It is the summer of 1868 and young Sherlock is ready leave the oppressive confines of Deepdene School for Boys and go home for his summer holidays. His brother Mycroft has a different idea. Left instead to an aunt and uncle miles away from London, Sherlock resigns himself to long, boring, and non-stimulating days in the country. His boredom is short-lived when one murder after the next piques his curiosity and forces him to think fast in order to save his friends and the ones he loves.
Sherlock Holmes has always been a character driven by an insatiable curiosity and unquenchable thirst to solve the most confounding mysteries. Often, it’s for no other reason than to show that he can. He’s the kind of protagonist I absolutely love, one who relies on his own wit and intelligence rather than an invented fantasy to arrive at convoluted solutions that only seem so complicated because we’re not him. His superpower, if he had one, would be logic. He isn’t the stereotypical nerd content to while away intellectual preoccupations in a laboratory or behind a computer screen. Sherlock gets into the thick of things (much like real scientists do). He’s intellectually and physically involved and that kind of engagement is fulfilling in ways wand waving or spell utterances could never be.
I enjoy a good fantasy (and realize not all of them involve wands or spells), but I also appreciate a character who uses their mind to solve problems. For Sherlock, this usually involves acute observations, seemingly innocuous details, and heaps of logic. Andrew Lane’s Sherlock is no different. He is, however, only fourteen years old. Precocious though he may be, this much younger detective doesn’t quite have the finely tuned finesse of his later years. He blusters his way through danger with little forethought, arming himself with arrogance and ego instead of intention.
One of my favorite moments was Sherlock claiming—in a moment of danger—that his brain would be the only thing that saves him. Not being very well read in Sherlock Holmes stories, I still found this kind of statement to be the very thing Sherlock would admit to and embrace as an adult. The phrase, but more important, the sentiment behind the phrase, is redolent of the charm that is Sherlock Holme’s unshakable faith in himself, or rather, in the steadfastness of intellect, observation, and application. As a burgeoning teen, Sherlock may already believe in his convictions enough to risk his own life, but he doesn’t know how to support that belief. He doesn’t quite grasp the fine art of thinking. For that, he needs a mentor. He needs Amyus Crowe.
Death Cloud is a suspenseful adventure born along the sprawling Victorian industry of the Thames. Replete with ludicrous villains and a pedagogical chain of evidence, Andrew Lane’s “Smallville” approach to the infamous Sherlock Holmes is equal parts education and sleuthing with only a minimal amount of gimmick. Under the tutelage of American Amyus Crowe, our young hero begins training under the rigors of true detective work which is romantic only in daring and the incredible talent of Sherlock that reaches new, slightly unbelievable heights. If readers can set aside the protagonist’s lack of practice in horse riding, sword fighting, or whip-wielding and embrace his quick proficiency in each, the action goes by much more quickly. As does the final resolutions where children find and point out the loopholes in the not-so-well-thought-out plans of the adult villains.
These are minor distractions, the kind of liberties taken for novelty, although if Sherlock Holmes has ever displayed physical mastery of any art after only minimal observation in any other story, I would not be the one to know. It does, however, make an excellent excuse for him to get into more danger with his new friends in tow. The absurdity of their opposition made certain threats ineffectual and largely calls for a suspension of disbelief, but still. I found the entire affair thrilling and engaging—a fitting match that I can see appealing to a younger crowd. Fans looking for Watson need look elsewhere, though. Amid untrustworthy and skeptical adults, the overwhelming frustrations of niggling details and evidence manifest in the desire for a soundboard, rather than a narrator who mirrors the readers’ understanding of Sherlock’s sometimes inscrutable—but always sound—logic. Whether that’s the orphan Matty Arnatt, the very modern Ginny Crowe, or her father, Amyus depends on the situation.
I’d be curious to see how extant Holmes fans receive this novel, but I personally found it to be a fun and a very satisfying read. Lane’s writing is underlined with a subtle British humor that balances the kidnapping, espionage, and murder with a quirky levity. I laughed out loud at Sherlock’s explanation of what it is to be British—facetious for us, damning to his enemies. As an introduction it works well; as an homage, I think it’s respectful. Even the subtle hints at romance remained buried firmly beneath a gawky teenage incomprehension, much to my relief. Sherlock’s intellect isn’t clouded by fleeting delusions of chivalric courtship. If my recommendation isn’t enough, the series is also the first of its kind to be endorsed by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate and appears to be one of a growing number of YA books geared toward a male audience. It did, however, work quite well for me—a 20-something year old female with only the faintest popular notion of who Sherlock Holmes really is (although, I do also highly recommend the new BBC “Sherlock”). Even if the cover is pretty cheesy.
Release Date: February 1, 2011
Reviewed Format: Advance Reading Copy provided by Farrar Strauss Giroux