Fresh from inking his acclaimed genre-spanning hybrid The World House and its sequel Restoration comes Guy Adams, with this latest Sherlock Holmes offering from Titan Books. The Breath of God is an ambitious attempt to evoke the supernatural elements in ways that Conan Doyle never would’ve dared with his Holmes books. One might argue though that The Hound of the Baskervilles certainly came close, in spirit at least, before its paranormal aspects were debunked by Holmes.
Whereas that book drew out its spooky themes until fairly late in the book, ultimately revoking their air of mystery in a burst of Holmes-based reasoning, logic and common-sense deduction, The Breath of God takes a quite different approach. In Adams’ novel it’s a case of Holmes declaring logic and reasoning as ultimate, as rip-roaring demonic outbursts and otherworldly-inspired goings on would seem to contradict him at every turn.
As with many of Conan Doyle’s detective yarns the story opens in the living room of 221B where Holmes is interviewing a prospective client. He’s fairly unimpressed with the man, self-proclaimed psychic Dr John Silence, and equally with his story of a child seemingly possessed by some sort of demon. Silence is brusquely dismissed, having left an ominous warning in the form of three names said to face death – one of which is that of the consulting detective himself.
Whilst Holmes declares that he does ‘not believe in Demons’, Silence parts company with the retort that ‘they believe in you.’ A classic follow-up, and so too is the manner in which Holmes does take what’s an immediate interest. One of the names mentioned by the possessed child is splashed all over the newspaper, having died under most mysterious circumstances, and it is here that the investigation begins.
Holmes and Watson sally forth across London, and elsewhere, as is their wont. One thing leads to another, and with a favour here, an investigative nose around there, they soon begin to form a picture that things really may be much more difficult to ascribe to the natural means that Holmes would prefer. And quite an interesting bunch of characters they come across too.
Whilst definitely entertaining in its own right, this book is rich and rewarding in the manner in which it draws so many characters into it – not just from Holmes’ world, but so many others. Not a quarter of the way into the book and Adams has not only got Conan Doyle’s literary creation by the puppet strings, but Algernon Blackwood’s Dr John Silence is also dusted down and utilised. This London is packed to the brim with characters both fictional and non-fictional in origin. Aleister Crowley and Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki play minor but not inconsiderable roles; M R James’ Julian Karswell from ‘Casting the Runes’ makes an appearance too!
The book is told mostly in novel format, from the perspective of Dr. Watson, but veers into epistolary format with intermissions from several of the other characters to carry the story forward. This also permits the more weird aspects of the story to grow, but not at the expense of the believability of established characters and habits, such as Holmes, and to a degree Watson.
In Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God Adams has delivered a fresh take on the ‘what-if’ universe in literature that is become quite popular in recent years. Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula showed such reworking of an established universe and, in its authors careful crafting, to great effect. Whilst Adam’s reworking of Conan Doyle’s world isn’t quite on a par with Newman’s renovation of Bram Stoker’s literary world, it is a worthy work in its own right, and rewards its reader well for sticking with it to the end.
In a style far more contemporary and of Adams’ own crafting than inspired by Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God plays out its mystery with an intriguing action aspect, spurred onward with fusion of supernatural and weird fiction. It’s an intelligently written book, and despite what can at times seem an overwhelming tribute to the characters of similar period fiction, doesn’t detract from its entertaining qualities.