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Red Leech

Style: Average

Attitude: Unobjectionable → Fairly Positive

In Brief: Disappointing if unproblematic historical adventure story. Some interesting ethical discussions based around Plato's Republic, but mostly a run-of-the-mill tale including a disfigured antagonist with a poolful of lethal reptiles. Some scary moments at the hands of the villains.

Cover of Red Leech

Author: Andrew Lane

Series: Young Sherlock Holmes

Publisher: Macmillan

Published in: 2010

Age Range: Pre Teens

Period: Late 19th C

Genres:  DetectiveHistorical


Characters:

  • Sherlock Holmes is a young man whose family is fragmented and who is staying with a slightly mysterious uncle and aunt while being tutored by an American detective Amyus Crowe. He is intelligent and inquisitive, especially interested in the way in which things work.
  • Virginia is the daughter of Amyus Crowe and, together with canal urchin Matty Arnatt, form a team with Sherlock. She's a free-spirited girl and a keen rider, but she's still mourning for her mother who died unexpectedly on the voyage to England.
  • Mycroft is Sherlock's older brother, already working for the British Government in some unspecified capacity. He feels responsible for Sherlock's upbringing, and encourages him to learn as much as he can of the world and of its ethics.

Synopsis:

When Amyus and Mycroft become aware of the escape of John Wilkes Booth, whose assassination of President Lincoln has made him a rallying-point for a possible Confederate army, Sherlock takes matters into his own hands and tracks down where Booth is staying in Surrey and follows his accomplices when they take Matty hostage. With Amyus and Virginia, they follow the gang back across the Atlantic to New York where they manage to trail the gang to where its leader lives. Imprisoned, they break free and carry the news of a Confederate army massing near the Canadian border, but Sherlock feels impelled to act again when it appears that the American president will show no mercy in eliminating this threat to the Union.

Notes:

Alex Rider in a deerstalker, anyone? The Sherlock Holmes phenomenon has always attracted its share of spin-off stories. And the “Young...” concept is no novelty, either. (cf, for example, Charlie Higson's Young Bond series). And Young Sherlock Holmes himself has had at least one film outing before. So it's far from a surprise to find a Young Sherlock Holmes series on the shelves. This is the second episode. I don't know how different the first one is, although there are some background points which are referred to here which presumably either occur or are explained in the first book. (What happened to Sherlock's sister, for example). But you don't need to have read any other to follow the plot of this particular episode.

The book runs at two levels: at one level is the particular story of John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Lincoln, physically and mentally scarred in a fire caused by a shootout, plausible rallying-point for the Confederate cause, and the man who's masterminding the operation invade Canada and then to attack the United States. At the other level is the partly-told backstory of the Holmes family, Sherlock's friendship with Amyus and Virginia, and the mysterious Mrs Eglantine — ostensibly his Aunt's housekeeper, but evidently something more sinister. The stories run on separate tracks, only occasionally touching. While I know next to nothing about the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, the scheme outlined above seems just about plausible if somewhat far-fetched. And the Holmes family backstory is clearly intended to give a wider story-arc for some of the ongoing characters, spanning all the individual stories. It's not the most gripping saga I've ever encountered, and it advances very little in this book, but nor does it get in the way too much.

Overall then, the story is fairly engaging, if fairly lightweight. My principal complaint is, as is so often the case, of a wasted opportunity. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories are a phenomenon of popular literature. In spite of — possilby because of — their very definite late Victorian style and tone, they're very readable and have produced highly memorable images and characters, including the iconic Holmes himself, along with Watson and Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, the Baker Street Irregulars, the Hound of the Baskervilles, and countless other faces which appear in only one story each. If you're writing while leaning on the shoulders of giants, you've really got to make sure that the result is worth it. And you've really got to make sure you're not just putting Alex Rider in a deerstalker.

If you look at my reviews of the Alex Rider books, you'll notice that I draw attention to certain common themes, including a dastardly enemy, a disfigured henchman (henchwoman?) and the common practice of telling Alex Rider the plot before leaving him alone in some slow-moving trap which was obviously built for him to escape from. And here we have young Sherlock Holmes and his two friends, captives of a mad but rich man. He has henchmen, but this time it's the villain himself who's disfigured, suffering from some genetic disease which leaves him wasting away unless he can harness a small army of leeches to clean out his poisoned blood, including the eponymous, mammoth, red leech. And since he has Sherlock at his mercy, and since he's about to leave them all in a tank of unfed monitor lizards from which they can't possibly escape, he tells them the plot.

I'm afraid to say that the characters don't just find themselves in situations like Alex Rider (and perform equivalent heroics to escape); they even sound like the characters in an Alex Rider story. The story opens with a sort of prologue, set in a jungle, where two employees of Duke Balthasar are looking for the red leech. Although they are afforded a certain amount of ignorance about the animal life (thus setting them down as pre-20th century people) they talk exactly like their 21st-century counterparts. The characters are occasionally given a certain formality of speech or 19th century expressions, such as “a mental disturbance” but by and large they're like actors who've forgotten to put on an accent.

Why do I make such an issue out of this? Because a book isn't just an exercise in entertainment; it's an exercise in widening yourself, if only just a little. And youngsters who might be reading this book will be missing out on an understanding of how people thought and spoke in the late 19th century.

I must, though, give the author very definite credit for the opportunities he finds for widening his own main character. Sherlock is always interested in learning, in finding out how things work, in considering plans by which he might keep track of knowledge. It can sometimes be a little forced or arbitrary, but it does have the merit of giving the reader some insight into the origins, for example, of hot-air balloons (Sherlock meets Count Zeppelin on the voyage); or of the violin music current at the time (Sherlock is taught by an itinerant violinist who's playing Bruck).

One item in particular stands out, and surprised me not a little: as a gift for the voyage, Mycroft gives Sherlock a copy of Plato's Republic. In Greek. (On the basis that if it were already translated he'd have finished it before they got beyond the harbour bar). Sherlock works his way through this during the voyage, in between violin lessons and escaping from paid assassins. At one point, he fires a ball-bearing from a sling and causes a man to die. It's very definitely a moment of self-defence, but the book does at least pause briefly to consider the effect of taking another's life. Later, he has to decide whether he has the right to prevent the United States army from destroying the Confederate Army whose existence he has himself pointed out. He ponders the clash of moral codes, and wonders whether anyone has the right to enforce a moral code. And he realises that Mycroft knew that he's be facing these dilemmas which is why he had given Sherlock The Republic in which Plato had gone over these and other questions twenty centuries before. I don't say that it's a very insightful moment (and I'm not sure I agree with the outcome which the author provides us with in Sherlock's head). But I do respect the attempt to address more important matters: and in this, Young Sherlock Holmes is definitely a step ahead of Alex Rider.

Themes:

  • How many of the important questions have already been asked (and answered) by our ancestors?
  • Would young Victorians really have behaved and spoken as Sherlock, Virginia and Matty?
  • Could a Confederate army actually have invaded Canada?

“On the second count,” he continued in the same level, pleasant tone of voice, “it doesn't matter what you know. The matter is of no interest to me. I have you all here and none of you will escape. Within the next few hours, you will all die, and you knowledge will die with you. That I promise. No, the only important question is, what is known by the girl's father Amyus Crowe and what is known by the authorities in England and here, in America?” He paused, and turned the porcelain mask towards Sherlock. “Tell me, and tell me now, before I lose my patience.”

Friday 22nd April 2011