“If your man is more dangerous than the late Professor Moriarty, or than the living Colonel Sebastian Moran, then he is indeed worth meeting. May I ask his name?”
— Sherlock Holmes
Before one reads John Linwood Grant’s A Study in Gray (18thWall, 2016), one might want to read Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Illustrious Client” (1924). It’s among the last of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, the one from which my epigraph comes. Grant continues Doyle’s story in A Study in Gray, using that earlier, loosely resolved case to pull the great detective out of apiarian retirement and into Grant’s own world of supernatural espionage. This more occult realm of intrigue — along with its lead characters: Captain Redvers Blake, Abigail Jessop, and Henry Dodson — exist in Grant’s The Last Edwardian series.
In addition, that supernatural world extends the one found in William Hope Hodson’s collection Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder. Grant masterfully weaves together these two seemingly dissonant fictional realms: the “no ghosts need apply” world of Sherlock Holmes and Carnacki’s, where ghosts not only apply — they prove worthy of the job. As the title suggests, A Study in Gray takes readers to that cloudy middle-ground between Holmesian and Carnackian realities.
Perhaps for this reason, Grant’s novella is a bit subtle in its use of the supernatural. True enough, the lead detective, Blake, can sense things psychically from physical objects — but it’s really his legwork and experience that help him through the case. Jessop is the stronger psychic, and this does play a key role when she gleans that something is terribly amiss while someone else is conducting a séance. One or two additional unearthly elements appear along the way.
But there are no irksome demons, no unprincipled vampires, and no ill-mannered werewolves with which to contend. The evil mostly comes from humans. Living humans, that is. And Holmes is well-prepared for such matters.
In fact, the connections between “The Illustrious Client” and this work are what I enjoyed most. The names have been changed, traceable to Watson’s poetic licentiousness — if not to Grant’s desire to avert legal harassment from the ever-overzealous Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. It becomes a fun game to figure out that Doyle’s Baron Grunuer is Grant’s Count von Alten, Violet de Merville is now Constance Fitzsimmon, and one or two more. It’s all very fitting because Grant’s mystery is very much one of dubious identities, false names, and masks.
That said, one weakness of A Study in Gray is its sheer quantity of names. The cast of characters is very large, and I found myself struggling to sort out who all is whom here. Of course, a reader expects a wide assortment of suspects, but Blake’s back-up is almost as plentiful. (Okay, so Usher and Daisy work with Blake at the office while Jessop and Dotson work with him on cases — until Corey and Fitch join in, too. Oh, the ease of having just one Watson and the occasional Lestrade!) This was only a slight annoyance, though. The plot, on the other hand, is wonderfully wind-y and holds steady at the right level of complexity.
For those who share my enjoyment of Holmes’s dealing with quirky criminals and his debunking of the supernatural as much as they enjoy the truly occult occult detective cross-genre, I cheerfully recommend A Study in Gray.
(I was provided a free copy of A Study in Gray in exchange for an honest review.)