A Study in Crimson, by Robert J. Harris
In common with his near namesake, this Robert Harris seems to enjoy writing books which are tributes to historical characters such as Leonardo da Vinci & William Shakespeare; but he has also written two Richard Hannay books and, more pertinently for this review, The Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries, “a series featuring the youthful adventures of the creator of Sherlock Holmes”, which I am presuming are young adult stories, despite the front blurb nor specifying that. The inspiration for this iteration of the inimitable sleuth, subtitled Sherlock Holmes 1942, was the series of British films featuring Basil Rathbone as Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as Watson: “films which…have been favourites of [his] entire family for many years.” As far as he is aware, “it has never occurred to anyone to base a novel on this version of Sherlock Holmes.” He felt that he could “remain faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal characters, while at the same time viewing Holmes and Watson in a new light.” I suppose that is perfectly reasonable [although purists would probably disagree], and characters as strong as these would probably work in any timeframe, as evidenced IMHO by the success as the oft sobriqueted Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman in current times.
It might be interesting to compare this iteration with the Sherlock Holmes pastiche, set in a similar time period [but with Holmes ageing from his original setting] by Michael Chabon, The Final Solution, which I reviewed here; this story retains the traditional Baker Street setting, merely transposed to 1942, and I feel that the only hint of criticism which could be levelled is that, notwithstanding the relatively quieter atmosphere after the exigencies of the Blitz, the war impinges on the story hardly at all—that aside, it is easy to accept that this is the natural temporal home for Holmes. There is a slightly odd prologue to the story; although not listed as such, and it runs over three chapters; which doesn’t seem to have any connection to, or bearing on the main story, other than to introduce the characters, but I would venture to suggest that the vast majority of readers would already be well acquainted with them? No matter: at worst, it is an amusing diversion before the gore of the main story is encountered. It appears that someone; presumably a man; has taken it upon himself to emulate the ghastly exploits in London of Jack the Ripper, in 1888, ‘operating’ under the moniker of Crimson Jack, hence the book’s title. Aside from Holmes’s inherent disgust at such heinous activity, given the setting, there is also the national security aspect to consider, which is where Holmes’s less well known, but arguably [not least by himself] more intelligent older brother, Mycroft, comes in; all too briefly, unfortunately, as the interplay between the two brothers can be a very rewarding source of amusement.
As for why that particular time was chosen for this awful repetition, more cannot be revealed without spoiling the nuance of the plot, but suffice to say that Holmes solves the case with his usual aplomb; albeit not immediately; but the motivation for the murderer might not be what it initially seems, and the perpetrator is very clever at leading most of his pursuers in a merry dance. Watson is suitably mystified, although not to the point of potential ridicule: Harris is keen to point out that, despite Watson being “sometimes made a figure of fun for the sake of comic relief”, he has “not followed that course in the novel, though Watson remains suitably baffled by Holmes’s brilliance.” Well, it wouldn’t be a Holmes & Watson story otherwise, would it? Incidentally, towards the end of the story, Holmes reveals that he knows the identity of the original Jack, who is actually a fictional character, but he is apparently based upon one of the real suspects in the Whitechapel murders [you’ll have to read the book to find out whom!]; this will be moot, of course, given the lack of supporting evidence, especially DNA, and the time elapsed—I make no further comment, other than to observe that any further entries in this canon would be welcomed. The paperback I read was published in 2022  by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-84697-596-7.