in a small village near Portsmouth with relatives he can hardly remember. At the same time, a young homeless child named Matty witnesses a dark cloud floating away from a building only to learn that whomever had been inside had been found dead from a mysterious illness. When Sherlock discovers another body under similar circumstances, the two boys team up to discover the truth.
I was left with a fair few questions after reading this book – but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it.
To start off with, I found the general concept very intriguing. The story isn’t passing itself off as a prequel to the novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but merely a conjecture as to what Sherlock could have been like as a child. There were also hints of supernatural elements from how the story was described and that intrigued me because I knew that a Sherlock Holmes story would have a more logical explanation than simple ghosts. It was definitely a very clever story.
The way that Lane portrayed Sherlock was a breath of fresh air. He felt more human and less sociopathic than most modern re-tellings have portrayed him to be. You could tell that he was still a child and that was what made everything more raw because you feel sympathy towards him. Sherlock is still a brilliantly smart individual, but he’s new here. He hasn’t been jaded by the world yet. There’s still a politeness around him that children tend to have, he’s naive, when he sees a pretty girl he gets flustered and he’s still learning. A whole point throughout the novel is showing that, though he can think on his feet and outsmart even the most intelligent adult in the room, he is still a boy and learning as he goes along. Key skills that you come to associate with Sherlock Holmes aren’t quite as rounded or trained in this novel. They’re there, but they aren’t practiced.
One of the things that struck me about this story was the way that Lane wrote the relationship between Mycroft and Sherlock. In most adaptations, when they are both adults, they have this dislike of one another that seems childish and cold at times. They act as brothers do yet there doesn’t seem to be chemistry between them or even an ounce of caring. This novel, however, shows a loving brotherly relationship and a protectiveness that I have rarely seen from any other incarnation of Mycroft Holmes. The eldest son is an adult working in government; he’s important and smart and in charge – and, a point yet again shown to the reader, new. Yet he still makes time to see that his little brother is safe, that his carers for the summer keep up his education and writes to him when he has chance. And Sherlock, in response, has an admiration for his brother and knows that he can call on him for help should ever he need it. It was a very nice change.
Everything in the novel had a human quality to it – and for a children’s novel, it was very honest about the goings on during the time period Sherlock was a child. Lane doesn’t try to sugar coat the history once. The novel is set during the Victorian era, during the 1860s, at a point where the British Empire was sending military force over to India. This is driven home by Lane by making Sherlock’s father an attending officer being sent to India to help uphold the Empire’s power. It is this fact that stirs Sherlock’s intrigue further when the mystery aspect of the novel final starts taking place.
The opening chapter doesn’t focus on Sherlock at all. Rather, it gives you the third person perspective of a young by named Matthew (Matty) – a street urchin who lives on a small boat tugged along the rivers by his horse. He has traveled to Farnham to keep up his supply of food (and to keep away from the workhouse), but soon becomes witness to a mysterious black cloud flying out of a window. Shortly after, he learns that a man was found dead inside the very same building. Sherlock later meets Matty and learns of this death, only taking it seriously when he and his American tutor Amyus Crowe discover a corpse in the middle of the woods in the same state as the original victim. It’s a simple murder mystery at heart with the same devices used that set up the culprit, means and motive but it is done with a subtle charm that helped to keep the story engaging. What I liked most was that nothing simply happened correctly on the first try for most of the novel. There were times where Sherlock got himself into a bad situation and didn’t get out of it as he hoped he would. For instance, he is tricked into thinking that the daughter of his tutor wanted to meet him at a fair so he breaks his curfew and sneaks out to meet her. He is then forced into a boxing ring with a man twice his age and size and consequently gets beaten to unconsciousness – and kidnapped by the culprit. Boxing is one of the skills that Sherlock’s adult incarnation is famous for in the Conan Doyle novels – he’s accomplished and knows what to do. But this Sherlock is new to boxing, only taking part in lessons at school. He tries to defend himself but Lane keeps the reality of the situation in check and gets Sherlock where he would be if the events truly did happen.
One thing I did struggle with with this novel at times was the pacing. The first half of the story has a pretty slow pace and it made it slightly difficult to get into the swing of things. But the second half, from the point of Sherlock’s kidnapping, was amazing. Everything was falling into place at the right times, most of my questions were answered as they should have been, and the descriptions of the culprit were so incredibly vivid that imagining the man behind it all was honestly a little frightening.
It was also nice to find a novel that was finally set somewhere other than London. Most novels set in the UK tend to stick towards London – Sherlock Holmes novels naturally do this because of 221b Baker Street. But this time the story takes you across the Channel to France and then back again to locations that I know. It was the first time I had ever seen Portsmouth written into a story, let alone the details of the forts just off shore. Having seen that entire location before, this was by far the easiest section of the novel to complete.
All in all, Death Cloud was a nice introduction into this new incarnation of Mr Holmes. As the first novel in a (so-far) seven book series, it certainly sets a high standard for the rest. Hopefully, they will answer some of the questions that were left open for me like the mystery behind the horrid housekeeper and Mycroft’s warning about her. But Death Cloud certainly makes a good starting point. For older readers, I recommend picking up this novel if you like mystery, suspense and a nice quick read, and for younger readers this is a fantastic introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes. It may not have Watson or Baker Street, but the amazingly developed (and still developing) characters and locations that Lane has introduced are more than capable of keeping any reader entertained and intrigued.